The molded surrounds of the second floor windows survive, while those of the upper floors have been shaved flat. photograph by the author
Among the real estate sold at the Merchants' Exchange at noon on February 28, 1853 were "valuable lots of ground" including 313 through 315 Second Avenue. Before the end of the year the buyer would erect a row of prim, Anglo-Italianate houses on the parcel.
At 17-feet-wide, each was two bays wide and four stories tall. The entrances, above a short stoop, sat within a limestone base. Above, the openings of each successive floor became slightly shorter, reflecting the ceiling heights inside. The windows of the second and third floor were fully arched, while those of the top floor were elliptically arched. A modest, bracketed cornice ran along the roof.
The first owner of 315 Second Avenue was Joseph McArdle, who listed his profession in 1853 as "carman." Most likely he owned and operated a delivery firm, rather than merely being a driver, since he was affluent enough to afford the new residence.
It appears that McArdle was a widower. When 19-year-old Frederick C. McArdle died on November 27, 1858, there was no mention of his mother, only that he was "son of Joseph McArdle." The New York Times listed the cause of his death as apoplexy, what today we would call a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke. It was a surprising diagnosis for a teenager.
Joseph McArdle changed professions by 1856, when he operated a cask manufacturing shop at 8 Burling Slip. Not surprisingly, like so many homeowners he took in a boarder. In 1856 it was William D. Howard, a machinist who also volunteered with the Mutual Engine Company, No. 51 on 21st Street near First Avenue. Living in the McArdle house in 1860 was William Borrows, a clerk.
Surprising boarders, if McArdle was, indeed, single, were sisters Sophia and Mary J. Cristie, here in 1862. It would be highly unusual for single women to board with an unmarried man. Nevertheless, both are listed here, Sophia teaching in the Primary Department of Public School No. 40 on 20th Street between First and Second Avenues, and Mary teaching in the Girls' Department of School No. 50, on 20th Street near Third Avenue.
In 1865 Dr. William Edgar Stillwell purchased 315 Second Avenue. Born on March 14, 1807, his father, William, was also a physician and the surgeon of the First Regiment of the New Jersey Brigade. The younger William married Lydia Amanda Sackett on October 22, 1843, and had two daughters and a son.
The Medical Register later commented, "Devoting himself almost exclusively to the practice proper of his profession, he secured a considerable and lucrative business." Stillwell advertised his office hours as being from 2 to 7 p.m. daily.
Unfortunately, the relatively young doctor had suffered medical problems of his own since about 1858, when he was affected with "a more than ordinarily acute rheumatic attack." The Medical Register explained, "he had suffered severely from articular rheumatism and organic valvular disease of the heart."
On February 6, 1867, Stillwell experienced what The Medical Register described as "a sudden and distressing paroxysm of dyspnoea," or in layman's terms, extreme difficulty in breathing. A nearby physican was called, but before he arrived William E. Stillman was dead at the age of 59. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
The Stillwells' only son had followed in his father's profession. The family remained in the Second Avenue house until the spring of 1872 when Dr. E. D. Stillwell sold it and all the furnishings. The auction listing gives a hint of the modish surroundings in which the Stillwell family lived. It included "elegant ebony and walnut inlaid parlor suits, French plate pier mirrors," and "valuable oil paintings and chromos." (Chromos were colored prints.)
Rather than renovate Stillwell's medical office, the new owner, S. E. Goodwin, marketed it. An advertisement in the New York Herald on May 7, 1872 offered:
To Rent--For single gentleman or physician, a nice, large reception room, with private family; first class neighborhood; also a pleasant hall Bedroom; furnished or unfurnished.
Goodwin apparently came from the South. His affluence was reflected in an advertisement he placed in the New York Herald after losing his watch in the winter of 1874:
Lost--On February 3, 1874, at the foot of Thirteenth street, North River, a gold Stop Watch and Chain made to order for Mr. ___, Natchez, Miss. A reward of $50 will be paid and no questions asked by returning the same to No. 315 Second avenue.S. E. Goodwin
The reward would be more than $1,000 in today's money.
The fashionable tenor of the neighborhood was reflected in the lease of 315 Second Avenue for a year in 1885 and 1886 by lawyer and politician Hamilton Fish II. His grandfather, Nicholas Fish, was a notable figure during and after the Revolution who named his father after close friend Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton Fish II was married to the former Emily Maria Mann, and the couple had five children.
The house was sold on March 29, 1887 to C. A. Peabody, who paid $17,475, or about $491,000 today. He resold it around 1890 to Dr. Charles E. Nammack, who had been appointed a Police Surgeon for the City of New York in October 1887. He examined police officers in the office first established by William Stillwell.
Nammack, as well, spoke at medical meetings and published a variety of medical papers, such as his 1906 article on "The Treatment of La Grippe" in The Medical Record, and "Norway for Neurasthenia," published in Transactions of the American Climatological Association in 1910. Perhaps none of his writings would be more controversial than his article in the Medical Record on February 11, 1911, "Is Sterilization of the Habitual Criminal Justifiable?"
In 1919 Nammack completed construction of the Nammack Building at 38-42 East 29th Street, a commercial loft structure. By then he had been gone from 315 Second Avenue for 16 years. In 1903 Dr. Morris Gross leased the first and second floors, practicing medicine from the ground floor office and living in rented rooms upstairs. Gross, who signed a three year lease, had studied medicine in Vienna and was a member of the German Medical Society.
Among the residents in 1920 was Joseph M. Shimmon, who worked in the foreign collections department of National City Bank. Born in Iran on July 4, 1894, his father operated a Persian rug importing business. While a student a Columbia University, Shimmon had been captain of the 1908 wrestling team, and during World War I he served as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. After the war, he took up wrestling again at the New York Athletic Club. Shimmon competed in the freestyle lightweight event in the 1920 Summer Olympics, making it to the quarterfinals.
A tenant who earned less celebrated attention was Benjamin Gold, who lived here in 1932. A Socialist, he was arrested in Washington D.C. on December 2 that year during a protest march, charged with assault and battery on a police officer. He was fined $50 and sentenced to 40 days in jail on January 19, 1934.
Nellallitea "Nella" Larsen moved into an apartment here in 1941. Born in 1891 in South Chicago, she had enrolled in nursing school in New York City in 1914. She was hired by the city's Bureau of Public Health as a nurse after graduation, working throughout the 1918 flu pandemic. The daughter of a mixed race marriage, she wed Black physician Elmer Imes in 1919 and the couple had moved to Harlem.
In 1923 she earned her certification as a librarian, working first at the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library on the Lower East Side. Two years later she took a sabbatical and began her first novel. Her Quicksand would be published in 1928, followed by Passing the next year, and "Sanctuary," a short story, in 1930.
When Larsen moved into 315 Second Avenue, she had been divorced for four years. Although today she is credited as the "premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance," according to The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction, she stopped writing after moving here. Thadious M. Davis, in his Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, notes, "After that move and the intermittent return to nursing, she made no effort to resume old friendships...All semblance of connection with her life as 'Nella Larsen, novelist,' was dropped. She apparently abandoned writing completely."
In 1952 the building was officially converted to apartments, two per floor. That configuration lasted until 1976 when it became home to the Project Contact Residence, a drug treatment and rehabilitation center. A renovation in 2007 resulted in a dining room, kitchen, reception room, and office on the ground floor, an office and lounge on the second, and four one-person bedrooms each on the third and fourth. Today it is home to Community Access, Inc.'s Crisis Respite Center.
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