Monday, March 4, 2024

The Lost Lutheran Emigrant House - 12 State Street


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In the first decades following the American Revolution, State Street was lined with elegant mansions, the owners of which enjoyed harbor views across the Battery and cooling breezes.  One such residence, at 12 State Street, was described in 1820 merely as a "four-story house fronting the Battery."  It was offered for rent four years later at $300, or about $7,700 per month by today's conversion.

State Street in 1859.  No. 12 would have been further up the block, behind the trees.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

No. 12 State Street was leased to a succession of well-heeled merchants.  Living here in 1848 was the family of S. H. Russ, whose 15-year-old son William H. Russ went missing that year.  He left for school on November 16 and did not return.  His parents' detailed description in the New York Herald on December 1 said:

He is a smart, active, intelligent boy; has a good education--is a good penman.  He is fifteen years of age, five feet two inches in height, brown hair, a cowlick on right side, dark blue eyes, a little near sighted, (but so little that it is hardly perceptible), light complexion, square face, dimples in his cheeks when he talks or laughs, wore away a black cloth cap, black alpaca roundabout, clouded blue and white vest, striped with one thread of black, black woollen pants, black silk neck handkerchief; but had sufficient means of his own to purchase other clothes as well as to pay his expense to any neighboring city or port.

The family's fears were evident toward the end of the notice.  "If this should meet the eye of said William, his father entreats him to return home, or if he is in business and does not wish to return, to write and let him know where he is, so that he can communicate with him and there shall be no obstacle put in his way to prevent his staying."

The teen was eventually found, and 12 years later, on December 23, 1865, the now 27-year-old shot the woman he loved in a jealous fit then jumped in the East River to drown himself.  The New York Dispatch reported, "Owing to the low tide, he could not accomplish his purpose, and, extricating himself from the mud, made his way to shore."  There he shot himself.  The murder-suicide did not succeed and both parties survived.

In the years between William Russ's disappearance and the murder-suicide attempt, the State Street neighborhood had changed.  In 1851, No. 12 was the home of Henry Lubs, who ran a porterhouse on Coenties Slip.  Living with his family was Oliver D. Vandenburg, a barkeeper.  Two years later the Lubs family had three blue collar boarders.  According to the Evening Post, in 1855 Lubs and his wife occupied the first and second floors, a family named Vandenburg lived on the third, and the Brown family on the fourth.  Another tenant, a 35-year-old dressmaker from Germany named Harmonia Baker lived in a room, as well.

At 2:00 on the morning of October 19, 1855, the occupants were awakened by smoke filling their rooms.  Fire had broken out in the basement and had "completely enveloped the stairways to the third story," according to the Evening Post.  The article said, "The firemen were quickly on the spot, but before the fire was subdued, so that assistance could be rendered to those in the upper stories, five persons lost their lives."

Henry Lubs and his wife made it out safely, although Mrs. Lubs broke her arm in a fall.  Tragically, the 50-year-old mother of Mrs. Vandenburg, Mary Ann Peacock, was burned to death as was the Vanderburgs' 5-year-old daughter Amanda.  Mrs. Catharine Brown, who was 26 years old, and her 9-year-old nephew died of smoke inhalation.  The Lubses' German servant girl named Frederica was also burned to death.  Harmonia Baker, according to the Evening Post, "was so severely burned that no hopes were entertained of her recovery."  Three days later, the New-York Tribune reported on her death.

The house, now owned by Thomas Cotton, was repaired and leased to Henry Mulholland, who operated it as a boardinghouse.  The basement level was then renovated to accommodate the porterhouse of Michael Quigley, who lived in the upper portion.  Just after midnight on August 12, 1861, fire broke out again.  The New York Times reported, "it was extinguished by firemen before it had extended to any other building."  There was little damage other than Quigley's loss of furniture worth about $3,000 in today's money.

Michael Quigley lost more furniture through a much different incident four years later.  On July 23, 1865, the New York Dispatch reported, "At about 11 o'clock A. M. yesterday a party of soldiers belonging to the Ninth Maine Regiment, stationed on the Battery, entered the saloon No. 12 State Street, became involved in a difficulty, and commenced breaking the furniture in the place."  When Officer Romer arrived to to quell the disturbance, "one of the number broke a musket over his head."  The mini-riot was soon suppressed by a "section of men" from the nearby station house.

