Thursday, February 17, 2022

The 1846 Benjamin F. Wheelwright House - 29 West 8th Street


In January 1832, "sundry persons" petitioned the Board of Aldermen to change the name of the Bowery above 6th Street to Clinton Place, in honor of Governor De Witt Clinton who had died four years earlier.  But instead, the section of 8th Street between Fourth and Sixth Avenues was given the name.

On Washington Square, one block to the south, elegant mansions had already begun rising as Manhattan's wealthy inched northward toward Fifth Avenue.  In 1834, plots along Clinton Place were being sold, one advertisement touting, "The number of fashionable houses already built, and now building in the vicinity, the purity of the air, the goodness of the water, and the respectability of the neighborhood, render this one of the most desirable situations for private dwelling on the Island."

It would not be until 1845 that William Wagstaff began construction of seven upscale Greek Revival style residences on the north side of the street.  Among them was 101 Clinton Place (renumbered 29 West 8th Street in 1900), completed in 1846.  Like its neighbors, the 25-foot-wide house was four stories tall above a brownstone-clad English basement.  The eared doorway above the high stoop was purely Greek Revival, and the full-height parlor windows were almost undoubtedly fronted by a cast iron balcony.  As was common at the time, a small dwelling sat in the rear yard.

The residence became home to banker and former merchant Benjamin F. Wheelwright.  He and his wife, Elizabeth, had five children: Washington S., Anne G., Caroline M., Elizabeth G., and Benjamin, Jr.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 18, 1803, he was, according to The New York Times, "descended from the family of Wheelwrights which  flourished in the days of Oliver Cromwell, and one of his ancestors, Rev. John Wheelwright was a friend of that historical personage."  He had arrived in New York City in 1825, gone into the mercantile business, and retired in 1837 "with a handsome fortune," according to the newspaper.

Wheelwright had been elected president of the Greenwich Bank in 1838.  He was, as well, a trustee of the Northern Dispensary, and of the United States Trust Company; and sat on the boards of several other corporations.

The Wheelwrights leased the rear house to respectable, if less affluent, families.  In 1847, Francis Wagner, a shoemaker lived there, and in the early 1850's Thomas Harthorne, a saddler was the tenant.  (As the name suggests, a saddler fashioned and sold saddles and other furnishings for horses.)

On January 26, 1853, an advertisement appeared in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer announcing that the "splendid first class dwelling house" at 101 Clinton Place was for sale.  The Wheelwrights moved slightly north, to 12 West 17th Street, and James Clinch and his wife, the former Anna Taylor, purchased their former home.

Clinch was a partner in the tea importing firm of S. T. Nicholl & Co.  The firm's extensive business--like its 1847 contract to supply tea to the United States Navy--garnered each of the partners significant fortunes.  He and Anna had a grown daughter, Sarah Nicholl, who was married to Judge John Lawrence Smith.  

As the Wheelwrights had done, the Clinches rented the rear building, now taking in more than one family at a time.  Among the five renters in 1853 were a "segarmaker," a carman, a locksmith, a mason, and a mariner.  The latter, Anthony Francis, was clearly noted "colored" in city directories.

James Clinch died in the house on October 5, 1872 at the age of 78.  Somewhat surprisingly, his funeral did not take place in the drawing room here, but in St. Mark's Church far in the East Village.  

Anna remained in her Clinton Place home for two years.  She now rented rooms in the main house, as well.  In 1873 and '74 she had three tenants in the rear building, and two boarders in her home--Robert Whitaker, a clerk, and David N. Hanson, a carpenter.

When Anna Clinch sold 101 Clinton Place in 1875, it signaled its end as a private dwelling.  Deborah Case, the widow of Walter H. Case, operated a boarding house for the next two years, before it was sold to Thomas M. Costello.

Costello now advertised the rooms as "French flats" with "all modern improvements."  Living in the house with him and his family in 1879 were seven tenants, all professionals.  Among them were three clerks; a teacher (Angelo Torriani would remain through 1891); Ithiel Veitelle, an editor; one widow, Anne Brown; and carriage maker Francis Snyder.

