Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Timothy Phelan House - 319 West 16th Street


The change in brick color attests to the addition of a fourth floor in the late 19th century.

By the mid-1840's Timothy Phelan and his family lived in the three story, brick-faced house at 197 West 16th Street (renumbered 319 in 1859), just west of Eighth Avenue.  Twenty-five feet wide, its dignified Greek Revival design reflected influences of the emerging Italianate, notably in the understated entrance above a stone stoop.  That the Irish immigrant could afford the property is surprising.  His profession was listed in city directories as "porter," or janitor.

He and his wife, Mary (who was also born in Ireland), had four children, Ann, Michael J., Mary Elizabeth and Margaret L.  To augment their income, they took in boarders, just a few at first.

In 1851 Rose Fleming, a widow, and Abraham Males, a boatman, lived with the family.  That year, on January 2, Ann Phelan married John McManus, an Irish-born printer.  He increased the population of 319 West 16th  Street by one.

The newlyweds would have three children, Mary Theresa, born in 1853; John Patrick, born in 1854; and Elizabeth, who came the following year.   Ann was still pregnant with Elizabeth when John McManus died at just 29 years old.

Rose Fleming and Abraham Males remained with the family through 1859.  By then Males had advanced in his career, now identifying himself as a shipmaster.  And the list of boarders had substantially increased.  In addition to Rose and Abraham in 1856, there were a carpenter, a cooper, a mason, a porter and another widow in the house.

The carpenter was 30-year-old Frenchman Frederick Cauvet, who took a room in 1855.  His arrival would end in unwanted publicity and upheaval within the house.  What American newspapers termed The Great French Railway Fraud took place the year he left France.  Charles Carpentier, the cashier of the company, had embezzled $1 million, more than 31 times that much in today's money.  A year later French officials had narrowed their search for him and his accomplice, Louis Grelet, to America.

Louis Grelet, was traveling under the alias Frederick Cauvet.  And among the items he brought to the West 16th Street house was a tin box containing the equivalent of $661,000 today.

As officials closed in on Carpentier, he fled New York City to Newburgh, New York.  There, a dogged detective named Knight tracked him down and arrested him in October 1856.  It was not long before he gave up the location of Grelet.

On October 23, The Telegraph reported that Knight had "hurried through to New York as rapidly as possible" before Grelet could hear of the arrest.  He and his men searched the Phelan house from top to bottom.  The Telegram said Grelet's stash...

was found in a small soldered tin box, enclosed in a wooden box about a foot square, buried under the brick flagging of a cellar in the basement of house No. 197, West Sixteenth street, occupied by a house carpenter named Frederick Couvet.  The box containing the valuables was further protected and concealed by a couple of tons of coal.

In 1859, Thomas Kiernan, a clerk, and his wife Martha were among the Phelans' boarders.   They had an infant girl, Elizabeth Martha.  Tragically, she died on February 15, 1860 "of dropsy on the brain," according to the New York Herald, at just six months old.  Her funeral was held in the parlor the following day.

Timothy Phelan fell ill in June 1861.  Only days later he died at the age of 64.  Just five months later, Mary Phelen died.  She was 65.  In both cases, their funerals were held in the house, followed by a service at St. Joseph's Church on Sixth Avenue.

There would be another funeral here before long.  Thomas and Martha Kiernan had a second child, Catharine, in December 1862.  She died eight months later, on July 17, 1863.

The Phelan children remained in their parents' home.  Mary Elizabeth taught school, earning $300 a year (about $5,000 today) until she married Irish-born James McDonald around 1865 and moved out.  Michael became a clerk and would be married three times before his death in 1913.  

Margaret Phelen never married.  She and her sister, Ann, inherited the 16th Street house in equal shares following Elizabeth's marriage.  Ann McManus's daughter, Mary Theresa, followed in her aunt's footsteps, teaching in Grammar School No. 45 on West 24th Street until her marriage to William Patrick Mulry around 1875.

The sister's limited financial circumstances eventually meant they could no longer make their mortgage payments.  In 1883 they were about to lose their home.  Staunch Irish Catholics, the church came to their aid.  On January 30, 1884, the Diocese spent $6,500 "for Bond and Mortgage of Ann McManus and Margaret L. Phelan on house and lot, No. 319 West Sixteenth Street," according to the annual report.  (It was apparently the Diocese that enlarged the house upward, adding a fourth floor with an Italianate style, bracketed cornice.)

