Monday, May 2, 2016

The Lost James Monroe House - Prince and Lafayette Streets




No. 63 Prince Street as it appeared in the 1820s. Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, June 1877 (copyright expired)
In 1820 Maria Hester Monroe was married in the Oval Reception Room of the White House.  The youngest daughter of President James Monroe, she was just 17 years old and hers would be the first White House wedding.  The groom was Maria’s cousin, 20-year old Samuel L. Gouverneur.  His father, Nicholas Gouverneur was the husband of Maria’s aunt, the former Hester Kortright.  Hester was the sister of Maria's mother, Elizabeth Kortright Madison.

The New York Herald described the bride, who had been educated in Paris, as “endowed with the hereditary grace and beauty of the Kortrights.”  The newspaper hinted at the groom's wealth, saying he was “very handsome and very opulent.”

Marrying the daughter of the President of the United States had advantages.  James Monroe appointed Gouverneur Postmaster of New York.  The newlyweds relocated to Manhattan and in 1823 Gouverneur purchased two undeveloped lots from Philip Brasher.   They were located at the northwest corner of Prince and Orange Streets, in the area between Houston and Canal Streets—an a section just seeing the rise of handsome brick homes.  (Orange Street would later become Marion Street, then Elm Street, and finally Lafayette Street.)

Samuel Gouverneur paid Brasher $2,159 each for the 25-foot wide lots (a little over $50,000 today).   He erected two fine residences, one of which, the preferable corner house, became the Gouverneur home.

The elegant Federal-style structure left no doubt about the financial class of its owner.  Two-and-a-half stories tall above an English basement, it featured the extras expected in high-class homes.  The arched entrance included sidelights and a delicate fanlight, the brownstone lintels were handsomely paneled, and the commodious attic level was lighted not only by the two high dormers, but by an attractive arched opening at the side.

Despite James Monroe’s impressive military and political career—two terms as President, Minister to France and to England, Envoy to Spain, Secretary of State, and author of the Monroe Doctrine, for instance—he was burdened with financial difficulties following his departure from office.  Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth, on September 23, 1830, Monroe was forced to sell his Virginia plantation and move to New York to live with his daughter and step-son.

Decades later The Sun would remark, “as the Gouverneurs were among the socially elect of New York it was the scene of festivities and the gathering place of men of distinction, especially while it was the home of the ex-President.”

Less than a year later, at 3:30 on the afternoon of Monday, July 4, 1831, the 73-year old former President died in the Prince Street house.  A newspaper reported “For several days his death had been momentarily expected” and that “he expired without a struggle.”   His death on Independence Day, following the demise of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4 five years earlier, was remarkable.

The funeral, on Thursday July 7, was the largest ever held in New York up to that time.  Following what The Illustrated American later described as “a public funeral from his residence,” the casket was removed to City Hall.  After addresses there, the cortege moved along Broadway to St. Paul’s Church where the second funeral was held.

The New York American reported “When it was concluded, the coffin was brought out and placed in the hearse, which waited at the north door of the front entrance of the church; and after a brief interval the procession commenced in the designated manner at about half past five o’clock.  It was computed to extend two miles.”  The former President was buried in a Gouverneur plot in the fashionable Marble Cemetery.

On April 16 the following year Samuel Gouverneur sold No. 63 Prince Street to Miles R. Burke for $10,750.  Fabulously wealthy, Burke lived in the house until his death in 1835.  The extent of his fortune was reflected in the “handsome legacies” of his will.  He left to the Sunday School of St. Thomas Church $3,000 (nearly $80,000 in 2016); and $2,000 each to the Institution for the Blind, and the Orphan Asylum.

Burke's estate sold the house to John Ferguson for $12,000.  Ferguson, who had six sons, lived in the residence with his wife until his death in July 1846.  The family retained possession until March 18, 1873 when it was sold to John H. Contoit for $32,500.

By now the neighborhood had succumbed to commerce.  Wealthy families had moved northward and former mansions were taken over by business.  John Contoit was the proprietor of the pleasure garden known both as the New York Garden and Contoit’s Garden.  (In his 1896 Reminiscences of An Octogenarian of the City of New York, Charles H. Haswell remembered that at Contoit’s one could get ice cream, pound cake and lemonade and “you could be served with a glass of veritable claret, and, if I recollect right, one of cognac too.”)

