Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Incredible History of 822 Sixth Avenue


In the mid-1850's William Walker lived in the four-story, brick-faced house and store at 470 Sixth Avenue.  (It would be renumbered 822 Sixth Avenue in 1927, following the extension of Sixth Avenue to the south in Greenwich Village.)  A hint of the original appearance of the building can be gleaned from the surviving upper elements of what was probably an identical neighbor, three doors to the north.  Walker was a "licensed keeper of [an] intelligence office," meaning that like his contemporary, Allan Pinkerton, he was a private detective.

Hovey's Restaurant, was on the ground floor of the building in the years following the end of the Civil War.  An advertisement in the New York Herald on April 18, 1872 offered:

For Sale--Chance seldom offered--The well known Dining Room 470 Sixth avenue., Hovey's: handsomely fitted up and doing a good trade; good chance for the right man; the owner has other business.

The space became Nicholas Engel's beer saloon.  As was common, a rear room in the back was sometimes used by social or political groups.  On November 18, 1875 The New York Times reported, "At a public meeting of the Republican Central Club of the Eleventh Assembly District, held at the rooms, No. 470 Sixth avenue...it was unanimously resolved that the club should hereafter be known as the Central Republican Presidential Campaign Club of the Eleventh Assembly District."  Notably, the members of the club were all Black.

In the meantime, the upper floors were operated as a rooming house.  They were home to working class residents like Ann Hurl, who listed herself as "midwife" in 1876.

By the time former boxer Joe Coburn took a room here, the neighborhood was known as The Tenderloin.  It was the most crime-ridden section of the city and possibly of the country. The streets were lined with brothels, saloons, and gambling parlors; and graft and corruption among the police was rampant.  For some reason or other, the building had been given the name The Gridiron.

On the afternoon of November 17, 1887 a policeman came cross a drunken Coburn "wrangling with a man" on West 25th Street.  When the 59 year old fighter refused to relent, he was arrested.  At the Jefferson Market Police Court, Justice Duffy proposed, "I'll tell you what.  I'll let you go if you promise to knock out [John L.Sullivan."

Coburn protested, "Judge, I am too old for that contract," stressing that he had retired from the sport.

"Well, get someone to knock him out.  Sullivan is a big blow," said the judge.

"I'm afraid it can't be done, Judge."

With his hopes to see the famous boxer defeated dashed, Justice Coburn discharged his prisoner.

It was around this time that Major R. Poole took over the ground floor.  ("Major" was not a military title, but his first name.)  The Sun described Poole as "the colored leader of the colored Republicans in the Eleventh Assembly district, and his saloon is the concentrating point of his constituency."  Poole was democratic concerning the race of his patrons, at least during the week.  The newspaper said, "During the week days the [sic] Major is not spotted.  Any man, whatever his color, can get into the [sicMajor's place and stay as long as he has money to pay for drinks.  On Sunday all this is changed.  No one but colored folk are admitted to the place."

The problem was that selling alcohol on Sundays was illegal.  On November 6, 1892 the saloon was raided.  Saying "The place is usually crowded with colored people," The Evening Post reported that ten men were inside.  The bartender, William Lewis, was arrested.  Later Captain Coleman, a Republican candidate for office, and Major Poole bailed him out.

Shortly after the incident, Victor Francez leased the building  and moved his own saloon into ground floor.  Major R. Poole went on to a unglamorous career.  On April 28, 1917, the Lockport Union Sun & Journal reported on the passage in State Senate of Senator Murphy's "ball dodge bill."  "It makes it a misdemeanor to take part in the game of throwing balls at a negro's head protruding through a piece of canvas."  The article noted, "Several of the Senators who intended to oppose the measure changed their vote to please Major R. Poole, colored, janitor of the Senate." 

On November 21, 1893, an old friend of Victor Francez appeared at the saloon.  French-born bookkeeper Eugene Shilseny, who lived in Rutherford, New Jersey, had been out of work all summer.  Unable to find a new job, the 58-year-old came to Manhattan hoping to find work.  Francez welcomed his old friend, who was understandably dejected, and invited him to stay for supper.  At some point afterward, according to The Sun, "he stole away unobserved."

Shilseny went to the Sixth Avenue elevated station.  The Sun said, "after buying a down-town ticket, [he] entered the toilet room.  Five minutes later Gateman Nies heard a pistol shot, and before he could reach the room two more shots followed.  He found Shilseny lying in a pool of blood."

