Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Joseph Bento House -- No. 230 West 15th Street



As the Chelsea neighborhood saw rapid development in the first half of the 19th century, an ambitious row of upscale homes appeared on the south side of West 15th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  The handsome residences fully engulfed half of block, from just off the corner of Seventh Avenue to No. 230, halfway to Eighth.

The anchoring home, No. 230, stood out.   Like its carbon copy Italianate neighbors, the red brick house boasted a high brownstone stoop, stately pedimented entrance with leafy, scrolled brackets, and elegant paneled and bracketed cornice.  Double doors with arched openings led to the entrance halls.  But No. 230 went a step further by bowing two of the three bays gently forward; providing a graceful and façade and additional interior space.

It became home to the well-to-do family of merchant Joseph Bento, whose business was at No. 84 South Street.  On April 24, 1847 the New-York Daily Tribune notified its readers that old Bento and his wife had returned home on the brig Oriole from Rio Grande.

Benton was only 53 years old on February 19, 1864 when he died of heart disease.  His funeral was held in the parlor of No. 230 West 15th Street on Tuesday, February 23 at noon.

The Civil War was drawing to a close and the Chelsea neighborhood was already changing.   Within the next two decades the upscale homes would rapidly change from private residences to boarding houses.   Before long the Bento house would follow suit.

N. B. Cozzens was living in the house on October 18, 1888 when he opened The Evening World.  The newspaper had printed a puzzle—a composite of features when snipped out of the paper and properly folded, formed a portrait of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.   The Evening World promised that the names of the first ten readers who sent in correct solutions would have their names printed in the next day’s issue.

Cozzens set himself at solving the puzzle and, having done so, rushed his envelop to the post box.  He barely beat out hundreds of other subscribers.  

The following day The World announced “That Gladstone face puzzle published yesterday may be a very good thing to bewilder the slow-moving wits of the Londoners, but The Evening World readers made short work with it.

“Practical as they are at solving all sorts of puzzles, they went at that composite picture yesterday with an ingenious zeal that should shame their British cousin.”  The newspaper estimated that at least 800 solutions had already arrived at its offices.  Among the first ten to arrive was that of a very proud N. B Cozzens.


Boarding here in 1893 was Toronto resident John A. Taylor.  Taylor’s publishing business included a New York office at Nos. 10 and 12 Vandewater Street.   When in town he lived in rooms in the 15th Street house.   Around the first week of May 1893 the 36-year old left his wife and five children in Canada, headed to New York.   A week later the 36-year old man left his office and instead of returning to 15th Street, he stayed overnight at the Colonnade Hotel on Lafayette Place.  He left there the following morning and disappeared.

On May 25 The American Stationer reported that Taylor’s brother-in-law, David Blackley had arrived in New York in search of him.  It described Taylor as “5 feet 8 inches in height and not stout.”

The New York Times sent a reporter to Blackley’s hotel room.   He said “I cannot account for my brother-in-law’s disappearance. I think his mind has become unbalanced.  He seldom drank, but when once started, he very soon became irresponsible.  His affairs are all right and his domestic relations pleasant.”

The hint of alcohol was picked up by The Evening World which reported that Blackley “has intimated that Mr. Taylor might be on a spree.”   The newspaper admitted that “Taylor is not a drinking man, and the last time that he is known to have been under the influence of liquor, it is said, was about three years ago.”

The mysterious case of the missing publisher was eventually disappeared from the news.   Whether Taylor was ever found is unclear.

At the time of Taylor’s disappearance No. 230 West 15th Street was owned by the Fitzpatrick family.  A small fire broke out in the house that year on October 13th at 8:30 p.m., but was quickly extinguished.  Within three months a much worse tragedy would strike when on New Year’s Day, 1894 Elizabeth Gertrude, the seven-year old daughter of boarders Frederick and May Meyer died in the house.

Other boarders continued to be respectable and middle-class.  On September 1, 1900 James H. Sturges started his new job as a “temporary clerk” for the City, earning $3 per day (about $23,000 a year today).

Henry Kleinpeffer was a 44-year old waiter living here two years later.   Shockingly, The Evening World reported on September 19 that he “committed suicide this afternoon by hanging himself.”  Later that day the newspaper expanded on the story, saying “Henry Kleinpeffer, forty-four years old, was found dead at No. 230 West Fifteenth street, with a handkerchief tied around his neck, a suicide.”

