Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Much Abused Lorrain Freeman House - 198 Prince St

A strong imagination is required to envision the original two-story structure that housed a well-to-do family.

In the 18th century the Bayard family's country estate abutted that of Major Abraham Mortimer, just south of Greenwich Village.   In the early years after the Revolution, the inevitability of development was clear and the Bayard family prepared by hiring Theodore Goerck in 1788 to map out prospective streets and building plots on their land.

Rather surprisingly, given that the British had been ousted from New York only five years earlier, among the streets Goerck laid out was one named Prince Street.   Actual development on the Bayard estate did not begin until the 1820s.  Around 1831 wealthy iron merchant Lorrain Freeman began construction of his brick-faced home at No. 198 Prince Street.

The completed 20-foot wide house straddled the Federal and the newer Greek Revival styles.  Described by The New York Herald as a "two story attic and basement brick house," it would have sprouted one or two dormers from the peaked attic level, expected in the Federal style.  The doorway featured Federal style Ionic columns, sidelights and a transom.  The iron stoop railings, however, were more in line with Greek Revival.  The upscale tone of the house was reflected in the marble stoop and trim.

Freeman had married Elizabeth Barron Mundy in 1829.  The bride was 21 and the groom just 19. Their first child, Sarah Elizabeth, was born on February 8, 1831, around the time construction began on the Prince Street house.  She would be the first of eight children.

In 1842 Freeman suffered a financial "embarrassment."  On November 25 the New-York Daily Tribune reported on his bankruptcy.  He managed to recover, however, and by 1858 was a director of the Metropolitan Insurance Company and at the time of his death in September 1875 his estate was valued at $320,000--more than $7 million today.

The family had left Prince Street long before Freeman's death.  Transferred first to Charles Whitmore Smith in 1836, No. 198 became home in 1863 to Jeremiah Duane.  A deputy sheriff, Duane and his wife had lived on the second floor of an apartment building at the corner of 46th Street and Third Avenue.  An office was in the building's storefront.  They lost their home in the riots earlier that year.

For three violent days in July New York City was terrorized by what became known as the Draft Riots.   To augment troops fighting the Civil War, a new law had been enacted to draft men into the army.  But corrupt practitioners focused on the working class—primarily Irish immigrants—while the wealthy bought their way out of service.  What started as a protest against the draft quickly disintegrated into a bloody riot with mobs ransacking homes and businesses, murdering innocent blacks, and beating random civilians caught on the streets.

The day before the draft a man stopped Mrs. Duane and asked her "as to the modes of ingress and egress to and from the [apartment] house," according to The New York Times a week later.  He told her he "intended to throw a keg of powder into the office and blow the whole affair up."

The newspaper reported "She remonstrated with him, and told him that her family and a number of families resided there, which drew from him the advice that she 'had better move out as it would soon be too hot to hold any of them.'"  The unnamed man warned her that, because the first floor held the office of Provost-Marshal Jenkins, the building was certain to be attacked.

True to the his word, the building, filled with innocent families, was set on fire on Monday, June 15.  While the mob gleefully shouted on the streets, the residents scrambled to escape.  The Times wrote "Mr. Duane was enabled to save an armful of his wife's clothing, besides which he rescued not a thing from the flames.  His family fortunately escaped in the early part of the fray, but he saved his life only after great peril."

Duane filed a claim with the City on August 6, 1863 for $4,703.46 in lost personal property.  He earned $134 per month at the time, equal to about $31,000 a year today.

It appears that the Duane family, which included Thomas Duane, augmented its income by renting a room in the Prince Street house.  In 1865 John R. Russell, a "school officer," listed his address here.   Nevertheless, they were financially comfortable enough to afford a servant.  On January 2, 1866 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald seeking "A girl to do general housework in a very small family; she must be a good plain cook and washer and ironer."

The Duane family remained in the Prince Street house until April 1868, when it was purchased by police captain John Jourdan and his wife for $13,000--just under a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

Jourdan was well known throughout the city as a crack detective.  His reputation would later earn him comparison to the fictional Sherlock Holmes.  Born to poor immigrant Irish parents on January 6, 1831, he started his education in the public schools.  But, as explained by The New York Times later, "his parents' circumstances compelled him to begin life early on his own account."

Still in his teens, he got "irregular employment" with the various newspaper offices as a folder.  Then, on May 11, 1853 at the age of 22, he joined the Police Department as a patrolman.  He almost immediately displayed his detective skills.

Having been on the force for just over a year, the foot patrolman recovered $20,000 worth of jewelry stolen from Ball & Black, then tracked down $15,000 in silks stolen from another firm.  He was quickly promoted to detective.  The Times wrote "So well had he become known as a sharp detective and courageous officer, that the Board of Commissioners made him a Sergeant on the 24th of April, 1860."  His next promotion, to Captain, came on January 31, 1863.

Jourdan's reputation spread among both the criminal and law-abiding elements.  "Merchants and others found him always ready and eager to take up a case, no matter how hopeless, and his detective acumen was of such a high order that he rarely failed to clear the most mysterious or puzzling case.  He became so well acquainted with the criminal classes of this and other cities of the Union that it seemed easy for him to pick out the man who had committed the offense given him to investigate.  Burglars and other desperate thieves came to fear him."

In 1870 the Board of Police said of Jourdan "His capacity as a detective officer was not surpassed, and probably not equaled, by that of any other member of the force"  illustration from Our Police Protectors, by Augustine E. Costello, 1885 (copyright expired)

Two years after purchasing No. 198, on April 11, 1870, Jourdan was promoted to Superintendent.  Three months later the gruesome murder of millionaire Benjamin Nathan was committed in his West 23rd Street mansion.  The mystery would be the one that Jourdan could not solve, and it was widely blamed as causing his death.

