Thursday, December 7, 2017

The 1848 Richard Dongan House - 234 West 10th Street



The wooden gate to the left hides the "horsewalk" which provided access to the stables in the rear.
Development of the Amos Street block between Hudson and Herring (later renamed Bleecker) Streets was well underway in the early 1830s.   Richard Dongan's family were already landowners in the area; decades later New York City historian Henry Browne noted that land on Greenwich Street "north from West Tenth, (formerly Amos Street) [was] purchased by old Richard Amos the gardener, from the Earl of Northumberland."

The younger Dongan purchased the plot at No. 130 Amos Street around 1838; but while construction continued on the block, it would be a decade before he built his house.  Unlike its earlier, Federal-style neighbors, the Dongan house was designed in the newly popular Greek Revival style.  Completed in 1848, it was three stories tall above a brick-faced basement level.  In place of a peaked roof with dormers, the squat attic level was a full floor high below a slightly sloping roof.  The simple treatment of the single door entrance, with its transom to admit light and the two simple pilasters, marked this as the home of a working class family.

The shared horsewalk between the Dongan house and its neighbor to the east led to the rear yards where both house had wooden stables.   Although Amos Street formally became West 10th Street in 1857, William Dongan still used the Amos Street address in 1859 when directories listed him as a "cartman."

By the end of the Civil War No. 234 West 10th Street was home to the Russell family.  H. Russell operated a coal yard and seems to have used the stable for storing his delivery wagons and horses.  He seems to have wearied of running the business by 1868.  On June 4 he advertised "Coal business--the stock, fixtures and lease of a Coal Yard for sale or a partner taken."

That same year he upgraded the backyard stable by, apparently, tearing it down and starting over.   In October he offered "To second hand lumber dealers--buildings on 234 West Tenth street for sale."

Within the year the Russell family was gone from West 10th Street.  The new owner, M. S. Hewitt, may have gotten the entire contents of the stable building in the deal.  On November 21, 1869 he advertised in The New York Herald, "For sale cheap--One dirt wagon, four trucks and some good work Horses, all in good order."

In would appear that he was successful in selling only the dirt wagon.   Nearly a year later, in September, he offered "For sale--fourteen horses and four trucks."

Hewitt seems to have been a bachelor, living in the 10th Street house alone.  He was a member of the Antioch Baptist Church at the corner of Bleecker and Morton streets, and of the Washington Lodge at No. 275 Bleecker Street.  The young man would not enjoy his new house for long.  He died suddenly on Friday, July 28, 1871 at just 35 years old.   Presumably because he had no immediate family, his funeral was not held in the house, as would have been otherwise expected, but at the Antioch Baptist Church.


By the last decade of the 19th century No. 234 was being operated as a boarding house.  Blue collar renters, not always model residents, came and went.

One shady character who claimed to live here was Frank Rodgers.  He found himself in jail just after midnight on July 7, 1893 after being caught in Union Square "rifling the pockets of a sleeping man," according to The New York Times.

Police were not as interested in his robbing the homeless man, but with the fact that he closely resembled the description of "Jack the Shearer" alias "Jack the Clipper."   That apparently fetish-driven fiend had been terrorizing women, cutting off locks of their hair and fleeing away.

The newspaper said "The man answers closely the descriptions given of the man who cut the hair of Miss Agnes O'Neill of 129 West Forty-eighth Street and of Miss Caroline Clundt of Williamsburg."  The article added "When arrested he had in his pockets a razor, a patent hair clipper, and a sharp silver-plated table knife without a handle."

Rodgers explained in the Jefferson Market Police Court the following morning that he was a paperhanger and lived at No. 234 West 10th Street.  And he "was merely holding the razor, hair cutter, and knife for a friend, a barber who is soon going into business."  He was unable to give his barber friend's name.

Following up on the alibi, a reporter knocked on the door of No. 234.  No one had heard of Frank Rodgers.  The boarding house proprietress did say, "There was a paperhanger there two months ago calling himself Frank Higgins, who was ejected for non-payment of rent."

Another boarder who found himself behind bars was "Garry" Hendrickson.  His crime, while not intentional, was tragic.  On the evening of May 10, 1900 he was driving what the New-York Tribune described as "an immense truck drawn by two heavy horses" along Worth Street.

Two little girls, 10-year old Rachel Lyons and her 4-year old sister, Mamie, were heading home to No. 3 Baxter Street from playing in Mulberry Bend Park.   Just as they stepped into the street, Hendrickson's rig came rumbling along.

The Tribune reported "In trying to save her sister Rachel fell, and the front wheel ran over her left thigh, smashing the bones to fragments.  The younger child held on to her sister's hand."  Hendrickson was alerted by the cries of the little girls and the shouts of the pedestrians.  He yanked the reins, halting the heavy vehicle just before the back wheel crushed their heads.

