Thursday, August 24, 2023

The 1869 Alfred S. Seer House - 37 Charles Street

In 1868 James S. Bearnes, who lived in Brooklyn, purchased most of the vacant block front on the north side of Charles Street between West Fourth Street and Factory Street (later renamed Waverly Place).  He constructed two groups of houses on the plots, one (and probably both) of them designed by a
 fellow Brooklynite, architect Peter L. P. Tostevin.

Completed in 1869, their Italianate design included high stone stoops that rose to arched entrances under Renaissance-inspired pediments supported by scrolled brackets.  Each three-story house received its own pressed metal cornice.

Alfred S. Seer purchased 49 Charles Street (renumbered 37 in 1936).  He was the head of the A. S. Seer Theatrical Printing and Engraving Company on Union Square.  The firm specialized in work like playbills and handbills.  He and his family lived here for a year before moving to 19 Perry Street, and leasing the house to the George H. Stout family.

An editor and journalist, George Stout likely knew Alfred Seer professionally.  The Stouts' had two grown sons living with them.  Oliver B. Stout was a reporter with the New York Daily Transcript, and George H. Stout Jr. was a clerk. 

The Stouts rented the house through 1877, after which the Seer family moved back in and remained into the 1880s.  The nature of Seer's business was highlighted in October 1887 when he sued the well-known actor, comedian and singer Tony Hart.  Hart had been a partner with Edward Harrigan in the hugely popular comedy team Harrigan & Hart until 1885.

Alfred S. Seer strayed from theatrical work to produce this poster for inventor Thomas Alva Edison around 1878.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

On October 7, 1887, The New York Times reported that Seer, "the theatrical printer" had sued "to collect a bill from Tony Hart and his wife."  He claimed that in the fall of 1885 the Harts produced the play Buttons and he had done their printing.  The article said, "but the enterprise was a failure, and in January , 1886 it was given up in disgust."  Of Seer's $2,773.63 bill (nearly $90,000 in 2023), only $640 had been paid.

The New York Times reported, "Tony made no defense, as he doesn't fear a judgment, for the mournful reason that he has no property and never expects to have any."  And, indeed, Seer never recovered his loss.  Tony Hart was already suffering physical and mental problems associated with tertiary syphilis.  He died impoverished in a mental institution at the age of 36 in 1891.

Seer and his wife moved to the fashionable Bayard apartment house on Broadway at 54th Street in the early 1890s.  Seer carried on business in his office as normal on February 27, 1896.  Early that afternoon he walked out of his private office, spoke to his manager and a stock clerk, then entered a coat room.  A moment later, workers heard a pistol shot.  The 55-year-old had inexplicably committed suicide.

He had sold the Charles Street house to Mary A. Allaire.  Boarding here in 1894 was was William Virtue, a 32-year-old stenographer.  Despite his surname, however, the Allaires' tenant was not virtuous.

On February 6, 1894, Virtue traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts.  Also on the train was traveling salesman H. C. Barnum.  At the Springfield train station, Barnum left his trunk in the baggage room overnight.  Early the next morning, Virtue presented a check for the trunk and had it delivered to his hotel room, where he was registered as H. C. Boyd of Boston.  Detectives later surmised he "knew of the valuable contents of the trunk, and followed Barnum from New York when he set out on his trip."

Indeed, the contents were valuable.  Barnum worked for the New York City jewelry firm of Schaefer & Douglas.  Inside the trunk was $15,000 in jewels--worth more than half a million in 2023 dollars.  At his hotel room, Virtue forced open the trunk, removed the gems, and packed them in a smaller package.  He "then sent them by express to Worchester [Massachusetts]," said The Press.  "He did not call for the baggage, but must have come direct to New York, intending to have the box and its valuable contents forwarded to him here."

But investigators easily tracked the trunk and then the package, which was recovered at the Worcester express office.  On February 11, 1894, The Press reported, "Detectives [in New York] were delegated to look out for the thief.  They located him at No. 49 Charles street yesterday afternoon, and took him to headquarters."

The Allaire estate sold the Charles Street house in 1911.  By 1930 it had been converted to apartments.  Its stoop was removed and the molded lintels shaved flat.

Photographed in 1941, the house's Victorian personality had been stripped away.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The configuration lasted for half a century.  Then, a restoration was completed in 2019 that brought the former Seer house back to a single family home.  The architectural firm of Acheson Doyle & Partners deftly reproduced the stoop, entrance, and lintels based on surviving examples along the row.

While not an exact reproduction of the surviving examples along the row, the replacement entrance, along with the lintels, stoop and period-appropriate railings, create a striking restoration.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

No comments:

Post a Comment