Thursday, May 30, 2024

The 1853 Nelson Beecher House - 397 Bleecker Street


In 1852, John B. Walton, a dealer in crockery, began construction of four identical homes with stores on the east side of Bleecker Street between Perry and West 11th Streets.  Completed the following year, the four-story structures were faced in red brick above the storefronts and trimmed in brownstone.

Nelson H. Beecher lived and worked in 379 Bleecker Street (renumbered 397 around 1870).  Born in Connecticut in 1809, he and his wife Catherine had a grown daughter, Jane Delia.  In 1855, Nelson listed his occupation as "feed" with a store at 584 Hudson Street.

The Beechers filled the upper floors with boarders.  In 1855, they included John W. Chapman and William Davis, both carmen; mason Charles Brown; George W. Griffin who ran a "coffeemill" at 580 Hudson Street, near Beecher's shop; and William E. Beardsley, whose tailor shop was in the ground floor.  

William E. Beardsley was an inspector of the Common Schools for the 9th Ward, as well.  And he seems to have had a sideline.  In 1858, he advertised, "For Sale--A choice lot of canary birds, raised from imported stock, including several prize birds of the association, never before offered for sale.  Can be seen at 379 Bleecker st., in the store."

Working in the tailor shop in 1859 was James A. Beardsley,  presumably William's son, who lived in Brooklyn.  By then, Horatio N. Beecher lived upstairs.  He was in the flour business on Hudson Street, a few blocks north of Nelson's store.  The two men were most likely brothers.

In 1864, Beecher leased the store to Asa Lemlein, who opened the first in a long string of cigar stores in the space, and boarded with the family.  Also living here that year were Sarah McCracken, the widow of Alexander McCracken, and her son.  The following year, on March 15, 1865, W. McCracken's name was pulled in the draft lottery.

By then, Horatio Beecher was no longer living here, and Nelson had changed his business from feed to flour, moving it to Spring Street.  He was sued in March 1866 by another flour company, Hecker Brothers, "the makers of the so-called 'self-raising flour,'" according to The Evening Post.  Beecher was accused of so closely imitating the Hecker Brothers packaging and labeling as to cause serious injury.  The judge disagreed in the end.

In 1868, Henry and Ferdinand Loewenthal, under the name H. & F. Loewenthal, took over the "segar" store.

The Nelson Beechers left Bleecker Street around 1875, when Owen McPartland (whose surname was sometimes spelled McPartlin) and his wife, Ellen moved in.  McPartland was a "doorman" in the 13th Precinct police station.  (A doorman did not walk a beat, like "roundsmen," but was stationed in the precinct house, addressing the needs of incoming visitors.)  He earned $900 a year, or about $28,000 by 2024 conversion.

Like the Beechers, the McPartlands took in boarders.  In 1876, they included Henry Adams, a sawyer (or carpenter), his wife, Mary, and his mother-in-law, Eliza G. Richards.  Peter Collins, a printer, also boarded here that year.  Eliza Richards died on July 2, 1876, at the age of 63.  Her funeral was held in St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Hudson Street three days later.

Ellen McPartland died here on May 23, 1886.  Her funeral was held upstairs two days later.  Owen McPartland left the Bleecker Street residence not long afterwards.

Jacques Van den Broeck took over the cigar store around 1888.  In August 1889, he cashed two checks--one for $5 and the other for $10--for Abraham L. Grabfelder, "a young printer," as described by The New York Times.  As it turned out, they were forgeries and Grabfelder was arrested on August 7.

The cigar store would change hands several more times.  In 1899 it was run by George A. Winter, the following year by E. B. McDuffie, and in 1903 A. Cohen signed the lease.

In the meantime, various boarders continued to come and go upstairs.  In 1894, Robert Scott, a member of the St. Cecile Lodge was here, and musician H. B. Steel lived here from about 1895 through 1897.  He was the organist of St. Ambrose Chapel, and was a pianist, as well.

Christopher Baum and his wife lived here in 1910 when he was arrested for "abduction," what today would be termed statutory rape.  That spring, the mother of 17-year-old Elsie Haesh discovered torrid letters to her daughter.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on May 11, "According to the girl's affidavit, he met her at a moving picture show on Broadway on April 15, and then took her to Plum Beach, where they remained for the night.  She said that she submitted to Baum's attentions only because he promised to marry her."

In 1929, the four houses in John B. Walton's 1853 row were converted to two-family homes.  The storefronts were bricked in and each building now held two duplex apartments.  Called Bleecker Gardens, they shared "a common back yard with a wading pond and a playground for children," according to court papers later.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Living in one of the apartments in the 1930s were Graham R. and Florence Taylor.  Born in 1878, Graham Taylor was a graduate of Harvard and former newspaper man.  When the couple moved into 397 Bleecker Street, he had been editor of The Survey and director of publications for the Commonwealth Fund for years.  The Survey was "published in connection with a Chicago settlement house," according to the New York Sun in 1940.  The newspaper said Taylor was "considered an authority on race-relations and planned communities."  The couple was still living here when Graham R. Taylor died at the age of 62 in 1940.

In 1946, Werner Wolff, fresh out of the army, purchased 397 Bleecker Street.  Court papers in 1956 said, "it contained two duplex apartments, each occupying two entire floors.  He then converted the upper apartment into two self-contained units, one on each floor."  Wolff leased the top floor apartment in 1948.  But when he attempted to evict that tenant six years later, he found himself in trouble.

The case brought the conversion--done without the filing of plans nor city approval--to the attention of the Department of  Buildings.  Not only was Wolff fined for an illegal conversion, but the tenants were allowed to stay.  The court said in part, "the landlord may not properly insist upon the removal of the tenants to extricate himself from a predicament which he created himself and from which he has substantially benefitted."

A project begun in 2012 returned the ground floor to commercial use.  The architects convincingly recreated a mid-19th century storefront that would not have been unfamiliar to the patrons of Jacques Van den Broeck's cigar store.

photographs by the author
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