Friday, December 29, 2023

The 1862 Double-Flat at 321 West 16th Street


On October 29, 1860 Samuel Conlon acquired the vacant lot at 321 West 16th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues from Martha Sophar.  He soon began construction of a five-story "double flat" on the site.  (The term referred to buildings with two apartments per floor.)  Completed in 1862, the Anglo-Italianate style edifice sat upon a rusticated brownstone base.  The top four floors were faced in red brick, their openings trimmed with cast metal lintels and sills.  Those of the second floor wore Renaissance style pediments.  An ambitious cornice, complete with bold, scrolled brackets, swags, and an urn-topped pediment crowned the design.

The elaborate cornice originally terminated in a cast metal urn.

The building filled with respectable working class tenants, like William Bofer and William Mager, both bootmakers, who were among the first.  Milton Henderson, who lived here in 1868, had a profession different from any others in the building.  He was listed in directories as "magician."

An interesting resident was Amzi Howell, who lived here with his family until the spring of 1880.  Born in New York City in 1824, he had been in the milk business and frequently moved his family, including wife Sarah and daughters Josephine H. and E. Mary, from one rented space to another.  The year that he moved into 321 West 16th Street he changed his career to "lecturer."  (That apparently did not work out and he soon began publishing The Milk Reporter.)

On May 1, 1880, Amzi Howell moved his family again, this time to a rented house one block away at 251 West 16th Street.  The Howells remained there through June, and then left without paying any rent.  Their landlady, Mrs. Eliza A. Stymus, sued for the $130 she was owed.  The parties appeared in court on September 1 and Howell's defense startled everyone in the room.  The New York Times reported:

He claimed that he rented the house with the full understanding that it was untenanted.  When he moved in, however, he found that the attic was crowded with ghosts...Moreover, the ghosts were extremely disorderly.  They persisted in slamming doors, groaning, and pursuing other objectionable and strictly ghostly industries all night long.

Howell further asserted that he had pleaded with Mrs. Stymus to remedy the situation, and she did nothing.  He "maintained that ghosts constitute a nuisance" and that it was Mrs. Stymus's obligation to "abate the ghosts."  Her failure to do so, he said, "released him from any obligation to retain the premises and to pay rent therefor."  Unfortunately for the creative squatter, the judge disagreed and Howell lost his case.

Laura Lawyer lived at 321 West 16th Street in 1887 when she was forced to call a policeman on a friend, Ella Matsada.  The New York Times reminded readers that Ella's "marriage to the Japanese wrestler, Matsada Sorakichi, and subsequent pranks in Mrs. Schneider's establishment, at 44 Bond-street, a couple of years ago attracted much attention."

Laura and Ella had apparently roomed together and Laura still had some of Ella's Things.  According to Ella, reported The Evening World, she had "called to see about some furniture which belonged to her and a general row followed."  Laura's version of things was different.  On November 11, The New York Times reported that Ella "had gone there with a bottle of Old Tom gin and drank until she became a nuisance.  When requested to leave she created a disturbance and threatened to brain her with a bottle."  Officer Westleborn arrived and arrested Ella Matsada, whom The New York Times said "was the most gorgeous prisoner at the Jefferson Market Court yesterday."

Upon Samuel Conlon's death, his only son John P. Conlon inherited 321 West 16th Street, along with other Manhattan properties.  The younger Conlon, who had been an architect and real estate developer, now "retired from the pursuits of business in New York to enjoy his fortune," explained The San Francisco Call.  He began enjoying another pursuit as well.

Conlon was married to Eva K. Conlon.  His niece, Abbie Kinnes was recently widowed.  The San Francisco Call said, "She was young and attractive.  She took up her abode with her uncle, and the mutual relationship soon turned into love."  Conlon left his wife and "the rich old uncle at once legally adopted Mrs. Kinnes."  The newspaper said, "Mrs. Kinnes was given everything she wished and the couple enjoyed themselves to their hearts' content."  They traveled through Europe and made a trip around the world.  "It is said Mrs. Kinnes generally passed as Mrs. Conlon," said The San Francisco Call.

