Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The James McCreery House - 325 East 14th Street


Born in Ireland in 1826, James McCreery arrived in the United States when he was about 20 years old, settling first in Baltimore.  He relocated to New York City to join the drygoods firm of Upson, Pierson & Lake on Broadway.  In 1851 he married Fanny Maria Crawford and the couple moved into the fine house at 173 East 14th Street (renumbered 325 in 1868), between First and Second Avenues. 

It was one of a recently-erected row of 23-foot-wide, Greek Revival homes.  A high stoop rose above the English basement to the entrance.  Here the architect gave pilasters highly unusual Egyptian lotus capitals decorated with carved anthemia.   The influence of the Italianate style was reflected in the stoop ironwork, the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows, and the ornate bracketed cornice.

Heavily weathered today, the Egyptian capitals were highly unexpected.

Interestingly, McCreery's brother, John, moved briefly into the house with the newlyweds.  John was a partner in the McCreery & Goulding drygoods firm at 18 John Street.  He was no longer listed at the 14th Street address by 1853.

James and Fanny would have four sons: James Crawford, born in 1853; Andrew born in 1857; Robert Samuel, who arrived in 1860; and William John, born three years later.  Just before William John's birth, the family moved to 15 Washington Place, across the street from Cornelius Vanderbilt I.  McCreery had risen within Upson, Pierson & Lake following the retirement of Upson.  By 1867 he would take control of the firm, changing its name to McCreery & Co. and becoming one of the city's wealthiest businessmen.

James McCreery, image via Notable New Yorkers 1869-1899 (copyright expired)

McCreery rented the 14th Street house, advertising in the New York Herald on April 16, 1862:

East Fourteenth Street--To rent, the three story and attic brown stone, high stoop House 173 East Fourteenth street, between First and Second avenues, 23-1/2 feet front, to a private family only.

The James Brady family lived here in the 1860's, and while McCreery's ad stressed "private family only," it did not prohibit the taking in of a boarder, as was common.   From 1864 through 1869 Frederick Sackett Hanford rented a room while he attended Columbia University.  The young man's home was in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

Following Brady's death at the age of 69 in January 1870, 325 East 14th Street became home to the Thomas Le Claire family.  Sharing the house was Le Claire's sister-in-law, Margaret Dean, as well as her adult daughter, Frances, son-in-law, Washington L. Jaques, and their children.  

The year 1872 would be a traumatic one for the family.  On June 25, Frances and Washington's eight-month-old son George Brower Jaques died.  Their youngest child, his little casket sat in the parlor until his funeral two days later.  And then, only three months later, Margaret Dean died at the age of 63 "after a lingering illness," according to The New York Sun.   

There would be a third funeral in the house three years later.  Thomas Le Claire contracted Bright's disease, a kidney condition known today as nephritis.  He died at the age of 58 on June 25, 1875 and his funeral was held in the house on the 27th.

By now 14th Street had become the center of Manhattan's theater district.  Catherine Charles, the widow of John Charles, was a close friend of the McCreerys.  Catherine purchased 325 East 14th Street and began operating it as a "theatrical boarding house."

Among her more tragic boarders was William Carleton who took a room in 1884.  An Irish-born actor, author, and playwright, he had been known as the Great Carleton.   The New York Herald noted, "Not many years ago he was quite a favorite before the footlights, earned a handsome salary, and was hailed with delight on the 'Square' as a good fellow, because he spent his earnings freely and indiscriminately."

But when he rented his room from Catherine, he had not worked in two years.   He made some money by writing songs and plays, and received help from the Actors' Fund Association.  The New York Herald explained his fall, saying "But by and by there came a change.  William sought the wine cup too frequently and neglected his business...His clothes began to look shabby, his appearance changed and people on the square no longer pressed forward to welcome the comedian and playwright."

He lived over a year in the 14th Street house where, according to the newspaper, Catherine Charles "by words and kindness, endeavored to make things pleasant for the actor.  She said he was always so gentlemanly in his manner and so cheerful in disposition that no one could fail to like him."  Carleton's continued drinking prompted the Actors' Fund to cease supporting him, and living in a boarding house became too costly.  He left in May 1885 to take a furnished room a block away at 316 East 14th Street.

