Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The James H. Sanford House - 31 West 9th Street


Dennis McDermott broke ground for three four-story rowhouses on West 9th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in 1854.  Their architect was quite possibly James Renwick, Jr., who lived half a block away, at 21 Fifth Avenue.  The 17-foot-wide homes were completed in 1855.  Their Anglo-Italianate style placed the entrances a few steps above the sidewalk.  Above the rusticated first floor, a full-width cast iron balcony fronted floor-to-ceiling windows at the second, and bracketed cornices crowned the design.

It appears McDermott originally leased the center house, 19 Ninth Street (renumbered 31 West 9th Street in 1868).  The lessee operated it as a boarding house, advertising in The New York Times on April 6, 1855:

Rooms and Board.  A second story front room and bedroom to let, separately or together, furnished, or unfurnished, to a gentleman and wife; also rooms for single gentlemen.  Apply at No. 19 9th-st., between 5th and 6th avs.

That no single women were accommodated testifies to the high-class nature of the boarding house.  Living here in 1856 were Cyrus Y. and Harvey S. Bradley, who were in the clothing business on Murray Street; Julius Catlin, Jr., a clerk; printer William C. Martin; and Benjamin K. Phelps, an attorney.

The "first class four story and basement house with the modern improvements" was offered for rent again in April 1857.  It became home to Irish-born actor, poet, author and theater manager John Brougham and his actress wife, the former Annette Hawley.

John Broughman, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Brougham had relocated from London to New York City in 1842, debuting at the Park Theatre.  He opened his own theater, Brougham's Lyceum, in 1850; wrote plays; and edited a comedic paper, The Lantern.  

Annette Brougham had two stage names, Mrs. Annette Nelson and Mrs. Coppleson Hodges.  The Broughams left the West 9th Street house in 1860, returning to London.

The house next became home to merchant Charles J. Spence, whose family would remain here until about 1864.  A daughter dropped a piece of jewelry in the fall of 1863.  Her parents' notice in the New York Herald on October 21 read,

Lost--On Monday afternoon, the 19th inst., between Ninth street, Fifth avenue and Twenty-first street, a child's Gold Armlet, marked (inside the clasp), C.R.S.  The finder will be suitably rewarded by leaving it at 19 Ninth street.

Dr. Morrie Leo Wolf lived here for a year, between 1865 and 1866, after which James H. Sanford purchased the house.  A printer with offices at 644 Broadway, he sold the 31 West 9th Street on April 26, 1870 to Rodney W. and Agnes Looke for $25,000 (about $600,000 in 2024).

Rodney W. Looke was the yard master of the Long Island Railroad's repair yard at Hunter's Point.  He was, as well, a partner with Robert G. Farmer in the Farmer & Looke saloon at 711 Eighth Avenue.  He and Agnes had four children.

In the summer of 1870, Looke was involved in a disturbing incident.  The Long Island Railroad repair yard was "being constantly invaded by river thieves," according to John B. Schmelzer, the railroad's general ticket agent.  Within the past year, $15,000 worth of iron had been stolen.  On the night of August 6, yard workers became aware that men were carrying away iron towards a boat.  Looke joined Schmelzer and a few other workers in chasing the crooks.  Schmelzer handed Looke his handgun and later testified, "The workmen threw stones, and Mr. Looke fired two shots."

Rodney Looke's testimony was slightly different.  The New York Times related, "He fired two shots at the boat, when, not understanding the revolver, he handed the weapon to a canal-boat Captain, who fired two more shots.  The remaining two shots were subsequently fired at a freight car by Mr. Schmelzer."

The reason the men were testifying before a coroner's jury was that one of the burglars, John Smith, was hit and subsequently died.  The New York Times reported, "The jury rendered a verdict of justifiable homicide, though they were in doubt which of the two men fired the fatal bullet."

The parlor of 31 West 9th Street was the scene of the funeral of the Lookes' youngest son, Rodney James, on September 25, 1872.  The boy had died two weeks after his 14th birthday.

