In the 18th century wealthy New Yorkers maintained summer estates north of the city. Abutting the north edge of the earlier Stuyvesant farm, the Bouwerie, was the estate of the Keteltas family (around what is today Second Avenue and 25th Street). Nearby were the summer homes of the Watts, the Kips (who gave their name to Kips Bay), and the Beekmans.
But by the first years of the 1830s, the northern edge of the city was inching closer and closer to these summer retreats. Thomas E. Davis would be a major player in transforming the area north of the exclusive Bond Street district from farmland to an elite residential enclave. In 1831 he built rows of fashionable brick homes in the Federal Style on 8th Street, between Second and Third Avenues.
At the time short sections of streets were sometimes renamed to indicate their elevated status. Three blocks of 8th Street became St. Mark’s Place and Davis’ high-end mansions would rival any in the city.
Among them was No. 20 St. Mark's Place, completed along with its neighbors in 1832. Three stories of Flemish bond red brick sat above a stone English basement. It was not merely the ample 26-foot width of the house that spoke of its patrician nature; its architectural extras were affordable only by the wealthy. Paneled blocks at the base of the marble stoop supported exquisite iron basket newels. The handsome ironwork continued in the areaway fencing, the stoop railings and a balcony that stretched along the parlor floor.
Most eye-catching was the elegant Gibbs surround of the entranceway. In the 18th century Scottish-born architect James Gibbs had resurrected the Roman design of "blocking" the frame of an entrance. His personal take on the design resulted in its forever carrying his name. In the St. Mark's Place homes, the blocks and the keystones were vermiculated; or carved to appear worm-eaten. The openings in the basement wall were given their own Gibbs surrounds to match.
No. 20 became home to the 33-year old Daniel Leroy and his wife, the former Susan Elizabeth Fish. The couple moved in with their three year old daughter, Mary Augusta. Within the next three years two other children would be born in the house--Susan in 1834 and Stuyvesant in 1836.
Little Stuyvesant received his name from his mother's family. Susan's parents were Nicholas Fish (Revolutionary War soldier and first Adjutant General of New York) and Elizabeth Stuyvesant.
|A view of the identical house two doors away at No. 24, reveals the original basket newels, the areaway fencing, and the original configuration of the iron balcony. photograph by Jacob A. Riis, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The Leroy family did not stay especially long in the house. Eventually they moved permanently to Newport. In 1843 the Samuel Packwood listed No. 20 as his address; but by the 1850s he had moved across the street to No. 25. The wealth of the block's residents was evident in Packwood's listing his occupation merely as "gentleman."
A most astonishing change came to No. 20 in 1860. Colonel Abner S. Brady of the Seventh Regiment National Guard hired contractors Blackstone & Ryerson to convert No. 20 into the group's "gymnasium." Formally opened in November that year, The New York Times noted "The main building...was formerly one of the aristocratic residences in that neighborhood."
The term "gymnasium" is far afield from what we envision today. For decades the Seventh Regiment had been composed of the sons of Manhattan’s millionaires, resulting in its popular names “The Silk Stocking Regiment” and “The Dandy Seventh.” The former Leroy house would be more social club than gym. The Times noted "The entire house is handsomely carpeted, provided with mirrors, and other requirements of comfort."
The newspaper described the new layout. "The basement is for a dressing room, and contains 300 dressing closets. A portion is also devoted to bathrooms, wash-rooms and water closets. On the first floor is a large parlor, or sitting room, with a billiard room 32 feet square in the rear. The second story is divided into a large front room, with a private office and dressing closets. The back room is devoted to sparring. The third floor is for fencing, and contains every convenience."
The real exercising was done in a new building to the rear. There members would find 16 pulley weights, parallel bars, and a running track. "The ladders, peg-pole, springboard, included pole, cross-bars, &c, are all of yellow pine of the best materials," noted The Times.
Five hundred guests visited on opening night "including many ladies." The National Guard band provided the music.
Although Brady tacked the Seventh Regiment's name on his gymnasium, it was a private venture and he opened its doors to paying civilians as well. The following year a newspaper described it as "where the soldiers of the Seventh Regiment are exercised far beyond drilling, and where all civilians who see fit to join are greatly strengthened for the battle of life."
On February 14, 1861 the Seventh Regiment band was back to give a concert. Afterward, guests were invited to "witness the gyrations of the gymnasts, and to inspect the expensive appointments of the institution." The Times felt that "Most notable among those who took part [was] Mr. Brady himself, who, among other wonders, grasping a ring suspended from the ceiling, with his left hand only, six times lifted himself till his shoulder was parallel with it."
