Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Garrett W. Cropsey House - 45 King Street

The block of King Street, between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, saw a flurry of construction in the late 1830s.   The recently opened street cut through land owned by Trinity Church.  Among the houses that rose around 1838 was No. 45, a two-and-a-half story building faced in Flemish bond brick.

At 22 feet wide, it was intended for a financially comfortable, but certainly not rich, family.  A brownstone stoop rose above the brick-faced basement.  The understated decoration was limited to delicate rope molding around the entrance and what was probably a leaded transom.  The pitched roof would have had one or two dormers.  To the east was a horsewalk that lead to the small building in the rear yard.

The house became home to Garrett W. Cropsey, his wife, Jane, and their three children, including James and Harmon.  The Cropsey family traced its American roots to Harmon Cropsey who settled in Utrecht, Long Island   Garrett, who was born there in 1809 or 1810, seems to have been the first of the family to venture into Manhattan.

In the decades before postal delivery, citizens were expected to pick up their mail.  Failure to do so resulted in the offender's name appearing in the newspapers.  Such was the case on March 21, 1846 when son Harmon (the New-York Daily Tribune got his name slightly wrong, spelling it "Hermon") had neglected to collect a letter for some time.

Before the formation of the Metropolitan Fire Department in 1865 New Yorkers depended on a loosely organized network of volunteer companies.  The rivalry between the fire houses sometimes turned to violence. 

Garrett Cropsey was a member of the Lady Washington Engine Company No. 40.  He was marching in the Firemen's parade on October 7, 1857 when chaos broke out.  The New York Times explained later that "a feud...has existed for a long time between Engine Company No. 21 and Hose Company No. 14."   As the procession passed the corner of Grand and Elizabeth Streets, members of Hose Company No. 14 were standing there with their "signal illuminated."  (The lantern which would have identified their fire equipment.)

When Engine Company No. 21 passed, one of its members threw a rock at the lantern.  "A general melee between the members of No. 21 Engine Company and Hose Company No. 14 immediately followed, in the course of which several pistols were fired," reported The Times.   A platoon of policemen were at the head of the parade, and they quickly ran back to the trouble.  But before things were under control one man was nearly fatally shot and several others were injured.  Among them was Cropsey.

The newspaper reported "Garrett W. Cropsey, No. 45 King-street, [was] shot through the rim of his hat, the ball glancing across his forehead, and inflicting a slight flesh wound."

Around the time of the outbreak of the Civil War the entire Cropsey family seems to have moved back to Utretcht, Long Island.  James went into the lumber business there.

The next family at No. 45, like their neighbors, had at least one servant.  One of them was looking for a new position in 1864 when she placed an advertisement that read "Situation Wanted--By a good Protestant girl, to do general housework."

W. P. Robertson was living here by 1869.  That summer he took exception to an article in The Sun and fired off a letter to the editor to correct what he felt was an glaring error.  On August 26 the newspaper published his letter with the title "An Injured Fat Man."

To the Editor of The Sun.

Sir:  In his interesting letter about the Sing Sing camp meeting, your reporter states that a Mr. Applegate, who made one of the prayers, was a slim person.  Will you please allow me to correct this, as to my positive knowledge he weighs nearly 250 pounds.
 W. P. ROBERTSON, 45 King street.

It was about this time that the third floor was raised to full height, a modern Italianate cornice added and updated Italianate ironwork.  Close inspection of the brickwork shows the change from Flemish bond to running bond at the point of the former roofline.

The young couple George and Fannie E. Boyd were in the house in the early 1870s.  Their first child, George, was born February 1, 1872.  Tragedy soon followed and the one-year old boy died in the house on March 19, 1873.   His funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

By the early 1880s Italian-born actress Adelina Gasparini and her husband, theatrical agent T. L. Ligon, a partner in Ligon & Baker, had moved into No. 45.  Adelina had become active on the New York stage in the 1870s. 

On June 7, 1878 The New York Times had given her performance in The Lady of Lyons a glowing review, saying "She has grace, comeliness, and intelligence."  And years later in 1901 theater critic T. Allston Brown remembered "One of the most successful debuts on the dramatic stage I have witnessed in a long time was that of Adelina Gasparini, who acted Juliet, June 3 [1876]."

