Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The 1848 Abraham B. Skillman House - 51 Horatio Street

51 Horatio (left) was designed as a mirror-image of its neighbor.  The addition of the fourth floor is evidenced by the change of brick color.  

In 1847 Magdelena Gray, the wife of attorney Farley Gray, purchased land from Jane Gahn on the north side of Horatio Street between Greenwich and Hudson Streets.  The well-to-do Grays lived in an elegant home nearby on Clinton Place (today's West 8th Street).  They erected a row of three-story, brick-faced homes on the plots.  By reducing the width of the houses to just 16 feet, the Grays were able to squeeze five rather than the more expected four homes on the 80-foot parcel.  

Their builder tackled the problem of their narrow proportions by designing four as mirror-images.  Above the side-by-side stoops, each of the entranceways received one sidelight, so that taken together each pair simulates the appearance of a normal Greek Revival double-doored entrance.  His inventive design went further with the parlor floor windows, the sidelights of which echo the entrances, and in the c0ntinuous, hefty brownstone bandcourse that runs between the first and second floors along the row.

No. 51 Horatio Street became home to the Abraham B. Skillman family.  Skillman was born in New York City on January 8, 1806 and was in the hardware business with his brothers.  He and his wife, the former Catharine Heroy had four children, Martha B., Isaac Brower, George Augustus, and James Henry.

By 1855 the Skillmans were taking in a boarder, Madame Buckingham.  The title reflected her profession as a society dressmaker.  Madame Buckingham's shop was at 505 Broadway.  

In April 1856 both 49 and 51 Horatio Street were offered for sale.  The ad touted their "modern improvements," which most likely included running water and gas lighting.  Madame Buckingham was still living at the address in October that year when she advertised for dressmakers and apprentices, noting "none but those fully competent need apply."

The new owners apparently operated 51 Horatio Street as a boarding house.  It became home to professionals like William E. Berrien, a builder, and accountant John Alwaise in 1859.  The following year the Laboyteaux family took rooms.  Joseph and William H. Laboyteaux were both clerks, while Peter was in the shoe business.

The landlady placed an unusual advertisement in the New York Herald on September 11, 1861.  It read, "Board for Children--An American Lady of experience and capability will take the entire care of two or three children on very reasonable terms.  Apply at 51 Horatio street."

In 1868 Alexander Bowden purchased 51 Horatio Street as an investment, leasing it along with other properties he owned in Greenwich Village, including others on Horatio Street.

By 1872 the McCarthy and Mingey families were sharing the address.  (It is possible that one of the families occupied the smaller house in the rear.)  Richard J. McCarthy and Lawrence Mingey were partners in Mingey & McCarthy, wholesale meats at 115 Greenwich Avenue.  Walter Mingey was also involved in the business, as well as in Mingey & Callen, collars, on New Chambers Street.

It was at about this time that the entire row of homes was raised to four floors.  Their short third floor windows were raised to full height and a fourth floor was added.  Because the continuous Greek Revival cornice with its delicate dentils was decidedly out of fashion by then, it is possible that the builder carefully removed the original and reinstalled it.

Boarding here in 1875 was John Maloney.  He was arrested on March 4 that year for running a saloon without an excise, or liquor, license.  

When the house was again offered for rent six months later, it was described as a "four story House, 11 rooms."  The asking rent was $800 per year, or about $1,700 per month by a 2023 conversion.

And when Bowden advertised 51 Horatio Street in April 1877, he reduced the rent from $800 to $700 per year, noting that it had "all improvements."  

Reuben R. Codling answered that ad.  A native of Poughkeepsie, New York, he was a broker with offices at 114 Broadway.  Unfortunately, the young man would not enjoy the house for very long.  He died on February 14, 1879 at the age of 32.  His funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

Somewhat interestingly, Alexander Bowden's son, Robert J. Bowden, moved into the house following the Codlings.  He operated two grocery businesses, one at 627 Hudson Street and the other at 606 Ninth Avenue.  Boarding with his family in 1879 and 1880 was George M. Hitchcock, a clerk.

Bowden and his family had moved out by the mid-1880s when the family of Robert Abbott rented 51 Horatio Street.  He and his wife, the former Eliza Nightingale, had two children, James who was born in 1860, and Renwick Wylie, born in 1876.  Living with the family was Eliza's aged parents, John and Ann Jane Agnew Nightingale.  

Another funeral, that of Jane Nightingale, was held in the house on August 31, 1886.  She had died at the age of 82 two days earlier.

Following their father's death, in April 1891 Robert J. and Samuel C. Bowden sold 51 Horatio Street to Du Bois Smith.  The house was once again operated as a boarding house for years.  Its tenants were no longer professional class by the turn of the century when Charles Schweizer lived here.

A cab driver, Schweizer was involved in a potentially devastating accident on April 27, 1903.  A group of women  including Mrs. David Bayer and her one-year-old son started to cross Fifth Avenue at 13th Street that afternoon.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Believing they saw their opportunity they started over, when Schweizer's cab came bowling along at such a rate as to threaten to run down several of them."

