Monday, May 2, 2022

The Lost Relics at 70-72 West 96th Street

In 1932 the twin houses were decidedly out of place.  photo by Charles Von Urban, from the collection of the New York Public Library

The first signs of development in the rural Manhattan Valley district of Manhattan appeared in the early 1870's.  But it would not be until the 1890's that the newly opened blocks filled with homes, stores and apartments.  One of the pioneering structures in the district was the double house at 70 and 72 West 96th Street.   

The builder took inspiration from the emerging Second Empire movement in placing a mansard roof atop the otherwise nearly featureless structure.  His configuration of the mirror image residences was, nonetheless, intriguing.   To maintain symmetry, the side-by-side doorways shared a common stoop, the second floor hall windows successfully pretended to be one, and the middle dormer sat half-and-half within each attic level.

By the mid-1880's, 72 West 96th Street was home to photographer George W. Fredrickson.  He was followed in the house by William O. Reagan and his wife, Hannah.  Reagan, a veteran of the Civil War, was a partner with Harry Munson in the New York Bill Posting Company.  

The company rented spaces on fences and walls where their advertisements would be pasted.  A court document that year explained, "Some advertisements continued for months; others changed weekly.  Some were on paper; others painted on canvas."

Renting a room with the Reagans was a company employee, Alexander Clark.  He and William Reagan were personally sued on June 9, 1898 by Mary Ryan, who owned a building on Barclay Street and West Broadway.  According to Ryan, the New York Bill Posting Company had plastered a wall of her building "with signs, posters, bill boards, placards and other advertising mediums" without her permission.  This, she said, had been going on since 1895.  Reagan and Clark were charged $10 damages.

William O. Reagan died at the age of 62 on May 6, 1900.  Oddly enough, his funeral, which took place in the parlor, was not held until a week later, on May 13.  Hannah remained in the house, taking out another mortgage that year.  She took in boarders for income--a family named McGee, and two widowed sisters, Mary D. Sherman and Minnie T. Riker.

The McGees had barely settled in before tragedy struck.  On June 10, 1900, 11-year-old Florence McGee went to the house of her playmate, Annie Kahler on Columbus Avenue, and together they went to Central Park.  They played on the lawn there until early evening, then headed back home.

At the corner of Columbus Avenue and 81st Street, Annie, who was 9, started across the avenue just as a streetcar "came whirling toward her," as worded by The New York Press.   The article said, "Florence dragged her little friend from this track just in time, but in doing so she stepped on the north track just as a car northbound came along.  With a scream Florence went under the car and the wheels passed over her right side."

A policeman carried Florence into a drugstore, and a passing physician rushed to his house to get his bag.  When he returned, Florence was still conscious, "but was in such agony, and demanded so vehemently to be taken to her mother, that Dr. Knight administered ether."  The little girl died 25 minutes later, hailed by newspapers as a hero.

By the time of the horrific accident, the Manhattan Valley neighborhood was fully developed, and the little twin houses were a noticeable anachronism.   Next door to the Reagan house, 70 West 96th Street had been operated as a boarding house for years.

Among the boarders in 1899 was real estate broker Freeman Strait, who devised a clever, if devious, way to make extra money--he sold revenue stamps.   According to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on October 8, "Strait is said to have told a special Treasury employe[e] that he had disposed of $2,000 worth of stamps every week, selling them for three-quarters of their real value."  He could afford the discounted price, because the stamps had already been used.  

The news of his massive con and subsequent arrest was reported as far away as the Midwest.  On October 10 The Chicago Tribune reported he had been charged "with defrauding the government out of $100,000 in the last six months."  (That amount would equal about $3.22 million today.)  "Strait's alleged offense is the cleaning and selling of canceled revenue stamps...When arrested on Saturday he had in a trunk in his room canceled revenue stamps representing $4,626.29, and in his pocket washed stamps to the value of $50."

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle added, "In a room occupied by Strait at No. 70 West Ninety-sixth street there was found a complete set of eradicating fluids and other materials for removing the ink from canceled stamps."  The New York Chief of the Internal Revenue, Frank G. Thompson, called Strait "an accomplished chemist and the shrewdest swindler he has ever met."