On October 10, 1870 The Times reported "We regret to say that Mr. John Jourdan, the Superintendent of the Police Department of this City, is in a dying condition at his residence, No. 198 Prince-street, and he is not expected to live many hours."  It added "his ambition to repress existing evils in the Department led him to overtask his strength, and the occurrence of the Nathan murder greatly added to his anxiety and work.  For nearly an entire month after that terribly-mysterious crime Mr. Jourdan scarcely slept or rested, in his extraordinary efforts to secure an elucidation of the mystery that yet surrounds that assassination."

The journalist concluded "This, added to the great strain on his mental faculties, brought on a severe prostration, and he was compelled to desist and place himself under the care of physicians.  Even then he persisted in keeping cognizance of the business of the Department, and it was only within a week that he failed to leave his house for his office-chair."

The night before The Times article the Prince Street house was besieged with concerned friends and relatives.  Police Commissioners Bosworth, Brennan, Manierre and Smith; Captains Kelso, Walsh and Kennedy, Judge Dowling and Warden Stacom were among those visiting the dying man.

He died at 11:45 on October 10.  The following day the newspapers reported on his death with flowery prose.  The New York Times wrote "The last scene in the life of John Jourdan, late Superintendent of Police, occurred...when quietly, without a struggle, and as if sinking into a gentle slumber, he breathed his last."

The New York Herald said "He fell a victim to his energetic and faithful devotion to his duty, his demise being, no doubt, accelerated by the anxiety which a nature of great sensibility experienced in discharging the many functions attaching to the office."

Jourdan's impressive funeral in St. Patrick's Cathedral was in keeping with his reputation.  A solemn high mass was celebrated and the police force formed what The Times called "an imposing display."

The newspaper noted "The deceased leaves a widow, but no children, and also leaves a large fortune, a portion of which he acquired by inheritance and the remained by honest industry in his profession."

Jourdan's widow was joined in the house by a few close relatives; but she would not stay on for long.  Less than two months after the funeral, at around 2:00 on the morning of Friday December 2, burglars broke into the house while the occupants slept.

The Times reported "Although the house was apparently thoroughly ransacked none of the inmates were awakened by the operations of the marauders, who escaped with a quantity of silver-ware valued at $60.  The burglars are supposed to be professionals, but as yet the Police have obtained no clue to them or the stolen property."

It was most likely not the lost silver, worth about $1,120 today, but the terrifying break-in that most unnerved Mrs. Jourdan.   Four months later, on April 27, 1871, she sold the house at auction.

The house was purchased by Herman F. Bleck who owned a nearby saloon.   He and his wife, Augusta, were married on April 27, 1873.  A week later he attempted to sell the business, offering "a corner wine and lager beer saloon at a bargain, in the Fifteenth ward, near Broadway; good location; three years leased; a rare chance; must be sold; satisfactory reasons for selling.  Inquire at 198 Prince street."

The "satisfactory reasons" Bleck had for needing to sell the business may have been his domestic problems.  According to Augusta, just four days after the wedding he "committed adultery with a woman" in the Prince Street house. 

The couple seem to have patched things up and Herman continued to run the saloon until January 1875 when he leased it to Charles Rivinius.   His wandering ways, however, did not stop and in 1879 Augusta had had enough.  She filed for divorce, charging that at least twice in 1874 he had entertained "a woman or women" in the Prince Street house, and had committed adultery with a woman named Clara Davis at Paige's Hotel on the corner of Spring and West Streets and "at other places in the city of New York" in 1878 and 1879.

Bleck was unapologetic.  His answer to her complaint said she was "fully informed" of his dalliances and "afterwards freely cohabited with him, and condoned any act of adultery which he may have committed, and forgave him therefor, and that ever since such condonation he has been a faithful husband to the plaintiff, and has constantly treated her with conjugal kindness."

By the time of the puzzling divorce hearing Bleck had sold the Prince Street house to Henry Pull.  He commissioned architects Frederick Graul & Co. to renovate the structure in January 1876.  The plans described the work as "raised two stories, interior alterations."  The $3,500 worth of changes made the 1831 house nearly unrecognizable.

Now four stories high, it boasted updated metal lintels and a bracketed cast metal cornice.  A storefront with a metal cornice and hood was installed in the basement level.

The storefront is remarkably little changed.

In February 1880 John Leibold purchased what was now described as a "four-story brick store and dwelling" for $11,500; or around $275,000 today.   The title was put in the name of his wife, Margaretha.  The couple, who owned several properties in the neighborhood, did not occupy the building.  Instead they lived nearby at No. 123 Prince Street.

Three years after purchasing the building, in September 1883, the Leibolds hired architect A. Grauf to do substantial improvements.  The $3,000 in "front and interior alterations" nearly equaled the cost of the additional two stories.  The interior alterations would have either increased the number of roomers that could be housed, or possibly improved their accommodations.

At the time the basement store was occupied by a tailor shop.  In October that year it was leased by the City as an election polling site.

The store soon became the wine shop of George Ferina.  He ran his store here for years, until tragedy struck on April 1, 1899.  He was crossing the railroad tracks at Aldene, New Jersey that night when he was truck and killed by a fast moving east-bound freight train.

The Prince Street neighborhood was part of Little Italy by now.  In April 1907 Antonio Calandrelo purchased No. 198 for $16,250.    The following year he hired architect Charles M. Straub to, once again, update the building, described as a store and tenement.  The improvements included new walls, fire escapes, toilets, and skylights. 

Calendrelo and his wife, Maria, retained possession until 1925 when it became property of Anthony Epifania.  The Epifania family lived in the building.  John A. Epifania served as a election inspector in 1927.

Tax photographs from the 1940s show that some of the original detailing, like the entrance with its columns and transom, survived.  But the subsequent decades of the 20th century would not be kind to the old structure.

