Saturday, July 22, 2023

The 1846 George Little House - 53 Jane Street

photograph by the author

George Schott made his living as a tobacconist, but augmented his income with Greenwich Village real estate.  In 1846 he erected two three-story houses on the north side of Jane Street, between Eighth Avenue and Hudson Street.   Rusticated brownstone basements supported three stories of red brick trimmed in brownstone.  Their single-doored entrances included leaded sidelights and transoms, and delicately dentiled cornices crowned their designs.

No. 72 Jane Street (renumbered 53 in 1855) became home to George Little and his wife.  Little had been in the clothing business on Fulton Street for years, and seems to have retired around 1861 when he no longer listed a profession in city directories.

In the spring of 1866 the Littles hired architect James H. Brown to add a two-story brick extension to the rear.  Construction began in April and was completed the following month.  Somewhat surprisingly, within months the couple left the home they had just improved.

In 1867, 53 Jane Street was home to Dr. James Quee.  Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he was a partner with Dr. James Norval in the medical office of Norval & Quee.  He lived alone in the house with one or two servants.  He and his wife, the former Margaret Taylor, had arrived in New York in 1849, and she died four years later on June 26, 1853.

Since June 25, 1863 he had additionally served as assistant surgeon of the 84th Regiment Infantry, and following the Civil War donated his services to The Ladies' Union Relief Association.  The group provided aid to sick and disabled Union soldiers, and to the widows and orphans of soldiers killed in the war.

Quee was also a "chemist," or drug manufacturer.  A Half-Century's Progress of the City of Brooklyn called him "an expert chemist of no ordinary attainments."  The article said, "Mr. Quee is manufacturer of many valuable preparations which are known as among the best.  Among them are Mamelon, or nipple wash, which for nursing mothers is indispensable, preventing the skin from breaking and all the annoyances to which they are subject."

In the 19th century it was common for homeowners preparing to relocate to simply sell their household furnishings and start over in their new homes.  On April 28, 1871 an auction was held of "all the contents of the three story house--Parlor, Bedroom, Kitchen and Basement Furniture."  James Quee moved to Brooklyn and 53 Jane Street became home to builder William H. Bull.

In August 1872 Bull was hired by P. T. Barnum to renovate a building he had purchased on 14th Street for a museum and menagerie.  Only four months later, at 4:10 on December 24, fire was seen coming from the building.  Before long it burned to the ground and many of Barnum's exotic animals perished.  An investigation into the blaze was conducted two days later, and, not surprisingly, William H. Bull was called to testify.

He said in part:

Mr. Barnum gave me the general outlines of such alterations as he required, and told me he hardly knew himself what he wanted, but would leave it all to me, as he was going away; that he had a big show and there was not half room enough there; that I would have to arrange it so as to get as much room as possible.

Bull noted that Barnum instructed that the boiler needed to be able to provide "the maximum amount of heat" as "some of his animals were from a warm climate and needed this heat."  The builder stressed that he had done everything possible to make the building fireproof, and surmised that sawdust from the monkey and giraffe cages may have been swept into contact with the hot pipes.

By the late 1870s, 53 Jane Street had become home to the Charles H. Morrison family.  The Morrisons' daughter, Ella, taught in the Girls' Dept of Grammar School No. 45 on West 24th Street.  

Then, in 1880, Dr. Cornelius Van Keuren and his wife moved in.  Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1843, he had served in the Civil War.  The New York Times later said, "Although very young when the war broke out, he enlisted in the Duryea's Zouaves and served until its close."  He had earned his medical degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

On July 8, 1887, The New York Times reported that Dr. Van Keuren had been appointed a police surgeon.  The position had been established in 1853 by the Metropolitan Police Act, originally to provide medical care for police officers.  By now the duties were expanded to include the examination of prisoners.

It was quite likely that Van Keuren's affiliation with the police department first brought him into contact with Officer Edgar W. Conklin, who began boarding with the family in 1887.  Conklin earned an annual salary of $1,200 that year, or about $35,300 in 2023 terms.

Conklin continued boarding with the Van Keurens after his retirement on May 2, 1893.  He received a pension of $600 per year after that.  He was still here on January 24, 1898 when Dr. Cornelius Van Keuren suffered an attack of apoplexy, what today would be termed a stroke.  He died six hours later at the age of 55.

The house next became home to three bachelors, Michael Seery, who was a contractor, and his nephews, William and James Seery.  On the night of June 15, 1899, Michael Seery did not return home.  The New York Press reported a week later, "The nephews have been hunting all the institutions in the city for a trace of their uncle."  Tragically, their search would not end happily.