The elegant parlors, bedrooms and dining room of No. 63 Prince Street were now occupied by small factories and a restaurant.  Pubic interest in historic locations in the 19th century rarely turned to residences—other than exceptional homes like Mount Vernon.  The focus most often was on battlefields and other military spots.  So when newspapers and magazines first began pointing out No. 63 Prince Street as the “Monroe House” around 1890, it was rather remarkable.

In 1900 a massive billboard has been painted on the Lafayette Street side.  The faded sign below the second floor advertised a now-gone Billard Table Factory -- Early New York Houses, 1900, (copyright expired)
On February 20, 1900 The New York Times wrote “Probably not one in a thousand citizens recognized in the recent sale of the house at 63 Prince Street, the old residence of President Monroe when he retired from the White House after his eight years of service.”  The article said that the house “looks much the same as it did when it was the residence of President Monroe, only more dilapidated.  One still sees the Colonial columns and the fluted arch over the doorway, looking now like soiled bits of cast-off finery.”

In the building at the time of The Times article was a furrier and a Hungarian restaurant.  Signs were plastered on the fa├žade and across the once-dignified doorway.  But a movement among at least one historic group was stirring.   And in the spring of 1905 the Women’s Auxiliary to the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society planned a bronze memorial tablet for the house.

The New York Times, on April 2, admitted “The old Colonial house, 63 Prince Street, where Monroe died, is falling to decay.  There is a cheap restaurant in the once beautiful drawing-room, a shoe factory occupies the second floor, and from the quaint old dormer window swings the sign of a small furrier.  In the restaurant, which the proprietor has agreed to clean up and vacate for the day, the Auxilliary Committee will hold its exercises.”

The ceremonies were held on April 28, 1905, the President’s 147th birthday.  Along with military dignitaries and soldiers, mounted police and society figures were what the New-York Tribune deemed “an interesting group of the old statesman’s descendants.”  The unveiling of the plaque was executed by young Gouverneur Hoes, Madison’s great-great-grandson. 

An impressive crowd watched the unveiling of the tablet (between the first and second floors) on April 28, 1905. New-York Tribune (copyright expired)

After the impressive ceremonies, everything returned to normal.  The historic nature of the house slipped into the background once again as employees upstairs got back to work making furs and shop workers grabbed lunch on the first floor.

Four months after the plaque was installed, fire broke out in the cellar at around 1:00 in the morning of August 15.  The Times reported “The cellar is occupied by Vessa & Daddata, dealers in rags.”  Luckily, the fire did not spread beyond the basement and damage was limited to about $500.  But it would be just the first of a string of fires in the venerable structure.

Despite the abuse, restoration of the historic property was well-within reach.  photo by Samuel Landsman from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1919 the entire block of properties along Prince Street between Lafayette and Crosby Streets was scheduled to be sold as a unit.  The impending deal almost certainly doomed the building and sparked renewed interest by historical groups.

On November 2, 1919 The Sun commented “unless some historic society comes to the rescue it will very likely pass from its present regime as an old rag shop to utter obliteration and a modern structure will rise on its site.”

The problem of saving it “from the maw of commercialism” was the $200,000 necessary to buy the entire row of properties.  The article explained “If the house could be purchased of itself there probably would not be much difficulty in raising the necessary funds.”  One solution, however, was offered by Louis Annin Ames, president of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.  He thought that rest of the buildings could be razed and made a commemorative park to Monroe.

The block of real estate was sold on November 12, 1919 to “an unknown speculator,” according to The New York Times.  “The sale created great interest among patriotic societies, who desire to preserve this famous landmark,” said the newspaper.  The fact that a speculator, rather than a developer, purchased the site created hope—since he would most likely hold it for resale rather than erect a new building.

And, indeed, the old Federal mansion survived.  But, as it turned out, it was not the wrecking ball which was the immediate threat, it was fire.  On October 4, 1922 a fire broke out in the vacant building which was quickly extinguished.  Then another occurred on February 28, 1923.  And another on May 5, 1923.   Despite the troubling coincidence, fire investigators did not suspect arson.