Today a coat of cream-colored paint applied in the second half of the century is flaking off.  Hints of the Federal style entrance remain; however the columns have been lost and a gruesome box-like structure covers what had been the transom.  Quite amazingly, the metal-hooded storefront survives.

Most of the marble stoop treads survive.  The railings, decorated with Greek anthemions, originally terminated at their rolled down ends.  The newels, salvaged from an 1890s fence or railing, were added in the 20th century.

Passersby glancing at the top step today see a rubber garbage can where New York's most famous detective once entered his home.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Country Charm Amid Bridge Traffic -- No. 313 East 58th Street

In the 18th century the area near the East River around what would become 58th Street was lonely.  Travelers using the Eastern Post Road could stop at the inn called The Union Flag (the name of which referred, of course, to the British colors, not the later American union).  The tavern sat approximately where the approach to the Queensboro Bridge is today.

But the decade prior to the Civil War saw the beginnings of development as streets were laid out and building plots sold.  In 1856 builder and mason Hiram G. Disbrow began construction on his own modest home at what would later be numbered 313 East 58th Street.  Simultaneously Charles Shute Pell erected a similar house on the lot next door.

Disbrow's home was completed in 1857.   He had no doubt acted as his own architect and the two-story tall structure made no attempts at ostentation.  Described as "vernacular" in style today, it exhibited some elements of the Greek Revival style in the doorway and bracketed cornice, for instance.  The parlor openings were, in fact, French doors.  They were less practical as access to the wooden porch than for adding ventilation into the house during hot summer months.

Disbrow was a partner with George Whitefield in the building firm of Disbrow & Whitefield.  A daughter, Emma, was born to him and his wife, Catherine on February 20, 1860.  By the time the toddler tragically died on March 30, 1862, the family had moved to No. 165 East 50th Street.

An interesting side note is that in 1899 the aging Hiram G. Disbrow patented an invention far afield from the building business.  His "reversible tie" was described as having "sides of different color or material."  For the price of one tie, the customer would get two.

In the mid-1890s James Jordan, "dealer in window-shades, and carpets, &c." lived in No. 313.  His next door neighbor, at No. 311, was the Prussian-born merchant Mathias Down.  Down had owned that house since 1877 and now his grandson, Herman Weiden, lived there as well.

Down died before 1920 and at some point Weiden purchased No. 311 as well.   By now not only had apartment buildings closed in around the houses; but the massive Queensboro Bridge had wiped out much of the old neighborhood.  Its approach was mere yards from the properties.

The end of the line for the quaint anachronisms seemed near in April 1928.  On April 28 real estate operator and builder Milton Barkin, of Samuel Barkin & Sons, purchased Nos. 311 and 313 "from the Weiden estate," as reported in the newspapers (Herman Weiden was, incidentally, very much alive).  The New York Times reported on September 13 the firm's intention to build "a nine-story apartment house at 311-313 East Fifty-eighth Street."

The two 1857 houses as they appeared in March 1928.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

But something happened with the ambitious project.  The Weidens never relinquished title to No. 311 and No. 313 was purchased as the headquarters for the Humane Society of New York.   Mae Colbert Liotta, executive secretary and assistant to the president of the Society, lived in the upper portion of the house with her widowed mother, Margaret Colbert. 

Large fund raising events for the Humane Society of New York rarely took place from the house (the benefit dinner and dance at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1935, for instance, lured patrons with names like Morgan, Dodge, Armour, and Roosevelt).  But it was the scene of one especially anticipated annual event--the Christmas party for children and their pets.

The event was no small affair, especially for pets and children.  On December 25, 1935 The New York Times reported "The party, which lasted an hour and a half, got underway with the playing of marches by members of the Kips Bay Boy Scouts, Troop 472, whose bugles and drums attracted a crowd to the Christmas tree erected at the front door of the society's building.

"Pets were brought in their best regalia, some with yellow ribbons and furbished leather harness.  One woman carried her cat in a crate usually used to ship oranges."

One man that year even brought his two white mice.  The Santa Claus was ready for more expected pets like dogs and cats, and his sack was filled with gifts of collars, blankets, leashes and food.  The mice sent workers scurrying.  "They received pieces of cheese and crackers," said the article.

A second Santa suit, right down to the long white beard, was worn by Paddy Reilly who made a special appearance.  He was the mascot terrier of the Society and lived in the house.  He received two loving cups during that event.  One was for saving the life of a woman in Jamaica Bay.  He barked until a passing boater heard him and plucked her from the water.  The other was from "an admirer" who was impressed with Paddy's help in raising $3,600 that year.   He routinely strolled the city streets with a money cup on his back "seeking aid for dumb animals," as described by The Times.

Two years later Paddy Reilly would add a special honor to his growing collection of medals "for his bravery and devotion."   Artist Helen Stotesbury visited the 58th Street headquarters where the terrier sat for his oil portrait.  Stotesbury was the daughter of Brigadier General Louis W. Stotesbury, president of the Humane Society.  She proclaimed Paddy "the best subject she ever had."  The portrait was sold to benefit the organization at the dog's 17th birthday party the following week.

A woman approaches the porch with her dog.  Those who could not afford to pay a veterinarian were welcome at the Society's free clinic.  photo via

Margaret Colbert died on October 22, 1938.  As had been the practice in the house in the 19th century, her funeral was held here several days later.

Mae Colbert Liotta continued to live on the second floor.  She threw herself into the Society's work, organizing and heading its street displays, free clinic, courses in animal care and other activities.  On December 13, 1943, for instance, she announced through the newspapers that anyone who called at the 58th Street house that day with a horse and wagon would be given a free horse blanket.

Exactly one week later Mae was working on the upcoming Christmas Party at her desk when she was seized with a heart attack.  She died later that afternoon at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital at the age of 53.