Among the sisters' boarders in 1896 were William Brownhill, his wife, Delia, and daughter, Lillian.  They rented the entire fourth floor.  The following spring Delia advertised an unused room for rent.  On Saturday, April 10, a woman arrived, saying she wanted the room.  Delia Brownhill was, at first, hesitate.  Unmarried women were a risk to the respectability of a house.  The New York Herald reported that the woman, Matilda James, pleaded, "Please let me have it.  I only want it for a couple of days, and I am so tired that I don't feel able to look elsewhere."

Delia relented and accepted her $1 on advance.  The following afternoon Lillian, who was 19-years-old, asked Matilda if she would accompany her to church that evening and she did.  On Monday morning Matilda, who was about 24-years-old, did not come out of her room.  After knocking several times, Delia became alarmed and used her key to enter.

The New York Herald wrote, "The odor of escaping gas almost overpowered her.  The room was full of it, and the jet on the wall was turned on full."  Matilda had stuffed the cracks in the windows and under the door with newspapers.  The Sun reported, "She had arranged her hair, which was dark brown and unusually long, in a manner most becoming to herself.  It was parted in the middle with a tiny curl in the centre of her forehead and brushed out over the pillow...Everything about her was scrupulously clean, and her hands were folded across her breast as if she were asleep."

Also boarding in the house at the time were William Daubener and his wife, Minnie.  Like the Brownhills, they had an extra room.  The World said, "William Daubener had a good place [i.e., job], but he had let his wife add to her pin money by taking a few boarders."  In 1899 they rented the extra room to John Renton, described by the newspaper as "a handsome fellow, too, with a good job and plenty of money."

That September Minnie ran off with Renton, moving into an apartment on 28th Street.  The mild-mannered Daubener, said the newspaper, "did nothing.  He knew all; he cherished no hatred."  Then, on April 8, 1900, Daubener read in the newspaper that his wife, had "killed herself to forget," according to The World.

Daubener went to the Renton apartment and asked that he be allowed to see his wife.  "Without a word the one man led the other into the parlor where the dead wife lay in a coffin, clad in a white silk shroud.  Flowers were in her hands and over the coffin lid.  Both men wept," said the article.

Then Daubener saw the silver coffin plaque that read, "Minnie Renton, Died April 6, 1900, Aged Thirty Years."  "Don't bury her that way," he pleaded.  According to the undertaker, there was no time to make a new plaque before the funeral that afternoon.  Renton did not want to postpone the ceremony.  So, on the suggestion of the undertaker, the men went together to the coroner for a decision.  "It was decided that the dead woman should be buried as Mrs. Daubener," said The World.

"So back to the house they went, the husband to take a farewell look at his love, the other to give the necessary orders to the undertaker to change the plate and to put off the funeral for a day so that it might be done.  One more handshake; the husband left."

Ann McManus died in 1915.  The church still held the mortgage on the house--which it described in church documents as the McManus-Phelan House--at least through 1918.  It is unclear when Margaret Phelan died, but when the house was offered for sale in March 1921, it had noticeably declined.  An advertisement described it as a "4 story, 28 room tenement."

It was purchased by Teresa Parsons, whose renovations completed in 1929 resulted in a caretaker's apartment in the basement and furnished rooms on the upper floors.  Among the tenants in 1935 was Betty Price.  The 25-year-old got the courage, along with 37-year-old Marjorie Eimer, to risk their reputations by taking father and son Max and Leonard Kraus to court that year.

On June 4, the New York Post reported that the men, who ran a tailor shop on Ninth Avenue had been arrested.  Betty and Marjorie's charges said the Krauses had "enticed them into prostitution and then when they wanted to shop, threatened to expose them to relatives."

Significant change to the building came in 1970, when a renovation resulted in a "textile works factory" in the basement, an office on the first floor, more factory space on the second, and a duplex apartment on the third and fourth.  It was most likely at this time that the stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to nearly sidewalk level.  The space between the original door and its lintel has been infilled and a bas relief neo-Classical plaque inserted.

The lowering of the doorway left a void underneath the lintel, cleverly filled with a sculptural insert.

Today there are three apartments in the venerable Phelan house, which has had more than its fair share of drama and history.

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

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