Wednesday, December 8, 2021

John Gifford's 1879 Flat Building - 70 West 11th Street


In the first years of the 1850's the West 11th Street block between fashionable Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue was a mix of architectural styles.  Handsome Greek Revival homes co-existed with quaint two-and-a-half story Federal style brick homes of a generation earlier.  Wealthy broker James N. Gifford inherited vacant lots on the west end of the block, and in 1853 began construction on four opulent Italianate style residences at 62 through 68.  But Gifford initially left the westernmost plot, 70 West 11th Street, empty--most likely because of its peculiar dimensions.  The odd shape was a result of the abutting, triangular shaped cemetery of the Congregation of Shearith Israel, which had been there since 1805.

The venerable little burying ground sits hidden behind a low wall.

Finally, in 1879, Gifford began construction on a modern, upscale apartment building on the parcel.  Completed the same year, the five-story structure stepped delicately around the lines of the old cemetery, creating a quirky contortion of angles.  Its cutting-edge neo-Grec design featured architrave  window frames and a robust cast metal cornice.

There were just five apartments in the building--one per floor--each with seven rooms and a bath.  A janitor (today we would call him a superintendent) and his family lived in a basement apartment.  

That janitor was George Scheier in 1884.  Around the corner on Sixth Avenue was the Jefferson Market Courthouse, and Scheier was there on September 6, attempting to explain himself to Justice O'Reilly.  He had been arrested and charged with attempting suicide.

After a bitter quarrel with his wife, Scheier had swallowed Paris Green, a highly toxic powder used as a rat poison.  His wife found him in time, and summoned a doctor who saved him.  Now, unless he could convince the judge he had not really meant to kill himself, he would be incarcerated.  (Attempted suicide was a jailable crime.)   The New York Herald reported that he "was very pale, but tried to look unconcerned yesterday, as he leaned against the bar at the Jefferson Market Police Court."

The judge asked him, "What did you want to kill yourself for?"

"I didn't," Schier replied, "It was only a joke.  My wife and I quarreled last night, and I took the Paris Green to make her come round."

"And your wife saved you from the undertaker by getting a doctor to work a stomach pump this warm weather," scoffed the judge.  Schier was held behind bars awaiting his trial.

The residents of the building were well-to-do professionals, like physicians John H. Huddleston and James E. Briggs.  On March 11, 1886 Briggs, too, would be before a judge, facing very serious charges.  

Dr. Etienne C. Vidal had been called to 159 East 52nd Street to attend to an 18-year-old servant girl, Sarah Wilson.  She was "suffering from the effects of malpractice," said The Sun.  It was a polite term for an abortion.  She told Dr. Vidal that Briggs "had operated on her six times."  While she refused to identify the father, she said "her trouble was caused by a young bricklayer with whom she had been keeping company."  While Dr. Briggs denied the girl's story, he was held in $2,500 bail awaiting trial.  The amount , equal to more than $70,000 today, reflected the gravity of the charge.

Occupants were paying $60 per month in 1894 for their suites, or just over $1,850 today (an enviable rent for an entire floor by a 21st century perspective).

Among them was the Eben H. Moore family.   Born in 1834, Moore was a banker and broker with Rolston & Bass on Broad Street.  He had married Lucy Green Cleaveland on April 7, 1857.  They had three children, Henry (who died in 1881 at the age of 21), Helen Maria and Elizabeth Putnam.

Lucy was a fascinating figure.  She was born in Cleveland, Ohio, a town founded by an ancestor.  When she was still a teenager, she traveled alone to the South to teach.  But with anti-Northern passions high in the pre-war years, she "encountered so much unfriendliness," according to a friend years later, that she resigned.  After their marriage, the Moores moved to Dubuque, Iowa, finally settling to New York City in 1886.

On October 28, 1896 Moore nearly lost his life.  He was on Fulton Street when a Broadway streetcar smashed into an express wagon "and threw it against Eben H. Moore, sixty years old," wrote the New York Herald.  Moore's wounds were attended to and the conductor of the streetcar was arrested.

