Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The New York Dispensary Bldg - Nos. 34-36 Spring Street

On January 4, 1791 a group of eminent citizens, whose surnames would forever be linked to New York, joined in a noble project.  Among them were Isaac Roosevelt, Robert Livingston, James and Federic De Peyster, Robert Remsen,, James W. Beekman, and John Watts.  The men drafted a constitution and by-laws for a New York Dispensary, "for the care of the sick poor of the city."

The New York Dispensary was incorporated on April 8, 1795 and began its work in a one-room building on Tryon Street, later renamed Tryon Row.  The only dispensary in the city, it was receiving 10,000 patients per year by 1828.

On May 6, 1857 The New York Times described the wretched neighborhoods served by the organization.   "In the district served by the 'New-York Dispensary,' are included some of the most dangerous portions of the City--the Five Points, and the waterside on both our eastern and our western limits, below Spring-street, and Pike-street...That these most dangerous quarters of New-York are also the most suffering quarters of New-York, that these crowded and filthy streets which invite death from abroad are the homes also of misery without a name."

The article noted "Within these limits swarm some hundred thousand human beings, whose sanitary condition may be roughly inferred from the fact that more than twenty-five thousand of them annually appear as patients at the Dispensary, while over fifteen thousand annually required the services of the Dispensary physicians at their homes."

That number was more than tripled by the end of the Civil War.  Doctors treated more than 100,000 patients either in the clinic or in their squalid tenements.  The old building was razed and replaced in 1868 with an impressive $70,000, four-story dispensary at Centre and White Streets.

For more than four decades the New York Dispensary remained here, treating more than 100,000 indigent patients yearly. 

Then in June 1908 it was forced to move when the City took the property through eminent domain for the building of the subway.  The esteemed architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston designed the new New York Dispensary building at Nos. 145 and 147 Worth Street.  The handsome $25,000 structure was opened on September 15, 1909.

The Worth Street Dispensary building was opened in 1909 and condemned in 1911.  photograph by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Almost unbelievably, a year and a half later the City claimed that property as well.  The New York Times wrote "'Move on!' Twice has the city issues this command to the old New York Dispensary in the past five years...And now like a Nemesis comes the city again saying, 'Move on!  I need your land for improvement purposes, a park and new municipal buildings.'  So the dispensary is obliged to gather up its skirts a second time an decamp."

The New York Dispensary sat on land wanted by the City for the construction of the new Courthouse.  In June 1912 the two plots at Nos. 34 and 36 Spring Street between Mott and Mulberry Streets being used as a coal yard was purchased.   The Times described the neighborhood as a "thickly populated tenement house district" and added "A two-story building, fully equipped for all dispensary uses, will be erected from plans by Trowbridge & Livingston."

In a later article, the newspaper remarked "It has been facetiously suggested that its new building in Spring Street be placed on wheels, so that at the next municipal demand the dispensary can comply with less expense to itself."

The expense of a new building--before the last one was even paid for--was a crushing blow.  The New York Dispensary relied entirely on private donations to operate.  The American Contractor listed the cost of the newest structure at $25,000--about $630,000 in 2016 dollars.

Trowbridge & Livingston's beige brick villa design was a less-elaborate version of its previous Dispensary.  Little expense was given to unnecessary decoration to the no-nonsense, two story structure.  The blind arches above the first floor openings were inset with marble; but otherwise cost-saving brick and terra cotta made do for the lintels and cornice.

Nevertheless, the handsome Italian-style edifice was an architectural anomaly among the brick tenements and old frame structures along the block.  On November 16, 1913, the day before the new Dispensary opened, The Times reminded its readers that "From 400 to 600 patients receive treatment daily, and to defray the expense of this work the Dispensary is dependent almost entirely on the contributions of the public."

The New York Dispensary (far left) sat within a gritty tenement district, seen above in 1922.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Among the Dispensary's ardent supporters was Mrs. George Jay Gould, who annually ensured that there would be temporary joy for the poverty-stricken children at Christmas.  The first year the Dispensary was opened she sent well-needed gifts to 75 little boys and girls.  The New-York Tribune wrote "No one knew for several days who it was that gave them their sweaters and mittens and had them delivered at the institution anonymously."

A "Christmas entertainment" sponsored by the Dispensary's social service department was held the day after Christmas, prompting The Sun's headline "The Late Mr. Santa There."  One of the medical staff, Dr. Merriam, dressed as Santa Claus and distributed presents to 500 children who enjoyed "the songs and recitations as they munched candy, cake and oranges." The Sun opined "The entertainment was a jolly one."

The Dispensary was a clinic--not a hospital--and on rare occasions that difference caused problems.  Such was the case on January 21, 1915 when Mrs. Clara Smith was petting one of her three cats in her home on Renwich Street.  Suddenly the pet bit into the index finger of her left hand.  She went to the New York Dispensary and was treated for the small wound.

Then 11 weeks later she was removed to St. Vincent's Hospital where, coincidentally, her 12-year old daughter Katharine was already being treated for pneumonia.  Dr. William W. Cox examined her, and diagnosed her throat spasms, intervals of rigidity of the body and jaws, and related symptoms as rabies.

The doctor visited the Renwich Street home, where he found the cat crouching in the corner, hissing and baring its teeth.  "I ordered it crated up," he told reporters.

The importance of home visits was exemplified in the report of the Crippled Children's East Side Free School in 1918.  It reported "For the reception of cases requiring closer attention than is possible in a day school the New York Dispensary is open without cost.  In a single year the surgeons and physicians have paid nearly 500 visits to the homes of pupils."

The Dispensary's own Annual Report for 1923 showed that 5,789 patients had received dental care, 92,890 prescriptions had been filled, and 40,520 patients had been treated in the clinic.  Another 3,757 patients had been visited in their homes.  The report proudly boasted that "The grand total of patients treated since its foundation in 1790 now amounts to 4,944,822."

A change had taken place, however.  Most patients now paid 10 cents toward their treatment.  "In the beginning it was a free Dispensary caring for the destitute," noted the Report.  "As the years have gone by, the destitute have been more and more cared for by the State and City Institutions and are supported by us all when we pay our taxes.  Although the New York Dispensary still cares for many cases free of has gradually become an institution used chiefly by those who, while too poor to pay a private doctor, can pay a small amount for medical treatment."

The blue collar patients had difficulty visiting the Dispensary during working hours.  As a solution evening clinics were established here in January 1936 "for the benefit of low-salaried persons who may receive treatment at a nominal cost."  The cost was, indeed, nominal.  Visitors to the evening clinic, which was opened from 5:00 to 7:00 on Tuesdays and Fridays, were charged 50 cents.  Patients to the day clinic were charged 25 cents by now.

In 1949 the New York Dispensary merged with the New York Infirmary.  The move would result in the closing of the Spring Street clinic as the combined facilities opened at No. 321 East 15th Street.  The Spring Street neighborhood reacted with a law suit.

