Friday, November 17, 2023

The 1836 Augustine E. Pressinger House - 317 West Fourth Street


In April 1835 Charles W. Hawkins purchased ten building plots from Samuel Bayard along Fourth Street, between Bank and West 12th Streets.  A merchant, Hawkins lived at 98 Greenwich Street.  Within the next four months he resold the 20-foot-wide plots to six men, all of whom were builders or were involved in that trade.  Solomon Banta and Abraham Frazee made up the construction company of Frazee & Banta, James Vandenberg and Aaron Marsh were also builders, while Henry M. Perine was a mason and Richard Taylor was lime dealer.  A year later, ten houses were  completed, or nearly completed, on the plots, presumably constructed by their several owners.

Each of the nearly identical brick-faced homes was two-and-a-half stories tall above an English basement.  Like its neighbors, 47 Fourth Street (renumbered 317 West 4th Street in 1863) was Greek Revival in style.  A short stoop led to the entrance where Doric pilasters flanked the single door.  The attic windows pierced a wide fascia board below the dentiled cornice.

By the late 1840s, it was home to the Richard P. Berrien, Jr. family.  Berrien, like Richard Taylor, was a lime merchant.  He and his family would remain here through 1856, taking in one or two boarders at a time, like DeForrest Ellison, a blindmaker here in 1851; and bookbinder Charles Starr who listed the address in 1853.

In 1857 the families of John L. Pasman and Elisha P. Cronk moved in.  Pasman was a tailor and Cronk was a produce merchant.  They would share the house into the early 1860s.

By 1868, real estate operator Cyrus W. Price owned 317 West 4th Street.  He sold it in June that year to his son-in-law, Augustine E. Pressinger for $8,500 (about $180,000 in 2023).

Augustine had married Mary Davis Price in her father's parlor on May 2, 1853.  The newlyweds relocated to Lebanon, Tennessee.  The couple suffered unspeakable heartbreak when two of their children, Mary Augusta and Winfield Scott, died of diphtheria on the same day, May 29, 1862.  It was possibly that tragedy that prompted the Pressingers to return to New York City.

Born in London, England on December 13, 1824, Pressinger was in the storage business with a warehouse at 568 Washington Street.  When he and Mary moved into the West 4th Street house they had four children: Austin Edmund, Salletta May, Arnott Milton, and Whitfield Price.  

In addition to his storage business (which was so successful that by 1872 he had expanded into a second warehouse at 505 Washington), Pressinger was highly active with the Seventh Regiment.  In 1851, before his marriage, he had been promoted to captain.  

Mary was not content with rearing children and hosting teas.  Among the few enterprises in which women could flourish in the 19th century was real estate and, like her father, she bought and sold Manhattan properties.  It may have been Mary's knowledge of real estate that prompted an updating to the vintage residence.  The attic was raised to a full floor and a new cornice with scrolled brackets was installed.

Augustine E. Pressinger died at the age of 52 on January 31, 1877.  Mary and the unmarried children remained at 317 West 4th Street until 1885 when she sold the house on April 9 to Georgine E. E. Poppe for $12,500 (about $410,000 today).

Poppe would retain possession of the house for decades, taking in respectable boarders seemingly just one at a time.  In 1904 and '05 William O'Hara lived here.  He earned a $600 per year pension from the police department.  And in 1923 Captain Edwin A. Quinn of the fire department boarded in the house.  That year, on May 24, he was awarded the Bennett Medal for bravery in a fatal fire on East 13th Street on November 3, 1922.

That day a fire broke out in a factory that made "nitro-cellulose novelties," as described by The Brooklyn Standard Union.  The material "created an unbearable heat" and intense flames.  Five young women employed in the factory died, but thanks to Quinn's heroic efforts, three others survived.  The article explained, "Entering a blazing third-floor window from a ladder, Capt. Quinn advanced with a hose line, and after darkening the fire about him, crept along the floor and rescued three young women."

Georgine E. E. Poppe sold 317 West 4th Street to the Retzker Realty Company in October 1926.  The firm operated the property as a rooming house.  A fire escape was attached to the front facade, and the 19th century stoop ironwork was replaced by solid masonry wing walls.

Shutters with pierced decorations hung at the windows not fronted by the fire escape in 1941.  The railings of the stoop have been replaced with wing walls.  The approximate original appearance of the house can be seen in 313 West 4th Street, at right.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

One resident found herself under the microscope of the Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities in 1945 and 1946.  Helen R. Bryan was looked upon with suspicion because of her position as executive secretary of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.  The group provided financial aid to organizations in foreign countries like the Cuban National Association for Aid to the Victims of the War in Spain.

A renovation completed in 1968 resulted in three apartments within the building.  It was most likely at this time that the solid wing walls of the stoop were replaced with iron railings, more appropriate to the structure.

photographs by the author
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