Thursday, April 20, 2023

The William Menck Bakery Building - 163 Eighth Avenue


Originally a short attic level, the third floor was raised to full height in 1908.

In the late 18th century, George Rapelje's farm abutted Chelsea, the country estate of the Moore family.  The boundary between the properties ran approximately along what would become West 18th Street.  The end of bucolic life in the district came when Eighth Avenue was extended northward in 1816.  Two years later Clement Clarke Moore began selling building plots, and Rapelje's grandson and his wife, Susannah, followed suit in 1825.  

By 1842 a 25-foot-wide, two-and-half-story house-and-store stood at 163 Eighth Avenue.  Faced in red brick, its Greek Revival design included a squat attic level below what would have been a plain wooden cornice on block corbels.

The district known today as Chelsea was already a vibrant neighborhood.  William Menck purchased 163 Eighth Avenue, opening his bakery in the ground floor and moving his family into the upper portion.  The success of his business prompted an urgent-sounding advertisement in The Sun on April 12, 1842: "Wanted--An apprentice to the baking business.  Inquire 163 8th avenue immediately."

The bakery seems to have been a popular gathering spot for locals.  The city assessors annually published property assessments and for several years an identical notice appeared in the newspapers in the fall reading "a copy thereof is left with Wm. Menck, at 163 eighth avenue, where the same may be seen and examined by any of the inhabitants."

The Mencks apparently took in a highly-educated boarder in 1845.  His advertisement that year read:

A Gentleman lately arrived from France, is desirous of procuring a situation, being fully qualified as Teacher in a seminary or private family, or would have no objection to a situation in a mercantile house, being perfect master of the French and German languages, also, Spanish.  Understands book keeping by single and double entry.  Address A. B. care of Mr. Menck, 163 Eighth Avenue, New York.

In 1851 William Menck and his wife relocated to another developing area--Bloomingdale--far to the north in today's Upper West Side.  In 1852 he was the vice president of the newly-formed Bloomingdale Building Association, which provided building loans to urban pioneers in the district.

Louis Solomon moved his family into the upper floors of 163 Eighth Avenue.  The former bakery was divided into two store spaces, one of which became Solomon's clothing store.  The other half was leased to George Harvey and Williams Timms, who ran their fish store and oyster restaurant in the space.

Harvey and Timms did not survive here long.  On October 12, 1854, an advertisement touted, "A Good Opportunity--For Sale, a valuable oyster cellar, an old stand and doing a good business; also a dining saloon, in a business part of the city, for sale cheap for cash.  Inquire at No. 163 Eighth avenue, after 11 o'clock A. M."

Louis Solomon seems to have been struggling, as well.  By 1855 he had moved his family to 429 Eighth Avenue, and within two years his store was gone.  In 1858 one of the stores was home to George Clarendon's shoe and boot shop, and the other to Mark Leipziger's fancygoods store.  A fancygoods store was different from a general or drygoods store in that it sold a range of items like ribbons, buttons, ceramic figurines and such.

The relatively rapid turnover of stores continued.  On January 24, 1861 Clarendon advertised, "For Sale--Boot and Shoe Store, 163 Eighth avenue; Lease, Stock and Fixtures, or Lease and Fixtures without stock if required; the best stand in the avenue; low rent and fitted up in good style."  And the following year Mark Leipziger's fancygoods store became home to Sarah Shuman's millinery shop.

Sarah and her husband, Benjamin, moved into the upper floors of 163 Eighth Avenue.  The pair had barely settled in when near disaster struck.  On March 24, 1862, the New-York Daily Tribune reported that around 2 a.m., "the millinery store of S. Shannon [sic], No. 163 Eighth avenue, was discovered to be on fire."  Before the blaze could be extinguished, the Shumans incurred $500 in damaged, "principally by water," according to the article.  Happily the loss (around $14,000 in 2023 money) was fully covered by insurance.

Boarding with the Shumans in 1865 was Michael Kennedy, who volunteered with Hose Company No. 37 on West 29th Street.  He was on duty there on July 31 and, according to The New York Herald, "while there [he] fell asleep; while thus enjoying himself his watch was taken from his pocket."  Another fire fighter witnessed 22-year-old James McKegney "fumbling about the complainant's pockets while he was asleep."  Despite the evidence against him, McKegney, who worked as a barkeeper, "denies his guilt," said the article.

