Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Ill-Treated Houses at 228 to 232 West 21st Street


Only the cornice and fourth floor windows hint at the homes' aristocratic beginnings.  Two of the unusual overhanging window cornices survive.

In 1845 William Jay Haskett and his family lived at 34 Cottage Place in Greenwich Village.  (The street, lined with refined homes at the time, would be erased by the extension of Sixth Avenue in the 1920s.)  Within five years he would move the family to the rapidly developing neighborhood of Chelsea.

Haskett purchased 228 West 21st Street, one of three recently completed homes between Seventh and Eighth Avenue.  Their up-to-the-minute Anglo-Italianate style forewent the ubiquitous high stoops seen throughout the city in favor of short, three-step porches.  The most unusual elements were the bold, projecting cornices of the second and third floor windows.  A single cast metal cornice with paired backets connected the trio.

The Haskett house with its doorway intact, is at  left.  The row retained its window cornices in 1941 (note the Victorian garden urn in front of 230).  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

William Jay Haskett was a well-respected citizen.  An attorney with offices at 15 Centre Street, he was also an alderman, a trustee with the Board of Education, and in 1862 would be appointed Excise Commissioner.  The Hasketts had two children, Carrie Matilda and William Jr.

The Enrollment Act of 1863, otherwise known as the Civil War Draft, was passed to augment the Union Army's fighting force in the South.  On August 22, 1863, The New York Times reported on the previous day's lottery, saying "Messrs. Wm. Jay Haskett, Alderman, Lewis R. Ryers and Councilman Munson were appointed to count the ballots."  Presumably to ensure impartiality in drawing the names, "Mr. Benson, the blind man, took out the ballots."  One can imagine the emotions William Haskett felt when among the 1,181 names pulled that day was that of his son, William Jay Haskett Jr.

William Jr. marched off to war.  At the battlefront he, like thousands of soldiers, was afflicted with disease.  He was sent home on the riverboat St. Patrick in early summer 1864.  But the 18 year old would not survive the trip.  He died on the boat at Louisville, Kentucky on June 11.  His body was brought home to the West 21st Street house where his funeral was held on June 17.

By 1866 the Haskett family had moved to 340 West 21st Street, a block to the west.  William Jay Haskett would die there in December 1876, The New York Times saying, "he lost a son in the late civil war, and grief on account of the death of his daughter, his only remaining child, is thought to have so depressed his spirits as to hasten his death."

No. 228 West 21st Street was now the home of the Henry Leo family.  Henry was in the fur business on Canal Street, and his son Simeon was a physician.  Henry's wife was the president of the B'Nai Jeshurun Ladies' Benevolent Society for the Relief of Indigent Females.

On September 21, 1867, The Medical and Surgical Reporter announced, "New York has a Medico-Legal Society."  The article said the organization was formed "on Tuesday evening of last week at Dr. Leo's dwelling, No. 228 West Twenty-first Street," where "subjects of interest to the medical and legal professions were discussed."

It appears that his mother had recruited Simeon Leo to her cause.  In 1870, The Jewish Messenger reported, "An excellent project is to be shortly set in operation by the Directresses of the 'B'nai Jeshurun Ladies' Benevolent Society.'  They intend to open in a central location an Industrial Home where indigent Jewesses, married or single, will receive different kinds of work, or be taught sewing."  The article noted that additional information "will be readily furnished by the Secretary, Dr. S. N. Leo, 228 West 21st Street."

In the meantime, the house next door at 230 had been operated as a high-end boarding house by widow Elizabeth Herbert for years.  That changed around 1881 when attorney Christopher Fine purchased the property.

Born in New Jersey in 1825, Fine was described by The New York Times as "a large man, with a leonine countenance"
whose success in the courtroom was a result of his "fervid style of oratory, which was very effective with juries."  Among Fine's private clients was millionaire Edward S. Stokes.  

He and his wife had seven daughters, the eldest of whom was approaching her debutante years.  The ability to dance was a must for young people, and mothers often involved themselves in that training.  On November 29, 1882, The New York Times reported, "The Hawthorne, a new dancing club, gave its first reception last evening at the residence of Mrs. Christopher Fine, No. 230 West Twenty-first street."

By 1896 there were just three daughters still unmarried and living in with their parents, and there was about to be one fewer.  On February 23, 1896, the New York Herald reported, "One of the prettiest home weddings last week was that of Miss Christine Fine to Mr. Robert Besson McCague...which took place at half-past eight o'clock on Tuesday evening at the residence of the bride's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Fine, No. 230 West Twenty-first street."  The families' affluence was evidenced in the article's noting, "The bride, who was given away by her father, wore a gown of white satin, elaborately trimmed with pearls.  Her veil of tulle was fastened with a cluster of orange blossoms and a diamond sunburst, a gift from the groom."