Abner Brady conducted his gymnasium here until around 1866 when he opened a similar facility in Washington D.C. His Seventh Regiment Gymnasium became L. W. Maire's Gymnasium for several years. On October 11, 1868 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald announcing "Prof. Judd, from London, respectfully informs his friends and the public in general that he is prepared to teach the manly art of 'self-defence,' in his private rooms, at Maire's Gymnasium, 20 St. Mark's place, Eighth street."
The following year, on July 3, the newly-formed New-York Athletic Club met here. The New York Times remarked "The object of the meeting was to make arrangements for securing a gymnasium and headquarters for the Club." Its roster of well-to-do members, including names like Babcock, Delmonico, Curtis, and Van Wyck, led the newspaper to add "the prospects of the Club are very flattering."
Upscale men's clubs--even those that, by name, suggested an athletic purpose--required elegant quarters. And so it was not surprising that the new group negotiated with L. W. Maire to acquire No. 20 St. Mark's Place. The New-York Athletic Club officially opened here on September 15, 1869.
On June 24, 1870 a "large special meeting" was held to discuss the opening of "their new floating row-boat house" at 131st Street and the Harlem River. The club announced it was "the largest of its kind in New-York." The opening ceremonies were to be held on June 30 and 500 invitations had been sent out. Not surprisingly, "a collation will be served by Delmonico." The New York Times reported "About twenty of the members already have their private shell and working outrigger-boats up there, and use them daily."
By now the St. Mark's Place neighborhood was undergoing significant change. The ongoing flood of immigrants from Germany was settling on the Lower East Side and by now only Berlin and Vienna had larger German-speaking populations than New York. The neighborhood was no longer appropriate for an exclusive men's club.
By 1873 Nos. 18 and 20 had been taken over by Paul Falk for what his business license described as a "Theatre, Saloon, &c." Now known as Paul Falk's Tivoli Garden, it offered concerts "every evening at 8, by Eben and his grand orchestra." Admission was 25 cents.
Pleasure gardens were popular Victorian entertainment venues. Patrons could dine or enjoy refreshments in the open air while enjoying music or other diversions. The Tivoli Garden continued even after Falk passed its operation on to N. Goldschmidt in 1874.
In the meantime, the upper rooms were rented as meeting rooms for a variety of organizations. The 14th Assembly District Republican Association met here for years, starting around the time the New-York Athletic Club left; and the Memorial Committee of the Grand Army of the Republic also met in the former house.
By April 1878 William Hoschke was running the Tivoli Gardens. He got in trouble that month when he augmented the concerts with a stage show. He was arrested for violating the law "prohibiting the sale of liquors in connection with the representation of theatrical entertainments."
Within the decade the concert garden was gone and No. 20 was being operated as a boarding house. In 1888 the Jahn family lived here, as did Fred Keller.
In 1896 Emil and Martha Moeller leased the building from John W. Miller (who owned six other properties in the immediate area). Emil opened his window cleaning business in the basement, while Martha ran the rooming house--one of several she conducted. The Moellers lived at No. 20 St. Mark's Place with their two sons, Henry and Edwin.
It appears Martha did not offer the amenities of a boarding house, like meals; for in 1898 the house was described as "furnished rooms." One of her tenants, named Anny, was looking for "day's work" in 1902. She placed an advertisement in the New-York Tribune: "By German woman; washing, cleaning, cooking; day or week."
Following John W. Miller's death, No. 20 St. Mark's Place was sold at auction on March 31, 1903. Described as a "four story brick tenement and store," it was purchased by Henry A. Bade for $26,700, just under $750,000 today. The Moellers continued to lease the property.
Unspeakable tragedy befell the family the following year on June 15 when Martha and the two boys boarded the excursion boat the General Slocum, for day outing sponsored by the German-language St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. What should have been a day of carefree joy turned to terror when fire broke out, burning the ship to the waterline within 15 minutes. It resulted in the greatest single loss of life in New York City until the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The bodies of Martha and 13-year old Henry were recovered later that day. Edwin's body was not found until two days later.
Martha's estate was surprisingly large. The New York Times reported it "will amount to more than $100,000" and "the greater part of this is in savings banks about town." Her will had directed that the bulk of her estate (about $2.75 million in today's dollars) was to be divided between the boys. The newspaper opined "As Mrs. Moeller named her husband Emil as residuary heir to her estate, he will probably receive all of her money."
