Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Edward Dunlap Smith House - 453 West 21st Street


Born in Philadelphia in 1807, Edward Dunlap Smith's English Quaker ancestors had come to Pennsylvania about 1750.  His father, Edward Smith, was a founder of the Cambria Iron Company.  The younger Edward would take a much different career path.  He attended Princeton University and, after graduation, continued studying there to receive his doctor of divinity degree.  While at Princeton Smith met Jane Blair Cary, described by the 1909 History of City of New York, as "a member of the Cary family of Virginia...and connected by kinship with the families of Randolph, Fairfax and Jefferson."  (The Albany Express recalled in 1888 that as a girl she "passed much time at the house of her grand-uncle, Thomas Jefferson."  The two were married in 1831.    

The 1919 book The Virginia Carys would say, "As a preacher he created a sensation in Virginia; tradition described him as 'a vivid pulpit orator.'"  But his ministry in Virginia would be short.  On December 1, 1834 he was appointed the Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives.

Following his term in Washington D.C., the family relocated to New York City where Smith became pastor of the Eighth Presbyterian Church on Christopher Street.  He resigned that position in October 1842.  The following year, in November 1843, he was installed as pastor of the Old Chelsea Presbyterian Church, "which was built for him by James Lenox," according to The New York Times.  (Lenox and Smith were "warm friends" and the Smith's son, who was born the year the church was completed, was named Lenox, after James Lenox.)

The Old Chelsea Presbyterian Church sat within the section of West 22nd Street known as Lenox Place.  In 1852 construction of a commodious house for the Smith family was begun nearby at 299 West 21st Street (renumbered 453 in 1865), between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.  Completed the following year, the 25-foot-wide Italianate style residence rose four stories above a brownstone-faced English basement.  The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows and the stately arched entranceway beneath a prominent cornice upheld by scrolled brackets, suggest the grandeur of the interiors.  The sills of the upper floor openings sat upon diminutive brackets and wore handsome molded lintels.

Edward and Jane would have four children, Lenox, Archibald Cary, Lewis Randolph, and daughter Edith Fairfax.  Jane, expectedly, was highly involved in worthy charities.  On May 1, 1854, for instance, the New York Morning Courier reported on the work of the Hudson River Industrial School where "more than ninety hungry, half clad girls come daily to the school."  The article said that donations could be sent to Mrs. E. Dunlap Smith.

Although his wife was descended from old Southern families, and he was educated in the South, Smith's views on slavery were unquestionable.  In a sermon delivered on December 12, 1850 he not only decried slavery, but predicted that it would result in war.  He said in part:

But that there may be no misapprehension, let it be fairly and openly stated that slavery is now causing sectional division, and exciting deep and bitter feelings of hostility and enmity between the North and the South...It is known to be an evil, and as such in the abstract is condemned.  Perhaps on the abstract question the South would agree with the North.  But slavery in the South is not an abstract question; it is something which exists; something palpable; something difficult to manage and remove.

In 1882 Smith's failing health declined to the point that he became essentially bedridden.   The New York Times called his illness "softening of the brain," and by the end of the year, according to newspaper, he "was not in his right mind."  He died in the West 21st Street house on March 28, 1883 at the age of 76.  In reporting his death, The New York Times recalled, "Mr. Smith was a thorough Greek and Hebrew scholar, and his sermons were characterized more by learning than the elements of popularity."  The article noted, "In accordance with his wishes, funeral services will take place at his home."

Still living with their mother were Edith, who would never marry; and Lenox, who had served in the 71st Regiment during the Civil War, and graduated from Columbia College in 1865.  He was now an agent of the Cambria Iron Company, c0-founded by his grandfather, and president of the Standard Roller Bearing Company.

Lenox's older brother, Archibald Cary Smith, was making a name for himself as a naval architect and marine engineer.  He had already designed well-known yachts such as the Intrepid, built in 1878 and the Mischief, constructed the following year.  His international reputation would prompt Kaiser Wilhelm II to commission a yacht in 1902.

Jane died of bronchitis in the West 21st Street house on April 20, 1888.  In March 1890 her children sold their childhood home to A. D. Russell for $20,000--about $587,000 in 2022 money.  Russell leased it, his tenant now operating it as an upscale boarding house.  

Among the residents in 1896 were Edmund Poirier and his wife, Edna, who lived on the second floor.  While Edna was 30 years old, Edmund was described by the New York Herald as "a man advanced in years."  Edna was his second wife and he had two grown children by his first marriage.