“It was thought that the building was used by a gang as a poker club, and that the first two fires…were caused by accident.  Later the building has been carefully watched and no one has been seen to enter or leave," reported The Times.

Finally in May 1925 the block front was sold to developers.  The Times reported they “will raze the historic residence and erect a loft building.”  The newspaper listed the names of individuals and groups who had been fighting for the preservation of the house—including the James Monroe Memorial Association (formed in 1923), the Women’s Monroe House Memorial Association, Governor Al Smith, Mayor John Hylan and the now-deceased President Warren Harding.

The loss of the dilapidated old mansion seemed inescapable.  “The buyers will erect a fifteen-story loft to cost $1,600,000,” reported The Times.

Less than a month later, on July 29, 1925, the house suffered its fifth fire within two years.  “The fire started in a bale of old newspapers collected by Mario Matera, the present occupant,” reported a newspaper.  Once again the fire was extinguished before serious damage could result.

Undeterred, preservation groups forged on in hopes of saving the Monroe House.  Almost miraculously, funds were raised to purchase the building and a lot at No. 65 Crosby Street was obtained.  Plans were set forth to move the old mansion and in October it was carefully raised from its century-old foundation and placed on a flat bed truck.

One dormer has been stabilized in anticipation of the coming move. The original eight-panel door from 1823 still survived.  From the collection of the New York Public Library

The New York Times reported “on account of the age of the building the movers were compelled to exercise the utmost care and progress has been slow.”  The progress was slow indeed.  Three weeks later the one-block move was still in process.  And then came tragedy.

On November 20 the movers realized that a fire escape on the northeast corner of Prince and Crosby Streets projected too far to allow the building to pass.  Everything halted as workmen attacked the problem.

“The fire escape was dismantled and workmen were swinging the old house in when part of the upper floor collapsed,” reported The Times.  Bricks that rained down onto Crosby Street were “carefully salvaged” and the public was promised that the house would be restored completely when it was placed in position.  But the weakened structure could not endure the move of only a few more feet.  The roof caved in and the back wall collapsed.

The ruined building sat until September 1927 when all hope was given up.  It was offered for sale, raising the ire of State Senator Thomas F. Burchill and Assemblyman Frederick L Hackenburg, the latter denouncing “This could never happen abroad.”

photo American Craft Council
Among America’s earliest attempts at preservation of a historic residence, the embattled Monroe House was demolished to be replaced by a modern loft building.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Alphonse Montant House -- No. 326 West 22nd Street



When Clement Clarke Moore first began dividing his family’s estate, Chelsea, into building plots, he envisioned a high-end residential neighborhood on the land.   Restrictive covenants were included in the deeds to ensure a higher class of home, and his original plots were unusually wide—averaging 25 feet but extending to 37 feet wide in a few cases.

Stone merchant Bezaleel F. Smith branched out into real estate development and on April 25, 1835 purchased lots from Moore—stretching from No. 326 to 332 West 22nd Street.   His speculative row was fully completed in 1841, designed in the popular Greek Revival style that was taking the city by storm.   Among them was No. 326 which would become home to Samuel Down.

Like its neighbors, the brick-faced home sat on a tall brownstone basement.  The contrasting stone reappeared in the wide stoop, the sills and lintels, and the hefty entrance pilasters and entablature so familiar in the architectural style.  Stylish iron stoop railings terminated at brownstone pedestals that, most likely, once supported ornate basket newels.

In 2016 the elaborate stoop ironwork is missing, undergoing restoration.
Samuel Down was an inventor and in 1857 received the Silver Medal from the American Institute of the City of New York for “the best dry gas meter.”   Not long after his wife’s death in Boston, on Friday, September 18, 1861, Down remarried.  By 1863 he had sold the house and he and his bride, Jane, moved to nearby No. 319 West 21st Street.

It was briefly home to James G. and Isabel S. Chalmers.  Tragedy visited the house on New Year’s Day 1863 when little James, Jr. died at the age of one year, seven months.   Two days later, on Saturday afternoon the child’s funeral was held in the house.