Nevertheless, Rachel was critically wounded.  The doctors at the Hudson Street Hospital said "her life was in great danger," according to the newspaper.  Hendrickson was arrested and jailed.  He claimed he had not even the children before hearing them cry out.

A life-long resident of Greenwich Village at the time was Joseph J. Fitzhenry.  In March 1912 he leased No. 234, returning it to a single-family home.  He was the president of the trucking company J. J. Fitzhenry, Inc, and partner with August F. Groll in the Consolidated Tungsten Lamp Co.  Both firms were located at No. 125 Greenwich Street.

Half a century earlier, in 1865, a group of neighborhood boys formed the Tough Club.  The New-York Tribune pointed out that "tough" meant "strong and not rowdy."  Membership was not terminated by age or success.  And in 1907 there were still three original members.  "Three of the boys are still left of that Munchausen crowd--Simon M. Sharp, who is four years older than Mark Twain, but says he feels four years younger; Andrew Bell, who has kept his youth by selling flour on the Produce Exchange, and John Hopkins," said the Tribune on December 26, 1907.

Fitzhenry was president of the club by then, and every year it hosted a Christmas party for the less fortunate Greenwich Village children.  That Christmas there were about 350 in attendance, who were fed ice cream and given toys, including "games, and Teddy bears, and dolls that could sit up and speak."

The Tribune noted that the older boys were not interested in singing Christmas carols.  "Being real New Yorkers, they sang 'Harrigan, That's Me,' and 'School Days.'"

Among the youths who received special guidance and help from Joseph Fitzhenry was Frank Rowan, whose father was a personal friend.   During the summer of 1914 Fitzhenry gave the teen money "to make a fresh start."   Rowan repaid him with treachery.

On Thursday evening, August 20 the family went out.  When they returned to find the house burglarized.  The Evening World said "Mr. Fitzhenry reported to the police that night that jewelry and clothing worth $300 were missing when he returned."  An investigation provided witnesses who had seen Rowan entering the house.

A week later The Evening World explained "Rowan recently became acquainted with Edith Dupont of No. 83 Perry street and paid her much attention.  He had need of rather more money than had been given to him."   Unable to find the teen, but aware of his interest in Edith, detectives tailed her.  When Rowan met her at Glen Island Park, they pounced.

"She was overcome with humiliation when the young man was arrested," said The World, "and convinced the police she did not know he was not a proper person to have as a friend."

Joseph J Fitzhenry left West 10th Street in 1916, when he rented a house on Fourth Avenue.  No. 234 was leased to a succession of residents, including M. Delaney in 1919, and Mary V. Doyle the following year.  The widow of John Doyle, her funeral was held in the house in May 1920.

No. 234 had been owned by one real estate firm then another for many years.  In June 1928 it was sold by the V. Green Company to the Morwin Corporation.  It seemed to be the end of the line for the venerable little house.  The Times advised "The buyers will demolish the present structure and erect a six-story elevator apartment house."

Something, possibly the advent of the Great Depression, upset those ambitious plans.  And by now the charm of Greenwich Village's winding street and vintage architecture was attracting a new demographic--moneyed professional families.

No. 234 survived and became home to attorney Norman W. Wassman and his wife, the former Emilie Pleydell.  Wassman, a 1919 graduated of the University of Michigan, worked in the legal firm of E. B. Sanford at No. 165 Broadway.  The corporate counsel of the American News Company, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Justice of the Municipal Court in 1929.

Emilie was the daughter of Arthur C. and Ella Miller Pleydell.  The New York Times called Arthur an "internationally known authority on taxation."  For more than two decades he had been secretary of the New York Tax Reform Association.  Pleydell died on May 30, 1932 and his funeral was held in the his daughter's West 10th Street house on June 2.

The significant change from the time when cartmen stabled their wagons and horses in the rear yard to now was evidenced not only by Wassman's membership in the pricey Downtown Athletic Club; but in Emilie's expensive wardrobe.  One of her French couturier dresses, a gold lame gown by the House of Lanvin, is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Following a long illness, Normal Wassman died in St. Vincent's Hospital at the age of 56 on January 8, 1952.  Emilie left the house shortly afterward, and it became home to William J. and Nan C. Sowerwine by 1954.

Throughout the rest of the century the house escaped being converted to apartments.  When it sold in November 1988 for $960,000, it was described as having three bedrooms, two baths, four fireplaces and a den.

A renovation in 2003 resulted in what Home and Garden TV watchers call an "open floor plan."  While a few period details remain, there is little left inside that Richard Dongan or even Emilie Wassman would recognize.   Outside is a different story.  The charming brick house retains its 1848 character; an important piece of the architectural crazy quilt of periods and styles along the block.

1 comment:

  1. Currently for sale for $7.8 Million. Photos of the inside show it's been completely renovated, nothing historic left!

    ReplyDelete