Thursday, December 21, 2023

James N. Wells's 1827 96 Barrow Street

The original appearance of the window lintels can be seen over the doorway.  The sheetmetal cornices were added in the 19th century.

In 1714 Queen Anne bestowed on Trinity Church a vast section of land stretching along the Hudson River from Duane Street to what would become Christopher Street to the north in the Village of Greenwich.  The large tract of land was familiarly known as the “Trinity Farm” or the “Church Farm.”  On November 6, 1820, the parish of St. Luke's was organized.

Construction of St. Luke's Chapel began in 1820, under the supervision of local carpenter-builder James N. Wells.  When the chapel was completed, Wells turned his attention to other Trinity-owned land.  He leased the rest of the  Hudson Street block from Barrow to Christopher, as well as a tract of land on Grove Street and, starting in 1825, filled the plots with charming Federal homes.  (His work apparently impressed the senior warden of St. Luke's Chapel, Clement Clarke Moore.  Wells would nearly single-handedly begin transforming Moore's estate Chelsea, north of Greenwich Village into a residential neighborhood in the 1830s.)

In 1827 Wells completed the four houses at 90 through 96 Barrow Street.  Like its identical neighbors, 96 Barrow Street was two-and-a-half stories tall above an English basement.  Paneled brownstone lintels contrasted with the Flemish bond red brick, and two pedimented dormers punctured the peaked roof.

In the mid-1830s, Barent Fraser and his family lived here.  He was a "combmaker" on Maiden lane.  The Frasers remained until 1839, when the Mourning Courier and New-York Enquirer reported the house and lot had sold for $3,275 (about $106,000 in 2023 terms).   It became a boardinghouse run by Elizabeth Conkin, who, it appears, accepted only a small number of boarders at any time.

By the mid 1850s Cornelius B. Smith occupied 96 Barrow Street.  He and his wife took in two boarders in 1856--John Read, who was an engraver; and Garrett Yerance, a carpenter.  Their boarders the following year suffered a tragedy.  Henry and Antoinette Morrow went to the country that summer, and on July 28, 1857, the New-York Tribune reported that while they were at Mamaroneck, New York their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Henrietta died.  The article noted that her funeral would be held that afternoon "from the residence of Cornelius B. Smith."

The Morrows left soon afterward, and on April 29, 1858 an advertisement offered:

To Let--The lower part of a two story and attic brick house, 96 Barrow street, between Hudson and Greenwich streets, consisting of front and back parlors, two bedrooms and basement with vault, cellar, wash house, and other offices in separate buildings.  Rent $260, will be put in complete order.

That yearly rent would translate to about $795 per month today.

In 1859 William J. Black and his wife Sarah J. moved into 96 Barrow Street.  He was the principal in William J. Black & Co., a vegetable business in the Washington Market.  That year Sarah advertised for "A German girl; she must be a good cook, washer and ironer, and willing to make herself generally useful; but two in a family."

The mention that there were just two in the family was technically true, however, like the Smiths, the Blacks took in a boarder.  In 1860 and '61 it was John McFarlane, who worked as a clerk.  Chester Norton was boarding here on August 19, 1863 when he was drafted into the Union Army.  The following year, Chester N. Penoyer rented the room.  He listed his profession as a tallyman, someone who sold goods that were paid for in installments.

In 1868 David B. Johnston and his wife listed their address with the Blacks.  Johnston was in the piano business on East 9th Street.  He was still here in March 1869 when Sarah J. Black died.  Her funeral was held in the parlor on March 27.

It seems that William J. Black and David B. Johnston made a deal on the property following Sarah's death.  Black no longer appears at the address after 1869, while Johnston continued living here for years.  Like their former landlords, the Johnstons took in a boarder.  In 1871 it was policeman Cleveland A. Connor.

David B. Johnston (who changed his profession to "clerk" by 1879) remained at 96 Barrow Street at least through 1892.  The German Knierin family had boarded here since at least 1888.  Louis Knierin was a butcher and his son, Louis Jr., was a policeman.  As had happened in 1869, the boarder became the principal resident around 1893 when the leasehold was in the name of Isabella Knierin.

In 1897, 96 Barrow Street was again being operated as a boarding house, run by a "Mrs. Donnelly."  It was nothing like the respectable operation that Elizabeth Conkin had operated in 1840.  A female Fagin, Mrs. Donnelly headed a ring of young burglars and rented rooms to female accomplices.  It all came crashing down in the spring of 1897.  On March 27, the New York Herald ran the headline, "GIRLS LIVED IN DEN OF THIEVES / Betrayed Three Burglars and the Woman Keeper of a "Fence" in Barrow Street."

The article began:

Two girls, barely more than sixteen years old, were taken to Police Headquarters yesterday to tell what they knew of the band of alleged burglars with whom they had lived in a dingy Barrow street house, which, it is said, was a "fence" for thieves.

Detectives had arrested three men, all of them younger than 25 years old, shortly after they burglarized the home of Mary Ryan at 300 West Houston Street.  All of them had aliases, had served prison terms, and "had pictures in the Rogues' Gallery."  It was discovered that Maud Wilson was the "companion" of one of them, Charles Walker, alias Charles Stewart.  She was arrested at 96 Barrow Street.

