Wednesday, July 12, 2023

George Keister's 1892 222 and 224 West 21st Street


Michael H. Gillespie was a prolific real estate operator in the last decade of the 19th century.  Early in 1891 he hired architect George Keister to design two "five story flats" on the south side of West 21st Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  On April 4, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that one would be 27-feet-wide and the other 19-feet-wide.  Construction costs for the project were estimated to be $41,000--or about one and a quarter million in 2023 dollars.

Keister faced the buildings in variegated beige brick above the base of rough-cut stone.  His tripartite Renaissance Revival design borrowed liberally from Romanesque Revival, notably in the arched openings and brick eyebrows of the fourth floor.  Bull-nosed brick softened the edges of the three-story mid-section piers.  The narrower building at 222 West 21st Street was two bays wide, its fraternal sibling three bays wide with a centered entrance.

Elaborate Renaissance-style carvings embellish the entrances.

The tenants were middle-class, like Frederick S. Farrell, an early resident of 224 West 21st Street.  He was a salesman for the Whiting Manufacturing Company on Union Square.  Unfortunately, several of the tenants' names often appeared in newspapers for the wrong reasons.   

Renier Herriger and his wife Annie lived at 222 West 21st Street.  On Saturday night, January 27, 1894 the couple had already been drinking when they arrived at the Park Avenue Hotel.  It is unclear if they were unaware that Duncan Campbell worked there as the night clerk, or if they went there specifically because he was.  What is clear is that a confrontation ensued.

Campbell and Annie Herriger had a past, and before long Annie and Renier were in the Jefferson Market Court on charges of disorderly conduct.  Campbell testified, "Herriger and his wife were drunk, and made a disturbance because they could get no drink."  Annie Herriger defended her actions, saying that she and Campbell had been "good friends in Montreal," but that "He had thrown her over."  The Herrigers were released after they promised "not to trouble Campbell."

A tragic story involved the Denby family, who lived at 224 West 21st Street.  Mrs. Denby's brother, Michael F. Fitzgerald, had run away from home at the outbreak of the Civil War when he was a teenager.  The New York Herald explained, "While connected with a recruiting camp in Massachusetts an accident befell him which affected his head.  The family never knew whether he was hit with a musket or kicked by an animal."  However Fitzgerald sustained his injury, it resulted in brain trauma.   

Fitzgerald occasionally became irrational, at which times his sister committed him to asylums.  He had been released to her custody in September 1896, but three months later, on December 7, the New York Herald reported, "He has been subject to insanity for many years, and a new attack had forced Mrs. Denby to cause his arrest."  

The problem became evident in court.  As Magistrate Simms was speaking, the 53-year-old Fitzgerald spoke up, "Judge, stop your damn noise!"

When the judge continued, he broke in again, "You'll have to talk a little louder, Judge.  I can't hear you."  Magistrate Simms sent Fitzgerald to Bellevue Hospital where "he will be confined again until an improvement sets in," said the article.  

E. A. Raper was also a resident of 224 West 21st Street, here by 1902.  He was an agent of two Scranton, Pennsylvania-based brokerage firms, Murphy & Co. and E. E. Smathers & Co.  On the night of March 10, 1902 two detectives knocked on his apartment door and arrested him for having misappropriated $15,000 in funds from Scranton investors.

Living next door in 1904 was Harry Root, known on the street as Baltimore Harry.  He was arrested in January 1905, charged with being involved in the jewels theft in the Hotel Seville on September 9, 1904.  When arrested on Sixth Avenue, he had an $850 brooch, which was part of the loot, and a lockpick in his possession.  (The value of the pin would be about $27,000 today.)

A month later, another resident of 224 West 21st Street was summoned for jury duty.  William M. Denman was chosen to sit on the case of two youths charged with burglary, one or both of whom were Jewish.  The trial was set to start on the morning of February 23, when suddenly the jury foreman, Abraham Abrams, stood up and addressed the court.

"I fear I cannot sit as a juror in this case, because one of the other jurors when in the jury room on another case declared he would not believe a Hebrew under oath," he declared.

Judge McMahon was taken aback.  "This is most extraordinary.  Has any one of you gentlemen made such a statement?"

When no one admitted to having made the comment, Abrams pushed on.  "The statement was made, and by Juror No. 9 in his box."  Juror No. 9 was William M. Denman.

