Once home to the well-to-do Roome family, graffiti mars the sorely abused house today.
William J. Roome was born In Greenwich Village on August 1, 1800 to Jacob P. and Nelly Hogland Roome. An attorney, he married Jane Maybie on September 6, 1820. Around 1840 he moved his family into the recently-completed house at 188 West 21st Street (renumbered 266 in 1865) in the Chelsea district.
At just two-bays wide and three-and-a-half stories tall, the Roome house was a scaled down version of the grander Greek Revival homes rising throughout the neighborhood. Instead of the high brownstone stoops seen in those residences, the entrance to the Roome house sat atop a one-step porch. It nevertheless boasted an impressive brownstone cornice above the entrance and attractive rope carving framed the doorway. Molded stone lintels graced the openings and a dentiled cornice ran along the roofline.
The house was well-filled. William and Jane had nine children--Eleanor, Jane, Jacob Peter, Julia, Catharine Emily, William Henry, Abraham P. Maybie, Edwin LeChevalier, and infant John Howard. One of the young women, probably Eleanor, was highly involved in the New-York City Tract Society, an organization that published and disseminated Christian literature. Its 1842 report listed "Miss Roome" as a manager of the Female Branch of the society.
In addition to his legal practice, William J. Roome was highly involved in local politics (he was associated with Tammany leaders), and in 1845 was appointed a Commission of the Alms House. He served as a commissioner of the Board of Education, as well.
Jane married bookkeeper Benjamin Arrowsmith Hegeman on May 8, 1844. Despite what must have been somewhat crowded conditions, the newlyweds moved into the West 21st Street house. The situation was amplified around 1847 when a room on the ground floor was outfitted as William J.'s law office and William H.'s real estate office. (Although William H. continued to operate his business from the office, by 1847 he had moved his residence to 232 West 20th Street.)
In June 1852, Jane and Benjamin Hegeman had a daughter, Eleanor. It may have been that event that prompted them to move nearby at 186 West 24th Street before very long.
The West 21st Street house was the scene of heartbreak in January 1853. John Howard Roome died on January 14 just two months before his 11th birthday. His funeral was held in the house three days later.
Another tragedy within the family occurred the following year when two-year-old Eleanor Hegeman died. (Interestingly, after Jane Roome Hegeman died in 1878, Benjamin married her sister, Catherine Emily.)
As the population of the Roome house diminished, Jane and William began to take in boarders. On August 7, 1855 an advertisement in the New York Herald read:
Two Gentlemen and their Wives, or Four single gentlemen, can be accommodated with board at 188 West Twenty-first street. No other boarders. Terms $5 per week. The use of a piano, and, if desired, instruction in music and the French language, without charge. Bedrooms unfurnished.
The weekly rent would be equivalent to around $155 today.
Although William J. and his son kept their first-floor office in the house, in 1856 the family offered it for rent. The ad reflected its amenities:
House to Let--That three-story and attic brick house No. 188 West 21st-st.; has gas, bath, water-closets, range, bells &c. Gas fixtures belong to the house, which will be put in complete order. Rent $600 to a good tenant.
The bells mentioned in the advertisement referred to the servant bells located in various rooms. The yearly rent would equal about $19,000 today.
The Roome families dispersed. William and Jane moved to West 15th Street, and William H. went to Bethune Street. The 21st Street house saw a succession of tenants for a few years. The Sulzbacher family lived here in the late 1850's. Both Henry and Lewis Sulbacher were affiliated with the clothing firm Sulzabacher, Rosenthal & Co. on Liberty Street.
The Martin Furey family moved in around 1862. An upholsterer, his son Nicholas Edward attended the New York Free Academy while they lived here.
Strong V. Moore, who had previously lived in Brooklyn, leased the house in 1864. He owned a billiard parlor on Crosby Street. He was joined in 1867 by Richard P. Moore, most likely a brother. Richard made his living as a surveyor. The Moores remained through 1877.
The house was then operated by Frances Donaldson as a boarding house. Living with her were Emilius A. Donaldson, a publisher, and Julius A. Donaldson, who made his living as a clerk. Frances had two boarders in 1878, John Green, who operated a tea shop on Ninth Avenue; and coal merchant George Tuthill.
An advertisement on August 16, 1879 described, "Nicely furnished cool and pleasant front rooms, $1.50, $2.50, $3; private house; modern improvements."
William J. Roome had died earlier that year, on April 1879. William H. continued to lease 266 West 21st Street to the Donaldsons and to operate his real estate business--now with his son William J.--from the first floor office.
William Henry died in 1881. William J. Roome inherited both his father's business, and the former family house at 266 West 21st Street.
Among Frances Donaldson's boarders in 1884 were lithographer John K. Gardner and his wife. Gardner was walking along West 23rd Street on September 24 that year when a bizarre accident occurred as he was passing by the new Eden Musee. The Albany Times reported:
There was the usual number of children and passers-by yesterday afternoon opposite the Eden Musee in Twenty-third street near Fifth avenue. Suddenly there was a crash, a cry from the startled children, a thud upon the pavement, a spurt of something red and warm against the marble steps of the building, and then a rush of people from across the street until a large crowd was surging in front of the entrance.
