Thursday, November 23, 2023

John G. Rohr's 1826 506 Canal Street


The proposal of the Board of Trinity Episcopal Church to develop an area along Hudson Street north of the city in 1802 was met with skepticism and derision.  What would become St. John's Park was at the time a reed-filled bog, overrun with mosquitoes and snakes.  But the Church forged on and the problem of the "sluggish stream" that fed the swampy, marshy Lispenard Meadows was soon dealt with.  

In 1809 excavation for an eight-foot-wide drainage canal was begun.  It was completed in 1811 and covered over in 1819, creating an especially broad, 100-foot-wide roadway.  With the marsh gone, development along Canal Street followed.  Among those taking advantage of the new opportunity was the German-born merchant tailor John G. Rohr, who erected several properties on both sides of the thoroughfare.

In 1826 he completed five similar brick-faced homes on the south side of Canal Street, just west of Greenwich Street.  The eastern-most was 239 Canal Street (renumbered 506 in 1860).  It exhibited expected elements of the Federal style--Flemish bond brickwork and paneled brownstone lintels, for instance.  But what made its design stand out was the ground floor store front.  Considered by architectural historians to be (almost assuredly) original, its series of brownstone arches frame two shop windows and two entrances--one to the store and the other to the residential space upstairs.  The multi-paned windows and elegant paneled pilasters gave the storefront a Dickensonian feel.

While his family lived at 243 Canal Street (later 510), Rohr opened his tailoring establishment in the ground floor here.  An advertisement in the New York Morning Courier in 1828 read:

Clothing Emporium, 239 Canal-street  —The subscriber has a Clothing Store at the above place where clothing of every description is made to order, at the shortest notice, and where he offers for sale fine and superfine blue, black, mixed, drab and olive Broadcloths and Cassimeres. Also, a great variety of the richest patterns of Valencia, and black figured Silk Vest Patterns, well worthy the attention of merchant tailors. N. B. Also, just received, a variety of first quality of English Mole Skins, or Fustians, for sale as above at very low prices.  - John G. Rohr

For some reason, Rohr removed his tailoring business in 1829, and leased the building to John Y. Smith, a starch and hair powder manufacturer, who had built and occupied the structure steps away at 235 Greenwich Street.  He transferred title of that property to Alonzo Alwyn Alvord and moved his family and business to the Rohr building.  In October 1829, he exhibited his wares at the American Institute's fair in Masonic Hall.  He was awarded a Discretionary Premium for the "best Starch and Hair Powder."

Smith's leasing of 239 Canal Street was most likely always intended to be temporary.  In 1830 John G. Rohr not only re-opened his tailoring business on the ground floor, but moved his family into the upper portion of the building.  Conditions within the house must have been snug.  Rohr and his wife Rebecca had four adult children, Rebecca, George (who worked in his father's tailoring business), John B., and Hannah.  They all lived here along with their own families.  (Rebecca and her husband Baltus Segee, who was a saddler, had two children; and there were five other grandchildren ranging from 6 to 15 years of age).  Additionally, a 35-year-old Irish servant, Catherine Brickham lived in the house.

By 1849, the Rohr population upstairs had thinned to the point that Elizabeth Mountford and her two adult sons Daniel and Peter took rooms.  The brothers opened what was originally called P. & D. Mountford, a stationary and book store, in the former Rohr tailor shop.

Among the Rohrs still living here were Rebecca and Boltis Segee and their children, and John B. Rohr and his family.  On September 6, 1850, John left the house and walked to Chambers Street.  When he got there he realized he had lost his firearm.  His ad in the New-York Daily Tribune four days later offered:

$10 Reward--Or $5 that will lead to the recovery of a double barrel gun lost on Friday morning Sept. 6, in going from 239 Canal-st. through  Washington to Chambers-st. inclosed [sic] in a leather covering with the owner's name partly erased on the guard.  The finder will receive the above reward by leaving it with the subscriber, at 239 Canal-st.     John B. Rohr

It was a valued weapon, and Rohr's reward would equal about $385 in 2023.

In 1840 the first mass produced Valentine cards were introduced in America and the public soon embraced the tradition.  They were embellished with real lace and satin ribbons.  The Mountfort brothers took advantage of the fad.  On February 9, 1851 they advertised:

                                                    VALENTINES AT 239 CANAL ST.

 The Proprietors beg leave to state to their numerous friends and patrons, that they have the best selected stock of Valentines ever offered to the American public, got up, not by travelling in the old countries, but by the best connoisseurs in that line of business in this or any other country.  They will also deliver them promptly, when requested so to do.  Remember the place.        MOUNTFORD & BROTHER, 239 Canal St., near Clinton Market.

In 1853 Rohr sold 239 Canal Street to Carsten Sierck.  He continued leasing part of the upper portion to Boltis and Rebecca Rohr Segee.  His other upstairs tenant was Richard H. Daily, who listed his profession as "agent."  The former bookstore became a ticket office for the Hudson River Railroad.

The last of the Rohr family had left 239 Canal Street in 1857 when Charles Schnibbe ran the upper floors as a boarding house.  Among his residents that year was shoemaker John Mebs.  By 1859 James Scott had taken over the shop for his "iron furniture" store.  (Cast iron settees, tables and chairs were popular not only for gardens and lawns, but for conservatories.)

The upper portion of the house continued to be operated as a boarding house for decades and, expectedly, it saw a variety of boarders come and go.  Living here in 1867 were Ellen and Patrick Gray, who worked at the nearby Clinton Market--she as a "huckster" (a seller of small goods) and he as a provisions merchant.  Also in the house that year were Henry J. Hollmann who was in the liquor business on Centre Street; and Joseph Schoenberger, who ran a saloon.  (The two may have worked together.)

Tragedy visited 506 Canal Street in 1873.  Living here at the time was Anna Creemer, the widow of John Creemer, who worked as a baker; and Henry and Margaret E. A. C. Wellbrook.  The Wellbrooks welcomed a daughter, Adelaide M. on December 5, 1872.  The infant died six months later, on May 24, 1873.  Her funeral was held here two days later.

After having owned the property for half a century, the Sierck family sold 506 Canal Street in 1907 to Samuel Weil, who already owned 504.  (In 1909 he would buy the former John Y. Smith building on the corner.)

The occupants of 506 Canal Street were working class in the first half of the 20th century, like Joseph Souza who worked as a water tender aboard the steamship Auditor.  On September 11, 1920, he got into a confrontation in a restaurant in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn, near the waterfront.  The Brooklyn Standard Union reported, "Frank White...alleges Souza threw two cups at him, one of which inflicted a deep cut in his head."  

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Souza was arrested for felonious assault and released on bail.  But, nearly a year later, on August 26, the newspaper reported that Joseph Souza, "who skipped $500 bail," had been rearrested.  Not only had he been arrested again, but it was by the same detective, Thomas Croak, who had arrested him the previous year.  This time he was held without bail.

Through some miraculous happenstance, the unique storefront of 506 Canal Street was not disfigured or replaced.  In 1990 the Ponte family of Ponte Equities owned 502, 504 and 506 Canal Street.  In almost every case when real estate firms accumulate abutting properties, a redevelopment is in the near future.  But each of the venerable structures was preserved.

Today there are two apartments per floor above the storefront at 506 Canal Street.  It survives as a wondrous anachronism within the bustling Holland Tunnel district.

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. How does this square with the drainage of the Collect Pond, which most city historians have claimed to be the catalyst for the canal that gave the street its name?

    1. The draining of Collect Pond and the Lispenard Meadows are not mutually exclusive. However, the draining of the Pond did begin earlier and in stages. Both were considered "drained" in 1811.