Apparently Kleinpeffer had no family and few close friends.  His funeral was held, instead of in the parlor of a private home or in a church, at the Stephen Merritt Burial Co. on Eighth Avenue at 19th Street.

The Fitzpatrick family sold No. 230 in 1903 to A. V. Whiteman, maker of “milk jars.”   Five years later he sold it to newlyweds Henry William Lyding and his wife, the former Juliana Brandsema.  The Lydings returned the house to a single family residence as Henry studied at the New York Homeopathic Medical College.  Following his graduation in 1913, the English basement was converted for his practice.

That year the North American Journal Homoeopathy announced that Dr. Henry William Lyding “has opened an office for general practice” in the house.  He saw patients from 8 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. on weekdays and on Sunday from 8 to 10:00 in the morning.

As the years passed, Lyding focused on diseases of the eye ear, nose and throat.  He was on the surgical staff of the New York Ophthalmic Hospital.  The Lydings had two children, Charles and Eleanor and summered at their country home in Brentwood, Long Island.  It was there, on Sunday night, July 16, 1933, that Henry Lyding died at the age of 49.

In 1950 the house was sold to the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, located nearby on West 14th Street.   It was converted to the church’s Parish House.

By the end of the century the homes of the once-elegant row had been altered to different extremes or, in some cases, demolished.  Few of the stoops remained and nearly all facades had been painted.  No. 230,too, was slathered in paint, its stoop was gone, and the leafy-bracketed entrance had lost its detailing.

With the wonderful original foliate brackets and carved pediment lost, the architects produced a more restrained version.

But an overall restoration by Preserv, completed in 2008, brought No. 230 back from the brink.  The stoop was reconstructed, as were the damaged sills and lintels, the masonry repaired and the paint removed from the brick.  Today No. 230 West 15th Street is again a single family home, looking much as it did when Joseph Bento and his wife returned to New York from Rio Grande in 1847.

photographs by the author

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Alfred E. Smith House -- No. 25 Oliver Street





In the first years following the end of the Revolutionary War, the Rutgers and de Lancey estates abutted one another.  As the city encroached on their lands, the families named new streets for themselves, including Rutgers Street, Henry Street (for Henry Rutgers), and Catherine Street, for Catherine Rutgers.  Division Street marked the line between the two estates.  And little Oliver Street was named for Oliver de Lancey, brother of James de Lancey, for whom Delancey Street was named.

By the 1840s the streets were lined with what were mostly working class homes.   Among them was No. 25 Oliver Street, a 23-foot wide, two and a half story house clad in Flemish bond brick. The neighborhood was populated by Irish immigrants, and the Federal style house was owned by Thomas Coman.

Coman brought his family from Ireland to New York in 1838 when his son, also named Thomas, was just two years old.   He was determined that his son would succeed and while other boys in the neighborhood left school early to work, young Thomas not only stayed on but was later enrolled in the New York City College.

In 1847 Florence McCarthy was living across the street at No.22 Oliver Street when she fell behind in her personal taxes by $10.53.  By 1853 it appears she was renting a room from the Coman family.  She was, by now, a trustee in the Fourth Ward School District. Florence was still living here five years later when she had risen to the position of commissioner.

Young Thomas Coman graduated from City College in 1856.   That same year he joined the volunteer Eagle Engine Company No. 13.  He briefly worked for The New York Herald, and then at the age of 26 he took a job as clerk in the Post Office.

But Thomas Coman was politically motivated and in 1866 he was elected to the New York City Board of Alderman.  It was the beginning of a long political career marked by a meteoric rise.   Only two years later he became President of the Board of Alderman and, that same year, when Mayor Hoffman resigned, Thomas Coman stood in as Acting Mayor.  He held the position for about a year.

In 1871, the same year that Coman was re-elected to the Board of Alderman, he filed plans to enlarge the Oliver Street house by adding a third floor.  Although his intentions, as described in the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide on July 8, included a mansard roof; the completed renovations stopped short of that.  It was most likely at this time that up-to-date Italianate railings were added.

The Tammany Hall Democrat would sometimes find himself embroiled in the scandals that became the organization’s hallmark.   The New York Times—notoriously anti-Tammany—initiated an investigation regarding the $31,730.15 bill presented to the City in 1872 by the J. McBride Davidson safe company.