The New York Herald reported, "Other jurors then arose and corroborated Mr. Abrams, saying they had heard Mr. Denman make the remark.  He made no attempt to deny this."  Denman was excused from the jury for his anti-Semitic remarks "and the trial went on."

The disturbing string of arrests of residents of both buildings continued in May 1911 when George Gebhard was apprehended for "enticing a man to his room in No. 224 West Twenty-first street and robbing him of $40."  It was a costly crime for Gebhard.  He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in the penitentiary.

Albert McCass lived at 222 West 21st Street in 1912.  The 22-year-old was a member of the notorious Gopher Gang which, according to The Sun that year, "for years has subjected the lower West Side to terror."  The gang operated out of a second-floor room in a vacant house on West 16th Street.  The Sun explained, "they persisted in entering the house by climbing through the back windows and making the night hideous for the neighbors by carousing until the early morning.  So thoroughly had they intimidated the residents of the district, however, that not even the owner of the house, Dennis J. Keating, a horseshoer, who has his shop on the ground floor, would make a complaint against the gangsters."

Finally, on June 23 1912, a brave neighbor "unable to endure the racket from the house," went to the police, saying if something was not done it "undoubtedly would end in a shooting."  A squad went to the house "and found it in a state of uproar."

An armed standoff ensued.  The Sun reported, "Two of the gangsters, so the police say, brandished revolvers and threatened to shoot 'the gizzard out o' any copper' that dared attempt to get into the house."  Sergeant O'Connor distracted them from 16th Street "by engaging the gangsters in a dispute over their right to be in the house," while two policemen went around the back and entered a window.  They unlocked the door and admitted the rest of the squad "who dashed upstairs and overpowered the young men, not one of them being more than 23 years old."  Among those arrested was Albert McCass.

Spiritualist Helen Moore lived at 222 West 21st Street in 1915 and held seances in her apartment.  The mystical sessions may have proved disruptive to her neighbors, however.  An advertisement in The Spiritualist magazine in November read, "Helen Moore, 222 West 21st St. New York City.  Trumpet séance every Thursday 8 P. M.  Will accept appointments out."

In the early morning hours of October 15, 1922, Robert Cooper was noticeably drunk.  John Fitzgerald, a tenant of 224 West 21st Street, and two friends saw him as an easy target.  At the corner of Eighth Avenue and 21st Street, according to Cooper in court, they "hailed him, compelled him to stand facing a brick wall and robbed him."  His yells attracted Patrolmen Mullin and Flynn who arrested the trio.  Unfortunately for Cooper, he was arrested, too, and held on $1,000 bail "for drunkenness," according to the New-York Tribune.

Without a doubt, however, the worst crime committed by a tenant came in 1964.  Twenty-six-year-old John Driscoll, who was released from prison on a charge of armed robbery that year, moved into the apartment of his mother, Frances Parker in 222 West 21st Street.  While he was incarcerated, his wife had found another love interest and was living with him under her maiden name with the Driscolls' daughter and son in the East Bronx.  John Driscoll found out where they lived and on Christmas Eve set out for revenge.  The New York Times reported the next day that Ann Bescia, Fred Papro, her partner, and her 23-year-old daughter Ann had been stabbed to death.  Anthony, the 19-year-old son was in critical condition.  John Driscoll was arrested after his mother called an ambulance "when she saw his wounds."  

The city's Housing and Development Administration acquired the two buildings in 1970.  The tenants were promised, according to spokespersons, "low-interest loans to buy and renovate their buildings."  When the loans were not actualized, the tenants rebelled.  On October 12, 1971 The New York Times reported, "traffic on Eighth Avenue at 21st Street was blocked for an hour yesterday afternoon as 50 tenants demonstrated against what they called the city's retreat from a promise."  Seven protestors were arrested, after which the group moved to West 20th Street in front of the 10th Precinct station house.

The following year, on June 8, 1972, The New York Times reported, "After turbulent sit-ins at...222-224 West 21st Street, the city's Housing and Development Administration was persuaded to come up with financing plans involving subsidies that reduced the rent of renovated apartments to a level close to what the tenants had been paying before." 


There were six apartments per floor in 222 West 21st Street and three each in 224.  That changed in 2015 when a renovation resulted in two apartments per floor in 222 West 21st Street and  and three and four each per floor in 224.  The disturbing decades-long tradition of crimes and arrests in the buildings ended in the last quarter of the 20th century.  Today's tenants live quietly, drawing no unwanted publicity to George Keister's handsome structures.

photographs by the author
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