Within months Andrew Hanser soon moved into the 22nd Street home.  The Civil War had raged for two years by now, and 1863 would see horror visit New York City.   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 civilians caught on the streets.

The neighborhood where Andrew Hanser now lived was, ironically, highly-Irish.  But on Monday July 13 not only was he attacked, but his house and its stable were targeted as well.  On August 9 The New York Times reported that two Irish immigrants, James Fitzherbert and Michael O’Brien, “stand charged with being engaged in the late riots.”  It added that Andrew Hanser filed a complaint against the men for robbery and assault.

“He makes oath that while passing through Twenty-eighth-street on Monday, July 13, he was attacked by a gang of men and boys, brutally beaten, and robbed of $70 in Treasury notes.  His stable was subsequently forced open and his horse and wagon stolen; the doors and windows of his residence were crushed in by the mob and his house plundered.”

Three neighbors, Mary Conlan, Mary E. Coon and Margaret Black, all testified on Hanser’s behalf.  They told the court that Fitzherbert had led the mob, “having a pistol in his hand at the time.”  When Hanser escaped, “they entered his house and searched it all over, but did not succeed in finding him.”  The New York Times reported “Maddened at not finding him, the witnesses saw O’Brien and Fitzherbert, with other rioters, break open Mr. Hanser’s stable and steal the horse and wagon.”

One of the women added a detail that no doubt enraged the courtroom.  She said that “during the attack on the house of Mr. H[anser], Fitzherbert proposed three cheers for Jeff. Davis, which were given by the mob and some of the neighbors.”  Another said that Fitzherbert led the mob down Ninth Avenue bearing an American flag.  He then threw it to the ground, trampled on it and “exclaimed in a loud voice, ‘D—n that flag.’”

With things significantly calmer the following year, the Hansers rented a room in the house for additional income.  Edgar Abel Turrill of Montrose, Pennsylvania, lived here while studying at Columbia College in 1864.  He was a junior that year.

By the late 1870s educator Edgar Vanderbilt lived in the house.   He earned his M.S. Degree at New York City College in 1866 and in 1878 was teaching in Grammar School No. 55 a few blocks away at No. 140 West 20th Street.   Vanderbilt would rise to the position of Principal of the school within a few years.

Vanderbilt was followed by the Hughes family in No. 326.  Hughes widow, Catharine, sold it to Alphonse Montant and his wife, Eliza C. B. Montant, on September 27, 1887 for 15,500—just under $400,000 in today’s dollars.   As was customary, the title was put in Eliza’s name.

The well-to-do Alphonse Montant was a partner in the auctioneering firm of Townsend & Montant, which was organized in 1867.  His leisure activities included a membership in the New York Zoological Society, while Eliza was a member of the Colonial Dames of America.  The New York Times would later say “The Montants belong to the old French set.”  

The couple soon set to work modernizing the outmoded residence by hiring architects Constable Bros. in August 1889 to add a 10-foot high mansard roof.  The fashionable addition cost Montant $2,000.  Somewhat surprisingly, their updating stopped at the Second Empire style roof.  The original Greek Revival elements—even the ironwork—of the main structure were left intact.

Financially-comfortable couples spent summers in country houses or resorts.  The Montants maintained a country estate, Larchmont Manor.  In December 1891 Eliza started her search for summer help early by placing an advertisement in The Sun.  “Wanted—A good plain cook to help with coarse washing; short distance in country; wages $18; no objection to French girl speaking English.”

By the turn of the century Alphonse had taken up photography as a hobby and was a member of the Camera Club.   In 1900 he and Eliza began considering leaving No. 326 West 22nd Street, and their search for a new residence sparked Alphonse’s creative side.

He entered a group of photographs in the Camera Club’s exhibition of April 1900 with the hopes of winning the silver cup.   The New York Times was impressed with his montage, which he cleverly titled “Moving Pictures.”


‘”Moving Pictures,’ by Alphonse Montant, is among the best.  The series was not taken for use in the biograph, or any of the other ‘graphs’ now so popular, but simply shows several views taken on the 1st of May, when the family was seeking a more congenial abode.”

