Thursday, May 16, 2024

The 1821 John J. J. Gourgas House - 64 Bedford Street


When Bedford Street was laid out in 1799, the Village of Greenwich was a sleepy hamlet nearly a day's ride from New York City to the south.  In 1819, merchant Isaac Jaques purchased land which included three building lots at 64 through 68 Bedford Street.  Working with masons James Vandenberg and Isaac Freeman, he filled the parcels with three identical, Federal-style homes in 1821.

Like its identical neighbors, 64 Bedford Street was two-and-a-half stories tall.  Its Flemish bond red brick was trimmed in brownstone.  Typical of the style, two prim dormers punched through the peaked roof.

Isaac Jaques initially leased the house to middle class families.  In 1836, it was shared by the families of Joseph Albertson, a "carter" (or driver of a delivery wagon), and Robert O. Christian, who was listed as a fishmonger at the Clinton Market.  Four years later, Emily McDonald, the widow of James McDonald, rented the house and took in two boarders, Francis Gouldy, who was in the lumber business; and Lewis Stanbrough, a cabinetmaker.

The house was sold at auction in 1848, described in the announcement as "house 20 feet front, 32 feet 5 inches deep."  It continued being operated as a boarding house, run by the widow Jane H. Legrand until 1857, when it was purchased by John James Joseph Gourgas.

Born on May 23, 1777 at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, Gourgas came from distinguished Huguenot families.  He traveled to America in 1803 and established a store on Broadway selling "very choice French, English, German and American fancy goods and perfumery," according to an ad in 1842.  When he moved his family into the Bedford Street house he was already retired.  He and his wife, Louisa Maria Smith, had three sons, John Jr., Frederick William, and Louis; and two daughters, one of whom was Ulbiana E. H. Gourgas.

John James Joseph Gourgas in his Masonic sash, from the 1938 John James Joseph Gourgas 1777-1865 

In February 1854, three years before Gourgas purchased 64 Bedford Street, his wife died, and the following year John Jr. passed away.  Moving into the house with him were Frederick and Ulbiana.

Gourgas was best known for his Masonic activities.  He was a founder and the first Secretary General of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry Northern Supreme Council.  An ardent supporter of Freemasonry during a time of anti-Masonic sentiment, he was honored more than a century later with the establishment of the Gourgas Medal, the highest award of the Scottish Rite, in 1945.

On the afternoon of September 19, 1863, Frederick William Grougas died "suddenly" in the house, as reported by the New York Herald.  The term often suggested a heart attack or stroke.  He was 50 years old.  The following year, John J. J. Gourgas moved to West 10th Street, where he died on February 14, 1865 at the age of 88.  His death was attributed to "old age."

The Bedford Street house saw a succession of occupants--almost assuredly renters--over the next decades, like Joseph H. Smith, who sold stoves in his shop at 437 Hudson Street.  He and his family were here in 1872 and '73.   Samuel R. Rowley occupied the house in 1878 and '79.  

Halsted C. Hynard purchased 64 Bedford Street around 1880.  Like his predecessors, he was middle class.  He dabbled in Greenwich Village real estate.  (It may have been Hynard who added pressed metal cornices over the brownstone lintels of the door and windows.)  In April 1896, his personal estate was appraised at $17,541.00--or about $657,000 in 2024.

At the time of the appraisal, Hynard had been gone from Bedford Street for 11 years.  He sold the house to Oliver A. Farrin on April 1, 1885 for $8,500 (about $278,000 today).

Living here in the early 1890s were Kate Vincent and her husband.  Kate had a prestigious New York pedigree.  Her father was Thomas Sutphen and her mother was Content Morris.  Both the Sutphens and Morrises were Colonial families.  Kate's mother, who lived in Colt's Neck, New Jersey, came for a visit in the summer of 1893.  Tragically, the 88-year-old Content Sutphen died here on July 8.

The vintage house narrowly escaped demolition in the first years of the 20th century.  On December 25, 1903, The New York Times reported that "a Mr. England" had sold the house to "the owner of the adjoining corner of Bedford and Morton Street."  The article said he "will improve the entire plot."

The plans for an apartment house on the site most likely were derailed by the city's announcement a few months later that Seventh Avenue would be extended south through Greenwich Village, eradicating buildings just steps from the Morton Street-Bedford Street corner.

