Saturday, March 16, 2024

The Rev. John Leighton Wilson House - 47 East 30th Street


Born in Sumter, South Carolina on March 25, 1809, John Leighton Wilson graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1833, sailing almost immediately to West Africa for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

Rev. John Leighton Wilson (original source unknown).

After helping establish a mission in Cape Palmas, Liberia, he worked with the people there until 1834, when he returned to America to marry Mary Elizabeth Bayard, the daughter of a prominent Savannah, Georgia family.  The newlyweds sailed back to Cape Palmas that year to work with the Grebo people.  Over the years, the Wilsons created schools, translated school books, hymns, and parts of the Bible into Grebo, and helped establish other missions.

The Wilsons returned to America in 1852 due to John's health issues.  He was elected Secretary for the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in New York located at 23 Centre Street, and shortly afterward purchased the newly built house at 47 East 30th Street.

Their 19-foot-wide home was four stories tall above a low English basement.  Anglo-Italianate in design, it was faced in brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Ornate Italianate ironwork protected the areaway and stoop.  The first floor openings were fully arched and set within deeply molded frames.  A stone bandcourse introduced the upper floors, and a wooden cornice with a latticework frieze capped the design.

The wooden latticework below the cornice is unusual.

Although the Wilsons were ardent abolitionists, in 1861 (either just before or after the first shot in the Civil War), they returned to the South.

While the Wilsons occupied 47 East 30th Street, Harriet Hunter ran an upscale boarding house on Union Square.  On November 1, 1861, she announced in the New York Herald, "Mrs. Hunter has removed from No. 30 Union square, to No. 47 East thirtieth street, where she can accommodate a few persons for the winter."

Among her first boarders were the unmarried Sayre sisters, Ophelia, Emily A. and Elizabeth H.  The women may have been newcomers to New York City, since they joined the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church that same year.

An ad placed in the New York Herald on February 12, 1862 caught the eye of Ebenezer Storer.  "Mrs. Hunter, 47 East Thirtieth Street, has two pleasant Rooms for rent; one suitable for a physician's office.  Possession immediately."  Dr. Storer took the room and lived and practiced there at least through 1880.

Among the boarders in 1864 through 1866 were John H. Anthon and his wife.  Highly involved in civic and charitable causes, Anthon was an inspector of public schools, and his wife was the First Directress of the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New-York in Bloomingdale (today's Upper West Side).  

By 1867, Elizabeth J. Hunter (presumably Harriet's daughter) was operating the boarding house.  Either she or one of her boarders lost a valuable pet in 1870.  An announcement in the New York Herald on April 28 read: 

Lost--April 27, a small green parrot, with red bead [sic] and red feathers in tail; he is a little larger than a canary; $20 reward will be given to anyone who will return him to 47 East Thirtieth street.  He is the gift of a friend, therefore particularly valuable to the owner.  

The sizable reward would translate to more than $450 in 2024.

Dr. Ebenezer Storer was an ardent proponent of temperance.  In 1874 he joined a long list of physicians who signed a "medical declaration" to the State and Federal Governments that said in part, "We are of [the] opinion that the use of alcoholic liquor as a beverage is productive of a large amount of physical disease; that it entails diseased appetites upon offspring; and that it is the cause of a large percentage of the crime and pauperism of our cities and country."  The declaration proposed state and federal laws that would "confine the traffic in alcohol to the legitimate purposes of medical and other sciences, art, and mechanism."

Laura M. Thorpe, who "belongs to one of the most fashionable families of Philadelphia," according to The National Police Gazette, took rooms in the house in 1878.  The newspaper described her as "a handsome blonde of about twenty-five years."  Her husband, Gould H. Thorpe, a "wealthy produce merchant" had sued her for divorce earlier that year "on the ground of infidelity to her marriage vows."  The indiscretion had been carried out with one of New York's wealthiest young men, Lloyd Phoenix, the son of Philip Phoenix and the grandson of Stephen Whitney.

Both Laura Thorpe and Lloyd Phoenix were "well known among New York 'society' people," said The National Police Gazette.  Their illicit relationship had caused what the journal on January 11, 1879 called "a social scandal which for months has been the talk of the up-town clubs and of 'fashionable' society circles."  On December 26, 1878, the scandal became even more public.  Laura Thorpe sued Phoenix for a physical attack in her rooms here.

According to Mrs. Thorpe, on December 18 Phoenix came to her rooms and demanded his love letters, fearful that they would be used as evidence in her divorce case.  When she refused, he seized an iron poker "and with this formidable domestic weapon inflicted several blows," according to The National Police Gazette.  The article continued,

Then, as she further alleges, Mr. Phoenix, by no means satisfied with the frightful havoc he had made with her beauty, seized a chair and augmented the bruises, wounds and dislocations by at least two.  After that he, so she claims, took from the mantel a majolica vase, which she specifically says cost $20, and with violence threw it at her, thereby breaking it into fragments.

Hearing the crash, two servants rush into the room and Mrs. Thorpe directed one of them to find a policeman.  Phoenix fled.

