Monday, November 27, 2023

The Lost Houses at 11 and 13 East Eighth Street


from the collection of the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University Archives.

In 1832 the Board of Aldermen changed the name of the stretch of West 8th Street between Fourth and Sixth Avenues to Clinton Place in honor of former Governor De Witt Clinton.  Within two years plots along Clinton Place were being developed.  Among the earliest homes to be erected were the fine Greek Revival townhouses at 53 and 55, just east of Fifth Avenue and two blocks north of Washington Square.

Three-and-a-half stories tall, the houses were faced in red brick above their brownstone basements.  Mirror images, they shared a single stone stoop.  Elegant urns perched upon the stoop newels, and the side-by-side entrances sat within a single portico supported by Ionic columns.  Typical of the Greek Revival style, their attic levels were significantly shorter than the lower floors, with squat windows that peeked through the fascia.

The western house, 53 Clinton Place, was briefly home to two business partners and their families.  Horace W. Goodwin and James Fitch, here in 1839, were in the dry goods business at 53 Beaver Street.  

The following year Alma Floyd Post moved in with at least two of her sons.  Alma and her husband Joel Post, who died in 1835, had six children.  Living with Alma were Wright Eli Post, who was a freshman at New York University that year (conveniently nearby on Washington Square); and commission merchant Edward Wright Post.

Alma's next door neighbors were Henry Augustus Coit and his wife, the former Sarah Lloyd Borland.  Born in 1800, Henry relocated to Cuba as a young man where he made a fortune in the sugar business with his partner Moses Taylor.  Sarah, who came from a wealthy Boston family, was considerably younger.  When they were married in 1837, Coit was 37 and his bride was still in her teens.

This miniature of Henry Augustus Coit was painted by John Wood Dodge the year before the Coits married.  from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Coits maintained two country homes--one in Saratoga Springs and the other in Dobbs Ferry.  As did all the residents along Clinton Place, the Coits had a domestic staff.  In 1852, Sarah sought a laundress "to go in the country, who is fully competent as such, and to take charge of a small dairy too.  Must be well recommended."  Three years later she advertised, "Cook Wanted--One who thoroughly understands her business, and can bring unexceptional recommendations, may apply at 55 Clinton place.  A Protestant preferred."  (The term "unexceptional," unlike its denotation today, meant without blemish.)

Like most socialites, with the onset of Civil War Sarah Coit offered what support she could.  Moved by the thousands of wounded soldiers, Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows conceived the idea of the United States Sanitary Commission.  It provided both spiritual and physical assistance to wounded Union troops.  On February 15, 1864, in reporting on the Metropolitan Fair "for the benefit of the United States Sanitary Commission," the New-York Tribune mentioned that Sarah Coit sat on the Executive Committee with the likes of Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mrs. August Belmont, and Mrs. Alexander Hamilton.

On November 1, 1868, Henry A. Coit died " his residence in Clinton place," according to the New York Herald.  The term suggests a heart attack.  Interestingly, his funeral was not held in the house, as would have been expected, but in the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue.  Sarah would remain in the Clinton Place house for at least two more decades.

In the meantime, the extended Schell family had moved into 53 Clinton Place in 1845.  Augustus Shell was a lawyer.  Born in 1812 in Rhinebeck, New York, he was married to Anna Mott Fox.  Sharing the house was Augustus's brother Richard, who was a banker, and his wife the former Elizabeth Lott Jerome; his unmarried sister Julia Christiana; and his widowed mother Elizabeth Hughes Schell.  (Another brother, Edward Schell, lived at 20 University Place.)

Augustus Schell as he appeared in 1865.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The house was the scene of two funerals in 1851.  Julia Christiana died on October 24, and twelve days later George L. Lott suffered a fatal heart attack.  The New York Evening Telegram reported, "The friends of the family, and of his brother-in-law, Richard Schell, are respectfully invited to attend his funeral, from No. 53 Clinton-place (8th st.)."  (The exact relationship between Elizabeth Lott Jerome and George L. Lott is cloudy.)

Elizabeth Jerome Schell was one of four daughters of the massively wealthy Leonard Jerome.  Her sister, Jeanette (known as Jennie) would marry Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874 and become mother to Sir Winston Churchill.  

The wealth and social prominence of Augustus Schell was reflected in "a splendid entertainment" he hosted on August 5, 1853 in honor of "the Hon. James Buchanan, Minister to England."  Four years before the guest of honor would become President, "about fifty or sixty invited guests" filed into the Clinton Place house.  Among them were August Belmont, who was currently Charge d'Affaires to the Hague; Secretary of Legation to England Daniel E. Sickles; Minister to Spain Pierre Soule; Minister to Russia Thomas H. Seymour; and Secretary of Legation to Russia R. A. Erving.  The article pronounced, "It was a brilliant affair."

Augustus Schell's intimacy with Buchanan paid off.  Upon his taking office, President James Buchanan appointed Schell the collector of the Port of New York.  Richard, too, became involved in politics and in 1858 was elected to the New York State Senate, and in 1874 he was elected to Congress.

But before that happened, around 1865, Augustus and Anna Schell had moved to 9 West 34th Street and Edward Schell and his wife, the former Jane Lambertson Heartt, moved into the Clinton Place residence.  

(On March 28, 1884, the New-York Tribune ran a four-word article:  "Augustus Schell died yesterday."  Childless, he divided his massive fortune mostly among Anna and his brothers.  She received $200,000, about $6 million in 2023; and Robert and Edward each received $400,000.  His nieces and nephews were given handsome inheritances, as well.)