By the turn of the century, Edward T. Suffern had lived in the apartment house for several years.  His ancestor, John Suffern, had founded the town of Suffern, New York in 1796, and his spinster sister, Janette, still lived on a cottage of the old family estate, formerly called New Antrim.  

Suffern was extremely close to another resident, Caroline Thompson, the wife of Marion Thompson.  Newspapers later explained her frequent visits to his apartment by saying she "kept house for him."

Caroline, known familiarly as Carrie, suffered a terrifying encounter on Saturday afternoon, May 4, 1901.  She was sitting in the front room at 1:30 when she heard a noise in the dining room.   She rushed in to find an intruder, John Jackson.  The New-York Tribune reported, "When she asked him what he wanted he answered by reaching into his pocket and pulling out a treacherous looking dirk.  He then told her to keep quiet, and still facing her, he backed out into the hall."

As soon as the door was closed, Carrie screamed for help.  The janitor, Louis Meizer, was in the hallway and tried to catch the would-be thief but "Jackson made a desperate lunge at Meizer with his knife, and the janitor retreated."  Jackson ran down West 11th Street with the janitor and several other residents "in full pursuit."  A detective, who was on patrol at the time, joined in the chase and captured Jackson at Fifth Avenue.

Lucy Greene Cleaveland Moore died in St. Luke's Hospital a few days before Christmas in 1904.  A friend wrote to the New-York Daily Tribune, saying that her life "had been one long of devotion to people and good causes."  The letter said in part, "With a mind finely cultivated and excellent in faculty, a heart of the richest quality, and an energy of body that almost never paused, she expended herself in all her rare powers on the needs of others."  She was 67 years old.  

The following year, on July 18, 1905, Edward T. Suffern died.  When the details of his will were published, readers were shocked.  It included the clause, "To the person known as my sister, Janette Suffern, I give absolutely nothing whatever."  He made special note that "We have been practically dead to each other, except so far as business relations compelled recognition, most of our lives, and it is my wish, desire and firm intention that this condition shall continue after my decease."

He left the entire contents of his home to Carrie Thompson, "my best friend," as well as $10,000 (more than $300,000 today).  He anticipated Janette's contesting of the will and said that should anyone do so, it should be known that his wishes were made "after mature deliberation."

His posthumous treatment of his sister was, was in many ways, cruel.  The Evening World wrote, "'Blood is thicker than water,' runs the old adage, but there is a lonely gray-haired woman living in a little cottage nestling at the foot of the Ramapo Mountains in Suffern, N.Y., who has lost all faith in the ancient proverb."  Because he had left all his "residuary estate, real and personal" to the Catherine Henrietta Suffern Fund of Christ Church in Suffern, Janette's residency in the cottage of the old family property was in jeopardy.

She told a reporter, "For more than thirty years we have gone our different ways, he leading a gay life in New York, which is one of the most wicked spots on earth, and me trying to live down by a humble existence all the shadow his manner of life brought on the name of Suffern."  She said "if there is one spot on it [i.e., the Suffern estate] that is dear to me it is the old homestead.  This my brother has seen fit to deprive me of, and for this I will probably contest the will."

Janette, incidentally, was still living in the little cottage a year later when she was arrested.  In May, she became "involved in a dispute with a neighbor, Mrs. Conklin," according to the New-York Tribune.  It was serious enough that Janette was arrested and fined the equivalent of $750 today.  That would have been the end of it if the feisty woman had kept her thoughts to herself.

"As she was leaving the courtroom Miss Suffern directed some remarks to the justice that made him hot under the collar," said the article.  The judge slapped her with a contempt of court charge and sent the elderly woman to jail for five days.

By now 70 West 11th Street was attracting artists.  In 1905 noted wood engraver and illustrator Andrew Varick Stout Anthony and his wife, the former Mary W. Walker, lived here.  He did engravings for the Illustrated News and Harper's, and from 1886 to 1889 had supervised the fine arts editions of the Boston-based publishing company, Ticknor, Fields, and Osgood.  Anthony died in Newton, Massachusetts on July 2, 1906.

