Saturday, July 8, 2023

The 1855 Samuel and Mary A. French House - 433 West 22nd Street


In 1855 two matching houses were erected on the north side of West 22nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues for upholsterer William S. and Mary Fogg, and Charles and Mary A. French.  Their architect eschewed the American basement style seen elsewhere along the quickly developing block for the more familiar, high-stooped English basement plan.  His Italianate-style design included double-doored, arched entrances under substantial classical pediments, elliptically-arched windows with graceful lintels, and individual foliate-bracketed cornices.

The Frenches moved into 297 West 22nd Street (renumbered 299 shortly afterward, and finally 433 in 1864).  The wealthy Samuel French operated a printing and publishing house at 18 Ann Street, a bookstore at 122 Nassau Street, and a shoe factory at 69 Murray Street.  His publishing business focused mostly on dramatic works and educational books.
On November 30, 1856, the New York Herald reported on the newly released book, Massey's Exhibition Reciter and Drawing-Room Entertainments.  The article said in part:

Mr. Samuel French, the well known publisher of the American Drama and John Brougham's Dramatic Works, has supplied a want of the community in publishing this elegant and unique "Reciter."  School "Readers" and "Speakers" are numerous; but hitherto no work has appeared so well calculated to supply a want felt by all who delight in the popular, entertaining and improving practice of recitation.

Samuel and Mary French remained in the house through 1866.  The following year it was home to the family of Isidor H. Lichtenhein.  He was a partner in the apparel firm of I. & G. Lichtenhein at 43 Chambers Street.  His partner, George H. Lichtenhein (presumably a brother), lived nearby at 254 West 23rd Street.  

The family's residency would be extremely short.  After having gone to the expense of having custom furniture manufactured, in the spring of 1869 they left for Europe--either for an extended or permanent stay.  An auction of the household goods was held on April 12, the announcement of which promised, "This furniture will be found well worthy the attention of those in want of really fine goods, having been all made to order within a year, and is in splendid order."

The luxurious surroundings in which the Lichtenhein family lived were evidenced in the auctioneer's inventory, which read in part:

The parlors contain rich medallion Carpets, massive French plate Pier and Mantel Mirrors, superb ebony gilt medallion Parlor Suits in green satin, made by Kimbel & Cabus; elegant 7-1/2 octave rosewood Piano, superb French Clocks, Bronzes, Vases, Ornaments, Oil Paintings, rich, heavy Lace Curtains, artistic bronze Chandeliers, &c.

Potential bidders were provided catalogues and permits were required to attend the high-end auction.

The residence was next home to the Ebenezer C. and Fannie Jackson and their two small sons, William E. and Frederick Howard.  Jackson was a partner with his brother William H. Jackson, and John H. Hankinson in William H. Jackson & Co.  The firm manufactured and sold "grates, fenders, and other hardware."

Only weeks after the Jacksons moved in, their house was the scene of a somber gathering.  Frederick Howard Jackson, Ebenezer and Fannie's youngest son, died of scarlet fever on May 30, 1869 at the age of two-and-a-half.  Family members and friends assembled in the parlor the following afternoon for the toddler's funeral.

By the early 1880's Jackson's widowed mother, Sarah, lived with the family.  Another funeral was held in the house following her death at the age of 76 on February 28, 1884.

After living at 233 West 22nd Street for more than two decades, in September 1890 the Jacksons sold the house to George Vassar and his wife, the former Helen Williamson Price.  The couple had six children, George Jr., Annie, William J., Walter Wicks, Florence, and Natalie.  Despite what must have been snug conditions (considering the Vassars would have had at least one live-in servant), George's spinster aunt Mary Vassar also lived with the family.

Born in December 1852, George was an architect and builder, like his father had been.  He was the principal in George Vassar's Son & Co. and was a member of the National Academy of Design.  He was responsible for the construction of several impressive Manhattan structures, including the massive Ansonia Hotel on Broadway.  

Mary Vassar died at the age of 73 on December 29, 1896.  The parlor was the scene of her funeral at 8:00 on New Year's Eve.

It would, of course, not be the last of the funerals held in the house.  On July 10, 1910, the Vassars' youngest son, Walter Wicks, died; and seven years later, on January 16, 1917, his father's funeral was held in the parlor.

George Vassar's death may have dealt a heavy emotional toll on his wife.  Only three months later, on April 28, Helen Williamson Price Vassar died.  Her funeral was held in the house on April 30.

The several-million-dollar Vassar estate, which included several parcels of Manhattan real estate, (including the family home), was divided in equal parts among the children.  George Jr. was the executor of his parents' estate, and his father's will gave him "sole control of all the real estate of George Vassar, Sr."  It would cause significant tensions.

Tensions among the siblings seem to have appeared early on.  Although Florence and Natalie Vassar did not marry, they left 433 West 22nd Street around the time of World War I.  It was a highly unorthodox move for unmarried women at the time.  Now only George Vassar, Jr., also unmarried, was left in the family home.

The familial problems came to a head in May 1921 when George's siblings took him to court, charging him with refusing "to distribute rents, income and profits of the real property of the estate of George Vassar, Sr, and for alleged failure to alter, sell or improve the real estate."  

Another point of contention was the house at 433 West 22nd Street.  George's brothers and sisters bristled at his charging the salary of his housekeeper, as well as the expenses of "having the house cleaned, heated and partially lighted" to the estate, while not paying rent.  They pressured him to alter the residence into income-producing apartments.

At trial, real estate broker Vince C. Pepe testified for the defense, saying "it would not be advisable to alter the house, No. 433 West 22nd Street into small apartments."  He explained that the expense of renovation "would be very large and that the neighborhood in which the house is situated has not yet become a center for that sort of renting and that the changing of houses into small apartments...may be a great loss when the housing shortage ends and apartments are erected with all the modern improvements."

But in the end, George lost the battle.  In 1923, the architectural firm of Polhemus & Coffin was hired to remodel the house into apartments.  It was not an especially upscale change.  The Certificate of Occupancy, granted in 1924, demanded "not more than 15 sleeping rooms throughout."  It was apparently during his renovation that the stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to the basement level.

Although the stoop was gone in 1941, the preponderance of the 1855 architectural details were intact.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Among the tenants were artist John J. A. Murphy and his wife, the former Cecil Buller, who arrived by 1926.  Murphy had studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the Art Students League.  He moved to London as chief assistant to painter Frank Bragnwyn until World War I pulled him into military work.  He served in the camouflage section of the Army Corps of Engineers in France, and illustrated war posters.

Murphy's woodcut Leapfrog is in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

By the time the he and his wife moved to 433 West 22nd Street, he was best known for his woodcuts and had been exhibited at the Leicester Gallery in London.  His works would eventually be in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the British Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

Unexpectedly, 433 West 22nd Street served briefly as the Consul General of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes beginning in 1927.

A renovation completed in 1971 resulted in a duplex apartment in the basement and former parlor level, and two apartments each on the upper floors.  It was apparently during this remodeling that the early Victorian details were vandalized, leaving a mutilated facade.

photographs by the author
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