Saturday, December 16, 2023

The 1848 Samuel W. Baker House - 60 Morton Street


In 1847, clothier John D. Scott and lumber merchant Helmus H. Wells erected two high-end, speculative houses at 60 and 62 Morton Street, respectively.  The well-to-do businessmen were intimately familiar with the block, Scott living at 56 Morton Street and Wells next door at 58.

Completed in 1848, 60 Morton Street, like its identical neighbor, was three stories tall above a rusticated brownstone basement level.  Greek Revival style homes normally presented staid countenances, but here the architect embellished the parlor floor with triangular pediments over the openings, and elaborate Corinthian pilasters on either side of the entrances.

Helmus H. Wells was a partner in the lumber firm of Wells, Bontecou & Co.  He was no doubt highly involved in John D. Scott's selling 60 Morton Street to one of Wells's partners, Samuel W. Baker.  (Their other partner, Francis Bontecou, lived directly behind their homes, at 13 St. Luke's Place.)

The men's lumber business was highly successful and, resultantly, each was wealthy.  Wells, Bontecou & Co. operated from two locations--one at 344 West Street and the other on Third Avenue at the corner of East 130th Street.

Although he remained active in the business, in 1870 Samuel W. Baker moved his family to Troy, New York.  Francis Bontecou now moved from St. Luke's Place to 60 Morton Street.  A descendant of Pierre Bontecou, a Hugenot refugee from France, Francis was born in Coeymanus, New York in 1819.  He married Clarissa Maria Landon on June 25, 1844, about the same time he entered into the lumber trade.

Despite the family's surname, when Clarissa was looking for help in May 1873, she did not seek a French maid.  Her ad read, "Wanted--A German girl to do general housework, must be a good washer and ironer."

The family worshiped at the nearby Bedford Street Methodist Episcopal Church, the pastor of which was the Rev. Dr. J. P. Newman.  Newman left to become Chaplain of the United States Senate and "spiritual advisor to the [Ulysses S. Grant] Administration," according to the New York Daily Observer.  His close relationship with Francis Bontecou would cause suspicion to fall on the family in 1875.

The New York Daily Observer (which did not attempt to disguise its apparent contempt for the cleric), accused Newman of side-stepping the payment of customs duty, saying "his name is the open sesame for bringing dutiable merchandise into port without the payment of duty to the Government."  On December 11, 1875, the newspaper reported:

For eighteen months the ex-moral purveyor of Washington has been traveling over Europe and Asia with a commission from ex-Secretary of the Treasury Richardson to inspect the United States Consulates.  He has had all his expenses paid by the Government.  The last that was heard from him was from China.

Law required that incoming goods be "sent to a general order store, and from there to the public stores to be examined and appraised preparatory to the payment of duty."  But when the bark Kate Kearney arrived in New York from Hong Kong on December 4, eight crates circumvented the process.  Inside were "Chinese fancy wood boxes and curiosities, collected in the Holy Land, on which there is a duty of twenty-five per cent.  The curiosities are intended for presents for personal friends of Dr. Newman."  The New York Daily Observer said they were addressed to "Col. T. B. Thorpe, for Bontigu [sic] 60 Morton street, New York."

Surprisingly, in 1876 Francis and Clarissa Bontecou relocated to Toronto, Kansas where Francis became "engaged in farming and stock-raising," according to a family historian.  (They eventually returned to New York City, where Francis died at the home of their daughter on July 8, 1914 at the age of 95.

When the Bontecous left Morton Street, they leased No. 60 to Helmus V. Wells, who had grown up next door at No. 58.  Like his landlord and Samuel W. Baker before him, Wells was now a member of  the lumber firm co-founded by his father.  

Francis and Clarissa Bontecou were still living in Kanas in February 1883 when they sold 60 Morton Street to Evert Bergen, who lived in Brooklyn.  Bergen leased it to a proprietor who operated it as a boarding house.

