Wednesday, February 9, 2022

From Grocery to "Dive Saloon" to Pita Shop -- 441 Third Avenue

The horsewalk, or passage between buildings to the rear yard, survives to the right of the building.

Nicholas Betjeman lived above his grocery store at 505 Third Avenue until 1855, when he moved his business to the new building at 441 Third Avenue.  The four-story structure was faced in brownstone above the store level, and featured expected elements of the Italianate style--elliptically arched windows with molded eyebrows and a handsome cast metal bracketed cornice.  A small house sat in the rear yard, accessed by a narrow horsewalk at the southern side.

Working in Betjeman's grocery store was John C. Betjeman and Henry Hachman.  Nicholas Betjeman was about 38-years old in 1855, and so John was most likely his brother.

The upper floors were operated as a middle-class boarding house.  Living here in 1860 were the families of piano dealer Frederick W. Beans; engineer Edward Toon; Joseph Luster, who ran a liquor business (possibly a saloon); and Andrew McMullien, a smith.

In 1863 the boarding house was being run by Susan Nichols, a widow.  That year John W. Addicks took over the grocery store, now sharing the space (most likely front and back) with Phyfe & Co., tin merchants, run by Alfred W. Phillips and Albert Phyfe.   Among Susan Nichols's boarders were Edward and Jane Granger, whose 14-month old daughter, Margaret Wineferd died on August 3, 1863.  The little girl's funeral was held in the parlor.

The building was purchased by Herman and Lewis Davis around 1872.  Herman, and his wife, Bertha, moved in.  He ran two clothing stores, one on Church Street and the other on the Bowery.  Also now residing in the building were Abraham and Jacob Levy.  They were possibly relatives, since they were both involved in Davis's business.  The other boarders were Leopold Abraham, who operated a china store, and August Langbein, an upholsterer.  Living in the rear house that year was John Smith, a clerk.  The grocery store had been run by Robert P. B. Shear since 1868.

Bertha Davis died on October 16, 1873 at the age of 44.  Her funeral was held in the parlor three days later.

The Davises leased the property to Alexander B. Barnard in June 1876.  He not only operated the boarding house, but moved his pawn shop into the former grocery store as well.  In 1877 he hired a servant, Kate Close, who disappeared along with "gentlemen's clothing, jewelry, trinkets [and] books belonging to A. B. Barnard," according to The Evening Post on May 8.  

Kate had a formula.  She took jobs as a chambermaid, worked a few days, then made off with valuables.  Her downfall came when she was caught in the act in the home of Mrs. Magdalen Reichtman on East 22nd Street.  A search of her room found a box of pawn tickets, which led to the recovery of silverware, jewelry, bedding, watches, and other various stolen articles, including Barnard's.

That summer Barnard received permission from the Board of Aldermen to "erect a pole and place sign thereon" in front of the building.  It was apparently a substantial improvement, costing him the equivalent of $13,600 today.

The following decade would see significant changes along the stretch of Third Avenue.  The building was purchased by Margaret Bewing, who installed a saloon in the ground floor.  She described the premises in 1888, saying "The saloon was well fitted up [with] a handsome bar, fixtures, etc."  Upstairs were accommodations for sixteen residents.

She became the victim of a slick scam artist that summer.  H. B. Bender, described by The Evening Post as a "German, forty-one years old," offered her ten lots of ground on Staten Island in trade for the Third Avenue property.  The newspaper said, "On June 14 she went to see the land.  She was satisfied with it, and a deed was executed, she says, by Bender and his wife, which she agreed to accept for the saloon."

After transferring the title, Margaret Bewing discovered that the land she now owned was not the property she had been shown.   Those lots belonged to George Alter and her deed "represented ten very inferior lots, worth not more than $10 each, which Bender had a tax sale for $2.92."

By the time Bewer took Bender to court, he had already sold 441 Third Avenue, valued at $4,000, to "a Mr. Ziller for $2,650,"--about $75,000 today.