On January 10, 1899, the couple sailed to San Francisco.  It was a long trip, requiring crossing Panama (there was no canal yet).  They arrived in California five months later.  The San Francisco Call reported on April 6, "Bicycles were procured and they started to make a tour of the State awheel."  They rode to San Jose around May 29.  On the evening of May 30, the couple was dining at the Mercantile Restaurant there when the 53-year-old Conlon had a stroke.  He died in their suite in the Grand Lodging House on April 6.

The San Francisco Call began an article that day saying, "A love romance, in which a rich old uncle and a fascinating niece were the Romeo and Juliet, ended here this morning...Mrs. Abbie Kinnes is the bereaved, and is left about a half million dollars in New York properties and securities."

The newspaper was as yet unaware that there was a Mrs. Eva K. Conlon back in Manhattan.  The following day it noted, "There is an increasing mystery surrounding he death of John P. Conlon, the semi-millionaire of New York City," and accused Annie of "rushing" the affairs of her uncle and adopted father.  And, indeed, because Conlon died without leaving a will, the estate, including title to 321 West 16th Street, was tied up in the courts for years as the legal wife and the adopted daughter fought it out.  (As it turned out, Eva won.  She sold 321 West 16th Street in 1908.)

Resident Julia Green appeared in a Brooklyn courtroom twice in 1907--once to defend herself on an assault charge, and the other to testify in her sister's divorce proceedings.  Both revolved around an affair her sister Agnes Jordan had had with Timothy Neligan, a "war correspondent and conductor on the Montague street cable line," as described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  

Neligan had boarded with Julia and her husband Mike, beginning in November 1906.  He left a month later when Mike Green "accused him of being too intimate with his wife."  But his absence did not end the problems at home and the couple separated.  Agnes's three sisters, including Julia, blamed the break-up entirely on Neligan and began what he called "persecution."

On May 24, 1907, the team of sisters boarded his streetcar and denounced him before his passengers.  Neligan said Julia Green "commenced to abuse me and assaulted me with a parcel she was carrying."  He told a reporter later that "not wishing to create a scene," he withstood the attack until they disembarked.  But, he said, "On my return journey Mrs. Green boarded my car and paid her fare, and then commenced to abuse me, with the intention, no doubt, of intimidating me, her idea being to report me to my superiors (which she and Mrs. Mae Belford afterward did), and, if possible, get me discharged."  When Neligan threatened to have Julia arrested, she and her sisters got off the streetcar.

That evening Neligan wrote a letter to Julia Green, letting her know that if she continued to verbally or physically assault him while he worked, he would "be obliged to take her to court."  The ploy did not work.  He testified later:

The following day she came again, this time by herself, and after calling me all the abusive names she had at her command, she deliberately spat in my face.

True to his word, Neligan stopped the streetcar and summoned an officer.  He said, "when she saw me returning with him, woman like, she commenced to cry and complained to the policeman that I had slapped her in the face."  Luckily for Neligan, other passengers served as his witnesses.

The urn atop the parapet survived in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Buildings and Information Services.

Widow Mary A. Smith lived here at the time.  She was receiving her husband's $300 per year pension, equal to about $9,640 in 2023.  

Less upstanding than Mary Smith was William Quinn.  On the night of May 31, 1909, Robert McVetty was standing on the corner of 19th Street and Tenth Avenue when he was shot through the hand by a man whom he told police "he know only as Tony."  Two hours later, as William Quinn stood on the same corner, three men jumped off a passing street car and shot him in the chest.  Unlike McVetty, his wound was fatal.  The New York Times reported, "The police believe the two men were members of rival gangs."

Like the house that Amzi Howell rented in 1880, some residents of 321 West 16th Street believed the building was haunted in 1912.  The Syracuse Herald reported on March 31, that for five nights they heard a "spook" making "mournful, ghostly howls."  A 2:11 on the morning of March 29, police were summoned to investigate the specter.  They discovered Nemo, the missing cat of Mary Kenny "imprisoned in the chimney."  Happily, said the article, it was "as healthy as he was hungry."

Around the time of Nemo's imprisonment in the chimney, architect Hans P. Hansen was living at 321 West 16th Street.  He remained at least through 1914.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, residents came and went with little notoriety.  There are still just ten apartments in the building.  The paint on its brick facade, once red, has faded to pink.  And the brownstone base has been painted black.  Sadly, the metal urn that once crowned the parapet was lost in the second half of the 20th century.

photographs by the author
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