Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Alexander Thompson House - 452 Greenwich Street

Around 1819 Alexander Thompson completed construction of a house at the southwest corner of Greenwich and Debrosses Streets.  The prim Federal style dwelling was two and a half stories tall and faced in Flemish bond red brick.  Incised brownstone lintels were an added touch.

An especially pleasing recessed, arched doorway at the southern end of the structure was fully paneled and, possibly, included a stylish fanlight.  The architect's attention to this feature is more remarkable because it appears that it originally provided access to the rear yard and not to the house proper.

Thompson apparently built No. 452 Greenwich Street as an investment, for soon after its completion it was home to Archibald Sommerville.   By the mid-1840s it was being operating as a boarding house; home to respectable tenants like S. A. Jenkins.  Jenkins was the sole teacher in Public School 37, almost directly across the street at No. 457 Greenwich Street.

Another boarder that year was Martha E. Walker.  She had left her husband, Thomas, who was verbally abusive and unfaithful.  Her animosity was apparent in a letter she wrote from the Greenwich Street house on January 28, 1847 asking for the return of her miniature portrait.  She said in part:

I am happy, and will continue so in spite of all that you can do.  I have plenty of friends, although you have said I was so vile...Your miniature I enclose, and again demand mine; the likeness of a villain I feel no inclination to retain.  Your face brings only the remembrance of your baseness to my mind."

Martha's description of her husband as a villain was apparently not overly-dramatic.  He was tried on June 4, 1849 for her murder.

By 1852 the house was owned by William B. Howenstine, who remodeled it to four floors and installed a shop at ground level.  It was most likely at this time that the arched doorway was converted to the entrance to the upper floors where about five families would rent rooms.  Howenstine and his wife, Julia, lived on Broome Street, several blocks to the east.  

Close inspection reveals the change of brick from Flemish bond to running bond at the third floor window sill level.  The angled corner entrance was added in 1892.

The tenants of No. 452 Greenwich Street were working class families.   The daughter of one, who lived in the "second floor, front room," was looking for a job in October 1859.  Her advertisement in The New York Herald read "Wanted --By a respectable girl, a situation as chambermaid and waitress in a private family."

Peter Hussey immigrated to New York in 1862 and moved into No. 452 Greenwich Street.  Unable to read or write, he was guided through the process of registering to vote in the election of 1867; but when he showed up at the polls he was arrested for election fraud.

In court on February 6, 1869 he pleaded innocence.  "I made a mark on the paper at the Vanderbilt House," he explained.  "There were plenty of men present who knew me when I got my paper, but they might not have seen me at the time."  It appears that Hussey had fallen victim to unscrupulous election meddlers.

Also living in the house at the time was the Ginn family.  Teen-aged boys of working class families were expected to help with finances and James Ginn worked in construction.  On April 21, 1869 The New York Herald reported "A boy named James Ginn, who resides at No. 452 Greenwich street, fell a distance of twenty feet from a ladder in West street and was severely injured.  He was taken to his residence."

In the meantime, Richard Dawson lived here while he operated his saloon downstairs.  On April 7, 1870 he was granted permission by the Board of Aldermen "to place a watering-trough in front of his premises."  The trough would be a convenience to to his customers; however the Aldermen's resolution was quick to point out "such permission to remain only during the pleasure of the Common Council."

Dawson's heart was apparently not in the saloon business.  He tried to sell his business several times.  On February 6, 1871 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald:  "The best corner liquor store in the Eighth ward, doing a splendid trade; good reason for selling."

There were apparently no takers, for Dawson still ran the saloon when he was picked for jury duty in 1873.  His was no small case.  The trial was to decide the fate of "Boss" William M. Tweed of Tammany Hall.   Tweed was accused of 220 counts of corruption and fraud.  His immense power and wealth was evidenced in the $8 million bail he provided--equal to about $166 million today.

The jury failed to come to a verdict in January 1873.  One of the hold-outs was Richard Dawson, who told a reporter "I may say that I was one of them that was for acquittal, as I would convict no man on an informer's testimony...The Judge's charge did not make much impression, as we thought it biased and one-sided."

