Saturday, September 2, 2023

The 1855 Christan Van Ness House - 333 West 20th Street


When Clement Clarke Moore first offered building plots for sale within his family's former country estate Chelsea in 1835, he directed, "Purchasers...will be required to build fireproof houses of good quality."  Two decades later, as development in the district was nearly completed, John Howe erected a brick and brownstone residence at 217 West 20th Street (renumbered 333 in 1866) which was, indeed, "of good quality."

Located on the north side of the street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, the house was completed in 1855.  At 25-feet-wide and four stories tall, it was intended for an affluent family.  Its Anglo-Italianate style forewent the high stoops seen elsewhere along the block.  The double-doored entrance was located nearly at street level within the brownstone-fronted first floor.  The upper three floors were faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.

The residence was purchased by Christian Van Ness, who listed his profession as "carpenter," but who was almost assuredly what today we would term a builder or contractor.  He and his wife Catherine had four grown children, at least two of whom--John and Ann--lived with their parents.  

John Van Ness devoted spare time as a volunteer firefighter with New York Hose Company, No. 5, stationed in Firemen's Hall on Mercer Street.  Ann required special care.  She was described by court papers years later as "a person of unsound mind."  Although little was written about her, it appears that she received compassionate and loving treatment by her family.

From the beginning, Christian and Catherine took in a handful of boarders.  In 1856 Phebe Jones, most likely a widow; seaman James Rhymus; and Charles Wixom, an accountant, lived with the family.

In 1865 the Van Nesses' tenants were a young married couple from Albany, Richard H. and Cornelia Park, and their daughter Edith.  Tragically, five-year-old Edith died on June 28 that year.  Unexpectedly, her obituary did not mention a funeral, but simply that "her remains will be taken from the residence."

There would be a funeral in the parlor the following year, however, after Christian Van Ness died.  His devotion to Ann was reflected in his will.  He bequeathed his entire estate to Catherine except for a small trust.  The will directed that "the sum of $140 be annually applied for the support and maintenance during her natural life of his daughter, Ann, a person of unsound mind."

Catherine remained in the West 20th Street house, caring for Ann and continuing to take in one or two boarders.  In 1872, for instance, her boarder was a widow, Rosanna Neely, and the following year Mary White, a teacher in the primary department of School No. 55 on West 20th Street lived here.

In April 1887, following Catherine's death, the house was sold to Jacob and Ellen Riger for $12,000 (about $380,000 in 2023).  The couple dealt in real estate and owned several properties in the Chelsea district.

In 1893 the Rigers remodeled 333 West 20th Street by adding a fifth floor.  The addition was seamless, with meticulous attention to brick color and window treatment.  The bracketed cornice, appropriate to the 1855 architecture, was possibly the original, carefully salvaged and reinstalled.

The Rigers leased 333 West 20th Street to James A. Lynch and his wife.  An affluent builder and contractor, he held profitable contracts with the city, handling much of the work of erecting fire stations.  Lynch's city contracts were almost assuredly a result of his deep involvement with Tammany Hall.  He was a member of the Tammany Society and sat on the 13th District's Committee on Organization in 1894.

In September 1901 Lynch began construction on a lumber warehouse on West 21st Street.  He and his wife were no doubt looking also for a new home at the time.  On November 12, the Rigers sold 333 West 20th Street to Justin and Christine R. Hoerle.

The Hoerles had a young daughter, Helen Christine.  Like their predecessors in the house, they took in boarders, one at a time.  Living with the family in 1903 was the colorful Madame Venoa.  The Hoerles generously gave her parlor privileges to conduct her business.  Madame Venoa's advertisement in The Evening Telegram on April 21 that year read: "Mme. Venoa, palmist and astrologist, consulted on all affairs; give lucky day for busines and travel; tell mothers sex of unborn child.  After 10 A.M., parlors 333 West 20th st."

A less flamboyant boarder was Florence Babcock.  She lived with the family in September 1909 when she was promoted to "typewriter, copyist and stenographer" with the city's Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity.

The Hoerles' boarder in 1915 was John Montgomery.  He took a stroll in Central Park on May 25 that year, and would never return.  Somehow distracted, he started to cross the West Drive in the park, opposite 71st Street.  The New York Press reported that he "stepped directly in front of an automobile driven by Miss Ethel Davalos."  The driver of another car picked him up from the roadway and drove him to Roosevelt Hospital, where he died a few hours later.

At the time of the tragedy, Helen Christine was 20 years old and an aspiring writer.  Three years later, with America embroiled in World War I, she and the family's boarder, 24-year-old Geraldine Devoy, concocted an unexpected plan to do their part for the war effort.

On January 25, 1918, the New-York Tribune reported that "two zealous young women" believed that "knitting is not enough!"  The previous day the young women had "won the distinction of being the first two of their sex to be enrolled in the United States Naval Reserve as cooks."  The article projected, "the traditional, monotonous grub is going to be supplanted by a new era in navy cooking."  It added, "They enlisted because they felt they were needed."  The pair would serve as instructors in cooking at the United States Naval Reserve School on East 63rd Street.

The positions supplemented their regular jobs.  The article explained, "Both the new at 333 West Twentieth Street.  Miss Hoerle is employed as assistant scenario editor by the Paralta Plays Corporation...Miss Devoy said she was an art student and also knew stenography."

Helen Christine Hoerle, New-York Tribune, January 25, 1918 (copyright expired)

Christine's first taste of literary success came the following year when her play His Father's Wife was made into a silent movie, and she co-authored the novel The Girl and the Job.

By mid-century the house held unofficial apartments.  One resident, 62-year-old Irene Enteles, suffered a bizarre accident on March 21, 1960.  That afternoon she was among the crowd passing by Klein's Department Store on Union Square, while seven stories above Abraham Marco and George Anthony were cleaning a billboard.  As Marco moved to adjust a rope, he lost his balance and plummeted off the scaffold, landing directly on top of Irene.  She broke his fall and prevented his death; however both of them were injured seriously enough to be taken to Columbus Hospital.

A renovation completed in 2016 returned the former Van Ness house to a single-family home.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

No comments:

Post a Comment