James N. Wells was highly instrumental in the development of the Clement Clarke Moore estate, Chelsea, into a new residential neighborhood. In 1853, he began a project of six handsome homes on the south side of West 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. When they were completed in 1854, Wells presented one to each of his children. It does not appear that any of them moved in, but used the houses as rental income.
The easternmost house, 230 West 20th Street (renumbered 348 in 1865), was designed, like its identical neighbors, in the Anglo-Italianate style. Four-stories tall, its short, three-step stoop above the basement level rose to the entrance within the rusticated base. A prominent cornice supported by scrolled brackets protected the doorway.
The house saw a succession of tenants over the first decades, almost always being shared by two families. In 1864, for instance, the Reverend Aaron H. Burlingham and Frederick R. Wood were listed here. Wood was in the carriage trade, with five locations around town.
In 1867 the families of Charles B. Husted, a surveyor, and Edward H. Scofield, a clerk, shared the house; and the following year it was home to Alexander C. Dean, a clerk, and Israel Henoch, who was in the clothing business on Warren Street.
When the house was advertised in April 1868, the rent was $1,600, or around $34,000 per year in 2023 terms. Whoever signed the lease ran it as a boarding house. An advertisement the following year offered, "pleasant rooms with first-class board. Terms reasonable."
The boarders were respectable and professional. The four boarders (some with families) in 1878 were Charles A. Daveridge, a "packer;" attorney Charles T. Dunwell; Edward Post, a "carrier," or drayman; and Edward Underhill, who worked as a stenographer in the Surrogate Courts. Edward was paid $2,500 in 1879, a salary equal to $75,000 in 2023.
While boarding houses were cautious about admitting unmarried women--and in many cases flatly refused to take them in--there were two here in the early 1890s. Albertina Peters obviously posed no threat to the reputation of the boarding house. When she died here on April 8, 1891 she was 93 years old. Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.
Ella C. Williams also had an untarnished reputation. The well-educated bachelorette was a member of The Scientific Alliance of New York, and of the New York Mathematical Society.
A scourge to boarding house operators were bandits who rented rooms merely to gain access to other boarders' valuables. In December 1896, Chelsea police were searching frantically for a young man who had struck dozens of times. On January 24, 1897, The Sun explained, "His game was to go to a boarding or furnished-room house shortly before supper time, hire a room and tell the landlady that he wanted his supper immediately and that while she was getting it ready he would wash his hands. When the supper was ready the man was gone with all the available clothing."
By the time of the article, two boarders of 348 West 20th Street had already been victimized--Charles Schumacher and Ada Bligh. Based on numerous descriptions supplied by landladies, police finally spotted the thief entering a saloon on January 23, 1897. In his pocket were 19 pawn tickets and a notebook with the addresses of the boarding houses he had robbed. "He kept it to avoid visiting the same house twice," explained police. The Sun reported, "The man called himself James Richardson, James Roberts, John Russell, John James, James Williams, James Rogers, John Jones, and James Smith."
The ground floor rustication was intact in 1941. image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
The house continued to be operated as a boarding house through the World War I years, and then as a rooming house. It was home to 48-year-old Dennis Malone in 1913. The salesman was crossing Seventh Avenue at 23rd Street on December 27 that year he he was stuck by a streetcar. His skull was fractured and he was removed to New York Hospital.
Living and working in a furnished room in 1923 was 55-year-old attorney and writer George H. Paine. Despite his somewhat minimal accommodations, The New York Times said he was "reputed to be a member of a prominent New York family and wealthy." A member of the Fur, Fins and Feather Club, Paine was an outdoorsman, and wrote numerous stories and articles about his hunting and fishing trips. Each day Frances H. Beard, his secretary, would arrive here to work with him.
Early on the morning of August 20, 1923, the smell of gas was traced to Paine's door. The proprietor entered, and found him dead on the bed. It did not appear to be a suicide, since the window was slightly open. Police surmised, "that as Paine turned out the light before stretching out for a rest he knocked the other connection loose."
At some point prior to 1970 the rustication of the ground floor was smoothed over. A renovation completed in 1989 resulted in a medical office in the basement level, one apartment on the first floor, and a triplex on the top three.
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