Part I: The Last Run

“Once more, the picturesque is to yield to the utilitarian. That thrilling sight – three plunging horses drawing engine or hook and ladder – one of the few thrilling sights to be seen in our prosaic streets, is soon to become a thing of the past. Within the next five or six years, there will not be a fire horse in Greater New York. The gasoline motor will do the work of these old favorites.”– New York Times, February 19, 1911

FDNY

The Fire Department of New York began motorizing the department and replacing its fire horses in 1910 with the purchase of a motor-propelled hose wagon and water tower.

Up until 1865, fire engines and hose carts were pulled through the streets of New York by the volunteer firemen. Horse-power replaced manpower with the organization of the paid departments in 1869, and for the next 50 years, horses did the hauling and the heavy work.

Rhinelander Waldo, FDNY

By 1911, Chief Croker had already been responding to the big fires in his own motorized vehicle. But 33-year-old Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, pictured here, was the first to propose motor-driven fire apparatus for the FDNY. On March 17, 1911, Waldo told The New York Times: “The horse is sure gone as far as the fire business is concerned. It’ll do for pleasure, but it’s out of the business.”

In 1910, under the watch of Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo and Chief Edward F. Croker, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) tested its first motor-driven apparatus. The vehicle, stationed at Engine Company No. 72 on East 12th Street, was a high-pressure hose wagon that carried 40 lengths of 50-foot hose and could go an amazing 30 miles an hour on good roads or 25 in heavy snow (the horse teams could go only about 15 to 18 miles an hour, and this speed decreased with every mile traveled).

That year, the city also introduced its second motorized firefighting apparatus – a motor-propelled water tower. This vehicle, the first of its kind in the world, could go 20 miles an hour and plow through snow and mud with ease to assure speedy arrival at a fire (the heavy horse-driven tower was always the last to arrive on scene because it was a challenge for even the strongest horses.)

Not only could the gas-propelled water tower go faster than a horse-driven tower, it could also be backed into narrow streets or alleys where horses could never get.

High-Pressure Hose Wagon, FDNY, 1910

The first motorized apparatus of the FDNY was a 1909 Knox high-pressure hose wagon, shown here in front of Engine Company No. 72 at 22 East 12th Street (today the Cinema Village theater). This hose wagon was one of the first three firefighting vehicles to simultaneously arrive on the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire on March 25, 1911. Photo, Museum of the City of New York Collections.

On March 16, 1911 – nine days before the Triangle fire – the city tested the very first “automobile fire engine.” Bright red, 20 feet long, with two seats and a 110-horse power motor, the $20,000 Nott fire engine could pump 700 gallons of water a minute at a pressure of 125 pounds. It featured 4 red, solid rubber wheels with chains to keep it from skidding as it “whizzed” 30 to 40 miles an hour through city streets.

Water Tower 1, FDNY, 1910

The first motor-propelled water tower of the FDNY was tested and put into immediate service at 87 Lafayette Street, which housed both Engine No. 31 and No. 1 Tower Company. This firehouse was built with horses in mind, and featured three doors that opened automatically as the fire bell rang so the 17 horses could charge out. The interior was completely converted for use with motorized equipment in 1912. Photo, Museum of the City of New York Collections

In 1911, there were about 1,550 fire horses in service with the FDNY. The day after the new engine was tested, The New York Times declared that the motorized apparatus was “the death knell of the fire department horse.”

Two years later, on March 12, 1913, Commissioner Joseph H. Johnson Jr. announced that Fire Department of New York City would not purchase any more horses. Those horses still in service were to be retired as fast as possible and replaced with motorized vehicles. Since the average department life of a horse was five years, and there were still about 1,400 fire horses, Johnson estimated the department would be completely motorized within four or five years.

The transition went slower than expected. It was not until 1922 that the last horse-drawn engine responded to a call.

Before I talk about the last call, you may want to check out this fascinating short video produced by the Aurora Regional Fire Museum that shows the fire horse in action.

The Last Call: Engine 205 of Brooklyn Heights

Steam Engine Company No. 5, Brooklyn Heights

In the 1890s, Engine Company No. 5 had four horses: Tom, Dick, Jerry, and Speed. The horses were under the care of driver Michael O’Neill, pictured here with the reigns. As the only engine company house in Brooklyn Heights and the closest to City Hall, Company No. 205 was always on stage, so to speak. Visitors often stopped by to see the horses or watch the men practice to see how quickly they could respond to a call.