Further up the block at the corner of Bowling Green, a group of similar formerly aristocratic homes were slated for demolition in 1899, to make way for the U.S. Customs House.  One of them had been home to the American Lutheran Emigrant House for years.  On October 7, The Evening Post reported that the organization had obtained quarters at 12 State Street.  A month later, The New York Times reported that plans had been filed for renovations to the vintage building.

The remodeling left no trace of the Federal style mansion.  Now five stories tall, a centered, single-doored entrance sat above a high stoop.  A parapet above the neo-Grec cornice announced The German Emigrant House in German.  (Newspapers would alternatively call it the Lutheran Immigrant Mission or the Lutheran Emigrant Mission.)

In 1920 the building (behind the cart) looked little different than when renovated in 1899.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  

The facility had not been open especially long when it had a most interesting visitor.  On June 18, 1900, The Sun began an article saying, "A queer-looking little German woman, broad-hipped and short, in a black dress, walked into Battery Park yesterday afternoon from the Lutheran Immigrant 12 State street.  She wore the headdress of a Hanoverian peasant, and under the loose sleeves of her waist, just below the elbow, wore big bunches of silver bangles.  Her headdress resembled a silk skullcap, with a sort of veil dangling at either side."

As it turned out, the woman in the traditional dress of a peasant was Katherina Ibens who, according to The Sun, "owns one of the largest cherry orchards in Hanover, consisting of 500 trees."  Following her husband's death in December 1899, her health inexplicitly failed.  Finally, her doctor suggested a change in scenery and a trip to New York.  The frugal woman rode in steerage "that she might live afloat thus nearly as cheaply as it would cost her, with doctor's bills, to live in Hanover," said the article.

The 55-year-old Mrs. Ibens told a reporter she intended to see Coney Island and the places of interest in New York, but wanted to be home within two weeks for the cherry harvest.  The Sun noted, "she is not going to spend any money buying new-fangled American dresses."  She further saved money by staying in the Lutheran Emigrant Mission.

The mission was hit with scandal in the fall of 1902.  On November 10, the Commissioner of Immigration, William Williams, issued an order that barred Rev. H. J. Berkemeier, the head of the Lutheran Immigrant Home, and his assistant Daniel Dagen from entering Ellis Island.  Williams accused Berkemeier of, instead of assisting arriving immigrants, "you are in the habit of actually preventing recently arrived girls from meeting their friends and of compelling them to accept employment against their will with people who have previously directed you to look up servants for them at Ellis Island."  Williams ended his letter with a slap to Berkemeier's ministerial face.  "Your action is more reprehensible because you have prefixed to your name the word 'pastor.'"

Berkemeier was replaced by the Rev. Mr. Doering.  On June  15, 1904, his wife Ida, took some of the immigrant children on a boat excursion sponsored by the German language St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church.  The outing turned into a nightmare when the pleasure boat, the S.S. General Slocum, caught fire in the East River and burned to the water line within 15 minutes.  It resulted in the greatest loss of life in New York City history prior to the attack on the World Trade Center.

That afternoon, The Evening World reported that six-year-old Edna Dahrens, from the Immigrant House, had survived and was in Lincoln Hospital.  Ida D. Doering, too, was rescued, but died, according to The New York Times, "from pneumonia brought on by shock."  Her funeral was held on June 25.

On June 14, 1919, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide titled an article, "Downtown Landmarks Sold," and reported that 9 through 12 State Street, "originally erected as private houses...all well-known landmarks, have been placed under a contract of sale."  The article noted that the purchasers "are acquiring the site for commercial purposes."  A 44-story tower was erected on the site in 1991.

image via WikiArquitectura

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to


  1. I'm confused. What happened to the property between the 1919 sale and the 1991 skyscraper construction?

    1. If I wrote about subsequent buildings on the site of the structure each post is about, the posts would be ponderous. The interim building was demolished, but I cannot find photos of it.

  2. Thank you for filling in a gap in my research. My ancestors arrived in NY on 26 May 1874 from Hamburg. Their arrival was reported in the NY Herald on 29 May 1874, p. 4, stating that they had taken up quarters in the German Emigrant House at No. 16 State Street. Was No. 12 State Street a larger structure than No. 16? Why the move, or did the organization retain both properties?

    1. The Emigrant House had to move from 16 State Street (a renovated mansion built in 1817) when that building was slated for demolition in 1899.