The affluence of the residents was evidenced when Annie Pulver's "plush seal wrap" was stolen from the house in April 1889.  Police were on the lookout for anyone trying to sell the distinctive garment.  Then, on April 19, John Wilson, who was described by The New York Times as "an old man," was arrested while "endeavoring to dispose" of it.  Things got worse for him at the station house when police searched him and found "a number of letters and documents" bearing the name of Moses Schlessinger.  When questioned, Schlessinger identified them as papers that were in the pocket of his overcoat that was stolen from the hallway of his home on April 17.  The elderly thief was jailed awaiting trial.

In 1905, 51-year-old insurance agent Andrew La Croix took rooms here after separating from his wife.  She and the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Margaret, boarded a little over a block away at 7 Leroy Street.  As Christmas neared on December 19 that year, La Croix waited outside St. Vincent de Paul's Parochial School on West Fourth Street and when little Margaret came out, he took her.

Two nights later, La Croix was attending a prayer meeting on Hudson Street when authorities entered and arrested him for abducting his daughter.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on December 22 that the girl was "restored to her mother" and that La Croix was being held on $1,000 bail (a significant $34,000 by 2023 terms).

Enormous change came to 60 Morton Street with America's entrance into World War I.  The house was acquired by the Knights of Columbus, which converted it to the Veronica Council Service Station.  The facility offered recreation and temporary housing for servicemen.  On April 22, 1919, the New-York Tribune reported that a dance would be held that evening, and on November 28 that year, The Sun announced that "entertainment, dance, and refreshments" would commence at 8:00 that night, noting, "men in uniform invited."

After the war the Knights of Columbus switched its focus from servicemen to the underprivileged.  On December 24, 1921, the New York Herald reported, "The Knights of Columbus will distribute more than 2,000 Christmas baskets from Veronica Council clubhouse, 60 Morton street."

A renovation to apartments in 1926 significantly altered the appearance of 60 Morton Street.  The stoop was removed and replaced with a bunker-like entrance at the basement level.  The former doorway was converted to French windows that suggested their original use.

The dentiled pediment and Corinthian pilasters of the entrance survived the rather brutal remodeling in 1926.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Among the first residents were singer-actress Norma Millay and her husband, Charles Ellis.  Norma's sister, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, lived nearby at 75-1/2 Bedford Street.  In 1926, the New York Evening Post noted that Norma had "played the Ingenue role in 'Not Herbert' this past season, and has played in 'Me' and 'Fashion" and other productions."  The article added, "Norma, like Edna, chooses to keep her maiden name, although she, too, is married.  Her husband, Charles Ellis, is well known in the Provincetown Playhouse group."

By 1956 artist Leslie Powell lived in an apartment here.  He advertised in Art News that year, "Will take limited number of pupils.  Private instruction."  Born in Minneapolis in 1906, his watercolors would eventually hang in esteemed venues like the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Leslie Powell's Coal Breaker was painted in 1939.  from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In April 19, 1966, Nick Davis advised classmates in the Princeton Alumni Weekly that they "can write me at 60 Morton Street, NYC.  60 Morton St., incidentally, is a Greek Revival brownstone (ca 1840) we just restored."  Nick and Linda Davis's renovations included the reopening of the parlor floor doorway and the installation of a metal, sidewise stoop.  A duplex apartment now engulfed the basement and parlor levels, and there was one apartment each on the upper stories.

In 1980, the duplex was home to comedian, actor and musician John Belushi and his wife, Judith Jacklin.  The couple had married in 1976.  In his 1984 book Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, Bob Woodward wrote, "On the first floor, which was really the basement level, John and Judy had their bedroom.  Next to it John had a room he called the vault, a large music room with sophisticated stereo equipment and soundproofing on the walls and door."

Despite the abuse it has suffered, the Samuel W. Baker house still suggests the elegant lifestyles of its wealthy Victorian residents.

photographs by the author
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