Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Abused Benjamin B. Atterbury House - 345 Lexington Avenue


image via

In 1860 Benjamin B. Atterbury moved into the newly completed house at 315 Lexington Avenue (renumbered 345 in 1868) between 39th and 40th Streets.  The Murray Hill neighborhood was among the city's most desirable and included sumptuous mansions and merchant class residences like Atterbury's.  His 20-foot-wide Italianate style home was faced in brownstone.  A high stone stoop led to the double-doored entrance, and the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows most likely were fronted by a cast iron balcony.  The elliptically arched openings of the upper two floors sat upon bracketed sills and wore handsome molded sills.

In 1941, much of the original appearance survived.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Atterbury was a well respected citizen, a member of the New-York Historical Society and a trustee of the Board of Education.  He was also a director of the Port Society of New York, formed "for promoting the gospel among seamen."

In 1866 the family of William Simpson moved into the house.  Simpson owned a stage coach firm on Tenth Avenue and, while his family was affluent, they were not wealthy.  That was reflected in an advertisement in the New York Herald on October 26, 1866:

Wanted--A girl for kitchen work; must be a good plain cook, washer and ironer; city references required.  Call from 9 till 2 at 315 Lexington av., near 40th st.

A chef was the highest paid member within the domestic staff of a wealthy family, often trained in France.  The best cooks were distinctly aware of their elevated positions.  That Mrs. Simpson would expect her cook to wash and iron, and that she need only be a "good plain cook," clearly indicates the family's upper-middle class status.

The Simpsons remained until 1873, when 345 Lexington Avenue became home to Sarah and Silas Hatch for a year (presumably they rented the house).  In 1875 Dr. James M. Comins purchased the residence.  A member of the Eclectic Medical Society of the City of New York, he was considered an expert in the treatment of cancer.  An advertisement in December 1875 guaranteed, "Cancer cured without the knife or pain by J. M. Comins, M.D., 345 Lexington avenue.  Book sent free."

Newspaper readers knew Dr. Comins for other reasons, as well.  In June 1871 he had been arrested "on a charge of killing cats," preferred by Henry Bergh, the head of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Annoyed by feral cats "which spoil his flower garden and disturb his repose with untimely and unendurable concerts upon the fences in his neighborhood," according to The Sun, he set traps, caught the felines, and killed them.  This "he usually did with one blow per cat," said the article.  The Sun had been incensed over his arrest, saying he should be let free "with the cordial thanks of the community for his laudable efforts to lessen the hideousness of our metropolitan nights, and at the proper time let a statue be erected in his honor as a public benefactor."

Newspapers nationwide had covered his arrest two years later for a much more serious charge.  On October 7, 1873, the Akron Beacon Journal reported, "Dr. James M. Comins...has been arrested for supposed complicity with the Jersey City clairvoyant in causing the death of Ida W. Viall."  The "Jersey City clairvoyant" was Marcella K. Metzler.  She was accused murder when the 20-year-old Viall died after receiving an abortion.  Comins was accused of being involved in the procedure.  The three-month trial ended in March 1874 with Metzler sentenced to 10 years in State Prison and Comins being acquitted.  

The Cominses placed two puzzling back-to-back help wanted ads in the New York Herald on April 30, 1877.  They read:

Wanted--A colored girl, with reference, for general housework, at 345 Lexington av.  Call from 9 to 10 A.M.

Wanted--A girl, with good reference, to do general housework.  Call at 345 Lexington av., between 9 and 11 A.M.

Because the second ad did not specific race, the assumption was that it was intended for white applicants.  Why the Cominses were so specific in the race of their two servants is bewildering.

Like the Simpsons, the Cominses' help wanted ads hinted at their upper-middle-class status.  Mrs. Comins' search for a cook in 1891 stressed that the comfortable living conditions in the house trumped what was apparently average pay:

Cook--By a middle-aged person as experienced cook; excellent baker; private family; more good home than wages; four years' reference from last employer.  Call at 345 Lexington av.

The house became home to the family of Patrick Gallagher in 1896.  A native of Ireland, that same year he erected a warehouse on West 3rd Street designed by the esteemed architectural firm of Hoppin & Koen.  

Like many of his countrymen, Gallagher was, according to The Sun, "an ardent advocate of Home Rule for Ireland."  And so, he was a natural choice to sit on a committee to welcome Irish Parliament leader John E. Redmond and the Lord Mayor of Dublin to New York in September 1898.  The men were coming to "lay plans of the Irish Parnell Monument Committee before sympathizing friends here," said the newspaper on August 28.  Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell, who died in 1891, was held in reverence by Irish nationalists.  His statue was to be erected in Dublin.  

Surprising everyone, Gallagher refused to join the committee and expressed his strong views against erecting a statue to Parnell.  The work in Ireland was not completed, he argued.  In his lengthy "letter of declination" he wrote, "I believe it would be a great misfortune if a monument were erected under present circumstances to Mr. Parnell."

When 345 Lexington Avenue was sold on November 16, 1899, the commercial district was inching ever nearer.  Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that socialite Josephine Elliot Marshall Ogden moved in following her husband's death in March 1900.  Josephine had married Confederate Colonel John Routh Ogden during the Civil War.  Her father was "a leading banker and planter of the South," said The New York Times later.  Josephine's distinguished ancestors included Chief Justice John Marshall and General John Devereaux.

The couple had had five children--four daughters and a son.  Moving in with their mother were the unmarried Mary Marshall and Josephine Ella. 

On April 12, 1905 the house was the scene of Mary's wedding to Jesse P. Whiton Stuart.  The groom came from an old New York family that traced its ancestry to Thomas Whiton in 1635.  He was educated by private tutors and at Harvard University.

Josephine was married to Pierpont Davis four years later, on April 15, 1909, in the Church of the IncarnationThe Sun commented, "Mrs. John E. [sic] Ogden, the bride's mother, will give a reception afterward at her home, 345 Lexington avenue."

With her daughters gone, Josephine Ogden moved to a Park Avenue apartment in 1910 and leased 345 Lexington Avenue.  W. Wainwright Bradley, a widower who was annually listed in the New York Social Register, rented the house.  His death here on October 18, 1916 signaled the end of the house as a single family residence.

The following year, on December 17, 1920, architect Hugo Taussig filed plans to alter the basement and parlor levels to commercial spaces.  The changes cost owner Consul Realty Corporation the equivalent of $135,000 by 2022 terms.  An advertisement on September 4, 1921 offered "Parlor floor and basement, suitable for doctor or dentist."

Renovations completed in 1936 resulted in the stoop being removed and a restaurant installed at ground level.  The double-doored entrance was converted to a recessed balcony to the former parlor level, which contained offices.  The top two floors held a duplex apartment.  In the 1940's part of the second floor office space was home to the Italian Welfare League, a non-partisan group founded to assist immigrants arriving in New York City.  The Quaker Emergency Service occupied space by 1943 when it offered a "series of courses for present and post-war living," as described by The New York Sun on October 14 that year.

The building was renovated again in 1945 when the top two floors were divided into one apartment each.  It was most likely at this time that a large show window was installed at the second floor, the last traces of the 1860 elements removed, and the brownstone painted.

photograph by Ted Leather

Since the early 1980's The Wine Shop has occupied the ground and second floors.   Despite the many renovations, the Benjamin B. Atterbury house retains hints of its former pre-Civil War elegance.

many thanks to reader Ted Leather for requesting this post
photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

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