Thursday, June 22, 2023

A History of Tragedy and Change - 176 Seventh Avenue

In the late 1840s a row of three house-and-store buildings were erected on the west side of Seventh Avenue, between 20th and 21st Streets.  Their builder designed them in the Greek Revival style--with flat brownstone lintels and understated wooden cornices.  The entrances to the upper floors, next to the storefronts, were handsome examples of the style, their doors flanked by pilasters and sidelights, and topped by four-panel transoms.  But instead of the short attic floor seen in pure Greek Revival buildings, the houses had full-height fourth floors, a hint of the emerging Italianate style.  Additionally, the common bracketed cornice above the storefronts featured carved rosettes, a decorative element more expected in Italianate.

In 1851 the ground floor of the middle house, 150 Seventh Avenue, was occupied by Richman & Schwartz, glaziers.  It was run by Moses Richman and Charles Schwartz.  (The address would be renumbered 176 in 1868.)  Moses Richman lived above the store in the boarding house run by Margaret Mulloy, a widow.  Like Richman, her other tenants were middle class, including Charles McCamley, a "crocker," or pottery maker; and attorney Edward P. Clark.

Within only two years, the tenants were mostly working class.  In 1853 they included a painter, two "marblecutters," and a carpenter.  Although Moses Richman continued to board here, the shop had become William Lewis's oyster house.

Also living in the rooms, of course, were the tenants' wives and children.  The spouses of working class husbands most often did their best to add to the family's income.  A typical advertisement in the New York Herald in November 1853 read:

Wanted--A situation by a young woman to do general housework, in a small private family; is a good plain cook, and a first rate washer and ironer.  Has the best of city reference.  Please call at 150 Seventh avenue, first floor, back room, for two days, if not engaged.

A young couple, James and Charlotte McKeon lived here in 1862.  Tragically, their one-a-half-year-old son, Charles H. McKeon, died on June 26 that year.  The little boy's funeral was held in their rooms three days later.

By 1868, the store was home to Thomas Dewhurst's clothing  and tailor shop.  The occupants upstairs at the time were Dederick F. Fulle, a policeman who would stay for several years; stone setter John McCormick; John P. Hatterig, a plater; and "segarmaker" Frederick Hulsburger.

A noticeable change to the commercial space came in 1872 when Peter Meinecke transformed the former Dewhurst tailor shop into a beer saloon.  Its backroom became a favorite gathering space for the Democratic Association of the 17th Assembly District.  On October 22, 1874, for instance, The Evening Telegram reported on its meeting the previous evening, saying the members "endorsed the entire Tammany Hall ticket."

At the time, there were two widows living upstairs--Catherine Wilmot and Eliza Worth.  One of them undoubtedly ran the boarding house.  She placed a purposefully misleading advertisement in the New York Herald on February 2, 1873 that read:

A lone woman, having a nice home, will let a small hall room to a lady, in business during the day preferred.  Call at 176 Seventh avenue, one stairs up.

The ad carefully sidestepped the fact that there were numerous boarders, and gave the clear impression that the widow lived alone.

In 1874 the saloon was operated by B. & J. Schuman.  One of the boarders, C. W. Pani, listed his occupation as "beer," suggesting he worked in the saloon.  The other residents included a smith, a clerk, a shoemaker and a plasterer.

French immigrants Joseph and Charles Centlair shared a room in 1877.  Charles, who was 27 years old, was a trained cook.  French chefs were highly sought by high-end restaurants and wealthy families.  But for some reason, he was having a difficult time finding a position.

On April 12, Charles did not return to 176 Seventh Avenue.  Nearly a month later, on May 10, a body was found in the Hudson River at West 13th Street.  He was identified as Charles Centlair.  The New York Times reported, "The circumstances surrounding the case of this man are such as to warrant the supposition that he committed suicide while subject to despondency resulting from inability to procure employment."

The Peter Doelger Brewery took over the lease of the saloon in 1881.  It was common in the 19th century for brewers to lease saloons throughout the city, thereby ensuring that only their products were sold there.  The saloon would occupy the space util 1895 when a much different business signed the lease--Augustino Spiala's barber shop.

Spiala nearly lost his business on January 8, 1896.  In fact, the entire building could have been destroyed.  A boy who worked for Spiala, Salvatore Afroste, lived in the basement.  The Evening Post reported that he "placed a lighted candle on a pile of magazines near the bed."  Salvatore fell asleep and awoke to find the room on fire.  "He tried to extinguish the flames, but when the fire got beyond his control he became frightened and ran from the house."  Happily, while the fire extended into the barber shop, it was extinguished by firefighters before it spread further.

The common storefront cornice and all three Greek Revival doorways survived in 1941.  176 Seventh Avenue is the middle building.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Living upstairs in 1898 were Edward Tibbetts, his wife, Jennie, and their three children who ranged from 8 to 15 years old.  Jennie had been suffering from consumption (known today as tuberculosis) for years.  The family's situation worsened when Edward was rushed to Bellevue Hospital on November 2 with a "hemorrhage of the stomach," according to The New York Times.  (The condition was possibly a perforated ulcer.)  The 39 year old died that night.

When Jennie was told of her husband's death, she replied, "I will soon follow."  And, indeed, the next day she was dead.  The couple was given a joint funeral on November 6.  The three children, now orphans, were separated.  Another tenant of 176 Seventh Avenue, a Mrs. Billings, took in the 15-year-old daughter.  The son and other daughter were taken by their uncle, a Mr. Condon.

Another death occurred in the house the following year.  Antonio Cotrina, who lived here with his wife, Rosina, died in July 1899.  His funeral was held on July 14, but Rosina would not see it.  As the cortege headed to the East Side, disaster struck as it cross the streetcar tracks at 32nd Street and Third Avenue.

The New York Times reported, "The hearse had crossed the tracks, and the first coach, which contained the widow, Mrs. Rosina Cotrina; Dominico Raymond...and three children of Mrs. Cotrina, was close to it."  Just as the coach was on the tracks, a northbound cable car smashed into it, slamming it against the pillar of the elevated railroad.  A doctor treated the passengers on site.  The article said, "they returned home, the funeral proceeding to Calvary Cemetery without them."

The ground floor continued to house a barber shop until 1903, when it became Levin & Feinberg's cigar store.  But by the Depression years, it was once again a barber shop.  

A renovation completed in 1962 resulted in two apartments per floor above the store.  In 1996, the space that had been a beer saloon in the 1870s became Ciel Rouge, a lounge described by New York Magazine as "a glamorously-dark, decadent deep-red womb where men pretend they're fellas and women vamp like dames."  More recently it became home to Bar Veloce, a self-described modern Italian wine bar.

The handsome storefront cornice was most likely lost when 178 Seventh Avenue next door was remodeled in 1984.  But although the wonderful Greek Revival residential entrance was lost in the second half of the 20th century and the brick given a coat of salmon-colored paint, 176 Seventh Avenue retains much of its early 19th century appearance.

photographs by the author
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