In 1790 George Rapelje, the son of an early Dutch settler, purchased land south of Chelsea from James Rivington. The farm stretched roughly from what is today 18th Street to the north to 16th Street, and from Tenth Avenue to Seventh Avenue. As was the case with several other farm and estate owners north of the city, Rapelje had at least two slaves on the property.
Like Clement Moore, whose family's summer estate abutted the farm to the north, the Rapelje family clearly saw the coming end of rural life above 14th Street. In 1811 the Commissioners’ Plan laid out on paper the streets and avenues above Greenwich Village, and that became reality in 1816 when Eighth Avenue was cut through the farm. Nine years later, in May 1825, George Rapelje’s grandson and his wife Susanna began the process of selling off the land as building plots.
Around 1840 a three-story house and store was erected at 155 Eighth Avenue, between 17th and 18th Streets. Faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone, its full-height third floor reflected the relatively new Italianate style, while its understated wooden cornice hung on to the Greek Revival tradition.
John W. Conklin moved his family into the upper floors and his shop into the ground space. Working with him was his son, William H. Conklin. A year after the Civil War broke out, Conklin moved his operation to the East Village. His advertisement in February 1862 read:
To Let--The old established merchant tailoring and clothing store 155 Eighth avenue, and occupied as such for the last twenty years; is fitted up in good style, with a showy front, and is 72 feet deep. Will be let reasonable, and possession immediately if required. Apply on the premises, or to J. W. Conklin, 18 Fourth Av.
The space became home to J. & T. Melenfy's grocery and tea shop, operated by James and Theodore Melenfy. Like many merchants at the time, the brothers were soon victims of a dishonest employee.
Martin V. B. Everson worked as a clerk in 1865. The New York Times described him as "a young man of good address and about twenty-five years of age." Theodore Melenfy became suspicious when he noticed what today would be called inventory shrinkage. On the evening of June 3, 1865 Melenfy pretended to be otherwise occupied while closely watching Everson interact with a customer, James Reese, who was also Everson's friend. Reese paid for his groceries and Everson pretended to make change, handing Reese his money back. Melenfy summoned Patrolman Wood and had his clerk arrested.
J. & T. Melenfy closed in 1867, replaced by Joseph McDonald's haberdashery. While he mainly sold men's hats, he also dealt in "gent's furnishing goods [and] ladies' and gent's furs."
As John W. Conklin had done, he moved his family into the upper floors. McDonald and his wife, Anna, would have two sons and four daughters, but sadly on September 25, 1873, their youngest daughter, one-year-old Lauretta Gerldun, died. Her funeral was held in the upper rooms the following afternoon.
McDonald was active in civic affairs and in 1876 served as a Board of Elections inspector for the district. On November 7 he proved his steadfast unwillingness to make exceptions to the voting regulations. William P. Hall and his son Eugene A. Hall explained that they were temporarily employed in Washington DC, "but being in the service of the government considered they were privileged to vote here," as reported by the New York Herald. All of the inspectors but McDonald agreed to allow the men to register and to vote. The 70-year-old Hall and his son registered and left. The New York Herald said, "When they did vote, McDonald caused their arrest."
By 1881 25-year-old John J. McDonald worked with his father in the store. The family was apparently extremely close, since the upper floors were well-populated. Anna A. McDonald testified that year that living in the house were "my husband, two sons, three daughters, a son-in-law, daughter-in-law and myself and all the young ones."
On March 19, 1882, the family nearly lost their business and their home. The newspaper Truth reported, "The three story brick building at No. 155 Eighth Avenue, occupied by James [sic] McDonald as a dry goods store, took fire yesterday morning from a defective flue." Quick action by someone in the store put the fire out with an extinguisher before fire fighters arrived. Nevertheless, damages of more than $8,000 in today's money was done.
The McDonald family was gone from 155 Eighth Avenue by the mid-1890s, replaced by 1896 by the Lazarus family. On November 13 that year The Jewish Messenger reported, "On Thursday evening, Nov. 5th, the Misses Lazarus, of 155 Eighth avenue, tendered a reception to their friends in honor of their cousin, Miss Rae Joseph, of Cincinnati O., who has been visiting relatives and friends...Callers to the number of fifty came and quite an enjoyable evening was passed in singing and dancing. A collation was served."
In 1941 the six-over-six windows and brownstone sills and lintels were intact. via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
There was little change to the structure through much of the 20th century. At mid-century the store was home to a stationery and greeting card store. Then a renovation begun in 1966 changed the building's appearance. A modern storefront was installed, the windows were replaced and, oddly enough, a brick veneer was applied over the original brick facade.
For years 155 Eighth Avenue was occupied by a hardware store, supplanted in 1986 by the Demartino fish market. The ground floor became home to the Bombay Grill in the early 21st century, while the second floor was discreetly operated as Tino of New York. In her 2002 A Guide to New York's Fetish Underground, Claudia Varrin said, "Leather-uniform lovers will be in heaven here. Tino, a handsome fellow with beautiful eyes, specializes in men's leather uniforms, especially police uniforms, in the most outrageous colors."
Another renovation, completed in 2016, resulted in show windows on the second floor for Sexy Boutique, described by The New York Post as an "erotic emporium." The shop was hit with a $2 million lawsuit by lawyer and playwright Susan Haar in February 2019. Haar owned the townhouse around the corner at 304 West 18th Street, which, it turned out, shared sewage drains with 155 Eighth Avenue. Just after she placed her property for sale, she discovered her basement flooded with six inches of sewage. DEP inspectors discovered that the Sexy Boutique had been flushing "tubs of condoms and rubber gloves" into the plumbing.
Despite the recent carnage to the facade of the venerable building, its wooden Greek Revival cornice survives as does the overall domestic 19th century appearance.
photographs by the author
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