In the 1840s, the block of East 10th Street between First and Second Avenues was lined with elegant four-story brick homes. But the waves of immigrants who arrived in New York following the end of the Civil War and settled in the East Village changed the tenor of the neighborhood. When Christian and Elizabeth Dick sold the former private house at 229 East 10th Street in July 1884, it was home to multiple families.
In 1889 Charles and Augustus Ruff demolished 229 East 10th Street and hired the architectural firm of Schneider & Herter to design a tenement building on the site. The architects were among the favorites of developers in the Lower East Side. Ernest W. Schneider and Henry Herter would eventually design more than a hundred tenement buildings, as well as commercial structures and two synagogues in the district. Their plans for the 22-foot wide, five-story structure, filed in September, projected construction costs at $22,000--about $668,000 in 2023 terms.
Schneider & Herter were known for their exuberant ornamentation, and 229 East 10th Street would not disappoint. Overall Romanesque Revival in style, the architects liberally added Queen Anne elements. There were two stores below street level, one on either side of the stoop. Two squat medieval columns upheld the brick arch over the entrance. The keystones and piers of the first floor were carved with portraits, their contemporary dress and facial hair suggesting they were actual people.
Queen Anne tiles, decorative terra cotta bands, and additional carved portrait elements--one supporting a fifth floor pier representing a Native American--embellished the facade. Schneider & Herter saved the most eye-catching element for the top floor, where two exquisitely carved youthful atlantes uphold the central piers.
Not all of the initial residents were impoverished new-comers. Among the original tenants was Thomas F. Cohen, an attorney and notary public. He lived here by 1891, testifying in court that his apartment doubled as "an evening office."
On December 18, 1894 Cohen made an egregious professional mistake. He had notarized the signatures on railroad bonds of William H. Schooley and Joel Patterson. When the pair was arrested, charged with having stolen the bonds, Cohen was called into court as a witness. The New York Times reported, "He testified that he had taken the acknowledgment of two men who were strangers to him."
The World wrote, "This is a criminal office, according to the Penal Code." Judge Martine was outraged, and sent for Assistant District Attorney Battle "to have the witness indicted for violating his oath as notary public in acknowledging the signature of persons not personally known to him," said New York Times. Realizing that his livelihood was in jeopardy, Cohen broke down in tears. The World reported, "Cohen cried, and said he did not know he was doing wrong and the Judge let him depart, after a lecture."
At 1:00 on the morning of February 22, 1896, Herman Altman, the janitor, discovered Edward J. C. Mantio "prowling on the third floor of the apartment house No. 239 East Tenth street" in his stocking feet, as reported by the New York Herald. Altman grabbed the intruder and held him until a policeman came. Mantio's shoes were in his overcoat pockets.
In court the next morning Mantio explained "a man had engaged him to deliver a note to a gentleman who lived in the house," reported The Press.
"Did you deliver the note?" the magistrate asked.
"No, sir," was the reply.
"Have you got it?"
"No, I gave it back to the man to gave it to me," Mantio said.
Herman Altman pointed out that that was impossible, since Mantio had been in his control until his arrest. When the prisoner was asked why he would take off his shoes to deliver a message, he explained he was afraid of waking up the residents. He was held on charges of unlawfully entering a building.
Resident Louis Biechler was doing well for himself in 1898. Known familiarly as "Jumbo," the New York Herald said he "is apparently well-to-do." He ran a coffee house in one of the stores in the building, and another on East 4th Street. His luck changed in May 1898 when his 24-year-old wife Minnie ran off to San Francisco with Jacob Weymann, taking $2,000 and diamond jewelry belonging to her husband.
The two were not in California long before Weymann left Minnie and she attempted suicide, which was a jailable offense. The New York Herald explained, "She professed penitence, and the police there enable her to return to New York." She arrived back in town on September 13 and, not finding Louis in the apartment or the shop in the building, went to the West 4th Street store. There she "pleaded for forgiveness." Her repentance fell flat. The New York Herald recounted, "'You think you'll get the better of me again, don't you?,' he returned. 'Well, I won't have anything to do with you.'"
Louis then left the store. Her options exhausted, at least in her mind, Minnie took a vial of paris green (a rodent poison) from her purse and drank it. Because she was in a public place, help came quickly. The New York Herald reported that she was taken to Bellevue Hospital "where it was said she would recover."
Another tenant set on ending her own life was Regina Goldner, who was arrested for attempting suicide on August 7, 1907. The New York Herald reported that the 18-year-old "was not considered insane, and so was remanded to the Tombs for sentence. Since that time she has been watched by an attendant to prevent suicide."
Regina was intent on ending her sufferings. Twice before she was to appear in court on August 16, the matron found her trying to hang herself to the cell bars by her apron strings. She had to be carried to "the court pen" to hear Judge Crain's sentence. She was unfamiliar with the word "indeterminate" and asked for clarification. The judge told her it meant "two years."
