In 1644, freed slave Simon Congo received about 45 acres of land far north of New Amsterdam from William Kieft, the Director of New Netherland. Two centuries later, the northward expansion of New York City was encroaching on his former farm.
John Cowman acquired much of the former Congo property in 1825. He died in 1832, leaving a stipulation in his will that his heirs must wait 10 years before inheriting the land. In 1842 Cowman's son, Augustus T., and son-in-law, Edward Sebring Mesier, divided up the building plots along West 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Mesier took what would become Nos. 1 through 21 West 16th Street and in 1845 began selling the plots while maintaining careful control over what would be erected.
Restrictions were written into the deeds stipulating that no "stable, meat shop, slaughter house...or any base commercial establishment" could be built. Instead, only "first-class" residences which sat back from the street six feet or more were allowed.
The restrictions resulted in a matching row of upscale Greek Revival homes. Although individually owned, they were almost undoubtedly designed by the same architect. Like its neighbors, No. 47 (renumbered 19 in 1868) was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone. A wide stoop rose above the brownstone English basement to a double-doored entrance within an earred surround with entablature and cornice. Two pairs of French doors opened onto an elegant cast iron balcony.
The newly completed house was sold to Rev. Richard W. Dickinson in 1847. Born on November 21, 1804, he had graduated Yale College in 1823 and entered the Theological Seminary at Princeton, New Jersey, graduating in 1826. But frail health would be a constant obstacle to Dickinson's career throughout his life.
Forced to end a pastorship in Philadelphia in 1833, he relocated to New York around 1835, where he acted as a substitute pastor, preaching in various churches whose ministers were sick or traveling. The minutes of the Presbytery of New York of 1874 would recall, "But failing health caused him again to relinquish his charge."
When Dickinson purchased the West 16th Street house he was without a church, living "for the most part, on his own abundant means," according to the minutes. He occupied his time by writing and in 1848 published Religion Teaching By Example, and in 1851 Responses from the Sacred Oracles.
His health was restored enough by 1861 that he was made pastor of the Mt. Washington Church far north in the Inwood section of Manhattan.
It was no doubt the ponderous commute to Inwood that prompted Dickinson to leave West 16th Street in 1864. He leased the house to the family of merchant William Turnbull in 1864. The following year Dickinson's daughter Annie and her husband Granville Byam Smith moved in. Reverend Dickinson had officiated at their wedding in 1863. The couple would remain here through 1870.
In 1871 John D. Prince, a broker, moved his family into 19 West 16th Street. The 27-year-old was married to Anna Maria Morris (known familiarly as Mary). The couple's son, John, Jr., was three years old. In 1874 the Prince's second child, Mary, was born.
The family had just settled in when an unnerving event took place. At around 5:00 on the morning of June 7, 1871, a foot patrolman discovered burglars in the house of John H. Gurley, across the street. "As the officer entered the house, these men rapidly left the rear," reported The Evening Telegram. One of them, William Demorest had been discharged from the State Prison just two months earlier. He fled across the street and broke into the basement door of 19 West 16th Street. Officer Mead was close on his heels.
At some point the Princes and their servants were doubtlessly awakened to the noises of the men struggling below. The Evening Telegram reported, "Officer Mead captured him in the hallway and conveyed him to the station house in West Thirteenth Street."
Living with the family was Prince's unmarried sister, Ellen L. The house was the scene of her marriage to John A. Lowrie on October 22, 1873. The Evening Telegram commented that Lowrie was "well known in fashionable society and at the clubs."
The following year the Prince family moved to 41 East 34th Street. John D. Prince, Jr. would go on to an impressive career. He would become a professor at New York University and Columbia University, serve as the minister to Denmark and Yugoslavia, and as the leader of both houses of the New Jersey Legislature.
Rev. Richard W. Dickinson died on August 16, 1874. He left 19 West 16th Street to Annie and Granville Smith. At the time the renter was operating the residence as a boarding house. It appears he vanished, leaving the Smiths with his boarders and furniture. Their advertisement in the New York Herald on April 15, 1875 read: "To Let--19 West Sixteenth Street--Owner wishes to let the House and sell the Furniture; house full of boarders."
It was leased by Mary Timpson, the widow of John Timpson. And while she was listed as running a boarding house, her own family filled much of the home. Living with her were her sons, John H., Arthur T., and Thomas S. Timpson. Arthur and Thomas were both real estate agents. Boarding with the family in 1876 were attorney Frederick M. Littlefield and Henry Higbee, another agent.
The residence became a private home again in 1884 when the Smiths and their three children (two sons, and a daughter) moved back in. Born on Bond Street on October 24, 1827, Granville Byam Smith had been "placed in charge of the factional currency bureau" in 1861, according to the New-York Tribune. He continued working in the Treasury Department until 1866, after which he was secretary and treasurer of the American Savings Bank. Son Augustus Coleman Smith was a student at Columbia University's School of Political Science when the family in 1884.