Bessie T. Siffert, who dealt in real estate, purchased No. 326 as her residence.  While living here in 1912, for instance, she also owned a tenement building at No. 337 West 20th Street.  In 1924 the house was purchased by Mrs. Mary J. Taggart.  Like most of the once-grand homes on the block, she operated it as a rooming house.

Mary Taggart retained ownership for three decades, selling it in 1954 to an investor.   The house continued to be operated as a rooming house until 1972, when it was converted to apartments—two per floor.

photo -- http://www.corcoran.com/nyc/Listings/Display/2024289

Although the elegant Victorian interiors have been lost; No. 326 is little changed since the Montants added the added the French roof in 1889.

non-credited photographs by the author

Friday, April 29, 2016

"The Studio Building" -- No. 71 East 77th Street



A copper Tudor style cap originally crowned the corner tower.

In the early 1890s East 77th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, was lined with narrow brownstone-fronted rowhouses.  The 18-foot wide, three story house at No. 71, built in 1877, was now home to architect Alexander Bing, partner with his brother in Bing & Bing.

But with the new century, the upscale tone of nearby Fifth Avenue spilled down the side streets and wealthy New Yorkers remodeled old townhouses into modern upscale residences.  At the same time another trend was sweeping Manhattan—cooperative artists’ studio buildings.  Throughout the city structures were being designed with artists in mind.  Vast, double-height windows offered northern light for the studios; while comfortable living spaces often sat to the rear.

In 1927 a group of investors joined the movement when they demolished the two brownstones and a carriage house at Nos. 69 through 73 East 77th Street, including the old Alexander Bing house.  They hired the architectural firm of Caughey & Evans to design a ten-story apartment building on the site.   In the 1920s an architectural rage swept the country, resulting in entire communities of quaint and romantic neo-Tudor cottages, apartment houses, and civic buildings.  The Studio Building at No. 71 East 77th Street would follow the trend.

The architects produced a charming concoction faced in variegated brick trimmed in limestone.  The three-story base featured diamond-patterned brick diapering, square-headed drip moldings, and openings framed in stone quoins and inset quatrefoil panels.  The upper floors followed the studio pattern, with double-height windows—with diamond panes—flanked by single-height residential spaces.  A crenellated parapet and Tudor-capped corner tower completed the romantic design.


The Studio Building was successful even before the doors were opened.  On June 13, 1928 The New York Times reported that Mrs. James MacKenzie took space “in the Studio Building under construction at 71 East Seventh-seventh Street.”  And three months later Douglas L. Elliman, the leasing agent, reported that 50 percent of the building, “nearing completion,” was rented.  The firm boasted “Most of the suites have three exposures, not often found in apartments designed on an inside plot.”

The name of the new structure did not last long.  Instead of artists—who may have been put off by the southern exposure rather than the sought-after northern light—moneyed businessmen and their families moved in.  Like most of the higher-end apartment buildings on the East Side, The Studio Building quickly used only its address as its identifier.
Among the first of the residents were wealthy widow Hildreth Sisson Riddle and her daughter, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth, who had attended the private Wheeler School in Providence, was introduced to society in 1928.  Shortly thereafter, on January 5, 1929, Hildreth announced her engagement to John Ashley Merriman.

The wedding took place on June 8, 1929 at Laurimore, the summer estate of Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle.  With her daughter gone on her honeymoon, Hildreth left the city as well.   Two weeks after the ceremony, on July 25, she gave a “farewell luncheon” at the Casino in Central Park.  Society columns noted that Hildreth was sailing on the Roma to Europe.

The newlyweds made their home in Great Neck, Long Island; and it is probably no coincidence that upon her return from Europe in the spring of 1930 Hildreth “bought an English type house on Mitchell Drive in Kennilworth, Kings Point, Great Neck,” according to The Times on April 19.

In the meantime, newspapers followed the comings and goings of other residents.  In March 1929 Paul Marcy White returned from his honeymoon with his bride, the former Ann O’Gorman.  Ann was the daughter of former New York Senator James Aloysius. O’Gorman.

