A common real estate marketing gimmick in early 19th century, particularly in Greenwich Village, was the distinguishing of select blocks with a separate name. The concept hoped to intimate a high-toned character to the section. The clever, if confusing, practice resulted in Varick Place on Sullivan Street, St. Clements Place on MacDougal, and LeRoy Place on Bleecker between Mercer and Greene Streets, to name a few. In 1832 the Board of Aldermen added Eighth Street to the list, changing the section from Fourth and Sixth Avenues to Clinton Place in honor of former Governor De Witt Clinton.
Plots along Clinton Place were being developed around 1834, but it was not until until 1845 that William Wagstaff began construction of seven upscale Greek Revival style residences on the north side of the street. Among them was 89 Clinton Place (renumbered 17 West 8th Street in 1900), which like its identical neighbors, rose four stories above an English basement. Completed in 1846, its Greek Revival design included brownstone pilasters and entablature at the doorway above the high stone stoop, and a squat attic floor in place of the dormers of the receding Federal style.
An advertisement in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer on March 1, 1848 offered the house for rent at $1,000--about $2,800 per month today. It appears that it was operated as a high-end boarding house from the beginning. Among the handful of residents that year were Herman Oelrichs, an attorney; and Adolf Rodewald, a partner in Rodewald Brothers, a mercantile store.
In 1856 Abigail H. Jones leased the residence and continued to operate it as a boarding house. Her advertisement on June 17 read:
Boarding--To let, with board, at 89 Clinton place, near Fifth avenue, a suite of rooms on the second floor, to a family. Also, rooms for gentlemen. The house has been newly fitted up with all the modern improvements. References exchanged.
Abigail was careful to require references before accepting a boarder, and to clearly note that only gentlemen, not unmarried ladies, were welcome. The precautions ensured that the reputation of her house remained untainted.
One of her boarders was Richard Brown, a lace merchant. He would remain at least through 1861. In 1857 he was appointed a member of the coroner's jury in the brutal and ghastly murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell at 31 Bond Street. The Bond Street Murder, as it became known, remains one of the most infamous crimes in New York City of the 19th century.
By 1870 Frederick Wohlgemuth, a cabinetmaker, owned 89 Clinton Place. His wife, Alice, continued to take in a limited number of boarders. Among them that year was architect James Miller.
Around 4:30 a.m. on September 25, 1870, a noise woke up Wohlgemuth, who saw, according to the New York Herald, "a young, well dressed man in his stocking feet rifling his pants' pocket." Wohlgemuth sprung from his bed and wrestled with the burglar, who whacked him on the nose with a hard instrument. After an intense struggle, the intruder got free, ran out the front door and down the stoop with Wohlgemuth close behind yelling, "Stop, thief!"
Officer Colton, patrolling nearby, heard the cries. The New York Herald said he saw "the fugitive making his way towards Washington Parade Ground in his stocking feet, pursued him, and, after entering the park, was fired at twice by the fleeing burglar." A second officer became involved and the "would-be murderer and burglar" was arrested and taken to the station house. There he was identified as 24-year-old William Miller. A search of his pockets revealed a watch and cash stolen from Wohlgemuth, and a set of skeleton keys, one of which he used to enter the house. He also had a "seven barrelled brass knuckled" revolver, with two shots discharged.
Before appearing at Jefferson Market Court, he was given his shoes, which were recovered from the Wohlgemuth house. Despite the overwhelming evidence against him, in court he denied any knowledge of the burglary.
In 1875 the Wohlgemuths gave up the lease. The house was advertised on May 4, "To Let or For Sale--The very desirable four story House, full size, high stoop, with 22 rooms, 89 Clinton place (Eighth street) near Fifth avenue, on reasonable terms." It was leased by Bernard O'Neill, who continued to operate it as a boarding house. His succinct advertisement that year suggests that the exclusive tenor of the block was fading. "Furnished rooms, with or without Board; terms moderate."
Later that year the address would play a small part in a mystery. On December 1, 1876 The New York Times reported that Lucy Narcissus, living at the House of the Good Shepherd, had died suddenly of poisoning. She had arrived at the facility a few days earlier. The newspaper said, "She admitted to the Sisters that despondency, arising from lack of money, had twice prompted her to commit suicide, and assured them that she would tax their hospitality only until such time as an expected remittance from a brother arrived."
