Monday, March 25, 2024

The Lost Italian University and Pius X Art Institute - 51 and 53 Charlton Street

 from the collection of the New York Public Design Commission

In 1828, John Jacob Astor I completed a row of seven brick-faced homes along the north side of Charlton Street, between Varick and Congress Streets.  (Congress Street was virtually erased by the extension of Sixth Avenue in 1925.)  The two-and-a-half-story Federal style houses were faced in red brick and trimmed in stone.  Openwork iron newels suggested that these houses were intended for financially secure residents, as did the ornate sidelights and transoms of the entrance ways.  The windows wore stepped lintels, and even the fascia boards--routinely plain in Federal homes--were given attractive detail.

The exquisite details can be seen in this photo of 53 Charlton Street taken on June 13, 1913.  from the collection of the New York Public Design Commission.

An advertisement on March 15, 1828 in The Evening Post read:

For Sale--The elegant two story brick house 51 Charlton st., situated on the north side 3d house from Varick street, in the range of 7 buildings opposite Richmond Hill.   The lot is 21 feet 5 inches in width and 100 feet, in depth, the house is 42 ft. deep, is well & faithfully built, and finished in the best modern style, with marble mantels, sliding doors, &c., has Pye's patent locks throughout.  The lot is on a lease of 38 years without ground rent.

The mention of "ground rent" referred to the houses sitting upon land owned by Trinity Church.  Astor had paid the land lease for years in advance.

No. 51 became home to the family of grocer Isaac Moser, whose business was at 30 Sullivan Street.  Their next-door neighbors were fascinating.  Rev. David Benjamin Mortimer (who used his middle name only) and his wife, the former Bethia Warner, were listed at 53 Charlton Street in 1829.  

Born in England in 1767, Mortimer came to America in 1791 as a Moravian minister.  The Evening Post recalled, "About five years afterwards he was sent on a mission to the Indians in Ohio, among whom he remained for fourteen years."  Mortimer and Bethia were married at the Moravian headquarters in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on February 4, 1799.  In Ohio, Mortimer oversaw a congregation of German-speaking Moravians in Tuscarawas, and a congregation of Native Americans in Goshen.

In 1813, Mortimer and his family (the couple had six children) were relocated to New York City where he was appointed pastor of the Fulton Street Moravian Church.

Charlotte Bethia (who never married) and David Benjamin moved into the Charlton Street house with their parents.  Astoundingly, given that he was a teenager, David ran a school on the corner of Nassau and Ann Streets, where "all branches of Elementary and Mathematical Science, together with Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, Italian and French Languages, with Music, Drawing and Painting, will be taught upon the most approved plans," according to his ad on May 6, 1828 in The Evening Post. 

On August 18, 1829, a representative of the congregation explained in The Evening Post that Rev. Mortimer "has been for sixteen years the pastor of the Moravian Church in this city, and now retires from his religious labors in a ripe and respected old age."

Daniel D. Mortimer died at the age of 22 on September 4, 1833.  His funeral was held in the Charlton Street house the following afternoon.

The following year, Rev. Benjamin Mortimer died 15 days before his 67th birthday.  Bethia and Charlotte took boarders to help with finances.  On May 9, 1840, Bethia advertised, "A gentleman and his lady, or two single gentlemen can obtain board where there are no other boarders, in a genteel private family."  Her boarder that year was Abraham Vanderpoel, a clerk.  In 1845, portrait painter Ira Chafee Goodell lived with the women.  Born in New York in 1800, Goodell was a prolific artist, eventually creating scores of portraits.

This portrait of a child with her dog is typical of Goodell's work.

Bethia Mortimer died in 1848.  By 1851, 53 Charlton Street was home to Jacob B. Crane and his wife, the former Hannah De Baun.  Crane listed his profession as "carver."  They inherited Ira C. Goodell as a boarder and he remained with the couple at least through 1854.

Also living with the Crane's were Hannah's brother Jacob, and her widowed mother Jane.  The population of 53 Charlton Street increased by one in 1853 when Sarah Ella Crane was born.

Sadly, the parlor would be the scene of three funerals in close succession.  Ten-year-old Sarah died on October 28, 1863; the following year, on November 16, Jacob De Baun died at the age of 48; and five months later, on April 17, 1865, Jane De Braun died at the age of 79.

