Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"The Westminster," 108 West 17th Street

By 1881 the 17th Street block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was no longer quiet residential neighborhood it had been in the 1850s.   Lavish retail emporiums had already begun transforming Sixth Avenue to New York's major shopping thoroughfare, and three years earlier the Sixth Avenue El had been extended this far north.    

The widowed Ann Simpson lived in the little, two-story 25-foot wide brick house at No. 108 West 17th Street.  On November 7 that year she sold it to developer Christopher Mooney for $12,000, or about $291,000 today.   Mooney saw potential in the changing neighborhood and was already in the process of constructing a five-story tenement nearby at No. 215 West 16th Street.

Within two weeks Mooney's architect, C. F. Ridder, Jr., filed plans to replace the old house with a "five story brown stone tenement" to cost $12,000--exactly the amount Mooney had paid for the property.  Ridder was busy at the time designing tenements, commercial and industrial buildings like the two-story No. 831 Washington Street completed the same year.

The speed of construction of No 108 was blinding by today's standards and was completed within six months.  The paint was barely dry before Mooney sold the 25-foot wide building to Charles L. Ritzmann on April 26, 1882.  The $35,000 sales price grossed him an $11,000 profit, a tidy $266,000 in today's dollars.

Ridder had created an up-to-the-minute neo-Grec apartment house.  Its handsome design and amenities prompted the Real Estate Record & Guide to called it a "stone front flat" rather than a tenement--a significant step up in the minds of real estate operators and potential tenants.  Above the centered entrance at sidewalk level four identical floors of neat, architrave-framed openings featured molded cornices upheld by decorative carved brackets.  A complex cast iron cornice completed the design.

Despite its attractive appearance, the site--steps away from bustling Sixth Avenue and its noisy train, and six blocks below 23rd Street's theaters and music halls--prevented No. 108 from anything near what could be called "upscale."  And the attention the initial tenants sometimes drew was not always the most desirable.

Such was the case on February 17, 1887 when Dr. Alexander J. Peet was called to the apartment of an unnamed "lady" who expressed extreme alarm at the wild actions of her gentleman caller.   Peet was the physician of actor James B. Radcliff, who had recently appeared as Jonathan Wild in the play Jack Sheppard at Koster & Bial's music hall at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street.   When Peet arrived at the apartment, he recognized his patient as Radcliff. 

The doctor quickly immediately why the woman had been alarmed. According to The New York Times the following day, "Radcliff began to abuse him, and when he attempted to assault the doctor the latter threw himself on a lounge and parried his blows with his feet."  At one point the actor broke a chair over the doctor's shoulders.  Finally Peet was able to overpower his assailant and police were called.

The following morning in the Jefferson Market Police Court Radcliff said he "had not the slightest recollection of what happened when the doctor came."  The Times reported "In fact, he was surprised when he woke up and found himself in a cell in the West Thirtieth-street station house."  The actor explained, "He could not take liquor without its having a speedy and disastrous effect on him, and calling on a lady friend in the evening, he drank 'a little gin and a little beer.'"

His excuse did not impress Justice Murray who imposed $300 bail awaiting trial--a significant $13,000 today.  The money was supplied by the son of the proprietor of Poole's Theatre where the actor was scheduled to appear the following week.

Charles Ritzmann sold the building in June that year to T. Johnson for the exact amount he had spent for it five years earlier.  The transaction was evidence that while property values were stable, they were not improving.

Adelaide Gerehorne was the janitress of the building in 1895.  With the position came a small apartment, most likely in the basement.  Described by The Sun as a "stout, colored woman," Adelaide took her job seriously, and she was not pleased when 31-year old Grace Walden visited the building in mid-March that year and "created a disturbance."

Already irritated by the woman's previous alcohol-charged display, Adelaide reached the end of her patience a few nights later.  According to The Sun's report, Walden ("a handsome, diamonded young white woman") had "dined well" with a gray-haired man of about 50, then arrived at No. 108 to call on a friend.

"After ringing her friend's bell last night and getting no response, she rang all the bells in the house.  She gave the bell of the janitress a few extra rings."  It was an ill-advised move.  Adelaide "came out in a hurry" and ordered the pair to leave.  Grace Walden had no intention of leaving nor taking orders from a custodian and attempted to push her way in.  Adelaide pushed back, landing Grace on the pavement.  A knock-down, drag-out fight then ensued.