The Humane Society of New York continued to operate from the house for three more decades.  In 1952 when the State passed the Metcalf-Hatch Animal Research Bill, authorizing the "turning over of stray dogs and cats to laboratories and institutions for experiments," it was the scene of dissent.  The New York Times reported on February 13 "The 100-year old green-and-white clapboard cottage at 313 East Fifty-eighth Street, housing the Humane Society of New York was the scene of a protest meeting yesterday."

The Humane Society of New York moved to its new headquarters in 1974.  The East 58th Street building was purchased by Paul Steindler and his wife, Aja.  Steindler had fled his native Czechoslovakia during the 1945 Communist takeover.  He was at that time an Olympic wrestler and Aja was the world ice skating champion.  By now the couple had given up athletics to become restaurateurs.

Thankfully, No. 313 had been named a New York City landmark in 1970.  While designation did not protect the interior details, it safeguarded the exterior. 

The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne explained on September 8, 1976 "[Steindler] has gutted the building and excavated a basement.  When it is transformed into a restaurant, tentatively named Paul's Landmark, it will have an inner dining room with a seating capacity of 85, plus a patio."

Considering using the word "landmark" in the name was ironic since Steindler wiped out the interior architectural history of the structure.  Instead, the restaurant was named The Czech Pavillion.  A 1979 advertisement touted "Classic Czech cooking...Charming...Townhouse Atmosphere" and offered "Enjoy piano music of the Old World nightly in the Skylight Room."

Although the building was still owned by the Steindlers, in 1981 The Czech Pavillion became Le Club, described by a newspaper as "the disco for New York's power elite."  In 1989 the club's director, Patrick Shield reminded a New York Magazine reporter that "party animals like F. Ross Johnson, Donald Trump, Ronald O. Perelman, Henry Kravis, and Saul Steinberg" haunted Le Club "three and four nights a week, with the most magnificent girls.  They were swinging."

When Le Club moved out late in 1996, Aja Steindler (Paul had died in 1983) leased the house to Rocco Ancarola, owner of Cafe Boom in Soho.  He announced plans to open a new restaurant, Two Rooms, with a formal dining room on the ground floor and cafe and lounge on the second.  That project lasted only until spring of 1999.

Now it became The Landmark Club, "a restaurant, not a club."  The owner, Shamsher Wadud who also operated the restaurant Nirvana, was quick to point out to food critic Florence Fabricant "Only the exterior of the building, built in the 1850s as a residence, is a city landmark."

Finally, in 2010 artist John Ransom Phillips purchased the 154-year old house as his residence and studio for around $4.7 million.  Ironically it was the absence of the 19th century interior elements that attracted him.   Joyce Cohen, writing in The New York Times on November 19, 2010 explained "When Mr. Phillips saw the former dance floor, with two skylights--one of them with 16 glass panels in a vaulted ceiling--he began to see possibilities."

In 1970 Adolf K. Placzek of the Columbia University's Avery Arrchitectural Library perfectly described Hiram G. Disbrow's charming residence as "a little gem of human proportion."  Against all odds it, along with the Pell house next door, survives on the busy street, mostly ignored by the motorists intent on accessing the Queensboro Bridge. 

photographs by the author

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Edwin R. A. Seligman House - No. 324 West 86th St.

In 1890, in one sweeping deal, millionaire William E. D. Stokes teamed with contractors Squire & Whipple to build 32 upscale homes--21 of them on West 86th Street and 11 on West 72nd.  The project was additionally unusual in that the residences were not in long, continuous rows; but splattered about in groups of four, two or even one.

Among these seems to have been No. 324 West 86th Street, between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue.  The prim four-story neo-Renaissance design of beige brick and stone was a restrained exception to the often more fanciful architecture of Upper West Side rowhouses.  But its proper demeanor was the perfect setting for its decidedly academic owner, Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman.

One of nine children born to millionaire bank and businessman Joseph Seligman, he had graduated from Columbia University in 1879, then studied throughout Europe--at the universities of Berlin, Geneva, Paris and Heidelberg.  He married Caroline Beer in 1888 and the couple would have three daughters and one son.

Seligman was appointed Professor of Political Economy and Finance at Columbia in 1891.  Among America's foremost minds in matters of economics, he was editor of the Political Science Quarterly, and wrote authoritative books including Essays in Taxation, The Shifting and Incidence of Taxation, Progressive Taxation, and Railway Tariffs.

The Seligman house was rarely the scene of glittering entertainments.  It was more often the scene of serious discussion.  Seligman was the president of the Tenement House Building Co. and chairman of the committee on education of the Educational Alliance.  His interests were not totally dry and academic, however.  He was also a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American School of Classical Studies at Rome, and the American Historical Society.

The Seligman children were raised in an atmosphere of privilege and sophistication.   Violet, who was born in 1900, went off to the exclusive Bryn Mawr women's college in the fall of 1917--the same year that a measles epidemic broke out nationwide.   Considered more of an annoyance today, measles was a dangerous disease, often worsening to broncho- or lobar-pneumonia.   That year the United State Army alone reported 47,573 cases among its troops; and 947 patients across the U.S. died.

In March 1918 Violet contracted the measles, which then complicated into pneumonia.  The 18-year old freshman died at the college in April.    

Afterward, life in the Seligman home was happily without incident until January 27, 1926.  Edwin had been ill for a few days, so he was resting in his bedroom that evening while Caroline and their youngest daughter had dinner.  Afterward, at around 7:30, Caroline went up to her bedroom "to prepare a table with gifts for her daughter's birthday celebration" which was the next day.

Among the gifts she went to gather up was a pricey pearl necklace.  When she opened her bureau drawer, she was panicked to see the necklace was gone.  She told investigators "Then I noticed that the bathroom widow was open, and I realized what had happened."

