Friday, November 18, 2022

The Thomas Francis House - 349 West 17th Street


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The majority of the residents along the block of West 17th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues in 1850 were involved in the building trades.  That was not the case, however, at 247 West 17th Street (renumbered 349 in 1868).  Thomas Francis and his son, John, operated a laundry operation.  Also living here was Francis's daughter Helen and her husband James E. Connor.  Connor was the sexton of Chelsea Presbyterian Church on West 22nd Street.

The recently-erected house was one of a row of identical residences.  The Italianate style structure retained hints of the waning Greek Revival style.  Its four stories of red brick sat upon a rusticated brownstone English basement.  The entrance, with its gently arched entablature, was an interesting melding of the two architectural styles.  Molded lintels capped the openings and a bracketed Italianate cornice crowned the design.

The year 1852 was a somber one within the household.  Scarlet fever broke out early that year and by March was spreading among the city's children.  On March 12 an article in The New York Times began, "Among all diseases among children, scarlet fever gives the most terror and has been the most dreaded."  Eight days later the newspaper would report that ten children had died of the disease during the past week.

James E. and Helen Connor's four-year-old daughter, Catharine Maria, was among the earliest victims.  She died on January 28 and her funeral rapidly took place the following afternoon.

The parlor would be the scene of a second funeral that year.  John Francis died at the age of 50 "of paralysis" in September.  The diagnosis normally referred to a stroke, despite his relatively young age.  His funeral was held on October 1.

Two years later, in March 1854, James and Helen Connor had another baby.  They named the infant Thomas Francis Connor in honor of Helen's father.  In a cruel case of deja vu, the little boy died of scarlet fever in February 1856, two months before his second birthday.  In what must have become far too familiar for the family, his funeral was held in the parlor on February 27.

Around 1860, the families left West 17th Street.  It became home to London-born Thomas W. Pyke, his wife Alice and their daughter Harriett.  Pyke, who was a real estate operator, worked from the house.  He advertised, for instance, on November 8, 1863, "To Rent--Three story and basement house 304 West Fourteenth street, East of Tenth avenue; has gas and water fixtures, &c.; immediate possession.  Thos. Pyke, 247 West Seventeenth street."

The melancholy tradition of deaths within the house continued.  One week after his 64th birthday, Thomas Pyke died on April 4, 1864.  Once again, on the afternoon of April 6, a funeral was held in the parlor.

Alice stayed on, now taking in boarders.  In 1864 they were a widow, Margaret Callaghan; John Dax, a printer; and mason James Hamilton.   Soon afterward G. Oelstel moved in, but his residency would be short-lived.  On March 17, 1865 his name was pulled in the Draft Lottery and he left to fight for the Union Army.

There would be another funeral in the house that fall.  On November 19, Harriett W. Pyke died "of dropsy on the heart," according to the New York Herald.  She was just 23 years old.

Around 1866 building contractor William Mulry purchased 349 West 17th Street.  He augmented his income with investment properties throughout the city.  Like Alice Pyke had done, he and his wife took in boarders.  Theirs were quite likely employees of Mulry.  Living with the couple in 1870 were Olin A. Apgar, a carpenter; James P. Voorhes, "carpenter and builder," and John K. Hardy, a painter.

The Mulrys remained at 349 West 17th Street until April 1, 1882 when they sold the house to Maria E. McQuaide for $14,000 (about $385,000 today).  She resold it two yeas later, and it became a boarding house for working-class tenants.  

Charles W. Newman lived here in 1885.  Listed as a "carter," he ran a delivery business and owned "three trucks and a cart," according to his own testimony that year.  Also boarding here were John and Thomas Parks, both laborers.  The two sought to better their circumstances, however.  In July 1885 John Parks was accepted into the Police Department, and Thomas was appointed to the department the following year in May.

Living on the top floor in 1893 were Frank Gau, and his unmarried adult children.  A cabinetmaker, Gau as born in Germany and had come to America in 1855.  The New York Times described him as "industrious and thrifty and succeeded in bringing up a family of three daughters and four sons."

Gau's wife had died in 1888 and, said The New York Times, he "never fairly recovered from the grief occasioned by her death."  To make matters worse, while he had "prospered in business," according to The Evening Telegram, the Financial Panic of 1873 had severely impacted his cabinetry shop and it finally failed in 1878.