The Sun said the "scrap, confined mostly to hair-pulling and screaming, drew a crowd last night in front of the apartment house at 108 West Seventeenth street...But for the arrival of Policeman John McDonald of the West Thirtieth street station, there is no telling how the battle might have ended."  The onlookers appear to have reveled in the female brawl; the newspaper said it was accompanied by "screams and yells from the crowd."

The well-dressed Grace Walden, born in Charleston, South Carolina, was dumbfounded when it was not Adelaide, but she who was locked up on the charge of disorderly conduct.  "Mrs. Walden fell to the floor and uttered screams which were heard half a block away," reported The Sun.

A. B. Dazzi traveled to Europe in 1897, returning on the French steamship La Normandie on January 17, 1898.  As he attempted to pass through customs, a gold brooch with rubies and emeralds was discovered hidden in his clothing.  He was detained and accused of smuggling.

Dazzi insisted he had bought the $200 pin--worth nearly $6,000 in today's dollars--for his wife.  The story was suspect, given the couple's humble lifestyle, and did not explain away why he had hidden the jewelry.  He was held at $1,500 bail awaiting examination.

Later that year, on October 1, Adelaide Gerehorne smelled lighting gas coming from the apartment of a new tenant.   A Mrs. De La Motte had moved in two weeks earlier.  The 35-year old suffered from rheumatism which made walking difficult.   Adelaide entered the apartment to find her unconscious in the middle of the room.  The Times reported "The gas chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling had been broken off and lay at the woman's feet."  Doctors at New York Hospital were not optimistic, saying she "might die."

By the time Sarah Ballin purchased the building in December 1900, it had been christened "The Westminster."  The marketing ploy perhaps attempted to give the address a more well-to-do sound.  It nevertheless continued to be home to middle-class tenants like the widow Doretta Wohltman, who received her husband's Police Department pension of $300 a year.

Shortly after Morris Jacoby bought the property in 1910 he hired architect Oscar Lewinson to make substantial renovations to the ground floor--installing stores on either side of the entrance at a cost of $1,500.

George Martin lived in the building in 1912 when he was involved in a bizarre and tragic incident at his workplace.  He was an elevator operator in the Nemo Building at No. 120 East 16th Street.  Following a heavy rainstorm on the night of July 21 he and three other employees went to the roof with the building's super, Thomas Halley, to unclog a drain pipe that was causing water to back up.

Among them was 55-year old porter Robert Kinsela.  He waded into the 16-inch deep water, found the clogged pipe, and thrust his arm in to the shoulder.  As soon as he cleared the obstruction the large volume of water rushed down the pipe.  The Times reported "the suction held his arm as in a vise.  He was thrown forward and his head went under water."

Martin and his co-workers rushed to help, but they could not free his arm.  "Neither could they force the unfortunate man's head above water without breaking his neck," explained the article.  They struggled for 15 minutes before the water drained enough that the suction abated and his arm was freed.  By then it was too late and the father of nine was dead.

Following the end of World War I the department stores had all abandoned Sixth Avenue and the neighborhood became increasingly industrial.  In 1921 there were 75 people living in No. 108, which the Los Angeles Herald described as "mostly Greeks and Spaniards."

The California newspaper was reporting on an unspeakable tragedy that had occurred early on the morning of November 14.  While the tenants were asleep, fire broke out.  It swept through the building with unbelievable swiftness.

"So much progress had the fire made before it was discovered and so rapidly did it spread that several of the victims were burned in their beds without a chance for life," said the article.  The employees of the post office branch across the street spotted the flames and sounded an alarm which woke many of the occupants.  Panic and terror followed.

When fire fighters arrived 25-year old Benjamin Diaz was clinging to a third floor window sill.  Before a ladder could reach him he lost his grip, crushing his skull on the sidewalk.  When the blaze was extinguished the building had been gutted.  Ten occupants were dead--two of them children.  Another would not survive much longer.  The Los Angeles Herald reported "Fireman Patrick Foley risked his life when he plunged through the flames to rescue an unidentified woman who was so badly burned that she is now dying in Bellevue."  In addition the newspaper said that "Thirty persons were burned or injured in the mad scramble" to escape.

