Friday, December 8, 2023

The 1840 J. Lee Smith House - 29 Bank Street


Like many other Greenwich Village merchants and businessmen, William Harsell invested in real estate as the formerly bucolic hamlet expanded.  A sash and window frame maker, in 1835 he purchased vacant property on Bank Street between West Fourth Street and Greenwich Avenue.  It was not until 1840 that he erected two fine, brick-faced Greek Revival homes on the property.

Like its identical neighbor, the 25-foot wide 29 Bank Street was intended for a merchant class family.  A high stone stoop rose above the rusticated English basement.  The red brick facade was trimmed in brownstone.  Rather than the peaked roof with one or two dormers seen in Federal style houses of a generation earlier, a squat attic floor sat below the simple cornice.  Harsell advertised it as "an excellent House, in a good neighborhood."

As a sash maker, William Harsell was well acquainted with J. Lee Smith, who was a partner in the glass business of Morgan, Walker & Smith.  Smith moved his family into 29 Bank Street and before long was assisting Harsell with his real estate ventures.  The Smiths remained here until February 1845, when an advertisement in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer offered both 29 and 31 Bank Street for sale.  It noted, "Apply to Wm. Harsell, or J. Lee Smith."

Robert Niles Eldredge purchased 29 Bank Street.  Born in Mystic, Connecticut in 1812, he came from an old New England family.  His first American ancestor, Samuel Eldred, arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts from England prior to 1641.

Robert Niles and Melinna Louise Eldredge, from Ancestors of Edward Irving Eldrege and His Wife Helen Louise Dutcher, 1925

Listed as a "fishmonger," he was the head of Robert N. Eldredge & Co. in the Washington Market.  He and his wife, the former Melinna Louise Johnson, had four daughters--nine-year-old Melinna Louise; seven-year-old Eliza; Frances Burrows, who was four; and two-year-old Helen.   A son, William Henry, was born on March 2, 1845, just weeks after the family moved in.  Melinna and Robert would welcome eight more children, the youngest, Edward Irving, arriving on September 27, 1857.

Despite what must have been snug conditions in the house, Robert's brother and business partner Nathan Eldredge lived with the family in 1857 and 1858.

The birth of Edward Irving brought the population of 29 Bank Street to 16, including the infant's uncle.  It was possibly the over-crowding that prompted Eldredge to sell the house in April 1859.  The advertisement described it as "well-built and neatly finished" and noted, "Croton water, gas, &c."  

Joseph R. Hoff was almost assuredly acquainted with Robert N. Eldredge.  A produce merchant, he, too, operated from the Washington Market.  He and his wife, Mary Ann, moved into 29 Bank Street in 1859.  The couple had a son, Harry W.  Sadly, less than three years later Mary Ann died on New Year's Day 1862 at the age of 37.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

In the early 1870s, Joseph began taking in a boarder, one at a time.  In 1873 it was Margaret McCowan, most likely a widow; and in 1876 John Stuart, a metal dealer, lived in the house.

Joseph Hoff modernized 29 Bank Street in 1878 by raising the attic to a full third floor.  Simultaneously, his architect added Italianate rope molding to the entrance, molded lintels above the windows, and a modern Italianate cornice.

The renovations may have been in anticipation of Hoff's remarriage.  By April 1881 title to the house had been transferred to Catherine Hoff.  That month builders W. Wakeman and C. W. White filed plans for a two-story brick extension to the rear of the house.  The renovations cost the Hoffs the equivalent of $29,500 in 2023.

Following Joseph R. Hoff's death around 1884, Catherine operated 29 Bank Street as a boarding house.  Among her boarders in 1885 were J. W. Randall and his wife; and Joseph Diss Debar, his wife, and their two children, Alice and Julia (known as Dodo).  Madame Diss Debar was a spiritualist.

The Diss Debar girls played with the Randall children.  Mrs. Randall formed a close relationship with the girls when Madame Diss Debar went away on a lecturing tour and Alice became ill.  The New York Times later explained, "Mrs. Randall nursed her until she recovered.  The girl conceived a very deep attachment for Mrs. Randall during her sickness."  During that time, Alice told Mrs. Randall that her father was portrait artist and, indeed, she "saw paintings in a finished and unfinished condition in the apartment of the Diss Debars which Alice told her had been painted by her father."

Mrs. Randall was understandably confused, since she knew Joseph Diss Debar was not an artist.  What none of the boarders were aware of, however, was that the Diss Debars were not married.  "Madame Diss Debar" was the widow of portrait artist Paul Noel Mesant and Alice was the child of that marriage.  Joseph Diss Debar had a wife and children in Philadelphia.  Who Dodo's true parents were was unclear.

In April 1888, Joseph Diss Debar and Madame Diss Debar were imprisoned.  By now, the Randalls lived uptown and the girls (Alice was now 14 years old and Dodo was 8) were briefly taken to the Randall house on Alice's pleading.  In court on April 29, Madame Diss Debar's brother, George T. C. Solomon testified to the couple's illicit living arrangements, said he "did not believe that 'Dodo' was his sister's child."  The New York times reported that he went on to say his sister "was bringing up Alice as a spiritualist, and he considered that her home influences were bad, and that it would be desirable to have Alice and Julia out of her control."  The judge had the girls removed to the custody of the Gerry Society (the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).

Around 1890 Catherine Hoff married Walter Hart.  Her step-son, Harry W. Hoff, now grown, continued to live with them here.

In February 1896, 55-year-old George Vailiant leased a room.  A drafting engineer, he was employed by the Dutton Pneumatic Lock and Engineering Company.  That summer, however, he began having problems at work.  According to Walter Hart he was "a quiet man of good habits and character."  The New York Press said, "He said little about himself or his belongings, but went to his work every day."

Valiant was married, but his wife Emma's relatives had persuaded her to leave him in 1890.  Adding to his problems were the difficulties with co-workers that arose in the summer of 1896.  According to Valiant, he had been working 12 hours a day.  One of the other draftsmen decided that he was "an agent of the secret police appointed to watch and to report upon his actions."  The man was able to convince at least two other workers of his baseless theory.  Finally, on August 3 he was terminated.

Totally dejected, on August 6 Valiant sat in his room, swallowed enough laudanum to kill himself, and began writing.  His letter explained his unfair treatment by his wife's relatives, the conspiracy theorists at work, and his unjustified firing.  He detailed who should receive his drafting instruments and books, and forgave everyone.  His lengthy letter would have gone further, but he noted, "I must hurry this, my dying statement, as I find the narcotic--laudanum--is commencing to affect me."

When Walter Hart had not seen Valiant for a few days, he checked his room.  On August 10, The New York Press began an article saying, "In his room at No. 29 Bank street the badly decomposed body of George Valiant was found yesterday morning."  

After having been in the Hoff family for more than half a century, 29 Bank Street was sold in May 1913.  By the Depression years it was home to Luther Orange Lemon.  Born in Richmond, Indiana and a graduate of Earlham College and Columbia University, he was assistant treasurer of the J. Walter Thompson Company, an advertising agency.

On June 20, 1940, The New York Sun reported on his marriage to Hortense Bleeker in St. Luke's Chapel on Hudson Street.  It signaled the end of Luther Lemon's residency in the Bank Street house.  The article noted, "He and his bride will go to South America on their wedding trip, and after July 4 will be at home in Morristown [New Jersey]."

A renovation completed in 1949 resulted in apartments and furnished rooms within the house.  The configuration lasted until 2013 when it was returned to a single-family home.

photographs by the author
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