Saturday, September 10, 2022

The 1853 Lewis L. Squire House - 238 East 15th Street

The window and entrance surrounds would have originally looked very similar to those on the house at the left.

Lewis Lysander Squire, who ran a successful ship chandlery business at 238 Front Street, lived downtown near the East River on Monroe Street in 1851.  Within two years he moved his family into their new residences at 181 East 15th Street (renumbered 238 in 1866) facing Stuyvesant Square.

At 27-feet-wide and four stories tall, the Italianate house reflected Squire's wealth.  Although built at the same time as the neighboring houses, Squire's architect designed his to be just a few inches taller, perhaps making a silent statement.

The Squire family had moved into a refined neighborhood.  On December 27, 1854, The American Patriot noted that among their neighbors on the park were six families named Stuyvesant.  Calling Stuyvesant Square "a wealthy locality," the article published the financial status of the residents, noting that Lewis L. Squire was worth $150,000, or about $4.8 million in today's money.

Lewis Squire and his wife, the former Susan Lucas, had eight children.  As his sons matured, Squire took them into the business, renaming it Lewis L. Squire & Sons around 1861.

The front and reverse of a Lewis L. Squire & Son advertising token.

Despite the size of the Squire family, they shared their home with publisher and councilman Seymour A. Bunce and his widowed mother.  Bunce was a partner with Oliver Bell Bunce in the publishing firm Bunce & Brother.  He was, as well, a founder of the Citizens' Savings Bank.  The drawing room of the Squire home was the scene of the funeral of George H. Bunce, another brother, in September 1854.

Seymour Bunce was still living with the family on December 3, 1868 when Lewis L. Squire died at the age of 62.  His funeral was held here two days later. 

The family almost immediately put the house their father had built on the market.  On April 21, 1869 an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald offering: "For Sale--The four story house 238 East Fifteenth street, fronting Stuyvesant square.  Dimensions, 27 feet front by 65 feet deep.  For particulars inquire at Lewis L. Squire's Sons, corner Front and Roosevelt streets."

For whatever reason, the house was not sold, but leased by the Squire heirs.  It became home to William R. Romaine, a "well-known furniture dealer," according to the New York Herald.  He and his family remained until 1882, when Seider and Maria Laserowitz leased it to run as a boarding house.

The Laserowitzs' boarders reflected the changing demographics of the Stuyvesant Square neighborhood.  Among them in 1884 was Theodore Martin, the manager of the Lilliputian Dramatic Company.  That year he found himself pleading his case to Judge Duffy in the Tombs court.

The Lilliputian Dramatic Company had been appearing at the Thalia Theatre until January 1884 when, according to the theater's manager in April, "I had some difficulty with [Martin] about three months ago, and I have had nothing to do with him since."  Manager Amberg, however, had held onto some of Martin's possessions, including sheet music, "on attachment."

Just before noon on April 17, Martin appeared at the theater to retrieve his items.  At one point he began raising his voice to treasurer Albert Kraemer.  Ordered by the manager to "put out" Martin, the assistant manager, Siegfried Schwartzwald, "seized him by the collar and thrust him out of the door," according to The New York Times.  Martin had Schwartzwald arrested for assault.

In court that afternoon, Martin explained he "had simply asked the Treasurer for the articles and had made no disturbance.  Schwartzwald had struck him twice in the face and then threw him down the steps."  Kraemer's story was different.  He said Martin called him "insulting names."  And Schwartzwald denied having struck Martin.  Martin was outnumbered by the witnesses for the defense.  Manager Amberg told the judge he was attending a rehearsal when he was informed that Martin "was making a row in the lobby.  I went out and told Martin to get out.  He then began insulting me and he called me a 'lump.'"

Judge Duffy was perplexed.  "Lump, what's lump?"

Amberg, whose first language was German, struggled to think of a synonym.  Finally, he exclaimed, "Oh yes, I have it now; it is a vagabond, a tramp."

Martin lost his case.  Judge Duffy said, "The burden of evidence is against you, Mr. Martin, and I discharge the prisoner."  One can assume he never got his music and other items back.

Maria Laserowitz continued to operate the boarding house after her husband's death, around 1885.  Another of her boarders landed in court in 1891.  The 31-year-old John F. Walker was described by The Sun as "a retired army officer and wealthy."  He was walking on Broadway on November 30 when Charles T. Schlesinger, who was walking ahead of him with his two sisters, turned and struck Walker in the face.  He accused Walker of making "an insulting remark at one of the ladies."

Schlesinger and his sisters then boarded a Sixth Avenue streetcar, followed by an irate Walker.  The two quarreled until the car reached 42nd Street, where Walker pulled out a revolver.  The Sun reported, "The car stopped, and conductor, driver, and all the passengers deserted it, leaving the two men struggling."  A passing policeman came to Schlesinger's assistance and arrested Walker, who was jailed on assault charges.