The Times insisted that the bills “were very heavy, and that the goods for which he charged could not be found in the public offices.”  The newspaper proclaimed “We have also intimated that many of the safes charged for were supplied to private persons!”

Thomas Coman -- Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York 1869 (copyright expired)
On February 1, 1872 the newspaper published a list of the safes, their costs and where they were delivered.  “This account is as clear a proof of barefaced swindling as any which could possibly be laid before the public.” Included in the list was the $650 “Secretary Safe” delivered to Thomas Coman at No. 25 Oliver Street on October 11, 1871.  The equivalent cost of the Coman’s safe today would be around $13,000.

In 1873 he was indicted, along with other Tweed Ring conspirators, for corruption in the construction of the Courthouse.

In 1881 Coman’s wife, Martha, sold No. 25 Oliver Street to the Church of St. James, located just a block away.    Almost simultaneously the Church purchased No. 21 Oliver Street for the same price.  Before long it would acquire No. 23 as well.

When St. James Church purchased No. 25 Mary and Sarah Corrigan were living at No. 135 Henry Street.  The sisters taught at Primary School No. 12 at No. 83 Roosevelt Street, along with Mary G. Meagher.  At the time Mary L. Corrigan was earning $600 per year and Sarah made $516.  Mary Meagher was earning $636 a year.   Even though she was earning more than the Corrigan sisters, it appears finances were tight.  That same year Mary Meaghan borrowed $327 from Jordan & Moriarty, using her furniture as collateral.

By 1883 all three women were living at No 25 Oliver Street, renting from the church.   The following year, in April, the church announced its intention of combining Nos 25 and 23 Oliver Street for use as its rectory.  Although the plan was never carried out, it was most likely at this time that the two houses acquired their matching cornices.

While the houses were not combined; No. 25 did become the rectory of St. James Church and it was from here on April 6, 1902 that the Rev. James B. Curry described the gritty 5-Points neighborhood.  “This district is a very rotten one, and the people in it who are bad are about the vilest and most degraded in all the world.  At Chatham Square I was every day compelled to make my way through a crowd of bad women who infested the corners thereabouts.”

Little Oliver Street however, while humble, was respectable.  In 1904 an up-and-coming politician, Alfred E. Smith was elected to the State Assembly.   He and his family were living in a five-room, third-floor walk up at No. 28 Oliver Street.  By 1909 the apartment was too crowded for the family of seven.  When funeral director Henry McCaddin moved from the former rectory at No. 25 Oliver Street to No. 63 Madison nearby, Smith leased No. 25 from St. James Church.

Smith was wildly popular within the mostly Irish neighborhood.  He relentlessly worked for improvements of the Lower East Side, including rent control, tenant protection and low-cost housing.  In an effort to teach children to save money, he and Assembly Speaker Tom Foley (who also lived on the block) announced free gifts to neighborhood children.  On June 17, 1913 The New York Times reported that “Three thousand children gathered yesterday at the doorstep of 25 Oliver Street…The gifts were to be distributed at 4 o’clock, but the collection of humanity took so long to be sorted and squirmed and screamed so much and so mightily that it was an hour later before sufficient order prevailed to hand out the first present.”  Each child received a tin bank, painted red and green, with a key and a nickel to start their savings.

The ruckus was such that a passerby asked a policeman if a riot was happening.  He answered, “Naw, a nuisance!”

When Smith ran for sheriff in October 1915, the residents showed their support.  On October 28 The New York Times reported “The blocks bounded by Oliver, Henry, Catharine and Madison Streets were closed to traffic and the houses were festooned with Japanese lanterns, bunting and incandescent lights.  In front of 25 Oliver Street, the candidate’s home, there hung a great painting of Smith bordered with red, white, and blue lights.”

There were three bands in the street, and open-air movies.  Children, “some Greek, some Chinese and some Italian, but mostly Irish, in carnival costumes, performed folk dancing and sang.”

Alfred E. Smith and his wife, Catherine -- from the collection of the Library of Congress

By 1916 Oliver Street was popularly known as Politicians’ Row.   On April 21 The Evening World noted that in addition to Smith, “In the row are the homes of Clem Driscoll, Senator Reardon, Magistrate Nolan, Tom Foley and Former Coroner Hayes.”  But Alfred E. Smith was the most popular.  On November 7, 1917 The Sun called him the “idol of Oliver street” and said he was “pretty well liked wherever he is known, amateur actor, present Sheriff, and former leader of the Assembly.”  That same year Smith, like Thomas Coman before him, was elected President of the Board of Aldermen.