On August 15, 1949 The Times reported "A group of East Side residents is taking action to prevent the 150-year-old institution from closing its doors next Thursday...The basis for the suit, according to a petition by the residents, is that 'the sick, indigent poor served by the dispensary have a vested right in and to the benefits for which the dispensary was founded."

The group demanded that the consolidation either be voided, or that the consolidated institutions be forced to maintain a dispensary at the Spring Street location.

A satisfactory solution came in the form of the Judson Health Center, founded in 1921 in affiliation with the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square.  The Center had been at No. 237 Thompson Street; but now, responding to a petition signed by 6,000 residents, it spent $35,000 to buy the vacant Dispensary building, and another $30,000 in renovating it.

On October 25, 1950 as renovations were nearly complete, The Times reported "Mothers wheeling baby carriages congregated in talkative groups yesterday before the building at 34 Spring Street, between Mott and Mulberry Streets.  They watched workmen chip away the stone legend 'New York Dispensary' above the door and prepare to put up painted bulletin boards reading 'Judson Health Center.'"

The Center still operates from the Spring Street building, more-or-less a neighborhood walk-in clinic.  While the neighborhood around Trowbridge & Livingston's attractive brick structure has greatly changed, the 1913 New York Dispensary building has not.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The 1931 Ardsley -- No. 320 Central Park West

On October 15, 1900 the newest apartment house on Central Park West was ready for occupancy.  Designed by architect George W. Keister it rose ten stories on the southwest corner of 92nd Street.  The Central Park West facade was a cluster of rounded bays, affording each apartment expanded views of the park and increased cross-ventilation inside.
New-York Tribune, September 30, 1900 (copyright expired)

The upscale Ardsley Hall contained 43 suites of from six to 12 rooms, not including bathrooms or pantries.  The largest suites boasted three bathrooms.  The up-to-the-minute amenities included private telephones, electric lighting and individual "refrigeration plants."  An attractive feature was the "special entertainment rooms" available to the tenants for large entertainments or balls.

The lobby included Oriental carpets, gilded capitals and a coffered ceiling.  New-York Tribune, November 3, 1901 (copyright expired

Tenants paid from $1,500 to $3,800 a year for the apartments.  The most expensive rent would equal about $9,250 per month today.

But Edwardian fuss quickly fell from favor as the Jazz Age took over Manhattan in the 1920s.  Central Park West would be transformed by the construction of sleek Art Deco apartment houses which replaced the older buildings.  Among the first to go was Ardsley Hall.

On August 8, 1928 the announcement was made that within the past six months Samuel Barkin & Sons had acquired Ardsley Hall, along with Nos. 4, 8 and 12 West 92nd Street.  The builders planned to erect a 20-story apartment house on the plot.  "This will be the largest housekeeping apartment building on Central Park West," Samuel Barkins said.  The entire project was estimated to cost about $4.5 million--more in the neighborhood of $62.5 million in 2016.

The New York Times noted "This project will necessitate the demolition of the ten-story Ardsley Hall apartment, one of the first of a group of tall apartments erected opposite the park, and three five-story flats."

The newly-formed Central Park West & 92nd St. Corp. was, no doubt, staggered by the onset of the Great Depression a year later.  Nevertheless, the massive project went ahead, with ground broken in 1930.  A year later, in the fall of 1931, the Ardsley was ready for occupancy.

The developers had chosen architect Emery Roth to design the 22-story structure.  Separately, he and Rosario Candela were perhaps most responsible for changing the streetscapes along Central Park in the 1920s.

Even during the Depression years Manhattan's wealthiest citizens spent lavishly.  On April 5, 1931 The New York Times reported that a "good rental season [is] indicated for new apartments."  The article focused on six new luxury buildings, including the Ardsley.

In 1916 New York City had imposed the Zoning Resolution which required buildings to include setbacks in order to allow light and air to the streets.  The resulting stepped high rise buildings drew comparison to ancient ziggurats.  Emery Roth took the concept a step further by decorating the Ardsley with Mayan decorations executed in black brick within the beige facade.  The result was a masterpiece of Art Deco design.  Horizonal balconies and banding were contrasted and balanced by vertical lines, some which suddenly jutted off at right angles.

The cover of "The Ardsley" brochure featured a photograph of the newly-completed structure.  From the collection of the Columbia University Library

Saying that The Ardsley was ideal "for those wishing an atmosphere of country life with convenience of the City," agents boasted "included in the appointment are over-sized rooms, wide windows, venetian blinds, exceptional closet space well equipped kitchens, glass enclosed showers, and trained employees to maintain the finest...standard of service."

The Mayan motif was carried on in the entrance lobby.  "The Ardsley" brochure, from the collection of the Columbia University Library

The Ardsley was designed with tenants of varying incomes in mind.  While some of the apartments had commodious bedrooms, living rooms and "galleries," they had no servants' rooms.   In contrast were the sprawling multi-level apartments of the topmost floors.  The 11-room triplex on the 21st through 23rd floors had a wrap-around terrace on the 21st floor, and two terraces on the 22nd floor.  There were 15-foot ceilings and a wood-burning fireplace in every room.  The 23rd floor was "completely separated from the master section" and included three maids' rooms and a bath.

The floorplans of the 11-room triplex revealed spacious rooms and extraordinary outdoor space.  "The Ardsley" brochure, from the collection of the Columbia University Library

The Ardsley filled with well-heeled residents, not all of whom were on the up-and-up.  Corporate attorney Aaron Sapiro moved here from Chicago after things got a little heated there.  Sapiro was counsel for several Chicago labor groups run by underworld thugs.

On July 27, 1933 he was arrested in his 20th floor office at No. 521 Fifth Avenue.  Police had received a telegram from the Illinois State Attorney's office saying Sapiro was a fugitive and was under indictment on a charge of "causing the explosions of bombs in buildings in Chicago and also causing bodily harm to different people."

The attorney was met with a crowd of press photographers at Police Headquarters.  As their flashbulbs snapped, Sapiro reacted with sarcastic coolness.  "I'll pose," he said.

His smug attitude was relatively short-lived.  The bad press was apparently not good for business and on June 7 the following year he filed for bankruptcy, listing liabilities of $181,000 and assets of $14,425.  Court papers showed he placed a value of $300 on his "wearing apparel and books."

In the meantime, things were not going so well for the Ardley's owners, either.  On September 11, 1933 the building was sold in foreclosure actions.  The Manufacturers Trust Company took over the property with the only bid--$2.575 million.

The memories of the terrifying Lindbergh baby kidnapping two years earlier were vivid in the minds of all wealthy parents in 1934.  So Benjamin Feldman was understandably shaken when he opened a letter on May 17 that year.