The Smiths' prominence in society was reflected in an entertainment given by Annie and her daughter, Anne Caroline, on April 19, 1887. The New York Herald reported, "A small german was given last night by Mrs. Byam Smith [sic] and Miss Smith at No. 19 West Sixteenth street. The leader was Mr. Alexander Hadden, who danced with Miss Smith." A "german" was the popular name for a small cotillion. The article noted that a supper followed the dance. Some of the most elite surnames in Manhattan society were present, including Webb, Howland, Beekman, Delafield, Van Rensselaer and Lorillard.
Augustus Coleman Smith would be the first of the children to leave. On February 6, 1894 the New York Herald reported on his engagement to May Irvin. An orphan, the article noted that she "is now living with her brothers, Mssrs, John and James Irvin, on their ranch in California." Augustus and his bride moved into the West 16th Street house.
Anne Caroline was the the next to wed. She married Horace Green Grannis at the family's summer home on May 17, 1896. The World reported, "A special train yesterday conveyed a number of society people from this city to Scarborough, N.Y." for the wedding.
And, finally, on June 5, 1898 The New York Times reported that Edgar M. Smith was engaged to "Miss Ingram of Nashville, Tenn." Without giving her first name, the article noted, "Miss Ingram, who is now residing in Washington, is connected with the Ingram family of Pennsylvania on her father's side."
In the meantime, Anne Caroline and Horace Green Grannis had also moved into the family home. Grannis was a partner in the real estate firm of W. de Lancey Grannis & Co., founded by his brother. The Finance and Commerce of New York and United States called the firm "one of the most exclusively high-class real estate concerns in the metropolis." At the turn of the century W. de Lancey Grannis & Co. "acquired interests in large tracts of timber lands in the Southern and Western States of the Union," said the article, "and these are under the special personal management of H. G. Grannis."
In 1903 the Smiths leased 19 West 16th Street to Mrs. Antha Minerva Virgil for five years. The author of The Virgil Method, she was a composer, lecturer and the inventor of the Virgil Clavier, or Techniphone, a soundless keyboard.
Minerva Virgil established the Vigil Piano School in the house. Students who came from distant parts of the country could board here. When The Musical Courier announced a recital of the school to be held in the Carnegie Lyceum on June 1, 1908, the article noted that performers came from towns as far away as Marietta, Ohio; Rutland, Vermont; Homesdale, Pennsylvania; and Bristol, Connecticut.
Granville B. Smith died in 1907, and Annie Dickinson Smith in 1913. The Smith estate sold the 25-foot-wide house to William Lustgarten & Co. in November 1914. The Sun noted that the property "has been owned by the selling family for about seventy-five years."
No. 19 West 16th Street once again became a boarding house, now operated by Jennie C. Wright. Among her first boarders was the Bjorhland family. Bjorhland lost his job in January 1915, resulting in desperate circumstances that prompted him and his wife to do an unthinkable act.
On February 15, 1915 The Sun reported, "A woman stepped from a limousine at the Cafe Boulevard, Broadway and Forty-first street, in the rain last evening and found Elizabeth Bjorhland, 3 years old, with a bundle of unsold newspapers under her arm and her eyes full of tears."
The woman, Mrs. Archibald White, who lived in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, took the little girl into the grill room of the Cafe, and, after announcing the situation to the patrons, "auctioned the papers for $50." She then bought the little girl a meal and took her home to 19 West 16th Street in her limo. The Sun said, "Her father has been out of work for some weeks and the family was reduced to the verge of starvation." Mrs. White gave the Bjorhlands the proceeds from the auction--nearly $1,400 in 2023 money.
Among Jennie Wright's other boarders that summer was Lou Cook. The unmarried young woman was a probation officer for the Bedford Hill Reformatory. Also living here was Charles W. Underhill, who, despite his English surname, had a decided German accent.
On July 16, Lou Cook gave Underhill the check for a valise being held at Pennsylvania Station and asked if he would retrieve if for her. The Evening World reported, "Neither he nor the valise showed up at the house." Four days later the feisty Jennie C. Wright spotted her missing boarder in Times Square. The Sun said, "He ran into the subway station, but Mrs. Wright caught him in a telephone booth." She had him arrested for petty larceny.
The story turned bizarre when Underhill appeared before Judges Russell, Herman and Herbert in court and refused to give his real name. On July 27, 1915, The Sun reported, "He said he was a secret agent and that the disclosure would interfere with an international business of great importance between this country and Germany."
He told the judges he had come into the country by way of Canada under the alias Wolff Ulrich. The Evening World added that he told his court-appointed attorney "that he was a graduate of a German university and a member of a high German family." He was held on $500 bail--nearly $14,000 in 2023. Lou Cook apparently never got her suitcase. Underhill "denied taking the valise, saying he had given it to a messenger for delivery," said The Evening World.
In 1921 the house was converted to two- and four-room apartments. Then, in 1972, the basement through second floor were remodeled as the offices of the American Foundation for the Blind. There were still two apartments on the top floor.
The American Foundation for the Blind was replaced by Yeshe Nying Po, a Tibetan Buddhist group, around 1977. The following year a one-apartment "attic" level was added. The group remains in the house four decades later.
photographs by the author
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