Engine Company No. 205 of Brooklyn Heights was the last fire company in the FDNY to become motorized. Part of the delay was due to World War I, but another was due to nostalgia: Engine 205 was Brooklyn’s oldest, most famous, and most influential fire company. It was organized September 19, 1846, by young, upstanding men from wealthy families of downtown Brooklyn. Commanded by Foreman Henry B. Williams, its first members included William Wright, Edward Merritt, F. H. Macy, John W. Mason, George C. Baker, H. H. Cox, Clinton Odell, Henry Haviland and George E. Brown.

Pacific Hose Company No. 14 Hand Engine

When Pacific Hose Company No. 14 switched from their hand engine, shown here, to a new steam engine, one of the men wrote an ode to the old engine: “Farewell, old gal, a long farewell; Your days of usefulness are o’er; Who can your future life foretell; When you have left your native shore? Perhaps amid the marshy fields of old New Jersey you may roam; Or some Long Island town will claim your ponderous beauties as her own…”

Back then it was a volunteer company called Pacific Hose No. 14 – the “Dude” Company of the Heights. Pacific Hose was first stationed on Love Lane near Henry Street, but sometime around 1855 it moved into more spacious quarters at 160 Pierrepont Street (then near the corner of Fulton Street). The company became Engine No. 5 when the Brooklyn Fire Department formed in 1869. Then after the Brooklyn Fire Department merged with the FDNY in 1898, the company was renamed Engine Company No. 105 (in 1913 it became No. 205).

Smokey Joe Martin

Assistant Fire Chief Smokey Joe Martin, who once commanded the aforementioned dual-company on Lafayette Street, and who was the inspiration for the naming of Smokey Bear, sounded the last alarm for the last horse-driven engine in the history of the FDNY.

On the morning of December 20, 1922, Fire Commissioner Thomas J. Drennan, Brooklyn Borough President Edward Riegelmann, firefighters, Jiggs the firedog, and other city dignitaries gathered in back of Borough Hall to pay their final tribute to the fire horse. At 10:15, Assistant Fire Chief Joseph B. Martin (Smokey Joe Martin) tapped out the final call at the fire alarm box at Joralemon and Court Street: 5, 93, 205. Translation: An engine is wanted, Station #93, let Company 205 answer.

When the alarm sounded, Balgriffen took his place in the middle spot of the hitch for the engine, with Danny Beg and Penrose on each side. George W. Murray drove the engine this day, although driver Louis Rauchut was also in attendance. Waterboy and Bucknell hooked up to the hose wagon, with veteran John J. Foster (“Old Hickory”) at the reins and driver William T. Daly on the sidelines.

Engine Company No. 205 Brooklyn

George W. Murray drives Balgriffen, Danny Beg, and Penrose on the final call for the last-horse-drawn engine in FDNY history. On the ash pan behind, Captain Leon Howard was keeping his hand on the whistle rope so that it screamed one long blast; Engineer Tom McEwen pushed coal into the firebox with both feet and one hand (he used his other hand to hold on tight).

The horses dashed down Fulton Street and along Court Street to Joralemon Street, and then to the rear of the Borough Hall. There, Jiggs, the senior coach dog, ran circles around the engine, obviously anxious and confused why no one was hooking up to the hydrant or dragging the nozzle.

Jigg, coach dog of Engine No. 205

Jiggs, the long-time coach dog and mascot of Engine Company No. 205, howled in sorrow as his horse friends were bid farewell.

The muster ceremony ended as Riegelmann placed wreaths on each horse and the press photos were taken. Then the five last fire horses of the FDNY were swapped for a new motorized engine and hose wagon. The old horse-drawn equipment would be sent to a small town or village. Balgriffen, Danny Beg, Penrose, Waterboy, and Bucknell were reportedly retired to either light duty on Blackwell’s Island or to upstate farms operated by the ASPCA.

In my next post, I’ll tell you about a special farm in upstate New York where retired fire horses grazed alongside New York City’s alcoholics and drug addicts. For now, I’ll leave you with a really amazing video of Fire Chief John Kenlon as he drives on the sidewalk to avoid traffic jams and barely misses hitting numerous pedestrians and trolley cars while responding to a fire call in his motorized vehicle in 1926. (Don’t miss the old traffic control platform — what they used before traffic lights — at about 2:13.) Enjoy!

Tommy Mulligan Norton Point Light Cat

Tommy Mulligan looks out the window of the Norton’s Point Light on Coney Island in 1936. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library

In the late 1920s, Tommy Mulligan was a famous U.K. boxer best known for being brutally knocked out by world middleweight champion Mickey Walker of Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Tommy Mulligan was also the name given to a seafaring cat that was washed ashore on the western beach of Coney Island in 1933. Although banged up and bruised, this Tommy was a real fighter who didn’t get knocked down.