Edward Schell Portraits of the President of the [Saint Nicholas] Society, 1914, (copyright expired)

Edward Schell was born in Rhinebeck on November 7, 1819.  He and Jane had two children, Edward Heartt and Mary Emily.  In 1854, he became a trustee of the Manhattan Savings Institution, and in 1876 was made its president.   By now, he was also a director in the Butchers' and Drovers' Bank, the Citizens' Bank, the Union Trust Company, the Third National Bank, the Citizens' Insurance Company, and the Manhattan Life Insurance Company.  He had become a warden of the Church of the Ascension during the Civil War.

Jane Lamberson Heartt Schell died in the house on April 20, 1880.  Edward and Mary Emily were still living with their father at the time.

On December 22, 1893, Edward Schell became "seriously ill," according to The Sun.  He died at week later, on December 23 at the age of 74.  His funeral was held in the Church of the Ascension on December 27.  Among the mourners in the church were some of the wealthiest and most influential men of the day, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Chauncey M. Depew, Robert Stuyvesant, George G. De Witt, and Gordon Norrie.

At the time of Schell's death, the Richard Watson Gilder family had lived at 55 Clinton Place for at least two years.  Gilder and his wife, Helena de Kay, had four children, Rodman de Kay, George Colman de Kay, Helena Francesca de Kay, and Janet Rosamond de Kay Gilder.  The family's country house was in the Berkshire mountains.

Richard Watson Gilder, (original source unknown)

On March 12, 1893, The World wrote, "Many Americans know more about Richard Watson Gilder than they do about Grover Cleveland, because they have read more of the products of his brain."  A poet and journalist, Gilder was the editor-in-chief of Century Magazine.  The article noted, "Mr. Gilder lives in an old-fashioned house at No. 55 Clinton place.  He enjoys his life, entertains and knows all sorts of people, and does not entirely disdain the fashionable set."  

Helena was an artist and illustrator, and a founder of the Art Students League and the Society of American Artists.  She had met her husband in 1872 in the offices of Scribner's Monthly.  They became engaged in 1874 and were married on June 3 that year.  She was the subject of several love poems written by Gilder, and she illustrated several of his books.  

The Gilders posed for this photograph around the time of their wedding.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

At the turn of the century, the name of Clinton Place was returned to Eighth Street, and 53 and 55 Clinton Place became 11 and 13 East 8th Street.  While the Gilders would continue to live in their home at least through 1903, commerce had caught up with the house next door by 1899 when C. Cypres, "manufacturer of seal caps and gloves," moved into the renovated building.  By 1906, the former Gilder residence was renovated for business on the lower floors, with rented rooms above.  Living in one of them in 1906 was artist E. O. Rosales, whose work was exhibited at the National Academy of Design that year.

In 1917 Sidney K. Powell opened an antiques shop in the lower level of 11 East 8th Street.  A notice The Quill on November 1 read:

This is to announce the opening of my antique shop at Number 11 East Eighth Street, New York City.  Here one may find many "Down East," New England and other early American pieces.  Odd tables, chests of drawers, old china, candlesticks, old pewter, Godey pictures and many chairs, including Windsors, Hitchcocks, and fiddlebacks.

Within two years the shop had relocated to 17 East 8th Street, and Edith Haynes Thompson and A. K. Dresser moved their shop into the space.  

The Quill, December 1919 (copyright expired)

By 1925, A. K. Dresser was running the shop alone.  An advertisement that year listed "Early American pine and maple furniture, Sandwich glass, hooked rugs, pewter, etc.  Some fine old maps."  The space would continue to house antiques shops for years--the Hodge Podge Shop antiques in 1927, and Louise Middleton Chapman's store selling "glass and small articles for gifts," by 1931.

Next door, the Nayan Shop occupied the lower level of 13 East 8th Street in 1921.  As Christmas approached that year, an advertisement suggested gifts of "hand-dyeing [sic] Novelties, Negligees, Antiques."

Like 11 East 8th Street, the upper floors of No. 13 held rented rooms.  In January 1926, fledgling writer Thomas Wolfe rented the attic floor apartment--once home to Alma Post's servants--for $35 a month.  According to Richard Kostelanetz in his 2003 SoHo--The Rise and Fall of an Artists' Colony, he shared the space "with his paramour, the theater designer Aline Bernstein."

Thomas Wolfe, 1920, from Yackety Yack, the Student Yearbook of the University of North Carolina.

Author David Herbert Donald, in his Look Homeward, A Life of Thomas Wolfe, writes:

The building had been badly neglected.  The bottom floor was occupied by a dingy tailor shop and the two main floors, which had obviously been used as workrooms, were empty and dilapidated, with rubbish covering the floor and coils of electrical wiring hanging from the ceiling.  But at the top there was an enormous studio or loft that ran the entire length of the house.

Aline Bernstein, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Ross Wetzsteon, in his 2002 book Republic of Dreams, Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1919-1960, notes, "in this cherished setting Tom began the novel he would eventually call Look Homeward, Angel...and Tom and Aline embarked on the most tender and most brutal of all the legendary Village love affairs."

At the time, the end of the line was on the horizon for the two venerable houses and many of their neighbors.  They were demolished in 1935 to make way for a five-story apartment building.  It was, in turn, torn down for the 1955 Brevoort apartment house, designed by Boak & Raad.

photographs by the author
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1 comment:

  1. Fascinating always, the lives that a house sees.

    Just as a PS, Joel and Alma Post were the grandparents of architect George Brown Post