What had happened was that a gutsy burglar had climbed onto the roof of Edwin's study, which projected out in the rear, then pushed the bathroom window open and slipped in.  With Edwin in the bedroom next door, he rifled through Caroline's drawers, taking away her jewelry box with approximately $8,000 of jewelry (about $107,000 today), Edwin's watch, cash, and bank notes.

The Seligmans sold their home of nearly four decades to The New York Psychoanalytic Institute in the early 1930s.  For the academic year of 1933-34, the facility offered courses such as Psychoanalysis and Social Work, Psychoanalysis and the Law, and Psychoanalysis in Medicine.

The former Seligman house would never again be a residence.  In the mid-1940s it became home to the Young Men's Philanthropic League, headed by Jack Wasserman.  The group would remain here until moving to 18th Street in 1955.

Its continued use by various institutions had saved the structure from being replaced by the looming modern apartment buildings that now lined the block.  In the fall of 1976 a radically different group took over the house, the Siddha Yoga Dham of New York.

New York Magazine explained on March 28, 1977, "Siddha Yoga attempts to awaken the dormant kundalini (divine energy) in disciples through the grade of the Siddha guru."   The guru on West 86th Street was Baba Muktanda, described in the article as "the most charismatic, compelling guru to grace the West with his prescience."

Today the Siddha Ashram continues to operated here, part of the Syda Foundation.  In their 2000 book Spiritual Places In and Around New York City, authors Len Belzer and Emily Squires said "Over the years, we have visited the Siddha Ashram on West 86th Street where enthusiastic followers sang out chants, spoke of their beliefs, and meditated together, all in heavenly rooms with carpeted floors, flickering candles, and worshipful pictures of the Siddha lineage."

Very little has outwardly changed to No. 324 West 86th Street.  Only a discreet metal plaque near the stoop announces the presence of the Siddha Ashram.  The Seligman house is one of the two surviving mansions among the row of apartments.

photograph by the author

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Lost Pacific Hotel - 170-176 Greenwich Street

The opening announcement, on July 1, 1836, pictured the new building.  The side lot would soon be landscaped as a garden.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

By the first years of the 1830s New York City was attracting visitors from England and Europe.  John Jacob Astor realized that the sophisticated travelers would pay for first class accommodations, not easily found in the fledgling city.  On June 1, 1836 he opened his lavish Astor House, deemed by a London newspaper as a "model of architectural beauty and of massive grandeur, luxurious and elegant in its appointments."

The Astor House opened with great fanfare.  A much quieter inauguration occurred exactly one month later, on July 1,  when the Pacific Hotel opened its doors.   Equally, elegant, it was much more intimate than the massive Astor House.  Today it might be termed a boutique hotel.

The Pacific Hotel sat on the west side Greenwich Street, between Cortlandt and Dey Streets, on land previously owned by Eli Hart.   Hart was a prosperous flour merchant whose main building sat on Dey Street.  He sold the Greenwich Street property to a wealthy retired seafarer, Captain William J. Bunker.   Like Astor, Bunker was convinced there was a market for a "public house" in that section of the city.

He erected a Greek Revival style structure five stories tall that looked as much like a private mansion as a hotel.  Veteran hoteliers Benjamin Jessups and R. C. Nichols were brought on as the proprietors.  The location was well chosen, being a short walk to what was then New York's business center.  According to The New York Herald later, "The busy docks, a few steps from the hotel, marked the arrival and departure of the Hudson river fleet of steam and sailing craft."

The announcement of the hotel's opening promised:

The Parlors, Drawing Rooms, and Bed chambers are large, airy and well lighted and each one is furnished with a fire place.  Separate Parlors & a Dressing salon are fitting up for the convenience of Ladies...The Furniture is new and in the most modern style, the Beds and Bedding are also new and of the best description.

Hotels were traditionally favorite targets for thieves and con artists.   A theft that took place in the Pacific Hotel in February 1838 prompted a reporter from the Morning Herald to comment "It was as cool a robbery as we have heard of for some time."

William MacAlroy checked in, but, according to the newspaper "had hardly a dollar to bless himself with."   The next day he arose and went to the bar-room to have his boots shined.

When the bootblack was done, MacAlroy asked asked him to hand him his cloak so he could pay the 50 cents for his boot shine.

"Which is it?" asked the boy.

"That new blue cloth one with velvet collar."

When the boy handed MacAlroy the cloak he ran from the hotel, later selling it for $5.  The actual owner told police he had just purchased it for $50, more than $1,300 in today's dollars.  The thief was arrested, "made no defense," and was found guilty.

Hiram Cranston had worked as a clerk in the hotel since its opening.  In 1839 Captain Bunker promoted the 25-year old to proprietor.  Cranson placed ads in the New York papers for months promising potential clients he would "at all times endeavor to merit a liberal share of public patronage."

In 1842 the Pacific Hotel was visited by Dr. Griffin, described by the New-York Herald as an "agent of the Lyceum of Natural History in London, recently from Pernambuco."  In fact, his name was Lyman and he was an employee of the master promoter Phineas Taylor Barnum.

New York reporters had gotten wind of Dr. Griffin's arrival following articles published a few days earlier in the Philadelphia papers.  Griffin had stopped for a few days in a hotel there, and after paying his bill said to the landlord "If you will step to my room, I will permit you to see something that will surprise you."

The proprietor was shown the Feejee Mermaid, called by Barnum later "the most extraordinary curiosity in the world."  Barnum wrote in his autobiography, "He was so highly gratified and interested that he earnestly begged permission to introduce certain friends of his, including several editors, to view the wonderful specimen."