In it the writer said that unless Feldman paid $500 his wife would be kidnapped.  Exactly one week later a second letter arrived, this one saying that both his wife and seven-year old son would be taken and both murdered.

Detectives were put on the case and arrangements were made to hand off a package containing the ransom in the Times Square subway stop.   When 23-year old Nicholas Garafola took the package from the undercover detective on May 25, he was immediately arrested.  Garafola had been a shipping clerk in Feldman's employ.

The New York Times reported "Garafola said he needed the money to pay off debts and insisted that he had no intention of carrying out his threats."

Among the residents at the time were retired Deputy Chief Inspector Dominick Henry of the New York City Police Department, and his wife, the former Mary Gertrude Crittenden.  Henry had changed the entire complexion of Manhattan traffic by instituting the one-way street system, and by installing the first traffic lights.  He also implemented parking restrictions.  The Times would later credit him with unsnarling "the tangle of vehicles that clogged the streets in the early Nineteen Twenties."

Mary Henry was highly educated, having attended the College of New Rochelle and Columbia University.  Her health began failing around 1937, and she died in the couple's Ardsley apartment at the age of 59 on February 24, 1938.  Dominick Henry lived on here for another four years, dying after an illness of several weeks on Saturday, February 1, 1942.

The funeral for the 74-year old former Inspector was impressive.  On Saturday morning of February 3, 117 foot patrolmen assembled in front of the Ardsley.  They, along with the Police Department band and Color Guard, escorted the body to the Catholic Church of St. Gregory the Great on West 90th Street.

The Ardley's most celebrated resident at the time was lyricist Lorenz Hart, who had signed a lease on a massive 17-room penthouse on August 4, 1939.   Half of the Broadway songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart, his lyrics to standards like "Blue Moon," "The Lady is a Tramp," and "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" were famous.

Hart shared the apartment with his widowed mother, Frieda.  Tortured in his personal life, he suffered from alcoholism and depression and was anguished by his secret homosexuality.   His mother took the upper floor of the duplex while he lived below with an expansive terrace.  His biographer, Frederick Nolan points out in his 1994 Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway, "Immediately after moving in, Larry had a huge, heavy, soundproofed door installed between the two floors, so that Frieda should not be disturbed by any late-night revelries below."

On Easter Sunday 1943 Frieda Hart died.  Shortly afterward Lorenz Hart left the Ardsley and moved into a small penthouse on Park Avenue.  He died there on November 22 that same year.

A service door reflects Roth's attention to detail.

World War II affected everyone in the Arsdley, as it did all Americans.  On September 18, 1943 Jerome C. Simpson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in Washington DC.  A much different sort of notoriety came to 32-year old dress manufacturer Martin Asnin two months later when he was imprisoned for draft evasion.

And 51-year old William S. Orkin was disgraced when he and seven cohorts were found guilty of a racket "in the guise of aiding wounded war veterans" at a hearing on February 18, 1946.  The gang sold subscriptions to a fictitious magazine, the Army and Navy Hospital Visitors.  The District Attorney was clear in his disgust, saying "This is a particularly despicable species of fraud--exploitation of the public sympathy and admiration for wounded veterans of war."

The two-story penthouse that had been home to Frieda and Lorenz Hart was taken by Elliott Gould and his new bride, Barbra Streisand in 1963.   In her My Passion for Design the entertainer wrote that the apartment had "an elegant staircase, two fireplaces and a terrace--quite a change from a railroad flat."  In fact there were five fireplaces and seven and a half baths.

The couple had one son, Jason, while living here.  The Gould-Streisand divorce was finalized in 1971; but Streisand had already looking for a new home.  On May 3, 1970 The Times noted "Barbra Streisand is back in the market for a place to live."

The article said "Miss Streisand, who was unavailable last week for comment on her housing problem, is said to be looking for a cooperative on the East Side.  She now lives at 320 Central Park West with her son, Jason.  She and her husband, Elliott Gould, are separated."

Part of the star's difficulty in finding a new residence was her reputation--not for noisy entertainments, but for being difficult.  Steven Gaines explained in his The Sky's the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan, "she never gave parties and hardly ever entertained.  In fact, she would have been a model tenant at the Ardsley had she not earned a reputation as the building's chief kvetch and critic, for whom nothing was quite good enough, including the way the lobby was decorated."

In July 1998, 28 years after Barbra Streisand began looking for a new house or apartment, she married 57-year old actor James Brolin at her Malibu, California home.  She immediately listed the Ardsley penthouse at $10 million.  The New York Times Home & Garden journalist Tracie Rozhon noted it included "a media room and an unpretentious hairdressing salon."

It seemed to be sold when 29-year old pop singer Mariah Carey offered $8 million cash and Streisand accepted.  But the co-op board was less eager to close the deal and rejected Carey as a tenant.  Reportedly Streisand was irate, telling the press "If an artist can't live on the Upper West Side, where can they live?"

She finally settled for a $4 million offer, precisely half the amount Carey was prepared to spend, from a single woman who was approved by the Board.

In 2010 a two-year restoration of the Art Deco lobby was completed by designer Scott Salvator.  Although he rarely accepted lobby designs, telling Fred A. Bernstein of The Times he "disliked working for committees;" he jumped at the Ardsley project because it was an Emery Roth work, and "it is pure Art Deco."

Salvator said he found the style uplifting.  During tough times, he said, "If you're going to have something awful, like a war, you at least want someone dancing down a stairway in a tux."

Repairs made with non-matching brick disturbs Roth's the black-and-beige scheme.  The Art Deco motifs, nevertheless, spectacular.

The magnificent Mayan-Art Deco Ardsley continues to house wealthy businessmen and celebrities.  In 2012 actor David Duchovny entered into contract for a $6.25 million three-bedroom apartment on the 19th floor.  Among the several massive Art Deco apartment buildings along Central Park West that compose its famous streetscape, the Ardsley is a masterpiece.

photographs by the author
many thanks to motion picture pundit John Chalupa for suggesting this post 

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Lost St. George's Chapel -- Beekman and Cliff Streets

A wealthy New Yorker is carried past the Chapel in a litter in a later, romantic depiction.  Valentine's Manual for 1859, from the collection of the New York Public Library
As New York City expanded in the mid-18th century the parishioners moved further away from Trinity Church, making travel to services long and inconvenient.  On April 15, 1748 the Vestry reported "That it's become absolutely Necessary to build a Chappell of Ease to Trinity Church, and being Desirous to Build the same where it will be most Commodious and Convenient to the Congregation in Generall--ordered, that the Church a Committee to Consider where will be the most proper place for Building the said Chappell."

The committee purchased "the Land near the Swamp" from Colonel Beekman, at the corner of "Beekman's and Van Cliff's Sts."  Trinity Church paid Beekman 645 pounds for the plot, and later added the adjoining lot, purchased from John Killmaster for 125 pounds.  A Trinity vestryman, Robert Crommelin, was chosen as the architect.

