Friday, March 29, 2024

The 1845 Joseph H. Coates House - 16 West 11th Street


The top floor windows were originally the size of those seen at 14 West 11th Street, to the right.

In 1834 Henry Brevoort Jr. moved into a fine new mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street.  The only residence on the still unpaved avenue, it sat upon a large tract of land formerly known as the Brevoort Farm.  That was all about to change.  A center of social activity, the Brevoort mansion set the tone for Fifth Avenue directly above Washington Square, and within a matter of years equally splendid dwellings were rising along the thoroughfare.

Brevoort and his wife Laura had eight children, five of whom were daughters.  In 1844, he began construction of seven identical brick-faced homes on West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, five of which would be gifts to his daughters.  

Completed in 1845, the residences were designed in the popular Greek Revival style.  Brownstone stoops led to the first floor, where floor-to-ceiling windows provided drama and light to the parlors.  The dignified doorways within the typical Greek Revival frames were flanked by Corinthian pilasters and sidelights.  Above the short attic windows, a continuous dentiled cornice unified the row.

No. 16 West 11th Street became home to the well-to-do Joseph H. Coates family.  A partner with George C. Miller in the Pearl Street firm of Miller & Coates, he listed his profession as "metals."

The family remained here until 1857, when Caroline Inman, known to her friends as Eliza, began operating it as a high-end boarding house.  The widow of John Inman, it appears that she never took more than two boarders in at a time--a reflection of the exclusivity of her home.  In 1857, Dr. Upton H. Belt boarded here, joined by importer Louis L. Dejanon in 1859.

The house returned to a single-family residence in 1864.  Caroline Inman moved to University Place and 16 West 11th Street became home to the David L. Reed family.  Reed and his wife, the former Sarah Louisa Valleau, had two daughters, Florence and Alfaretta.  Reed was a produce broker with offices on Grand Street.  

Despite his professional standing and the respectable tenor of the West 11th Street block, Reed was more than once connected to a prostitute.  On January 11, 1864, for instance, The New York Times reported that police "made a descent upon the disorderly house of Irene McCready, No. 143 Eighth-street, and arrested the proprietress, and arrested fifteen women."   The brothel's madam was held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.  The article noted, "David B. [sic] Reed, of No. 16 West Eleventh-street, became bondsman for Irene McCready."  (It was a hefty amount, equal to nearly $20,000 in 2024.)

Five years later, on August 16, 1869, The New York Times reported that David Reilly "met Emma Valentine, aged 25, in the street on Saturday evening."  He accompanied her to a house near 52nd Street.  "Soon after leaving Emma, the foolish fellow discovered that he had been robbed of $300," said the article.  "Officer O'Brien...made a search for Emma, who, it appears, lives at No. 16 West Eleventh-street, and succeeded in arresting her."

Sarah and her daughters experienced a terrifying incident on January 16, 1881.  The James McCreery & Co. dry goods store was two blocks away, on the corner of Broadway and 11th Street.  A boiler exploded at 5:00 that afternoon, the force so powerful that, incredibly, it blew a chunk of a manhole cover all the way to the Reed house.  The New York Times reported that Sarah and her daughters were...

...conversing in the back parlor when the explosion occurred and set the broken man-hole plate of the boiler crashing through the front parlor window.  The jagged piece of iron struck the further wall near the folding-doors, breaking a hole in the plastering and lath-work large enough to put one’s head in, and cracking the plastering from ceiling to floor.  A marble-top table had its legs taken off by the missile, and the carpet and furniture were nearly ruined by the shower of mud and pieces of brick and mortar which broke through the two parlor windows, carrying sashes and all with it.  The glass in the windows on the second and third floors was also shattered.  A member of the family had passed through the front parlor only a moment before the explosion. 

By 1883, Sarah's nephew, Charles Valleau, lived with the family.  In May that year, he applied for a position with the New York City Police Department.  Letters from the department's chief clerk, S. C. Hawley and from John J. Brogan, captain of the 15th Precinct, were sent out asking "as to the character, habits, associates and reputation of Charles Valleau, No. 16 West Eleventh street."  The positive responses were bolstered by a petition signed by ten citizens (including, not surprisingly, Daniel L. Reed) that described him in part as "a man of good moral character, correct and orderly in his deportment, and not in any respect a violator of law or good order--that he is of sober, temperate and industrious habits--not addicted to the habitual use of intoxicating drinks, or to other hurtful excesses."

