Saturday, April 15, 2023

The Henry Bruner House - 165 West 21st Street


In April 1856 William H. Stansbury advertised, "For Sale--A superior three story and attic brown stone front House, No. 121 West 21st street, containing all the modern improvements."   The 20-foot-wide Italianate style residence sat just east of Seventh Avenue in an upscale neighborhood two blocks from the mansions of Fifth Avenue.  Its full-height parlor windows were, almost assuredly, fronted by a cast iron balcony, and the molded framing of the entrance was crowned by a carved pediment.  The slightly shorter attic level was a hold-over from the Greek Revival style, and a handsome paneled cornice with foliate brackets ran along the roofline.

Henry Bruner purchased 121 West 21st Street (renumbered 165 in 1865).  At the time the 41-year-old owned a furniture dealership at 75 King Street, but his large fortune came mostly from real estate investments.  According to the New York City Tax-Book, in 1856 he paid $63,450 in real estate and $20,000 in personal taxes--a staggering total of $2.75 million in 2023.

Henry and his wife Catherine (known as Kate) would have at least six children.  Sadly, on September 15, 1860 their eldest son, Harry, died at the age of five-and-a-half.  As was customary, his casket sat in the parlor until his funeral there on the afternoon of September 17.

Bruner continued adding to his extensive real estate holdings.  He seems to have been an astute buyer, recognizing the potential of still undeveloped areas.  On December 26, 1868, for example, the Real Estate Record reported on the auction of the Morris Estate in Westchester County, just above the Harlem River.  The article noted, "Mr. Henry Bruner bought considerable."

At the time of that sale, Bruner was a director in the Germania Bank, in the People's Fire Insurance Company, and a trustee in the Shreve Farm Oil Company, a petroleum operation.  Additionally, he now operated a furniture store at 22 Clarkson Street and a furniture factory at 396 Hudson Street.

On April 24, 1870, seven days after his 55th birthday, Henry  Bruner died.  His funeral in the West 21st Street parlor on April 28 was followed by a service at St. Francis Xavier's Church on West 16th Street.

At least two of Kate's children, Marie and Peter, were still living with her.  Peter took over the management of his father's extensive real estate holdings, often partnering in deals with John L. Prime.  The close relationship between the Prime and Bruner families is unclear, although it seems they were somehow related.

Not long after Henry Bruner's death, the Primes moved in with Kate.  There would be two more funerals in the parlor within a few years.  On July 17, 1872 John and Louisa Prime's six-month-old daughter Kate died, and one year later, on July 24, their infant son Freddy died at 3 months old.  

Although she retained possession of the West 21st Street house, Kate Bruner moved out in 1875 following her marriage to Charles Happel.  She moved to 23 West 58th Street and apparently leased 165 West 21st Street to the Primes.

The high social status and immense wealth of the Bruner family, augmented by Kate's marriage to Happel, was evidenced in October 1887 when Marie Louise Bruner married Joseph J. O'Donohue, Jr.  The wedding took place in St. Patrick's Cathedral and was officiated by Archbishop Michael Corrigan.  It was a social event that prompted full columns in the society pages.  The Sun reported, "The invitations were confined to friends of the family, but nevertheless the big cathedral was filled long before 11 o'clock, the hour set for the wedding, and Fifth avenue was blocked with carriages."  The article noted the "crowd that filled the sidewalks and pressed close up to the lines of the canopied approach to the church door.

Among the socially elite in the cathedral were the Joseph H. Choates, the John D. Crimminses, future Mayor Hugh J. Grant, the Orlando B. Potters, the Henry O. Havemeyers, Mr. and Mrs. George Ehret, Baron and Baroness de Thomsen and others.  Among the gifts the newlyweds received were a "solid silver tea-set" from Edward Bruner, a sterling flatware service from Joseph Bruner, and $500,000 from the groom's father.

In the meantime, John L. Prime was in the fur business nearby at 16 East 23rd Street.  Louisa added to their income by taking a select number of boarders.  In 1876 they included George W. Mahoney, whose office was at 2 Nassau Street; chemicals dealer Robert F. Stobo; and Edward W. Rice, a teacher in the Boys' Department of Grammar School No. 26 on 13th Street near Sixth Avenue.

Among the Primes' boarders in 1889 was Mrs. Teresa Owens.  Her annoying habit of arriving late to the table for dinner grated on John Prime and finally, on August 6 "he told her not to be so late at meals," according to The New York Times.  Mrs. Owens had rented her rooms from Louisa, not from John, and "replied that he had no say in the management of the house."  The confrontation continued, and worsened, upstairs, ending in near tragedy.  

On August 8, The New York Times reported on Mrs. Owens's lawsuit against Prime for "pushing her down stairs in a wrangle."  Teresa Owens's suit alleged that Prime's action so injured her "that she was under a physician's care for several days."  John Prime insisted she had merely fallen down the staircase.  Although he was arrested and tried, he seems to have avoided conviction.

At the turn of the 20th century, Sixth Avenue had become one of Manhattan's great shopping thoroughfares, lined with magnificent retail emporiums.  By now almost all of the private homes of the West 21st Street block had been demolished or converted for business.  No. 165 West 21st Street, however, remained essentially unchanged.  It was being operated as a rooming house in 1905 when a near tragedy was averted.  On March 6 The Evening Telegram reported, "There was some excitement to-day when a fire was discovered on the third floor of the furnished room house at No. 165 West Twenty-first street.  A gas jet was burning, and the wind through the open window blew the flame against some curtains, igniting them."  Happily, the fire was quickly extinguished after causing the equivalent of about $8,000 today in damages.

The change from an upscale boarding house to a furnished rooming house brought a noticeable decline in the character of the tenants.  Living here in February 1912 were Annie Hull, known as "Swede Annie," and Edward "Eddie" Kinsman, her "companion," as politely described by the New York Herald.  Kinsman was part of a gang involved in a $25,000 hold up of two messengers from the East River National Bank on February 15.

Eddie Kinsman and Swede Annie.  The New York Herald, February 27, 1912 (copyright expired)

It was Swede Annie's boasting that led to the gang's arrest.  On February 27, The New York Herald reported, "The woman...was known to have talked of some great good fortune soon to be hers, and when it was found that she had disappeared immediately after the robbery the detectives guessed at the 'good luck' for which she had been waiting."  Second Police Commissioner Daugherty told reporters, "We learned that 'Swede Annie' expected to go with Kinsman or to join him and go to California.  We knew enough to be sure that we need only watch her and soon we would have Kinsman."

After owning the property for more than six decades, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported on September 11, 1920 that the Henry Bruner estate had sold 165 West 21st Street.  Six days later the New-York Tribune announced, "The Koch Building Company is the buyer of the building at 165 West Twenty-first Street."

A renovation, completed in 1922, resulted in factory space throughout the former Bruner residence.  Any hints of the 1856 interior elements, like mantels and carved staircases, were eradicated.  

Over the subsequent decades, the brownstone facade became severely weathered, the molded lintels and entrance pediment lost or disfigured, and the stoop ironwork replaced.  The Italianate areaway fencing, apparently original, somehow survived.  In 1999 the building was reconverted to residential use with a total of three apartments.  Despite decades of abuse, the Bruner house holds onto its early 19th century domestic appearance.

many thanks to reader Ted Leather for suggesting this post
photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to 

No comments:

Post a Comment