And on October 8, 1931 Victor and Emily House returned to their apartment here after summering in Europe.  Victor was a partner in the law firm House, Hothusen & McCloskey and the couple kept newspaper columnists busy following their widespread and frequent travels—wintering in Hollywood, Florida and summering in Vermont in 1932, for instance.  Between those trips, Emily took time to give birth to a daughter on Saturday, July 23 in the city.

When at No. 71 the Houses continued their busy social schedule.  In December that year they hosted a dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Lucien Courtois of Tours, France, for instance. 

On September 17, 1933 The New York Times reported that Victor and Emily had returned to No. 71 “from a motor trip through the White Mountains of Canada.”  They would stay long enough for the birth of another daughter on June 27, the following year.

Another highly-respected couple living at No. 71 East 77th Street were retired U.S. Navy Captain George Earl Gelm and his wife, the former Marjorie Hempstead Cook.   Through her mother, Marjorie was descended from Sir Robert Hempstead, a founder of Hempstead, Long Island.  The couple was married in 1898.

George had also served as editor of The Naval Observer.  He earned the Navy Cross, the Victory Medal with citations, and the campaign medals for service in the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines.  Upon his retirement in 1928 the Gelms settled in New York.

By the late 1930s Marjorie’s health was failing.  After an extended illness she died on April 28, 1941.  George Gelm remained in the apartment until his death on March 19, 1944.

Of a less distinguished pedigree but equally moneyed was Gloria Mead, wife of prize fight manager Eddie Mead.  Gloria held a New Year’s Eve party in 1941.  Guests in Upper East Side New Year’s parties would be expected to arrive bedecked with diamonds, furs and expensive jewelry.  Gloria’s party was no exception.  It was interrupted by three gunmen who, after terrorizing the guests, made off with $25,000 in jewelry and apparel.

Other distinguished residents included bachelor Dr. William Harris, a pioneer and specialist in radiology.  His summer home was in Poundridge, New York.  Through his travels in Europe in the 1920s, he learned the treatment of x-ray therapy for fighting cancer of the larynx and brought the process back to America.  It became his specialty.  Another esteemed physician in the building was Harvard Medical School-educated Dr. Lucius Albert.  He was attending surgeon at the Metropolitan Hospital and Consulting Surgeon at the Northern Dispensary, as well as Assistant Professor of Surgery in the New York Post Graduate Medical School.

The irregular configuration of the apartments is hinted at by the double-height diamond-paned studio windows and the smaller openings along the sides.
At mid-century banker Oliver Wolcott Roosevelt and his wife, the former Verdery Akin McMichael, lived in a fourth floor apartment here.  A cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver was First Vice President of the Dry Dock Savings Institution and deemed by The New York Times as “prominent in banking and savings circles.”

The 60-year old was the victim of a bizarre accident on July 14, 1953 which nearly cost him his life.  At around 8:20 that night, according to Verdery, he was passing by a window as he walked from the bedroom to another room, and simply fell out of it.  The courtyard where he landed was below ground level, making his fell a full five stories.  The Times said ‘He struck a metal guard rail, partially demolishing it, but his glasses were not broken.”  Oliver Roosevelt did not fare as well as his glasses.  Critically injured, he was taken to Roosevelt Hospital with severe body injuries.

Throughout the rest of the century the apartment building would continue to house prominent residents.  Theatrical and literary agent Mark Hanna lived here until his death on August 15, 1958.  He had been the personal agent of Helen Hayes and throughout his career represented writers, actors and musicians such as John O’Hara, Benny Goodman, Gypsy Rose Lee, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dorothy Kilgallen.

Among the only artists—if not the only one—to live in the building constructed with artists in mind was the highly-acclaimed Hobart Nichols.  His landscapes were acquired by many American collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and he was for a decade President of the National Academy of Design and of the Salmagundi Club from 1922 to 1924.  He died in his apartment here on August 14, 1962 at the age of 93.


