Friday, April 15, 2022

The 1847 Sheppard Knapp House -- 118 West 12th Street


The Italianate cornice and doors, and the gentle Gothic-inspired arch were latter renovations.

In 1847 mason Abraham Frazee completed the construction of two identical Greek Revival style homes at 118 and 120 Twelfth Street (the "West" would not be added to the address until 1858).  The 24-foot-wide houses were faced in brick, rising three stories above a brownstone-clad English basement.  In the rear yards, as was common, were smaller houses.

In 1847 and '48 the families of Stephen D. Layman and Thomas McElvaney shared 118 Twelfth Street.  It is quite possible they worked on its construction with Frazee.  Layman was a carpenter and McElvaney was a stonecutter.  The three tenants in the back house were also involved in the construction industry.  David Haring was a cabinet maker, John Vreeland was a stairbuilder, and John Wilton was a carpenter.

In 1851, John R. Black moved his family into the main house.  He was listed as a carman--a term that most often referred to the driver of delivery drays.  However, in this case it is likely he operated a delivery business.  He and his wife, Phebe, continued to take in boarders.  That year Silvanus V. Spencer, a butcher; David Gillespie; and John Fraser, a cabinetmaker shared their home.  In the back house were James Gall and Charles Holder, who was a mason.

The parlor of the house was the scene of a somber affair on June 5, 1853--the funeral of Agnes Elinor, the Blacks' youngest daughter.  The 3-year-old had died the previous day.

Around 1859 publisher George Wilkes moved into 118 West 12th Street.  He was the principal in George Wilkes & Co., which published sports journals like the Racing Calendar & Trotting Record, and Porter's Spirit of the Times, a "chronicle of the turf, field sports, literature and the state."  Of the latter, an advertisement in November 1858 promised, "The ablest pens have been enlisted upon its columns, and no editorial labor has been withheld that could render it a safe inmate of the households of all our countrymen."

In 1862 the house was acquired by the Presbyterian Church.  The three residents, widow Ruth Terbel, Daniel R. Noyes, Jr., and Phillis Penny, were all members of the Presbyterian Church on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 19th Street.  It was most likely the Presbyterian Church that subtly updated the house, giving it handsome Italianate double doors and a bracketed cornice in the same style.  The severe Greek Revival entrance was given a gentle, Gothic arch.

Although they were given modern Italianate newel caps, the intricate Greek Revival stoop railings were otherwise preserved.

Around 1867 the house became the parsonage of the Scotch Presbyterian Church at 58 West 14th Street.  Living here was the pastor, Rev. Joseph McElroy.

The Rev. Joseph McElroy at around 33 years old.  The Scotch-Irish McElroys in America, 1901 (copyright expired)

McElroy was 75 years old and widowed when he moved into the house.  Born in Pennsylvania on December 29, 1792, he first preached in 1814.  In 1822 he became the pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church in New York, and the elderly man still stood in its pulpit every Sunday.

There had been much tragedy in McElroy's life, each of his four wives had died, and in 1869 only two of his children were still alive.  That year he remarked to a friend, "I have followed nineteen funerals out of my house."  He died at the age of 84 on September 16, 1876.

The house next became home to Sheppard Knapp and his wife, Sarah.  Knapp ran a carpet and fabric store on Sixth Avenue at 13th Street.   

New-York Tribune, November 20, 1881 (copyright expired)

An advertisement disguised as a news article in the New York Dispatch on April 10, 1881, said in part, "The house of Sheppard Knapp, Nos. 189 and 191 Sixth Avenue, is known as one of the best and most reliable in the city.  It bears an honorable reputation, won by years of business integrity, and has the respect of all who have ever had any business with it."

The Knapps took in a boarder in 1876, Hiram Miller.  He was described by the New York Herald as "one of the oldest members of the Produce Exchange."  Miller's failing health had recently prompted him to step down from his position with W. D. Morgan's Son, a "grain jobbing" firm.  

A second boarder, H. T. Van Wyck, was living with the family in 1878.  He got into a battle of wills with a streetcar conductor on March 2, 1878.  Van Wyck and a friend boarded the car in front of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, giving the conductor a silver coin for both fares, and taking back 15 cents change.  Before long the conductor, names Currier, approached the friend and demanded his fare.

"Why, I've paid his fare," said Van Wyck.

"No, you haven't," came the reply.  "You gave me a twenty-cent silver piece, and I gave you nineteen cents change."

Van Wyck insisted he had given him a quarter.   Currier demanded the second fare, or that the men get off the streetcar.  When neither option happened, Currier abandoned the car near Washington Square and headed off to find a policeman.  (No doubt, much to the disgruntlement of the passengers.)  The Sun reported, "Meanwhile, down came other Broadway cars, and there was a block, and, Currier's absence being too long extended, the conductor of another car took his car."

And so, when Currier returned with a policeman, his streetcar was long gone with Van Wyck and his friend with it.  Amazingly, when Van Wyck stepped off the car downtown on Barclay Street, "Currier was there--no one can conjecture how--demanding that fare again."  Van Wyck was as obstinate as Currier, and so the conductor had him arrested.

In the Tombs Police Court the Justice Murray asked Currier, "Did Mr. Van Wyck pay his fare?"

"He did, but he didn't pay his friend's."

"Then you have got the wrong man.  You may go, Mr. Van Wyck," declare the judge.  

Hiram Miller's health did not improve and three years after moving into the West 12th Street house, he died there on November 23, 1879.  His funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

The Knapps, like all well-to-do families, closed their house during the summer months.  Merchants like Sheppard who had to return to the city to conduct business would stay at their social club rather than open their townhouses.  And so thieves were well aware that unguarded houses were ripe for burglary.

