Saturday, September 16, 2023

The 1876 Lithuanian Alliance of America Building - 307 West 30th Street


In 1876 construction of an upscale apartment building--an early example of what was called a French flat--was completed at 307 West 30th Street, just west of Eighth Avenue.  At the time, the concept of multi-family dwellings for middle and upper middle class families was viewed with suspicion.  The term French flat was an attempt to differentiate such buildings from tenements in the public's mind.

Designed in the neo-Grec style, the four-story structure was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Stylish lintels with incised decorations capped the openings, and an especially attractive pressed metal cornice completed the design.

The apartments, one per floor, became home to financially comfortable tenants.  Among the earliest were Richard Babeuf, who was in the stationery business; tobacconist Leonard Friedman; and produce merchant William H. Barron.  Barron was associated with Austin Nichols & Company, which had large contracts with the city.  In 1877--the year he and his family moved into 307 West 30th Street--for instance, it supplied the Department of Public Charities and Correction  with 25,000 pounds of brown sugar and 250 pounds of corn starch.

Living here in 1889 was physician Edward Walker.  On February 17 that year, he was called to the home of 39-year-old Ella Shinnick, the victim of a failed rape.  She and her husband Richard, who was a laborer, lived relatively nearby at 559 West 29th Street.  That afternoon she had attended a funeral of a neighbor, Mrs. Callahan, on West 28th Street.  After dinner, she returned to the Callahan home to offer the family whatever assistance they might need.  At 10 p.m. she started home.

Directly across from her house, John Moloney jumped from the shadows and attempted to drag her into an alleyway.  Ella fought valiantly.  The Press reported, "For a time she held her own against the man.  He put his hand over her mouth and tried hard to drag her into the alleyway, but could not do so.  Whenever she could tear his hand from her mouth she would scream."

Defeated and frustrated, the would-be rapist told Ella "he would fix her so that no other man could love her."  The Press reported that "he started to kick her to death, and almost succeeded.  The first kick was in the face."  Ella later said, "The brute laughed at my screams, and each time I attempted to get up he would strike me with the heel of his heavy boot."

Ella's screams finally woke up her husband.  Richard ran to the street wearing only his underwear.  Before Moloney ran off, he gave Ella one last kick.  Shinnick and a neighbor carried her to the house and Dr. Walker was summoned.  She suffered a broken nose, blackened eyes, and severe bruising "from head to toe," according to The Press.

Dr. Walker visited Ella daily.  Then, four days after the incident, he recognized a troubling change in her condition and notified the coroner of the crime.  Walker's prognosis was bleak.  The Press wrote on February 22 that the case "will probably prove to be a brutal murder."

John and Margaret Cronin lived in 307 West 30th Street with their six-year-old son Eddie in 1892 when they endured a frightening and publicly humiliating incident.  On the night of November 17, Agents De Long and Denbert of the Gerry Society (other wise known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) arrived at their flat.  According to the agents, the visit was to "warn the father against sending his little son out for beer."  Both John and Margaret denied that such a thing had ever happened.  Unsatisfied, the agents said "they would be compelled to take the boy unless Cronin would promise not to send the child for beer again," reported The World.

Faced with losing his son, Cronin left the room, returned with a hatchet, and drove the men out of the apartment.  The agents found a policeman and had the Cronins arrested for disorderly conduct and took Eddie to the Gerry Society.  At the West 30th Street stationhouse Denberg told the officer in charge that both parents were drunk.  Margaret Cronin responded by slapping him in the face.

The Cronins faced a judge in the Jefferson Market Court the following morning.  The Evening World reported, "Cronin alleged that he was a man of means; that the Gerry agents invaded his home without just cause, and that he only exercised his rights in defending his home and his child.  He denied that he or his wife was intoxicated."  The arresting policeman confirmed that the couple was not drunk.

The World wrote, "The child, a bright, well-dressed, healthy, well-bred lad was in court, and pleaded piteously to be allowed to see his parents."  The article added, "The child was a living refutation of the charge that he had been abused and neglected by his parents."

Among the Cronins' neighbors in 307 West 30th Street were Aimie A. Wollcot, a widow, and her daughter Annie.  At 7:40 on the morning of June 13, 1893, Annie awoke to see a man rifling through her bureau and putting items in his pockets.  Under his arm was her jewelry box, containing "$1,500 worth of diamonds," according to The Evening World.  (The value would equal to more than $50,000 in 2023.)  The article said, "After remaining nearly half a minute dumb with fright, Miss Wollcot recovered the use of her lungs and emitted a series of ear-splitting screams."

Aimie Wollcot was in the dining room at the time and rushed into the hall, just in time to encounter the fleeing burglar.  "Mrs. Wollcot is a courageous woman," reported The World, "and when she saw the jewel-box in the thief's hands she grabbed the robber about the body and screamed at the top of her voice."