It was almost assuredly Costello who, in making the interior improvements, updated the exterior with cast metal sills and lintels, gave the entrance new double doors and a triangular metal pediment, and replaced the cornice with a modern neo-Grec model.

The property was purchased by Emil and Adelaide Gutmann in 1882.  They inherited at least two of the Costello's tenants.  Among the improvements made by either Costello or Gutmann was the installation of indoor plumbing.  And that was the source of a major scare on February 21, 1886.  

The Evening Post reported, "The occupants of the four-story dwelling-house, No. 101 Clinton Place, were roused from their sleep shortly before 1 o'clock this morning by a fire which broke out in the bath-room on the third floor."  The occupants rushed from their rooms to find the hallways full of smoke.  A passerby on the street had sent in an alarm, and the firefighters who arrived shortly "promptly assured the occupants that the fire was a slight affair."  The Evening Post said, "It was soon put out."

As the turn of the century neared, the once-residential street was seeing change.  It came to 101 Clinton Place in 1889 with William Kaul converting the basement and first floor for business purposes.  He established his barber shop in the former parlor level and leased to basement to E. Weite, who opened a "billiard saloon."  

When Adolfe Parentini leased the building in 1892, Kaul's barber shop space became home to Bartholomew and Catherine Reves's cloak and suit manufacturing shop.  They employed eight men, five women, and four children (one boy and three girls) who worked a grueling 60 hours per week plus 10 hours on Saturday.

Parentini's lease was up in 1897.  It was taken over by Mario Menardi.  He operated his saloon in the basement level and his wife ran the boarding house.  The Reveses moved out and the parlor floor became the Menardi family's living quarters, along with a dining room for the residents.  It was not long before that space became the center of what threatened to become major scandal.

At 9:00 on the night of November 20, 1897, three agents of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty "swooped down upon Menardi's establishment," according to The World.  There, in the parlor floor dining room, they found six little girls "in evil society."  In what they described as "a dance-house raid," they arrested the girls, telling the judge that "there was waltzing in Menardi's place," and when they made their raid, "drinks were being served and full-grown men were carousing beside the little prisoners."  Menardi was also arrested, charged with "violating the law in permitting minors to enter the saloon and dance."

A sobbing Mendardi was interviewed by a reporter from The World the following day.  Because he spoke little English, he gave up and allowed his wife to explain.  The journalist said, "Mrs. Menardi, a stout motherly looking woman, did the talking with trembling lips."

She explained, "I have two daughters, both school-girls, and both fond of company.  The youngest has a army of school friends and her great happiness is to entertain them.  Almost every evening we give up one dining-room to the little ones.  My daughter's music teacher, an old Italian, kindly contributes the music, and the children dance."  The men whom the agents observed, she said, were simply boarders who sometimes dropped in to see the Menardi girls and their friends perform.

The six little girls were held until a court session three days later.  The World reported, "All were nicely dressed, suggesting good homes and fond mothers.  Each of the six little faces was tear-stained, while the blue eyes of the two youngest, tiny maids barely ten years old, were wide with fear."

Happily, when all the testimonies were taken, Magistrate Mott decided in the Menardis' favor.  The World reported on November 24, "The alleged 'dance house' was shown by the evidence to be a hotel dining-room, while the scene of the raid resolved itself into an innocent children's party."  The article noted, "Mario Menardi, proprietor of the little saloon and hotel at No. 101 Clinton place...was honorably discharged, and the six little girls, after three days' incarceration, were released."

Living with the Menardis the following year was engineer Robert Weatherbee.  He was heading up the stoop on February 23, 1899 when a commotion caused him to pause.  A short time earlier, William Brown had snatched a pair of shoes from the store of Harris Bernstein on Sixth Avenue.  The shop employees who chased him were soon joined by what The Morning Telegraph called "a large crowd."  They attracted the attention of off-duty Police Officer Benning, who was on a streetcar heading to work.

Benning jumped off the car and joined the chase.  The thief and his pursuers turned onto Clinton Place, where Benning "drew his revolver and fired a shot in the air as a warning.  Brown only ran faster, so Benning fired a second time."  No doubt Robert Weatherbee was transfixed on the riotous scene.  As he watched, that second bullet struck the pavement and ricocheted into his thigh.