On August 29, 1881 detectives Flanagan and Dilks were passing 118 West 12th Street when they noticed something suspicious.  They caught two 17-year-olds, Thomas Morris and George Lyons inside.  The New York Times reported, "The young thieves were discovered in the house No. 118 West Twelfth-street...busily engaged in packing up wearing apparel and other articles of value which they had abstracted from closets and wardrobes in the house."  The Argus added, "Officer Dilks says that George Lyons is a son of Sophia Lyons, the shop-lifter, and Edward Lyon, the burglar, who was shot in July, while committing a burglary in South Windham, Conn."

The following year, in September 1882, the Knapps sold the house to George and Henrietta Starr for $20,600--or about $540,000 in today's money.  George Starr was the president of the West Side Savings Bank and the Commissioner of Emigration.  Four years later the Starrs enlarged the house by adding a three-story extension to the rear.

As their predecessors had done, the Starrs took in boarders.  In 1892 two school teachers, Ella J. Clark and Elma Gore lived with them.  The unmarried women brought no unwanted attention to the family, but that would not be the case after they took in Charles Eitel.

Eitel was the American agent for the French-based publishers Calman Levy and Paul Allendorf.  The Evening World said, "He is also a bon vivant."  On January 30, 1894, he withdrew a large amount of money from his bank, paid some bills, and then took his friends to dinner.  It was a celebration of sorts, as they were to sail for Europe the following morning.

The newspaper said that they "partook of many bottles of wine, and when he left the jolly company, after midnight, was feeling at peace with all the world.  He had $285 in his pockets, too."  That amount would equal about $8,850 today.  

The 28-year-old was only about a block away from home when he met Cora Cabbell, a prostitute who worked in the "notorious resort of Mamie Brooks" at 162 West 17th Street.  According to The Evening World, she "persuaded him to go with her."  The newspaper said, "Inside the house the Cabbell woman offered Eitel a glass of wine, which he drank.  Shortly afterwards, as he started for a chair, his legs gave way beneath him and he fell into a heavy sleep."

He woke up at around 7:00 that morning.  There was no sign of Cora Cabbell.  He quickly felt inside his pocket and found that his purse was still there, as were his gold watch and chain.  With a sigh of relief, he found his way out of the house.  But on the street, he checked again, and found that all the money had been taken from his purse.

Unlike many such victims, who wished to avoid scandal and public humiliation, Eitel rushed to the police station.  The World reported, "Detective Kash raided the establishment and arrested the inmates.  They were Mrs. Brooks, Annie Williams and Albert Todd, a colored porter.  Cora Cabbell had disappeared."  Mamie Brooks was charged with conducting a disorderly house.

The Starrs lived in the West 12th Street house for two decades, selling it to Dr. Edward Joseph Donlin in March 1903.  Donlin was both a coroner's physician and a surgeon with the New York City Police Department.  

On March 11, 1911, Policeman Joseph Lynch came to Donlin's office in the house.  He had been on sick leave for three weeks.  After examining him, Dr. Donlin sent him home.  Shortly afterward, Lynch was walking along Henry Street in Brooklyn, the neighborhood where he had patrolled for more than a decade, when he collapsed.  He was carried into a saloon at Henry and Harrison Streets, where the proprietor said, "Lynch has patrolled past this saloon for more than ten years, but this is the first time he has ever been inside its doors."  Before medical help arrived, the policeman was dead.

The Donlins had a son, Phillip, and four daughters, Loretta, Rosalie, Anna, and Kathleen Agnes.  A lawyer associated with Crocker & Wickes, when World War I erupted Philip joined the army.  On May 15, 1917, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "Phillip Donlin, son of Dr. Edward J. Donlin...and widely known in Brooklyn through his attendance at the Catholic Summer School at Cliff Haven, N.Y., gave a farewell dinner Saturday night to some of this friends before his departure for the Officers Training Camp at Plattsburg."

Edward Donlin retired in 1919, earning a $1,750 per year police pension.  Philip, happily, returned from the war unharmed.

Kathleen Agnes's marriage to William J. Tracy took place in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick's Cathedral on November 15, 1928.  The New York Evening Post noted that she wore "a rose point lace veil which has been in her family for more than 150 years."  Rosalie, still unmarried, was her sister's attendant and Phillip served as an usher.  The newspaper added, "At the close of the ceremony the couple received the Pope's blessing."

Edward Donlin died in the West 12th Street house on September 24, 1933 at the age of 76.  In reporting his death, the Hartford Courant noted, "Dr. Donlin's name had been linked with some of old Gotham's most spectacular crimes, for as coroner's physician around the turn of the century he acted in official capacity in the famous Molineaux poisoning case, and the poisoning of William Rice, Texas millionaire."

Still living with him at the time were his three unmarried daughters, who inherited the house.  Earlier that year they had had the rear garden professionally landscaped.

The house was later acquired by art dealer Jason McCoy and his wife, Diana Burroughs who, according to The New York Times's Julie Lasky, "were vigorous hosts."  McCoy sold it in 1997 to actor and director Mitchell Lichtenstein--the son of Pop artist Roy Lichenstein--and his husband, Vincent Sanchez, for $2.52 million.  Never having been converted to apartments, the house retained much of its 1847 Greek Revival interior elements, including pristine dentil molding and fluted pilasters in the parlor and a marble mantel.

The Lichtenstein-Sanchez front parlor in 2017.  photo by Michael Weinstein, MW Studio

After living in their art-filled home for two decades, the couple placed it on the market in 2017 for $25 million.  It did not sell until May 2021 for a reduced price of $14.9 million. 

photographs by the author
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