Saturday, February 5, 2022

Theater History - The John A. Duff House - 33 West 10th Street


To the right, the seamless addition that took the place of a passageway to the rear can be seen.

In 1832 William Ewing erected a two-and-a-half story house at 33 Amos Street in Greenwich Village.  (In 1857 the street would be renamed West 10th Street.)  Sitting atop a brownstone basement level, it was faced in Flemish-bond red brick.  Typical of the Federal style, the attic floor featured one or two dormers which poked through the peaked roof.

Ewing's residency was not overly long.  By 1840 the family of James Jacobs lived at 33 Amos Street.  He was a partner in the drygoods firm of Jacobs, Pierce & Fuller downtown.  The funeral of 13-year-old Caroline Dyer Jacobs was held in the parlor on April 30, 1841.

Almost immediately afterward the Jacobs family moved to West 12th Street.  The Amos Street house was now home to the Bussing family.  Thomas P. Bussing was a member of the Public School Society, and was head of the Mechanics' School on Crosby Street.  The institution was founded in 1820 by the General Society of Mechanics' and Tradesmen to provide education to children of its deceased or "unfortunate" members.

In the 1850's Moses L. Lion, a partner in Lion & Brother jewelers, lived here.  It was almost assuredly Lion who gave the outdated Federal style house Greek Revival updates.  The attic was raised to a full floor, the parlor windows were extended, and a modillioned cornice added.  Perhaps most significant was the closing in of the horsewalk, or alleyway, that led to the rear yard.  The narrow passage was converted to an extension of the house.

Around 1867 
John A. Duff purchased 33 West 10th Street.  Born in Ireland on March 10, 1820, he had was married to the former Mary O'Rourke.  The couple had nine children. 

After trying several occupations, Duff had gone into the restaurant business.  He was a partner in the popular Crook & Duff restaurant on Park Row.  Then, around 1859, he went into theater management, beginning with the Olympic Theatre.

John Duff's family was closely associated with his business.  In 1868 one of his daughters married James E. Hayes, who had  begun his career in 1863 as a scenic artist at the Olympic Theatre.  The New York Herald said of him "Among the members of his profession he ranked high, especially as a painter of interior scenes, where skillfulness in perspective is necessary.  He was also remarkably successful in delineating statuary."  Marrying the boss's daughter was professionally advantageous and Duff made him manager of the Olympic Theatre.  

The following year, on January 7, Mary D. Duff married playwright and critic Augustin Daly.  He and his new father-in-law partnered in Daly's Theatre and, for a while, in the Grand Opera House.  Regarding the latter venture, theater manager Commodore Tooker recalled in 1885 that John Duff "was the front legs of Mr. Daly with hind legs of the white elephant that it was supposed to be.  Mr. Daly managed the stage and Mr. Duff was in the office."

Duff's son, James C. Duff, following closely in his father's professional footsteps.  Known in the industry as "young Mr. Duff," he had made his mark in American theater when he returned from England with a copy of the new operetta, H. M. S. Pinafore.  The Sun's theater critic, W. J. Henderson later recalled, "America discovered Gilbert and Sullivan and the English type of 'comic opera' established itself on Broadway."

On August 16, 1884, The New York Times reported James C. Duff had returned from "the wild dissipations of Saratoga" and announced he had leased the old Standard Theatre.  He told reporters, "I am going to establish it as a sort of home for opera comique."  Rechristened the New Standard Theatre, it opened on December 23 with Franz von Suppe's Trip to Africa.

On the afternoon of March 30, 1889 the 69-year-old John A. Duff was sitting at his desk in the Standard Theatre when he suffered a stroke.  The following day The New York Times reported, "he is now lying in a precarious condition at his residence, 33 West Tenth-street...The entire left side is paralyzed, and Mr. Duff is unable to speak or to move either his left leg or arm."  The article noted, "His wife and all his children were with him excepting James C. Duff, who was in Baltimore, but had been telegraphed for."

John A. Duff died at around 2:00 in the morning.  The New York Clipper said, "His death was peaceful."  His funeral in the Church of St. Francis Xavier took place on April 2.  James had made it back from Baltimore in time.  The New York Times noted, "All the members of Mr. Duff's family were present except his youngest daughter, Maggie Duff, who is a Sister of Mercy, connected with the Convent of the Sacred Heart."

The church was crowded not only with theatrical figures--managers like Daniel Frohman and famous thespians including Lillian Russell, John Drew and Ada Rehan--but important civic leaders like William R. Grace and Eugene Kelly.

Still living in the West 10th Street house with Mary were John J. Duff, and James C. Duff and his family.  He was married to the former Augusta Cogan, and the couple had two children, Rufus and Mary Margaret.  John J. Duff died on October 10, 1900 and his funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

On October 21, 1912, Augusta took Mary Margaret, who was 10 years old, uptown to Durland's Riding Academy near Central Park.  While Mary took her riding lessons, Augusta headed to her French lesson.  The New York Herald reported, "As she was about to enter a school of languages, at No. 100 West Seventy-sixth street," Augusta "suddenly collapsed and fell to the ground.  Before the arrival of Dr. Oler, of the Polyclinic Hospital, she was dead."  As had been the case with her father-in-law, the 40-year-old was the victim of a major stroke.

James and Mary Margaret continued to live at 33 West 10th Street.  On June 5, 1921 the New York Herald announced, "Only relatives and a few intimate friends have been asked to the marriage of Miss Margaret Duff, daughter of Mr. James C. Mr. Lafayette Page Jr."  The ceremony took place three days later in St. Francis Xavier's Church, which had played such an important part of the Duff family over the decades.

In 1924 Duff hired architect S. Edson Gage to create apartments in the house which had been his home since childhood.  He lived on in one of the seven apartments.

Despite his advancing age, James C. Duff continued working.  In 1927 he staged a new production of The Beggars Opera.  The following year, on September 1, 1928, he died in the West 10th Street house of a stroke at the age of 73.  

A renovation completed in 1995 returned the venerable house to a single-family home.

photographs by the author
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