Thursday, August 31, 2023

The 1903 Abingdon Apartments - 25-27 Charles Street


A close inspection reveals that the building angles back behind the brown brick building to the right.

In March 1903, J. & I. Polstein purchased the three brownstone-faced houses at 33 through 37 Charles Street, built in 1869.  (The addresses would be renumbered in 1936).  The Polstein brothers razed the residences, which were located midblock between Waverly Place and West Fourth Streets, and hired architect George F. Pelham to design a modern apartment building on the site.  His plans, filed on March 27, 1903, estimated the cost of the six-story flat at $75,000--or just over $2.5 million in 2023 terms.

In the mid-18th century, Sir Peter Warren's nearly 300-acre summer estate had engulfed the district.  His daughter, Charlotte, married Willoughby, Earl of Abingdon.  The Polstein brothers gave a nod to Greenwich Village history by naming their building The Abingdon.  Pelham's Colonial Revival style carried out the motif.  Above a rusticated stone base, five floors of red brick were trimmed in white limestone.  The Gibbs surrounds of the second floor windows were drawn from Georgian prototypes, and the splayed lintels and scrolled keystones recalled late 18th century architecture.  

Pelham admittedly introduced gentle Beaux Arts touches--a style highly popular with apartment dwellers of the day.  The entrance door was given a French-style grill, and additional ornaments were added beside some keystones, making them frillier than an 18th century colonist would have abided.

Around the time The Abingdon was completed, real estate agent Charles C. Hickok began lobbying to have Seventh Avenue, which began at 11th Street, extended south to Varick Street.  His suggested thoroughfare would run through a portion of the building.  Two years later, the debate was still going on and may have made the owners skittish.  They sold the property that year.

The residents of The Abingdon were professional and financially comfortable.  Among them in 1907 was the De Graff family.  De Graff was an "inspector of cargoes."  Living with him and his wife was his 80-year-old mother.  

On the night of October 18, 1907, 26-year-old May De Graff was killed instantly when she fell from their apartment window.  Suicide at the time was considered shameful to the families, and the De Graffs quickly conceived a cover story.  The elder Mrs. De Graff told investigators that while she was in the kitchen, May had "fallen asleep in a rocking chair near the dining room window and toppled over the sill."  She said when she found the rocking chair empty, she looked out the window and discovered May's body.  It seems no one questioned the unlikely explanation.

S. Francis Short and his wife lived in the building at the time.  Short listed his profession as "foreman."  On March 11, 1908 he was chosen as a juryman in the trial of actor and comedian Raymond Hitchcock.  The Evening World noted that the musical comedy star faced six indictments "connecting him with young girls," including 14-year-old Helen Van Hagen.  The newspaper noted, "She will be followed on the stand by agents of the Children's Society who first worked up the charges that now involve the lanky actor."

The sensational trial went on for months before the girls' stories began to fall apart.  One by one they admitted to lying.  On March 16, 1908, for instance, the Palestine Daily Herald reported, "Flora Whiston, one of the girls alleged to have accused Raymond Hitchcock of abusing her, denied on the witness stand today that she had ever gone to Hitchcock's room."  Eventually, teenaged Hugo C. Poecks pleaded guilty to masterminding the effort to blackmail Hitchcock. S. Francis Short and his jurymen acquitted Hitchcock of all charges on June 11, 1908.  The actor had been wrongly imprisoned for nine months.

William H. Adams shared an apartment with his son, W. C. Adams at the time.  The senior Adams was an inspector at the U. S. Customs House downtown and despite his advanced age--he was 73 that year--he continued to go to work every day.   Not surprisingly, The New York Times described him as the oldest inspector at the Customs House.

In June 1908, Adams and his son incorporated the Adams Ontario Company, a real estate firm.  Sadly for William, he would not live to enjoy his new position long.  He suffered a fatal stroke in his Abingdon apartment on October 22.

