Thursday, April 27, 2023

Billy Madden's Athletic Hall - 120 East 13th Street


In the 1850s piano maker Peter A. Meeks lived in the brick-faced house at 94 East 13th Street (renumbered 120 in 1868).  Following his death, the estate entrusted the management of the property to real estate broker and builder John B. Marcella.  He testified decades later, in 1899, that he "altered and repaired" the building in 1864.

Because Marcella was a builder, he most likely did not use an outside architect.  His renovations resulted in what today would be called a mixed-used structure that essentially followed the designs of a stable--a wide bay at ground level flanked by an entrance and a window.  The upper floors held residential spaces.  And, in fact, a livery stable may have originally occupied the first floor.  On June 25, 1871, The New York Times reported, "Yesterday Henry Bergh arrested Thomas Quinn, of No. 120 East Thirteenth-street, for driving a white horse with a large raw sore under the saddle."  (Henry Bergh was the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.)

If there was a stable at 120 East Thirteenth Street when Thomas Quinn was arrested, it was gone the following year when May Bayersdorfer ran his auction business from the ground floor.  He liquidated furniture and such and on May 10, 1871 auctioned the contents of a 14-room house, including "elegant Piano, rich black walnut Chamber Suits, marble top Bureaus and Tables," and other high-end furnishings.

Living upstairs in the late 1870's was Frederick W. Brown, a clerk in the city's Topographical Engineer's office.  He earned $2.50 per day in 1877, or about $1,334 a month in 2023 (assuming he worked only five days a week).  

Actors George T. Ulmer and his wife, Lizzie May lived here in 1879.  George T. Ulmer had been a drummer boy in the Civil War and first appeared on stage in Boston in 1868 with the Selwyn stock company.  

Nelson A. Primus's portrait of Lizzie hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Lizzie's success and popularity was reflected in the fact that she had posed for a large portrait two years earlier.  In January 1877 the Evening Express of Boston reported, "Mr. N[elson]. A. Primus has just finished a life-size oil painting of the beautiful and accomplished little actress, Lizzie May Ulmer.  It is pronounced by critics to be the finest painting ever seen in Boston."  Lizzie reprised her role as Moya in Dion Boucicault's drama The Shaughraun on May 17, 1879 while living here.  

Within a few years the reputation of 120 East 13th Street was slipping.  George A. Greene had converted the ground floor to a "concert saloon."  The Board of Excise revoked his liquor license in 1883 based on a petition of nearby residents who complained of the "disorderly character of Greene's place."   In August Greene protested, claiming in court that the majority of the signers were unfamiliar with his business.

Interestingly, when the case came up again on September 10, only Greene and his dozen witnesses appeared.  Policeman Thomas Raymond, who had charged on August 26 that he had been served liquor on a Sunday morning while in uniform, now denied he had made the statement.   When the Society for the Prevention of Crime was called forth to "substantiate the charges made in their report," no members appeared in court.  And the society's lawyer avowed that "no complaint had been made against Greene by the society."

Henry Burroughs lived upstairs when he was arrested on March 4, 1884 with Patrick Green.  The Daily Graphic said, "The two men are well known in criminal annals."  They were detained by Roundsman (i.e., foot patrolman) Devery "as suspicious persons."  At the police station they were found to be carrying a burglar's jimmy and each had a loaded revolver.  The article recalled, "Eleven years ago Burroughs was arrested for burglary, and during the trial of his case in the Court of General Sessions slipped off his handcuffs and dashed out of the room.  He was arrested, however, and served a term in the State Prison."

A major change had come to the ground floor two months earlier.  On January 2, 1884 The Sporting Life announced, "Billy Madden has opened a saloon at 120 East Thirteenth st., N.Y., with boxing and dancing room attached."  Originally called Madden's Sporting House by the press, it later was named Billy Madden's Athletic Hall.

The well-rounded Madden was well-known as a champion boxer, trainer and manager, but he was as well an author, playwright, and sports promoter.  Born in London in 1852, Madden had competed until January 1877.  Then, according to the National Police Gazette on September 13, 1884, "he made up his mind that it was not a very profitable business, and he took to teaching the manly art.  Among his pupils are some of the wealthiest as well as the most proficient gentlemen, including George Jay Gould, G. P. Moroisini, W. E. Conner, Gladwins and many others."  Among his stable of professional boxers were John L. Sullivan, Jake Kilrain and Jack Dempsey.

Billy Madden.  The National Police Gazette, September 13, 1884 (copyright expired)

On September 13, 1884 The National Police Gazette called Madden, "the best trainer, second and judge, and shrewdest manager in the world.  He can always be seen at his popular sporting house, 120 East Thirteenth street."

