Saturday, April 29, 2023

The 1893 314 West 51st Street


The entrance framework, now gone, originally matched that of its next-door neighbor.

In 1892 Henry Aplington sold the four-story brick house at 314 West 51st Street to builder Alexander Moore, the principal in Alexander Moore & Son.  Within a year he replaced the vintage structure with a modern flat building.  Sitting on a brownstone base, the upper floors of 314 West 51st Street were clad in yellow Roman brick and trimmed in warm terra cotta.  Half of a mirror image pair with 316 West 51st Street, its exuberant Renaissance Revival design featured elaborate carvings, paneled Corinthian pilasters, and an ambitious pressed metal cornice with scrolled brackets and a foliate-decorated frieze.

There were two apartments per floor (front and back) in the five-story building.  Moore was a builder, not a landlord, and in March 1893 he sold his newly-completed structure to James R. Corbitt for $40,000, approximately $1.24 million in 2023.

Despite its close proximity to the notorious Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, the building filled with respectable upper middle class tenants, all of them affluent enough to afford at least one servant.  On September 19, 1897, Mrs. John Halzderber advertised, "A girl wanted, German preferred, for general housework," and a month later the Corbitt family was looking for a "Girl, to do general housework and assist with children."

A servant of Dr. Turner, 20-year-old Amelia Merlath, suffered a horrific accident on December 5, 1898.  The Turners' apartment was in the rear of the third floor.  While cleaning the windows Amelia lost her grip and fell to the yard, fracturing her skull.  She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital where, according to The World, "it is said she is in a critical condition and may not survive."

Lillian Knight lived here at the turn of the century.  The young unmarried woman was riding in an open street car on June 1, 1903 when it crashed violently with another at 53rd Street and Eighth Avenue.  So forcible was the collision that "passengers were thrown in the street in a confused heap," as reported by The New York Times.  One of them was Lillian Knight, who later realized she had dropped her green bag.  She searched frantically for the purse, which held the equivalent of $950 in cash in today's money, two railway tickets to Chicago, and valuable papers.  It appears that a sharp-eyed thief saw Lillian's purse first.  The article said, "The bag and its treasures were not found."

It was a resident of 314 West 51st Street who found a bag, rather than lost it, two years later.  Tom Jolly had been a partner in the upscale Manhattan Club in Saratoga, New York.  Jolly was "sauntering past the Hotel Cadillac," according to The Daily Saratogian on June 17, when near the curb he "espied a well-worn purse, evidently that of a woman."

Inside was a small, silver watch and 56 cents.  The newspaper said, "It was evidently the property of some poor working girl."  Unlike the cad who had made off with Lillian Knight's purse, Jolly notified the newspapers of his find.  The New York Telegraph reported he was holding the purse at 314 West 51st Street awaiting word of its owner.  "Those who know the generous Tom will not be surprised to hear of a poor girl getting back her purse with a $5 bill stuffed in one corner," said the New York Telegraph.

In 1905 James R. Corbitt sold the building to Samuel Huston, who moved into an apartment with his wife Elizabeth.  She died in the apartment on February 14, 1912, while Huston would live on there for decades.

Two of the well-respected residents were pharmacist George F. Phillips, who operated a drugstore at 839 Eighth Avenue, and well-known attorney Owen W. Bohan.  Described by The Morning Telegraph as an "adherent of Tammany," Bohan was appointed "county tax appraiser" for the city in January 1914.

George F. Phillips suffered intense humiliation on August 18, 1917 when he was removed by police from his store and charged with selling narcotics.  At least one customer had brought him a prescription written by Dr. Howard James for the substance.

Phillips spent that Saturday night in jail, and when allowed to make a telephone call in the morning, the irate pharmacist did not waste it.  He phoned his neighbor, former State Senator George Washington Plunkitt, who lived at 323 West 51st Street.  Plunkitt, in turn, called United States Commissioner Hitchcock.  The Sun reported, "the Commissioner and United States Attorney Edwin M. Stanton went to the police station, where the three fixed up the papers for the druggist's release."  Senator Plunkitt provided the $5,000 bail, offering his residence as security.  (The incident seems to have affected Dr. James even more severely.  On the day Phillips was released, he was committed to Bellevue Hospital for the insane.)

Intricate Renaissance inspired carvings surround the ground floor window.

