Monday, January 2, 2023

The Lost Isaac McNulty House - 161 West 83rd Street

The McNulty House (right) sat next to a pair of mirror-image rowhouses constructed later.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1865 the City of New York had been nearly destroyed by fire twice.  That year the devastating blaze at Barnum's American Museum was one of the most spectacular in memory.  In the two and a half hours it raged, the inferno spread, eventually destroying ten structures.  City officials had had enough.  Frame construction was outlawed in New York City the following year.

Already standing was the attractive wooden house at what would be 161 West 83rd Street, just south of Bloomingdale.  An architectural pioneer in the mostly rural district, it was erected, most likely, just before or right after the Civil War.  Its Italianate architecture reflected both town and country--its deep porch and floor-to-ceiling parlor windows reminiscent of the rural homes of the area, while its prim design echoed the rowhouses downtown.

In her novel The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton described the West End at the time as "the inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park."  But that would change in the 1870's as development took off, reaching a fever pace a decade later.  

Because it initially had no official address, it is difficult to know who occupied the house in its early phase.  It appears that a tinsmith operated his shop from the rear of the property  in the 1880's.  The house was nearly nearly lost at 7:09 p.m. on April 12, 1889 when "sparks from tinners charcoal pot," according to the Fire Record, caused a fire.  Luckily, by now the neighborhood was highly developed and firefighters quickly arrived and put out the fire.

The owners at the time were most likely Isaac McNulty and his wife, the former Sarah Cornelia Stillwell.  The couple had rented a nearby house at 144 West 83rd Street until June 1886, and occupied 161 West 83rd Street prior to 1896.

Isaac was born in Green Village, Pennsylvania in 1826.  At the age of 24 he and 11 other men incorporated the Gas Light Company of Freehold in New Jersey, around the time he married Sarah (who was known as Sadie).  Sarah was born in Colts Neck, New Jersey in 1831.  The couple had three children, now adults who resided elsewhere: George Washington, Joseph Gaskell, and Sadie Louise.  

The open air and unobstructed views that the first occupants had enjoyed were a distant memory in 1896.  Directly across the street from the McNulty house was a row of speculatively built rowhouses.  Dr. Duffield Bell lived at 160 West 83rd Street with his children and mother-in-law, and Nellie M. Harrison lived next door at 162.  The World noted, "Mrs. Nellie Harrison lived in West Thirty-seventh street a few years ago.  Next door lived Deacon Harrison.  Some strange complications resulted."

Nellie Harrison had moved in on June 10, 1896.  The house had been leased for three years from the Reid estate by Henry W. Donald.  The relationship between him and the widowed Mrs. Harrison is unclear, however a detective later told a judge, "He has spent a fortune on her, Your Honor."  

The arrival of Nellie Harrison fractured the peace and calm of the block.  Finally Dr. Bell's patience was exhausted.  On  the night of September 9, 1896 he made a complaint at the 68th Street stationhouse and Detective Rohrig arrested Harrison "on the charge of maintaining a public nuisance."

Calling her "a handsome woman," The World reported that she appeared in court the following morning "finely dressed and wearing diamonds."  She listened as Dr. Bell told Magistrate Flammer that since her arrival, "his ears have been shocked and his rest broken by singing, swearing and shouting in the Harrison house."  Bell had brought Isaac McNulty along as a witness.  The World reported that he "also said that he had been disturbed by revelries in the Harrison house."

When it was her turn to speak, Nellie Harrison "with much indignation" denied the charges.  She refuted Bell's and McNulty's accounts, and added, "As for that detective, he utters a malicious slander on a respectable woman."  Despite her self-righteous plea, she was held on $300 bail awaiting trial--an amount equal to $10,000 in 2022 which the ever generous Henry W. Donald immediately paid. 

A year after his testimony, on November 16, 1897, Isaac McNulty died at the age of 71.  His funeral was held in the parlor two days later, followed by his burial in Greenwood Cemetery.

At some point Sarah's sister Henrietta Taylor moved in with her.  The two widows lived quietly for years in what was now a charming anachronism, a deep-porched wooden house steps away from bustling Amsterdam Avenue.  It was the scene of a funeral again in 1902.  Henrietta died at the age of 78 on January 4 and her funeral was held on the 7th.

Sarah was 69 years old at the time, and she busied herself with worthy causes.  In 1905 tuberculosis was spreading at an alarming rate among the city's tenements.  Janet E. Ruutz-Rees, in a letter to the editor of the New-York Tribune published on December 28 that year, stressed that prevention "is best assured by intelligent home nursing and cleanliness in those poorer homes."  But, said Ruutz-Rees, "It seems hardly credible in view of such facts that the wealthy residential district above 72d-st. on the West Side has never until this year attempted to secure the permanent services of a trained nurse for the poorer class, of which there is a rapidly growing population in Amsterdam and Columbus aves., above 90th-st."

But Sarah McNulty was among the women on the Upper West Side resident who were attempting to remedy the problem.  Janet E. Ruutz-Rees ended her letter saying, "The Bloomingdale District Nursing Association has started the good work, and any inquiries regarding it can be made to the secretary, Mrs. Sadie McNulty, No. 161 West 83d-st."

Sarah McNulty would live to be 90 years old, dying on October 25, 1921.  But her funeral would not be held in the 83rd Street house.  It had been sold to the A. C. and H. M. Hall Realty Co. in April 1907 and leased to coal merchant Thomas Ward and his wife Mary.

The Retail Coalman had describe Ward in 1903 as "One of the pioneers of the upper West Side of New York."  Born in New Ross, Ireland in 1844, he came to America at the age of 24.  His massive coal business was located on the Hudson River at 79th to 82nd Street.  In 1903, according to The Retail Coalman, "The most modern electric machinery was installed, with which five hundred tons of coal may be hoisted daily."

He also ran an uptown coal yard, opened in 1902, at Fort Washington Avenue and 159th Street on the Hudson River.  Ward's eldest son, Joseph A. ran that location, and his younger son, William A. Ward, worked at the 82nd Street yard.  The magazine noted that Thomas Ward, "maintains a summer home at Kiamesha Lake, Sullivan county, and usually spends his winters at Asheville N.C."

The Retail Coalman, February 4, 1903 (copyright expired)

William A. Ward was 20 years old when his father admitted him into the firm in 1907, the year the family moved into 161 West 83rd Street.  The Evening World described the athletic young man as "a powerful swimmer [who] had taken part in many amateur contests."

On June 19, 1908, William Ward was supervising the unloading of a barge at the 79th Street dock.  The Retail Coalman reported, "Swells from a large steamer passing up the river rocked the boat to such an extent that the unfortunate young man was pitched off the dock and into the water."  As Ward fell, he hit his head on a piling and was knocked unconscious.  The 21-year-old drowned.  The Retail Coalman reported, "The accident happened at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and it was not until midnight that the body was recovered."

The house was leased to a dressmaker in 1910 and 1911.  Her advertisement in the New York Herald on January 29, 1911 read:

Dressmaker, many years' experience, would like few more customers; late with White, Howard, Madison av.; by day, $3; reduced rates for long engagements; home; reasonable; altering and remodeling done; everything pertaining to dressmaking; all latest designs.  161 West 83d

She would be the last tenant of the remarkable survivor.  In 1912 it and the two abutting houses at 163 and 165 were sold as the site of an apartment house.  The lifespan of that building would be much shorter.  It was demolished in 1930 to make way for an Art Moderne style garage, which survives.

image via Google Streetview

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