Saturday, August 19, 2023

The Abraham S. Herman House - 306 West 30th Street


A widow, Jane Wilson lived with her adult sons, Professor William H. and  George Wilson Jr., at 186 West 30th Street in 1851.  (The address would be renumbered 306 in 1865.)  Another son, Harris, lived elsewhere.  George was a clerk and William, as his title reflects, was an educator.

The family's three-story brick-faced home between Eighth and Ninth Avenues had been erected a few years earlier.  Its Italianate design featured an arched doubled-doored entrance surmounted by a prominent cornice supported by foliate brackets.  The terminal cornice was enhanced by paired, scrolled brackets and a pretty carved decoration that sat within the central fascia panel.

An inventory of the home's trappings hints at the family's affluence and of their elegant surroundings.  The furniture of the principal rooms had been custom made by Charles Baudouine, considered the leading cabinetmaker of the period.  The parlor suite was upholstered in "maroon velvet, with slip covers," and included "two sofas, two arm chairs and six parlor chairs."  The two matching mantel mirrors alone had cost the Wilsons $300 each--a total of $22,000 in 2023 money.  Also listed were a collection of "richly framed" oil paintings, statuary and chandeliers.  The bedroom suites were also crafted by Baudouine.

On the afternoon of September 2, 1853, Jane Wilson suffered a stroke of apoplexy--what today we would simply call a stroke--and died.  Her casket sat in the parlor until the 72-year-old's funeral there on September 5.  

The Wilson brothers soon moved out of the 30th Street house.  An advertisement on June 6, 1854 offered:

To Rent--The elegantly furnished first-class brick house, No. 186 West 30th-st, between 8th and 9th-ave.  Size 22 by 53, with three stories and basement.

A year later, in 1855, the house was sold to the Peck family.  William J. Peck was a commissioner of taxes and worked at 32 Chambers Street.  His sons, William Jr. and Joshua S. Peck, were partners in the building materials firm of Peck, Gedney & Co. on West 30th Street near the Hudson River.

The Peck family's residency would be relatively short.  The house was resold in 1859 to Abraham S. Herman and his family.  Herman was the head of a woolen fabrics firm at 41 Murray Street.  

Both Abraham Herman and his wife Fannie Hackes were born in Kunstadt, Germany--she in 1814 and he a year later.  The two families had been neighbors there.  When the Herman family brought their young son to America, it would seem that he and Fannie would never see one another again.

But in 1846 Fannie Hackes arrived in New York City.  The New York Herald later recalled, "Mr. Herman met her, proposed, was accepted, and in three days they were married, on November 22."  The West 30th Street house would be well-filled--the couple's marriage produced 13 children.

Herman's business success afforded him the ability to be generous to charitable institutions.  He was a founder of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and of the Mount Sinai Hospital.

Among the Hermans' children was Joseph.  He was born in December 1852 with a weak heart.  Tragically, the little boy would survive only to the age of ten.  Two months after his birthday, on February 24, 1863, he died "of disease of the heart," as reported by the New York Herald.  His funeral was held the following day in the parlor.

There would be another heart-wrenching funeral in the house seven years later.  Mathilda Herman was just 13-years-old when she died on the morning of April 10, 1870.

It would not be the last of the funerals Abraham and Fannie would have to endure.  Their 22-year-old son Oscar A. Herman died in Memphis, Tennessee on July 20, 1876.  His body was loaded on a train to be transported back to the 30th Street house.  Adding to the family's grief, the train was wrecked.  A notice in the New York Herald on July 26 notified mourners that due to "a railroad accident, the funeral will be postponed until Wednesday, July 26."  

By the time of his younger brother's funeral, Simon L. Herman had been associated with his father's firm for at least eight years.  The Hermans would remain at 306 West 30th Street until January 1884, when they sold it to Rosina G. Hartman for $14,000 (around $400,000 today).  Interestingly, while the title was in Rosina's name, the Record & Guide mysteriously said that Abraham and Fannie Herman had sold the property to "a Mr. Smith."

The relationship between William H. Smith and Rosina Hartman is compelling (and may have initially raised a few eyebrows in the neighborhood).  A graduate of Normal College, Rosina was the third assistant principal of Grammar School No. 14 on East 27th Street where she earned the equivalent of $35,200 per year today.  She almost assuredly knew the Smith family because Emily G. Smith, William's daughter, taught in the same school.

Moving into 306 West 30th Street with Rosina was her 84-year-old mother Eliza Hartman, along with William H. Smith and Emily G. Smith.

The year 1888 would be one of weddings for the occupants of the house.  On October 24, The World reported that Emily had been married to John Armstrong in a large ceremony in the North Presbyterian Church on Ninth Avenue at 31st Street.  The article note, "A reception followed at the bride's home, No. 306 West Thirteenth street."  Listed among the guests at the reception was "Miss Rosina G. Hartman."

She would not remain Miss Hartman for long.  Shortly afterward, in a much more subdued ceremony, Rosina and William H. Smith were married.