Tucked away on a block which is an architectural cornucopia of dates and styles, No. 71 East 77th Street survives unchanged.

photographs by the author

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The 1858 No. 113 Chambers Street





When Sarah Lloyd Broome married wealthy merchant James Boggs she was already 31 years old.  The couple moved into a fashionable home at No. 113 Chambers Street.  During their 27-year marriage they would have seven children.   The first three died in infancy; but the others survived, Mary Rebecca, John Broome, James Samuel, and Julia.  Like most wealthy Manhattan families, they had a country estate, Chevilly, which they purchased in 1821.

Mary’s wedding to banker Richard Ray took place in the Chambers Street house in 1832.  They moved to an elegant home at No. 3 University Place.  (Her sister, Julia, and brother-in-law, Lewis Howard Livingston, would live next door at No. 5 University Place.)

Two years later, in 1834, James Boggs died in the Chamber Street home of stomach ulcers.

In 1836 Mary and Richard took their two infant daughters to Europe.  There, on March 21, Richard Ray died suddenly.  Mary had already received a substantial inheritance from her father, including $16,000 in cash (a little less than half a million in 2015 dollars).  Now she inherited her husband’s properties, including buildings on Pearl Street, Water Street, Chambers Street, and 20 undeveloped lots between Eighth and Eleventh Avenues.

Following Sarah Lloyd Broome Boggs death in 1849 in No. 113 Chambers Street, Mary Rebecca Ray inherited the family home.  The property stretched through to Reade Street where the private stable stood. 

According to Barbara Broome Semans and Letitie Broome in their 2009 John Broome and Rebecca Lloyd: Their Descendants and Related Families, “Mary R. Ray evidently had difficulty in settling Sarah Boggs’s estate.”  Nine years after her mother’s death, Mary was still grappling with legal entanglements.  In the meantime, she leased the house and stable to nurserymen Wm. R. Prince & Co.  On March 18, 1854 they advertised “a most superior collection of large sized Fruit and Ornamental Streets &c., at reduced prices.”

In 1857 Mary had the Chambers Street house and stables demolished and began work on a store and loft building.  The resultant structure, completed in 1858, was similar to the other modern structures transforming the neighborhood.

The matching Chambers Street and Reade Street facades were Italianate in style.  Clad in stone above the store level, they featured mitered quoins; deep, shelf-like lintels on brackets; and cast iron cornices flanked by hefty console brackets.

The tall ground floor on both sides was fronted in cast iron.  The fluted columns and capitals were chosen from the catalog of foundry of Badger’s Architectural Iron Works.

Most of the firms leasing in the building were related to the cutlery and hardware business.  Among the hardware dealers were Graham & Haines, W. F. Shattuck & Co., the Livingston Horse Nail Company, and Marcus C. Hawley & Co.  Cutlery merchants included Broch & Koch and the Electric Cutlery Company. 

Edward Phelan was the only surviving partner of W. F. Shattuck & Co. in 1876.  He left the building at around 6:00 Wednesday evening, March 25, headed for his home in Brooklyn.  But first he stopped at Sweeney’s Hotel at the corner of Chatham and Duane Streets to meet with his bookkeeper, P. S. Biglin.

Phelan, described by friends as “a gentleman of spotless reputation,” never made it home that night; and the following day he did not appear at his office.  At around 4:00 that afternoon a body was seen in the East River at the foot of Corlears Street.  He was identified as Edward Phelan by the gold Masonic keystone that bore his name and the lodge and chapter to which he belonged.

The New York Times reported “Suspicion that the deceased met with foul play is entertained by his friends, there being marks of violence on his face.”  His missing pocketbook added to that theory.  “As his affairs were in a prosperous condition, the idea that he committed suicide is scouted,” said the newspaper.

By the late 1880s John H. Graham had taken control of Graham & Haines; renaming it John H. Graham & Co. The high esteem in which he was held among the hardware merchants was evidenced on August 6, 1889.  That afternoon, during a “well-attended meeting of hardware men” in the Hardware Board of Trade he was unanimously nominated to represent “hardware and kindred trades” on Mayor Hugh J. Grant’s committee that would represent New York at the Paris World’s Exposition.

In the building at the time was the Berkeley Arms Company, which employed John C. Smart at $50 a week.  Smart lived with his wife, Amy, and teen-aged daughter, Madeline, in Harlem at No. 278 West 118th Street.  His unhappy domestic relations would bring about unwanted publicity for his employer.