The then-unidentified woman was Mrs. Esporie Inonas.  On June 20 the following year Fireman Foley and Lt. George Foster were awarded medals of heroism for the courage "at great personal risk" in pulling her from the inferno.

The stone facade survived the blaze and the interior was reconstructed.

During the winter of 1926 the city was plagued with a serious outbreak of influenza and pneumonia.  The crisis spawned an outbreak of what Dr. S. Dana Hubbard, head of the Health Department's Bureau of Illegal Practice, called a rash of "full-fledged quacks."  On March 26 Hubbard estimated there were approximately 1,500 such "doctors" in the city and told reporters "Some of them have been bold enough to treat such diseases, and this is undoubtedly the most dangerous practice to which a quack could resort."

One victim was Mrs. Emilia Valez who lived at No. 108 West 17th Street.  She took her 10-year old son, Francis, to Maurice S. O'Connor who took an x-ray and "promised to cure him for $180."  Emilia took her Francis to see the 24-year old "doctor" twice a week for three months.  In fact, when O'Connor appeared in court on March 26 it was revealed that he was a clerk and interpreter.   Emilia could hardly have afforded the fees she had paid--nearly $2,500 today--for the worthless treatments.

Later that year the building got a new tenant, Charles Edward Rogers, alias Dennis Lindsey.  He had lived there a few months when he faced a judge on August 19, 1926 for burglarizing the rooms of two other tenants, John Prodler and William Sturges.  When arrested he had the pawn tickets for $500 worth of jewelry taken from Prowdler's apartment.  Sturges claimed he had stolen $160 in cash from his rooms.

Rogers came up with a bizarre defense.  He claimed he had been a Sergeant in the Scots Guards and came to America upon his discharge a few months earlier.  His reason to come was "to learn for himself the merits of prohibition."

He claimed that back home he was accustomed to drinking two quarts of liquor a day.   Hearing reports of the evils of Prohibition, he said he determined to find out if it were "as bad as reported."  After months without liquor, according to Rogers, he had three drinks on the night of August 18.  They made him "go balmy."

His next recollection was being arrested and charged with burglary.  Unfortunately for his extraordinary alibi, the facts did not support it.  The British Consulate said there was no record of his service.

Writer Allan Stuart was a resident here in 1936 at a time when disturbing developments were taking place in Europe.  Adolph Hitler had risen to power in Germany three years earlier, but the growing threat was not widely recognized by many Americans.  Like many artists and writers, Stuart was a member of the Communist Party.  The group was more in tune with the danger.

For the second time that year Stuart and other party members staged a riotous protest on a German ocean liner on August 21, 1936.   Dressed in evening clothes and pretended to be among the 1,000 guests bidding good-bye to the 800 passengers on the Bremen, they began handing out anti-Nazi fliers and yelling "Hitler must be kept out of Spain."

In what The Times called "a wild melee" the protestors "fought with pier police and members of the crew, trading blows with fists and swinging deck chairs."  A "riot call" brought 70 policemen, four patrol cars and an emergency squad of eight officers.  Stuart was among 12 protestors arrested.

At their trial which began a week later, the defense attorney, Joseph Tauber, questioned the Bremer's captain, who admitted he was a member of the Nazi Party and "owed allegiance to Hitler."   Tauber warned the court "Hitler is planning a world war."

The judge disagreed.  At the sentencing on August 31 he stressed "The question involved in the demonstration does not concern the United States, it concerns only Germany and Spain."  His short-sightedness would prove itself within a few years.  In the meantime, he insisted "This kind of a demonstration must be stopped.  If it is condoned, what is coming next?"  Stuart was sentenced to five days in jail.

The 17th Street block and the neighborhood in general suffered substantial decline during mid-century.  But in the last quarter of the century the revival of Chelsea reached No. 108.  In 1978-79 a renovation resulted in two apartments per floor.  Architecturally unsympathetic storefronts were patched on at some point.  But other than a coat of paint and replacement windows, the upper floors where several startling stories and one horrific tragedy played out, are little changed.

photographs by the author

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