Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Mary C. Canty House - 239 East 31st Street

Completed around 1854, 151 East 31st Street was one of a long row of identical, brick-faced houses between Second and Third Avenues.  Three bays wide and four stories tall, its Italianate design featured molded lintels, full-length parlor windows, and a bracketed cornice.  Somewhat unusual was the entrance.  Above the paneled double doors, instead of a more expected pediment, the architect placed a molded cornice atop scrolled brackets.

The residence seems to have been operated as a boarding house from the beginning.  Rosanna, the widow of Patrick Moylan, who lived here in the 1850's was most likely the proprietor.  Boarding houses were a respectable way for widows to earn a living.  Her tenants were all working class.  In 1859 they included William H. Andrews, a house painter; tailor Henry Blair; Bridget Gallaher, who took in washing; Lawrence McGivney, a moulder (or woodworker); butcher Charles Norman; John Riley, mason; and James and Patrick Smith (possibly brothers), a laborer and waiter respectively.

An advertisement in the New York Herald on May 26, 1861 was potentially eyebrow-raising.  It read:

One or Two Ladies, or Lady and Gentleman, can be accommodated with good Board with a widow lady; terms reasonable.

Because of the threat of scandal, single women rarely found rooms in respectable boarding houses.  And so, openly advertising for them was surprising.  Rosanna Moylan was obviously cautious in her selection, however.  Listed here that year were "Catherine Doughtery, widow of Alexander," and "Caroline King, widow of William."

Mary Canty lived here at the outbreak of the Civil War.  Her husband, Dennis, had ran a fruit business in Washington Market, but when he went off to fight, she took over the operation.  As newspapers did every day during the war, on September 30, 1862, the New-York Daily Tribune listed those New Yorkers killed or wounded in battle.  On the list was Dennis Canty, shot in the thigh.  Tragically, what did not seem like a serious wound from the newspaper account, ended in Canty's death.

Directories now listed Mary C. Canty as "merchant" in the Washington Market.  She was successful in running the business--so much so, that in 1863 she purchased the East 31st Street house.  While she kept on three boarders (one of them being Catherine Doughtery), she did not have time to run a boarding house.  Living with her was her son, William H. Canty, who joined her in the produce business, and daughter Annie.

Mary lived in the house for years, taking in occasional boarders, never more than two at a time.  Unlike Rosanna Moylan's tenants, hers held office jobs.  In 1870, for instance, they were Thomas Quinn, a clerk, and James L. Baron, who was listed as "agent," most likely in real estate.  (By then the address had been renumbered 239 East 31st Street.)

On February 3, 1873, the Evening Telegram reported, "Between six and seven o'clock in the evening, the residence of Mary C. Conley [sic], at 239 East Thirty-first street, was entered by sneak thieves through the front door."  Interestingly, they passed over the silverware, clocks and other items most commonly pilfered during a burglary, and took only clothing.  But the haul was significant.  The $1,240 value Mary put on the items like silk dresses and velvet cloaks would approach $29,000 today.

The house was one of a row of once-identical homes.

The Canty family, while retaining possession, seems to have left the East 31st Street house around soon after the burglary.  An advertisement on April 9, 1874 offered:

To Let--Second and Third floors, four rooms on each floor, bath and separate meter on each floor, all conveniences, to a family of adults.

One of the renters was Thomas Lamb, who had a bit too much to drink in the "liquor saloon" at the corner of 31st Street and Second Avenue on May 6, 1877.  The bartender tried to oust him, but, according to The New York Times, "Lamb thereupon drew a knife, and attempted to stab McKeon, but a watch fortunately prevented the knife from entering the flesh."  Lamb was sent to prison for a year.

An advertisement in 1890 offered the parlor and basement levels for rent.  The house was now essentially a two-family residence.  On April 10 the following year, Annie Canty sold it for the equivalent of $500,000 today.  

The buyer, Henry J. Padden, was a "well-known sport," according to The Sun, in reference to his managing boxers.  He was the brother of Michael E. Padden, known as "The Secretary of War" for Tammany boss "Big Tim" Sullivan. 

On December 27, 1897, Padden was appointed a firefighter.  But the city fired him three years later, accusing him of having a side job (most likely his boxing management).  Unwilling to concede, Padden sued the city.  The long-fought battle ended with Supreme Court Justice Garretson reinstating him as a firefighter on June 2, 1903.  A year later, he won his second case that forced the city to pay him lost wages of $6,276.91--almost $190,000 today.  

In 1906 he switched city jobs, becoming an "inspector of pipe laying" for the Department of Water Supply.  The change came, almost assuredly, through his brother Michael's appointment to Water Register that year.

Living with Padden and his wife, the former Katherine G. Holland, was Katherine's grandmother, Ann O'Brien.  The family took in one boarder at the time, like the young German-born butcher, Joseph H. Groh.  Groh's term with the Paddens ended on August 28, 1918 when he was inducted into the United States Army and sent to Europe to fight.

Shortly after that, on November 11, 1918, Ann O'Brien died at the age of 89.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

The wake of another family member would be held there in March 1925.  "Colonel" Michael C. Padden, once called "the best dressed man on the Bowery," according to the New York Evening Post, and "for many years a city official," had died "a pauper" in Havana, Cuba.  He had been working at a race track there for about 15 years.  Former Tammany bigwigs pooled money to bring his body back to New York.  Former and current city officials escorted the coffin to the East 31st Street house where it lay until his funeral in St. Stephen's Church on March 21. 

A slight variation in the brick color testifies to the original full-length proportions of the parlor floor windows.

The house remained a single family house until 1969, when a renovation resulted in a duplex in the basement and parlor levels, and one apartment per floor above.  It was possibly at this time that the parlor windows were shortened, the double doors replaced with one, and the cornice above the entrance altered.  

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


  1. Not just the color variation but they also failed to weave in the bricks and instead used straight lines for the window patch. Just like patching wood flooring or wood siding you should also weave it in. Straight lines will always stand out.

  2. Thanks for this from the Kips Bay Neighborhood Association. Are you amenable to us putting this on our site?

    1. Certainly. With appropriate attribution. (You can type "Kips Bay" into the Search This Blog section to find other entries.)