On June 22, The New York Press reported, "Although their uncle, Michael Seery, had died on June 15, his nephews, William and James Seery, did not find it out until last evening."  The article explained that on the 15th, Michael had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at 23rd Street and First Avenue, and was taken to Bellevue Hospital.  "He died two hours later," it continued.  "The body was kept the usual number of hours for claimants, but none came."

Another resident to go missing nine years later was Herbert C. Madge.  He was a Tammany politician and superintendent of the warehouse of a French-based china firm on Murray Street.   At 8:30 p.m. on May 7, 1908, he cut his evening with friends short in an Eighth Avenue café, saying that he had a headache and was going home to bed.  He never arrived.

Nearly a week later, on May 13, The Evening World reported, "Madge, who was an intimate friend and lieutenant of Charles Culkin, Tammany district leader...carried from $2,000 to $3,000 in his trousers pockets all the time, and some of his friends are of the belief that he met with foul play and was robbed." 

The article, which noted he "had a happy home life," said, "His wife is almost distracted over his absence.  They have two children."  It is unclear if Madge was ever found.  His wife was living alone in New Jersey soon afterward.

No. 53 Jane Street was home to John Hallessey by 1918.  He rented the house for at least two years before purchasing it in May 1920.  Hallessey immediately rented rooms.  Among his tenants in 1921 were Professor Malcolm Ogilvie.  The somewhat eccentric Ogilvie was doing field work that year in Batavia, New York, when he drew the suspicions of the locals.

The August edition of The Guide to Nature reported that residents notified authorities that a vagrant was skulking around.  And things got worse for Ogilvie when a policeman approached him and Ogilvie "began to tell him about some cuckoos or something that the disinterested 'arm of the law' was totally ignorant of and, for that reason, asked: 'Do you live around here?' [thinking] the 'poor nut' was demented."

Ogilvie explained that he lived in New York City, but came to the Batavia region each spring "to be with the birds.  I'm very fond of birds."  The policeman replied, "some of the folks around here are complaining.  They think you're a queer bird, yourself."

"How very extraordinary--here's my card--it may explain matters," replied Ogilvie.  The card read:

Professor Malcolm Ogilvie, New York Ornithological Society, 53 Jane Street, New York.

The matter was cleared up, and Ogilvie was allowed to birdwatch unmolested; however, the locals most likely still viewed him as a queer bird.

Also living at 53 Jane Street that year were newlyweds Albert F. Hilts and his wife, the former Maria Flood.  Hilts had served in World War I as a second lieutenant in the 52nd Pioneer Infantry and had survived the fierce Argonne Forest battle.  His bride, astonishingly, had also served in France as a telephone operator with the First Army on the Verdun front.  It was in France that the couple met.  Hilts had obtained a job with the Federal Reserve Bank downtown following the war.

In 1922 Irish-born Sean Conway lived at 53 Jane Street.  The founder of the Ulster Defense Alliance, on December 16, 1922, The Advocate said he "has been speaking for the Irish republican cause for many years in the United States."  The article announced that Conway had just written "a new martial song, entitled, 'O Ulster, Proud Ulster,' which is said to be the finest northern war song since 'O'Donnell Abu.'"

Even more ardent in Irish causes was socialist and trade union leader James Larkin.  Also known as Jim Larkin or Big Jim, he was one of the founders of the Irish Labour Party and of the Irish Worker League.  

In 1920 Larkin had been sent to Sing Sing for "criminal anarchy."  Upon his pardon by Governor Al Smith in 1923, he took a room at 53 Jane Street (possibly through his connections with Sean Conway).  His stay would be short-lived, however.  He was deported to Ireland later that year.

In 1941 a fire escape attested to the several occupants of 53 Jane Street.  The parlor windows have not yet been lengthened.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Muriel S. Mayhew moved into the basement of 53 Jane Street in 1946.  A widow, in 1961 she brought home a Great Dane puppy named Daniel.  Nine years later, when Richard and Sandra de Saint Phalle purchased the house in December 1970, Daniel was no longer a bouncing puppy.

The De Saint Phalles moved into the house with their 4- and 5-year-old sons.  They almost immediately initiated eviction proceedings against Muriel.  Richard de Saint Phalle, who was a lawyer with Cravath, Swaine & Moore, described Daniel as "ferocious" and "seven feet tall when standing on his hind legs."  They called him a "substantial threat" to their sons' safety.

Muriel Mayhew produced affidavits from neighbors that described Daniel as "calm, gentle, and friendly."  Those testimonies and Muriel's swayed Supreme Court Justice Edward J. Greenfield to decide in Muriel Mayhew's favor.  He concluded the complaint was "centered not upon the dog but upon the tenant."

A Greek Revival mantel and period moldings survive in the parlor.  image via

There is still a basement apartment in the house.  Much of the original Greek Revival detailing survives inside.  At some point after mid-century the parlor windows were lengthened, but, overall, the exterior appearance is little changed since 1846.

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