Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Varied History of 54 West 11th Street


In 1841, construction was completed on the brick faced homes that lined nearly the entire south side of the West Eleventh Street block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Five of them were erected by Andrew Lockwood, Erastus Freeman and James Harriot.  Like its identical neighbors, the Greek Revival design of 120 Eleventh Street (renumbered 54 West 11th Street around 1853), included handsome iron stoop railings and  an impressive entrance.  The single door was flanked by paneled pilasters and glass sidelights.  The entablature below the ample transom was given scrolled and foliate carving.

The house became home to Rev. Henry John Whitehouse in 1844.  He and his wife, the former Evelina Harriet Braun, had a young son, Frederick Cope, who was born in 1842.  Another boy, William Fitzhugh, would come along in 1846.  

Rev. Henry John Whitehouse, from The Christian Bishop, 1851 (copyright expired)

Whitehouse was born in New York in 1803.  He graduated from Columbia College in 1821 and from the General Theological Seminary in 1824.  For 15 years he had been the rector of St. Luke's Church in Rochester, New York, but returned to New York City in 1844 to become rector of St. Thomas' Church.

On November 20, 1851 Whitehouse was made Assistant Bishop of Illinois.  But, oddly enough, he seems to have performed his duties essentially in absentia.  On January 23, 1852, the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer reported that "the assistant Bishop (Waterhouse) of Illinois, has returned to this city, after an absence of five weeks."  The newspaper reminded readers, "The address of Bishop Whitehouse is, as before, 54 West Eleventh street, New York, to which all letters and papers will continue to be sent."

The family remained in the West 11th Street house until 1860, when Whitehouse's elevation to Bishop of Illinois required his relocation.  (Frederick Cope Whitehouse, incidentally, went on to an esteemed career as an archaeologist, Egyptologist, author, engineer and attorney.)

The Whitehouses' former residence now became a boarding house, operated by Mrs. Jane Steers, who had a rocky start.  On November 21, 1860 The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Steers moved into the premises a few days ago, and some of the [chests] belonging to the boarders were temporarily placed in the wood-house."

The newspaper said that around 3:00 on the morning of November 19, "Officer Horbelt...saw a well-known rogue named Thomas Shaw, alias English, passing through Thomas-street with a large bundle upon his shoulder.  Believing that he had just committed a burglary, the policeman took him to Station-house, where his bundle was overhauled."  Inside his pack were expensive clothing, a gold  and diamond jewelry, "and a variety of other knicknacks, all of which are believed to have come dishonestly into the possession of the accused."  It was not long before Mrs. Steers realized her wood-house had been broken into.  The New York Times reported, "Yesterday the property was identified as belonging to the boarders of Mrs. Jane Steers."

The boarding house accepted only a small number of boarders--as was typical of higher end establishments.  In 1863 it was being operated by Eliza A. C. Peek.  Her boarders that year were merchant Polydore Duclos, Edward Gay, and bootmaker William Roller.  The population of the house would decrease by one that year after Edward Gay was inducted into the Union Army on August 21.

In 1873 Charles Jacques purchased the property.  It was possibly he who enlarged the third floor windows by cutting into the fascia board.  While he continued to operate the boardinghouse upstairs, he transformed the basement level to a French restaurant, Jacques.  His dual-purpose advertisement on September 21, 1873 touted, "Table d'Hote at 6-1/2 P.M.  Furnished rooms and apartments."  

Around 1875, Cecil W. Carr and his bride, "a young and beautiful Spanish woman," according to the New-York Tribune, "made their rooms at No. 54 West Eleventh-st., the popular French restaurant of Charles Jacques, and breakfasted and dined at the same place."  Carr presented himself as an English journalist.  The New-York Tribune added that he was "agreeable in his manners, evidently well educated and a man of culture, and brilliant in conversation."

On June 29, 1878, the newspaper said, "though he represented himself to be only a poor newspaper was whispered about and soon became a sort of open secret that he was a young lord in disguise, either 'sowing wild oats,' or studying the peculiar phases of New-York life."  Despite Carr's falling far behind in his rent, Jacques trusted him, believing that he was, indeed, a nobleman.  His faith in his boarder was rewarded.  After boarding with Jacques for some time, Carr sailed for Europe, leaving his wife behind.  Before very long he returned and paid off the entire debt.

Carr and his Spanish wife moved to Boston, and into another boarding house.  When he again was unable to pay the rent, his landlady, having heard the rumors, sent to England for a photograph of Lord Ogilvy.  The image she received depicted Cecil W. Carr, who was then arrested.

As it turned out, Lord Ogilvy had married the girl against the wishes of his father, the Earl of Airlie, who cut off his son's allowance.  The New-York Tribune explained, "The son had subsequently been ordered to join his regiment, and was then supposed to be in India."  And so, the love-struck couple went on the lam.  The problem for the 22-year-old Lord Ogilvy was that he now owed his landlady $1,000 in room rent and loans she had provided (upwards of $27,000 today).  American courts were not impressed with a noble title.

On October 16, 1880 the New York Herald reported, "Charles Jacques, who keeps a large boarding house at No. 54 West Eleventh street, made an assignment yesterday."  Despite the popularity of his restaurant, Jacques had declared bankruptcy.

