Monday, February 6, 2023

The Lost John B. Porcher House - 65 West 128th Street


from the collection of the New York Public Library

Born in 1823, John B. Porcher was appointed a New York City policeman on February 25, 1858.  He and his wife, Catharine E. Porcher, had married in 1847 and had a son, Charles M., and a daughter Katherine A. (known as Kate).  Porcher's worth to the city as a policeman surpassed the contribution he could make as a soldier when the Civil War broke out.  And so, as thousands of young men marched South, he remained behind to maintain order.  

During the early years of the war, Porcher invested in real estate in the Harlem area.  He bought several properties on West 128th Street, including a newly-built three-story house at 65 West 128th Street.  The family moved into that 25-foot-wide residence in 1862, according to The Yonkers Statesman later.

Looking like a Victorian dollhouse, the 14-room, brick-faced house was designed in the emerging Second Empire style.  The third floor took the form of a fashionable, slate-tiled mansard with two  dormers.  While the lower floors were relatively understated, the dormers were not.  Their Parisian personalities included arched pediments, carved brackets, and decorative scrolls.  Although the house exhibited sophisticated urban influences, it retained a rather country feel, including the wooden picket fence around the yard.  To the side, a narrow horse-walk provided access to the rear yard.

In 1870 the Porcher family moved down the block to another of their holdings, 51 West 128th Street.  They leased No. 65 to newlyweds Robert F. Johnson and the former Maggie A. Skinner.  Johnson was an "agent of implements."

While the caption of this photograph in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York and dated ca. 1877 reads, "Home of John B. Porcher, 65 West 128th Street," it is most likely 51 West 128th Street.  The well-dressed gentleman may be Porcher.  photographer unknown.

Tragically, Maggie Johnson died on November 19, 1872 at the age of 23.  Her funeral was held in the 128th Street house two days later.  The following year Porcher leased 65 West 128th Street to Augustus F. Hutchings, a real estate agent.  The family took in a boarder, policeman John Joyce.

John B. Porcher changed careers around 1873.  He was now listed in directories as a hatter.  Their house was the scene of Kate's wedding to Theodore Dieterlen on September 23, 1879.

In the meantime, a series of working class tenants came and went at 65 West 128th Street.  In 1879 and '80 the families of Oliver B. Jenkins and George Sloterman lived here.  The men most likely knew one another through their professions in the construction industry.  Jenkins was a mason and  Sloterman a carpenter.  In 1886 and '87 George Hall lived in the house.  A parkkeeper for the city, he earned $2.75 per day, or about $80 by 2023 conversion.

On May 15, 1893 a sale was held of all the furnishings within the house, after which the Porcher family moved back in.  Their comfortable financial position was reflected in a succinct announcement in The Evening Telegram on October 1, 1896.  "Mr. and Mrs. John B. Porcher and Mr. Charles M. Porcher, of No. 65 West 128th street, are at home after spending a delightful summer at Liberty, N. Y."

The following spring John and Catherine celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  On May 27, 1897, The Yonkers Statesman reported on the reception within the 128th Street house.  The article mentioned, "They were married in the old Eighth Street Methodist Church, and have lived for 35 years in their present home.  They are each 73 years old."

Around the turn of the century the family moved to another of their properties.  John B. Porcher died at 243 West 128th Street on April 6, 1903, and Catherine died there at the age of 91 on May 13, 1915.  In the meantime, the Porchers had continued to lease 65 West 128th Street.

Their first tenants had been the McKeever family.  Their rent was $1,500 a year, or about $4,000 per month today.  Living with his elderly parents was bachelor John T. McKeever, who was well known in theatrical circles.  As a boy he had appeared on the stage "with Haverly's juvenile 'Pinafore' company," according to the New York Herald.  He changed course later, turning from acting to accounting.

For fifteen years he had been the treasurer of the Madison Square Theatre and Palmer's Theatre, run by A. M. Palmer.  When the family rented the West 128th Street house, he was the treasurer of Wallack's Theatre on Broadway.  The Morning Telegraph described him as "one of the best known and most popular box office attendants in New York, and perhaps his only failing was that he had too many friends."