Emil Moeller, like almost all of the German residents of the Lower East Side, seems to have quickly left the neighborhood after the devastating incident. His name does not appear in connection with the St. Mark's Place address again.
Henry Bade used a portion of the property--perhaps the back building--as a hall. On November 30 that year the United Austrian Hebrew Charities Association announced it would hold its annual Charity Ball "at Arlington Hall, 20 St. Mark's Place" on December 18.
Almost unbelievably, as the St. Mark's Place continued to see change, the aristocratic residential facade of No. 20 was little changed. At some point the basket newels were removed, and the cast iron balcony was dismantled and sections repurposed as elegant window guards.
Those changes may have been made by the catering firm of Pomerantz & Lubliner which leased the building in 1924 from Henry Bade's son, John. The managers announced their intention of spending "about $50,000 in altering the building into a large hall to be called Wilson Mansion."
Their ambitious project included a 21-year lease; but it never made it that far. By 1931 the house was home to the Hungarian Cafe and Restaurant. An incident there on July 1 reflected the gangster-driven atmosphere of the East Village in the Depression Era.
Abe Rothbard was playing cards in the cafe that night. Police later noted he had a criminal record. Patrons noticed an unknown man open the door and motion for Rothbard to go outside. When he reached the door, the man beckoned him to step further out on the sidewalk.
The Times reported "He followed him to the stoop and then four shots were fired by a third man from the sidewalk. Rothbard fell, seriously wounded." The mysterious attackers escaped.
At the beginning of the Depression, Urbain Ledoux had opened The Tub, a homeless shelter, in the old Schuetzen Hall down the block at No. 12 St. Mark's Place. Ledoux, known to the men he helped as “Mr. Zero,” accommodated 135 homeless men on cots and steamer chairs. He advertised “auctions” of the men’s services in order to find them temporary work. On New Year’s Day 1929, over two thousand homeless men ate dinner there. The line outside was unbroken from early morning through the afternoon.
The year following the hit on Abe Rothbard, Ledoux took over the Hungarian Cafe. On January 3, 1932 The Times reported "Urbain Ledoux, who prefers to be called 'Mr. Zero,' announced yesterday that he would open a week from today a temperance saloon to be known a the 'Growler' at 20 St. Mark's Place. He intends to sell in it near-beer for 3 cents a glass; baked beans, soup, pudding, bread, pies and cake at 1 cent an order." Down-and-out men could "take their ease and play dominoes, checkers or cards, or read the newspapers."
To draw attention to the circumstances of the poor and homeless, Urbain turned to what had for decades been one of New York's most visible displays of wealth--the Easter Parade. On March 27, 1932 The Times announced he "will lead a band of fifty or more unemployed amid the throng of fashionable strollers in the morning parade in Fifth Avenue. The cohorts of Mr. Zero will leave his Tavern at 20 St. Mark's Place at 11 A.M. after a breakfast of oatmeal and Easter eggs."
The day after the parade the newspaper reported "A large crowd was on hand there to see the Spring styles, but Mr. Zero and his small army stole the show." The men, mobilized from missions, wore "battered plug hats, lumberjackets, frayed trousers and shoes that had had more than their share of walking the streets."
After reminding society of the plight of the desperate men, Ledoux took them back to St. Mark's Place for chicken mulligan and spaghetti.
In the meantime tenants continued to rent rooms upstairs. Victor A. Richardson and Genevive Richardson lived here at least from 1936 through 1940. Those were the years that their names were listed on the Government's watch list of Communists.
By the 1960s the East Village was earning a reputation as the center of the hippie culture. In 1968 the Gussie Becky boutique opened at No. 20, owned by designer Ruth Graves. It was also home to the unlikely Lady Carpenter Institute of Building and Home Improvement by 1975. Its president, Joyce Hartwell, offered quick, three-hour classes in do-it-yourself home repairs. Costing $30 each, they covered subjects like "Fashioning and Attaching to Walls" and "The Use of all Hand Power Tools."
St. Mark's Place, once home to Manhattan's wealthiest families, was now the undisputed center of the avant garde. The electric blue spiked hair of its denizens would have most likely been too much for the Leroy family to handle. Their mansion was home to Sounds music store by 1984 and the basement level, where Emil Moeller ran his window cleaning business, became the Grassroots Tavern by 1987.
The Daniel Leroy house, 185 years after its completion, is astonishingly intact in 2017. Considering its many uses, it is a miraculous survivor from an elegant period.
photographs by the author