Despite Dawson's sympathetic views about Tweed, the politician was retried that year with much different results.  He was convicted on 204 counts and sentenced to 12 years in prison.  (That sentence was later reduced to one year.)

Living above the saloon the following year was Thomas Stephenson.  Early on the morning of April 6, 1874 he and two cohorts, Thomas Coffey and Owen Short, laid in wait for John Devins to lock up his store at No. 280 Watts Street.  They then "knocked him down and robbed him of $190 in money and a diamond pin valued at $150," according to Devins's complaint.

The haul, worth about $7,400 today, would have been a windfall had the three not been quickly arrested.  They were held on $5,000 bail and charged with highway robbery.

Dawson's saloon was on the market again in October 1875.  His advertisement seemed near-desperate.  "A Rare Chance.  For sale--A first class liquor store, 452 Greenwich street, corner Desbrosses, with lease; to be sold cheap."

It was most likely Dawson's ill health that had prompted the urgent need to sell.  But once again, there were no takers.  Somewhat sadly, four months later, on February 20, 1876 an advertisement offered "For Sale--in consequence of the death of owner, the Stock and Fixtures of a nicely fitted up bar and back room, with good cellar...two years' lease can be had from May next."  The ad was placed by the executor of Dawson's estate.

The surnames of the upstairs tenants by now were mainly Irish.  Among them was Thomas H. Campbell.  He stood talking to a friend, Patrick Sweeney on Saturday night, July 26, 1879 at the corner of Charlton and West Streets when, according to The New York Herald, "a drunken tramp, named John Trainor, came up and, without a word of warning, stabbed Sweeney twice in the left breast."

The New York Times described the attacker as "a tall, heavily-built man of slovenly appearance," and reported that Campbell had noticed the stranger remove something from his coat jacket, but had thought nothing of it.  Sweeney grappled with the man until a policeman saw the fight and knocked the knife from Trainor's hand.

The New York Herald described the weapon as "an oyster knife, [which] had been filed down and sharpened."  Sweeney was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital in very critical condition.

In August 1881 Howenstine leased the saloon to William F. Curry.  His two year lease carried an annual rent of $1,020, or about $2,000 per month today.

Among the Irish immigrants living upstairs that year was the hooligan John Clancey who found himself behind bars on June 28.  That Saturday night Clancey was among a group of men loitering around a Hudson River pier.  When a police officer intervened, things got ugly.

The New York Times reported "Officer Daniel Flynn...endeavored on Saturday to disperse a crowd of roughs from Pier No. 34 North River.  The loafers turned upon him and he was thrown violently to the ground, breaking his leg in the fall."

While Flynn lay helpless, one of the mob kicked him in the face, "knocking several of his teeth down his throat."  Other policemen came to the rescue, finally, and three of the gang were arrested, including John Clancey.

Charles Mooney also lived here.  New Yorkers suffered an especially severe heatwave in the summer of 1882.  While the wealthy escaped to breezy resorts like Newport and Bar Harbor, the working class suffered.  On July 11 The Times wrote on July 11, "The furnace-like blasts that greeted the earliest risers yesterday gave promise of a day that would try the endurance of those who were forced to remain in the City."  Among those overcome by the heat that afternoon was Charles Mooney, who was taken to the Chambers Street Hospital.

John McMahon had taken over the saloon by 1886.  He and his wife lived upstairs, as did McMahon's brother, Edward, who worked as a bartender.  That year Edward applied for a job with the police department, but (possibly because of his current occupation) his application was denied.

McMahon's wife delivered a baby boy in their apartment directly above the saloon in January 1887.  Only 18 months later, on June 7, 1889, she gave birth to two twin girls.  The premature infants were born ten minutes apart and severely underweight.  According to The Evening World a few days later, "Miss Catherine McMahon tipped the beam at two and a half pounds exactly.  Kitty weighed three and a half."

Immediately upon their births, McMahon called for a priest. He told the reporter who interviewed him on June 11, "They were both baptized as soon as they were born almost.  I was afraid they might die and had the priest come right away."

Now, with his daughters four days old, he held out hope.  "But now I don't know but they will both live.  They certainly keep me pretty busy feeding them.  All last night I was busy with them.  I feed them from a spoon."