Halfway into the intersection and carrying her toddler, Mrs. Bayer realized she could not escape being run down by the galloping horse and cab.  The newspaper said, "she used all her strength and threw the baby from her so that he, at least, should not be harmed.  The child fell near a woman, who picked him up and scampered to the sidewalk with him."  In the meantime, Schweizer's horse knocked Mrs. Bayer to the ground, where a wheel of his cab ran over her leg.

Patrolman Kenny, who witnessed the incident, arrested Schweizer and used his cab to transport the victim to the New-York Hospital.  There Mrs. Bayer pressed charges of assault and Kenny added a charge of reckless driving.

The Nelson family was living at 51 Horatio Street when the United States entered World War I.  Joseph Nelson joined the army and was deployed to the battlefront.  The family received the terrifying news on January 5, 1919 that he had been listed as Missing in Action.  They endured four months of uncertainty until on May 3 the New-York Tribune reported that Private Nelson was found and had returned to duty.

In the 1920s artist Archibald Bonge rented the rear building as his studio.  Interviewed by the New York Evening Post in May 1928, he explained his so-far colorful young life.  

I was brought up on a ranch and until sixteen practically lived in the saddle.  At the university [of Nebraska] I ran the mile, 220 yards and 440, was in the high and broad jump, was basketball center and would have made the football team if Notre Dame hadn't stopped me by attacking commercialism in college sport.  I quit and attended the Chicago Art Institute for three years, working my way as doorman at the Roosevelt Theatre.

The money he saved as a theater doorman allowed him to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia for a year before moving on to the Art Students' League in New York.  Once again, he supported himself mostly by working as a doorman at the Times Square Paramount Theatre.  He painted in his Horatio Street studio from 8:00 in the morning until time to work.  (The New York Evening Post noted that Bonge's residence "is in violent contrast with the Paramount.  No lobby, no sidewalk canopy.  Indeed the house itself is not visible from the street.")  At the time of the interview, he was preparing a one-man exhibition in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Playhouse.

But the newspaper was less interested in the doorman-painter's artwork than his romantic life.  He found a model for his large canvas Spring in actress Eunice Lyle, who was appearing in The Shanghai Gesture.  But posing was not in her future.  The two became so "interested" in each other "that she never did pose," Bonge said, "but she is going to marry me."

The twist was that the athletic cowboy-turned-artist-turned-doorman was engaged to an heiress.  Off the stage Eunice Lyle was Eunice Swetman, daughter of millionaire O. G. Swetman, president of the People's Bank in Biloxi, Mississippi.  

Living here by 1934 was children's author Iris Vinton and her husband Louis German.  Born in West Point, Mississippi in 1905, this was most likely her first address after upon moving to New York City.  While her first works were short plays, she became known for her children's novels, like the 1957 Flying Ebony (made into the film The Mooncussers), The Black Horse Company, and Longbow Island.  She also contributed to several of the Nancy Drew mystery books.

Iron fire escapes zig-zag down the facades of the row in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

A renovation completed in 1972 resulted in a duplex in the basement and first floors and a triplex above.  The triplex was leased in the summer of 1973 by musician and producer Todd Rungren and model/singer Bebe Buell.  They paid $600 per month (about $3,660 by 2023 terms).  In her 2001 Rebel Heart: An American Rock 'n' Roll Journey, Buell says that upon seeing it, despite the price, they fell in love with the triplex.

"Well, you know," he rationalized, "I just made all this money for doing Grand funk and I'm going to be getting a big check, and I'm getting ready to produce Hall and Oates next, so, all right, let's go for it."

According to Buell, "That place became our rock 'n' roll palace.  It helped emphasize Todd's success.  And of course it was effortless for him to pay for it."  She described the apartment saying, "There was a spiral staircase connecting the three levels...The first floor consisted of a kitchen, a dining room, and a living room with a fireplace."  She and Rungren's bedroom was on "the mezzanine" where there was a second living area that held Rundren's piano.  On the top floor were two more bedrooms "where everybody would go to have sex" during their "divine parties."

In her book, Beull says the parties reminded her of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  "People were everywhere, hanging off the staircases, strewn throughout the living rooms.  God knows what went on in the bathrooms."

The pair remained together until shortly after Buell gave birth in 1977.  Although the infant, named Liv, was the daughter of Steven Tyler, Rundgren agreed to pose as her father to protect her from Tyler's drug addition.  Liv Tyler did not discover her biological father's identity until she was 11 years old.

They had been gone from 51 Horatio Street for two years when Liv was born.  It was purchased by Robert Hope Fuller, the controller for I.T.T.-Raynonier, Inc. for $200,000 that year.  He moved into the triplex and rented the lower apartment.  Fuller had inherited "a large sum of money," according to Newsday, and furnished his home with Persian rugs and "antique European pieces."

On December 25, 1979 the 43-year-old bachelor made Christmas dinner for three former female neighbors from the East Side.  The following day, a friend became worried when he could not contact Fuller by phone.  He entered the unlocked house around 8:30 p.m. to find the triplex ransacked and Fuller's nude body in the bedroom with a bullet wound to the neck.  One detective told reporters "that police believe robbery was the motive," said Newsday, while a "second detective said he was leaning to the theory that the killing was the result of a homosexual lovers' quarrel."

In 2016 51 Horatio Street was re-converted to a single family house.  It and its architectural siblings create a charming enclave along the block.

photograph by the author
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