In 1851 the family of Edward Colton Chapin was living in the recently completed home at 128 East 13th Street (renumbered 220 in 1868). Four stories tall, the brownstone-fronted house was one of a row of identical Ango-Italianate style residences, their entrances sitting above short, five-step stoops.
Born in 1814, Chapin was a silk goods merchant at 76 Chambers Street. He married Nancy Ann Reed on April 23, 1839, and the couple had two children when they moved into the 13th Street house: Anna Maria, born in 1840; and Edward Lucius, born two years later. (Ella Jane, who was born in 1845, had died at the age of two). Another daughter, Helen R., arrived on November 17, 1856.
In 1856 the family left for an extended trip, most likely to Europe. An advertisement in the New York Herald on August 1 offered: "Handsome brown stone house to let--No. 128 East Thirteenth street, between Second and Third avenue; contains all modern improvements, and is in a fine neighborhood; rent $900." The rent was affordable by today's standards, equal to about $2,475 per month in 2023.
Cuban-born Don Dominigo De Goicuria signed the lease. He was at the time embroiled in a heated conflict with William Walker, the American who had taken the presidency of Nicaragua by force and reinstituted slavery there. De Goicuria had initially hoped that Walker would assist him in freeing Cuba from Spanish control. But, realizing that Walker was interested in conquering Central America and had no interest in Cuba, De Goicuria turned on him. In a letter written to The New York Daily Times from the East 13th Street house on November 22, 1856, De Coicuria said in part:
I therefore denounce Mr. Walker as a man wanting in the first element of every kind of ability, viz. of Good faith; I denounce him as wanting in ordinary sagacity and discretion; I denounce him as false to the interests as well of Cuba as of the United States.
In 1864 Edward Chapin changed professions from silk to starch. He became an agent for the Oswego Starch company on Fulton Street. Nancy Reed Chapin died on November 17, 1867 at the age of 53. Five years later Chapin married Caroline W. Booth on April 14, 1872.
The family moved to 228 East 12th Street and rented 220 East 13th Street to Rev. Thomas Gallaudet. He had been chosen by the Society of the Church Mission to Deaf Mutes of St. Ann's Church to organize a home "for elderly and ill deaf-mutes." The choice of the house assuredly was influenced by Jane Middleton, who moved in with her widowed mother Ann. Jane had worked for William Chapin, Edward's brother, at the Ohio State School for the Blind from 1845 to 1846.
Jane Middleton, who worked for free, became the superintendent of the Home for Aged and Infirm Deaf Mutes, working closely with Gallaudet. In June 1873 the Phrenological Journal reported that the home "is now ready to receive all deaf mutes who have become unable by disease or old age to support themselves. By thus bringing them together they can much better receive that religious instruction and pastoral care which they so much need."
During its first year the home housed nine residents, four men and five women. The mission paid Chapin $1,350 per year in rent in 1876 (about $36,000 today), and relied totally on donations for its operation. By then it had accumulated a meager building fund of $5,000 for a permanent home.
A reporter from the New York Herald visited on November 13, 1878. He explained, "Every year the inmates of this modest mansion hold a reception and fair, and an interesting occasion it is." He was greeted by Rev. Gallaudet, who walked him through the rooms and explained the home's operation.
As you can imagine, there are few people more helpless than aged and infirm deaf mutes. They can do nothing for their own support and they require a great deal of care...But when we provided them with a home they are a remarkably cheerful set of people. Two of the women we have here are nearly blind as well as deaf and dumb.
Upstairs, the journalist was shown through the "old men's quarters." He wrote, "Some were reading, some were talking, and one old man was coloring pictures that he had copied from the illustrated papers. His art was not high art, but it pleased him as well as though it was done with the dexterity of a Gerome." In the parlor, the old women "were grouped around one of their number who was telling off an interesting tale from the ends of her fingers." The article ended with the journalist speaking of himself in third person:
With singular sensations the reporter glanced around him upon the gay silence that pervaded the place, and the opening paragraph in one of the essays of Elia came to his mind:--"Wouldst thou find a refuge from the noises and clamors of the multitude? Wouldst thou enjoy at once solitude and society?'...Go then to a reception of deaf mutes."
On March 26, 1889, The Evening Telegram reported, "The Church Mission to Deaf Mutes is doing a good work...The Mission House, at No. 220 East Thirteenth street, has been discontinued." The mission had opened the Gallaudet House for Aged and Infirm Deaf Mutes on a 156-acre farm near Poughkeepsie.
The neighborhood around 220 East 13th Street, touted in 1856 as "fine," was in noticeable decline by now. The house was operated as a boarding house, home to residents like Henri Dagerbert, here in 1902. He was a Commissioner of Deeds for the city.
Not all of the boarders were as respectable as Dagerbert, however. Living here that spring was 21-year-old Frederick Henratty who was hiding out from police. On April 16 he went to his mother's home in Brooklyn and stole jewelry belonging to her and his two sisters valued at $480 (a considerable $15,600 in today's money). Included in the loot were a pair of diamond earrings and two diamond rings. The earrings alone were valued at $180.
On May 26, 1902, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "He disappeared on that day, and ever since detectives have been after him." Then, the day before the article, Henratty's brother-in-law William Tighe "saw him having a good time in the Bowery, Coney Island." He had him arrested. The earrings were traced to a Manhattan pawnshop, but the rest of the jewelry was gone.
By 1912 220 East 13th Street had declined from a boarding house to a furnished rooming house. Resident Nunzio Spataforo was arrested for an even more egregious crime than Henratty's on November 13, 1912. In the first decades of the 20th century, New Yorkers were terrorized by anarchist groups like the Black Hand, which used violence to push their ideologies. The New-York Tribune reported that Spataforo had been arraigned in the Essex Market Court that morning for "throwing a bomb in the moving picture theatre at No. 178 First avenue."
William Kary rented a room here in 1932. On January 14 The New York Sun reported, "five hoodlums got away, though not far, with a truck loaded with $25,000 worth of silk last night. They stopped it, hauled the driver from his seat, beat him and made off with the truck on the outskirts of Paterson [New Jersey]." By the following morning, four of the men had been arrested, including the 21-year-old William Kary. After being identified in a line-up, the gang confessed to a series of robberies and hold-ups in Long Island.
In 1953 there was a total of 16 furnished rooms in the once-proud house. The deterioration of the neighborhood was reflected in an incident on October 11, 1964. The New York Times reported on fatal stabbings of men who attempted "to sell diluted narcotics." The article continued, "The latest victim, who was unidentified, was found dead at 6:20 A.M. in the outer lobby of a tenement at 220 East 13th Street."
An hour later 37-year-old Filipe Rivera was arrested when he was found near the crime scene with bloodstained clothing. He admitted to the murder saying, "the victim had tried to sell him diluted narcotics," according to The New York Times.
By the last decades of the 20th century the neighborhood was on the upswing. In 1980 220 East 13th Street was converted to apartments, one per floor. The exterior of the Chapin house shows the abuse of the last century. And yet, only a little imagination is required to envision it as it was when the well-to-do Chapin family moved in around 1850.
photographs by the author
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