The Reed family left 16 West 11th Street soon afterward.  When the first issue of the Social Register was published in 1887, it listed "Mr. and Mrs. Algernon Sydney Sullivan" living in the house.  Born in Madison, Indiana in 1826, Sullivan studied law at Miami University, graduating in 1845.  He married Mary Mildred Hammond in 1855, and they had one son, George Hammond.  The family relocated to New York in 1857.  Sullivan held the position of assistant district attorney from 1870 to 1873, and in 1878 formed the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell with William Nelson Cromwell.

Algernon Sydney Sullivan, image via

Sullivan would not enjoy his new home for long.  On November 27, 1887, "he was carried to his home in a carriage...from his office in the Drexel building," according to the Albany, New York Evening Times.  The Evening World explained that he left his office "ill with a chill."

Mary called Dr. Bayard, who had been her husband's trusted physician for 28 years.  His diagnosis was dire.  The Evening World reported Bayard "found him suffering from typhoid fever and congestion of the bronchial tubes."  Sullivan survived a week, dying on December 4, 1887.

Mary Sullivan's profound grief was reflected in her subsequent privacy.  The following day, the Daily Eagle reported, "The remains of Algernon S. Sullivan, the well known lawyer, who died last night, were placed in the front parlor of his late residence, 16 West Eleventh street, New York this morning.  Only a few of the most intimate friends of the family were permitted to look at them.  A large number of telegrams were received by the family, but the names of the senders will not be made public until later in the day."  Furthermore, contrary to the expected custom, the funeral was not held in the parlor, but at the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Fifth Avenue.

(The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award was established by The New York Southern Society in 1926.  It recognized undergraduate seniors at eastern United States colleges and universities based on votes by the faculties of those institutions.)

Following her period of mourning, Mary Sullivan reemerged within high society, while turning much of her attention to philanthropy.  On April 17, 1892, The Press noted that she continued her "delightfully informal afternoon teas on Fridays," saying the "parlors at No. 16 East Eleventh street are crowded with members of the fashionable world."

Mary Sullivan's elevated spot in the social world was evidenced in the Army and Navy Journal's report on the annual New York Charity Ball on January 31, 1899.  Organized in 1857, it was one of the highlights of the winter season.  "The grand march was led by Vice-President Hobart and Mrs. Algernon Sydney Sullivan," said the article.  

Eighteen years later, on February 2, 1917, The New York Times said the Charity Ball "has rightly been called 'The Ball of Our Ancestors,' for it is the sole survival [sic] of the old social traditions and was attended and supported by the great-grandparents of those who are now its patrons."  A sub-headline to the article read, "Mrs. Algernon Sidney Sullivan, Leader of the Grand March for Thirty Years, Again Officiates."

In the meantime, Mary's continued involvement in charities was reflected in her being president of the Nursery and Child's Hospital on Lexington Avenue in 1903.  Established in 1854, it cared for women during and after childbirth, and provided "rudimentary education of destitute children under 8 years of age," according to the 1903 Directory of Charities.  She would hold the position for years.

A native of Winchester, Virginia, Mary was a member of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and was president of the New York auxiliary of the Southern Industrial Educational Society.  On February 16, 1917, with war raging in Europe, the New-York Tribune reported, "The New York Southern Women's Patriotic Committee, the purpose of which will be to enroll all Southern women residing in the city in a volunteer corps for national service in case of war, was organized yesterday at the residence of Mrs. Algernon Sydney Sullivan."

After living in the West 11th Street house for nearly half a century, Mary Mildred Hammond Sullivan died here in 1933.  She left her son George Hammond Sullivan the house and other real estate, and $200,000 (equal to about $4.5 million in 2024).  She remembered her domestic staff, leaving her lady's maid, Mary M. O'Connor $500 (about $11,000 today), and $50 each to "eight other employees," according to The New York Times on July 15.  Mary Sullivan was generous to her favorite charities, giving $50,000 to the New York Nursery and Child's Hospital, and $10,000 to the Mary Mildred Sullivan Scholarship Fund of the George Peabody College for Teachers, along with similar bequests.

