Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Henry Elsworth House - 29 Vandam Street


Aaron Burr lived on the sprawling Richmond Hill estate (the mansion of which was built in 1760 for British Major Abraham Mortimer) until 1804.  On July 11 that year, he fatally shot Alexander Hamilton and six days later a New York newspaper reported, "Mr. Burr since the perpetration of his crime...departed southward, probably for South Carolina."  

Richmond Hill sat on land owned by Trinity Church.  By now German-born John Jacob Astor I had switched his focus from fur trading to real estate.  He took over the land lease from Trinity Church for a staggering $140,000, and purchased the mansion from Burr for $25,000.  By 1817, the land was leveled and streets had been laid out--including Vandam Street, named in 1807 for Anthony Van Dam, an early alderman.

Throughout the 1820s, Astor was engaged in a flurry of construction within the district.  Along the north side of Vandam Street between Varick Street and Sixth Avenue, he erected a row of demure Federal style homes, each two-and-a-half stories tall.  Faced in Flemish bond brick, their single-doored entrances featured the leaded sidelights and transoms expected in the style.  Their peaked roofs pierced by two tall dormers were also typical of the Federal style.

No. 29 Vandam Street was home to widower Henry Elsworth by the early 1830s.  He was a special partner in the general commission merchant firm of Fryatt & Campbell.  Elsworth's wife may have died in childbirth, as he had a small daughter, Caroline.  Tragically, the little girl died on June 27, 1837, a month before her fourth birthday.  Her funeral was held in the house the following afternoon.

Elsworth left 29 Vandam Street shortly afterward, and the residency of his successor was cut relatively short.  On March 22, 1842, an announcement in The Evening Post advertised the auction that day of the "genteel furniture" of "a deceased gentleman."  Among the marble top tables and mahogany "fancy chairs" and such items being sold was a "fine toned piano forte."

By 1851, the family of cabinetmaker Dwight Bishop occupied the house.  Bishop had established his furniture shop in 1825.  In 1859, The New-York Handbook and Merchants Guide said his operation "has always been distinguished for the superior good taste which he has displayed in the style and finish of the various articles of his manufacture."

Bishop's five-story factory and showroom were four blocks north at 394 Hudson Street.  The handbook described the furniture he produced there:

Every variety of richly-carved and plain moulded Parlor Suites in Rosewood, Mahogany, and Black Walnut, covered with goods to suit the taste of the purchaser.  Also, all descriptions of Bedroom, Dining-room, Hall, and Office Furniture; with a general assortment of Rosewood, Walnut, Mahogany, Oak, and Maple furniture.

The handbook diplomatically mentioned, "The most elaborately carved and highly finished articles of furniture may be obtained by those who have means to purchase; while the poor may be suited in goods which, though cheap, are nevertheless neat and durable."

Like many residents in the neighborhood, the Bishops rented extra space.  On November 9, 1854, an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald that read:

A Suit of Rooms, consisting of the entire second floor of house No. 29 Vandam street.  Gas and Croton water, bath, &c.  Furnished or unfurnished, with or without board, on reasonable terms.  For further particulars inquire of Dwight Bishop, 394 Hudson street.

The mention of "Croton water, bath, &c." meant that 29 Vandam Street had indoor plumbing.  The completion of the massive Murray Hill Distribution Reservoir and the Croton Reservoir in June 1842 brought running water to homeowners who could afford the interior renovations.

In 1857. Bishop's son Boyd joined him in the business.  The Bishops remained at 29 Vandam Street until about 1863, when Charles F. Thompson leased the house.  Born in 1814, Thompson was the owner of a paint business at 309 Spring Street and a member of the General Society of Tradesmen and Mechanics.  Living with him and his wife in 1863 was Frederick S. Hathaway, one of Thompson's employees.

Hathaway was replaced by David M. Edsall, a notary public and clerk.  It is unclear whether the new boarder already knew Charles F. Thompson, but the two would remain intimate friends for life.  When Thompson and his wife purchased 35 Charlton Street in 1879, Edsall moved with them.

That year, the Nevin family moved into 29 Vandam Street.  George P. Nevin and his brother David J. Nevin were in the coal business.  George handled the branch at 111 Broadway, while David oversaw the operation at 115 Waverly Place.  The brothers were born in York, Pennsylvania and relocated to New York in 1846 and began learning the coal trade.