In 1918 he was elected Governor of New York—the first Roman Catholic to hold the office--and suddenly the Smith family was dividing its time between the Executive Mansion and Oliver Street.  The first rumors that Alfred E. Smith would abandon Oliver Street began to spread in 1922.   When a resident was asked about it, he said “He’d never leave here.  Why, the boys wouldn’t let him!”

But Smith did finally leave the Oliver Street house.  Somewhat ironically, it was leased by St. James Church to Henry McCaddin, who had preceded Smith here.   McCaddin moved his funeral home into the house once again.

In 1928, when Smith’s daughter, Catherine, was married, old Oliver Street neighbors were not forgotten. Among the 15 invitations to the Albany wedding that arrived at Oliver Street addresses was one for Mr. and Mrs. Henry McCaddin.

On March 30, 1937 Berenice Abbott photographed No 25 (middle). The pressed metal lintels on both No. 25 and 23 were still crisp.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWTHI01Z

Little by little the old Irish neighborhood changed.  In 1939 the Federal Works Project’s New York City Guide described the area around the old Smith residence.  “The population of this former Irish district is chiefly Italian and Russian; a Greek colony occupies the lower end of Madison Street, while a small group of Spaniards lives in the neighborhood of Roosevelt and Cherry Street.”

In 1941 the first of 18 American Liberty Ships was built.  The transport ships were initially intended to help replace the English ships torpedoed by German U-boats.   Construction on the SS Alfred E. Smith commenced on November 27, 1944.   Prior to its launch in 1945 a slab of the bluestone sidewalk in front of No. 25 Oliver Street was removed in an official ceremony.  The stone was placed within the new ship.

The metal window lintels and Italianate ironwork are gone.  The remaining lintel over the doorway is seriously rusting.

Although the house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and a plaque applied to its brick façade; the Alfred E. Smith residence is a bit worse for the wear.   The house that one of New York State’s most popular called home, and where throngs of New Yorkers and children forced the closing of streets, goes mostly unnoticed and shows serious signs of neglect.

photographs by the author

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The 1820s No. 11 Bleecker Street




In the early 1820s the exclusive Bond Street neighborhood which was becoming home to eminent New Yorkers with names like Roosevelt and Astor.  Just one block south, in 1822, a two-and-a-half story Federal home was constructed for Stephen J. Brinkerhoff.  Located at No. 11 Bleecker Street it was clad in Flemish-bond red brick trimmed with modest brownstone lintels and sills. 


The project was apparently purely speculative, for in 1823 the property was transferred to Henry Remsen.  Remsen was well-known in New York as a wealthy merchant from a long-established family.  He quickly turned it over within the year to John Culbert, who took title in 1824.


The Culbert family would retain possession of the house for years.  The title was passed to William A. M. Culbert in 1862,.  It appears that they leased the residence rather than living there.  In 1837 physician Abraham D. Clement was listed in New York City directories as living here.  By 1841 another doctor, Joel Foster, had taken occupancy.


A fascinating double portrait of Charles Henry Augustus Carter and his wife by Nicholas Biddle Kittell in the Museum of the City of New York suggests that they were leasing the house at the end of the 1840s.  The painting is temptingly described as depicting the couple “in their living room at 11 Bleecker St.”

The museum describes the painting as depicting "Mr. and Mrs. Carter in their living room at 11 Bleecker St.  Pendant portraits of their 1845 wedding, ornament the parlor walls behind them."  http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/Mr.%20&%20Mrs.%20Charles%20Henry%20Augustus%20Carter-2F3XC58XR1_R.html

Carter was born in France on March 25, 1819 and married Elizabeth Perces Brooks around 1845.  The couple moved to New York City by 1848, around the time the painting was executed.  The Carters’ address was on Carroll Place (a one-block section of Bleecker Street further west at Thompson Street) in the 1853; then at No. 123 Bleecker Street.  There is the possibility that the painting does depict Charles’ and Elizabeth’s first residence at No. 11 Bleecker Street.


Perhaps the Culberts' last tenants were the Sturges family.  On September 4, 1864 young J. T. Sturges was drafted into service of the Union Army.  William Culbert, a doctor, sold No. 11 Bleecker to Ludwig Anger two years later, in 1866.  A Prussian immigrant, Anger had the building updated by raising the roof to a full three stories and adding trendy Italianate elements.