Oddly enough, Adelina also used the stage name of Estelle Bianca.  She would soon be using neither name when her stage career was ruined by scandal.

Theater manager Charles Frohman owned the rights to several plays, including the highly popular Hazel Kirke.  But in the fall of 1881 he received word that several "barnstorming" companies were staging the play in the South without his authorization.  He sent an employee, Marc Klaw, to Mississippi who pretended to be an actor.  The Sun reported on December 30 that "he fraternized with some of the actors, and was told that the copy from which their company was playing had been bought of a Mr. Ligon, at 45 King street."

Upon his return to New York, Klaw had fake business cards printed identifying himself as a theatrical agent.   He presented the card to the servant who opened the door of 45 King Street and was told that Mr. Ligon was not at home.  He later reported "but I sent up my card to Mrs. Ligon, and she came down and let me in.  (I had been left standing on the stoop.)"

He told Adelina that he had been informed by "Mr. Snyder of the Adah Fair Company" that he could obtain plays from her husband.  Because she recognized those names, she showed Klaw into the parlor where she introduced him to her husband.

Klaw expressed his frustration with Charles Frohman, whom he said refused to sell him the rights to produce Hazel Kirke.    Ligon replied "I have Hazel Kirke, and also the Banker's Daughter, if you would like it...My price is $10 for each manuscript."

When Klaw returned that evening with the cash, he engaged Adelina in conversation which revealed how her husband managed to obtain the copyrighted scripts.  The actress had attended six performances of Hazel Kirke and memorized every line.  When she handed over the manuscript, he noted that it was in her own handwriting.

On January 7, 1882 The New York Mirror reported that the newspaper had sent undercover reporters to the Ligons' home and purchased stolen plays.  "Our detectives found at No. 45 King street, in this city, the headquarters of these dramatic thieves."  The article said "The woman claims that she goes to the theatre and memorizes the plays" and added she "is known in the profession as Adelina Gasparini and Estelle Bianca.  She will be better known now as Mrs. Ligon, who steals plays and sells unauthorized copies to bogus combinations."

The next resident of No. 45 did not bring more favorable press coverage.  George W. Mortan listed his occupation as "speculator."  The 34-year old visited Joseph Burnett's restaurant and oyster house at No. 93 Sixth Avenue on Saturday night, December 20, 1884.  But he was not interested in oysters.

The New York Times explained two days later"The front of the basement is occupied as a cheap restaurant and oyster house, but this was merely a blind for the 'joint,' which consisted of rooms in the rear of the restaurant.  The eating saloon is meagerly furnished.  Through the centre runs a wooden partition separating it from the 'joint.'"

The fake wall was skillfully wallpapered to perfectly disguise a door.  Behind it was an opium den.  The newspaper said "Running around the main smoking room is a common wooden platform raised at out three feet above the floor and slightly inclined, and on this platform the opium 'fiends' reline while enjoying a smoke, or 'hitting the pipe,' as it is termed by those who resort to such places."

Burnett had installed an electric bell which would warn the drug users of a raid so they could escape through a back door.  But he did not have time to use it around midnight that night.

Police Superintendent Walling burst into the establishment with four officers, surprising them all.  They arrested 23 men and 7 women.  "The men are chiefly clerks and mechanics, and the women were good-looking," reported The Times.   "They were all young people."  Shocking to Victorian readers, the police reported "None of them were fully dressed, and several of them had retained as little of their clothing as was consistent with decency."

George Mortan was hauled in with the others.  He was most likely relieved when he recognized the judge; but his elation was short-lived.  The Times noted that he "claimed acquaintanceship with the Judge.  'Oh, yes,' replied Judge O'Reilly, 'I know you, but you were in this joint all the same.'"

Like the others, Mortan was held on $500 bail--a substantial $12,000 in today's dollars.  He paid for his release and appeared in court on December 23.  But things did not go as most expected.

