In 1847, builder John Hanrahan started construction on eight identical brick-faced houses on West 13th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Completed the following year, the three-story and basement residences were handsome examples of the Greek Revival Style. Hanrahan may have used style books for his design, and none of the architectural elements--the brownstone basements, the heavy stone entrance enframements, and the dentiled cornices, for instance--were out of the ordinary.
The westernmost of the row was 137 West 13th Street (later renumbered 161). Although no doubt intended for an upper-middle-class family, it seems to have been operated as a boarding house from the start. Living here in 1851 were paver Owen Lafferty, who would remain for several years; John Tole, a laborer; and Anne Toner, who did washing. Thomas M'Govern, another laborer, lived in the small building in the rear yard.
Although the residents were, on the whole, working class, the boarding house seems to have been a respectable operation. An advertisement on September 25, 1864 offered: "To rent--With board to a gentleman and wife or two gentlemen, a very desirable second story front Parlor and Bedroom."
As the ad suggested, it was common for two men to share rented rooms. On December 22, 1865 two young men, Thomas Hennessy and Louis Rufane, took a room. Rufane was just 17 years old and Hennessy was 22. Their stay would be extremely short.
Rufane had previously been living at 100 James Street with his brother and sister-in-law. On December 21, the couple went to visit Christina Rufane's mother, who lived uptown. The New York Times reported that when they returned home, Christina discovered "a trunk containing $850 in Treasury notes, and two diamond rings valued at $650 [had been] carried off. The startled owner immediately reported the robbery to Capt. Thorne, of the Fourth Precinct."
It did not, of course, take long for suspicion to fall on Louis Rufane. They quickly tracked him to the West 13th Street house and arrested him and Hennessy. Although Hennessy maintained his innocence, his teenaged accomplice caved to questioning. "When arrested, Rufane confessed to the commission of the crime, implicating his companion, also," said The New York Times.
In 1869 an auction of the household goods and furniture was held. After two decades of being operated as a boarding house, 161 West 13th Street was finally a private residence, home to William P. O'Connor and his widowed mother, Jane. It may have been at this time that the entrance was slightly updated with oval-paneled Italianate doors.
William O'Connor was a banker, with offices on Pine Street. He and his mother occasionally took in a boarder. In 1878 William I. Hardie, a clerk, lived in the house, and in 1883 the O'Connors leased rooms to Dr. Virgil Thompson, his wife, and his mother-in-law.
The house was sold in 1891 to Christian Rost and his wife, Anna, known as Minna. The couple owned country property at Rockaway Beach. The Sun called Rost "one of the expert engravers in the employ of the American Bank Note Company." Born in Lahr, Germany in 1826, he was the son of an accomplished artist, Johann Gottlieb Rost. He and Minna had a son (who was also a fine line artist), Ernest Christian Rost, born in 1867.
Rost studied art in Paris and London and by the time he and Minna arrived in New York in 1855 he was recognized for his fine line drawings and engravings. In addition to creating bank notes, he executed at least two postage stamps for the Federal Government--the Pony Express rider on the 1869 2-cent stamp, and the Locomotive on the 1869 3-cent stamp.
Minna was also a highly trained artist. She perfected the process of deep-layered gold embroidery used in military patches and uniforms. She established a studio and workroom in the basement of the house where her business thrived.
Six years before moving into 161 West 13th Street, on Saturday night September 19, 1885, Rost had been the victim of a violent attack just steps away at the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 13th Street. He had been visiting friends on East Fourth Street and started home around 10 p.m. On his way he stopped to buy groceries on Greenwich Avenue. He told police that "Just as he got to the corner his throat was griped by a man who had come up behind him, and another grabbed him in front. The next he remembers was that he found himself lying on the sidewalk beside a lamp post," according to The Sun.
The crooks had taken his watch and chain and his pocketbook. In their haste they failed to check his pockets. The newspaper said "He had a lot of money in his inside waistcoat pocket, but it was not disturbed."
Minna's brisk business was reflected in an 1895 advertisement seeking girls accomplished in fine embroidery. The year after that advertisement appeared, on April 10, 1896, Christian Rost died at the age of 73.
Minna stayed on for a few years, continuing to operate her embroidery business from the lower level. She died in 1903 and was buried next to her husband in the Old St. Paul's Church in Mt. Vernon, New York.
By then 161 West 13th Street was once again being operated as a boarding house. Patrick J. O'Leary was living here by 1900, listing his profession as a clerk. Other tenants in the first years of the 20th century were Elizabeth Nolan, a "cottage attendant" with the Department of Parks, and Morris Welch who was coincidentally in the embroidery business.
Patrick J. O'Leary would rent rooms in the house for years. A member of the American-Irish Historical Society, by 1913 he was a director of the Longacre Publishing Co. Elizabeth Nolan, too, would stay for years--at least through 1916.
In April 1922 William Maltag purchased the house, only to sell it the following year to Angela Duffus. In 1932, the Duffus family leased the "lower floors" to the Alpha Gamma Fraternity. (Between 1936 and 1940 Harry T. Duffus was under the watchful eye of the government for his pro-Communist voting choices.)
At some point the house was converted to three apartments. While most of the interior detailing has been lost, several mantels and some original woodwork survives.
photographs by the author
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