While the Angers lived in the house; the renovation included rented rooms in the upper stories.  The neighborhood was already seeing the influx of immigrants and commerce--making it far grittier than it had been when respected physicians had lived at No. 11 Bleecker.   Although Ludwig Anger was gone from the building in 1880; the family retained possession.


The decline of the area was evidenced on June 13, 1894 when Samuel Deutsch appeared in court to transfer his saloon license from No. 170 Suffolk Street to No. 11 Bleecker.  The establishment of a saloon here was objected to by the Florence Crittenden Mission at No. 23 Bleecker Street.   The Mission pointed out the law “prohibiting saloons from being located within a certain distance of a church,” reported The Evening World.  “Deutsch’s counsel contended that the Mission is not a church.”


The following day The Sun reported that Judge Bischoff was still undecided on the case.  “Deutsch wants to open a liquor saloon at 11 Bleecker street,” said the newspaper.  “The Judge reserved his decision.”


Judge Bischoff’s decision finally came and no doubt was unwelcome news to the Florence Crittenden Mission.  On July 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide listed Samuel Deutsch’s saloon and restaurant as operating here.


While Deutsch served lager and beer downstairs, families continued to live upstairs.  In August 1895 four children living here set out to aid The World’s Sick Babies Fund.  Moe and Tillie Manisof, ages 11 and 9 respectively; and Kattie Rosenberg, 6 years old, and her 3-year old sister Fannie set up business at the corner of Bowery and Bleecker streets.  The philanthropic urchins sent a letter to the newspaper which appeared on August 20.


“Inclosed find $4, which we collected in three days at a lemonade stand, corner Bowery and Bleecker streets.”


Another tenant was Augusta Lagrand.  The following summer she traveled to Brooklyn to visit her married daughter at No. 232 Henry Street.  There, on August 11, 1896, the 53-year old woman died of the insufferable heat.


By 1897 the Record & Guide listed the Manisof children’s mother, Rosa, as the proprietor of the saloon formerly run by Samuel Deutsch.  It would remain in her name at least until 1902 when a notorious gangster, Abraham Kutner, took over the operation.


Kutner would not run the saloon long before he was in deep trouble.   On March 11, 1902 The New York Times reported “Kutner, it was said last night, had been under arrest for illegal [voter] registration.  He is well known on the east side, and during the election was known as a worker for the politicians who control the neighborhood.”


Lester Bennett managed a nearby saloon and worked as an undercover informant.  He was “one of the most efficient agents of John McCullagh, the State Superintendent of Elections,” said the New-York Tribune on March 12, 1902.  According to the newspaper, he “had been active in getting evidence against Kutner and several members of notorious gangs who perpetrated election frauds.  His life had been threatened.”


On March 11 several men came into the Bleecker Street saloon and told Kutner that Bennett had “put up a job” to have a fight take place the day before, which led to Kutner’s arrest.  The Tribune reported that the men “worked upon Kutner until he became enraged.”  The saloon-keeper stormed out of his bar and heeded to Hatch’s Saloon, at No. 311 Bowery, where Bennett worked. 


Kutner threatened Bennett with a revolver.  Bennett offered to go back to Kutner’s saloon to prove he had nothing to do with the fight.  As they started for the door, “Paul McCarthy, ‘Flatnose Denny’ Sullivan and ‘Beansey’ Rosenthal, members of the ‘Hoop gang’ of repeaters, left a nearby hallway and followed.  A little later Bennett was shot by Kutner.”


A witness told investigators that Kutner “whipped out a pistol and, pressing it close to Bennett’s abdomen, fire.  Bennett sank to the sidewalk with a groan.  Kutner then started to run across the Bowery.”


The shot attracted a large crowd, including police.  Detective Binnings joined in the chase “and shouted to Kutner to stop, but the man ran, and was not caught until he reached Fourth Street, when the detective hit him on the head with his billy.”


It was the sort of neighborhood where criminals were held in higher esteem than police and Detective Binnings was temporarily in a threatening situation.  “Many of Kutner’s friends were in the neighborhood and were plainly in sympathy with him,” reported The Times.  “But the sight of nearly a score of policemen from Headquarters prevented any demonstration in his favor.”


Things in the neighborhood were gradually improving by the turn of the century when apparel manufacturing firms began taking lofts and office space.  On April 4, 1903 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the Estate of Ludwig Anger had leased No. 11 Bleecker Street “for a term of 5 years at a rental of $6,000.”