George F. Phillips might as easily have called his neighbor Owen W. Bohan.  A year before the incident, Bohan had been appointed Assistant District Attorney.  (He earned $4,000 per year in that position, or about $102,000 today.)  

Born in Ireland, he was as well-known in Irish-American circles as in the legal community.  In 1916, his apartment became the "headquarters" for the west side's campaign for raising funds for the Irish Republic.  When Sinn Fein president Eamon de Valera slipped out of New York in 1920, according to the Irish-American newspaper The Advocate, "It was at Mr. Bohan's house he put on his disguise of clothes."

In fact, Bohan and his wife were abroad at the time and in their absence had offered their apartment to "Harry Boland, Lian Mellows and others interested in the Irish movement," according to The Advocate.  

Bohan's trip to Italy was strictly for business, not pleasure.  On February 13, 1917, 18-year-old Ruth Cruger had gone missing.  Her body was found buried in the cellar of Alfred Cocci's shop where she had taken her ice skates for sharpening.  Cocci fled to his native Italy, but to no avail.  While he was not extradited to the United States, he was tried in Italy with Owen W. Bohan assisting in the prosecution and conviction.  On December 20, 1920, the New-York Tribune reported that Bohan, "returned on the White Star liner in company with Mrs. Bohan.  Paying high tribute to Italian justice, he said that the verdict against Cocci was unanimous."

In March 1923, Bohan was promoted.  The Morning Telegraph reported he "has been advanced to the top by District Attorney Joab H. Banton.  He will receive a salary of $10,000."  (That pay would translate to about $160,000 in 2023.)  The Bohans were still living at 314 West 51st Street a decade later when, on September 4, 1933, The Advocate reported he was nominated for office of Judge of the Court of General Sessions.  The newspaper said, "Owen W. Bohan is an ornament to the Celtic branch of the American family.  He will grace the bench with his dignity and erudition and his humane viewpoint on life."

Samuel Huston died in his apartment here in 1936, after having owned the building for more than three decades.  His estate sold the property to Rose Lauter in July that year.  By now the West 51st Street neighborhood was in decline.

Among the tenants in 1938 was 28-year-old Patrick Pico.  He was the mastermind of a two-man burglary scheme tagged by police as a "dollar-deposit" racket.  He and 27-year-old Ruben Tormey would go to rooming houses, pay $1 deposit on a room saying they expected to get money that day, and obtain a set of keys.  When the landlord left, "they would fill their suitcases with jewelry, furs, cameras, binoculars, clothing and anything else they could lay their hands on, and flee," as reported by the New York Post on May 17, 1938.  By the time Ruben Tormey was caught, they had victimized at least 25 rooming houses.  The newspaper said Tormey took police to 314 West 51st Street "where they found Pico--as well as six leather bags full of alleged loot and thirty-five gown tickets."

In 1941 the ground floor was still unpainted and the entranceway intact.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In 1942 the once-respectable building was converted to single-room-occupancy, with seven and eight rooms per floor.  Markos Maviudis took over as proprietor in February 1943, and among the first things he did was to clear out the basement.  There he found two trunks, one of which held an old mattress.  He closed the trunks and forgot about them.

But then, two years later on August 2, 1945 Maviudis returned to the basement, prompted by tenants' complaints of an odor.  He opened the trunk, removed the mattress, and made a shocking discovery.  The Associated Press reported, "The body of a man, clad in tan trousers, tan belt, lumber jacket and green overcoat was found in a trunk yesterday in the cellar of a five-story rooming house at 314 West Fifty-first street."  The body had been stuffed in a canvas bag and hidden underneath the mattress.

Living here in 1953 was 25-year-old actor William Canty.  Homosexuality was not something to be openly displayed at mid-century, something that Canty and his date, 45-year-old Stanley McGreary painfully discovered in March that year.  The couple took in a show at Radio City Music Hall, but their affection got the better of their discretion.  They were arrested on technical charges of loitering.  The Herald Statesman reported that Detective Mary Shanley told the court, "McGreary and Canty were seated in the theatre with their arms around each other and their heads on each other's shoulders."  Each was released on $500 bail awaiting their hearing for the crime.

A renovation completed in 1980 brought the building back to two apartments per floor.  The brownstone base has been painted and, sadly, the Corinthian columns and entablature of the entrance have been removed.

photos by the author
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