Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Joseph Britton House - 43 West 9th Street


In 1856 Joseph Britton began construction on his residence at 32 9th Street (renumbered 43 West 9th Street in 1868).   A partner in the Knickerbocker Ice Company and an alderman, the new home would reflect his wealth and social status.  The 26-foot-wide residence was completed in 1857.  Its Anglo-Italianate design included a planar, brownstone base with three arched openings, with the doorway sitting atop a three-step stoop.  The upper three floors were clad in warm red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Today unfortunately shaved flat, their architrave frames would have been originally handsomely molded.  Almost assuredly a long, cast iron balcony fronted the high second story windows.

Britton and his wife, Mary, had two children, Eugene and Adeline.  Like their affluent neighbors, the family spent the summer months out of town.  But things started off badly for Mary's social season at Lake Mohopac in 1865.

Fashionable women took with them a large wardrobe.  Mary's gowns and dresses were carefully packed into two trunks and a traveling bag.  A porter placed them on the platform near the baggage room of the Harlem Railroad station on July 17, while Mary accompanied Joseph to the ticket counter.  When they returned, her baggage was gone.  

The New York Herald reported, "trunks containing four hundred and fifty dollars worth of female clothing, belonging to Mrs. Britton, of 31 Ninth street, were stolen from the Harlem railroad station, Twenty-sixth street."  The loss would equal about $7,400 today.

The night after the trunks disappeared, James Thompson, alias Rogers, was arrested at Niblo's Theater for picking pockets.  On his possession was a cards attached to one the trunks:  "Mrs. Joseph Britton, Baldwin House, Lake Mohopac, New York."  The New York Herald said, "Detective Elder eventually learned that the prisoner had been seen riding out with two young women richly attired in clothing which seemed not to have been made for them."  Indeed, they were Lizzie Dixon and Ida Clark, described by the newspaper as "a couple of Wooster street, girls."  They told investigators that the clothing had been given to them by Thompson.  Other items were found in pawn shops and the detective was able to recover nearly all of Mary's stolen property.

Around August 1, 1871, neighbors noticed a small hole in the street directly in front of 43 West 9th Street.  A closer look revealed that a few of the Belgian blocks had fallen in and the hole extended to a broken sewer pipe below.  A policeman was notified, who said he reported it to headquarters.  When nothing was done, one of the neighbors went to the office of the Department of Sewers and complained.  And, still, nothing was done.

Prompted by "the vile stench arising therefrom," Judge J. W. Fowler, who lived on the block, made a formal complaint at the Department of Sewers.  By the time an inspector arrived on West 9th Street, the hole had grown to between six and eight feet square.  And things only got worse.

Joseph Britton and William D. Ludlow (who lived at 52 West 9th Street), wrote in a letter to the Board of Aldermen that a week later, a crew of men arrived, dumped dirty into the hold and tamped it down, "damming the sewer."   With the sewer now clogged, when a downpour occurred a few days later, the basements of the refined homes along the block filled with "large quantifies of excrement and disgusting filth from the sewer, in some instances to the depth of many inches, greatly damaging floors and destroying carpets and property generally."

Finally, with illness and more property damage a serious threat, Britton and Ludlow took matters in their own hands.  They obtained a permit to repair the sewer and hired a contractor to do the work for $75 (about $1,640 today).  Their letter to the aldermen hinted that they had not yet commenced suit for the "several thousands of dollars" in property damages, but they insisted on being repaid for the repairs.

The Britton house was the scene of the socially-notable wedding of Eugene's daughter on January 24, 1883.  The New York Times reported, "Miss Clara Hallett Britton, granddaughter of Joseph Britton, was married last evening to Mr. Millard Richmond Jones at the residence of the bride's grandparents, No. 32 West Ninth-street."  An orchestra was on hand to play the wedding march, after which the couple took their places in the parlor for the ceremony.  The newspaper noted, "After the service a wedding supper was served by Morisi, and then there was music by an orchestra."

The following year, in February, Mary transferred title in equal shares to Eugene and Adeline (who was now married to Matthew Leavy).  Their father died in the house on November 6, 1885, at the age of 87.  His funeral was held on November 8 in the parlor of the house he had built three decades earlier.

Eugene and Adeline sold their family home on November 19, 1886 to Alice and Frank Lazarus for $24,400 (just over $690,000 today).  Lazarus was an attorney.  He and Alice would remain in the house for a decade before selling it to socially visible Duncan Cryder family in April 1899.

The Cryder family was well-known in European and New York high society.  Cryder, a wealthy tea importer had grown up in London.  He married to the former Elizabeth Callender Ogden, a direct descendent of "The Pilgrim," John Ogden.  The Cryder summer home, Sandrift, in Southampton, was completed in 1885.

In 1882 a set of identical triplets were born, Edith, Elsie and Ethel.  Two years later a son, Ogden, had come along.  Their parents' purchase of the West 9th Street most likely had much to do with the triplets' upcoming debutante season, and it marked the family's return to New York.