Another boarder to get into trouble with the law was Edmund H. Martine, a furniture packer, who lived here in 1910.  He had also been a private in the 25th Company of the 8th Regiment of the New York National Guard.  In 1908 the quarter-master was taken ill, and Martine was temporarily made acting quartermaster-sergeant at the armory at 94th Street and Park Avenue.   Suddenly, members reported things missing, notably gold lace and brass buttons.  And when Martine resigned in June, "because, as he explained, he was too busy to be a guardsman, the thefts stopped," reported The Sun.  

Furious at the losses which they personally had to pay for, members of the regiment tried to track down Martine.   Finally, two years later on October 2, 1910, Esmond M. O'Brien spotted Martine on Riverside Drive.  He was careful not to tip his hand.  The New York Herald said O'Brien "greeted him in a friendly tone.  It was suggested that they take a walk together, and Martine agreed.  O'Brien did the entertaining until, after their long stroll, he finally found Policeman Sammons and demanded the arrest of his companion."  That "long stroll" had been miles, from 86th Street to 96th Street, then across Central Park all the way to Third Avenue.

Edmund H. Martine was charged with "the larceny of $300 worth of military equipment."  The Sun said, "Martine said he was no thief.  If he cared to steal, he said, he could do a good deal better in the residences where he went to pack things than in an armory."

Emily Barlow ran the boarding house at 70 West 96th Street by 1916.  Among her tenants that year was 60-year-old Christina Ness, a spinster, as described by the New York Tribune.  Her entire world was upset by the conflict in Europe, and in 1914 the income she received from her native Germany stopped.  On April 13, 1916, the newspaper said, "She managed to live for nearly two years upon her own feeble earning power."  She attempted to sell songs to music publishers, but was repeatedly rejected.  The New-York Tribune said, "The aged spinster had been pretty near death from hunger ever since the war started."

Even more stressful than her financial condition was her concern about her family in Europe.  Each of the letters that arrived "brought word of relatives killed or maimed in France, in Russia, in the Balkans," said the New-York Tribune on April 13, 1916.

They were more like obituary notices than letters.  Day and night the horror of those she had received, the dread of another like communications which might come, prayed upon her.  Last Sunday she turned on the gas and forgot the war.

Emily Barlow became worried when Christina did not appear for several days and called Policeman Westervelt to break in the door.  The New-York Tribune began its article saying, "Christina Neft [sic] was starving to death, but that was not what made her kill herself in her room, at 70 West Ninety-sixth Street."  Emily Barlow and the policeman found her on the bed.  On a table was a half finished letter to friends in Germany.  "'This terrible war is stripping away all the blossoming youth of the Fatherland,' one sentence read," said article.

Another starving boarder was 17-year-old Louis Wilson, who arrived from New Orleans around Thanksgiving 1924.  He was arrested in Central Park three weeks later for violating the Sullivan Law (which prohibited the ownership of guns).  The New York Evening Post reported, "A gun, cartridges and intent failed to make a hold-up man of Louis Wilson...Detectives say that he told them he had made up his mind more than fifty times to become a bandit, but his mind wouldn't stay made up."  Wilson also told the officers he "had lived for a week on crackers and water."

In 1930 the double building was sold, along with the five-story apartment and store building at 733-735 Columbus Avenue on the corner.  Commercial spaces were installed in the houses, the basement level of 72 West 96th Street becoming home to Harry Chiong's laundry.  

In 1931 a shop now occupied the first floor of 70 West 96th Street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Trouble at the laundry came in mid-September 1936.  Harry Chiong fired Chang Wah Lum.  Lum was furious and vowed vengeance.  It came a week later when late on the night of September 24, Lum returned and shot his former employer dead.

The New York Post reported, "At 2 o'clock, after relatives and friends had flocked there to view the body, police were notified."  The family immediately pointed the finger at Lum.  Police rushed to Lum's apartment on West 94th Street.  "They knocked several times but go not answer," said the article.  "Hearing footsteps inside they decided to break down the door.  As they did so they heard a shot."   Lum had fired a bullet through his jugular vein, fatally wounding himself.

In the mid 1950's the shop at 70 West 96th Street was home to Andre's Pastry.  The Lithuanian bakery advertised items like "plum biscuits...chestnut and plum delicacies," and imported chocolates.

Relics of a much different time, the little houses survived until 1969 when they were razed to make way for the garage connected to the apartment building on the corner lot. has 
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