On the morning of June 17 that year, Edmund left the house to attend "a pleasure party on some steamer in the company of friends," according to an acquaintance.  Edna did not go along, but instead had arranged to go bicycling with the 12-year-old son of a close friend.  According to her neighbors, she left the house at about 11:30 that morning, "attired in a jaunty bicycle suit."

Edna and her young companion were riding down Madison Avenue behind a carriage at around 3:30, when they swerved to go around two delivery wagons parked in front of a grocery store.  Edna's bicycle was thrown off balance when her tire hit a streetcar track.  She tried to jump off, and, as reported by the New York Herald,  "in so doing rode directly in between the two leading horses" of on oncoming the streetcar.

Policemen and workers who rushed to the scene "found her lying across the track, with her head and the upper portion of her body beneath the car."  As they worked to free her, according to The Evening Times, Edna "urged the men who were seeking to move the great car to be brave and cool."  While they worked, she asked for someone to find her hat.

Edna was carried to the sidewalk where pedestrians opened their umbrellas to provide privacy as a priest administered last rites.  She was taken to a hospital where she died.  Edmund arrived there about 7:30, and was intercepted by the mother of the boy with whom Edna had been riding.  She told him as gently as possible about Edna's death.  With sentimental Victorian flourish, the New York Herald wrote, "The heart broken husband, when taken to the bedside of his dead wife, knelt and prayed beside her, after having kisser her cold lips."

The house was sold again in 1901, this time for the equivalent of $588,000 in today's money.  It became home to attorney Philip Keyes Walcott and his wife, the former Annie Goedkeep.  They were a well-heeled couple.  Born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1877, Walcott, according to The Sun, "belonged to one of the oldest families in New England" and a grand-aunt was Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Annie was a graduate of Barnard College.

Walcott had graduated from Harvard College in 1897, its law school in 1899, and from the New York University Law School in 1900.  He was a junior member of the law firm of Hawkins, Delafield & Longfellow.  The couple maintained a country home at Sea Gate, New York.

On October 6, 1914, shortly after they returned from their summer place, tragedy struck.  Walcott had been at work in his 13th-floor office at 20 Exchange Place when, at 11:15, his body plunged to the sidewalk below.  There was no obvious reason for suicide, The Sun remarking, "He had no concern over money matters.  His family life was happy."

Because his chair faced a large window and the sun shone directly in starting around 11:00 each morning, his co-workers theorized, that he "climbed on the radiator in front of the window to pull down the window shade and that his foot slipped."  A member of the firm, Lewis L. Delafield, hurried to 453 West 21st Street to gently break the news to Annie, but a policeman had already gotten there and had "given Mrs. Walcott a hint of the tragedy," according to The Sun.

By the early Depression years, the house was being operated as a rooming house.  Among the tenants in 1953 was the colorful attorney Justus P. Sheffield.  Known familiarly as "Sheff," he had been married to poet and author Rena Carey Sheffield until 1915 when she sued for separation, charging him with desertion.

Sheffield had "startled the legal profession," as worded by the Corpus Christi Times, by counter-suing and winning a divorce.  His evidence came from Rena's book, The Golden Hollow.  He said one of the characters was, in fact, her real-life lover whom she described in the book as a "dream boy with jet black hair through which [the female character] might run her fingers while they talked of nothings."   He added that another character was actually a representation of himself, reading a sentence, "Mac, whose ungovernable temper tantrums actually threaten my life..."  In granting the divorce, the judge said Rena's conduct, her books and her letters had "condemned her on the stand."

Now 80-years-old, retired, and still single, Sheffield rented rooms in the 21st Street house.  On August 11, 1953 he was crossing a street in Greenwich Village when he was run down by 27-year-old George Halperin of Miami Beach.  He died shortly afterward.  Although Halperin, who was a lieutenant in the Army, was initially booked on a technical charge of "auto homicide," he was later released for lack of evidence of negligence.

By 1956 retired theatrical promoter and producer Max Sonino and his wife, actress Ruth Emily Gillmore lived here.  In 1957 Sonino purchased a 26-foot long houseboat, the SkipperThe New York Times said, "It does not appear to be sea-worthy, but Mr. Sonino insides that looks are deceptive.  Nevertheless, he did not attempt to float it, but kept it hitched to his car and parked in front of 453 West 21st Street.  On March 31, 1958, The New York Times explained that he "has to drive to the other side of the street every day so that the police won't put a parking ticket on his boat."

Max Sorino and his houseboat on West 21st Street.  The New York Times, March 31, 1958

While the Smith house was never officially converted to a multi-family residence, it contains five apartments today.  And although much of the 1853 interior detailing has been removed, the exterior remains essentially intact.

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

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