Carleton became ill early in August 1885.  The New York Herald said that Catherine and one of her boarders, a Mrs. Chandler, "brought the sick scion many nourishments.  They saw that he wanted for nothing during his illness, and when he was able to get about again, he was profuse in his thanks."  But the once-proud thespian and writer was broken.  And on August 19, 1885 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the odor of gas in the rooming house was traced to Carleton's room.  "When the door was forced open he was found dead, lying across the bed."

Catherine's boarders in the 1890's included opera house proprietor Wallace H. Frisbie, Irish comedian Edward J. Heffernan, Eva Marshal (described by the New York Herald as "the high kicking soubrette"), vocalist Charles Burt, and actor Charles DeForrest and his actress wife Vera.

On December 19, 1899, the New York Morning Telegraph reported, "It takes something pretty strong to make the average boarders in a theatrical house complain, but there were many present in court to make all sorts of charges against [Charles] DeForrest, who, by all accounts, had left the place looking like a Kansas ranch after a friendly call from an ably built cyclone."

Vera testified that her husband had come home drunk "and terrorized the boarding house by smashing furniture, bombarding doors with crockery, and otherwise making life a horrible reality for all concerned."  When Policeman Fletcher started up the stairs, "he met a wash basin sailing down in his direction and ducked his head in time to avoid a collision."  DeForrest barricaded himself in his room while "along the hallways actors and actresses stuck their heads out to note the progress of the storm.  Broken crockery and pieces of chairs were strewn along the hall."  

DeForrest was arrested, but only after a struggle.  The article said, "Charles was not a thing of beauty when arraigned.  His head and face had been battered until his countenance resembled that upon a copper cent after a train had passed over it."   Referring to Officer Fletcher, he complained to the judge, "There was no reason why he should have assaulted me."  The magistrate promised, "I am going to inquire into that," but in the meantime he held the actor in $500 bail.

Two boarders who were most definitely not involved in the theater arrived on April 3, 1902.  Signing in as Mr. and Mrs. Harry Place, the couple were in reality Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, known to authorities as the outlaw and member of Butch Cassidy's "Wild Bunch," Sundance Kid, and his wife, Etta Place.  By now, the aging Catherine Charles had help from her niece in running the house, and at least two biographies of the Sundance Kid refer to 325 East 14th Street as "Mrs. Thompson's."  The couple remained only until July 10, 1902 when they sailed to South America on the steamer Honorius.

The Sundance Kid and Etta Place posed for his photograph at DeYoung's Studio at 857 Broadway while staying here.

As she had done with William Carleton, Catherine maintained close relationships with many of her boarders.  Jerry Clayton was one of those.  A partner in the Stanton-Olifan Trio, well known to vaudeville audiences, he enlisted in the Army in 1917.  When he was killed in action on September 3, 1918, the Government listed his next of kin as Catherine Charles.

One of Catherine's longest-lasting boarders was Frank J. Hurley, a vaudeville acrobat who went by the stage name Frank Rossi.  He moved in around 1892 and as the decades passed, began helping his aging landlady.  It was a kindness that did not escape the appreciation of Catherine Charles.  

On May 16, 1922 she rewrote her will.  Interestingly, it was witnessed by J. A. McCreery, presumably the grandson of James McCreery.  The will gave her entire estate to Frank Hurley, "in recognition of his helpful assistance to me in carrying on the business of the house and in attending to my personal wants while I was in suffering health."  After having run the boarding house for more than four decades, Catherine died on June 28, 1922.

Around 1932 the basement level was converted to an Italian restaurant, Lido Dell' East.

The Daily Worker, October 26, 1932.

A renovation in 1954 resulted in six furnished rooms per floor in the upper stories.  At the time the Spanish restaurant Il Faro had operated on West 14th Street since 1927.  In 1968, The Underground Gourmet reported, "Il Faro has moved eastward to somewhat fancier quarters at 325 East 14th Street, but prices and menu remain virtually unchanged."

Il Faro eventually moved west again, to 823 Greenwich Street.  By 1993 the restaurant space was home to the Filipino restaurant, Manila Garden.  The New York Times food critic Elaine Louie said of it on October 5, 1994, "Napkins are linen, flowers are fresh, and drinks aren't soda pop."

That same year the upper portion of the house was converted to apartments, one per floor.  Around the turn of the century the Crocodile Lounge moved into the restaurant space.  Today, of the long row of homes, the McCreery house is the best preserved.  With little imagination the passerby can imagine its well-dressed occupants alighting from their carriage before the stoop.

photographs by the author
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