As Aimie "hung on for dear life," Annie joined in the screaming.  The thief finally broke away, leaving the jewelry box behind, and headed for Seventh Avenue.  The plucky Aimie Wollcot, "though dressed only in a loose morning wrapper," was on his heels, crying "Stop, thief!" all the way.  The crook ducked into a saloon at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 13th Street, closely followed by a determined Aimie Wollcot.  

"There were several loungers in the place, and, seeing the panting thief hesitate as if to turn at bay, and then the sudden appearance of Mrs. Wollcot, they jumped to their feet and grabbed the man," reported The World.  Policeman Kelly arrived and arrested 22-year-old Frank Gillihan, who was known to the police as a sneak thief, according to the article.

At the stationhouse he denied having been in the Wollcot apartment, but when a pin belonging to Annie Wollcot was found in his pocket, he confessed.  The Evening World noted, "Miss Wollcot is nearly prostrated by the excitement she has gone through."

The building was owned by real estate operators Samuel J. and Edward E. Ashley.  In August 1892, they hired painter and decorator George Stone to work on their properties.  The talented Stone, who did ceiling and wall frescoes, relocated his family from Albany for the job.  He was paid $65 per month,  and given an apartment here for $15 a month (about $500 per month in today's money).  He and his wife had three small children, the eldest of whom was eight years old.

Seven months later, in March 1893, police were puzzled by the mysterious suicide of Alice Leonide Cozzens.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said, "Superintendent Brynes' detectives have worked hard to discover the motive which led her to take her life." George Stone attempted to help, writing a letter to the coroner on March 14, two days after the suicide, telling of seeing Alice Cozzens with a "stylish young man" on the day of her death.  He had overheard snippets of their conversation, in which Annie asked the man (who Stone said "had such a fiendish look about him that I followed him for a block") why he refused to keep his promise.  The man had replied, "Hush, my dear.  I have to hear from St. Louis before I can do anything."  Stone hoped his information would help in the investigation.

The Stone family had concerns of their own at the time.  In April, after just eight months of working for the Ashleys, George had been fired "for lack of work."  Worse yet, his employers owed him $400 back wages at the time.  The New York Herald reported on July 13, "After Stone's discharge Ashley called at his flat and told Mrs. Stone, she says, she could act as janitress, and in payment he promised to give her the flat rent free."

Edward Ashley quickly changed his mind, however, and on July 7, 1893 issued an eviction notice.  When a reporter from the New York Herald visited the apartment building on July 12, the family's furniture was "on the sidewalk and Mrs. Stone and her children were being sheltered by neighbors."   The article said, "The family has not a dollar and cannot move to other rooms."

On April 23, 1910 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Samuel J. and Edward E. Ashley had sold the building to the Lithuanian Alliance of America.  Founded in 1886 by Lithuanian coalminers, the Alliance purchased 307 West 30th Street as a sort of welcoming center for arriving Lithuanian immigrants.

Here services like train transportation for immigrants traveling to other points across the United States could be obtained.  The upper floors were converted to administrative offices, and for the printing facilities of a Lithuanian language newspaper and books.  

Among those working here in 1914 was Andrew M. Martus.  He sailed to Europe in January that year, only to be trapped there when war broke out.  When he finally returned to New York on April 13, 1916, he was a hero.  On April 22, The New York Press began an article saying, "How he assumed the leadership of a band of 7,000 starving, homeless Lithuanian refugees driven into the interior of Russia before the retreat of the Russian army in the summer and fall of 1915 was narrated yesterday, by Andrew M. Martus."

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

He told of the Russians' burning the fields, destroying farm implements, and stealing the livestock.  "Driven by fear," the band of mostly women and children had walked more than 1,000 miles in four months.  Martus said, "they slept in the woods and stole food whenever possible.  Many of the old women and the young children died on the way."

Tragically, he told The New York Press, "What was left in Lithuania after the Russian retreat was taken by the German army.  The conquerors took everything.  The Germans don't care what becomes of the conquered countries."  He told of cases in which desperate Lithuanians "have eaten their dogs and cats."  

From its offices here, the Lithuanian Alliance of America was involved in the establishment of Lithuanian independence in 1918.  And when the world was plunged into world war a second time, the Lithuanian Alliance of America again stepped up.  In 1941 the office of the Lithuanian Relief Committee for the Aid of Lithuanian Victims of Tyranny and War was established in the West 30th Street building.

In 1957 the building was renovated.  There were now two offices on the ground floor, six on the second, and one apartment each on the third and fourth floors.  The Victorian elements were removed from the first floor openings and a metal cladding applied.  The upper facade was given a coat of white paint.

The building as it appeared in 2013.  image via Google Streetview

A restoration completed in 2019 brought the building back to its 1876 appearance.  The lost brownstone elements were recreated in cast stone, and the brickwork repaired.  The Lithuanian Alliance of America continues to operate from the address.

photographs by the author
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