Construction took nearly four years to complete.  As late as January 14, 1751 a notice appeared in The New York Gazette announcing "That a Committee of Vestry of Trinity Church, will meet every Friday at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, at the house of William Cook, near the City Hall, to treat with such Workmen, Carpenters and Masons, as will undertake the building and finishing the Galleries and Pews, and other inside work of St. George's Chappel."

The chapel was ready for services on July 1, 1752.  The Archbishop of Canterbury had contributed 100 pounds to the construction, and Sir Peter Warren had provided another 100 pounds, with the request "that a pew might be appointed for Sir Peter and his family in case they should come to this country."

The handsome Georgian-style edifice boasted a complex steeple which rose 172 feet.  The chancel was 92 feet long and 72 feet wide--capable of "seating about two thousand comfortably," according to The New York Times years later.  The woodwork inside was mahogany--some of which (the pulpit, desk and chancel rail) came from the mainmasts of a ship.

Church historian Frank Moss remarked in 1897, "None of the early churches of the City was supported by any more representative body of citizens than this old church, whose members included the Schuylers, the Livingstons, the Beekmans, the Van Rensselaers, the Cortlandts."

On July 6, 1752, five days after the first services, the Post-Boy reported briefly on the event, saying that the "Divine Service was perform'd, with the utmost Decency and Propriety."

Worshipers need not have worried about their devotions being disturbed by outside noises.  The Rev. Hugh Birckhead later recalled "If on any Sunday the movement of vehicles along quiet Beekman Street disturbed those engaged at divine services, the sexton calmly stretched a chain across the traffic and summarily shut off all movement."

St. George's Chapel, along with its mother church Trinity, remained steadfastly loyal to England as rumbles of revolution spread throughout New York.  The New York Times years later explained "Trinity, which had enjoyed a long life of happiness under the full sunshine of the royal favor, could not but be disturbed by the portentious mutterings which filled the air."  St. George's minister, the Rev. Dr. Charles Inglis, refused to allow "the Rebels" to "pollute the sacred precincts with their seditious and rebellious effusions."

Unexpectedly to the ministers, those rebels won the war.  On November 25, 1783 the British troops left New York, accompanied or preceded by city loyalists.  Decades later the New-York Daily Tribune recalled that Inglis, "having rendered himself greatly obnoxious to the patriots, determined to follow the loyalists of his flock to Nova Scotia, and accordingly resigned his rectorship Nov. 1st, 1783."  The first sermon in St. George's Chapel following the Evacuation, was not preached by an Episcopalian minister, but by the Rev. John Rogers, senior pastor of the Collegiate Presbyterian Church.  On December 1, 1783 he preached "to a thronged and deeply-affected assembly."

Eventually, of course, normalcy returned to St. George's Chapel.  On November 11, 1789 the Gazette of the United-States announced "On Sunday next the 15th inst. a Charity Sermon, will be preached, and a Collection made in the forenoon, at St. George's Chapel, for the benefit of the Charity School in this city--An Anthem, adapted to the occasion will be sung by the Scholars."

By 1811 St. George's had a congregation of 185 families and earned its separation from Trinity Church, becoming St. George's Church.   Three years later disaster happened.  At 1:00 on the morning of Wednesday January 5, 1814, fire broke out in a stable about 50 yards from the church.  The brisk winter winds carried sparks that landed on roofs, spreading the blaze.  Around 2:00 St. George's Church caught fire. Stanford's Concise Description of New York, which described the building as "splendid" and "very little inferior to St. Paul's in the grandeur and beauty of its architecture," reported "The immense columns of flame curling around its tall steeple and ascending to the very clouds, and the general conflagration which was visible in every direction, was calculated to inspire the mind with the highest feelings of reverence and sublimity."

One fireman, John W. Degrauw, described how "women turned out with buckets" to help fill the fire engines.  He said that the steeple clock rang three times at 3:00 "just before the steeple fell."  Oddly enough he told a reporter "I thought that it was a wonderful sight."

The morning after the fire St. George's Chapel was a burned out shell.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Later that morning the Commercial Advertiser's article, headlined "Melancholy Fire," noted "Very providentially the steeple of the Church fell within the building.  Had it fallen into the street, most probably many lives would have been lost."  The newspaper estimated the loss of the church at $100,000--in the neighborhood of $1.4 million in 2016.  The article also suggested arson as the cause.  "It was supposed that the fire originated by design."

The congregation rebuilt the gutted shell, stopping short at reconstructing the towering steeple.  The parish worshiped in its renovated structure for three decades before laying plans to follow the northward migration of its moneyed congregants.  In June 1845 the cornerstone was laid for the new St. George's Church on Stuyvesant Square.

Six years later, on September 6, 1851 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "Rev. Benjamin Evans, Rector of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Holy Evangelist, will preach his farewell Sermon in the Church in Vandewater st., on Sunday Afternoon...The Congregation worshiping here will on the following Sunday take possession of St. George's Chapel, Beekman st."

The restored church had a stump of a steeple.  The Plumbers' Trade Journal, 1905 (copyright expired)

Trinity Church took back the Beekman Street building before passing it on to the Church of the Holy Evangelist, prompting Trinity's rector, Rev. Dr. William Berrian to say the chapel was "saved from destruction."  Berrian recorded "For the purchase of St. George's Chapel in Beekman street, and ground, made over to the Church of the Holy Evangelists--assessments, repairs, alterations, and other expenses, $55,660.33"

In 1857 Cliff Street was widened, cutting into the century-old graveyard surrounding St. George's.  On June 30 The New York Times reported "About one-half of the ancient burying ground of St. George's Chapel in Beekman-street, has to be removed in widening Cliff-street.  The exhuming of the remains of seven old family vaults, in good preservation, was concluded yesterday."

The family remains involved were of William Post, John Post, Samuel Gifford, John Thompson, William Doughty, John H. Gover and James H. Titus.  The following day The Times remarked that the exhumation "brings to light the remains of many old citizens whose dust has reposed in silence and in peace for half a century."  The article noted "The vault of John Post contained seven bodies...The coffins, which were mostly of white wood, were in a good state of preservation.  They have been mostly transferred to Trinity Cemetery, a small part only having been sent to Mount Olivet Cemetery."

At the time the Church of the Holy Evangelist had a congregation of only about 150.  The small number of worshipers combined with what The Times called "the growing expansion of the City" eliminated the viability of the church within the decade.  The report of the Protestant Episcopal Church Missionary Society, released on May 17, 1868 included "The arrangements for the sale of St. George's chapel, having been perfected and completed the Board look forward to the early addition of $45,000 to its revenue from this source."

