Monday, July 10, 2023

The Lost John B. Coles House - 1 State Street


John B. Coles owned both the corner house (1 State Street) and the house next door.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

John Butler Coles was born in 1734.  During the Revolution he was associated with "the great commercial firm of T. B. & Co.," according to Walter Barrett in his 1863 The Old Merchants of New York City.  At the conflict's end he married Elizabeth Underhill, and the couple would have five children, Hannah, John Butler, Isaac Underhill, William Franklin, and Elizabeth.

Around 1790, Coles went into business on his own at 12 Dock Street.  (The street, which no longer exists, ran from Broad Street to Hanover Square).  By 1795 his flour business was extensive.  That year, according to Barrett, he moved his business and home "to No. 1 South street, where he had his store, and No. 1 State street, where he resided."

John and Elizabeth Cole's new home was a substantial Federal style structure.  Three-and-a-half stories high, its location on the corner of Whitehall Street provided an extra wall of light and ventilation.  Splayed lintels and keystones were hallmarks of the architectural style, and at the attic level two tall dormers faced State Street while on the Whitehall side additional light came from a handsome grouping of two quarter-round windows flanking an arched opening.

Artist John Trumbull painted this portrait of John Butler Coles in 1805.  from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Cole also erected 2 State Street next door.  (Because State Street faces the harbor and there were no houses on the south side of the street, addresses were sequential.)  The property was intended either as an investment or, as one historian suggested, for one of his sons.

Walter Barrett painted a romantic view of the Coles house and State Street:

He could stand on his handsome door steps, whistle or hold up his finger, and in an instant he would have had three or more of the original Whitehall bargeman rowing up to him.  Then he could go out with one, and have a row all around the harbor, at that time without being run over by anything more furious than a slow moving horseboat; for in those days, sixty years and odd ago, there were no steamboats racing up and down, and but few ships entered the harbor.

Barrett recalled that from his bedroom window, Coles could watch the fashionable people who promenaded along the Battery.  "Then he could stroll there before breakfast, and while drinking the glorious breeze fresh from the salt sea, could shake hands with his constituents."  The mention of constituents referred to Coles's being elected an alderman of the First Ward in 1797.  "In these days, all the wealth, aristocracy and dignity lived in the first Ward, and it was an honor to be its alderman," explained Barrett.

Politics was just one of the diversifications in Coles's resume.  In 1802, the State Assembly enacted a proposition "for building a bridge across Haerlem-river."  The legislature noted that "John B. Coles has already expended a considerable sum of money in making, clearing and amending the said road," and, therefore, he was permitted to collect tolls on the proposed bridge for 30 years.  In 1806, he co-founded the Eagle Fire Department, of which he was president; and the same year was elected a director of the Bank of New York.

Oddly enough, in 1810 John Jr. and his wife took over 1 State Street and his parents moved next door to No. 2.  It was most likely his many other pursuits that prompted John B. Coles Sr. to turn his flour business over to his sons around 1812.  

John Butler Coles, Sr. died in 1827.  His sons, Isaac and William, continued the family business and, according to Walter Barrett, "like their father showed great good sense in keeping in the old vicinity for residences."  Indeed, Isaac now lived in his childhood home at 1 State Street and upon his father's death William and his family moved into 2 State Street.  Elizabeth Underhill Coles continued to live there until her death in 1832.

With their parents now deceased and the once exclusive neighborhood becoming increasingly commercial, the brothers moved on.  In 1833, William left State Street and the following year Isaac and his family moved from 1 State to 50 Bond Street--in what was now one of the most fashionable residential neighborhoods in New York City.

As an interesting sidenote, in 1808--the year after his successful launch of the steamboat the Clermont--engineer and inventor Robert Fulton purchased a fine home at the corner of State and Marketfield Street.  Although it was about three blocks away from 1 State Street, urban lore persisted throughout the latter part of the 19th century that Fulton lived in the Cole house.

Little remained to recall the days of well-dressed women and men who strolled the Battery when this photograph was taken.  from the archives of the Seamen's Church.

By the outbreak of Civil War, there were no longer any private residences along State Street.  On July 30, 1862, The New York Times remarked, "Many suppose that the lower part of our City is entirely given over to trade and traffic, and that the religious wants of its inhabitants receive no care or attention.  Such, however, is not the case."  The article pointed to ten places where daily services were held, including the Industrial and Sunday School at 1 State Street.

When this undated photograph was taken, a sewer line was being installed on State Street.  A business occupied the basement level of the house and a sign appears to offer rented rooms.  from the Frank Cousins collection of the New York City Design Commission.

The school was gone by 1873.  Around that time the former mansion was converted for business.  The offices of N. Halladay and Marcus R. Halladay were here that year.  The men were members of the New York Produce Exchange.  Five years later, another produce firm, C. A. & J. M. Montgomery occupied space at the address.

Then, in 1902 the Seaman's Church Institute acquired the house.   One of its functions was to serve as a bank for sailors coming in and out of port.  But, as explained by The Sun on November 4, 1906, "The Seamen's Institute runs a good many helps for sailors besides the bank.  It keeps a free shipping office and ships crews on about 150 vessels in the course of the year.  It runs a launch out to the incoming ships and invites the sailors just as the boarding house keepers do."  Here, said the article, "there are a lunch room, a luggage room heaped with sailors' kit bags, and reading, smoking and pool rooms.  The British Consular office for paying the crews of British vessels is on the premises.  There more than half the sailors in the port come to get paid."

The Institute did its best to keep the sailors out of trouble.  It urged them to deposit a portion of their money for safekeeping, and offered to send funds to their families.  "The banking department with its one clerk thus does some of the most valuable work of the institute," said The Sun.  "Sailors for the most part are confiding and perfectly ready to trust their money to the chaplain's bank."

Signs urge sailors to deposit money or send a portion home.  The 18th century interior shutters used by the Cole family for decades are intact.   from the archives of the Seamen's Church.

But, at the time of The Sun's article, the venerable Cole mansion had become inefficient for the organization's purposes.  "Chaplain Mansfield says that the quarters of the institute, at 1 State street, are not so serviceable as a less picturesque but newer and larger building would be.  That is why the institute plans to have a building at Coenties Slip."

On October 5, 1913, The Sun remarked, "The passing of this beautiful old house and of its neighbors, at 2 and 3 State street, marks the end of one of the most picturesque of the streets of old New York."  The article added that the demolition of the three venerable residences "leaves only one of the old houses on this street in existence, No. 7, 'the house on State street' in H. C. Bunenr's 'Story of a New York House,' whose pillared balcony, rising from the second floor to the roof, is not to be destroyed."

from the archives of the Seamen's Church.

The New York Times chimed in on October 4, 1914, saying that 1 and 2 State Street "were types of the grand residences of a century ago, and as long as they remained they recalled memories, even to the most casual observer, of the days when Battery Park was the fashionable residential park of the city."

The six-story annex to the South Ferry Building rose on the site, replaced in 1967 by the 50-story One New York Plaza. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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