The scheme was well thought out.  Barnum wrote "Suffice it to say, that the plan worked admirably, and the Philadelphia press aided the press of New-York in awakening a wide-reaching and increasing curiosity to see the mermaid."

The Feejee Mermaid, reproduced from the Sunday Herald in the 1855 The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself (copyright expired)

No sooner had Lyman, still assuming the name of Dr. Griffin, checked into the Pacific Hotel than it was besieged with reporters.   The creature was a meticulous melding of monkey and fish and Barnum was not surprised that the journalists were all completely fooled.  "It was a work of art, the monkey and fish were so nicely conjoined that no human eye could detect the point where the junction was formed."

The articles written after the viewing at the Pacific Hotel fostered rabid public curiosity.   On August 11, 1842 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "The Mermaid caught near the Feejee Islands, and now exhibiting, for three days only, at Concert Hall, 406 Broadway, is creating a wonderful excitement, thousands daily visiting it.  A committee of scientific gentlemen yesterday examined it, and not only pronounced it genuine, but decidedly the greatest wonder of the world."

By 1846 the Abolitionist Movement was causing heated discussions throughout the North.  It may have been the social and political climate that caused Hiram Cranston to leave his post at the Pacific Hotel and move to Baltimore that year.  The New York Times later remembered "Mr. Cranston was well-known as an outspoken sympathizer with the extreme Southern people, and his known position made him an object of great offense to many of the Union men in this City."

In the summer of 1843 the Pacific Hotel became the monthly meeting place of a new organization, hard to conceptualize by Manhattan residents today--The Farmers' Club.  The New-York Daily Tribune was thrilled.  On May 30 it announced "We have long wanted such an associated in our City, the resort of such vast numbers of Farmers and others who appreciate improvements in Agriculture."

In reporting that the first meeting would be held on June 22, the newspaper opined "Many of our farmers, gardeners, &c. would gladly avail themselves of the opportunity of showing some of their choice productions," and suggested "a table adorned with a few forest flowers would have a fine effect."

The members apparently took the Tribune's suggestion, but forgot to bring any produce.  It did not escape the notice of the reporter from the American Agriculturist.  Following the first meeting the journal complained "Large bouquets of flowers were brought in by different members to adorn the room, but we saw neither fruits nor vegetables.  We hope each member will feel himself bound to supply this omission at the next monthly meeting."

Businesses in mid 19th century often paid to have endorsements, disguised as editorials or news articles, published in local papers. On February 15, 1845 one such blurb appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune.  It marked the intimate size of the hotel as a distinct asset with a tongue-in-cheek comment:

The great houses have their advantages, and it is but fair to consider those also of hotels in which the distance from the parlor to your private room is not over three blocks.

By the time Captain Bunker sold the hotel to another retired captain, Aaron Flowers, in 1859, he had enlarged the building with an extension to the north.    Flowers immediately leased the business to John Patten, who updated the interiors and furnishings.  An auction was held on December 12 that year to sell the entire contents of the hotel--not only the Brussels carpeting, lace curtains and furnishings; but the glassware, china, silverware, decanters and kitchen ware.  Patten was determined to make the hotel completely modern, even selling "one locomotive Steam Boiler, about eight horse power, with hot water tank for laundry purposes."

William J. Bunker's annex is included in Patten's advertisement, around 1865.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Under Patten's management the hotel continued to thrive.  In 1864 he bought the property from Flowers and announced "The Proprietor...feels truly thankful for the liberal patronage received, and will continue his rates at $1.75 per day."  Considering the upscale accommodations, the rates were extremely affordable, about $27.60 a night today.

During the Civil War the Pacific Hotel was, according to Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, "patronized largely by officers of the army and navy, and famous for the dinners which the officers gave to their fellow officers and friends."  One such dinner got dangerously out of hand.

The magazine reported that the guests had been drinking and "an altercation arose between a popular actor...and one of the officers, in the course of which a blow was received and returned by the actor."  Other guests tried to intercede, but the actor's dignity had been bruised.  He insisted "on further satisfaction, and an adjournment in the lower end of the garden was proposed."

Pistols were obtained and a duel was held in the side garden of the hotel.  In retrospect, the hot-tempered actor might have rethought the wisdom of challenging a military man to a gunfight.  "The actor was wounded in the arm.  This ended the duel.  The wound was not a dangerous one; surgical skill was brought into requisition, and the actor went through his part that night with his arm in a sling."

Patten's son, John Patten, Jr. helped manage the hotel.  But when gold was discovered in the Black Hills in the Dakota Territory in 1874, the young man ached to find his fortune.  Apparently his father was against the idea; and John Jr. made an audacious proposal to a hotel guest.  He told Mrs. Joseph Kampe that if she would loan him $50--about $1,000 today--he would repay her $1,000 for every dollar when he returned.  Surprisingly, she agreed and young John Patten left New York on his questionable adventure.

John Patten, Sr. forged ahead without his son.  Intent on not letting his hotel become outdated, Patten again redecorated ten years after he purchased it.  In the fall of 1875 he advertised "Repainted and recarpeted complete; a most convenient family hotel for gentlemen whose business pursuits confine them to the lower part of the city."

A few months later a scourge of yellow fever swept through the streets of Savannah, Georgia.  On September 10, 1876 The New York Herald reported "The inhabitants of Savannah have been fleeing from it as fast as possible, the majority leaving it by railroad."  One of those fugitives was a long-time friend of Patten and a repeated guest of the hotel.  C. M. Symons arrived on September 4.

His description of conditions in Savannah touched on a tragic truth about epidemics: only those with money could escape.  The poor were left to suffer and, often, die.  He told Patten "There are not 1,000 white men left in the place.  Every one is running away that can afford to do so."

The next morning when Symons complained of "terrible chills," Patten told him to take a hot bath with mustard.  When he did not improve later that day, Patten sent for Dr. Farrington of the Astor House.  He brought in a second physician and they concurred it was nothing serious.