The house was leased by the House of the Holy Comforter, Free Church Home for Incurables for $2,500 per year (about $5,400 a month in today's dollars).  The organization had been organized in 1879.  Led by Sister Louise (born Louise Gardner Hall), it provided care to 40 seriously ill and impoverished patients.  The New York Herald explained, "The House of the Holy Comforter is the only free home for incurables in this city.  It is open to women of any Protestant denomination and female children who are without means or friends able to support and care for them."  Those children had to be examined by the house physician and "pronounced to be suffering from an incurable disease."

To help offset the expenses of moving in and setting up the facility, a fund-raising fair was held on December 7 and 8, 1881.  In announcing the fair, the New York Herald said that eight of the patients "are unable to walk, five are bedridden and two are so helpless that they have to be fed.  The oldest patient is a lady of eighty years, the youngest an interesting child of seven."

The Christian Union, on June 26, 1883, described typical patients:

On the first floor, close to the window, stands the bed of a dear old woman who had worked from the age of seven years till she reached the age of seventy-nine; then, one night, being called to attend a case of sickness, her feet were frozen and she was made helpless...Near her is a mother who cannot care for herself; her children are young; her husband earns just enough to feed and clothe them, and she is waiting patiently until her children get old enough to help care for her, when she will return to her home...Three little girls, the victims of a spinal disease, play through the room in their quiet, pathetic way.  One whose body and mind are alike afflicted is sheltered from the rude scoffings and the temptations to which her mental condition make her an easy prey.

Sister Louise, from Sister Louise, The Story of Her Life Work, 1883 (copyright expired)

When Sister Louise died on March 27, 1883, Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine called her "as true a saint as any ever canonized by the Roman Church.  The remarkable woman was only 34 years old.

The House of the Holy Comforter remained at 54 West 11th Street until 1891, when it was returned to a private resident, home to Dr. John Winters Brannan.   He established his private practice in the house, presumably in the basement level where Jacques restaurant had been.  He and his wife had a daughter, Eleanor Doddridge, who was one year old when they moved in.

The esteemed physician was a member of seven medical societies, was the Medical Director of the Washington Life Insurance Company, a visiting physician to Bellevue Hospital and attending physician and president of the medical boards of the Willard Parker and Riverside Hospitals.  As if that were not enough to keep him busy, Brannan lectured at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia College, and was the instructor in General Medicine and Physical Diagnosis in the New York Postgraduate Medical School.  He was an officer in the newly established Saint Saviour's Sanitarium "for the reception and reformation of inebriate women" in Inwood Heights, and was on the editorial staff of the New York Medical Journal.

Musical composer Fred W. Zaulig and his wife lived nearby at 64 West 11th Street.  In the spring of 1894 Zaulig became ill, suffering from what the Actors' Fund physician diagnosed as asthma and organic troubles.  On May 20, 1894, Mrs. Zaulig found her husband dead in bed.   His funeral was held in the house two days later, but it did not go especially smoothly.

Upon looking at Zaulig's body, one female mourner "thought the corpse was life-like in appearance, and a cry that the man was in a trance was set up," reported The Evening World.  Someone rushed to 54 West 11th Street and brought Dr. Brannon back.  The newspaper said "He pronounced the man dead.  After an hour's delay the arrangements went on for the funeral."  (The ceremony was further delayed when it was discovered that no one had made arrangements for a minister.)

In 1898, the house became home to the Herman Leroy Edgar family.  He and his wife, the former Alice Bayard King, had a son, William, born in 1894.  Also living here was Herman's unmarried sister, Lucille Rhinelander Edgar.   They were the grandchildren of millionaire Frederick William Rhinelander.

The Edgars remained here through 1901, after which the house became home to the Charles W. Bowrings.  Born in St. John's, Canada in 1871, Bowrings was the New York representative of his family's firm, Bowring Shipowners & Agents.  He and his wife, Amy, had three sons, Charles, Jr., Edward Bonner and Douglas Bonner.

In 1904 the Bowrings began construction on a home on Staten Island.  As an interesting side note, in 1915 Charles Bowring boarded the British ocean liner Lusitania headed for Liverpool.  He had read the German warning in the newspapers before he sailed, but disregarded it.  On May 7 he was having lunch when the ship was struck by German torpedoes.  He jumped from the starboard side and was later rescued by a lifeboat.

In the meantime, the family of Charles Ernest Bayne lived at 54 West 11th Street.  The South American buying agent for his father's firm, he married the widowed Kate M. Johnson in Grace Church on August 4, 1904, just before moving in.  Living with them was Kate's daughters, Helen and Mildred Page Johnson.  

Like her mother, Helen's marriage on October 23, 1912 to Augustus W. Kelley, Jr. took place in Grace Church.  The reception was held in the West 11th Street house.

The residence was next home to Charlotte Lucia Livingston.  The unmarried woman was the daughter of Charles J. Livingston and "a lineal descendant of Robert Livingston, First Lord of the Manor," according to The Evening Telegram.  Deeply interested in her colonial roots, she was a member of the Order of the Lords of the Manor of America, the Colonial Dames, the Colonial Governors, and the Mayflower Society.

It was purchased by Channing Hare and Mountfort Coolidge in October 1924, and continued as a single-family home until a renovation completed in 1941 resulted in an apartment in the basement level.

In the 1960's Walter Robert Haydon, First Secretary of Public Relations with the United Kingdom's Mission to the United Nations lived in the main portion of the house.  Living with the Haydon's in 1964 was Jamaican-born Evelyn Taylor, who appears to have been either an administrator or servant.

Today there are three residential units in the house, the exterior of which is beautifully preserved. 

photographs by the author
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