Saturday, August 5, 2023

The Alexander Brown House - 452 West 44th Street


In 1864 the family of Alexander Brown lived in the 18-foot-wide house at 434 West 44th Street (renumbered 452 in 1868).  Following the end of the Civil War the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood would become notorious as a center of poverty and crime.  But for now, handsome residences like the Browns' were being erected for middle-class families.

One of a group of four, the Italianate style house rose three stories above a high English basement.  The segmentally arched windows wore prominent molded lintels, and the fully-arched double-doored entrance sat below an arched pediment supported by foliate, scrolled brackets.

After the Brown family left in the early 1870s, the house saw a relatively rapid turnover of occupants.  The Hulse family most likely rented the house in 1873, since they were gone after one year.  Barna H. Hulse was employed as a clerk.  He and his wife, the former Anne E. Lippincott, had been married on May 18, 1864.  Sharing the house were Silas and Theodore Hulse, presumably brothers of Barna, who were also listed as clerks.

Two families shared 452 West 44th Street starting in 1875.  Real estate operator John T. Seaman ran his business from the house.  While he most often dealt in "first-class houses," on September 9, 1876 the Record & Guide reported that he was erecting a two-story brick stable on West 38th Street.

William C. Jewett and his family shared the house from 1875 until 1879.  He listed his occupation as "carrier," or a driver of a vehicle that transported goods.

Alexander H. Roemer and his family moved into 452 West 44th Street in 1879.  Roemer and his wife, Mamie, had a daughter, Clara.  The location of the house was convenient to Roemer's business.  He and his brother, George W., operated the Roemer Brewing Company a block away at the corner of 44th Street and Ninth Avenue.

On October 6, 1883, the house was the scene of Clara's wedding to John Pfleging.  The following year the Roemers leased 452 West 44th Street to H. O'Farrell, who operated it as a rooming house.

Among the first to rent rooms were German immigrants Herman and Beke Meinken.  In November 1883 they welcomed a baby girl, Hermina.  Tragically, the she died on March 12, 1884 at just five months old. 

Among the tenants in 1895 were Grace Canfield and Philip Rodenberg.  Grace placed an advertisement in The World that April that read:  "Grace Canfield, thorough teacher of banjo and piano; rapid progress; success guaranteed."

Rodenberg was a watchmaker with a shop far to the north in Harlem on Second Avenue.   His name had appeared in newspapers a year earlier for two very different reasons.  The first occurred when his store caught fire at 5:00 on the morning of July 4, 1894.  It was extinguished before more than $6,500 damages by today's terms was done.

The second incident was more serious.  On November 6, 1894, a group of boys came to his store and asked if they could temporarily use his cellar to store boxes and barrels they had collected for a bonfire.  When they returned at 8:00, according to The Evening World, "Rodenberg refused to give it up.  The boys then began annoying him until he fired two pistol-shots to frighten them."  Unfortunately, one of the bullets glanced off the sidewalk and hit 13-year-old Katie Bayer in the leg.  Although Rodenberg was held in jail overnight, Katie's parents refused to press charges and he was released.

A less controversial tenant, here in 1898 through 1901, was the Rev. William Dallman, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.  Irish-born John Quinn, who lived here in 1901, might have been non-controversial, had it not been for a confrontation on March 8 that year.  Quinn was a motorman on the 59th Street electric streetcar.  That morning he got into an argument with conductor David Forsyth at the line's terminus at 59th Street and First Avenue.  Quinn ended the altercation by pulling out a revolver and fatally shooting Forsyth.

A surprising number of professional residents lived here starting around 1904.  That year attorney William F. Byrne had rooms in the house, and by 1907 the Cataluppi family lived here.  Henry Cataluppi was a director in the Bronze & Papier Mache Co.  Living with him and his wife, Julia, was their daughter Georgette (who, for some reason, spelled her surname Cantiluppi).  

Georgette J. Cantiluppi was an especially surprising presence in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.  She was a graduate of the Angle School of Orthodontia at a time when female dentists were rare.  Nevertheless, an advertisement she placed in the New-York Tribune in October 1908 suggests she was realistic in her expectations:

Dentist--Highly educated young lady, speaking several languages, understanding shorthand and typing, wishes position with dentist; experienced; highest references.

When Harry A. Fields sold 452 West 44th Street to Mary McDermott in 1922, it was still described as a three-story dwelling, indicating that it was still being operated as a rooming house rather than apartments.

The neighborhood saw significant improvement in the last quarter of the century.  Living here in the 1970s was bachelor journalist Robert J. Shea, who had begun working for The New York Times as a part-time copy boy in 1934 while attending the High School of Commerce.

Following his graduation, he remained with the company, eventually becoming a news assistant.  On February 1, 1979, he left 452 West 44th Street and began walking to work.  He collapsed and died on the sidewalk at the age of 63.

While never officially converted to apartments, there are three residential units in the building today.  Given its colorful past (and the condition of its once identical neighbors) the house surprisingly retains much of its original appearance.

photographs by the author
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