It was, however, quite serious.   When Symons's symptoms only worsened, the doctors returned.  Now they diagnosed yellow fever.   He was taken away to the Quarantine Hospital on Swinburne Island, just off Staten Island.  One of the men carrying the stretcher remarked to Patten, "I don't think he'll do more than live till we reach the hospital."  Symons died four days after he had checked in to the Pacific Hotel.

Yellow fever was not taken lightly by anyone.  The quarantine official removed everything from Symons's room--not only his baggage, but all the bedding and linens.  Patten had all the furniture re-varnished and the room was locked until considered safe.

John Patten was already embroiled in a long, heated battle with the Elevated Railroad Company.  The firm was erecting an elevated train up Greenwich Street.  Patten was not opposed to the project if it ran along the opposite side of the street; but the Elevated Railroad wanted to install a double track.   The western track would not only obstruct light and air to the Pacific Hotel, but the piers for the railroad would necessarily break into the hotel's vaults which extended halfway under Greenwich Street.

While he battled the firm in court, construction of the railroad continued.  Things became physical on March 30, 1876.  The hand-to-hand combat between Patten and the construction workers made news as far away as California.  San Francisco's Daily Alta California reported "Workmen engaged in sinking the pillars for the elevated railroad to-day were forcibly restrained by John Patten, proprietor of the Pacific Hotel, Greenwich-street, and several of his employes.  The workmen were removing flag stones from in front of the hotel when the attack was made.  A square of officers was called out and Patten and his employes were arrested."

Patten seemed to have achieved victory in May when Chief Justice Daily decided that "the ownership of real estate in this city extends to the middle of the adjoining street" and that the railroad company could not "take private property for a public use."  But the battle was not over.

Appeals and hearings continued, taxing Patten's physical and mental limitations.  The
Elevated Railroad Company had the last word, winning its case and proceeding with the second track. 

On Sunday evening, May 26, 1878 John Patten died in the Pacific Hotel.  The New York Times noted "The section of [elevated railroad] just in front of his house was completed on Sunday, the last rail being bolted just about the time of his death."

The irony was not lost on The New York Herald, either.  It reported "Mr. Patten said he would not live to see a train run over the new track, and he did not.  He died a few hours before it was opened for business."

Patten's executors placed the hotel and its contents on the market in November.  Advertising it as "fully and completely furnished; now is and has been for many years in successful operation," they touted "for sale at bargain."

There were no takers for the old hotel.  The Greenwich Street neighborhood had greatly changed since 1836 when Jessups and Nichols promoted the location as "undisturbed."  On February 18, 1879 The New York Herald announced the property would be sold at auction the following day.  "For more than forty years this house has been a favorite resort of the west side merchants, steamboat and steamship men and residents of New Jersey visiting the metropolis," noted the article.

The day after the auction the newspaper noted that few hotel men bothered to attend.  The Pacific Hotel was sold for $39,600, nearly $985,000 today, to James H. Harger, of Pontiac, Michigan.   But like the hoteliers who had stayed away, Harger was not interested in continuing the hotel.

In April the following year he sold the property to the newly-formed Steam Heating & Power Co. for $42,500.  The firm demolished the old hotel to built its Station B Steam Works.

But there was still one loose end in the story of the Pacific Hotel to be tied up, and that would not come until June 4, 1914.  That was when the now-widowed Mrs. Joseph Kampe who was living in Newburgh, New York, received word from John Patten, Jr. that he had returned to New York with his gold mining fortune.  He had the $50,000 he had promised her 40 years earlier.

The Los Angeles Herald remarked "She had forgotten the matter until she received the message today that told of the fortune that awaited her."

The site of the Pacific Hotel became part of the plaza surrounding the World Trade Towers in 1973.  Today it is part of the memorial park of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Seabury Tredwell House - 29 East 4th Street

photograph by "Tony" from the Wikipedia Takes Manhattan Project
East Fourth Street in 1832 saw the arrival of elegant red brick homes with marble trim as the street became part of the most fashionable residential section of the city, the Bond Street area.  That year Joseph Brewster built six upscale homes on the north side of East 4th Street, between Lafayette Place and Bowery.  He moved into one of them, at what was then No. 361.

Although the identify of the architect is unknown for certain, modern architectural historians recognize distinct similarities to the work of Menard Lafever.  While the exterior reflects the elements of the Federal style--the elegant, arched entrance with marble Gibbs surround, and the dormered attic floor, for instance), the interior transitioned to the newer Greek Revival style.  Here the costliest materials were used:  matching black-and-gold marble mantels in the parlor and dining rooms, exquisite plaster ceiling moldings, a richly carved entry hall newel post of acanthus leaves, and mahogany doors.  To maintain symmetry, so important in Greek Revival architecture, one such door in the parlor opened onto a brick wall, installed simply to balance a second door.

Mahogany pocket doors slide closed to separate the dining room and parlor.  Contemporary critics would have called the interior appointments "pure Greek."  photo via
The house was purchased for $18,000 (just over half a million dollars today) by Seabury Tredwell in 1835.  Comfortable after years of successful trade as a partner in Tredwell & Kissam, an importer of English marine hardware, he had retired that year at the age of 55 to live off his interest and investments.  

The Treadwell family was already large.  He and his wife, the former Eliza Parker (who was 17 years younger than he) had six children.  Moving in to help were four servants.  The same year the family moved in, another daughter, Sarah, was born.  Five years later, in 1840, the couples' eighth child, Gertrude was born in the second floor bedroom.