At police headquarters, Maud did not hold back.  Calling her "a girl with a pretty but characterless face," on March 27, 1897 the New York Herald said she told "the story of the operations of this band," and "seemed to regard the life she had lived as nothing more than was to be expected."  The article continued, "the girl told the detectives of the life she had been leading, and informed them that Mrs. Donnelly, at whose house she had a furnished room, had many trunks full of booty she had bought from the three burglars."

Detectives went back to 96 Barrow Street, arrested Mrs. Donnelly, and search the house.  "Fur cloaks, overcoats, silver ware and bric-a-brac were dragged from chests and drawers. More than $2,000 worth of goods were taken to Police Headquarters," said the article.  The police estimated the booty was only about half of what had been stolen, since the ashes of pawn tickets were found in the kitchen stove.

Detectives also found Nellie McGinley, another accomplice.  "She had been concealed in the Barrow street house when the police visited," said the article.

In the meantime, Maud Wilson continued with her story.  She was the daughter of a printer.  Her downfall began, she said, when she left home.  The New York Herald recounted, "'I suppose,' she said, 'my father will kill me if he finds this out, and I suppose he will.  I was not happy. I started out to make my own living.  I got work in a factory and hired a furnished room at Mrs. Donnelly's house."  She said she met a man named William Wilson who wanted to marry her.  "Mrs. Donnelly said that would be a splendid thing to do.  'You can marry him,' she said, 'get hold of all his money and leave him.'"  The couple was married and separated after two months.

Maud laid out in detail the numerous burglaries, and Mrs. Donnelly's procedure of paying the gang members and disposing of the merchandise.  The New York Herald mentioned, "The house in Barrow street is an old-fashioned, brick structure such as the men of Greenwich village built fifty or sixty years ago.  It is a two story and basement affair, with dormer windows.  It was once the abode of staid respectability."

The entire group appeared in the Jefferson Market Police Court on March 27, 1897.  Also there was Nellie McGinley's father, who had promised the police he would press charges against Mrs. Donnelly "for abducting his daughter.  He says she was kept in the Barrow street house against her will."

Following the scandal, the house was once again a respectable boarding house.  Among the tenants in 1903 were David R. Eckert, his wife, the former Dellyetta McKellop, and their adult son Edward H.  The Eckerts had a long American history, originally coming from Holland and settling in Manhattan.  Dellyetta Eckert died on July 7, 1906.  Her funeral was held in the house on July 10.

There would be a second funeral in the parlor a month later.  Katherine A. Donshea was the widow of Isaac Donshea.  She died here on August 27 and her funeral was held two days later.

By then, the house was owned by Patrick and Albina (known as Abbie) Coyle.  Patrick was a fruit and vegetable dealer.  In January 1906, they took in Albina's invalid mother, Albina Lucey.  A native of County Cork, Ireland, she was the widow of John Lucey.  A neighbor, Charles F. Doushea, later explained, "She lived with Mr. and Mrs. Coyle, she occupied the back parlor."  

Albina was later described by another neighbor, Mary Dwyer, as "very old, bent over and lame."  She testified in 1913, "I heard an accident caused her lameness.  The condition of her feet that caused her to be lame was that she hadn't any toes on either of her feet."  (Additionally, Albina had lost the sight in one eye.)  

The reason Mary Dwyer appeared in court was that Albina Lucey had died on June 17, 1911 and now Abby Coyle was suing for her mother's estate because of the care she had given her.  Patrick Coyle testified that despite his mother-in-law's infirmities, she was "a woman with a fair appetite; she could eat well."  He said his wife "cooked and washed and ironed for Mrs. Lucey."

Patrick Coyle said that "there were at least a dozen conversations in my presence" when his wife confronted her mother about her estate.  "Mrs. Coyle said, 'I am entitled to it, I think I ought to get it, being that none of the other children seem to care for you, only coming to see you once in a while, when they need money, they do not seem to care for you otherwise.'"

After a lengthy hearing, Abby Coyle was awarded her mother's estate.  It is unclear how long the Coyles continued to live and run their boarding house, although rooms were rented in the house throughout most of the 20th century.  

Among the residents in 1952 was sculptor Helena Simkhovitch.  Born in New York City, she studied at Columbia University's School of Architecture.  She lived in Paris from 1926 through 1940.  She was a member of the Sculptors Guild, the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, the New York Six, and the Artists Equity.  

Helena Simkhovitch's The Jockey

While living here, she exhibited regularly at the Whitney Museum of Art, and in 1955 she was the only American artist represented in the Museum of Modern Art's traveling exhibition of modern portraiture.

A single family home, 96 Barrow Street was never divided into apartments.  In the 19th century, the paneled brownstone lintels were covered with sheetmetal cornices, and more recently the Federal dormers were given a glaringly modern metal cladding.  Otherwise, the charming, two-century-old dwelling is nearly unchanged externally.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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