In 1891 Cryder's brother, William Wetmore Cryder, had embezzled $39,000 from the Manhattan Square Bank of which he was president, and deserted his wife.   Most likely to escape the scandal, Duncan Cryder had moved his family to Paris.  Now teenagers, the Cryder girls became celebrities of a sort, not only because of the fact that they could not be distinguished from one another, but for their meticulously-honed demeanor and social ease.  During this period Ethel became best friends of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the daughter of Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt.  And in 1897 the girls were invited to meet with the Empress Eugenie, widow of the last French emperor. 

On December 14, 1900, a year after the family moved in, The New York Times reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Duncan Cryder...gave a dinner, which was followed by an impromptu dance, at their residence, 43 West Ninth Street, on Wednesday evening for their triplet daughters, the Misses Edith, Elsie, and Ethel Cryder, who are debutantes of the season."  The girls had been formally introduced at a ball the evening before.  In reporting on the ball, Town Topics was rather unflattering:

There has been much nonsense published regarding these girls, and not only themselves but their parents have been subjected to great annoyance by the daily journals, which endeavored to obtain pictures of them and their belongings...They are pleasant, well-mannered, but not really pretty girls, tall and slight in figure and graceful in movement.

The Cryder sisters.  from the collection of the Southampton History Museum.

It would not be long before horrible tragedy affected the family.  Ogden Cryder, who was attending the Groton School in Massachusetts in 1901, had come home for the holidays.  On December 27, 1901, according to The New York Press, he was in a hurry to get home "in time for dinner, as some of his friends had been invited to dine with him."  As the 17-year-old stepped off a crosstown Eighth Street streetcar, he slipped.  The New York Times reported, "he fell under the wheels.  His left leg was crushed, both bones being splintered.  His right leg was seriously injured as well."

After he had been in St. Vincent's Hospital for four days, a drastic, last resort was decided upon.  "On Wednesday, Cryder was operated on, both legs being amputated.  After the operation he sank steadily."  He died at 10 o'clock the following night, January 2, 1902.

The New York Press reported, "The mother is almost heartbroken.  When the sad intelligence was conveyed to his three sisters, their grief was pitiable, and the family physician was summoned to care for the mother and her daughters."

Two years later, on May 25, 1904, The New York Press reported much happier news:

Cupid is doing a thriving business in the big, old-fashioned brick house of Mr. and Mrs. Duncan Cryder, in No. 43 West Ninth street, and as a result of the little pink god's pranks the Cryders announced yesterday the engagement of Miss Elsie Cryder to William Woodward, one of the most popular young men in New York society.  Miss Elsie is the second of the famous Cryder triplets to become engaged since Easter.

Edith had earlier become engaged to Lathrop Ames.  Their marriage in Trinity Church was scheduled for May 31.  The New York Press said, "Now the only one of the Cryders who is yet disengaged is Miss Ethel, and the gossips in the Knickerbocker neighborhood insist on coupling her name with that of Cyril Hatch, a young millionaire from Bro0klyn."  Ethel protested, saying, "It's quite silly to mention the name of Mr. Hatch in connection with mine."

In reporting on Elsie's engagement, the article noted, "The Cryder triplets flashed across the social horizon on March 11, 1900, when a dinner was given for the three beauties, each 18 years old.  They were pretty and charming and became the vogue at once.  As their mother is an Ogden, they were received in the heart of the best set."

On April 6, 1905 The New York Press reported that Clarence S. Moffett had purchased the Cryder residence.  The newspaper got the details wrong.  The buyer was, in fact, journalist, playwright and author, Cleveland Moffett.

Born in 1863, he had graduated from Yale College in 1883 and joined the staff of the New York Herald four years later.  During his time there, he was a foreign correspondence in Europe and Asia.  In 1893 he joined the New York Recorder.  He married Mary E. Lusk on February 11, 1899.

Cleveland Moffett.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

He had already contributed articles and stories to magazines and weekly newspapers by the time the couple moved into 43 West 9th Street.  But now he turned to writing plays, as well.  In 1904 he published Money Talks and in 1907 The Battle.

In 1911 the Moffetts leased the house to E. Ore, and the following year to Charles W. Darling, an attorney and, like Moffett, a graduate of Yale.

In 1914, upon the expiration of Darling's lease, Cleveland Moffett commissioned Pepe & Brother to alter the property into apartments.   It was possibly at this time that the brownstone detailing and the iron balcony were removed.  Among the Moffetts' tenants in 1917 was artist Edward Pierce Nagel.  Born in Revere, Massachusetts in 1893, Nagel's work was displayed at the exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists that year.  A graduate of Harvard, he was the stepson of sculptor Gaston Lachaise.  Nagel remained in his apartment here until around 1921.

It is unclear how long the Moffetts retained possession of the house.  The exterior alterations, committed in an effort to modernize its appearance, leave the facade woefully less distinctive.  And yet, despite the architectural vandalism, the grandeur of the residence that was once home to one of New York's most storied social families is still apparent.

photographs by the author
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