Like their wealthy neighbors, the, Tredwells filled the house with the best furnishings, patronizing the workshops of New York cabinetmakers such as Duncan Phyfe and Joseph Meeks.  Outside their windows the elite of New York society rode by in sleek carriages on their way to the theaters just a few blocks away on the Bowery.  A New York newspaper, in 1835, extolled "The elegance and beauty of this section cannot be surpassed in the country."

The heat of New York City summers also brought odors and, often, diseases.  Wealthy families escaped to summer residences and the Tredwells' was a sprawling 850 acre estate estate in Rumson, New Jersey.  

Seabury Tredwell was, reportedly, a stern, religious father, the namesake of his uncle, the first American Episcopal Bishop.  The children grew up in an environment of class and refinement.  A piano offered entertainment in the evenings.  

Elizabeth was the first of the children to leave the house.  She was married to Effingham Nichols in 1845.  Three years later Mary Adelaide married hardware merchant Charles Richard.  Samuel Lenox Tredwell would be the only other of the children to marry.

Seabury Tredwell died on the evening of March 7, 1865 at the age of 84.  His funeral was held in the parlor four days later, on Saturday afternoon.  

While interior design fashions had changed, they had not arrived at what was now No. 29 East 4th Street.  There were no alterations made to the East 4th Street house during his lifetime.  After his death, the family cautiously updated the parlor with the addition of a few up-to-date Victorian upholstered pieces.  Otherwise, as Gertrude would later repeat again and again, it was left "as papa wanted it."

The family added a modern parlor set sometime after 1865.  photo via
Eliza Tredwell died in 1882 and by the turn of the century only Gertrude and her sisters were left in the house.  It would appear that the Tredwell fortune was by this time drying up.  In an October 1906 letter to the The New York Times G. Ellsworth chided the editor for an apparent expose of the sisters' finances.  

As one of the oldest subscribers to your paper, I beg to insert this paragraph to contradict and absolutely deny the erroneous statements set forth in the columns of the daily Times of Saturday last respecting the surviving daughters of the late Seabury Tredwell.   Suffice it to say, despite the assertions made to the contrary, they are only in comfortable circumstances, and are practical, thoroughly good loyal citizens of the substantial old type of character handed down from generations back.

In quick succession the parlor saw the funerals of Gertrude's sisters:  Sarah died in 1906.  A year later Phebe fell down the staircase to her death, and in 1909 Gertrude's last sister Julia died leaving her alone in the last elegant home in the neighborhood.

The city outside the marble-arched entrance to Gertrude's home was no longer the enclave of the privileged.  Commerce had taken over.  The lower floors of once-proud residences not demolished were transformed into shops and warehouses.   Their marble stoops were removed, the interiors gutted.  Where hansoms and cabriolets once transported the wealthy, trucks now clattered.

Gertrude, however, remained isolated in her time capsule, keeping everything preserved.   Nothing was discarded.  Dresses and combs, books and letters, everything was kept intact and in place exactly as things were in 1835.  Despite her finances running low until she was nearly destitute towards the end of her life, Gertrude fought against the progress beyond her curtained windows.
In 1933, just short of a century after her father purchased the house, Gertrude Tredwell died upstairs in the same bed in which she was born in 1840.  She was 93 years old.

Gertrude died in this bed in 1933.  photo via

A cousin, George Chapman purchased the Tredwell house, recognizing its importance and the need to preserve it.  He opened it as a private house museum in 1936, supporting the cause with his own funds.   

Unfortunately house museums in the Depression were not greatly popular; and he did not have the resources to maintain the aging structure.  When he died in 1962 its condition was perilous.  Water had seeped into the brickwork causing the facade to buckle outward.  The chimney tilted dangerously to one side.  Inside the carpeting and fabrics were faded and worn.

That year The Decorators Club of New York City adopted the house as a pet project.  Scalamandre reproduced the draperies including painstakingly hand-making the heavy tassels.  The "Pompeiian" patterned carpeting was reproduced from a swatch cut from the parlor.  Yet the structural problems were more than the Decorators Club could tackle.

New York University architect Joseph Roberto was consulted and he took on the project in a nearly single-handed effort to save the building. 

One night during the restoration the house was broken into.  The thieves roamed throughout the building searching for valuables they could quickly resell.  They passed by the Tredwell silverware, the 19th century oil paintings and the mahogany knife boxes on the sideboard.  Luckily for posterity, in their ignorance they stole the workers hand tools--the only things of value they recognized.

Over nine years of structural restoration brought the house back.  Roberto's wife Carolyn, an interior designer, worked with the Decorators Club to restore the furniture and interior accessories.  As evidence of Gertrude Tredwell's careful preservation of her family's things, a volunteer one day was going through clothing in an upstairs bedroom.  Putting her hand into an evening cape, she pulled from the pocket the program from a play that had taken place in the late 1800s.   Like almost everything in the house it laid protected from time, never having been touched since that last Tredwell sister nestled it into her pocket after the theater nearly a century earlier.

In 1971 Joe Roberto received The Victorian Society of America's Preservation Award for his work on the Merchant's House.  He was consulted again in 1987 when the house was again threatened, this time by the intended razing of the three houses, long since seriously altered, at Nos. 31, 33 and 35.  Because the Tredwell House and No. 31 shared a party wall there was a genuine possibility of collapse.  Through Roberto's direction, enough of No. 31's interior wall was left to buttress No. 29  so that the old house came down without any damage to the Tredwell home.

It is often suggested that Henry James based his novel Washington Square on Gertrude Tredwell.  Whether or not that is true, when the 1949 film version, The Heiress, was in process the filmmakers toured the East 4th Street house extensively as research for the interior sets.

Today the Merchant House Museum is widely regarded as one of the finest surviving examples of early 19th Century residences both inside and out.  From the grand wrought iron basket newels on the marble stoop to the gloves and parasols in the bedrooms upstairs, the Tredwell residence is a remarkable treasure.