In 1957, artists Joe Hazan and Jane Freilicher were married.  That same year they purchased 16 West 11th Street.  Jane had begun showing her works at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1952, through which she became associated with several poets.  One of them, according to Freilicher's on-line biography, was Frank O'Hara, who wrote a poem in honor of the marriage.  Hazan and Freilicher would have a daughter, Elizabeth.  

Although they did not officially convert 16 West 11th Street to apartments, the couple created three living spaces within the house.  In 1967, motion picture and theater critic Mel Gussow, his wife Ann, and their son Ethan moved into the second floor apartment.  The parlor floor was home to fledgling actor Dustin Hoffman.

The 30-year-old Hoffman had appeared in various off-Broadway plays since 1960.  In 1966, he auditioned for the lead role in the Broadway musical The Apple Tree, but was rejected by director Mike Nichols because he could not sing well enough.  (Alan Alda landed the part instead.)  But Hoffman's acting ability so impressed the director that he cast him as the male lead in the motion picture The Graduate, which opened in theaters in 1967.  The role made Hoffman instantly recognizable nationwide.

Hoffman displays a poster of The Graduate in his apartment in 16 West 11th Street in 1967.  (The poster was banned in New York subways for being in "poor taste."  Bettman/Getty Archive

Despite the film's box office success, after taxes and living expenses, Hoffman netted only $4,000 for The Graduate.  He found himself earning $55 per week in unemployment benefits.  That, too, changed in 1969 when he was offered the edgy role of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.  The film won an Academy Award for Best Picture and earned Hoffman his second Oscar nomination.

While Hoffman continued to land significant motion picture roles, appearing in the 1969 John and Mary with Mia Farrow, and in Little Big Man (in which his character ages from a teen to a 121-year-old man), he continued to live on the parlor floor of 16 West 11th Street.  The apartment became more populated in May 1969 when he married Anne Byrne, who had a three-year-old daughter Karina.

Living next door at 18 West 11th Street was the James P. Wilkerson family.  In March 1970, while Wilkerson and his wife Audrey were in St. Kitts, their daughter Cathy and four other members of the terrorist Weatherman group began building a bomb in the basement.  Their target was a military dance at Fort Dix, intended to be a pernicious protest against the war in Vietnam.  Cathy and Kathy Boudin were upstairs just before noon on March 6 when the device detonated.  Their three accomplices were instantly killed.  Astoundingly, the young women escaped and soon after disappeared.

The explosion was massive, blowing out the front of the Wilkerson house.  The only occupants of 16 East 11th Street at the time were the Hoffmans' baby sitter Marie-Therese Thieselin and little Karina.  New York Magazine reported, "Marie-Therese was standing in the middle of the Hoffman living room when the fireplace came crashing out at her."

Mel Gussow recalled in an article on March 5, 2000 in The New York Times, "At 11:55...Anne Hoffman was coming home and the cabdriver accidentally drove past her house.  As she got out of the cab, No. 18 exploded.  If the cab had stopped at No. 16, she and the driver might have felt the full brunt of the explosion."  Anne ran inside and gathered up her daughter, the babysitter, and the family's dog.  "Back outside, she was met by a wall of flame," said Gussow.

According to Glenn Frankel in his Shooting Midnight Cowboy, Hoffman was notified of the explosion by telephone.  (It was Marie-Therese Thieselin who had called, doing so from the kitchen even before Anne had made it inside.)  "He rushed home to find fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, and howling sirens on the edge of a raging tower of smoke and flame."  

Dustin Hoffman stood among neighbors and debris shortly after the blast.  from Fred W. McDarrah New York Scenes.

The damages from the blast were repaired (including a hole in the western wall where Hoffman had found his desk teetering).  No. 16 West 11th Street remains a three-family home as it was when Joe Hazan and Jane Freilicher owned it.

The 1970 devastation to 18 West 11th Street next door is memorialized in the modern rebuilding.

photographs by the author
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