Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The 1852 Nassau Swinsen House - 66 Morton Street


In 1714, Queen Anne bestowed Trinity Church with an expansive tract of land.  Known as the Trinity Farm, it stretched north along the Hudson River from Duane Street in the city to what would become Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.  Around 1825 Trinity Church began developing the land into building lots. 

In 1852, the Trustees of Trinity Church erected a handsome, Italianate style residence at 66 Morton Street.  To take advantage of the breezes from the nearby Hudson River, its architect created an unusual, full-height faceted bay.  Its windows opened to the east and west, affording refreshing airflow.  Faced in red brick, the house rose four stories above a brownstone clad English basement.  The openings originally wore molded brownstone architrave frames.

The house was leased to Nassau Swinsen, who operated it as a boarding house.  An advertisement in September 1853 offered:

Boarding--Gentlemen and their wives can obtain rooms with board at six and eight dollars per week, or single gentlemen at the same price with two in a room by applying at No. 66 Morton street, corner of Hudson, in a very quiet place, and with an American family.  Cars and stages pass every five minutes.

The posted rents would translate to between $117 and $313 in 2023.  

At the time, Eliza Swinsen, presumably a relative, ran another high-end boarding house steps away on Hudson Street.  In 1856, she took over the operation of 66 Morton Street.  Also moving into the house was her daughter, Eliza J.  She became a teacher around 1858, and would work at Primary School No. 24 on Horatio Street for years.

A few of Eliza Swinsen's boarders would stay for years.  The Hodgson family, for instance, moved in around 1856 and would remain at least a decade.  William P. Hodgson ran a coal business at 368 West Street.  

In 1863, Congress passed a conscription act, creating the first war-time draft in United States history.  It provided a loophole for the well-to-do in that exemptions could be purchased for $300--about $7,000 today--or they could pay for a substitute.  The Hodgsons chose not to risk sending their son off to the battlefront.  On September 4, 1864, The New York Times published a list of the "names of Patriotic Gentlemen who have furnished substitutes in advance of the draft."  Included was Thomas Hodgson, who did not supply a profession.

Around 1873, Charles H. Webb took over the lease of 66 Morton Street.  The family lived here for about a year, then sub-let the house to Sarah A. Taylor, the widow of Isaac Taylor.  Living with her were her two adult sons.  Isaac was a clerk, and Hugh M. Taylor was a plumber.  As was common, Sarah took in one boarder at a time.

On July 12, 1887, the Webb estate sold the leasehold of 66 Morton Street to Francis Caragher and his wife Mary for $15,000 (about $475,000 in 2023 terms).  A "truckman," Francis was the head of Francis Caragher's Sons, which specialized in transporting goods for produce merchants.  The firm operated from 49-51 Downing Street, a building Caragher had erected in 1879.  It was one of several Greenwich Village properties he owned.

Francis Caragher died in 1893, but the Caragher family would remain in the house for decades and, like Sarah Taylor, they took in a boarder.

Living with the family in 1909 was Dr. Edwin Zimmerman.  Five years earlier, real estate agent Charles C. Hickok had begun lobbying to have Seventh Avenue, which began at 11th Street, extended south to Varick Street.  The proposal would include the extension of the Seventh Avenue subway.  Among Hickok's vocal supporters was Dr. Zimmerman, who was also president of the Greenwich Village Public Committee.  On June 26, 1909, The New York Times reported on a "meeting at 66 Morton Street, called by Dr. Edwin which [City Controller Metz] was the principal speaker."  It noted that the meeting "was held for the purpose of rallying forces for the fight for the Subway extension."

A less upstanding tenant was Louis Bernstein, who lived here by 1921.  On January 28, 1922, the 22-year-old was sentenced for shoplifting.  He did not perform the crime himself, however.  The Evening World reported he had been running a Fagin-like operation, and was "convicted of receiving during the last six months articles valued at $8,000 from a gang of boys he employed to steal from the stores."

In 1923 the Caragher estate leased the property to Elin Heins "for rooming purposes," according to The Sun and The Globe.  Within the next decade, the exterior was modernized.  The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to the basement, and the Victorian detailing of the openings were shaved flat.

The house in 1941 had lost its stoop and carved details.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In 1957, the 28-year-old fledgling poet Maurice Kenny moved into 66 Morton Street.  In his 2018 autobiography Angry Rain, he describes his room as "not much larger than six by ten feet," and says, "I was a tenacious young poet with a head start on success."  Before long, while going through the incoming mail on the hall table, he discovered that another tenant was author Willard Motley.  His 1947 novel Knock on Any Door had won critical acclaim and was made into the 1949 motion picture of the same title.  The two became close friends.  Kenny writes, "Within two years of our meeting, I was living and working in his house on the outskirts of Mexico City, while he tried to write his fourth novel."  Maurice Kenny would go on to be inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame in 2014, and Motley was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

In 1969 Mary Kaplan purchased 66 Morton Street, returning it to a private residence.  She had the stoop and entranceway meticulously refabricated.  Astoundingly, given the vandalism that had occurred to the outside, much of the 1852 interior detailing had survived.

Sumptuously-carved marble mantles and rope molding are among the surviving interior details.  image via

While Kaplan owned it, the unusual house became a favorite for Hollywood location scouts.  It was the home of Harrison Ford's character in the 1988 Working Girl, the residence of Matthew Broderick's character in the 1998 The Night We Never Met, and in 2000 was the home of Winona Ryder's character in Autumn in New York.

In 2015 Kaplan sold 66 Morton Street to jewelry designer David Yurman and his wife Sybil for $17 million.  His ownership would be short-lived, and he put it back on the market in 2017, selling it in August the following year.

many thanks to reader and blogger Jason Kessler for suggesting this post
photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. This building is also the filming location for the "Revolution" scene in Across the Universe!