When Brown still refused to stop, Benning shot him in the shoulder.  The Morning Telegraph reported, "Weatherbee and Brown were taken to the Mercer street station."  There an ambulance surgeon dressed Weatherbee's wound and he was sent home.  Brown was less fortunate.  The article said that he "lies dangerously wounded in St. Vincent's Hospital."

A devastating story unfolded here in 1901.  A young couple named Feuling had a baby on April 13.  Mrs. Fueling's mother, a Mrs. Meyer who lived with the couple, was there to help with the newborn.  The Morning Telegraph said she "was in anxious attendance, relieving the nervousness of the father and the worry of the mother with cheerful stories of other affairs of the sort she had known."

Although the new parents had hired a nurse, Mrs. Meyer rebuffed her.  The Morning Telegraph explained, "There was a trained nurse in attendance, but the grandmother jealously guarded all her traditional prerogatives and personally served the young Feuling."  It resulted in a tragic accident.

Because the day-old infant was crying, Mrs. Meyer gave it a spoonful of castor oil.  But in her haste--possibly because she wanted to take care of the problem before the nurse became involved--she "reached the carbolic acid from the shelf instead of the more innocent castor oil."  On April 15, The Morning Telegraph began an article saying, "There is deep sadness and gloom in the Feuling household in West Eighth Street, as the neighbors group about in their doorways and comment upon the cost of the little white casket that is being borne toward sepulture."

The two commercial spaces saw a variety of tenants as West Eighth Street became increasingly commercialized.  In 1904 wigmaker L. C. Wilson occupied one, and L. Small, a ladies' tailor, was in the other.  From 1911 to 1916 the Annett-Mahnken Realty Company's office was here, and in 1914 Alfred Motola ran his "human hair goods" business in one of the spaces.

A long-term residential and commercial tenant came in 1942 when Sam Kramer moved in.  Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1913, he studied jewelry making at the University of Southern California in the 1930's, and then studied gemology at New York University in 1939.  That year he opened his jewelry-making shop in Greenwich Village.  He moved three years later to 29 West 8th Street.

Kramer's work was unquestionably avant garde, prompting The New York Times to call his jewelry "off beat," and The New Yorker, on December 26, 1942, to say, "Mr. Kramer makes jewelry for people who are slightly mad."

from the collection of the Museum of Arts & Design

Indeed, his modernist, silver designs often included unexpected items like taxidermy eyes, porcupine quills, vintage buttons, and moose teeth.  And if his clients were "slightly mad," there were plenty of them.  A 1955 article in The Saturday Evening Post said the shop's income had reached $25,000 per year--nearly a quarter of a million in today's dollars.  It noted Kramer's shop had become "a rendezvous for personalities of the artistic and beatnik worlds."

His second floor studio/shop was described by Jeannine Falino in The Magazine Antiques later as "his artful wreck of a studio."  He attracted off-beat customers with his facetious promise, "Under no circumstances will names of our customers be divulged to any investigating committee."  

Sam Kramer at work in his West 8th Street studio.  image via

In reporting on the Fantasmagoria Ball, held at the Village Gate on June 14, 1961 and hosted by Kramer, the New York Item called him, "the premier surrealist jeweler," adding that his shop "is a landmark in the Village."

That fascinating era came to an end on June 9, 1964 when Sam Kramer died in Trafalgar Hospital at the age of 50.  He and his estranged wife, Carol Enners Kramer, had just recently reconciled.  The New York Times said she, "is expected to carry on his work."  But no one could truly continue Kramer's unique creativeness.

In 1975 Media Galleries, Ltd. occupied by former Kramer space, offering "quality values on original works by some of the world's major artists;" and in 1976 Bassett's Ice Cream store  opened at ground level.  Today Atelier, a high-end men's clothing store occupies both commercial levels. 

Almost miraculously, other than the late 19th century storefront, the appearance of the vintage house survives barely changed since it was gently updated around 1879.

photograph by the author
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