A month earlier, residents had been shocked by a tragic incident.  Living here were William L. Sherwood and his wife, Mary E. Sherwood.  Mary had been in ill health, and had spent some time in a private sanitarium.  She was back at home in the Abingdon by the fall of 1908, but was seriously despondent over her condition.

On the afternoon of September 28, 1908, Mary stood on the elevated railroad platform at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.  In the center of the shopping district known as the Ladies' Mile, the platform was crowded with female shoppers.  As a train pulled into the station, Mary threw herself onto the tracks.

The New-York Tribune reported, "The spectators shrieked and George W. Page, the motorman, made every attempt to stop the train, but in vain."  Also on the platform was Father T. F. White of St. Francis Xavier's Church.  He "sprang on to the tracks, and, while the crowd stood with bared heads, anointed her," said the article.  The Sun noted, "The body was so firmly wedged between the forward trucks of the first car that it took a wrecking crew more than half an hour to jack up the train and release the body."  Rather surprisingly today, as Mary Sherwood's body was removed to the morgue George W. Page was arrested for homicide.

In the meantime, Charles C. Hickok's lobbying to have Seventh Avenue extended had not abated.  The push gained momentum and in 1913 work began on a two-pronged project--the extension of the avenue and the construction of the 7th Avenue subway.  Like a titan-sized lawn mower, the work cut a swatch through Greenwich Village, erasing scores of buildings and leaving others with sections sheared off, their interiors exposed like a child's doll house.

On August 2, 1914, The New York Times reported, "A slice of the six-story Abingdon apartment was sawed off and the triangular portion of the building formerly adjoining to the north has been entirely walled up, giving the rear part of that structure a frontage on the new Seventh Avenue."  Originally mid-block, The Abingdon was now a corner property.  Architects deftly copied George F. Pelham's design, quite possibly salvaging elements to be reused in the reconstruction.  Assuredly the original brick, which perfectly matches the rest of the building, was reused.  The outcome was a single-bay on Seventh Avenue South, with the remainder of the building angling oddly back to the north.

Ada Beazley had an apartment in the building in 1920.  The unmarried nurse worked at the Henry Street Settlement, one of a crew who visited tenement buildings to provide medical care.  On March 8, while she treated a three-year-old with influenza on the fifth floor of 240 Spring Street, fire broke out in another apartment.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Miss Beazley grasped the child in her arms, rushed through a smoke-filled hallway to a fire escape and delivered the body to a 'human ladder' formed by several young men."  Ada Beazley was declared a hero who saved the sick toddler's life.  And she had done so in the nick of time.  The article said, "the floor on which the child lived was wrecked."

The Abingdon backed up to the rear yards of the houses on Perry Street, a condition that caused tensions in 1927.  On March 7, The New York Sun reported, "Spring is at hand and the time for cleaning up gardens is marked in the house holder's calendar.  Therefore, 32 Perry street has put up a brand new sign in its rear yard facing directly on the rear windows of Charles street."  The sign read:

Dear Charles Street--

Please DO NOT THROW Things in Our Yard.

When interviewed, residents of the Abingdon denied tossing refuse into the yards.  One said, "The yards of Perry street are very pleasing to those of us who reside in the rear apartments of Charles street, and we would never dream of disfiguring them.  We enjoy looking at the scenery supplied by our Perry street neighbors."  When the reporter pointed out that several orange peels had recently fallen into a yard behind the Abingdon, the resident came up with a reasonable explanation.  

"But why blame us?  Those orange skins are what the cat dragged in."

In 1936 Charles Street was renumbered, giving the Abingdon the new address of 25 Charles Street.  A cooperative building today, it has a total of 30 apartments.  And while the interior spaces have been altered, the exterior looks much as it did when Seventh Avenue South chopped off a good portion of its eastern end.

photographs by the author
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1 comment:

  1. More fascinating NYC history! But, surely, "human latter" should be "human ladder"...