In a bizarre case of deja vu, on March 17, 1874, The New York Times reported, "James C. Kline, residing at No. 267 West Twenty-fifth street, was...charged with stealing a watch and umbrella from Thomas Seacock, of No. 168 Eighth avenue, while he was asleep."

By then Louis Weinheimer's "gentlemen's furnishing goods" shop had occupied one of the stores for at least six years.  The haberdashery would remain through 1880.  The other shop held Leopole Veith's drygoods store.

In 1889 Frank J. Berlin opened what he described as a "china and house furnishing goods" store, around the time that Louis Lowenstein purchased the building.  Louis and Albert Lowenstein (presumably brothers) opened their clothing store, L. Lowenstein's, in the second store.

In 1902 Louis Lowenstein hired architect John B. Mooney to renovate 163 Eighth Avenue.  The renovations cost him the equivalent of just under $16,500 in 2023 money.  The following year the Lowensteins signed a petition to the Board of Alderman to provide "flagging" (or sidewalks) along Eighth Avenue from 13th street to 59th Street.

A major change to the venerable building came in 1908, after Lowenstein sold the property to C. Fisture.  On July 16, The  Evening Post reported that plans had been filed "for enlarging and modernizing the two-story and attic dwelling and store."  The attic was raised to a full floor and an Italianate cornice, somewhat out of date, was installed. 

It appears Fisture rented rooms in the renovated upper floors.  Among the residents in 1911 was William C. Dodge.  He met a sudden death on November 28 that year.  The Standard Union reported, "William C. Dodge, a member of De Long Council, Royal Arcanum, was taken suddenly ill at the corner of Fifteenth street and Eighth avenue, Manhattan, last night and died before he could be attended by a doctor."  Dodge's affluence was reflected in the $624.24 check found in his pocket--a significant $18,400 by today's conversion.

Resident George Martin worked as a deckhand on the steam-powered barge, or lighter, the Jessica in 1922.  The vessel was owned by the Kehoe Lighterage & Coal Company in Flatbush.  With Prohibition in effect, the Government operated "rum chasers"--fast boats that checked ships for bootleg liquor.

On the night of September 20, customs inspectors from the rum chaser Newberry boarded the Jessica when its captain believed "Ambrose Channel, off Ambrose Lightship, [was] an unusual place for a steam lighter to be cruising in the early dawn," according to The Evening Telegram.  The men "were welcomed aboard courteously" by the Jessica's captain.

The article said, "Through every nook of the engine room and empty hold the customs men say they searched without result.  At the same time, they say, the unmistakable odor of high grade liquor assailed their nostrils."  They were about to abandon their search, when false panels "in, behind and under pieces of cabinet furniture" were discovered.  Inside were 2,112 cases of Scotch and rye whiskey.  The contraband was valued "by current bootleg rates at $211,200," said the article.  The entire crew, including George Martin, was arrested.

In 1937 the ground floors of 163 and 165 Eighth Avenue were combined as a single store, home to Newman's 5, 10, and 25 cent store.  The second floor of 163 Eighth Avenue was renovated as a dentists office, the third floor now had an apartment.

The first floors of 163 and 165 Eighth Avenue were combined in 1937.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The configuration lasted until 1967, when the ground floor stores were again separated.  The store in 163 became home to The Book Stop, which remained for years, followed by Phases, a vintage housewares shop.

The Village, December 10, 1981

Writing in The New York Times on January 16, 1981, Eleanor Blau called Phases, "a roomy and elegant shop near 18th Street [where] you can find items from the turn of the century to the 1950's, including art pottery, crystal, chrome ware, old household appliances, Depression glassware (what they gave as gifts at movie houses to lure the customers in), and Art Deco."

For years starting around 1996, the ground floor was home to Allstate Private Car & Limo, a forerunner of car services like Uber and Lyft.  The firm remained at least through 2003, replaced by a men's day spa and more recently by a cannabis shop.

Much has changed in the Chelsea neighborhood in the more than 180 years after William Menck moved his bakery and family into 163 Eighth Avenue.  Yet, above the ground floor, the building looks much as it did following the 1908 renovations.  

photographs by the author
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