In the summer of 1893 Smart stormed out of the 118th Street house and did not return.  On August 5 he faced a judge after Amy sued him for “cruelty and abandonment.”  Smart defended himself, saying “his wife’s temper and petty persecutions drove him from home.”  To illustrate his point, he told of one occasion when she hid his dress suit from him, and that “neither coercion nor cajolery” could induce her to tell him where she hid it.

By the time the Smarts’ sorrowful home life was being aired in the newspapers, John H. Graham had diversified into the rabidly popular bicycle fad.   Cycling had swept the nation and Graham now offered bicycle accessories along with hardware.   During the New-York Cycle Show in Madison Square Garden in January 1895 he exhibited the “Midget” bicycle bell.  He told reporters it was “the most satisfactory bell on the market.  The ‘Midget’ weights but three ounces, and has a clear and piercing tone.”

Surprisingly, while the cast iron column capitals have been lost, interior shutters at the second floor survive.

As the century drew to a close No. 113 Chambers Street continued to house cutlery and hardware firms.  Am Gas Engine Co., sold gas engines as did the Clerk Gas Engine Co; George B. Edwards dealt in “gas and oil stoves;” and Frank B. Hedenberg sold “weather strips, etc.”  

But John H. Graham & Co. would be the building’s most veteran tenant, remaining here until the early 1940s when it relocated to No. Duane Street.  The vast array of items the company offered included not only bicycle accessories and hardware, but automobile accessories (like lamps), horse clippers, tea bells, ice skates, cherry stoners, and manure forks.

In the 1920s the tenant list became more varied.  The American Grinder Manufacturing Co.; hinge manufacturers Lawrence Brothers; and Riker-Spiegelmann & Co., were relatively new occupants.

In 1921 scandal arrived at No. 113 Chambers Street.  Thomas K. Gibbons, Vice President of Riker-Spiegelmann & Co., was 24 years old, successful and wealthy.  In July that year he met Virginia Lee Dickens, whom the New-York Tribune described as “twenty and pretty and hopes to become an actress.”

Ten days later, according to Virginia, Gibbons proposed marriage.  When she declined, he proposed three or four more times until she finally accepted.

Virginia told reporters later than she came from a respected and wealthy Baltimore family and had graduated from a college “which bears a high reputation.”  Since childhood she had exhibited a talent for acting through society plays in Baltimore.  She came to New York to begin her stage career “with her parents’ consent,” and had only been here a month before meeting Gibbons.

Now, on November 22, 1921 The New York Times reported that Virginia, whose stage name was Jerry Dickens “has just learned that he has a wife.”   The Tribune added that “She has suffered about $100,000 worth in consequence, she estimates.”  That was amount of the suit she filed against her suitor.

The New-York Tribune noted that Thomas Gibbons “says the suit is a joke and that he never proposed to Miss Dickens.  He is married, but is not living with his wife.”

Gibbons’s unflattering publicity for ruining Virginia Lee Dickens’s reputation was nothing compared to the problems he encountered five months later.   On April 20, 1922 he appeared before Judge Talley in General Sessions court to answer to charges of assault on a police officer.

Patrolman James J. Shanley had attempted to arrest Gibbons.  It ended with the officer suffering a broken jaw.  “The policeman thinks he was hit with a jimmy,” explained The Evening World the following day.

Thomas K. Gibbons would not be going back to his office at No. 113 Chambers Street for quite a while.  The judge sentenced him to three years, saying “I cannot allow policemen who are endangering their lives to feel that a man who attacks them can go unpunished.  I could send you to State’s Prison.  You have no police record.  I will send you to the penitentiary.”


By the third quarter of the century the venerable loft buildings in Tribeca found new lives as galleries, cafes and shops.  In 1991 the upper floors of No. 113 Chambers were converted to two spacious apartments per floor.   Today the cast iron storefronts on both sides survive; although their once-elaborate capitals have broken off.  Above, the nearly 150-year old stone facades are intact; relics of a time of significant change on Chambers Street.

 photographs by the author