Among the new tenants were Henry Kalb and Abraham Goldsmith who ran Kalb & Goldsmith.  Listed as “dealers in fur skins,” they were in financial difficulty by 1908 when a petition in bankruptcy was filed against them.  Nevertheless, the company was still operating here a year later, now with Charles Kalb as a partner.


At the same time the Fur Dealers Directory listed Londner & Birnberg in the building.  Following the Angers’ sale of the property in 1914, the property underwent a relatively rapid succession of owners.  Finally, in 1923, Benjamin Trachtenberg of Trachtenberg & Sons, purchased the building and held it for more than a decade.  In 1931 the owners initiated a formal conversion of the property to factory and store space, including law-required fire escapes.



Apparel related firms, like the S. S. Hat Frame Co., here, in 1918, continued to lease space.   As the 20th century progressed, the little buildings along Bleecker Street suffered neglect.  But the revival of the area known as Noho resulted in renewed interest.   In 2004 the upper floors were converted to a single triplex apartment and today the ground floor—where gangster Abraham Kutner ran a saloon—is home to an organic Italian vegetarian restaurant.

photographs by the author


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Schneider & Herter's 1894 No. 251 East Broadway






In 1843 the house at No. 251 East Broadway was being used by two German-born piano-makers, John Ruck and Henry Reichard, as their instrument shops.  It was here that year that Reichard changed the piano forever when he invented the “pedal pianoforte.”



As the century drew to a close No. 251 was once again being used as a private home.  Brothers Francis Thomas J. and James J. Nealis lived here in a neighborhood that was seeing immense change.  The wide Greek Revival homes on East Broadway had been built for financially-comfortable families.   By the 1870s the neighborhood had filled with Irish immigrants, who were now being pushed out by the throngs of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.



Following the death of Francis Nealis in the house on October 20, 1891, his brothers made a decision to leave.   On June 4, 1892 American Architect and Architecture reported that James Nealis had hired architects Graul & Frohme to design a five-story “brick and stone flat” on the site.  The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide was less complementary, calling the proposed building a “tenement.”



But the plans of Graul & Frohme lay on the drafting table unused.  Nealis sold the property to Simon Liboritz, his neighbor next door at No. 253.  On June 9, 1894 The Record and Guide reported that Liboritz was going ahead with plans to replace the house with a five-story apartment building; but he had changed architects.  Plans for the $20,000 structure were now underway, it said, by Schneider & Herter.



The architects were among the favorites of the German-Jewish property owners in the Lower East Side.  Ernest W. Schneider and Henry Herter would eventually design more than a hundred tenement buildings as well as commercial structures and two synagogues.



Their resulting five-story building would have been just another brick tenement had it not been for their exuberant terra cotta ornamentation.  Each red brick story was delineated by a contrasting stone course.  But elaborate terra cotta in the form of portrait panels, pediments and an explosive tympanum with a full-relief winged bust were more expected in a social or music hall than in an apartment building.





The overblown ornamentation disguised the meager means of the residents inside.  One of these in particular, however, would rise above his humble beginnings.



Rudolph Marks Rodkinson was born in Odessa, Russia in 1866.   At the age of 15 he moved to London and joined the Jewish theater, using the stage name Rudolph Marks.  The boy played with such famed Yiddish actors a Jacob Adler and Abraham Goldfaden.  Possibly through their encouragement—both of whom had found great success in New York—Marks arrived in the city four years later.



Now 19 years old, Marks succeeded.  The New York Times would later remember that he “appeared in productions in the old Bowery theatres with Max and Sophie Karp, Thomashefsky, Adler and Bertha Kalisch.”  He tried his hand at producing, as well, staging The Bowery Tramp at the Oriental Opera House.



But Marks felt he could better himself in his adopted country.   The year before Simon Liboritz completed his East Broadway apartment building Marks was studying law at the University of the City of New York.



In December 1893 the law student initiated his own legal battle—one which would result in a ground-breaking precedent.  Publisher Joseph Jaffa came up with a marketing ploy whereby he printed the photographs of university students then initiated a “voting contest to decide whether Marks was the most popular student.”




