Thursday, March 14, 2024

A 1935 Remodel - 29 West 9th Street


As the upscale tenor of Fifth Avenue spilled over to the side blocks in the decade prior to the Civil War, builder Dennis McDermott erected a trio of handsome residences on the north side of West 9th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in 1854-1855.  

Designed in the Anglo-Italianate style, their entrances within the rusticated first floor were a few steps above the sidewalk.  A full-width cast iron balcony fronted floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor, and bracketed cornices crowned the design.

Dr. William E. Parsons, described by The New York Times as "one of the most prominent and wealthy dentists of New York," purchased 17 West 9th Street (later renumbered 29) as an investment.  His tenant seems to have operated it as a high-end boarding house in the 1850s.  Among the residents in 1856 and 1857 were Robert B. Clerk, who was appropriately a clerk; William Clibborn; and merchant John Dean.  

In the late 1860's, Dr. Caleb C. and Dr. Phoebe A. F. Dusenbury lived here.  The unusual husband-wife medical team were described by The American Spiritualist as "Doctors of Magnetics."  Adherents of the "Magnetic Movement Cure," they used "vital magnetism, electricity, baths, &c." to eradicate disease "without stimulants or drugs."  The American Spiritualist touted, "No drunkards or cripples made here."

In the meantime, Dr. William E. Parsons and his family lived at 86 Christopher Street.  He and his wife Louisa had five children.  Trouble within the family came around 1869 when Parson's brother Rueben died leaving a fortune of $75,000 to William's children.  (The inheritance would translate to about $1.7 million in 2024.)  Parsons, who "wanted the money himself," according to The New York Times, managed to overturn his brother's will and receive the entire amount.

The resulting furor within the family prompted Louisa to leave her husband and move into the West 9th Street house with her adult son, Rev. Reuben J. Parsons.  The New York Times reported, "With this money and that which he had of his own, Dr. Parsons retired from active life and went to Pound Ridge, in Westchester county to live."

Reuben J. Parsons was born in 1841 and ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1866.  The American Catholic would later say he was "the son of a mixed marriage, his father Protestant, his mother one of the old faith."  He would be best remembered as a church historian, producing both books and articles for decades.  While living here in 1872, his first book, A Biographical Dictionary was published.

Although Louisa Parsons and Rev. Parsons left 29 West 9th Street in 1875, the drama of the Parsons family played out in newspapers for years.  The day after Louisa died in 1892, Dr. Parsons married his housekeeper, Miss Pullen.  The couple already had a child, Jessie K, who was 17 years old at the time.  At some point William E. Parsons rewrote his will, leaving his entire estate to Jessie and ignoring the children he had with Louisa.

Parsons died on April 11, 1897.  William E. Parsons Jr. and his sister Emily Parsons Wagstaff sued to overturn the will, asserting their father "was unsound, mentally, for years before his death and when the will was made," according to The New York Times.  The Washington D.C. newspaper The Times reported, "The suit was hotly contested, but in the end the courts upheld the will, and the young woman was left in absolute possession of the money.  Since then she has lived an aimless life."

Jessie Parsons came to New York City on November 1, 1897 and checked into the Manhattan Hotel "where she was known as a frequent guest," according to The Times of Washington D.C.  Three days later the newspaper reported, "At noon yesterday her body was found in the bed.  She had shot herself in the mouth."  William E. Parsons Jr. was not sympathetic, telling a reporter from The New York Times that she most likely killed herself "because she knew she hadn't done right."  The Parsons siblings renewed their fight in court to obtain their father's fortune.

Sisters Josephine I. Parsons and Emily H. Parsons Wagstaff had purchased 29 West 9th Street from their father in November 1890 for $17,400--about $586,000 today.  They leased it to Judge Robert Ludlow Fowler and his wife, the former Julia Groesbeck.  The couple, who were married in 1876, had four children, William Slocum Groesbeck; Robert, Jr.; Mary and Elizabeth Burnet Groesbeck.

A judge in the Surrogate Court, the erudite Fowler had published Our Predecessors and their Descendants for the Fowler family a year before moving into the West 9th Street house.  Julia busied herself with charitable work, donating items like blankets and yard goods to organizations like the Utica State Hospital and the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Like her neighbors, Julia Fowler maintained a domestic staff.  On September 20, 1896, she advertised, "Wanted--Butler and cook; man and wife; with first-class reference."

On the evening of September 30, 1900, what turned out to be a minor incident resulted in chaos and panic on the block.  The New-York Tribune reported, "A little wind blew a curtain against a lighted gas jet on the third floor of the home of R. L. Fowler, at No. 29 West Ninth-st., last evening.  The fire was extinguished in a few seconds without more than slight damage to the curtain." 

But before the flames were put out, a passerby saw them and ran down the block to send in an alarm.  Firefighters were informed that the Chinese Consul's house at 26 West 9th Street was burning.  They arrive to find no fire.  "The firemen then thought the blaze was in Dr. Hubbard's, at No. 27, and without waiting to ask they smashed off the knob of the front door and rushed into the house."  The astonished Hubbards explained that the small fire had been at the Fowler house.  The New-York Tribune reported the fire fighters "returned to quarters."  Dr. and Mrs. Hubbard were left to deal with their broken-in door.

