Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Combined 285 and 287 West 12th Street


In 1841 Aaron Marsh erected two 16-fo0t-wide homes at 49 and 51 Troy Street (later 285 and 287 West 12th Street), just west of West 4th Street.  Two-and-a-half stories tall, their unpretentious Greek Revival design included shallow stone stoops and plain lintels.

Marsh initially leased the houses.  In 1845 shipmaster Andrew Scott lived at 49 Troy Street and John P. Lester, a clerk, lived next door.  Then, on March 17, 1847 Marsh sold them at auction, the announcement noting, "The houses are 16 by about 30 ft., are alike, and were built by the best materials and by days work."  ("Days work" meant that Marsh had paid for the labor and materials, and hired supervisors--essentially today's contractors--to oversee the workmen.)

No. 49 Troy Street became home to John C. Brandt and his family.  A mason and builder, his son James R. Brandt was a tutor at the New York City Free Academy.  Next door lived the family of Henry V. Hoagland, a clothing merchant whose store was at 179 Broadway.  He and his wife, the former Mary Agnes Wortendyke, had one child, Catherine Wortendyke, who was born in 1840.

As was common, the Hoaglands took in a boarder.  In 1853 Helen Franklin, the widow of George Franklin, lived with the family, and in 1855 Cyrus Shay was renting the room.

Shay found himself in the center of a murder trial in February 1855.  He was, in his words, "intimate friends" with William Poole, the proprietor of Stanwix Hall, a billiard hall and "drinking saloon" at the corner of Broadway and Howard Street.  "I have been with him almost every day for the last four or five months," he said in February that year.  

In November 1854, a group of drunks had come into the bar and picked a fight with Poole.  In front of Shay and other patrons, Poole was knocked to the floor where he was shot dead.  Shay's testimony was pivotal to the prosecution's case on February 25, 1855.

Mary Agnes Hoagland died on June 15, 1856 at the age of 44.  Henry continued to take in a boarder.  In 1859 and 1860 it was Robert Buchanan, who ran a carpentry shop.  Like Cyrus Shay, he was summoned to testify in a murder case on December 12, 1860.  

Mrs. Sarah Shancks, who lived at 22 East 12th Street, had been brutally slaughtered on December 7.  The New York Herald reported, "An examination of the body showed that her throat had been cut in a ghastly manner, nearly severing the head from the body; her skull had been fractured by a blow from some blunt instrument, her face had been hacked with a knife, her nose broken, and her left eye nearly forced from the socket."  

Robert's nephew, Alfred L. Buchanan, who too was a carpenter, was accused of the crime.  Even Alfred's mother Mary gave damaging testimony, saying that when he came home that evening his clothes and hands were bloody.  But Robert insisted that when he interacted with his nephew in the shop that morning, "there was nothing unusual in his appearance" and he had not been drinking.  In the end, Alfred was deemed "a half idiotic youth" and sentenced to the State Lunatic Asylum at Utica.

The house next door was offered for rent in June 1867, described as "a nice little three story house."  When it was available again in April 1870, the rent was listed at $800--or about $1,550 per month by 2023 terms.

By the 1890s, both residences were being operated as rooming houses.  In 1894 285 West 12th Street was the center of scandal when rooms were raided and three women arrested "as disorderly characters," according to The Evening World.  It was a polite term for prostitutes.   One of them, Mary Murray, was fined and released, while the other two were held on $500 bail awaiting trial for conducting the brothel.  It was unlikely that either Nellie Butler or Sarah St. Clair could come up with the money--a significant $17,500 today.

In 1896 Halstead Townsend and his wife Elizabeth McNichols lived in rooms at 285 West 12th Street, while next door at 287 were Halstead Townsend, Jr. and his wife.  Elizabeth was born in England and came to America as a child.  She was, according to a friend, Mrs. Graham Nelson, "as good a woman as any man ever had for a wife.  She, like her husband, was well educated and of charming manners."

Halstead had an impressive pedigree, and his ancestors included the Livingston and Duer families, according to The New York Press.  "While Mr. Townsend was prosperous no one could wish to have a more comfortable, refined home," said Mrs. Nelson.  He had been in the horse business and "had large contracts with P. T. Barnum," but changed courses, going into the trucking business.  It was a bad decision.  The family fell onto hard times and Halstead took to drinking heavily.

Just after midnight on April 30, Halstead Jr. and his wife "heard cries coming from No. 285, in which his parents lived," according to The New York Press.  The Evening Telegram reported that he ran next door, broke in the door of their rooms and "took his father away by force."  Elizabeth was badly injured and was taken unconscious to St. Vincent's Hospital.  Halstead was arrested.

At the hospital, Elizabeth told police that Halstead had come home drunk and had beaten and kicked her.  Doctors diagnosed her with a ruptured liver, an internal abdominal hemorrhage, and bruises to the intestines."  The New York Press added, "In addition to the internal injuries, Mrs. Townsend's lips were torn, and her right temple bore a long cut, made, it is believed, by her husband's shoe."  She died 18 hours after being brought to the hospital.  Halstead Townsend was sentenced to seven years and five months in prison on October 30.

The two houses continued to be operated as rooming houses until 1928.  On June 13 the New York Evening Post reported that they had been sold, adding, "The purchaser will alter the houses into studio apartments of one, two and three rooms and add one story to the buildings" 

A common, centered doorway was created and railings from one of the old stoops were reused.  The new top floor featured grouped windows, perfect for artists' studios.  An overhanging, Spanish-tiled roof was echoed in the entrance hood.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Another renovation came in 1932, when the basement was converted to commercial space.  In 1955 the Cardia family opened the Beatrice Inn here.   Despite a tepid review by Mimi Sheraton in The New York Times on May 27, 1977 ("if the food is not breathtaking, it is at least comfortably satisfying"), it was a favorite of New York diners for decades.  Among its loyal patrons was journalist Charles Kuralt, perhaps best remembered for his "On the Road with Charles Kuralt" segments of The CBS News with Walter Kronkite.  Following his death in July 1997, a one-line announcement appeared in The New York Times that read, "The Beatrice Inn family and its loyal clientele will forever miss his warmth and friendliness.  Ciao, Charlie."

On November 13, 2020, The New York Times journalist Tejal Rao described the Beatrice Inn in more glowing terms than had Mimi Sheraton, saying it had drawn "generations of New Yorkers down the steep, narrow stairs and into a dimly lit speakeasy, an Italian restaurant, an impossible-to-get-in-the-door club and a buzzy chophouse."  But after 65 years in the space, the Beatrice Inn was leaving.

The COVID crisis had hit New York restaurants hard.  Chef and co-owner Angie Mar announced the restaurant would serve its last meal on New Year's Eve 2020.  She explained that the restaurant had been paying "above market" rent and the pandemic made continuance unsustainable.  

As was the case in 1928, there are three apartments per floor in 285 West 12th Street (the address of 287 was absorbed into the combined structure).  Painted white today, it presents what the Landmarks Preservation Society has deemed "an interesting facade to the street."

 photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Wonderfully researched as always, thanks Tom

  2. I am curious what your source is.

    As a note, something is off here:
    April 1870, the rent was listed at $800--or about $1,550 per month by 2023 terms
    $500 bail... a significant $17,500 today

    1. Also, great article!!

    2. The $800 is an annual rental, broken down into 12 month increments in the conversion.

  3. I just walked by this building and when I Googled to learn about it, I found you page. Such a great write up - thank you!