Marks, whom The New York Times described as “a Hebrew actor, at present studying law,” sued, saying that he had not consented to having his photograph published.   The Superior Court agreed.  Judge McAdam’s decision on December 29 ruled “No newspaper or institution, no matter how worthy, has the right to use the name or picture of any one for such purpose without his consent.”



Rudolph Marks was one of the first residents in No. 251 East Broadway.  In 1898 he was admitted to the bar.   His theater background proved advantageous to his new career.   Within months he was representing David Kessler, manager of the Thalia Theatre in his divorce case, and throughout the next decades many of his clients would come from the entertainment industry.



Marks’ hard work and determination resulted in an iconic American dream story.  Specializing in corporate law, he built up a sizable practice at No. 1440 Broadway.   By the time of his death in 1930 he and his family, including two daughters and a son, lived not in a five-story walk-up; but in a comfortable home in Cedarhurst, Long Island.  His son was studying medicine at Cornell University and one of his daughters had recently graduated from Barnard College.


Even the smaller panels were highly decorated.


Another Russian Jewish resident living at No. 251 when Marks first moved in was Dr. H. Solotaroff.   Many of the residents of the neighboring tenements were poor and ill-educated; a condition worsened by their inability to understand or speak English.



As the summer of 1894 approached, the Hebrew Institute at the corner of Jefferson Street and East Broadway initiated a program to educate mothers on the dangers of summer heat.  Thousands of circulars with the headline “Mothers!  It Concerns The Health of Your Children!  Come!” printed in English, Hebrew and Russian were circulated.   The fliers advertised upcoming bi-weekly meetings which, according to Leo Kohn, one of the association’s directors, are “to give the mothers of that neighborhood a general course of instruction upon the care and feeding of children during the warm weather, and particularly on the uses of sterilized milk and barley water.”



In order to communicate with the mothers physicians of various backgrounds were solicited.  Dr Solotaroff volunteered his time to instruct the Russian-speaking women. The first meeting, held on July 2, was a success.  The New York Times related that “the mothers listened intently to every word.  They crowded around the doctor after the lecture was over, and asked him a hundred questions.”  The newspaper projected that at the next meeting “there will be twice as many picturesque mothers and bareheaded babies present as there were yesterday.”



Despite Solotaroff’s selfless work among the impoverished community; his political bent may have alienated many.   An anarchist and sympathizer of the Russian Nihilists, he was active in the extremist political group.   Dr. Solotaroff was among the speakers at an Anarchist meeting on January 27, 1904 in New Irving Hall on Broome Street. 



The Sun described the crowd of more than 500 saying “There were Russian Nihilists—several who have seen the inside of Siberian prisons—and there were Germans and Poles and Swiss and Jews, mostly be-spectacled, serious and grave, with not a single red shirt or cravat visible.”



Why the ideals of the group were distasteful to most New Yorkers was evident in the opening remarks of Johann Most, publisher of Die Freiheit, a revolutionary newspaper.  “In corrupt, degenerate America, I have suffered more than in Europe, and here it is necessary to keep up the fight even more than abroad, and it is in America that a paper like Freidheit is needed.”



The East Broadway apartment building continued to house immigrant families for decades.  In 1931 40-year old Louis Wolkofsky’s family lived in a first floor apartment.  With him, along with his wife, were 12-year old Anna; Esther, 9; Aaron, who was 8; and 4-year old Miriam.



The Wolkofsky apartment was located directly above the basement boiler room.   On March 17 that year Anna was sick in bed.  Suddenly the apartment was rocked by a tremendous blast.  The boiler below had exploded and a fire ensued.



Anna was thrown from the bed onto the floor and Esther was burned. When the police arrived they found Louis Wolkofsky on the floor unconscious and bleeding.   The entire family was removed the Broad Street Hospital for shock and injuries.



Although ten families were driven from their homes, badly shaken, the fire was extinguished and they were permitted to return later that day.  The Times reported “Little damage was done to the building other than the shattering of glass in the lower rooms”



Sadly during the latter 20th century the stoop and entrance were removed, replaced by a half-hearted attempt to disguise the alteration.  An industrial-type doorway was installed at the basement level.



In 2002 and 2003 repair of the façade resulted in the extraordinary terra cotta work gleaming once again.   It unavoidably highlighted the lost entranceway and ungainly patching, as well; and included encasing the stone base in hideous faux-stone.   But despite the losses, Schneider & Herter’s design survives—a reminder of a time when some architects strove to give residential dignity even to those of meager means.

photographs by the author