Victor Francez's stay would be short-lived.  He owed a large debt to Mrs. May A. Mathot of Flushing, Queens.  Unable to repay it, he transferred the leases of the building and the saloon to Mathot on October 20, 1893 for $1.00.  Included were the liquor license, and the "bar and back bar and all other goods."

Mathot now leased the saloon to Tripault & McMahon.  A change in proprietorship had not changed its reputation.  On August 3, 1896 The World reported on another raid.  "Capt. chapman heard that theatrical performances were given back of Tripault & McMahon's saloon, at No. 470 Sixth avenue, on Sunday nights," said the article.  He and three detectives  had "forced an entrance" the previous night.

"There were about 150 people present...On the stage two men in costume were singing, while in a dressing-room the Captain found a woman in a state of undress that made him blush and her scream."  Because the saloon had no theatrical license, the doorkeeper and another employee were arrested.

The darkest days of the building were yet to come.  Two years later John C. Ellis opened the White Elephant saloon.  On January 24, 1898, the day after a raid, The New York Times said, "It has nightly been crowded with the same element which frequented the Broadway Garden and similar resorts.  Smoking rooms and drinking halls were provided.  The Tammany regime was symbolized by a large tiger painted behind a real cage."

Police Captain Michael Sheehan posted a policeman in front of the saloon, who warned potential patrons "that the place is disreputable and a dangerous resort," according to The Sun on May 17, 1898.  Ellis petitioned Justice Kellogg to order Sheehan to stop.  Sheehan's attorney told the judge, "the place is one of the most disreputable dives in the city.  It is frequented by women of the streets and thieves whom it is the duty of the police to warn people against."  He went on to say that "bouncer...is a convicted burglar and many of the faces of the patrons adorn the Rogue's Gallery."  As for Ellis, himself, Corporation Counsel Farley called him "notorious" and said "he was formerly in the business of renting flats to disorderly persons [i.e., prostitutes]."

After making "more than 200 arrests from that house," according to Captain James K. Price of the Tenderloin Stationhouse, John C. Ellis was arrested on April 22, 1899.  After explaining the situation to the judge, Price was instructed to make out a complaint of "conducting a public nuisance."

The Sun reported, "The Captain and Ellis were close to each other while the complaint was being made out.  A fist fight between them was narrowly avoided."  On his way out of the courtroom, Ellis suggested he had evidence against Captain Price, who had earlier been the target of a corruption investigation.

I have still in my possession the correspondence between me and Captain Price at the time of the Lexow Investigation, when I saved his skin by obtaining from Jared Flagg, Jr., the evidence on which the Captain had been indicted.  But he continues to persecute me in spite of the services I have rendered him.

But Ellis could not survive the campaign against him.  On May 23, 1899 The Sun reported, "The 'White Elephant' at 470 Sixth avenue, which Capt. Price closed a few months ago, when John C. Ellis was its proprietor, was reopened last night under new management, but under the old name."  The new owner was a intimate friend of Ellis, Ignatz Gombossy.

Gombossy's brother, Simon Buttner (apparently a half-brother, given their different surnames) had run another Tenderloin "dive," the Broadway Garden.  He and John C. Ellis had testified together against Captain Price following the April incident.  The Sun said that since that hearing, "rumor has been rife in the Tenderloin that one of the Gombossy brothers was going to open a resort in the district."  It added, "Price has frequently said since the rumor started that neither a Gombossy nor Ellis would ever run a place in a precinct in which he was the Captain."

Price was apparently right.  Within months of its opening, the White Elephant was gone, replaced with Paul Salvin's Royal Garden.  Salvin described it later in court saying, that the front barroom was about 16 feet in depth, and "the balance is the big room that seats from 150 to 200 people, with chairs and tables, a carpet on the floor and a stand for an orchestra."

The change in the name and the proprietor did not improve the reputation.  On March 14, 1900 Paul Salvin was arrested "on charges of keeping a disorderly house."  The prostitutes who met their clients in the Royal Garden, took them to rooms on the upper floors of the building.

In 1901 Captain James K. Price was once again under investigation for corruption.  Four disorderly houses, which "you have raided...at least ten times," according to State Senator Moss, "are not on the books."  The "books" referred to "the suspicious book," which listed locations suspected to be houses of prostitution.  Moss noted that among several of those locations that did appear in the suspicious book was 470 Sixth Avenue.

As had been the case with John C. Ellis, John Salvin suffered constant harassment from James K. Price.  Finally, on May 2, 1902, The New-York Tribune reported, "there was one less Bohemian resort in the Tenderloin last night.  The Royal Garden closed its doors."  The newspaper compared it to the most notorious places in the district.  "The Royal Garden was in Sixth-ave., between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninths sts., and was of the same type as the Alhambra, the Cairo and the Bohemia.  The proprietor did not think it worth while to apply for a new license."

