Thursday, February 9, 2023

The 1883 Narragansett Flat - 435 West 43rd Street


As early as 1869, the family of Charles P. Allaire occupied the three-story brownstone at 435 West 43rd Street.  Charles was a butcher with a stand in the Clinton Market.  Interestingly, when the family sold their home to Margaret Niebuhr in 1882, they relocated to 437 West 43rd Street, just two houses away.

Margaret was the wife of Henry P. Niebuhr, a partner in the Niebuhr Brothers construction company which would erect a replacement building on the site.  The 25-foot-wide house was demolished and in June 1882 architect W. Scott West filed plans for a five-story flat to cost $16,000 (about $437,000 in 2023).  It was Margaret who held the purse strings in the couple's real estate development projects.  She later testified that the lot was "purchased out of her own funds" and the Narragansett Flat was "part of her own private estate, in which neither her husband" nor his partner had any "right, title or interest."

West's Queen Anne design was an spirited presence among its somber brownstone neighbors.  Faced in red brick and liberally trimmed in carved stone, the Narragansett was the last word in 1880s architectural taste.  

Two shops occupied the basement level on either side of the stoop.  The entrance sat below a robust hood supported by polished granite columns.  A foliate carved panel above the center windows of the second floor served as the base to a slightly projecting section crowned by lacy ironwork at the third.  Panels of terra cotta Queen Anne tiles, incised lintel carvings, and a metal cornice support by paired brackets created a visual cornucopia.

There were two apartments per floor, each with five rooms and a bath.  An advertisement for the "new and elegant Narragansett" urged, "must be seen to appreciate."  Calling the neighborhood "first-class," it boasted "modern improvements."  Those would have included indoor plumbing and, most likely, steam heat.

Victorian ironwork was often removed during the 20th century, but this exquisite example survives beautifully.

Among the initial residents was Dr. A. D. Gaillard.  It appears he came up with a guileful marketing scheme in 1886.  The New York Dispatch invited readers to send in questions, like "what is pumice stone?", which were answered in its "Notes and Queries" column.  On April 18 that year the newspaper replied to "A Five Years' Reader" saying, "We know of no better physician for the trouble from which you suffer than Dr. D. A. Gaillard, No. 435 West Forty-third street."  There was almost assuredly a monetary exchange between the doctor and the newspaper.  And "A Five Years' Reader" was most likely the doctor, himself.

The residents of the Narragansett Flat barely escaped with their lives at 5:00 on the morning of December 1, 1887.  The Hudson Register reported that a fire broke out in the tailor shop in the basement "and spread so rapidly that the eight families living in it were driven from the house before they could save any of their property."

On the third floor was the Jacobs family.  Mrs. Jacobs grabbed their three-year-0ld son and ran down the staircase with him.  The article said, "Her husband followed, leaving behind him their oldest child, Joseph, five years old, who was burned to death.  Mr. Jacobs afterward said that in his excitement he forgot the boy."  When the inferno was finally extinguished, the building had been gutted, with damages estimated at $588,000 in 2023 dollars.  

After the repairs were made, Mary Jane Smith was hired as housekeeper and given one of the first floor apartments.  She remarked in court later, "The house is fully improved, [with] all improvements."  Rents in 1887 ranged from $23 to $28 per month--about $825 for the most expensive.

A young couple named Duffy lived here in 1908.  They were married in 1900 when Lillian Duffy was 16 years old.  Now, at the age of 24, she had developed an obsessive attraction to theatrical agent Morris Gest.  According to him, Lillian "has a hardworking husband who is devoted to her."

Her husband's devotion notwithstanding, in February 1908 Morris Gest filed a complaint against her for what today would be termed stalking.  He told the magistrate that she "had followed him for three years."  And he used the term "followed" in its literal sense.

Just weeks after filing his complaint and while still on probation, Lillian trailed Gest "for hours" along Broadway.  He had had a luncheon appointment with actor and playwright George M. Cohan that day at the Knickerbocker Hotel.  As he approached the door, Lillian suddenly appeared.  He escaped by rushing into an elevator.  But, according to The New York Press on March 2, "she afterward followed him to his office building and to other places until he caused her arrest."  In court Lillian's probation officer, Miss McQuade, told the magistrate that she "thought the woman ought to be sent to Bellevue for examination as to her sanity."

Although the Narragansett Flat sat squarely within the notorious Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, its tenants appear to have been, for the most part, respectable and hard working.  Living here in 1918 was Charles D. Donohue, who ran on the Democratic ticket that year for Assemblyman.

The unpainted stone trim can be seen in this 1941 photograph.  The Allaire house, which the Narragansett Flat replaced, looked much like the houses on either side.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

On December 1, 1934 Sarah Keenan moved into an apartment.  Interestingly, her rent was $28 per month--the same amount that tenants had paid in 1887.  As part of her lease, the superintendent agreed to install a clothes line and pulley next to the rear fire escape outside her apartment.  The convenience would nearly end tragically six years later.

On the morning of October 4, 1940, Sarah was hanging laundry.  The superintendent had removed a section of fire escape railing so she could do so.  As she leaned out, clipping wet garments to the line, it broke and Sarah plummeted with it to the concrete pavement below.  Although she suffered a broken leg and abrasions, her injuries could have been significantly worse.

The building was renovated in 2015, however there are still just two apartments per floor.  It may have been at that time that the brownstone trim was painted white.  As it was in 1883, the Narragansett is a scene stealer along the block.

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

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