Charles Sanford had provided the mortgage on the house to the Lookes.  In 1875, with $18,000 still outstanding, he lost patience and evicted them.  Sanford held a mortgage sale of the "household furniture, piano, French plate mirrors, velvet and Brussels carpets, &c.," on July 8.  Three months later, on October 12, a foreclosure auction of the house was held.

It was purchased by John E. Forbes, a stockbroker, and his family.  Living with them was John's widowed mother, Laura S. Forbes.  The Forbes' residency would be relatively short.  They sold the house in November 1880 to coal mogul Washington Lee.  It appears the purchase was a gift for his daughter Josephine and her husband Bruce Price.  

Born in Maryland in December 1845, Price opened an architectural office in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where he met Josephine Lee.  The couple was married in 1871.  They moved to New York City in 1877 with their five year old daughter, Emily.   

Bruce Price, image via

Among the structures Price designed while living at 31 West 9th Street were the James Alfred Roosevelt estate at Cove Neck, Long Island; the Charles T. How cottage "Cleftstone," in Bar Harbor, Maine; and the sprawling Rumson, New Jersey estate "Seacroft."  The Prices sold the West 9th Street house in March 1894 to W. H. C. Barlett for $21,000 (about $767,000 today).

The Barlett family lived here through 1903, then leased the house to Rafael R. Govin and his wife in 1904.  Govin was a banker at 15 Wall Street.  

Bertha K. Barlett and her sister Helen M. Post had inherited 31 West 9th Street by 1911, when they leased it to Theodore Bromley.  Born in Cornwall, England, he was long involved in the theatrical community.  In 1874, he was made treasurer of Booth's Theatre, later becoming the business secretary of the Actors' Fund of America.  He died in the West 9th Street house on February 4, 1914.

Somewhat surprisingly, on September 26, 1916, The New York Sun reported that the house had been leased "to the Delta Sigma Pi Fraternity for a long term of years."

The Barlett family sold 31 West 9th Street to Emanuel C. de Bonilla in October 1922.  By 1936, it had been converted to unofficial apartments.  Among the residents in 1936 was Charles L. Trout, the head of Charles L. Trout Company, Inc. described by the North Shore Daily Journal as the "widely known jewelry firm."

By 1941, the window details had been removed.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

On the morning of February 4, 1936, the 70-year-old failed to show up at work.  Employees were concerned and sent Harold Sensing to the apartment to check on him.  The North Shore Daily Journal reported, "When Sensing arrived there he found the jeweler clad in pajamas, dead in the bathtub of his two room apartment.  In his right hand was a revolver.  In his right temple a wound."

Contract bridge expert Josephine M. Culbertson lived here at mid century.  Born Josephine Murphy, she was hired as the secretary to bridge expert Wilbur C. Whitehead in 1920.  Through him she not only learned the game, but quickly mastered it.  By 1922, she was teaching the game and met Ely Culbertson, "an up-and-coming young bridge player," as described by The New York Times.  The couple was married the next year.

The Culbertsons taught, lectured and wrote about bridge, earning each of them $100,000 per year by 1936, according to The New York Times.  Although they divorced in 1938, they remained close friends and in 1954 Josephine edited a book on contract bridge by her former husband. 

Josephine Culbertson was living here on March 24, 1956 when she died at the age of 57 after suffering a stroke.

In 1987, the house was officially converted to apartments, with a doctor's office on the first floor.  Although the window details have been shaved off, 31 West 9th Street is the best preserved of the original row.

many thanks to reader Ari Heckman for requesting this post.
photographs by the author
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  1. Tom, thanks so much for this! So fascinating. When you say window details removed, are you referring to #33? That neighboring house was “modernized” mid century but I don’t see any details that were removed from #31.

    1. The brownstone lintels over each window were originally carved with protruding detail. They would have been very similar to the surviving lintels at 17 West 9th Street, completed the same year.