The end of the Tenderloin era was greatly hastened by Mayor Lafayette Strong's appointment of Theodore Roosevelt to Police Commissioner.  In her 2018 book Saving Sin City, Mary Cummings writes, "Theodore Roosevelt, Mayor Strong's choice to head the new city Police Board, set about enforcing every one of the city's blue laws, chasing down Sunday beer drinkers and casual card players and alienating ordinary New Yorkers who liked their beer, sex and cards."

The changes were reflected at 470 Sixth Avenue in 1904 when the former saloon space became the store and showroom of the Cosmopolitan Range Co.  At the time, the building was owned by Charles H. Heyser, who lived in the upper portion with his wife, Polly.  A Civil War veteran, Heyser was a member of the Old Guard, and a former Commander-in-Chief of the Scottish Rites Masons.  A shocking secret would be revealed about the couple that year.

On February 17 a close friend, Magistrate Alfred E. Ommen, was called to Heyer's bedside to draw his will.  Heyer dictated, "I bequeath all my estate in Polly Heyser, whose maiden name was Mary Ann Morris, a woman with whom I have lived happily for over thirty years."  When he was finished, Ommen had him raise his right hand and swear it was his last will and testament.  He did so, and then told the judge, "Al, I want to tell you a secret, Polly is not my lawful wife, but I want her to have everything I own, for she has been true as steel to me for thirty-four years."

As it turned out, the actual Mrs. Elizabeth R. Heyser and their five children lived ten blocks to the north, at 902 Sixth Avenue.  Not surprisingly, Elizabeth and the children, all adults, sued Polly over the will.  In court on June 8, 1904, the Magistrate Ommen testified that he had known the couple for years and said that Polly "was the only wife I ever knew he had, and I invited him and her in my wedding."  The two gray-haired women, both "in widow's weeds," as described by The Evening World, sat on opposite sides of the courtroom.  At the end of the day, having heard several testimonies about the domestic happiness of Polly and "Charlie," the judge decided to allow the will to stand as written.

The building was sold to Henry J. Schwartz shortly afterward.  He hired architect William Higginson to renovate the upper floors to manufacturing lofts.  The store space became the restaurant of Max and Sadie Gruber, while the upper floors were rented to tenants like Sol Levine's "hem-stitching" business, Max Aaron's leather goods shop, and the fur making shop of Holman & Kass.

A disturbing incident occurred in the restaurant shortly after its opening.   On June 12, 1916, The Sun reported, "After being rebuked by her husband for burning a patron's lamb chop, Mrs. Sadie Gruber, 34 years old, slashed her throat and left breast with a carving knife yesterday in the kitchen of their restaurant at 407 Sixth avenue."  Hearing her screams, Max Gruber ran into the kitchen to find her lying on the floor.  She was taken to Bellevue Hospital in critical condition where she was charged with attempting suicide, a felony at the time.

Small factories continued in the upper floors and, in 1919, the Royal Restaurant Company leased the store level.  Then, two years after the address was changed to 822 Sixth Avenue, major change came to the building.

Owners Rinzler & Cohen initiated a major facelift.  Along with a veneer of rough-faced brown brick, a new storefront was installed.  The upper facade received an Arts & Crafts makeover that, while apparently preserving the vintage pressed metal cornice, now included grouped openings within a two-story elliptical arch at the second and third floors, and a Gothic-inspired square-headed drip molding that embraced the grouped windows of the top floor.

photo by Beyond My Ken

There was now a penny arcade in the ground floor--a stark departure from the early "depraved" usage of the space--and "showroom and factory" space on the upper floors, as described by the Department of Buildings.

Within the decade the neighborhood, once the center of crime and vice, had become the Flower District--home to wholesale florists.  On June 6, 1939 The New York Times reported that the building had been purchased by the Greenhouse Flower Selling Agent, Inc.  The organization ran the Greenhouse Flower Co-Op, which described itself as "an organization of growers maintaining a cooperative selling outlet for their product and that of others."

Although still within the Flower District, the quaint little building with its remarkable past no longer houses a florist.  And while the storefront (which must have been remarkable when it welcomed customers of the penny arcade) has been altered, the building's charming 1927 appearance is greatly intact.

non-credited photographs by the author
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1 comment:

  1. Ignatz Gombossy was my ancestor - would love to correspond with you - idioskosmos at Gmail dot com