The $45,000 was a fraction of the sale price.  The building was purchased by the firm of Phelps, Dodge & Company for $145,000; that amount parceled out to Trinity, St. George's, and the Church of the Holy Evangelist, according to church historian Henry Anstice.  Another $5,000 was set aside "against possible claims of vault-owners," since the remainder of the graveyard would, obviously, be dug up.

The organ and the bell were removed to St. George's Church on Stuyvesant Square.  Henry Anstice remarked flatly "and the passing of the venerable structure, which had nobly served its purpose, but outlived its usefulness, was an accomplished fact."

Today there is no longer a corner of Beekman and Cliff Streets.  In 1971 the four 27-story apartment buildings making up the Southbridge Towers cooperative complex replaced blocks of vintage buildings and the streets where they stood; including the former site of Robert Crommelin's Georgian-style masterpiece.
photo via

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The S. C. Barnum House - No. 329 Lexington Avenue

When builder George H. Hamilton completed the 24-foot wide row house at No. 329 Lexington Avenue in 1858, he was on the cutting edge not only of high-end residential neighborhoods in Manhattan, but of domestic architectural trends.

Only six years earlier the vastly wealthy Dodge and Phelps families had begun construction on their three freestanding brownstone mansions on Madison Road (later renamed Madison Avenue), between 36th and 37th Streets. Theirs were the first dominoes to fall in the creation of an exclusive residential district.

Hamilton's row house on the east side of Lexington Avenue, between 38th and 39th Streets, was four stories tall above a high brownstone stoop.  The elliptically-arched openings sat within handsomely carved frames; their sills sitting on delicate stone brackets.  At the parlor level, where floor-to-ceiling height windows matched the proportions of the entranceway, there was most likely a cast iron balcony.

Most striking, however, was the fourth floor in the form of a steep mansard roof.  The French Second Empire style had arrived in the United States only within the past two or three years.  Its appearance at No. 329 Lexington Avenue meant that Hamilton intended the house for a discerning buyer; one aware of continental fashion and taste who would gladly turn his back on the predominant Greek Revival style overwhelming the city.

A complex pattern of slate shingles covered the mansard.  Two ornate dormers punched through, capped with triangular pediments.  Above a minimal cornice with stone dentils was perched an elaborate cast iron cresting--the latest in Victorian design.

The family which moved was without question well to do financially.  But the woman of the house was apparently frugal, nonetheless.  Pre-Civil War households retained staffs with clearly defined duties.  Cooks, drivers, laundresses and butlers all knew their individual duties.  A "waitress" needed to be more refined than a chambermaid.  She served the food to the family and their guests and waited upon their whims.  The chambermaid cleaned.  And as reflected in the title, she performed the unpleasant job of removing and cleaning chamber pots.

But the lady at No. 329 Lexington Avenue economically clumped up to three job descriptions together.  On June 1, 1867 she placed an advertisement in The New York Herald "Wanted--A neat and capable woman.  As waitress and chambermaid and to assist in washing.  References required."

By the 1880s the house was home to wealthy retailer S. C. Barnum and his wife, Amelia.  In 1845 Barnum had opened what he now marketed as "Barnum's old reliable clothing house" on Chatham Square.  While her husband added to their fortune downtown, Amelia struck out in the real estate business, buying properties and leasing them.  But her great passion seems to have been dogs.

In 1891 she was Vice President of the American Pet Dog Club.  The organization's reputation reached as far away as Honolulu, where The Daily Bulletin reported on February 20, 1891, "After invading almost every other domain that has hitherto, by the men at least, been considered to the lords of creation, the American woman is now arranging to enter actively into the field of bench shows."

The newspaper referred to the pedigree dog shows which, until now, had been male-only territory.  "The new departure is to be made by the American Pet Dog club, which is composed almost entirely of ladies, though, with the most praiseworthy magnanimity, male creatures are not entirely excluded."

The article noted "Mrs. the wife of a very wealthy clothing merchant, and lives in an imposing mansion on Lexington avenue, New York.  She has a ways taken an active interest in dogs, and was at one time a prominent exhibitor at the bench shows.  At present Mrs. Barnum is content with the honor of possessing the fattest and jolliest pug in the club."

Amelia routinely offered her home as the meeting place of the club.  But then in 1894 the Barnums left.  The title was held, as was expected at the time, in Amelia's name, and on July 14 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that she had leased the house for three years at $2,200--a little over $30,000 per year in 2016 terms.  It was the first hint of financial problems in the Barnum household.  The following year the Sheriff held a court-mandated auction of the property for unpaid obligations.

The Barnum home was taken over by the S. G. Cloos School of Modern Languages.  Unlike some private schools, Professor Cloos focused on underachieving sons of wealthy families.  In September 1895 he described himself in The New York Times as giving "special attention to coaching pupils who have failed to pass their examinations at Columbia College.  He has always met with noted success in remedying their deficiencies."

Cloos had established his school in 1870 and, speaking in the third person, wrote "Prof. Cloos is always able to preserve order in classes which have sometimes contained as many as sixty-five boys at a single lesson.  He also teaches English to Spaniards, French and Italians by a method peculiarly his own, and which has always been productive of speedy and thorough results."

No. 329 Lexington Avenue saw a quick succession of owners.  It was bought early in 1897 by Edward H. Van Ingen for what the Record & Guide called "the remarkably low price of $26,000" (more than three quarters of a million dollars today); but weeks later he was looking to sell it "at a reasonable advance on very favorable terms."

The next owner, Charles Conti, found himself in financial problems as well.  In 1901 he was embarrassingly listed among those who were behind in his personal taxes.  The mansion was home to Augustine J. Smith by 1904, and A. V. Whittemeyer in 1909.

The noise and upheaval caused by the excavation for the Lexington Avenue subway was possiby a factor in the rapid turnover of the property.  By the early 1920s it was being operated as a rooming house.  One tenant named Maurice was out of work in November 1922 when he placed an ad in The New York Herald.  "Chauffeur-Mechanic:  Belgian, 9 years experience Rolls Royce, Renault, Simplex, Locomobile; best references."

Also living here that year were Mabel Elweil and Grace Ryson, both unmarried.  The young women were passengers in a Ford late on the evening of April 30 it crashed into a Studebaker limousine at the corner of 37th Street and Seventh Avenue.  "The noise of the collision attracted a large crowd of people, who had just left the theaters," reported The New York Herald the following morning.

The horrific crash left several people injured, including the chauffeur of the limo, who lost four fingers.  The driver of the car which carried Mabel and Grace was apparently in the wrong.  The Herald noted "The driver jumped out as soon as the collision occurred and vanished."

While Grace received only a cut and bruises and was able to go home, Mabel was taken to Bellevue Hospital with two fractured knee caps.

Two years later the owners, 311 Lexington Avenue Corp, hired architects Charles Kreymborg & Son to renovate the old mansion.  Completed in 1925, the changes included the removal of the stone stoop, the installation of a "studio" at sidewalk level, and "non-housekeeping apartments" on the upper floors.