By 1915, 64 Bedford Street was operated by a Mrs. Gorrini as a low-level rooming house.  Among her tenants were Robert Decker and his wife and daughter, who lived on the first floor in the rear.  Decker worked as a "sandwich man" in the theater district--wearing a sandwich board advertising the latest productions.  The New York Herald explained, "Decker makes a dollar a day for dragging his way among Christmas shoppers with flat boards slapping at him from front and rear.  Each week the words on the board are changed to fit the message, but to Decker nothing changes save the seasons."

On December 14, 1915, Decker was on his way to work when his shoe hit a snow-covered parcel in the gutter.  Inside were "several baubles," as described by the New York Herald.  He stuffed the package into his pocket and continued on to work.

Back home, he gave the items to his wife.  The newspaper said, "she tossed them on the broken stand which serves them as dressing and dining table, as well as pantry and kitchen.  There was a ring with some shiny stones in it, and Mrs. Decker, needing food and some undergarments for herself and her daughter, approached a pawnbroker.  He gave her $2 for it."

What the Deckers did not know, was that the "baubles" were part of an $8,000 jewel heist.  They were stolen from the country home of Mrs. Alvin Ford Miller of Pelham Manor, New York on December 8.  The platinum ring set with diamonds that Mrs. Decker pawned for $2 was valued at $500 (more than $15,500 today).  

A few days later, Mrs. Decker took a watch and chain to the pawnbroker.  "Are they worth anything," she asked.  By chance, an undercover detective was in the shop at the time.  The New York Herald reported, "The pawnbroker's eyes widened as he picked up the watch and chain, and the detective, scarcely believing he was seeing a real transaction, edged up to the woman."  After questioning her, Detective Clare followed her to 64 Bedford Street.  There, Mrs. Decker brought out the jewelry "from a bundle of rags."  The detective, understandably, assumed that Robert Decker was a thief.  He went to 42nd Street and arrested the sandwich man.

Mrs. Alvin Ford Miller was in court on December 17 to see Decker tried for grand larceny.  His and his wife's testimonies convinced the judge that, indeed, he had found the jewelry and had no idea of its worth.  He was released "free but penniless," according to one newspaper.

The Deckers had some hope, however.  Mrs. Miller had offered a $500 reward for the return of her jewelry.  Those hopes were dashed when, a day after the trial, Mrs. Miller was asked if Decker would receive the reward.  The Sun reported, "she said that he would not, as the reward called for the return of all the jewels."  Decker had found only a portion of the loot.

On September 24, 1920, the New-York Tribune reported that Michael Rubino had purchased 64 Bedford Street.  Born in Italy in 1867, he and his wife Maria G. had 13 children.  Rubino died at the age of 88 in 1947, and Maria died in 1953.

The sheet metal cornices over the openings survived in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The house continued to be home to multiple Rubino siblings.  On August 4, 1960, The Village reported, "A garden party was given by the Rubino sisters, Edith, Helen and Gilda, at their residence, 64 Bedford St., one evening recently."  Along with a buffet supper, the the guests were entertained by Meyer Horowitz's Village Barn Show.  

Despite what must have been tight quarters, the house was also home to brothers Michael V. and Joseph A. Rubino, and their sister Anna and her husband Michael DeGeorge.  

Michael V. Rubino was well-known in Greenwich Village, first as a lightweight boxer who fought under the name of Porky Young.  He gave up boxing to train, and among his first students at the Greenwich Village Settlement House was Gene Tunney, who would become the World Heavyweight Champion.  Throughout the 1940s he worked with the Police Athletic League teaching youngsters to box and during World War II he was the Director of Recreation for the Board of Education under the Works Progress Administration.  He was also the founder of the Greenwich Village Sporting Club, which raised money for needy children.

When Michael V. Rubino died at the age of 75 of a heart attack on September 6, 1972, six of his siblings survived--five of them (Joseph, Edith, Helen, Gilda and Anna) still living at 64 Bedford Street.  The Rubino family remained in the house at least into the 1980s.

It was purchased in 2011 by investor Barry Schwartz, who owned the house next door at 66 Bedford Street.  According to Curbed, the family bought the property "for guests."  They joined the two residences internally with a doorway at the rear of the parlor level.  At some point, the sheet metal window cornices were removed and paneled lintels, appropriate to the Federal style, were installed.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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