The New York Times described her as "of rather prepossessing appearance, and [who] had evidently been well educated." When she arrived at the House of the Good Shepherd she told the Mother Superior "that a trunk containing her clothing and other property was at the boarding-house of Bernard O'Neil [sic]." The article said, "Inquiries at that place elicited the information that such was not the case." The mystery of exactly who the woman was, and what drove her to suicide apparently was never solved.
In 1880 the building's owner, Elia A. Glover, hired architect Arthur Gilman to make significant changes. His plans, filed on June 18, called for the top floor to be raised five feet, an extension added to the rear, and the building "to be altered internally for an apartment house." A modern, neo-Grec terminal cornice was installed and sheet metal cornices placed over the brownstone lintels of the windows.
Unlike the affluent boarders of the 1840's, the residents now were generally working class. Among the jobs represented in 1886 were a coachman, a butcher, an undertaker, three clerks and a janitor.
In 1890 the house was purchased by one of New York's most colorful figures of the 19th century, Theodore Allen, known universally as The Allen. Although he listed his profession as "in the commission business," giving the Clinton Place house as his professional address, he was best known for operating a gambling parlor, the West Side Club, at 80 Sixth Avenue. It nearly cost him his life in the summer of 1891.
The Allen appeared in the Jefferson Market court on July 31. The Sun said, "He was nervous and excited. He said that he was alive now only because God needed him still on earth, and that his recovery was not due to his vigorous health." According to him, while "playing a little game of hearts at two cents a game, just such as gentlemen play to pass away the time," he was attacked by John Cararo, who stabbed him with an ice pick.
Cararo's story was that he was set upon by Allen and his "friends." "When I felt the blows raining on me and the blood run into my eyes, I thought I was sure to be killed, so I yelled 'we will both die together, Allen,' and I fastened my teeth on his nose.'" Cararo was held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.
Allen suffered from locomotor ataxia, an affliction of the nervous system caused from syphilis. It appeared that the disease had taken its toll when, on December 10, 1903, The Morning Telegraph reported, "'The' Allen is a physical wreck. The man who for half a century has stood alone and defied the police is not literally unable to stand without an arm on which to lean...For two months 'The' Allen has been confined to his home at 17 West Eighth street, suffering the last stages of locomotor ataxia." And yet the apparently indomitable old man forged on.
The Allen had garnered a fortune in his often-raided gambling den, and maintained a summer estate on Long Island. It was there that his granddaughter, Minnie Allen, whom he had adopted, lived nearly year-round. On April 22, 1904, The New York Press explained, "Little Miss Minnie has been reared far away from the atmosphere of 'dope sheets,' 'past performances' and 'lead-pipe cinches.' In a huge ancestral place in Bayport, near Sayville, surrounded by servants and luxuries and governesses, the granddaughter of 'The' Allen has grown up."
But now, said the article, "she is about 19 years old and will live in New York, except for travels abroad and glimpses of London and Paris." The Allen, said the journalist, wished to see her established in society. "Possibly 'The' Allen's idea of society does not include a place at Mrs. Astor's mahogany or a calling acquaintance with Miss Vanderbilt, but he will take great care that his granddaughter's associates are of the right sort." The article noted that Minnie and her grandfather "live in a large brick house in No. 17 West Eighth street, and before the summer has passed they will be sailing for Europe."
Incriminating documents regarding high-ranking patrons of the West Side Club were not kept there, for good reason, but at the West 8th Street house. But on November 26, 1906, a "squad of policeman" armed with a search warrant raided the house. The Evening World reported, "In Allen's desk the raiders found a great mass of private papers, personal letters and gambling accounts." District Attorney Jerome declared that they "will certainly lead to the discovery of the identity of the Man Higher Up," who had been protecting The Allen and his illegal business in return for graft payments.
The New York Times said the officers had "ransacked the four-story brownstone house from top to bottom. The discovered letters, it said, "are expected to cause trouble for the police as well as for the poolroom men."
The long-term effects of The Allen's venereal disease worsened in 1908. In April, according to his personal physician, Dr. Herman Boecker, he had become "deranged." A month later Minnie, who was now married; Martin Van Buren Allen, the 76-year-old's brother; and his half-brother William Allen, assembled in The Allen's bedroom. On May 13, 1908 The New York Times reported, "The Allen, the gambler and poolroom keeper, died at 10:20 o'clock last night in his home at 17 West Eighth Street.