Gau had found work with the Hammond Typewriter Company, but because illness, he was forced to retire in 1889.  The Evening Telegram said he was being treated for "heart disease as well as well as for a chronic throat trouble, from which he was at times in danger of being choked to death."  Gau sunk into a deep depression--what at the time was termed "despondency."  During the week of June 19, 1893, he said to his daughter, "Death is slow coming.  I'm a burden to you.  I wish death would come soon."

A week later, on the evening of Sunday, June 25, the 68-year-old attended services at the Eighth Avenue Mission, returning home at 10:00.  The next day The Evening Telegram wrote, "His daughter, on entering his room at five A.M. to-day, saw his body hanging directly over the bed.  He had fastened a rope to a nail and had kicked a chair from under him."  His son, Theodore, cut him down.  The family told a reporter they surmised he "walked around the front room in pain, as as his wont every night, and that the agony become so great as to drive him insane and to a suicide's death."

The residence continued to house respectable, working class tenants through the World War I years.  Like the Parker brothers, Cornelius Mitchell had been appointed to the Police Department in 1894.  Rose Fitzpatrick lived here in the early 1900's, receiving her late husband's police pension of $300 per year (about $8,900 in 2022).

By the 1920's, the tenants of what was now a rooming house were no longer all upstanding.  On May 19, 1922 34-year-old taxi driver Edward Schultz found himself in jail.  That night his cab was involved in an accident at 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue.  His two passengers ran away, leaving behind "three five gallon demijohns containing alcohol," said the New York Herald.  Schultz was "locked up on charges of transporting liquor, and assault."

Three months later, on August 28, 22-year-old William McNamara was one of three men who broke into a the express office of Peter Connelly at 203 West 20th Street.  Pursued by police, he and an accomplice, Thomas Duff, surrendered when shots rang out.  They were charged with burglary.

And on December 9, 1923, another tenant, 33-year-old James McKeaver, was arrested for burglary.  He and John Donnelly had chosen the wrong apartment to rob.  While Donnelly stood outside as lookout, McKeaver slipped into the window of the apartment of former Police Inspector John J. Farrell.   He was rummaging through drawers in the bedroom when Farrell woke up, and grabbed the revolver on the bedside table.  

McKeaver ran out of the apartment and down the stairs toward the basement.  The former cop was right behind him and, when he fired a shot that missed McKeaver's head by inches, McKeaver gave up.  The shot got the attention of a policeman, who saw Donnelly fleeing.  Unlike McKeaver, he ignored the sounds of warning shots and was stopped only when a bullet tore into his leg.

In 1923 the house was sold to Joseph de Allessandro.  The Evening Post remarked, "This is the first sale of the property since 1884."  The next sale would be much quicker.  By 1929 it was owned by Bernard Donohoe, who converted it two a "two family dwelling with furnished rooms," as documented by the Department of Buildings that year.

Living in one of the furnished rooms in 1939 was Jacob Comiskey.  He nearly fell victim to a scam against the elderly that January.  Fifty-two-year-old Samuel Cohen concocted a scheme to steal pension money from old men.  The New York Post explained that he "posed as a Welfare Department physician and asked his victims to strip for medical examination.  Then, he is alleged to have asked them to go into another room for a minute while he robbed them of the small amounts they had in their pockets."

Cohen tried his scam on Comiskey on January 11, 1939.  He knocked on Comiskey's door, identified himself and explained he needed to do an examination.  But Comiskey became suspicious when he was told to go to another room to undress.  The New York Post reported that he "came back into the room in time to see Cohen taking $13.  Cohen dropped the money and ran."  The feisty 70-year-old was not about to let the would-be thief escape and, despite the January cold, pursued him onto the street dressed only in a bathrobe and slippers.  The scene caught the attention of a police officer who arrested Cohen

The following day Cohen appeared in court and so did his accusers.  The New York Post reported, "Shaking their fists in anger, a score of aged and tottering men appeared in Jefferson Market Court today to accuse Samuel Cohen."

A renovation completed in 1978 resulted in a duplex apartment in the basement and parlor floors, and one apartment each on the upper floors.  Then, in 2018, the upper floors were reconverted to a single-family home, with one apartment in the basement level.

uncredited photograph by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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