Thursday, January 18, 2024

Caleb Brush, Jr.'s 1858 31 Morton Street


The Brush family owned at least four vacant lots on Morton Street in 1858--the side-by-side properties at 31 and 33, and those at 41 and 43.  Caleb Brush, Jr. erected a three-story and basement house at 31 in 1858, possibly at the same time he built his own residence at 33 Morton Street.  He intended No. 31 to be a rental property.  Above its rusticated brownstone basement level, the red brick facade was trimmed in brownstone.  Its floor-to-ceiling parlor windows and bracketed cornice were typical of the style.

Brush intially rented 33 Morton Street to Daniel J. Dusenbury, Jr., a carriagemaker.  The Dusenbury & Arthur factory was on Laurens Street (today's West Broadway).

The American Advertiser, 1859 (copyright expired)

In 1863 the Dusenbury family moved to 31 Grove Street, and 31 Morton Street became home to Samuel Hall, a machinist.  At least two other families would occupy the house before Jay F. Moore signed a lease in 1874.

That year the New-York Tribune described Moore as "a young man, 31 years of age, married, and [living] with his family at No. 31 Morton-st., in apparently easy circumstances."  He was a bookkeeper at the Hotel Royal, at the corner of 41st Street and Sixth Avenue, opposite Bryant Park

Moore was "fully trusted by his employers," said the New-York Tribune.  But towards the end of 1874, the hotel management noticed missing funds.  By January 1875, "the loss amounted to several thousand dollars, and they received evidence...which left no doubt in their minds that Moore was the guilty person."

At 10:00 on the night of January 13, Moore was still at his desk and there were several guests and employees in the vicinity when police walked up to arrest him.  The New-York Tribune reported that he became "greatly agitated" when he was told that he would spend the night in the 13th Street Station House.  Moore turned to a closet behind his desk to retrieve his overcoat.  Immediately upon opening the door, he thrust his hand into the coat pocket, pulled out a Smith & Wesson pistol, and shot himself in the left ear.

The newspaper said, "The loungers in the hall gathered about him and tried to render him assistance, but it was seen that...the shot was sure to prove fatal.  The proprietors appeared and expressed the utmost sorrow that he should have been drive to such an extremity."

Around 1879, the family of Peter T. Vanderbilt moved into 31 Morton Street.  Peter and his wife, Henrietta K., had two children, Carrie J. and Morris S. Vanderbilt.  Vanderbilt was superintendent of the wine importing firm Acker, Merrill & Condit.  If there was any familial connection to the wealthier and more famous Vanderbilt family, it was remote--although the country home of Peter and his family was in Tarrytown, not especially far from Hyde Park, where Frederick W. Vanderbilt would erect his magnificent summer home.

Carrie J. Vanderbilt was just 24 years old in 1886 when she died on May 4.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  Her family moved to Brooklyn in 1890.  Morris married Annie Read there on May 20, 1895.  Following Peter's death in 1899, Henrietta moved permanently to the Tarrytown house, where she died in 1901.

No. 31 Morton Street became a boarding house, run by Eliza Hague, a widow.  Among her tenants in 1891 was retired policeman Russell Myers, who lived on a $600 pension.  

Eliza Hague became acquainted with Catherine Schleider, who lived in "utter destitution" in a small house in the rear yard of 36 Morton Street, across the street.  Her husband died in September 1892, leaving her struggling to feed her children.  When a reporter wrote of her plight, Eliza Hague and other New Yorkers took notice.  On September 29, 1892, the newspaper reported:

Foremost among the poor widow's active sympathizers is Mrs. Eliza Hague, a widow living at No. 31 Morton street.  Through her influence, assisted by Supt. Blake, of Charities and Correction, the remains of the widow's husband will be taken from Potter's Field, where they were buried last Monday, and given a decent resting place in the Lutheran Cemetery.

Less upstanding was Emil Blauth, who lived here in 1896.  In January, the 19-year-old was recognized "two of four burglars who, about a month ago entered a restaurant at Morton and Prince Streets," according to The Sun on February 10.  The article said Blauth "escaped conviction by giving State's evidence."

