Thursday, March 30, 2023

The "Hell's Kitchen Crash Pad"--R. H. Bechaidner's 1886 452 West 50th Street


In September 1881 The New York Times described the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood as “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City” and said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square in this part of New-York.”  A year later James D. McCabe, Jr., in his New York by Gaslight, wrote, “The city contains two classes of tenement houses.  Those of the first class are occupied by well-to-do working people; those of the second by the very poor.  The first are large, neat-looking structures, and are kept as clean as the great number of people occupying them will permit; the second are wretched abodes of misery, and often of vice and crime.”

Despite McCabe's over-simplified observations, some real estate operators were attempting to improve conditions in Hell's Kitchen.  Others, unfortunately, were taking advantage of them.  In 1884 architect R. H. Bechaidner filed plans for three identical five-story tenements at 448 to 452 West 50th Street.  The Real Estate Record & Guide listed Charles A. Buddensiek as "reputed owner."  Each was projected to cost $15,000 to construct (about $436,000 in 2023).

The Record & Guide's hesitance was based on Buddensiek's current legal problems.  His sordid reputation and shady ways of conducting business had caught up with him.  And on June 27, 1885, the journal reported, "The conviction of Buddensiek is an important thing to every man, woman and child who lives in a New York house."  Calling him "a rascal" and his tenements "man-traps," the lengthy article said in part, "The longer he built, the worse he built."

The project was taken on mid-stream by three separate developers.  Godfrey Haas took over the construction 452 West 50th Street.  Completed in 1886, like its identical neighbors it was designed in the neo-Grec style (although the entrances with their scrolled brackets and half-fluted pilasters were decidedly Renaissance Revival).  Four floors of red brick sat upon a brownstone-clad base.  Bands of brownstone connected the sills and lintels of the openings and complex, handsome mental cornices crowned the design.

While the fluted pilasters and scrolled brackets harkened to the Renaissance, the single anthemion perched on the entranceway pediment was purely Greek.

Expectedly, the apartments filled with working-class families, not all of them law-abiding citizens.  Living here in 1903 was 45-year-old Louis Pflugner, who operated a junk shop at 408 West 41st Street.  About two blocks away was the large factory of William E. Lyford's Hartford Carpet Corporation.  In September that year Lyford complained to police that "his company had been systematically robbed of wool," estimating his loss at $25,000 (about $795,000 today).

Four undercover men were put on the case.  On October 24 they watched as two of Lyford's drivers loaded wool onto two wagons, then followed them to Pflugner's shop.  The detectives waited until the wool was unloaded and when the two drivers and their helper came out of the shop, arrested them.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "In the shop they found four bales of wool, weighing about 800 pounds each.  they also found, they say, bags of wool amounting in all to about $1,000 worth of property."

The New York Sun said, "When Pflugner was arrested he and two of his employees were putting the stolen wool up in bales."  Pflugner denied any guilt, but, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, could not "give any explanation."

Among the tenants in 1913 was truck driver Joseph Benson.  The 24-year-old was drunk on the job on October 20 that year.  When Policeman Dockstader ordered him to pull his wagon over, according to the New York Herald, "Benson whipped his horses and turned west in Thirty-second street."  He crashed into a bus and the automobile of John Mannes, the president of the Grand Rapids Furniture Company.  Dockstader arrested Benson, climbed onto the wagon and ordered him to drive to the police station. 

The inebriated young man was not ready to loose his freedom.  "When they turned into Sixth avenue, Benson urged the horses, which began to run."  The truck hit an elevated railroad pillar, throwing both the driver and the policeman onto the pavement.  The drunk driver was held on $500 bail awaiting his hearing.

The Hell's Kitchen neighborhood had not greatly improved by World War II.  Church, welfare and reform groups attempted to assist the residents by offering educational and recreational programs.  E. A. Gilbert, the director of the Home Recreation Library of the Boys Athletic League came up with a unique idea in December 1940.  By providing little girls the opportunity to "adopt" baby dolls and care for them, he hoped "to promote neatness and cleanliness."  A month later, the adoptive "mothers" were judged on the maternal care they had shown.

On January 30, The New York Sun reported, "Eileen Haberlack, 8 years old, who lives at 452 West Fiftieth street, was the proudest girl in her neighborhood today, for her adopted doll won the prize."  (An unplanned prize, incidentally, was given to a non-participant.  The article said, "And a prominent gentleman was Peter (Tubby) Youngsworth, 6, of 643 Tenth avenue, who tried to crash the party with his teddy bear.")

A terrifying incident occurred here that year.  Mrs. Helen Swift lived on the fourth floor.  On May 8, 1943 her 23-year-old son-in-law, Edward Clark, who lived in Queens, brought his three children, three-year-old Edward Jr., two-year-old William, and seven-month-old Thomas for a visit.  When Helen left the apartment to go shopping, Clark fell asleep.  At noon he awoke to find the building on fire.

Unable to leave the apartment because of thick, black smoke in the hallways, he yelled from a window for help.  Women on the street who had fled the building pleaded with the responding firefighters, "Save the three babies upstairs!"  An aerial ladder was raised to the window and three firefighters clambered up, each bringing down a child with Clark following behind.  Two of the children and Clark were burned and treated at a hospital.  In the meantime, the blaze which spread between the fourth and fifth floors was extinguished.

Three decades did not improve conditions.  In their 2003 book A Goodfella's Guide to New York, Henry Hill and Bryon Schreckengost described 452 West 50th Street in the 1970s saying, "This West Side residence was known as a Hell's Kitchen crash pad for some of the city's worst.  There was always someone up or something going on here.  If you needed to score some junk, buy a gun, or have someone clipped at 4 A.M. on a Tuesday, you came here."

Among the most notorious of the residents in 1975 was Patrick "Paddy" Dugan, a junkie.  He shared an apartment with Billy Beattie, a bartender at the 596 Club.  That summer Dugan murdered his closest friend, Denis Curley in front of several witnesses.  In The Westies, Inside New York's Irish Mob, T. J. English writes, "Hell's Kitchen had always been a violent place, but the idea that someone would shoot his best friend because of a barroom argument was horrifying to a lot of people.  It represented a new kind of violence, where the traditions of loyalty and friendship no longer seemed to mean much."

Street justice played out at 452 West 50th Street.  On November 17, 1975 Paddy Dugan disappeared.  English wrote, "The last anyone saw of him he was headed for his bachelor pad at 452 West 50th Street."  Later it was discovered that Dugan had been murdered in his apartment, then beheaded and his private parts severed.

The 21st century finally brought change to the 50th Street block.  The apartments in 452 West 50th Street with their modern appliances and refinished floors no longer harbor murderers or murder victims.  On the outside, however, there is little change to the building since Godfrey Haas hoped to improve living conditions in Hell's Kitchen more than 135 years ago.

photograph by the author
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