The 65-year-old had serious problems, however.  On April 17, 1902, The Morning Telegraph titled an article, "John T. M'Keever Ill; His Recovery Doubtful."  The article said he had been suffering from pneumonia for several days, adding,  "He has had a complication of diseases that have finally resolved themselves into typhoid fever and cirrhosis of the liver." 

The following day The Brooklyn Standard Union reported succinctly, "John T. McKeever, who was treasurer of Wallack's Theatre until recently, died from Bright's disease at the home of his father, 65 West 128th Street."  Somewhat surprisingly, his funeral was held in the house at 1:00 that same afternoon.

McKeever's parents did not remain in the house.  An advertisement listed the "handsomely decorated" residence with "large mirrors" for rent.  The Porchers apparently did not want it to sit vacant.  "Want tenant; will let to $75 month," said the advertisement.  The discounted rent was about half of what the McKeevers had been paying.

In 1913, 65 West 128th Street was being operated as a rooming house.  The tenants were middle-class, as reflected in the advertisements of two who were seeking work that year.  Mrs. Hageman described herself as an "American woman" seeking a position of a managing housekeeper in a hotel.  She noted, "not afraid of work."  Helen S. Rankin was a proofreader, with "experience in law, magazine, catalog, encyclopedia, stencil, card index, [and] editorial work."  She was apparently eager to find a position, her ad noting, "will go anywhere."

After his family had owned 65 West 128th Street for for 56 years, Charles M. Porcher sold it in June 1918.  The neighborhood was degrading at the time, and when Minnie Budak sold the house in 1924, it was described as a tenement.

The unfortunate conditions of some of the tenants was reflected in a heart-wrenching incident on January 25, 1923.  Recent immigrants from Portugal, John and Mary Fereira lived here with their three children: two three-year-old twins, Alfred and Olive, and five-year-old John.  John Sr., who was 30-years-old, made his living as a laborer.  

Mary fell ill with influenza and, according to The New York Times, "The three children were taken down immediately afterward."  John quit his job in order to look after his family, but then he, too, was infected.  The newspaper said on January 26, 1923, "Two or three days without work left them penniless.  The little food they have had for several days was supplied by neighbors."

In 1932, 65 West 128th Street (to the left) was overshadowed by its taller neighbors.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

The family's condition rapidly deteriorated from sickness to near death.  When police entered their rooms on January 25, they found them "all sick with grip, hungry and helpless."  John and Mary were "in bed helpless and apparently benumbed.  They were semi-conscious and could not tell what was the matter," said The New York Times.  The children were "drowsy and half-alive."  The article noted, "There was no food in the house."  The family was transported to Harlem Hospital where the conditions of all five were listed as serious.

As Harlem increasingly became the center of New York's Black community, the demographics of 65 West 128th Street followed suit.  Living here in 1927 were Alice Fowler and two sons, including eight-year-old, Eugene Daniel.   The boy had witnessed a horrifying incident a two years earlier, on April 26, 1925.  

That afternoon his father, also named Eugene and still dressed in his Sunday suit, headed out with the boy to a stable on 146th Street "to feed the horse," as the boy later testified.  Suddenly, he said, "Two mens came on and slapped my father down."  The elder Fowler got to his feet and ran, with his son close behind.  He got about half a block before he was surrounded by street toughs.  While the little boy watched in terror, they pummeled his father with bricks and stones, and then beat him with iron automobile cranks.

Eventually, the gang dispersed, leaving Eugene Fowler dead on the pavement with a broken jaw, broken neck and fractured skull.  Little Eugene picked up his father's Sunday dress hat and ran home. 

In 1939 an Unsafe Building violation was issued on the property.  The owner apparently felt the repairs were not worth the expense, and later that year a demolition permit was granted.  The site of the Porcher house remained vacant until 1965 when it became the first "vest-pocket park" not only in New York City, but the country.  It was named in honor of the Rev. Linnette C. Williamson, pastor of the Christ Community Church of Harlem.

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  1. I did not see the end coming. How delightful to become a park. And amazing research, as always