On June 25, 1908, following their marriage, composer Charles Ives  and his bride, the former Harmony Twichell, moved into 70 West 11th Street.  He was making a living at the time in the insurance field, having formed Ives & Co. with his friend Julian Myrick a year earlier.  According to William R. Everdell in his 1997 book The First Moderns, the weekend after moving in, "Ives took Harmony back to the [Housatonic River] valley, and there he had a vision.  Five years later that vision would become 'The Housatonic at Stockbridge,' part of the dauntingly original orchestral masterpiece called Three Places in New England."

Living in the building from 1908 through 1913 was illustrator John Wolcott Adams and his wife, the former Frances Pendelton Sheldon.  A descendant of two American Presidents, Adams was educated at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Arts Students League of New York.

John Wolcott Adams, from the collection of the Library of Congress

By 1917 Harold de Wolf Fuller, the editor of The Nation, lived at 70 West 11th Street.  His neighbor, Lucien S. Breckenridge left to fight in World War I that year.  A captain with the 308th Infantry, he saw intense action in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the deadliest battle in American history with 350,000 casualties.

Breckenridge was ordered to cross the Meuse River with his battalion on October 14, 1918 near Grand-Pre, France.  The bridges had all been destroyed and, according to the U.S. Army later, he "personally reconnoitered the banks of the river in utter disregard for his own safety until he found a ford."  Breckenridge then led his command across the river "under intense machine-gun and artillery fire"  He had returned to 70 West 11th Street in 1919 when he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Another artist, Kitty Price Jenkins, lived in the building at the time.  A sculptor, her pieces were displayed in the annual exhibit of The Society of Independent Artists.

Not affiliated with the arts was Tenement House Commissioner John J. Murphy.  He had been living in the Bronx until the fall of 1918, when he moved into 70 West 11th Street.  He had not been there many days before his ire was raised.

The former tenant had left his telephone there.  Murphy told The Evening World, "Before that was discontinued, I notified the telephone company that I would take over the contract of the old tenant.  The change involved no labor of any sort.  But I was told I could have no service until I paid $10 as an 'installation' fee."  Since he still had service at his old address, he asked if he couldn't simply have it transferred.  "Either of these changes would have meant absolutely nothing except an alteration in the new telephone directory.  But the telephone company told me nothing could be done until I had paid the $10."

Murphy was understandably put off.  The fee would amount to around $175 today.  With the telephone company obdurate, he "sent a protest to Washington."  No one responded.  And so Murphy informed the telephone company that "rather than submit to such an unjust charge, I would do without a telephone in my home."  The reaction:  "They shrugged their shoulders."

And so now, although he said it was "inconvenient" not to have a home telephone, Murphy made his point by going phoneless "as a matter of principle."

The population in the apartment of Fred Michaels and his wife grew by one following a tragic incident in 1938.    Michaels was a close friend and fishing buddy of animal dealer William H. Lindeman, who lived across the street at 63 West 11th Street.  Lindeman had never emotionally recovered from the death of his wife two years earlier, and not even the companionship of a dachshund puppy named Mr. Snookums alleviated his grief.  To ensure the puppy's safety, on May 4 the 55-year-old closed it in a front room with all the windows opened wide.  He then went to the kitchen, opened the gas jets, "and sat down to die," as reported by The New York Sun.  

He left a note saying "whatever occurred is by my own doing.  My pup, see that no harm comes to him and place him where he will be no risk.  He will get a good home with Mrs. Michaels if she is permitted to keep him."  Mr. Snookums took up residency across the street at 70 West 11th Street.

Today there are two apartments per floor in the building.  The architectural elements of the first floor have been shaved off,  and the doorway altered.  But, overall, the building with its wacky footprint and more than its fair share of drama is intact.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. My nutritionist used to keep an office there. The first floor is a warren of consultation rooms, plus a waiting area in what was probably once the front parlor.