Atop the second story balustrade of the Eden Musee were four enormous marble urns. One of them had crashed to the pavement, "the two hundred odd pounds of its weight having crushed the life out of an unfortunate gray-haired man who had just before been passing," said the article. That unfortunate man was John K. Gardiner.
Atop the balustrade can be seen the massive stone urns, one of which fell directly onto John K. Gardiner. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The newspaper said, "Mrs. Gardner, who was completely unnerved by the shock, said last night that her husband left home at mid-day to look for employment, as he had for some time been out of work." The manager of the Eden Musee came to 266 West 21st Street the night of the accident to give his condolences to Mrs. Gardner, and offered to pay for "a fitting burial." The Albany Times added, "He has also promised to look after the needs of the widow, who is left entirely destitute."
In 1894 William J. Roome moved his real estate office to 410 Sixth Avenue. Now living in Plainfield, New Jersey, he hired architect P. F. Brogan to update the 21st Street house in 1896. His vague plans leave the details of the renovations unclear, but quite possibly had to do with improved plumbing and such.
In 1897 James Richardson was making a comfortable living by robbing boarding houses. The 28-year-old "had as many aliases as there are days in the week," said the New York Herald on January 24. His appearance and demeanor fooled dozens of boarding house landladies. "In appearance he could easily represent himself to be a clerk or salesman with a comfortable salary," said the article. "His method of operating was to apply at a boarding or furnished room house, between three and four o'clock in the afternoon...As the mistress of the house was serving her boarders at dinner her new comer would ring the bell and ask to be shown to his room."
Richardson always came with two large bundles, presumably containing his clothing, and he would announce his trunk would arrive shortly. And always, when he did not come down to dinner, the landlady would find him gone from the room, but because the bundles were still there, she was not suspicious. Later, when boarders realized they had been robbed, the bundles would be untied and found to be filled with straw.
In January 1897 Detective Devine "was informed that a man believed to be the much-wanted thief was at No. 266 West Twenty-first street," reported the New York Herald. "The detective hurried there, only to find that the man had left the house five minutes before with a boarder's coat." The slippery crook was captured a week later, having successfully robbed at least 35 boarding houses.
Irish immigrant Jane Malloy worked in the house as a servant, but was discharged in the summer of 1898, possibly because of her drinking. She appeared at the back door on the morning of June 12 and was refused entrance. The New York Herald reported, "She was apparently under the influence of liquor and refused to move." It seems that, at least as far as the 45-year-old woman was concerned, her options had run out. There in the rear yard, "She took a small bottle of [carbolic acid] from her pocket and drank its contents, dying before the ambulance arrived."
Another case of desperation occurred in October 1900. Margaret Quinn had taken a room at 268 West 19th Street on October 5. The following day she was taken to Bellevue Hospital. Around October 21 she had her trunk taken to 266 West 21st Street. The 22-year-old had good reason to relocate.
What no one in the 19th Street boarding house realized was that Margaret Quinn was pregnant. The baby was born on October 7 and she and the infant were discharged on October 13.
On October 22, a Mount Vernon merchant, W. Sherman Lees, was riding his bicycle along the woods on Pelham Bay Park Road when he heard a baby crying. Going into the woods, he found an infant girl, "blue and pinched with cold," according to the Buffalo Evening News. He took the child to the Mount Vernon Police. A physician said "it had probably been in the woods for the greater part of the night and that it was nearly frozen."
Margaret Blair was traced through the child's underskirt, marked "Bellevue Hospital, 31." At 266 West 21st Street she denied having abandoned her child, but could not produce her, insisting, "It is being taken care of and that is all I care to say."
That was not explanation enough for police and she was arrested. At the station, "she said that she was too poor to take proper care of it herself and that she had sent it to a foundling asylum." When that story proved untrue, "she declared that she had given the baby to her mother-in-law." That alibi, also, fell flat. She finally confessed.
"I was penniless and unable to take care of the child after I left the hospital, so I went to the foundling asylum at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue and wanted to leave the baby there, but they refused to accept it." She professed to have then gone to her mother-in-law's home (her husband, she said, had abandoned her when she became pregnant), but she was not home.
In desperation, she took a streetcar to the area near Mount Vernon, "and walked a long distance until I got in the woods. I laid the baby down near a street and went back to the car and returned to the city." The Buffalo Evening News said, "The woman showed no pleasure when she was told that the baby had been rescued, and was not only alive, but was getting along well." Margaret Quinn was arrested on charges of abandonment.
The house was being operated as a rooming house as late as the Depression years. In the second half of the century it contained unofficial apartments (there was never a Certificate of Occupancy granted). Among the tenants in 1974 was Jorge Gonzales, who met a grisly end that year.
On June 7, he and Gonzolo Roman visited the apartment of Louis Gandot next door at 264 West 21st Street. Something happened that prompted Roman to pull a knife, fatally stabbing Gonzales and critically wounding Gandot. The murderer was captured shortly afterward three blocks away at Eighth Avenue and 18th Street.
The surviving elements--like the remains of the rope carving--hint at the former elegance of the Roome house.
Much of the architectural integrity of the narrow Greek Revival house survives under a coat of gray paint. Although greatly abused and despite its unfortunate replacement door, details like the rope carving, lintels, and the dentiled cornice survive after more than 180 years.
photographs by the author
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