The days of a respectable boarding house were in the past.  The building was now known as the Columbia Hotel, run by John Camlin, while the ground floor saloon was operated by James Irving, described by The Sun as "the notorious dive keeper."  Irving had been a Tammany Hall alderman and assemblyman.  He was now known for his infamous saloon, populated by gamblers, rowdies, and "degraded women."  The Press noted in 1891 that he had been "a central figure in many a disreputable incident."

On March 12, 1891, trouble ensued outside the tavern when Annie Tucker began tossing rocks through the plate glass window.  The Sun entitled an article, "Jimmy Irving Again," and reported he had the woman arrested.  In the Yorkville Police Court she claimed she had married Irving in 1867, they had lived together 31 years, and had two grown children.  According to her, when she attempted to retrieve some furniture that belonged to her, "he had attacked her and ejected her forcibly."

Irving's story was far different.  He said she had been employed as a servant and he had fired her three weeks earlier.  (The Sun was skeptical, saying, "For a servant she was very well dressed, having on a black silk dress and a well-fitting sealskin sack.")  Fine clothes or not, Annie's lack of refinement went beyond rock tossing.  The Sun reported, "as the discussion went on, ugly language was used so freely that the court officers were aghast."  The judge cautioned the two, "Be a little more chaste in your language, if possible."  In the end, Justice Murray dismissed the case, warning Annie "not to annoy Irving any more."

In March 1894, James Camlin was arrested on the complaint of "two fashionably dressed women," for running a brothel.  In the Yorkville Court on he insisted the hotel was "entirely respectable."  There to substantiate his story was Police Captain Martens, who said he "has often visited" the place and found it "free from objectionable persons."

But a month later, it was Martens who was being investigated.  In April, Police Commissioner MacLean charged Captain Martens with "neglect of duty" for "failing to suppress disorderly houses" within his district.  Specifically listed was was the Columbia Hotel.  During his hearing before the Police Commissioners, Martens produced witnesses who vouched for the respectability of the places and, with a vote of 3 to 1, his charges were dismissed.  Ironically, the name of the Columbia Hotel was changed the following year to the Hotel Martens.

The appointment of Theodore Roosevelt as Police Commissioner in 1894 changed things within the corrupt department.  He walked the streets late at night to ensure that officers were on duty, and reformed the system, including the closing down of "corrupt police hostelries."  At the turn of the century an ice cream shop occupied the store where Jim Irving's "dive saloon" had been.

By 1920, Ernest de Cuti's upholstery store was in the ground floor, while working-class citizens rented rooms in the upper portion of the building.  For several years the Italian-American extortion group La Mano Nera, or the Black Hand, had menaced New York City businessman, using bombs and beatings.  De Cuti was terrified when he received threats on his life.

In the spring of 1920, he purchased a handgun for protection.  He then took it to the East 35th Street police station asking how he could get a permit to carry it.  Instead, he was cited for violating the Sullivan Act, a law against carrying an unlicensed gun.  His fears became even more evident when he appeared in court on April 15.  The New-York Tribune reported that an attendant noticed a "bulge in De Cuti's clothing."  Underneath, it was found he was wearing "a coat of mail made of two layers of wood with a tin surface to protect himself from the Black Handers," said the newspaper.  Now, instead of deciding on his revolver-carrying case, the justices sent him to Bellevue Hospital for observation.

Living in the building in 1922 was Stamatis Gallis, who was involved in a bootlegging operation on East 58th Street.  The plant, in a former stable, distributed about 400 quarts of denatured alcohol daily.  Prohibition agents who raided it on February 21 seized alcohol worth $100,000 in street value--about $1.54 million today.  Officials deemed it "one of the biggest sources of dangerous liquor in the city," and a government chemist said the alcohol was "probably not fit for consumption."

In 1950, the building was converted to a total of five apartments above the store.  It was most likely at this time that the Victorian details were shaved off.  The rear building was renovated to a single family dwelling.  Living in the main building throughout the 1950's were several employees of the Consulate of Norway.

The stubborn 19th century holdout is a bit beleaguered today, but its pre-Civil War appearance is still evident.  And the ancient horsewalk still provides access to the area to the rear.

photographs by Ted Leather (who suggested this post) has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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