Among the tenants living here in the early 1940s was the Cornelius Agnew Demarest family.  Victoria Booth Demarest was well known as a lecturer, author and preacher; and was the granddaughter of General and Mrs. William Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.

On December 4, 1943 daughter Victoria Beatrice Demarest was married to the Rev. Claxton Monro.  The wartime wedding had a noticeably military atmosphere.  Victoria's brothers, John, David and Arthur, were ushers.  Arthur was a member of the USA Glider Infantry and David was a Pharmacist's Mate Third Class in the Navy.  Another usher was Lt. Brent W. Loew of the US Naval Reserves.

One year later the family's joy was crushed when word was received that David Livingstone Demarest had been killed in action on December 3, 1944 "in action with the Marine Corps in the Pacific area."

Squashed in among along the Lexington Avenue block of business buildings, the old brownstone is decidedly out of place.  Amazingly the upper floors retain their 1858 residential flavor and the wonderful mansard level is, while beleaguered, exceptionally intact.

photographs by the author

Friday, October 21, 2016

Battered and Endangered -- No. 25 Cleveland Pl.

Residents of the little two-block long Marion Street, which ran diagonally between Spring and Broome Streets, struggled for existence in the 19th century.  The 25-foot wide, brick-faced Greek Revival house at No. 25 was home to several immigrant families by 1851.  In the yard behind was a small building which was also rented to indigent tenants.

The plights of the residents throughout the 1850s was told through the classified advertisements they placed in search of work.  In September 1851 the occupant of the "first floor, front room," wrote "Wanted--by a respectable young woman, a situation as Nurse and Seamstress.  Has lived four years in her last situation, and left at her own request."  Six months later another tenant, also a "respectable woman," was looking for a position "as good plain Cook and first-rate Washer and Ironer."

A resident with the initials P.F. lived in the rear house in June 1853 when he placed an ad.  "Wanted--by a steady, active young man, a situation as coachman and to work in a garden, and to make himself generally useful.  Has satisfactory testimonials."  It was possibly P.F.'s wife who was looking for income following the birth of a child the following year.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on August 7, 1854 read "Nurse--A respectable married woman wishes a baby to wet nurse at her own house, 25 Marion street, in the rear."

The advertisements continued.  A month later a resident on the first floor of the main house looked for "a situation by a respectable woman, as excellent cook, washer and ironer, in a private family."

By the end of the Civil War the Marion Street neighborhood was part of what was deemed "The Italian District."  But at least one resident of No. 25 was Irish and the mix was not friendly.  Daniel Donovan "lived in the same premises with a number of Italians," as explained by The New York Herald on June 12, 1872, and "was in the habit of beating and abusing them."

Donovan's bullying came to an end on Sunday afternoon, June 9, 1872.  The Herald reported "he was practising with his fists upon John Beoni and Raxo Attela, the latter of whom dealt Donovan a blow on the nose."  Infuriated, Donovan "struck out right and left at the Italians."  During the melee, Guydon Bosstoffin grabbed a large pair of shears and thrust them into the Irishman's stomach.

As Daniel Donovan lay dying in his room, the Coroner rushed to take his ante-mortem statement, critical in the investigation of Victorian murders.  In the meantime, Bosstoffin and "two other Italians" were under arrest.

Within the next two years family issues would be a problem for some residents.  In April 1873 Donat Bruno, "an Italian flute player," left and never returned.  A month later his brother, Roch Bruno, placed advertisements hoping "to know in what town he is now residing."

Joseph Stefano was apparently frantic after his 12-year old son John disappeared on February 4, 1874.  Stefano offered $20 to "any one returning him to his father."  He ended his plea in The New York Herald by saying "He plays the violin."

Another Irishman who rented a room in the house occupied almost entirely by Italians was 40-year old James Gately.  He was taken from No. 25 Marion Street to Bellevue Hospital on the night of September 28, 1877 where he died in his bed two days later.  The Coroner's inquest found "cause of death, peritonitis, from stab wound of abdomen inflicted with a knife in the hands some person to the jury unknown at No 25 Marion street on the night of September 28."

Following former President and New York State Governor Stephen Grover Cleveland's death in 1908 Marion Street was renamed Cleveland Place in his honor.

The bleak lives of the impoverished Italian immigrants of No. 25 Cleveland Place were in stark contrast to the lifestyle of mining magnate Daniel Guggenheim.  The two worlds came unexpectedly together on January 29, 1915.

Six-year old Ignatio Lacarta was playing on Lafayette Street that afternoon, on the opposite side of the little triangular park in front of his home.  Just as Guggenheim's limousine approached, Ignatio darted out between parked cars and was struck.

The distraught millionaire took the boy in his arms and shouted to a traffic patrolman to direct him to the nearest hospital.  Guggenheim's chauffeur sped to the New York Dispensary.  The New York Times wrote "Mr. Guggenheim sent word to the boy's parents, and met them in the dispensary."

It appeared Iganatio was severely, but not fatally, injured.  "At the hospital, it was said the boy's skull was probably broken and his scalp badly lacerated, but he would recover."  Later the newspaper noted that Guggenheim had told the surgeon "to spare no expense to save the lad's life."

It was most likely Daniel Guggenheim's insistence on the best of care (and his money) which resulted in Iganatio's total recovery.  "For some time it was feared the boy would have concussion of the brain, but this was prevented by careful treatment," The Times reported weeks later.

Finally, on February 28 the boy was declared "thoroughly recovered" and released from the hospital.  Word had been sent to to a much-relieved Guggenheim the previous day.  He reported that the news made him feel "very happy."

Although the Cleveland Place neighborhood was just one block north of the Police Headquarters, it was the haunt of Italian gangsters and bootleggers in the 1920s.  The immediate area earned the nickname of the "whiskey curb market" during Prohibition.

A long-term resident of No. 25 Cleveland Place was petty gangster Frank Lucci.  The 20-year old was arrested on July 7, 1925 along with six other Italians suspected of "many hold-ups, burglaries and shootings in recent months," according to Deputy Chief Inspector Fay.  He was arrested again on September 11, 1936 for counterfeiting; and was still living at No. 25 when he was nabbed once again, this time for counterfeiting gasoline ration stamps, in 1943.  He was sentenced to four months in prison for that offense on October 7.

In the meantime the ground floor had been converted to a barber shop by the mid 1930s.  Operated by barber Salvatore Di Sapio, it doubled each year as a polling place.  Among the first voters here on November 2, 1937 was Tammany Hall leader Albert Marinelli.  The New York Times reported "He entered a barbershop at 215 Cleveland Place just after 6 A. M., spent a brief space at the machine and then stepped out to vote the paper P. R. ballot.  'A real Democratic vote,' he announced as he dropped the ballot into the slot."