The newspaper noted, "Less than an hour later The Allen's brother, Martin Van Buren Allen, standing over his brother's body, asserted that the gambler had been poisoned." It was a serious accusation and everyone in the house was questioned at length. A subsequent autopsy attributed his death to pneumonia.
The grief expressed along Sixth Avenue and in Bay Shore, where The Allen had financially assisted the church and village institutions, was not universally shared. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had known The Allen from his days as Police Commissioner, called him the "wickedest and most notorious man in New York."
Minnie and her husband, Charles E. Owens, continued to live in the house until 1914. On July 18 the New York Press reported, "The four-story house at No. 17 West Eighth St, a holding of 'The' Allen's estate, whose gambling resorts in the vicinity of Sixth avenue were known throughout the country, yesterday passed into new ownership." Minnie Owens had sold the 25-foot-wide house to Zachary T. Piercy "for investment."
Pierce removed the stoop and installed a two-story storefront. It became home to the Washington Square Book Shop, well-known among Greenwich Village theatrical groups for its stock of plays. An advertisement in The Evening Post in April 1917 read:
The Washington Square Bookshop, 17 West Eighth St., New York, offers book-lovers the opportunity of making their acquisitions in an atmosphere in which books are handled with the knowledge that comes only with literary appreciation of their contents. Modern books and the Drama. Catalogues.
The bookstore remained until 1921 when Zachary T. Piercy's estate sold the building to Anthony Traina . The New York Herald remarked, on August 7, "The purchased intends to remodel the building into high class studio apartments."
The renovations by architect Frank E. Vitolo were completed in 1923. The upper floors, what Traina had proposed as "high class studio apartments," were now described by the Department of Buildings as a "tenement."
The building was purchased in 1965 by brothers Ted and Eli S. Wilentz, owners of the Eighth Street Bookshop across the street. Their renovation resulted in the bookstore in the lower three levels, and one apartment each on the upper floors.
Writing in The New York Times on December 23, 1972, Clara Pierre wrote that "poetry and philosophy fans have been coming here since 1947, but the store's three floors now house almost every trade book in print and many that are hard to fine." In his memoir, Early Plastic, former employee Bill Reed wrote:
Eighth Street's regular clientele included Edward Albee, Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof, Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, the curmudgeonly Joseph Campbell, essayist-novelist Albert Murray (every day), author-activist Michael Harrington, cartoonist William Steig, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, poet-translator (later, MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient) Richard Howard, and Alger Hill, also the store's stationery supplier.
Then, on March 19, 1976, The New York Times began an article saying, "The Eighth Street Bookstore, a gathering spot for artists, writers and intellectuals in Greenwich Village since 1947, was destroyed by fire early yesterday." The blaze had broken out shortly after 5 a.m. and within half an hour had destroyed the lower two floors. Arson was suspected.
The article said "The fire left the structure slightly charred, but intact; the fourth story, where Mr. Wilentz's daughter lives and the third story, where books on history and political science are kept, were damaged only by smoke." Eli Wilentz told the reported he thought "his clientele is devoted enough to wait until he comes back." He said, "I had Joseph Ash and Anna Sokolow, the dancer, call me to see if they could do anything. I have people--writers, poets--who come by every day just to say hello."
Poet Allen Ginsberg, according to The New York Times years later, "became so overwrought that he composed and delivered an extemporaneous poem about the fire, finding it so pleasing that he ran around afterward trying to find if anyone had taped it."
Wilentz reopened the store in 1979. But when his children showed no interesting in going into the business, he closed it, while continuing to live in an upper story apartment. In 1984 the store became the Record Factory.
Eli Wilentz died of cancer at the age of 76 on June 25, 1995, closing a major chapter in the history of 17 West 8th Street. In reporting his death, The New York Times said, "At a time when 'beat' poets and writers were emerging, the Eighth Street Bookshop was the very hearthside of hip, the cynosure of cool."
In February 2010 plans were approved to altar the facade by infilling the second story storefront and installing windows that approximate the originals on the upper floors. The alterations resulted in apartments above the first floor.
photograph by the author
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