Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The 1845 William J. Cunningham House - 681 Greenwich Street

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In 1845 Lewis Radford, a grocer, invested in real estate by erecting seven three-story, brick-faced houses on the east side of Greenwich Street stretching northward from the corner of Christopher Street.  Sitting above brownstone-clad English basements, they exhibited the molded lintels, full-height third floors, and stoop railings of the new Italianate style.  Yet, their architect clung to the Greek Revival style in the handsome doorways, with transoms, sidelights and pilasters, and in the simple cornices and fascia boards.

No. 681 Greenwich Street became home to the family of drygoods merchant William J. Cunningham.  He would take the long journey down Greenwich Street every day to his business at 23-25 Dey Street.  Along with his wife and son, living in the house with Cunningham was his teen-aged brother-in-law, N. W. Badeau, Jr.

William J. Cunningham, Jr. was born the same year 681 Greenwich Street was completed.  Like many parents at the time, the Cunninghams seemed to have valued practical, hands-on experience over formal education.  In 1863, when William Jr. was 18 years old, Board of Education documents showed he had spent just four years and three months in public schools.  He almost assuredly was working in his father's business at the time.

N. W. Badeau died on February 5, 1862 at the age of 29.  His funeral was held in the house two days later.  A second funeral would take place in the parlor nine years later following William J. Cunningham's death on January 27, 1871.

Within two years 681 Greenwich Street was being operated as a boarding house.  Despite its proximity to the riverfront, its tenants, like the Cunninghams, were white collar.  Among them in 1873 was 26-year-old Alexander Brinkerhoff.  He was a bookkeeper for John Green, who dealt in construction stone.  The stone yard was several blocks north, at the foot of Jane Street and the Hudson River.

On the evening of  October 24, 1873 a shipment of stone blocks arrived at the pier and Brinkerhoff left the office to supervise the hoisting of the heavy blocks onto a truck.  The New York Times reported, "a portion of a derrick fell on his head, killing him instantly."  The article noted, "The body was removed to No. 681 Greenwich street to await an inquest."

Another resident narrowly missed accidental death four years later.  On August 9, 1877, Daniel Onderdonk boarded the 7:45 a.m. train to Long Branch, New Jersey.  Almost two hours later, at 9:25, as it was crossing a wooden bridge half-way between Red Bank and Long Branch, the train derailed.  The New York Times reported, "the engine plunged over the side of the bridge...There was a rush of steam from broken pipes which was quickly lost in the crashing of timbers, for the baggage-car ran up over the wreck of the locomotive, turned completely upside-down on the land, and in the twinkling of an eye was converted into a mass of splinters.  All but one of the passenger cars followed, plunging "with a splash upon their sides in the river."  Amazingly, the fifth and last car somehow became disconnected and ground to a halt at the precipice of the wrecked bridge.

The passengers of that car scrambled down to the river, where men and women were trapped within the cars in about three feet of water.  "The men of the party descended to the side of the overturned cars, and passed up the wet and wounded men, women, and children, dragging them out at the doorways and through the windows as quickly as possible," said The New York Times.  Astoundingly, there were no deaths, and Daniel Onderdonk escaped with only minor injuries.

In 1879 Henry Corse purchased 681 Greenwich Street for $7,025, or about $213,000 in 2023 terms.  Corse owned several Greenwich Village properties, and continued leasing this one as a boarding house.  The residents remained professional, like Lucy D. Foster who lived here in 1888.  She taught in the Primary Department of Grammar School No. 3 on Hudson Street.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Two boarders living here in 1892 were 36-year-old Mary Blake and Edmund Saarbach, who was about 24.  Saarbach worked in a cigar store downtown on Cortlandt Street.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle explained on March 22, 1893, that when rumors swirled that Saarbach "was too intimate" with Mary Blake, he moved out of the boarding house.  The newspaper said, "she has since followed him up."

Mary had good reason to pursue the man who had abandoned her.  A woman in the 19th century who had been "deflowered" faced the loss of her respectability and almost certainly a bleak future.  The situation came to a head on the night of March 21, 1893 when Edmund left the cigar store with its clerk, a Miss Hart.  When they reached the corner of Cortlandt and Washington Streets, Mary stepped up and "said she wished to speak with him."

Edmund stepped away from Miss Hart, and Mary "spoke a few words to him in an excited tone," according to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  When he turned away and walked back towards Miss Hart, Mary threatened to shoot him if he did return.  He did not and, said the article, "She carried her threat into execution and the bullet cut the sleeve of the young man's coat."  Before she could fire again, Policeman Knapp rushed across the street and seized her.  She was held on a charge of attempted murder.

Change came to 681 Greenwich Street following Henry Corse's death in 1893 and the liquidation of his properties.  The house was now operated as a "sailor's boarding house," as described by The Sun, and its tenants were often less respectable than their predecessors.

In 1912 the boarding house was run by Catherine Bellew.  When 42-year-old Frederick Goulet came ashore in the summer of 1912, he rented a room.  The French-born sailor was a chef on an American Line steamship.  On the morning of Sunday, August 25, Catherine Bellew attempted to enter his room to make the bed, but found the door locked.  When she still got no answer by 4:00 that afternoon, she called a policeman.

The officer broke the door in, and found the nude body of a woman on the bed.  The Sun said, "There was no jewelry, no hat, no pocketbook, nor any mark by which she could be identified."  A search was made for the missing sailor.

When Frederick Goulet was found, he told a bizarre story.  According to him, he had met the woman on Friday night.  He carefully avoided incriminating himself as having hired a prostitute.  The Sun recounted"She said she had no home, and no money and asked him for a night's lodging.  This he gave her."  His story was that he left the house early on Saturday morning, and when he returned at 8:00 he found her dead.  "He said he became frightened and had walked the streets all Saturday night and Sunday, trying to get up nerve enough to tell the police."  Although The New York Times said "She appeared to have died from natural causes, " Goulet was arrested pending the results of an autopsy.

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By the Depression years, 681 Greenwich was the last survivor of Lewis Radford's 1845 row.  It continued to be operated as a rooming house until 1983, when it was converted to two apartments per floor.  The stoop was removed, leaving the original doorway floating bizarrely above the sidewalk.  The entrance was moved to the rear, accessed by a courtyard entered on Christopher Street.

many thanks to reader and blogger Jason Kessler for suggesting his post
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