In the meantime, the Mosher family left 51 Charlton Street in 1860.  It became the home of William W. and Mary J. Young.  They, too, suffered heartbreak when their only child, one-year-old Maria, died on July 21 that year.

In 1870, 51 Charlton Street was operated as a boarding house.  The Cranes, next door, would remain until Jacob's death at the age of 74 on April 30, 1885.

At the turn of the century, the neighborhood had become one of immigrants.  On Mary 31, 1905, the New-York Tribune reported that Annie Leary "yesterday bought the two story and basement dwelling house No. 53 Charlton-st...It will be used as a chapel and art class rooms by the Pope Pius X Art Class League."  The unmarried Annie Leary was a wealthy philanthropist, and an ardent Roman Catholic who had earned the title of Papal Countess.  Two months later, the newspaper reported she had added 49 and 51 Charlton Street to her project.  The article noted the houses "are in an Italian neighborhood," adding:

No. 53 is being remodelled [sic] extensively.  A half dozen stained glass windows have been placed and the lower floor is being equipped as a Roman Catholic chapel.  In one of the windows is a portrait of Pope Pius.  Another contains the papal coat of arms.  Those on the second floor are alike in design.

A tablet affixed to the exterior of 53 Charlton Street read,

The Italian University of New-York City 
And Its Auxiliary, Pius X Art Institute.  
Founded by Countess Annie Leary. 

The New-York Tribune explained, "It is said that there are 400,000 Italians in this city.  The university, however, will not be confined to the Italians here, but will be open to those in any part of the country."  The article also noted that the misleading name Pius X Art Institute "does not mean that the university will pay especial attention to art."

On May 26, 1906, 51 and 53 Charlton Street were opened.  "The house at 53 is called the Pius X. Art Institute and the adjoining house is the Christopher Columbus Art Institute," said The Sun.  The article noted, "Greenwich Village, in which Miss Leary's two institutes stand, long ago lost its distinctive American aspect.  It is being Italianized."

The basement level of the Pius X Art Institute in 53 Charlton Street held a day nursery "for the reception of Italian children" so that mothers could work.  During pleasant weather, the children played in the rear yard.  "They will have sand piles, wheelbarrows, shovels and toys that may give them an impression of life on the seashore without the sea," said The Sun.

The main floors within the house held classrooms for cooking, dressmaking, laundering and embroidering--all tools for young women to make a living.

Annie Leary's laudable project was threatened in 1912 by the proposed widening of Varick Street.  On February 25, The Sun reported, "To carry out the proposed improvement the city will have to purchase all or parts of about 265 properties."  Among them was 53 Charlton Street.  Two years later, in its October 1914 issue, The Real Estate Magazine noted, "the modest little home at No. 53 Charlton Street, adjoining the corner of Varick Street, was recently demolished in the widening of the latter thoroughfare."

51 Charlton Street survived the widening of Varick Street by inches.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Annie Leary died in 1919 and 51 Charlton Street was remodeled by architects Francis Y. Joannes and Maxwell Hyde.  It became home to Elizabeth Prall, and in 1922 playwright and novelist Stark Young moved into the basement level.  Young was a close friend of Elizabeth's brother, bookstore proprietor David Prall.  

Novelist and short story writer Sherwood Anderson was also a friend of Stark Young.  According to Walter B. Rideout in his 2005 Sherwood Anderson, A Writer in America, in 1923 he had Thanksgiving dinner "with Elizabeth [Prall] and Stark Young at 51 Charlton Street."  A month later, writes Rideout, Anderson returned to 51 Charlton Street and rang Young's bell.  

For the next seven hours Anderson wrote "in a heat," scattering the numbered sheets of manuscript about Stark's apartment in his haste and staving off his weariness by drink after drink from the bottle, which might have contained coffee for all he noticed.  By mid-afternoon "The Man's Story" and most of the whiskey were finished.

Writing was not the only thing Anderson accomplished at 51 Charlton Street.  He and Elizabeth Prall were married in 1924.

Sherwood Anderson and Elizabeth Prall in 1923.  image via

On November 5, 1925, the New York Evening Post reported that real estate operator Samuel Brener had purchased the blockfront of Varick Street from Charlton to King Street, and 49 and 51 Charlton Street.  "It is understood the site will be improved at the expiration of leases," said the article.

image via

The 17-floor 180 Varick Street was completed in 1930. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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