Friday, June 23, 2023

The 1873 No. 458 West 49th Street


On February 6, 1873 real estate operator Maurice Levi purchased property on the south side of 49th Street just east of Tenth Avenue from William Astor.  Within the year he had replaced the old structures on the site with five brownstone-faced flat (or apartment) buildings, stretching from 450 to 458 West 49th Street.

Like its identical neighbors, 458 West 49th Street was four stories tall, its entrance sitting above a short, three-step stoop.  Its Italianate design featured a handsome double-doored entrance that would have been fitting in a merchant class residence.  Its paneled pilasters and entablature were carved with rosettes, a foreshadowing of the emerging neo-Grec style.  Sturdy foliate brackets upheld a classic, triangular pediment that matched those of the windows on this level.

The upper floor openings sat upon molded sills upheld by delicate brackets, and were crowned by carved lintels.  A pressed metal cornice with foliate and plain brackets included raised panels within the frieze.

The building filled with mostly Irish-born tenants, the early residents having surnames including Mulroy, Mooney, Mulligan, Tobin and McManus.  And while it sat within the notorious Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, the building's residents seem to have been hard-working and respectable.  Living here for at least a decade starting around 1900, for instance, was former police officer Andrew B. Mooney.  He had retired from the police department on November 8, 1883 and lived on a $600-a-year pension--an income that translates to about $18,500 in 2023.

Tenants like Edmund Murphy seem to have worked hard to improve their conditions.  At a time when most office workers were male, he studied "Pitmanic shorthand," the system developed by Sir Isaac Pitman in 1837.  By 1909 he was a member of The Shorthand Club.

At least one resident around that time could afford an automobile--possibly a taxicab.  But John Farrell's car seems to have left something to be desired.  On December 13, 1910 he appeared in court and was fined $1 for operating a "smoking automobile."  Just over two weeks later, on New Year's Day 1911, he was pulled over again, and this time was arrested.

The city had earlier enacted what the New York Herald described as the "anti-smoke law."  The newspaper complained about the "disregard many have for this health saving regulation."  Farrell was one of 40 drivers arrested that day and this time his fine was stiffer--five times as much as his previous penalty.  The $5 fine, equal to about $150 today, most likely hit Farrell's cash flow hard.

A long-time Irish resident was James J. O'Connor.  In 1915 he was appointed a commissioner of deeds, a civil service position similar to today's notary public.  He was still here in 1923, when he was a member of the Friends of Irish Freedom.

Living here in 1917 was Bernard Grennan.  The 39-year-old worked as a laborer building the subway.  On April 17 that year he was working on an excavation in Brooklyn at St. Felix Street, near Hanson Place.  At around 10:30 that morning disaster struck when a cave-in occurred.  The front walls of two houses broke away and slid into the hole, according to the Brooklyn Standard Union.  The foundations of two other houses were undermined and the article said "the entire fronts of both will probably have to be taken down."

Amazingly, only one worker was killed.  At least six others were injured, including Bernard Grennan.  He and his co-workers were taken to Brooklyn Hospital where he happily recovered.

The tenant list of 458 West 49th Street continued to be filled with Irish surnames for decades.  Then, by the third quarter of the 20th century, the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood saw gentrification.  

In the 1970s artist Frank Taira lived and worked here.  Born in San Francisco to Japanese immigrant parents in 1913, they had returned to Japan in 1928, leaving the 15-year-old to fend for himself.  He worked as a houseboy to support himself.  The prize money he won in a competition sponsored by a Japanese-American newspaper to create a cartoon promoting Japanese-American relations enabled him to enroll for a month in the California School of Fine Arts.  

It was a life-changing experience.  By the time he moved into 458 West 49th Street his paintings had been exhibited at several solo shows, including the 1967 Hudson Guild Gallery exhibition Frank Taira: Oils.  

Another artistic resident was actress and singer Nell Snaidas, who lived here in the late 199os.  She graduated from the Mannes College of Music, having begun her career at the age of 16 as a soloist in a tour of the New Jersey Opera Theater.  She appeared on Broadway in Hair and starred internationally in the role of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera.

No. 458 West 49th Street is the best preserved of the 1873 row, its handsome carvings still crisp after a century and a half.

photographs by the author
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