Two years later it was not a politician whose name appeared in newspapers, but the barber's.  Salvatore Di Sapio and his wife, Angelina, lived on Staten Island with their four daughters.  He quietly cut hair in his three-chair shop on Cleveland Place.  Nothing, it would seem, suggested that he was involved in the criminal activities of the area.

For decades James J. Hines had been described by newspapers as "powerful" in the Tammany administration.  But as political reformers gained strength his reputation changed.  In May 1938 The Times referred to him as a "shadowy figure."  He was arrested for graft, corruption and illegal gambling.

On March 1, 1939 officials from District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey's office walked into Di Sapio's barber shop and arrested him.  He was charged "with attempting to influence a juror in the recent trial of James J. Hines."

The barber's attorney attempted to paint him as an unknowing pawn.  He told the court "that his client was a 'dunce or a boob' to have undertaken the fixing job, and that he had been 'sucked in on this,'" reported The New York Times on March 23, 1939.  The newspaper said "The type of sentence imposed on the barber will mean that he may serve from six months to three years."

Justice Finegan was unswayed by the attorney's argument; instead feeling that it was Di Sapio who had persuaded his accomplice in the case.  "I believe this man Di Sapio, led this man Ficke into this thing."

The judge lambasted Di Sapio when he handed down the guilty verdict.  "You can't make money like that.  You will suffer more than any sentence I can mete out for the rest of your days because you'll be shunned and your children will have a hard time living this down."

In 1984 United States House of Representative Geraldine Ferraro became the first female Vice Presidential candidate representing a major American political party.  Her husband, John Anthony Zaccaro ran the real estate company, P. Zaccaro & Company, founded by his father Philip.  He found himself in an unwanted spotlight following his wife's sudden celebrity.  Past improprieties and corruption convictions were now newsworthy.

On August 18, 1984 The Times printed a list of properties P. Zaccaro & Company managed; many of which were gritty tenements with eye-brow raising connections.  "City deed records now list the owner of a combined lot at 21-23-25 Cleveland Place as Joseph LaForte, whom the city police described to the Senate committee as a leader of the Gambino crime family" said the article.

The Soho area was revitalized in the coming years, and Savatore Di Sapio's old barber shop became La Locanda Di Giotto, an Italian restaurant in 1986.  In 1991 it was taken over by Caffe Giardino, described as a "small unpretentious cafe" with a large garden which "attracts tourists."  It later became home to Le Jardin, a "homey French bistro with a lovely garden," and then, in 2011, trendy restaurant What Happens When.

In 2006 No. 25 and its twin at No. 23 were purchased and the owner quickly hired David Turner Architect PC to "reconstruct" the combined buildings as a new condominium.  The Department of Buildings' permit allowed the removal of portions of the interiors, noting "Roofing Removal Excluded."

In what was most likely a deliberate "Oops!" moment the contractors demolished the roof of No. 23 and were quickly hit with a Stop Work Order in 2007.

Nine years later, in 2016, little has changed.  No. 23 sits partially demolished while No 25, with its gloriously colorful history of immigrant struggles, Prohibition gangsters and dirty politicians, awaits its fate.

photographs by the author

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The John L. Hasbrouck Bldg - No. 75 Hudson Street

The cast iron base begs for sympathetic attention.

John L. Hasbrouck came "of an old Huguenot family which was forced to leave France because of religious persecution," according to The Sun.  Born in Utica in 1810, he moved to New York City in 1860.  Financially secure, he purchased an interest in Benjamin Van Schaick's wholesale grocery operation.  Just five years later he founded his own firm, John L. Hasbrouck & Co.

John L. Hasbrouck & Co. was a departure from the grocery business.  Originally a wine importing firm, it would eventually include its own liquor distillery in Brooklyn.  For his substantial business, Hasbrouck quickly planned a new building.  He commissioned architect George Youngs to design a five story structure at No. 75 Hudson Street.

Cornelius Vanderbilt had purchased the St. John's Park neighborhood nearby in 1866.  He replaced the elegant Federal style mansions and park with the Hudson River Railway Company's freight depot.  Hasbrouck's chosen site was conveniently located to the depot.

The building was completed in 1868.  Hasbrouck announced his success by facing the building in gleaming white marble above the cast iron base.  The four-story upper section was divided into two parts.  At each level handsome pilasters with Corinthian capitals posed on paneled bases.  They stretched one-and-a-half stories before erupting in carved window moldings.  Rusticated piers ran along the sides the full length before terminating in brackets which resembled a single curled leaf or petal.  Even the modillioned cornice was executed in marble.

Hasbrouck was also a Director in the Fourth National Bank, and in the Columbia Fire Insurance Company.  He owned significant real estate, most of it north of the city.  When he brought his sons, Price W. and George S., into the business, the name was changed to John L. Hasbrouck & Sons.

The firm had unwanted publicity in 1894.  Joseph Ramsay Clark was a sales representative, or "drummer," for Hasbrouck.  When Lucy Harr Clark filed suit for alimony in Newark's Chancery Court he insisted the woman was not his wife.

Lucy, whom The Sun described as "a comely woman of light complextion [sic], 24 years old," had been employed as a housekeeper in the home of Clark's father in Lebanon, New Jersey in 1889.  The newspaper reported on her shocking testimony.  "She says the defendant continually made love to her, and, yielding to his importunities, she accompanied him to this city May 29, 1891, and they were married by a minister whom Clark addressed as the Rev. Mr. Smith."

The rushed marriage was no doubt prompted by the fact that Lucy was pregnant.  She returned to New Jersey and the baby arrived in November.   According to her, Joseph suddenly refused to acknowledge their marriage.  "Clark denies the plaintiff's story," said The Sun.  A trial was necessary to straighten out the conflicting stories.

Later that year John L. Hasbrouck broke his leg.  Refusing to be slowed down, the feisty businessman used crutches to get around.  But a year later, in January 1895, he broke his other leg.  He quickly declined.  On February 1 the 85-year old died "of paralysis" at his home at No. 151 West 23rd Street.

John Hasbrouck's sons moved the business headquarters to Brooklyn.  On November 18, 1898 the sale of the building to John Campbell & Co. was announced.  The $80,000 price would equate to about $2.4 million in 2016 dollars.

John Campbell was born in Liverpool, England.  He founded the dyestuff company that bore his name in 1878.  Now among the best-known manufacturers of dyes in the country, the erudite businessman was also a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History.

The company's extensive factory was located in Newark, New Jersey.  The Hudson Street building served as its offices and shipping facilities.

In February 1905 the 50-year old Campbell contracted typhoid fever.  Just two months later, on April 11, he died in his brick and brownstone rowhouse at No. 24 West 88th Street.  The operation of the business passed to George H. Whaley, the new president.

