In 1861, the year that the first shot of the Civil War was fired, Howard A. Martin purchased 200 feet of property along what was still only on paper East 78th Street. Included in the deed was a $128 assessment (about $4,050 in 2023) to open the street. He divided the parcel into 15 building plots, each 13-feet, 4-inches-wide. His builders, Warren and Ransom Beman (possibly brothers) and John Buckley, were most likely responsible for the charming design of the challengingly narrow homes.
The Civil War caused problems for the project and brought construction to a near halt as working class men marched off to fight in the South. The row would not be completed until 1865, the year the conflict ended. Each of the identical houses rose three stories above high basements. Two bays wide, their red brick facades were trimmed in brownstone. Each of the openings was fully arched, and individual, bracketed Italianate style cornices graced the rooflines.
In the meantime, in 1862 Martin had sold the uncompleted homes to investor William H. Brower. He sold 216 East 78th Street to Eugene McGrath in 1865, sparking a rapid turnover of owners, none of whom lived in the house but rented it.
In 1868 widow Sarah Adler became the third owner since Martin's initial sale of the property three years earlier. She put it on the market in September the following year after a cosmetic make-over:
To Let or For Sale--The three story high stoop brick House 216 East Seventy-eighth street; re-painted and put in thorough order throughout; rent $900--price $9,500. Apply on premises.
The rental would translate to about $1,550 per month today, while the sale price would equal about $195,000. Sarah rented the house with year-long leases to mostly white-collar tenants. Spencer H. Haviland, a clerk, lived here in 1870 and '71; followed by Frederick G. Cameron, a seaman; and then by dentist Theodore M. Sendeling in 1873 and '74.
The tenant in 1880 rented space in the house. An advertisement appearing in The New York Times in June that year offered, "Pleasant Rooms, without board; moderate terms."
Finally, around 1895 the house found long term residents in the Albert Peyser family. Peyser ran a delicatessen at 1398 Third Avenue.
On the night of December 6, 1897 photographer Richard Hersey, who lived with his family in the apartment above Peyser's store, was awakened by an explosion followed by another. While his wife and daughter yelled out a window for a policeman, Hersey rushed downstairs. He saw a light in the rear of the delicatessen and ran in search of help. When he and an officer returned, the light in the back of the store had been extinguished. A search revealed that burglars had broken into the rear entrance and blown open the safe.
A messenger was sent to awaken Albert Peyser. The World reported, "When he heard that the safe had been opened by burglars, he expected his loss was heavy." He unlocked the front door "with trembling hands." Inside a set of burglars' tools had been left behind in front of the open safe. Peyser grabbed a jimmy and smashed open the compartment of the safe not affected by the thieves' explosion. Inside were $3,000 in bonds and $496 in cash--about $118,000 today. The crooks had made off with just $14.50. The article said, "Peyser's joy was unbounded. He said it did not occur to him to unlock the compartment with its key, which lay in the very drawer from which the burglars had taken the $14.50."
It appears that Peyser had a rear fire escape installed for his family's increased safety. As it turned out, it saved the life of a relative in an unexpected way. On May 6, 1900 The Sunday Telegraph reported, "Sadie Parsy owes her life to her golden hair. She lives in the family of Albert Peyser, 216 East Seventy-eighth street. Yesterday she fell from the fire escape on the fourth floor." As Sadie plunged, her long tresses became entangled in the ornamental ironwork of the first floor balcony. The article said, "For a moment she hung suspended in midair, and then her hair parted." She landed in the rear yard relatively unhurt (other than a painful scalp wound) because of the break in her fall.
The families who occupied the East 78th Street row were comfortably middle class--affluent enough to afford domestic staffs. The Peysers not only had a maid, but a butler. Theirs, whose name was Stacker, was looking for a new position in 1901. His advertisement read, "Butler--Thorough city experience; unexceptionable personal recommendations; smart appearance; temperate; moderate expectations."
The Peyser family left East 78th Street by 1911, when No. 216 was owned by Helen Sweeny. Like so many owners had done in its past, she rented it. She found a long-term tenant in 1913 who signed a lease "for a term of years." The renters were looking to sell its pet bird in 1915, their advertisement saying, "Parrot. Amazon genuine; very tame; young; beautiful plumage; sure talker; must sell."
The owners may have been policeman Max Mangold and his wife, who were listed here in 1919. The middle-class tenor of the neighborhood was reflected in Mangold's $700 per year, which would translate to about $11,000 today.
Only five of the row survives. The owners have agreed to paint the brownstone trim white. No. 216 is to the left, behind the tree.
It was possibly the house's narrow proportions that caused it to be repeatedly bought and sold by investors who rented it rather than lived there. And its skinny profile may also have been responsible for its not being converted to apartments until 1958. A renovation completed that year resulted in an apartment in the basement and cellar levels, one on the first floor, and a duplex on the second and third. The configuration lasted until 2017 when the charming house was reconverted to a single-family home.
photographs by the author
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