Thursday, April 13, 2023

Home to Jazz Legends - 204 East 13th Street


For 220 years a pear tree that Peter Stuyvesant had brought from the Netherlands in 1647 stood at the corner of 13th Street and Third Avenue.   A severe winter storm toppled the venerable tree in February 1867.  Just feet away from the site at 204 East 13th Street--and still sitting on Stuyvesant-owned land--was a four-story house where widow Elizabeth Burke lived.  Its life-span would be much shorter than that of the pear tree.

In April 1875 Mary R. Stuyvesant sold the leasehold on the 23-foot-wide property to Philip J. Seiter for the equivalent of $12,700 in 2023.  What he paid for the building is unclear.  A builder, Seiter replaced the private house with a five-story flat-and-store building.

The structure's neo-Grec design went beyond the expected.  While the cast iron storefront with its paneled pilasters was overall unexceptional, it was topped by an exuberant, projecting awning-like cornice of deep corbels that was most likely painted in vivid colors.

The upper floors were faced in red brick and trimmed in sandstone.  The carved architrave frames of the openings, the details of the sills and lintels, and the robust cornice--with its paired brackets and modillions, stylized anthemions and pendant pinecone finials--would have stood out in any section of town.

The building was what was known as a "single flat," meaning there was just one apartment per floor.  Each had  six rooms  and a bath.  An advertisement for the "first flat" (or second floor apartment), noted "all improvements," suggesting the building had running water (albeit not hot) and gas lighting.  Two of the tenants in 1876 were William Lanawette, a "costumer" at 830 Broadway; and David Pearl, who dealt in quilts.

The ground floor became G. Konigsberg's auction house.  Along with household goods, he liquidated commercial fixtures.  On September 12, 1877, for instance, he advertised "A first class marble bar, 22 feet long; cost $400; sold low."  And a few days later, on September 18, he announced:

G. Konigsberg, auctioneer, sells to-day, at 10 o'clock, and continues the sale this week, at his salesroom, 204 East 13th st., Furniture, Carpets, Bedding, Stoves, Crockery, Radiators, Marble Counters, &c.

The auction gallery gave way to a grocery store in the 1880s.  It closed in 1887 and the space became home to Lynott's tailor shop, which catered greatly to female patrons.  An advertisement in September 1892 sought a "tailor, to sew and take measures; one who understands ladies' work preferred."

The rent for a six-room and bath apartment in 1898 was advertised at $40 per month.  That amount would convert to approximately $1,350 today.

The building passed from Philip Seitzer to his wife Barbara A. Seitzer.  Following her death, in July 1898 Henry J. Seitzer sold the leasehold to Caroline B. Kirk.  The Kirk family would manage the property until 1905 when Cornelia D. Earle took  over the leasehold.

By then the store was a Chinese laundry.  Hing Kee had signed a three year lease with Caroline B. Kirk in 1903.  In the meantime, the four apartments continued to be rented to what were apparently respectable, working class families.  No untoward publicity ever seems to have come from the address.

The remarkable storefront cornice can be seen in this detail from a 1941 tax photograph.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

As the East Village neighborhood evolved as ground zero for American jazz and blues music in the 1960s, two jazz greats made 204 East 13th Street their homes--tenor saxophonist Booker T. Ervin Jr. and pianist Randy Weston.  The two men knew one another well, and even recorded together.

Born on October 31, 1930 in Denison, Texas, Booker T. Ervin Jr. had learned music from his father, who played trombone with jazz musician Buddy Tate.  Ervin and his wife, the former Jane Wilkie, moved to New York City in the spring of 1958 with their two children, Booker and Lynn.

Booker T. Erwin Jr. from the cover of his 1964 album The Song Book

During the mid-1960s he led his own quartet, recording on the Liberty-Blue Note and Prestige labels.  In addition to Randy Weston, other musicians with whom he recorded were Sonny Stitt, Roy Haynes, Dexter Gordon, and Charles Mingus.  In 1960 and 1961 he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Far too soon, Booker T. Erwin Jr. died at Bellevue Hospital of a kidney ailment on August 31, 1970.  The composer and saxophonist was just 39 years old.

At the time, Randy Weston and his wife Fatoumata Mbengue had been gone from 204 East 13th Street for two years, having moved permanently to Morocco in 1968.   Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Weston studied piano and took dance lessons as a child.  Upon returning to Brooklyn following his stint in the military during World War II, he managed his father's restaurant, which was a haunt of several jazz musicians.  Although trained as a classical pianist, the music of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, among others, would change the course of his art.

Randy Weston, photo by Brianmcmillen

He formed his own group and released their first recording in 1954, Cole Porter in a Modern MoodDownBeat magazine's International Critics' Poll the following year voted him the New Star Pianist.  His personal style shaped a new type of jazz, The New York Times journalist Giovanni Russonello calling him in 2018, "an esteemed pianist whose music and scholarship advanced the argument--now broadly accepted--that jazz is, at its core, an African music."

The 1875 cast iron front and entrance door to the upper floors made their cinematic appearance in the 1976 film Taxi Driver.  In it, character Matthew "Sport" Higgins (played by Harvey Keitel), the pimp of actress Jodie Foster's character Steensma, interacts with Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in several scenes. 

At some point in the second half of the 20th century, the unique store cornice was removed--a tragic architectural loss.  But otherwise, despite two significant fires--one in 2018 that damaged the top floor, and another in March 2020 that spread through the third and fourth floors--the building's rich, spirited detailing is beautifully intact.  Nevertheless, because the building is not landmarked, there is no guarantee that preservation will continue.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

No comments:

Post a Comment