The National Police Gazette reporter asked Laura Thorpe why Phoenix would think that beating her would prompt her to relinquish the letters.  He recounted the ensuing conversation:

"Oh!  It is not the first time he has done such a thing, and this time he tried to kill me," said Mrs. Thorpe.

"Do you mean that he has beaten you before this?" 

"Twice before this," she replied, "On one occasion he lamed me seriously by the violence of his blows. This time he pointed a revolver at me and was fingering the trigger, when I knocked it from his hand and screamed for help." 

In 1880, Dr. Augustine Arrango shared Storer's office, most likely during a transitional phase.  In 1881 only Arrango was listed here.   

That year, on April 2, Virgil Lopez was sitting in Arrango's waiting room.  Through the window he noticed another patient, Elvina De Molina ascending the stoop.  Suddenly, 14-year-old James Goss rushed up, grabbed Elvina's pocketbook and ran.  Almost before she could realize what had happened, Goss ran down the stoop in pursuit of the teenage purse snatcher.  At the corner of 31st Street and Fourth Avenue (today's Park Avenue South), Goss tackled and overcame the youth.  The New York Times said on April 3, 1881, "The lad was arraigned before Justice Flammer, at the Jefferson Market Police Court, and committed for trial in default of $500 bail."

Never married, Elizabeth J. Hunter died in 1889 and bequeathed 47 East 30th Street to Sarah F. Richards, most likely a relative.  She leased it that year to Dr. John Warren, who would occupy the doctor's office and rent rooms in the upper floors.  Unlike the Hunter women's fashionable boarders, most of Warren's were in the theatrical profession.

Among the earliest was Charles Franklyn Henry De Witt Chatterton, who had for years been private secretary to theatrical manager Henry E. Abbey.  The New York Times called Chatterton "one of the best known and most highly esteemed of the theatrical people of this country."  Somewhat interestingly, when Chatterton was bedridden in the spring of 1891, he did not consult his landlord doctor.  On May 9, The New York Clipper reported, "The condition of Charles P. Chatterton, who has been ill with consumption, at his home, No. 47 West Thirtieth Street, this city, was reported last week as being somewhat improved. Dr. Curtis said the hemorrhages were practically over, and, although the sick man was in a critical condition, it was hoped he would rally."

Chatterton's recurring condition proved fatal three years later.  When he died on October 11, 1894, The New York Times mentioned, "He had been subject to hemorrhages for a long time, and three times within the last three years attacks of this kind have been so severe that his life has been despaired of."

Boarding at 47 East 30th Street at the time were four other theatrical professionals--the married couple Grace Sherwood and Jerome Sykes, 22-year-old actor Ulysses Alton, and 28-year-old John Walton, also an actor.  Grace Sherwood was described by the New York Press as "one of the most popular and charming women in her profession," and her husband was stage manager of the Bostonians.  She became pregnant while living here, and had to give up her role of Chollie Kell in Passing Show.

Tragically, Grace died here on May 2, 1894 while giving birth to twins.  In reporting her death, the New York Press said, "Mrs. Sykes was well known and liked in the profession."

In 1894, both Walton and Alton would be in trouble with police.  The first was John Walton, who landed a role in Mr. Barnes of New York that year.  On September 5, 1894, Walton and a friend, William Harvey walked up Sixth Avenue with two women, dropping them off at 30th Street.  As the females walked away, Walton accused, "You made a fool of me before those women," according to the New York Sun, which noted, "Harvey contradicted him with an oath."

With that Waldon pulled out a knife and made several slashes to Harvey's clothing, but failed to wound him.  The New York Sun reported, "Policeman McDonald, who jumped off a Sixth avenue car just then, arrested the fighters and took them to the West Thirtieth street station.  Walton was bailed out by Shanly, the restaurant keeper."

Ulysses Alton was behind bars a month later.  On October 13, 1894, he and another actor, John E. McGoward, stepped into the cigar store next to Daly's Theatre.  While there, according to The Press, their "discussion waxed warm, and Alton grabbed an automatic slot machine and hit McGowan on the head, inflicting serious scalp wounds."

In 1896, Sarah Richard offered the house for lease again, describing it as an "unfurnished, four-story brown-stone and brick English basement dwelling; newly painted and decorated."  The new proprietor seems to have replaced the sometimes troublesome theater tenants with professionals like Benjamin Orne, a stockbroker.

Sarah Richard's son, J. Swift Richards, sold 47 East 30th Street to Sheppard K. de Forest in September 1913.  He quickly remodeled it into bachelor apartments.  

The New York Times, September 7, 1913 (copyright expired)

Among the initial tenants was N. Val Peavey, a pianist who used his apartment here as his New York teaching studio.  (He lived in Brooklyn.)   Another was stockbroker John F. Murphy, who had started in the brokerage business in 1898.  He and his wife lived here until his death on September 3, 1918.

In 1941, the Italianate ironwork and other Victorian details were intact.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

By mid-century the once elegant neighborhood had significantly changed.  A renovation completed in 1948, resulted in a veterinarian office on the ground floor, a kennel in the basement, and a triplex apartment on the second through fourth floors.

Surprisingly, a veterinarian office still occupies the ground floor.  Today there are six apartments in the former Wilson house--its former elegance lost to paint, abuse and a commercial awning.

photographs by the author
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