The following year, Joseph Parsons and Emily Wagstaff leased the house to S. S. Chamberlain for one year at $1,800 (about $65,000 today).  Then in 1902 the sisters rented 29 West 9th Street to Dr. Thomas C. Chalmers.

A widower, Chalmers came from a medical family.  His father was Dr. Thomas C. Chalmers, Sr., and his older brother was Dr. Matthew Chalmers, who had served as an assistant surgeon in the Navy during the Civil War.  Matthew Chalmers retired the year Thomas and his family moved into 29 West 9th Street and Thomas absorbed his practice.

Dr. Thomas Chalmers graduated from New York University in 1897, and was a member of the Sons of the Revolution.  Living with him was his daughter Louise.  She became engaged to Reginald Ducat in 1911.  On May 27, five days before the wedding, Louise hosted a dinner party for the ten bridesmaids and ushers.  The Sun mentioned, "Miss [Elizabeth] Ducat will give a luncheon for the same guests at Sherry's and Mr. and Mrs. L. Valentine Pulsifer...will give a dinner for them."

Louise's wedding in Grace Church was reported in detail in the society pages.  The New York Times mentioned, "The church ceremony was followed by a small reception at the home of the bride's father, 29 West Ninth Street.  Mr. and Mrs. Ducat will spend most of the Summer in England, where Mr. Ducat was educated at Trinity College."

Society was stunned when, only four weeks later on July 30, 1911, The New York Times reported that Dr. Thomas C. Chalmers was engaged to Elizabeth Ducat.  The article said, "Those who heard of it looked upon the match as a rather romantic one, for it was only on June 1 that Miss Ducat acted as maid of honor at the wedding of Miss Louise Chalmers."  It continued, "Miss Ducat is considerably younger than the physician...After Aug. 19 Dr. Chalmers and his bride will be at home in West Ninth Street."

But, instead, the Palmer sisters leased the house to newlyweds Richard and Lois Swan Lawrence.  The couple was married at the American Embassy in Paris on September 29, 1911, and a month later, on November 7, 1911, The New York Times reported they rented the house "for a term of years."  But tragedy would change that.  

On August 28, 1912, The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Lois Swan Lawrence, the wife of Richard Lawrence, died at her home, 29 West Ninth Street, on Sunday."  Lawrence almost immediately moved out, and in December the house was leased to Ernesta Davis.

No. 29 West 9th Street was again a social center when lawyer William Marston Seabury and his wife, the former Katharine Emerson Hovey, leased the house in the post-World War I years.  The couple had three daughters, Katharine Lispenard (who often went by her middle name), Etheldreda, and Muriel Gurdon.

On December 28, 1919, the New York Sun reported, "[Mr. and] Mrs. William Marston Seabury gave a dansant yesterday afternoon in their home 29 West Ninth street, for their daughters, Miss Katharine Lispenard Seabury and Miss Etheldreda Seabury.  The guests, numbering about one hundred, included many of this year's debutantes and students from Harvard, Yale and Princeton who are at home for the holidays."  (Muriel, who was nine years old, was still too young to participate.)

A year later, on December 25, 1920, the New York Herald announced, "Mr. and Mrs. William Marston Seabury of 29 West Ninth street have sent out invitations for an afternoon dance next Friday for their daughters, the Misses Lispenard and Etheldreda W. Seabury.  Miss Lispenard Seabury will be one of next season's debutantes."

As preparations were being made for Lispenard's debut, on October 23, 1921 the New York Herald noted, "During the summer Miss Seabury made an extended trip through Europe.  Her mother plans to hold an old fashioned afternoon reception to introduce her daughter on December 17 at the family home."  The article said her family had been "associated with the history of New York since Colonial days...She is directly descended from the Lispenard and Leonard families who gave their names to some of the oldest streets in this city and also of Bishop [Samuel] Seabury, the first Episcopal Bishop of America."

After having been in the family for nearly seven decades, Josephine L. Parsons and Emily H. Wagstaff sold 29 West 9th Street in April 1922.  

In 1935 the house was given a striking remodeling.  Architect William S. Gregory, who was best known for designing churches, gave the brick and brownstone a veneer of stucco.  The 1854 lintels and sills were removed, as was the cast iron balcony.  In place of the second floor windows, a wall of steel sash casements was installed.  The cornice was replaced with a parapet decorated with protruding pipe-like tiles.

29 West 9th Street was originally a copy of 31 West 9th Street, at left.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The basement, first and second floors were renovated to a triplex apartment.  There were now two apartments each on the third and fourth floors.

Living here from 1962 to 1972 were children's author Maurice Sendak and his domestic partner, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn.  While living here Sendak wrote and illustrated Where the Wild Things Are.  On March 10, 1964, The New York Times reported it had won the Randolph J. Caldecott award for "most distinguished American picture book."  The article noted, "Some book critics have termed Mr. Sendak's creations too frightening for children, but the committee of librarians found them 'grotesque, kindly and humorous--never terrifying."

Sendak also wrote In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970, while living here.  That year he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award.  In 1996 he was honored by President Bill Clinton with the National Medal of Arts.

photographs by the author
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