The following day The Sun reported "Superintendent Walling was at the Special Sessions Court yesterday uneasy as a fly in a cup of molasses.  He appeared against the thirty-two prisoners he had arrested at Joseph Burnett's, 93 Sixth Avenue, for frequenting an opium den."

After he described the raid, attorney Adolph Sanger asked "Did you buy an opium, Superintendent?"

"I did not."
"See any sold?"

At this point the judge called each one of the prisoners individually and discharged them for lack of evidence.

But it was not the last time Mortan would have to deal with the Superintendent.  That evening he appeared at Police Headquarters and applied for a permit to carry a pistol.  The Sun reported "He was referred to Mr. Walling."

In 1919 Trinity Church began selling off much of its properties in Greenwich Village to real estate operator William S. Coffin.  On August 2 the New-York Tribune reported he had purchased "fifteen more old dwellings...which will be converted into studio apartment buildings.  Mr. Coffin previously bought and altered about thirty of these properties.  His latest purchase includes 7 to 29 Vandam Street and 41 to 45 King street."

Two years later Lucia Riggiero purchased the house and added a modern convenience--plumbing.  Among her tenants would be Matthew Josephson, here by 1924, along with Thomas O'Connor and his family.. 

Joseph was the editor of Secession magazine in 1922 when he began corresponding with Harold Loeb, who published Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts in Europe.   Loeb's publication included short works by American writers like Amy Lowell, Conrad Aiken, Wallace Stevens and Sherwood Anderson, and artwork by the likes of Picasso, Jacques Lipchitz, Man Ray and Joseph Stella.

In August 1923 Joseph began publishing Broom in New York, a scaled-down version of the European prototype.  Nevertheless, his initial issues included works by E. E. Cummings, Toomer and artist Juan Gris.  But trouble loomed.

On Jannuary 15, 1924 The New York Times reported "The January issue of Broom, styled as 'an international magazine of the arts,' has been declared unmailable by the Post Office Department...A letter from the Solicitor General of the department to that effect was received by Matthew Josephson, the editor, at 45 King Street."

Josephson and his staff carefully combed through the issue, trying to discover the problem.  "We have studied the issue carefully and we see nothing pornographic in it," he told a reporter.  The Times said "The issue contains four poems by E. E. Cummings, author of 'The Enormous Room'; stories by Philipe Soupault and Kenneth Burke, an article on Sir Walter Raleigh, by William Carlos Williams, and the announcement of 'a prize of $2' to Sinclair Lewis for his work in advancing the American novel."

Finally Josephson was informed of the problem.   The Kenneth Burke article, 'Prince Llan," used the plural of the word "breast."  "Breast," as in "the ape beat his breast," was perfectly acceptable.  "Breasts," however, was considered pornographic to Government censors.  It was the end of Broom.

In 1926 No. 45 King Street was declared an "unsafe building."  By then it appears that Joseph had moved on.  (In 1928 his biography, Zola and His Time, was printed in full in The Book League Monthly.)

In the meantime, Thomas O'Connor was still in the King Street house with his son, Thomas Jr. and his mother-in-law, Ellen Gallagher.  As a young man he had been a protege of Tammany leader Thomas F. Foley; and in 1920 appointed "confidential attendant" to Judge Joseph F. Mulqueen.  In 1927 he was made secretary to General Sessions Judge George L. Donnellan.

He still held that position in the summer of 1938 and was still living on King Street.  In July that year he visited his cousin, Katherine Gallagher in the Bronx for a few days,  Since he was a child O'Connor had suffered somnambulism; a condition that would end his life during his visit.

The Times reported on July 28, 1938, "According to the police, he climbed over the window-sill of the Gallagher apartment about 3:40 A. M.  When he was found on the sidewalk, he was clad in night clothes."  The apartment was on the third floor and it was supposed that O'Connor had been sleepwalking when he fell.

In 1996 renovations began to convert the "three family dwelling into one house," as noted on Department of Buildings documents.  Not unexpectedly, little remains of the 1830s interior detailing.  Nevertheless, with the 1937 fire escape removed and the brickwork restored. No. 45 King appears much as it did when the top floor was added in the years following the Civil War.

photographs by the author

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