A month prior to that article, The New York Clipper had reported, "Madden's Athletic Hall...was filled with admirers of boxing on the evening of Aug. 4. gathered to witness the competitions between amateurs for the lightweight medal in the tournament for valuable prizes then inaugurated by him."  A shrewd marketer, Madden had guaranteed a good turnout both in competitors and boxing fans by announcing two days earlier that he would be awarding the winners with "gold medals of elegant design."

Later that year Madden held a benefit for another "trainer of pugilists, pedestrians, and wrestlers," Bob Smith.  The New York Dispatch said the New Year's Eve event would include "sparring and wrestling by all the champions."

Days before the New Year's Eve benefit, Madden had sold Athletic Hall to one of his boxers, Jack Dempsey.  On December 18 the Boston Globe reported that the boxer had bought the "sporting resort" and "will endeavor to become expert in mixing drinks."  The pugilist-turned-bar-owner held an inauguration event on January 12, 1885.  In his 2019 biography Nonpareil Jack Dempsey, author Joseph S. Page says:

A large crowd paid the one-dollar admission and came out to drink, see the bouts and to help christen the newly-relaunched establishment.  Dempsey would put on several evenings of fight cards in January, during which the Nonpareil played a variety of roles, from host to referee to timekeeper to pugilist.

Billy Madden remained, helping Dempsey run the operation and acting as referee.  On January 22, for instance, ten days after the opening, Bill Glynn failed to appear for a bout against Jim Fell.  The National Police Gazette reported that Dempsey stepped in, and gave a blow-by-blow account of the match:

It was a slashing affair for four rounds.  In the last round Fell dashed at Dempsey and planted several blows on his ribs.  Dempsey got home with the left and right, the latter's fist landing on Fell's ear.  Then they wrestled, and Fell thought he had Dempsey on a hip-lock.  The latter wriggled out of the lock, however, and both went to the floor together.  They arose and resumed the contest, and after a sharp exchange Dempsey succeeded in rushing Fell back to the edge of the stage near the dressing-room and in a wrestle threw him.  Billy Madden then stopped the bout, and both shook hands good-naturedly.

The Athletic Hall closed before 1891 and the little building was converted to factory space.  That year it held the offices of The Astoria Veneer Mills.  It advertised, "This company make a specialty of the manufacturing of Poplar and Walnut Lumber for the use of the Piano and Organ Trade."

The building was purchased in 1893 by Alfred Dolge, who simultaneously moved his large piano felt making factory into the nearby building at 110-112 East 13th Street.   Dolge made renovations to 120 East 13th Street for the firm's offices.  

Dolge's substantial operation--he had created the town of Dolgeville, New York around his main factory--came to a crashing end in 1898.  The firm failed that summer, and on June 10 120 East 13th Street was sold in foreclosure to Adolph Sietor, who held the mortgage, for $2,000 (about $67,400 today).

The building once again became home to an auction house, run by Louis Levy.  On November 25, 1902, he advertised a "mortgage sale" of "two pool tables complete, formerly at No. 34 West End Avenue."  It seems likely that the pool tables had been repossessed by Alfred B. Marx & Bro.  The pool table manufacturers were listed at the East 13th Street address at the time, apparently operating from the upper floors.

Susan Stein purchased 120 East 13th Street in 1918.  She immediately hired the architectural firm of Gronenberg & Leuchtag to design a four-story garage on the site.  The American Machinist reported on March 7, that the proposed building would cost her $30,000 to construct.

But Susan Stein changed her mind.  On August 23, 1919 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported she had sold 120 East 13th Street and the vacant lot next door at 118 to the Star Box Lumber Co. for $30,000.  The article noted, "The buyer will alter the property for business use."

Star Box Lumber used the vacant lot, as well, for its business.  When this photograph was shot in 1941, the cornice was still intact.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In 1943 the Rolley Realty Corporation, which owned the loft building at 110-116 East 13th Street, purchased 120 and the empty lot at 118.  The purchase was quite likely to ensure that no towering building would be constructed on the site, blocking air and light to 110-116 East 13th Street.  

The little battered building continued to see industrial use.  In the 1950s it was home to the Conopac Corp., makers of "dry filling machines," and the following decade the Mitchell Offset Plate Service, Inc. occupied it.

A renovation completed in 2007 resulted in a plumbing and heating contractor's shop on the ground floor, offices on the second, and two apartments on the third floor.  At some point during the 20th century the cornice was removed and the brick painted white.  The innocuous little structure, unwilling to give up any hint of its colorful past, draws no attention from passersby.

photographs by the author
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