Thursday, May 4, 2023

The John H. Williams House - 344 West 15th Street


In 1845 John H. Williams and his family lived in the recently completed house at 214 West 15th Street (renumbered 344 West 15th Street in 1860).  It was one of a row of brick-faced, three story houses, each just under 18-feet-wide and reflected the transition from Greek Revival to Italianate style architecture.  The iron stoop and areaway railings were a blend of the two styles.  The window lintels, originally plain brownstone, reflected Greek Revival tastes; while the full-height third floors were Italianate.  The builder, again, blended the two styles in the cornices--their plain, substantial fascia boards reflecting Greek Revival, while the carved brackets drew from the Italianate style.

Williams was in the stove business at 246 Water Street.  His family would not remain in the West 15th Street house for especially long.  In 1851 it became home to Henry Allen, a shoe merchant on Water Street.  It appears he leased the house from Edward D. West.

Living with Allen and his wife were two grown children, Caroline D. and William H.  Caroline was married on June 1, 1853 to Silas Potter of Boston, Massachusetts.  The couple would have six children. 

By the time of his sister's wedding, William was working in his father's business.  He volunteered free time as a firefighter, or "laddie," with the Washington Hose Company, No. 12 on 13th Street near Eighth Avenue.

The Allen family is listed at 344 West 15th Street through 1862.  In 1864 and '65 Joseph Liebenau, a clerk with a business at 181 Duane Street, occupied the house. 

Following Edward D. West's death, his estate sold 344 West 15th Street at auction on April 26, 1865.   The advertisement reflected the "modern improvements," including lighting gas and a bathroom.  In 1865 many middle-class homes still had privies in the rear yard.

Around 1875 Frederick W. Seybel purchased the house.  Both he and his wife were from Alsace in France.  In 1849 he had "accompanied an expedition to California in quest of gold," according to The Illustrated Milliner years later, "but returned to New York the following year, and resumed his regular occupation as owner of a large notion store located at 8th Avenue and 15th Street."

Seybel immediate began updating the house, including adding the 1875 version of central heating.  On October 20 an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald column "Wanted to Purchase."  It read:

A Second Hand Portable furnace, in good order, to heat a house, 20 by 45, 3 stories, 7 registers.
                        F. W. Seybel, No. 344 West Fifteenth street.

It was most likely Seybel who updated the exterior of the house at this time, as well.  The outdated iron railings were replaced with swirling, French inspired examples.  Rather grandiose copper pediments were installed above the entrance and the parlor windows.  Those windows were also lengthened.  The windows of the floors received cast metal lintels.

Seybel sold 344 West 15th Street to Sophie L. McLintock on June 1, 1882.  The $10,000 price would be equivalent to just under a a quarter of a million in 2023 dollars.  She does not  seem to have ever lived here, but rented it.

It became home to Captain Charles N. Brackett and his wife.  Brackett had a colorful history.  Born in 1831, he was educated at Edge Hill School in Princeton, New Jersey, after which he went to Lima, Peru.  The New York Times recounted, "the death of his father recalled him to this city, and some time after his return he entered the police force."

After achieving the rank of captain within the New York City Police Department, he was appointed Fire Marshal.  Having fulfilling that position for a number of years, he was made Special Agent in the United States Custom House, eventually rising to chief of the special agents.

Snow began falling on the night of Sunday, March 11, 1888.  When Brackett left for work the next morning, several inches had accumulated in the streets.  In the decades before weather forecasting, no one could have known that the snow was not going to stop soon, nor that this would be remembered a century later as the Great Blizzard of 1888.

The storm intensified with winds of up to 80 miles per hour that knocked down power poles and created drifts as high as 50 feet.  At some point Brackett realized the danger and left his office, heading home on the Sixth Avenue elevated train.  But it stalled along the way, trapping him and the other passengers for hours without heat.  When he finally reached 344 West 15th Street he "was thoroughly chilled," according to The New York Times.  The cold he contracted worsened into pneumonia.  He died in the house on March 26.  His funeral was held in the Church of the Holy Communion on March 28.

By the mid-1890s 344 West 15th Street was apparently  being operated as a boarding house.  Living here in 1895 was Frank Smith, who was one of nearly 30 workmen employed by George W. Ritchie, a large printing establishment on West 14th Street.  The firm produced high-end, costly etchings.  During the last week of March 1894, according to The American Bookmaker, "Mr. Ritchie complained at Police Headquarters that valuable etchings were mysteriously disappearing from his establishment."

Undercover detectives were put on the case to watch the printers.  They followed one, Warren Rockwood, to the picture shop on Avenue A owned by Max Webber, where he handed Webber an etching from under his coat.  It was later valued at $2,330 in today's money.  Three other printers, including Frank Smith, were also seen entering Webber's store with etchings.  Faced with the irrefutable evidence, Warren Rockwood confessed, explaining that they would "enter Mr. Ritchie's shop after the closing hour by means of duplicate keys and take the etchings, choosing only valuable ones, such as proofs worth $125."  Ritchie was taken to Max Webber's store where he identified $1,000 worth of etchings stolen from his shop.  He estimated his total losses at $5,000--around $165,000 today.

By the second half of the 20th century, the immediate Chelsea neighborhood had turned gritty.  No. 344 West 15th Street was the scene of a drug deal on February 15, 1965 that put an end to one dealer's career, at least temporarily.  Undercover Detective Anthony Schiano, known on the street as Frank Solo, saw drug dealer Edward "Eddie" Henriquez" in front of the house and approached.  Henriquez asked if he was "copping" (a street term for "looking for drugs") and said he had "good fours," referring to $4 bags of heroine.  Schiano handed him $8, Henriquez went into the basement of 344 West 15th Street, and reemerged with a bag of white powder.

The pair walked together to Eighth Avenue, passing two other undercover narcotics officers.  They arranged to meet the following evening at Bickford's restaurant on 23rd Street for another transaction.  That gave the officers time to have the powder analyzed by the police lab.  The next night Henriquez sold Schiano two more $4 bags in the restaurant.  He was later arrested by detectives on Tenth Avenue and 27th Street.

But change to the immediate neighborhood was on the horizon.  In 2010 Google took over the massive Port Authority Building on Eighth Avenue and 15th Street, the old National Biscuit Company factory building at 15th Street and Ninth Avenue was converted to the trendy Chelsea Market, and the abandoned elevated train tracks were transformed into The High Line Park.  Joining the trend, 344 West 15th Street became the Chelsea Mews Guesthouse in the early 21st century.  A men-only establishment, journalist Steven McElroy remarked in The New York Times on March 16, 2012 that it "is definitely not for the prudish," referring in part to the inn's clothing-optional policy.

The unusual 1870's copper updates, mellowed by a century-and-a-quarter's green patina, and the unusual French railings make the otherwise unnoteworthy 344 West 15th Street worthy of note.

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

1 comment:

  1. I always wondered about the Bickford signage on the recently demolished building on 8th Ave by 34th St. Thank you for that information.