In 1918, with the country embroiled in World War I, John Campbell & Co. issued a pamphlet to other dye manufacturers.  In it Whaley insisted that America made "colors that are equal to, and in many instances better than, the so-called German standards."  He urged his counterparts to stop using German names for their dyes.

"No American mill man should use the German trade words for the names by which he has known colors in the past.  To do so would be playing right into the hands of the German business propagandist.  Therefore, let us be loyal to everything American, and among other things designate the American colors by their American names."

The firm's classy 1909 advertisement in The Sun was formal and understated (copyright expired)
If Joseph Ramsey Clark had brought scandal to the Hudson Street address; it would be nothing compared to that caused by May M. Croke.  By the time the anti-German pamphlet was published, the attractive young woman had been working as George H. Whaley's private stenographer a few year.

The executive-secretary relationship quickly became romantic (Whaley later said "their acquaintance had ripened into affection").  In 1917 Whaley put the title of the house at No. 301 West 88th Street, at West End Avenue, in May's name.  And in 1919 he gave her a fully-paid month's vacation.

Whaley told May that he would divorce his wife so they could be married.  When she returned from her vacation, he gave her a $2,200 diamond engagement ring and, indeed, divorced his wife.  What he did not realize was that May was carrying on an affairs with other married men in the office.

But soon his suspicions led him to hire private detectives who followed her.  Their reports showed "Miss Croke had associated with other men," including Monte F. Jacobs.  In fact, Whaley learned that much of the money he had been giving May was being spent on Jacobs.

It all became public when Effie Elizabeth Jacobs sued May for $100,000 damages for alienation of affection.  She got an attachment against the West 88th Street house pending the court's decision.  While May Croke appeared in the public eye as a gold-digging harlot; the once-respected George H. Whaley emerged as a fool.

Whaley weathered the embarrassing publicity and stayed at the helm of John Campbell & Co.  By 1922 he was President of the firm's two related companies, also in the building: Amalgamated Dyestuff & Chemical Works and The Republic Color & Chemical Works.  John Campbell & Co. remained in the building through 1947.

The building's marble facade stands out between its brick-faced neighbors.

Produce firms like the Brooklyn Egg Case Co. occupied the building through the next few decades.  But as Tribeca changed, so did No. 75 Hudson Street.  In 2003 it was converted to five apartments designated as "joint living and working quarters for artists."

photographs by the author

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The 1887 Engine Co. 55 -- No. 185 Lafayette Street

On April 10, 1886 the Board of Commissioners announced it would accept bids for "for furnishing the materials and labor, and doing the work required for construction and erecting" the firehouse for Engine Company No. 55 at No. 173 Elm Street.  The once residential neighborhood of half a century earlier was now filling with factories and warehouses.

Napoleon LeBrun & Son was the official architectural firm of the Fire Department.  The 1880s saw a flurry of firehouse construction as the city planned new stations in developing areas and modernized several existing houses.  Although Napoleon LeBrun & Son would be remembered for their exciting, individual firehouse designs, for several years during this period they recycled one Queen Anne model.

Engine Company No. 55 was completed in 1887.  Its facade was textured by diapered brickwork, highlighted with terra cotta ornaments, and trimmed in stone.  Three stories of brick sat upon a cast iron base dominated by the wide, paneled double bay doors.  The firehouse was strikingly similar to several others--like Engine Company No. 54 on West 47th and Engine Company No. 15 on Henry Street.
When completed in 1887, the firehouse was flanked by low, residential structures. The top floor was lopped off around 1898.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The firefighters of Engine Company 55 dealt not only with blazes in the low frame buildings from the first half of the century; but with hard to fight fires in the taller loft structures.  An example was the fire which broke out in the five-story building at No. 59 Spring Street on May 24, 1888.

Hugh McGinnis hired older Irish women to work in his "rag warehouse."  Ten were sorting rags on the top floor at 11:00 that morning when, as worded by the New-York Tribune, "a fire broke out almost under their noses."  The panicked women ran as the floor filled with smoke,

Seven women made it to the street safely.  Three others were less lucky.  The Tribune reported "Bridget O'Mara of Leonard-st., went down as far as the third-story and then tried to slide down a rope in the hoistway.  She lost her hold about sixteen feet from the ground and fell the rest of the way, breaking a rib and receiving serious internal injuries."

The central panels of the cast iron pilasters were like gently folded fabric; while the capitals were in the form of stylized flames.

By now Engine Company No. 55 was on the scene.  Firefighter Edwin Ford ran up through the flames.  He found Catharine Sullivan, her dress on fire, trying to escape to the roof.  He carried her to the roof of an adjoining building, then down the stairway to the sidewalk.  The newspaper said "She had been burned dangerously about the face and limbs."

Another worker, Mary McCarthy, had jumped from the window to the roof of the building at the rear.  Although she suffered only a sprained wrist and went home; Bridget O'Mara died at St. Vincent's Hospital later that night and a hospital spokesperson said that Catherine Sullivan, too, would probably die.

Only five years after the building's completion, in October 1892 the Board of Estimate and Apportionment budgeted funds for a new site "for Engine Company 55, now at 173 Elm Street near Broome Street."  The move was no doubt in anticipation of the proposed extension of Lafayette Place to Elm Street, and the simultaneous widening of Elm.

That ambitious civic project began in 1897 when the city condemned and demolished the buildings between Jersey Street and Great Jones Street in the way of the Elm Street project.  On July 7, 1898 The New York Times reported "Bids were opened for a new fire house at Broome and Elizabeth Streets, for Engine 55, which must move from Elm Street because of the widening of the street."

Elm Street was now part of the newly-formed Lafayette Street, taking the new address of No. 185 Lafayette Street.  Rather astonishingly, after Engine Company 55 moved out the city moved the facade back to the new property line.  It was no doubt at this time that the top floor was lopped off. The cornice, the band of terra cotta rosettes, and the brick corbelled brackets were all carefully lowered to make the alterations seamless.

The city retained possession of the old firehouse, maintaining it according to Fire Commissioner Adamson in 1914, "solely as sleeping quarters for Deputy Fire Chief Thomas R. Langford."  Three years later the city clumped No. 185 Lafayette Street with several other properties to be traded "for undeveloped land at Inwood Hill owned by private parties," according to The Sun on May 19, 1917.

Converted for business use, the ground floor of No. 185 was an automotive repair shop by 1923; and at mid century was the "surplus store" owned by Elias Ziegler.  By the turn of the 21st century the Soho neighborhood around No. 185 Lafayette Street saw the repurposing of old lofts and warehouses into residential spaces and trendy shops.  In 2004 the old firehouse was converted to a ground floor studio and a single apartment above.

In 2009 fashion and celebrity photographer Terry Richardson paid $3.3 million for the 2,800-square-foot residence.  Through it all the building retained the signature touches which make it immediately identifiable as the work of Napoleon LeBrun.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Benjamin George Friedman for suggesting this post