David J. Nevin had distinguished himself during the Civil War.  The New York Herald said, "When the war broke out he raised Company D of the Sixty-Second Regiment, and was shortly after appointed lieutenant colonel."  When his commanding officer was killed at the Battle of Williamsburg, Nevin was promoted to colonel.  He commanded the Third Brigade of the Sixth Corps at the Battle of Gettysburg.  According to the New York Herald, "his regiment took part in nearly all the battles fought by the Army of the Potomac."

The Nevin family's short residency was filled with tragedy.  On November 29, 1879, George's wife Charlotte died at the age of 67.  The following year, on October 24, 1880, David J. Nevin died at the age of 52.  

By 1883, Henry Schmitt and his family occupied 29 Vandam Street.  An attorney, he was highly involved in the public school system, both as a school commissioner and a trustee of the New York Board of Education.  Not surprisingly, the Schmitts' three daughters, Pauline, Fannie and Clara all attended Grammar School No. 8.  Living with the family was Henry's unmarried brother, Jacob.  He died at St. Joseph's Hospital on June 24, 1892 and, as had been the case so many times already, his funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

Dr. Frank A. Jellecker occupied 29 Vandam Street in 1898.  Living with him were his father and unmarried sisters.  Born in 1869, he graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1892.  He served as house surgeon to St. Mary's Hospital in Jersey City and district physician for the Lying-In-Hospital of New York.  

At 5:00 on the hot evening of July 2, 1901, Jellecker left home "to make some professional calls," according to The New York Times.  When he did not return home that night, the family was not overly concerned.  The newspaper said, "The first intimation they had of his death was when an officer came to the house and told them that their brother had been found dead at the West Street house."

The "West Street house" was a hotel at 190 West Street.  The 32-year-old doctor had checked in as Frank Jones and died there of the oppressive heat.  He was one of 113 heat-related deaths in Manhattan that day.  The puzzling mystery was why he was at the hotel at all.  His sisters said he had no patients there so far as they knew, "and their supposition was that Dr. Jellecker must have wandered down in that neighborhood while affected by the heat."  In reporting his death, the Medical Record noted, "He was an active and zealous practitioner, and leaves many warm friends in the profession in this city to mourn him."

By 1911, 29 Vandam Street was operated as a boarding or rooming house by Margaret L. Carpenter.  Living with her were her sons, Phil, who was a carpenter, and Louis, a real estate agent.  Among her tenants in 1913 was artist Albert B. Schultz.  He did work for magazines like Puck and The Motion Picture Story Magazine.  Schultz's wife had died in 1903, leaving him with an infant daughter, Anna.

Schultz boarded his daughter, who was now 10 years old, at the St. Joseph's Home at 47 East 81st Street.  On November 18, 1913, the mailman dropped off a postcard from Anna to her father that read:

Dear Papa: I was waiting for you to come Saturday afternoon, but you did not come. I was very much disappointed and I was sorry. Please come up to see me Tuesday, because you didn't come Saturday. I will try and send you a card for Thanksgiving to make you as happy as I am.

Anna had good reason to hope to make her father happy.  According to Margaret Carpenter, he "had been suffering from despondency for several weeks."  When she glanced over the postcard, she realized she had not seen her boarder since Friday, the day before he was to visit Anna.  The New York Times said, "Mrs. Carpenter, the landlady, rapped at Schultz's door, but no response came...The door was forced and Schultz was found dead, a suicide by gas."  The artist was 45 years old.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

At the end of World War I, Trinity Church began liquidating its vast Manhattan real estate holdings.  On August 9, 1919, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported, "William S. Coffin bought from Trinity Church Corporation, 7 to 29 Vandam street, and 41-45 King street, fifteen dwellings."  He had already purchased 14 similar houses on Charlton Street from the church corporation.

Under Coffin's ownership, Margaret Carpenter continued operating the boarding house until he sold it in 1923.  The house remained a single family home throughout the 20th century.  On January 9, 1986, The Villager mentioned that it was being renovated, but remained a one-family home.  The remarkably intact survivor serves as a glimpse into 1820s Manhattan.

photographs by the author
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