Four years later, on December 20, 1899, Christopher Fine died at the age of 74 in the West 21st Street house.  In reporting his death, The New York Times described him as "one of the last survivors of a famous school of lawyers."

The house at 232 West 21st Street was originally home to Charles Sands, an educator, and his family.  Son Henry F. Sands was an official in the Customhouse downtown.  Living with the family was Charles's mother, Elithear, the widow of James Sands.  The Sands family remained here through the Civil War.

By the early 1890s, 232 West 21st Street was operated as a boarding house.  Among the residents that year was the medium, Mrs. Carrie M. Sawyer.  Spiritualism, which was rampant at the time, was fertile ground for scammers intent on taking advantage of grieving widows and relatives.  But not everyone was easily convinced.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

On June 1, 1892, Rev. Dr. Robert Collyer spoke to a group about his experiences at Mrs. Sawyer's séance the previous evening.  He said, "I went there open to conviction--in a state of suspended expectation.  I went there eager to know the truth and willing to be convinced.  I left troubled.  The séance seemed absurd." 

He told of apparitions that appeared in the darkened room, and while someone in the dozen or so participants might recognize a loved one, he said, "I think all these forms were represented by one person, and the forms were clothed in calico and not in celestial attire."

Two months earlier the world famous actress Sarah Bernhardt had attended a séance here with members of her company.  Her resultant outrage far surpassed that of Rev. Collyer.  The evening started out quietly, the New York Herald reporting on April 23, "Two carriages drove up to the house of Mrs. Carrie M. Sawyer, a materializing medium at No. 232 West Twenty-first Street at half-past eleven o'clock.  Mme. Bernhardt jumped out of one."  The séance took place in the second story parlor, and Bernhardt made an entrance befitting a star.

"Mme. Bernhardt was attired richly...Her thick hair of burnished gold was thrown to the breezes like the flowing locks of Paderewski, and she wore no hat or bonnet when she entered.  Her pose was that of Cleopatra on her throne."  The calm of the room and the regal demeanor of the actress would not last.

After a dozen spirits had manifested themselves from a "spirit cabinet," Bernhardt became suspicious and angry.  Accusing the members of her company of conspiring with Mrs. Sawyer against her, she spat, "You must be in league with the medium...You are all fools or confederates."  The New York Herald reported, "Madame Bernhardt left the house in a towering rage.  The members of her company followed her, greatly chagrined at her conduct and humiliated at the suggestion she had made that they were in a conspiracy to deceive her."

Living at 228 West Twenty-first street at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War was Vincente Hauria-Martens, his son Richard, and daughter Elsie, who was an actress.  Hauria-Martens had arrived in New York from Spain in 1868.  He initially was an agent for a champagne firm, but then went into the insurance business.  Following his wife's death, he had expressed a desire to return to his homeland.

Now, after the U.S.S. Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor and the Spanish were blamed for it, he made up his mind to return and to fight for his country.  The decision caused a major rift in his family.  In his 1899 book Reminiscences and Thrilling Stories of the War, Congressman James Rankin Young quoted Hauria-Martens as saying, "It is my country, and I love it far better than this land."

Richard replied, "Well, this is my native land, and to my thinking the Stars and Stripes float over the best people on the earth."  The New York Herald reported that he added, "I am a New Yorker, and stand ready to fight for my flag."  The article said, "The quarrel terminated by the father taking the first steamer for Madrid after the war was declared."

"I go to fight the Yankees," he vowed.

"I shall enlist to oppose you," declared Richard.  

The next day Richard enlisted in the 71st Regiment.  The New York Herald wrote, "in a letter to his sister, he said he was chafing at the delay in invading Cuba, and hoped to see his father in the ranks of the enemy."

All three houses were operated as rooming houses throughout most of the 20th century, their tenants not always on the right side of the law.  And then, a renovation completed in 1981 combined them internally, resulting in duplex and triplex apartments and a new penthouse level.  The configuration of the doorways was changed, and nearly all of the mid-Victorian details removed.  Only (oddly enough) two of the window cornices, the top floor details, and the cornice were left intact.  A stucco-like substance was applied over the brownstone.  In all, the attempt to modernize the facade fell on its face, leaving the former homes sadly disfigured.

photographs by the author
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