The joy of two weddings within the family turned to sorrow just over a year later.  On January 6, 1890 Eliza Hartman died in the house at the age of 90.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

William and Rosina Smith sold 306 West 30th Street to Mary A. Donnelly, the widow of Felix A. Donnelly, in 1902.  Her adult children, Felix Jr. and Mayme Gertrude moved in with her.  The purchase came as Mary and Mayme were making preparations for Mayme's wedding to Frederick J. Schoenenberger.  The ceremony took place on October 22, 1902 in The Church of the Holy Innocents on West 37th Street.  The New York Herald reported, "A wedding breakfast followed at the home of the bride's mother, No. 306 West Thirtieth street."

With Mayme married, only Felix Jr. was left in the house with his mother.  He was a builder and real estate developer. 

Mary's affluence was evidenced in the reward she offered when she lost her purse in the spring of 1904.  Her advertisement in The New York Times on April 11 read:

$500 reward and no questions asked for return of tan pocketbook containing four diamond rings, pair screw earring[s], and diamond sunburst on chain.  Mrs. Donnelly, 306 West 30th Street.

The jewelry was obviously valuable.  The reward would equal a staggering $12,500 today.

The Donnellys, of course, had domestic help, and in October 1910 Mary advertised for an "experienced girl for housework, private family of two."  There would be one more in the family a year later.  Sharing the house with Mary and Felix in 1911 was Master Elkwood, Felix's pedigree St. Bernard puppy.  The oversized canine was born in March 1910.

It would be the last year for the Donnellys at 306 West 30th Street.  In 1912 the house that had been home to well-to-do families for over half a century was being operated as a boarding house.

Theobald Baghetti, a manufacturing jeweler, was a tragic figure who boarded here in 1913.  For whatever reason the 40-year-old decided to take his own life that winter.  And he was determined that his suicide attempt would be successful.  He was found dead in his room on the night of December 5, The New York Times reporting, "He had evidently turned on the gas, climbed on a table and adjusted a rope around his neck and then shot himself in the left ear."  His body was found  about 10 hours afterward, hanging from a curtain pole over the window.

Boarding here in 1914 was Civil War veteran Thomas McEnery.  He was intimate friends with Dr. Richard C. Flower and his wife Lillian.  Dr. Flower was arrested in October that year for allegedly having sold worthless mining stocks 11 years earlier.  Upon his arrest, The Sun remarked, "Flower is well preserved and hearty.  He looks to be on the sunny side of 60, although he admits he is 70."

Flower's sunny side would darken within the Tombs prison downtown.  He was addicted to morphine and quickly began suffering withdrawal.  Both Thomas McEnery and Lillian Flower attempted to relieve his suffering.  On the afternoon of October 29, McEnery arrived at the Tombs and asked to see Flower.  Jailkeeper Hughes searched him and found a small package of morphine.  The New-York Tribune reported, "He was arrested, and soon after Mrs. Flower also came to call on her husband.  She was searched by Matron Appleby and 1,000 grains of the drug were found concealed in her dress."  Both McEnery and Lillian Flower were held on $500 bail.

Among the tenants during the Depression years was 54-year-old carpenter Edwin Walling, here by 1930; and a newly-married couple named Schwartz who arrived a year or so afterward.  As had been the case with Theobald Baghetti two decades earlier, life became unendurable for Margaret Schwartz in 1933.

Margaret and her husband had a quarrel on June 26 and he stormed out of their rooms.  When he did not return by the following day, the 23-year-old Margaret became despondent.  She may have succeeded in killing herself had she not been too transparent regarding her plans.  That afternoon she went to a lunchroom on West 30th Street and asked the counterman if "cooking gas would kill a person," according to The New York Sun.  Suspicious, he somehow obtained her address and when she left, related the story to a policeman James Powers.  Powers went to 306 West 30th Street and found Margaret unconscious "in the room filled with gas from two open wall jets," said the article.  

In 1941 the entrance framing was intact.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Tenants continued to draw attention to the address for the wrong reasons.  In October 1934, 20-year-old Aldo Garrone was sent to the Elmira Reformatory for the attempted burglary of the home of Delfino Gasparolo in Astoria, Queens.

Emir Medina rented a room here in 1986.  The 29-year-old acquired his taxicab trainee license that summer and began driving for Tempo Taxi Inc. in August.  A month later, as his cab entered the intersection of 20th Street and Sixth Avenue it was slammed by a livery vehicle that ran the red light.  The New York Times reported on September 9, "The cab spun out of control and appeared to gather speed as it mounted the curb and ran into the front entrance of [the Limelight] discotheque."  Five people were injured and another, club booking agent Ruth Polsky died on the scene.

The house was renovated into apartments in 2002.  The alterations included an additional floor in the form of a period-appropriate dormered mansard.  Remarkably, given that the building does not sit within a landmarked district, the architects went so far as to add the historically accurate rooftop cresting.

photographs by the author
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