A month later, at 2:00 on the morning of February 10, policeman Henry Mallon discovered the side door of August Lundemann's saloon at 174 Mercer Street ajar.  He blew his whistle for assistance, and attempted to enter the side door when someone "shut it in his face," according to The Sun.  The article continued, "by the time [Mallon] pushed it open several other policemen had arrived in answer to his call for assistance.  Two men were found in the saloon."  At the station house, they were identified as Emil Blauth and his 17-year-old accomplice, John Welling.  This time Blauth would not escape conviction.

Agnes Blauth, presumably Emil's mother, was living at 31 Morton Street on March 5, 1899 when she went shopping on West Fourteenth Street.  Before she got there, Louise Elliot, who was an undercover detective in a Sixth Avenue department store, had recognized two known pickpockets as they entered that store.  The New York World reported, "The detective followed them for two hours" during which time she saw "both women make various attempts to pick pockets."  Unsuccessful, they left, but the dogged Louise Elliot followed them.

By now Agnes Blauth was casually shopping in a 14th Street store.  As she browsed, Louise Elliot witnessed Elizabeth Bianchi "put her hand in Mrs. Blauth's pocket."  When she was arrested, "the pickpocket threw Mrs. Blauth's pocketbook away in the store, where it was recovered."  Elizabeth Bianchi and Angela Primavesi were arrested.

In 1902, 31 Morton Street was advertised for rent.  The ad described "nine rooms, bath' modern plumbing."  Interestingly, the Brush family was charging by the month for the house.  The $30 rent would translate to about $1,750 in 2024.

Nearly half a century after its construction, the house that had been home to upper-middle-class families saw tenants like construction worker Frank Rollatio.  The 18-year-old was working on the Williamsburg Bridge on January 17, 1904 when he lost his footing and fell.  He landed on the "sidewalk foot of Pike street," according to The Evening World, and suffered a fractured skull.

Mary Burke boarded here in 1908.  When a friend had romantic problems that year, Mary somehow became involved.  On March 17, The New York Times reported that Joseph Kingsley "blamed Miss Mary Burke of 31 Morton Street for a quarrel he had with his sweetheart."  Angered, Kingsley slipped into the Morton Street house, found Mary's room, and stabbed her in her sleep.  "He was arrested, pleaded guilty, and was held for the Grand Jury," said the newspaper.

The Brush estate sold 31, 41 and 43 Morton Street in 1909 (the former Caleb Brush, Jr. house at 33 had been sold years earlier).  No. 31 continued to be operated as a boarding house, home to residents deeply involved in civic and charitable causes.

Living here at least by 1911 was Bertha D. Fuller, who was involved with Neighborhood House, a settlement house on Sullivan Street.  The unmarried woman would remain at least through 1913.  

Seen here in 1941, the horsewalk, which provided access to the rear yards, survives.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Another resident, William Spinney, headed The Social Centre, organized in 1914 in Public School 95 on Hudson Street.  On December 7 that year, the New-York Tribune explained it would hold "classes in dancing and debating and Red Cross work and many other things when school is not in session."  Equally active was Mrs. Roger Hawson, who lived here that same year.  Affiliated with the Woman Suffrage Party, she was a Manhattan Borough Assembly District Leader.

In the post-World War I years, 31 Morton Street was again a private home.  Its owners took in a roomer in 1921, the advertisement on September 25, 1921 reading:

Ideal, charming home of taste offered gentleman of refinement; room, alcove, private bath and phone, fireplace; no other guests.

The Depression years were apparently difficult for the owners.  The house was sold at foreclosure auction in December 1934.  Although it was assessed at $8,500, May Paidoff spent only $5,000 for the property.  She hired architect J. D. Burlinger to convert the basement level to a separate apartment.

That configuration survives today.  A wisteria vine planted sometime after 1941 trails over much of the facade.  The charming house remains greatly intact since the Dusenbury family moved into the house in 1858.

photographs by the author
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