The girls' mother was, perhaps, more realistic.  "They are as much trouble as any children.  Still, if they were not to grow up strong and healthy I would almost rather have them die while they are babies."

The World reporter repeatedly described the vigorous attributes of the parents as genetic hope that the girls would survive.  He mentioned that when he entered the apartment, "the stalwart father of the twins was resting his large proportions on a lounge.  He is a broad-shouldered, deep-chested fellow, with a blonde mustache and ruddy cheeks."

He described the McMahons as "splendid specimens of physical humanity" and ended his article noting that the twins "are a little handicapped by their lilliputian dimensions, but the children of such strong parents must have a good deal of vitality in them."

In the spring of 1892 McMahon hired architects Horenburger & Straub to renovate the saloon.  The plans, filed on May 4, called for "walls altered and new front."  The $750 in renovations included the new entrance, chamfered into the corner with a stylish cast iron column.   Large windows were cut into the brick walls on both the Greenwich and Desbrosses Street sides.  They most likely included leaded and stained glass, so popular in 19th century saloon decor.

In the meantime, the neighborhood around Greenwich and Desbrosses Streets had totally changed in the more than 70 years since No. 452 Greenwich Street was built.  The patrons of McMahon's tavern were the laborers who worked in the massive loft and warehouse buildings that had since closed in around it.

John McMahon still held the lease on the saloon in 1897, but he sub-let it that year to brewers Bernheimer & Schmidt.  Brewery owners often operated saloons in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  They were thereby able to sell only their own beers and ales, cutting out the competition.   Bernheimer & Schmidt leased the space through 1903.

That year William G. Howenstine (apparently William B.'s son) and his wife, Minetta, sold No. 452 Greenwich Street to William F. Grell.  Active in politics, Grell ran for sheriff as the German Democracy Party's candidate that year; but, according to the New York Tribune on November 4, "received comparatively few votes."  Instead he went on to become a Park Commissioner.

Grell made a few improvements to the property, including a new cornice and conversion of the back portion for a small factory.   He leased the entire building to Henry A. Ficke beginning on August 1, 1904.  His ten-year lease, including the saloon, cost $2,500 per year in rent.

The shop in the rear was home to the American Steel Wool Mfg. Co. in 1913.

Ficke was apparently a good tenant, for when Grell renewed the lease for five years in 1914, he did not raise the rent.  Ficke collected the upstairs rents and operated his saloon throughout his lease, which ended in 1919.  If he had anticipated extending the arrangement, the ratification of the 18th Amendment on January 29, 1919 put an end to that.  The legislation paved the way for the enactment of Prohibition  on January 16, 1920.

The space that had been a working man's saloon for half a century became a luncheonette.  The upper floors continued to be rented throughout the century.  Photographs from the last quarter of the 20th century shows the time-worn building slathered with metal advertising signs, like "Coca-Cola."

The corner luncheonette was no doubt popular with workers in the surrounding factories and warehouses; but it was apparently not always the best choice.  On April 28, 1984 the Food Shop Fountain was cited for failing to correct earlier Health Department violations.

The changing personality of Tribeca from gritty industry to a trendy residential and shopping district arrived on the corner of Greenwich Street and Desbrosses Street in 1998.  Architect Daniel Kohs purchased the property for $499,000 and designed extensive renovations to create a single family house with a garage in the former shop section at the rear.  

When he put it on the market early in 2001,  Braden Kell, writing in The New York Post on February 25 commented "The 5-bedroom, 7-bathroom house also features large bay windows, steam showers, a 3000-bottle wine cellar, 1,500-square-foot roof deck with water views and an elevator."

Life upstairs in 2013 was much different than that experienced by John McMahon's family.  photo via March 12, 2013

It was purchased by Sean McCarthy, who paid $5.65 million, and listed it again in 2014 for $24.5 million.  The price was apparently a bit steep and McCarthy relisted it the following March for a more affordable $19.5 million.

The modern renovations over-restored the brick facade, giving it an artificial, reproduction appearance.  Nevertheless, the nearly two-century old survivor is an important relic from the earliest days of development in this section of Tribeca.

photographs by the author

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