Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Augustus Reiner Grocery Building - 196 Eighth Avenue


As early as 1842, Augustus Reiner owned the three-story house and store at the northeast corner of Eighth Avenue and West 20th Street.  Abutting the building to the rear was a two-story stable.  Reiner and his wife Catherine Ann had at least one son, Augustus Jr., and two daughters, Catherine Ann and Leona Ira.  Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Reiner operated a grocery store from the ground floor.  He was also active in civic affairs and in 1842 was nominated for City Assessor.

Around 1849, the Reiners moved slightly north, to 225 Eighth Avenue.  Catherine Ann died there at the age of 78 on April 1, and Augustus died six months later on October 26.  He was 80.

In the meantime, the grocery had been taken over by John H. Eden in 1849.  Like the Reiners, his family lived above the store, and in 1857 Isaac J. Eden, presumably John's son, was working in the store as well. 

Isaac was no longer listed as either working or living at the address in 1860.  John H. Eden took Henry J. Reichers into the business, who moved his family into the upper portion of the attached stable.  Reichers was born in Germany in 1831.  He and his wife Eliza had four children, Charles, William, Frederick, and Elizabeth.  

The Richers nearly lost their lives and the Edens their home in 1861 when the stable was attacked by arsonists.   On December 15, The New York Times reported, "Between 2 and 3 o'clock Friday morning a fire occurred in a building occupied by Henry Reichers as a stable, and dwelling-house, situated in the rear of No. 196 Eighth-avenue."  Reichers escaped, but sadly "a valuable horse belonging to Mr. Reichers was burned to death."  Two men, James Johnson and John Leary, were arrested on suspicion of setting the fire.

Eden and Reicher worked together through 1863, after which Reicher took over the grocery.  (Expectedly, at that point he moved his family into the Eighth Avenue building.) 

William McTaggart and Patrick Henry McGowan, sons of Irish immigrants and both 16 years old, lived on the 20th Street block in 1865.  On August 7, they faced Henry Reichers in the Jefferson Market Court.  The New York Times reported that Reichers accused them of "entering his store and stealing $65.05 from the money-drawer."  Both teens confessed and were jailed.

Henry Riechers ran his grocery store until 1868 when he moved his family to Brooklyn.  Peter McDonald converted the store to a saloon and moved into the upper portion.  Also living there in 1870 were Patrick Mullaney, a bartender, and Frederick Gille, who was a dyer.

On August 6, 1870 Peter McDonald was arrested for "violating the Excise law by not keeping closed on Sunday."  His $300 bail would translate to around $7,000 today.

Amazingly, the grocery-turned-saloon would continued to flip-flop between the two types of operations over the next decades.  In 1872 it became the butcher shop of John W. Jones, and in 1876 it was reconverted to a saloon, run by James McCartell and William O'Connor.  (McCartell lived on West 33rd Street and O'Connor lived upstairs here.)  Three years later it was outfitted as the Harms Brothers butcher store, operated by Frederick D. and Henry J. F. Farms.

Harms Brothers remained in the space into the late 1890s, after which the ground floor was once again a saloon.   It was the scene of a shooting on March 2, 1914.  James Courtney and William O'Connor (apparently no relation to the former proprietor) were standing at the bar that afternoon talking to a patron known as Billy.  An argument ensued which became heated, and Billy stormed out.

The Evening Telegram reported, "About half an hour later he again appeared at the side door with a revolver and opened fire.  One bullet struck Courtney in the shoulder, another took effect in O'Connor's leg, while a third smashed the large mirror behind the bar."  Billy fled and the wounded men were taken to Bellevue Hospital.  Police were still searching for the assailant that evening.

The end of the saloon days came with the advent of Prohibition.  The building was renovated as Reilley Brother's Hotel, with rented rooms upstairs and a restaurant in the former tavern space.  John Kenny was a waiter here in 1921 when he was arrested for violating Prohibition laws.  Somewhat surprisingly, the crime did not take place in the restaurant, as would have been expected, but at Kenny's home.

Rooftop pediments announce Reilly Bros. Hotel in 1928.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The New York-Tribune reported on May 23 that he was arrested for possessing several bottles of whisky "in the rear sitting room of his home address."  The article explained, "Policemen testified that a pull on a rope end disclosed and opened a secret panel in the wall where the alleged liquor was stored."

A variety store occupied the ground floor in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Chelsea neighborhood had greatly changed by the last quarter of the 20th century.  In the late 1980s the Italian restaurant Twigs occupied the store space, and on December 24, 1997 Tazza, a Mediterranean restaurant, opened here and would remain into the early 2020s.  It was supplanted by Lasagna Restaurant.

The venerable building got a make-over in 2001 when the facade was renovated and the upper floors were converted to apartments.  The configuration of the openings on the Eighth Avenue side was changed, splayed lintels and keystones were installed above the windows, and the facade was scored to simulate stone blocks.  The two-story structure to the rear was incorporated into the building at the time.  

photographs by the author
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