Wednesday, August 2, 2023

The Battered Michael Colligan House - 249 West 18th Street


In the early 1840s the development of the district that would be known as Chelsea was well underway.  By 1845 a "three-story high basement brick house" as described in an advertisement, and a smaller dwelling in the rear yard sat on the north side of West 18th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  The 26-foot-wide Italianate style residence was unpretentious.  A stoop above the "high basement" originally led to the parlor floor.  The understated cornice had just two foliate brackets, one on either side.

At least two families lived at 171 West 18th Street (renumbered 249 in 1868) in 1845.  Almost assuredly one lived in the rear house.  Robert Simms made his living as a weaver, and Hugh Gardner was a policeman.  

The Gardners suffered a devastating and bizarre incident on May 22, 1845.  The Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer reported:

The Coroner this forenoon held an inquest on a child named Violet Gardner, aged 17 months, the daughter of Hugh Gardner, of No. 171 West 18th street, who was accidentally drowned in a kettle of water yesterday afternoon, which had been placed on the kitchen floor where the child was playing.  The mother left the infant for a short time and on her return found that it had fallen into the kettle and was suffocated.

The toddler's death was ruled accidental.

In the early 1850s the house was operated as a boarding house by widow Johanna Davenport.  Her boarders were, for the most part, Irish laborers, like James Gallagher (who lived in the rear house in 1853).  Others living here that year were Joseph Kilpatrick, a polisher; blacksmith Martin Calsing; and Adam Scheele, a shoemaker.  Davenport's advertisement on April 27, 1853 read, "A gentleman and his wife, and two or three single gentlemen, can be accommodated with pleasant rooms, with full or partial board, at 171 West Eighteenth street, near Eighth avenue."

A year before that ad the McComb family had boarded here.  Like the Gardners, they suffered a tragic loss.  In the spring of 1852 a house was under construction on the block.  William McComb, described by The Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer as "a small lad," investigated.  The adventurous boy made it to the roof without being noticed or ordered away by the workmen.  The article said William "accidentally fell through the sky-light to the floor, a distance of about 14 feet."  He died shortly afterward.

The house was offered for rent in April 1856 at $650, an affordable $1,785 per month in 2023.  It triggered a blindingly-fast turnover of occupants.   The following month a family moved in, decorating the house with furniture "made to order."  But something happened to prompt them to leave abruptly.  On October 10 an auction was held of all the household furnishings, including a rosewood parlor suite, and rosewood marble-top dressers and center tables.  The auction announcement noted that the furniture had "been used only since May."

The Baker family were the next occupants.  Tragedy again visited the house when F. S. and Margaret G. Baker's 3-year-old daughter, Maria Lavinia, died on November 20.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

In 1859 a Mrs. Vantassel operated an apparel making shop here, most likely in the rear building.  On February 14 she advertised, "Ladies wanting plain sewing, baby or children's clothes made, or embroidered handsomely and quickly may call on or address Mrs. Vantassel, 171 West Eighteen street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues."  The advertising apparently worked, and two weeks later she was searching for "four good vest makers, to whom good wages and steady employment will be given."

The property was purchased by William Beinhauer Silber in 1860.  His grandparents, Frederick and Wilhelmina Beinhauer, had owned a farm in today's Midtown, the site of which would be built upon in 1873 by William Henry Vanderbilt for his "Triple Palace."  Silber tutored pupils of the Free Academy in ancient languages, and was the author of academic books like A Latin Reader, Progressive Lessons in Greek, and An Elementary Grammar of the Latin Language.  The apparently indefatigable Silber was, as well, listed in the notes of the 1862 Methodist Episcopal Church Conference as a "local preacher."

He continued to lease the rear property.  Mrs. Vantassel's business was taken over by Edward Vanderhoof by 1861.  When his foreman arrived on the morning of February 13, he was astonished to find Thomas Russell loading a sewing machine into a cart at the curb that was already loaded with other machines.  Russell explained that he had bought the equipment from Vanderhoof.