In 1893 Lewis L. Squire's extensive real estate holdings, including 238 East 15th Street, were sold at auction.  The house was purchased by Douglas Robinson for $31,000 (about $920,000 today).  He immediately resold it to scientist Edward D. Page and his wife, Cornelia L. Clark.  

The Clarks, who maintained a country home in New Haven, soon increased the the size of their family.  In October 1896 Cornelia advertised "Nurse wanted to take care of infant; experience necessary."

Page had earned his PH.B. degree in 1875 from the Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven, Connecticut.  On October 9, 1901 he established the Henry A. Page Scholarship at the school in memory of his father, who had been a New York City dry goods merchant.  He presented the school with another gift of $25,000 in 1913 (closer to $675,000 in 2022).

On March 16, 1905 the Pages and a woman friend, were in their "big white automobile," as worded by the New York Herald.  The chauffeur, Charles Beck, ignored Bicycle Policeman Rensselaer's command to stop, forcing the officer to chase him for two blocks down Fifth Avenue.  

Beck was directed to drive to the Tenderloin Police Station, where he and Edward Page went in, "leaving the women, who were handsomely attired, in the automobile," said the article.    Inside, Sergeant Wall asked Page if he cared to give bonds for the chauffeur's release.  But the $50 Page had in his pocket fell far short, so he called for his wife to come in.  She, as was common, held title to the East 15th Street house.

Cornelia was not pleased with the ordeal, telling the sergeant, "If we were going faster than the law allows, I don't see why it is that more automobilists are not arrested.  Surely it didn't seem to me we were going so fast.  Sergeant, you ought to appoint me as a detective and I would catch many of the automobilists who break the law every day and night."  Having spoken her mind, she then gave her home as security, assessing her the residence at $80,000, "and the party was driven away," reported the New York Herald.

The Pages became disgruntled with the police again three years later.  On March 10, 1908, two policemen chose their stoop as the place to have lunch.  As they ate, burglars made their way to the Pages' roof, when worked their way down to a rear window.  The governess, hearing a noise, went to investigate.  Seeing the thieves, she rushed to a front window and screamed.  The cops searched the house, but the burglars had escaped.  

The Pages left 238 East 15th Street shortly after the incident, selling it to famed naturalist and explorer George Bird Grinnell and his wife the former Elizabeth Curtis.  Earning his Ph.D. at Yale in 1880, Grinnell, early on became a prominent conservationist and student of Native American life, and was a force in establishing legislation to preserve the American bison. 

George Bird Grinnell, from the collection of the Library of Congress

As a graduate student, he accompanied Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer in his 1874 Black Hills expedition in order to study Far West nature.  He was invited to join the 1876 Little Big Horn expedition, but declined--afterward proving to be a propitious move.

Grinnell's 1875 expedition to the new Yellowstone Park resulted in his reporting on the wholesale poaching of wildlife for hides.  He documented the slaughter of thousands of buffalo, mule deer, elk and antelope in a single season.

He was the founder of the First Audubon Society and organizer of the New York Zoological Society.  In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge, a personal friend, awarded Grinnell the Roosevelt Gold Medal of Honor for his conservation efforts.

It was almost assuredly the Grinnells who removed the Italianate framing of the doorway, and installed a magnificent Federal period entrance, with a sumptuous fanlight and fluted columns.

Grinnell died in the East 15th Street house at the age of 88 on April 11 1938.  In reporting his death, the New York Post called him the "father of American conservation."  A week later the Evening Recorder reported, "To Yale University and the National Association of Audubon Societies go his extensive ethnological collection."  The article noted that in addition to Calvin Coolidge, Grinnell counted among his personal friends Presidents Herbert Hoover and Theodore Roosevelt.

It is unclear how long Elizabeth Grinnell remained in the house.  In 1948 it was purchased by the Catholic Sisters of the Immaculati Cordis Mariae (the Sacred Heart of Mary) as a convent.  Four years later they acquired the house next door at 236, and combined the properties with one interior door on each floor.  

The houses were altered in 1974.  It was most likely at this time that the stoop at 236 was removed, and the Italianate surrounds of the windows at 238 shaved off.

By then the number of nuns had dwindled to the point that the order was taking in members of other congregations and even renting rooms to young women.  Another renovation to the houses was completed in 1993, which fortunately left much of the 1853 interior detailing intact.

Italianate architectural details survive in several rooms.  photos via

Then, in 2015, the eight remaining nuns were relocated to a Bronx nursing home.  In 2016 the order placed the houses on the market for a combined price of $19.75 million.  They were sold separately (although there had been substantial interest in the combined houses as a single residence). 

An ongoing renovation is returning 238 East 15th Street to a single-family home.

photographs by the author
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  1. This is so cool. There's so much history, wow. Thank you for posting this.

  2. I came across your fascinating history of this building when taking a further look at my Great Grandparents marriage certificate. Kate Elkin Alexander, my Great Grandmother, lists this as her address when she married on April 27, 1886. That fits perfectly with the building being a boardithpise during those years