Back in her cell, Regina again attempted to hang herself. (It would seem that simply taking away the apron strings might have been prudent.) "It was decided to send for Rabbi Schurtzman, who knew her," said the article. He spoke with the teen for an hour in a common space, then, rather foolishly, left without informing the matron. Regina took the opportunity to throw herself over the balcony railing to the floor below. The New York Herald reported that she suffered "a fracture of the skull, a fractured leg and a fractured jaw. There is little chance of her recovery."
Richard Vaughn and George Williams shared an apartment in 1908. Williams, who was 45-years-old was known on the street as Humpty. Vaughn listed himself as a salesman, but his true profession was much more profitable and illicit. That summer eight detectives had been working on "trailing safe blowers for several weeks through half a dozen cities," according to The Sun on August 22. The crime spree had come to an end the previous evening when Vaughn and Williams were arrested in the act of robbing a dentist's office downtown.
The newspaper said the pair had "made good hauls and got away without police interference with about $10,000." Vaughn had recently been released after a two-year sentence in the Connecticut State Prison. George "Humpty" Williams "has spent seventeen years in jail, and...is known to the police as being one of the most expert safe crackers in the world, as well as one of the shrewdest of his kind living," said The Evening Telegram.
Resident Frieda Alexanderofsky exemplified the struggles of impoverish immigrant women in the early years of the 20th century. When her child became ill early in 1911, it was taken to the Marine Hospital on Hoffman Island. Just off Staten Island, the facility was mostly used as quarantine spot for incoming immigrants. When rumors of corruption and maltreatment were investigated that year, Frieda was called to testify. And her story was shocking.
On June 28 the New York Herald reported, "Her child was ill, and when she asked to see the infant, she testified, she was told that if she would scrub the floors she could see the child." She told the court:
I looked into the hospital window one day and a watchman drove me away with a stick. I then made up my mind to scrub. I worked from six o'clock in the morning until seven o'clock at night. When I was not scrubbing I was bathing ill children. I often bathed twenty-five children in the same water. They promised to pay me thirty-six cents a day for my work, but at the end of nine weeks they gave me an order for $6.30. I never have been able to collect the money.
When asked if she personally saw acts of cruelty in the hospital, she recalled:
I saw nurses stuff ends of quilts into the mouths of crying children and then lay them upon their stomachs so that they could not utter a sound. I saw dying children taken out into the open air in January and left there covered with a thin blanket. When I protested to a nurse against this inhumanity I was told there were too many children in New York now and that the fewer that left the hospital the better for all concerned.
Asked why she never reported the incidents, Frieda explained, "I was told that I should keep my eyes and mouth closed if I did not want to be sent back to Europe."
In 1902 the Jewish housewives of New York and Brooklyn had protested against the high cost of kosher meats by staging a boycott. It resulted in the Kosher Meat Riots in May, with hundreds of women taking to the streets. Now, in the summer of 1912, a second boycott was underway. Among the participants was Mrs. Lena Lipis who lived with her family at 229 East 10th Street.
When Mrs. Lipis went grocery shopping on June 17, she became outraged when she saw another housewife ignoring the boycott. A feisty Lena Lipis flew into a rage and ended up in the Essex Market Court. The Newark Evening Star reported she was charged "for having used abusive language and taken a package of meat from Mrs. Fannie Rocoosin, of 91 St. Mark's place, and thrown it in the street." Lena pleaded guilty and was fined $10--around $290 today.
When America entered World War I, resident Irving Siota enlisted in the medical detachment of the 308th Infantry. From October 2 through October 7, 1918, his detachment was cut off and surrounded by the enemy in the forest of Argonne during what would be known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Two years later he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The commendation read in part, "During this period he was without food, but he continued to assist and give first aid to the wounded, exposing himself to heavy shell and machine-gun fire at the risk of his life, until he was completely exhausted."
In 1930, siblings William Viragh Jr. and Elsie Viragh shared an apartment in the building. William was just 17 and his sister was 18. The teens' mother had died several years earlier and their father lived far upstate. On July 4 that year, William Sr.'s body was found in the Mohawk River near Schenectady. Sheriff Edward C. Klein tracked down Elsie and William through notices in the New York City Hungarian language newspapers. On July 14 the Schenectady Gazette reported, "Young Viragh and his sister came to this city Saturday to make arrangements for their father's funeral."
Living here two years later was 24-year-old Charles Kiefhaber. He sped through the intersection of First Avenue and 24th Street in May 1932, prompting motorcycle officer Joseph M. Clark to pull him over. Kiefhaber soon regretted breaking the speed limit. "Upon questioning by the police," reported the Long Island Daily Press, "Kiefhaber admitted he stole the machine." He was sentenced on May 27 to two to four years in Sing Sing prison.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the formerly gritty neighborhood saw change as younger, more affluent residents migrated into the area. Despite architecturally unsympathetic replacement windows and a utilitarian entrance door, Schneider & Herter's 1889 tenement demands attention--especially those remarkable fifth floor figures.
photographs by the author
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