The New York Herald reported, "This would not satisfy the foreman, however, and was proceeding to lay hands on the stranger, when the latter turned upon him and dealt him a powerful blow in the face."  Simultaneously, policeman McCarthy came upon the scene and arrested Russell.  At the station house he insisted that he had purchased the machines.  It was settled when Edward Vanderhoof was summoned to the Tombs, where he denied having met Russell or selling the property.

Michael Colligan and his wife, the former Catherine McCaffrey, purchased the 18th Street house in 1867.  Both were born in Ireland, Michael in 1813 and Catherine a year later.  The couple had a son, John.  Michael Colligan had done well for himself in his new homeland.  He owned two storage buildings, one at 71 Water Street and the other at 75 Beach Street.

The tradition of horrible tragedies continued 12 years after the couple moved in.  On March 26, 1879, The New-York Times began an article saying, "An old lady named Catherine Colligan met with a most horrible death last night."  She was alone in the house, and as dusk fell around 7:00 she lit a kerosene lamp.  The article said she threw away the match, which was still lit.  It fell into the folds of her dress "and before she was aware of her danger her garments were all ablaze."  The article continued:

...becoming panic-stricken, [she] ran wildly around the room screaming for help.  In doing so she ran against the family clothes-horse, and set fire to the dry clothes upon it.  In a few moments she was enveloped in flame, and her strength being exhausted, she sank insensible to the floor.

Hearing her screams, neighbors rushed to the scene, but they were too late, The New-York Times reporting that by then, "she was found to be literally roasted."  She died within minutes of help arriving.

Catherine was 65-years-old.  Her funeral was held in the house two days after her horrendous death.  Michael lived on at 249 West 18th Street until his death at the age of 70 in February 1883.

John J. Colligan leased the house to Michael McKernan, who also took over the operation of the Colligan storage facilities.  The two Michaels had most likely worked together while Colligan was alive and, coincidentally or not, both had come from County Tyrone, Ireland.  Living here with Michael and his wife Elizabeth (known as Eliza) were their 17-year-old daughter Mary, and 12-year-old son, Hugh.  The population of 249 West 18th Street increased rapidly after Mary married Patrick J. Hayes.  The couple had four children by 1892.

Sadly, there would be four more funerals in the house within the next decade.  Mary McKernan Hayes died on August 19, 1892 at the age of 26; Michael McKernan died on October 26, 1896; and Hugh C. McKernan died at the age of 28 on September 14, 1899.   Two years later, on December 2, 1901, Eliza McKernan died at the age of 76.

A young couple, Eugene L. and Alphonsine E. Ogden moved into the house shortly afterwards.  Sadly, Alphonsine died on February 7, 1903 at the age of 24.  

Massive change would come to John J. Colligan's childhood home after he sold the property in March 1906 to building contractor Anthony G. Imof for $16,000 (about $492,000 today).  Apparently acting as his own architect, he gutted the former residence for his business.  The stoop was replaced by a loading dock and the parlor wall by a storefront.  

On the first floor was a woodworking shop, on the second were the office, and "storage and varnishing," and the third floor was used for "storage of window frames, sash and doors," according to building documents.

At mid-century, little had changed to 269 West 18th Street since Anthony G. Imhof's sweeping renovations.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Anthony G. Imhof operated from the address for decades.  In 1965 the building was renovated for, appropriately, the office of a contractor's establishment on the first floor, and three apartments each on the second and third.

Beginning in 1973 the Nighthouse Theater was located in the building, replaced by the Production Company (aka the TPC Theater) in 1977, which remained until 1981.

That year Walk n' Watchit a pet-sitting agency occupied the front half of the first floor and Schlesinger's Uniforms was in the back.  Still in the space today, Schlesinger's was established in 1898 and supplies uniforms to the New York Police Department, motion picture studios, Post Office workers and television producers.

Throughout its various incarnations in the second half of the 20th century, the vintage building suffered significant abuse.  The cornice and early Victorian details were lost, and the numerous changes to the facade resulted in a patchwork of brick--the contractors unconcerned about architectural uniformity or attractiveness.  Close inspection, nonetheless, shows surviving elements of Imhof's cast iron storefront.

photos by the author
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