Tommy Adopts the Lighthouse Keeper

Tommy was a feline sailor’s mascot who apparently fell from the deck of a passing ship sometime around 1993. Herbert Greenwood, the resident lighthouse keeper on the western point of Coney Island, found the cat almost drowned on the beach at Norton’s Point. He dried him out with towels and fed him a saucer of warm milk.

As the old saying goes, the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach — the same applies to cats.

Warm and dry, with a belly full of milk, Tommy knew he had found his forever land-based home. The handsome but sober cat adopted the 50-year-old Herbert and his wife, Agnes, and settled in for good at the lighthouse.

Norton's Point Light, Coney Island

The Coney Island (Norton’s Point) Lighthouse, fog bell tower, and keeper’s house in 1896. Thomas Higginbotham, the first keeper of the lighthouse, lit the beacon for the first time on August 1, 1890. The light was a fourth-order Fresnel lens powered by kerosene that flashed red every 10 seconds. Sailors said they could see the powerful light 17 miles from shore, while they couldn’t see the other lights of Coney Island until they were 11 miles from shore.

A Brief History of Norton’s Point

Before I tell you more about Tommy and the lighthouse, I want to provide some background on Norton’s Point, which is today occupied by the gated community of Sea Gate. Although a lot has been written on the history of Coney Island, I came across some erroneous information about Norton’s Point in numerous books and articles that I want to clarify.

Coney Island Pavilion, 1845

Many history books report that Mr. Eddy and Mr. Hart, two New York speculators, built the first pavilion on the western end of Coney Island in 1844. However, a first-hand report of the grand opening of this pavilion in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (July 28, 1845) states otherwise.

Until about 1874, Coney Island was mostly described as “a barren and repulsive waste of sand.” Save for the Coney Island House on the eastern end of the island, which was constructed by the Coney Island Road and Bridge Company to generate toll revenue on their Shell Road, the majority of the island was seldom visited other than by fishermen and clam diggers, and its sand and surf were little enjoyed.

Tourist development in the western part of the island began in the summer of 1845 when Alonzo Reed, the proprietor of the Fort Hamilton House, and Captain Thomas Bielby, the proprietor of the Coney Island and Fort Hamilton Ferry Company, opened a dance pavilion on what was then called Coney Island Point.

Fort Hamilton House, Brooklyn

Alfonzo Reed was the proprietor of the Fort Hamilton House, an elegant summer retreat at the foot of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. The establishment burned down in October 1853.

The Coney Island Pavilion was simply a circular wooden dance platform topped with a tent of sails and perched on a tall sand dune. A long platform connected the pavilion to a pier in the Gravesend Bay. When it opened in July 1845, the only other major structures on the entire island were the Coney Island House and Wyckoff’s Hotel, and the Van Sicklen and Voorhies farmhouses (both near today’s Neptune Avenue and W. 3rd Street).

Their intention was to attract families and day-trippers who wanted to get away from the city for a few hours to have a picnic, dance a few waltzes in the sea breeze, chow down on chowder and clams, and enjoy the fresh air. Bath houses were later added for those who wanted to swim, and sportsmen were encouraged to bring their guns if they wanted to hunt for sand-birds.

Norton's Point Pier, 1845

Reed and Bielby built a small pier that jutted out into Gravesend Bay so that they could operate daily side-wheeler steamboat ferry excursions to the pavilion. The fare was 12 1/2 cents each way for the hour-long ride from New York.

Unfortunately, the ferries mostly attracted the worst classes of people, including gamblers, ruffians, and prostitutes, giving the West End a very bad reputation that lasted for decades.

The Era of Mike “Thunderbolt” Norton

In the mid-1800s, the crowds at “the Point” were greater than any other part of the island. Between 2,000 and 3,000 bathers came daily to the West End beach, which was said to be unsurpassed with its extensive view of the ocean and the Narrows.

Enter Mike “Thunderbolt” Norton.

Before getting in tight with Tammany’s William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, Mike Norton had served as a captain in the 25th Regiment in the Civil War, a New York City alderman in 1864, and, at the age of 28, a state senator in 1867. He was indicted with Tweed in 1872, arrested in 1873, and, after jumping bail, turned state’s evidence in 1874.

Norton & Murray's Coney Island

This 1879 map shows the location of Norton and Murray’s on the Point and their Point Comfort House on the beach.

The story is more complicated, but in a nutshell, Norton and his partner James Murray used some of the Tammany loot to buy the lease on the Coney Island Point and refurbish the old pavilion and bath houses. They also erected the Point Comfort House and additional bathing pavilions and facilities for dining and drinking.

Norton and Murray’s Pavilion was located about a quarter of a mile southeast of the old steamboat pier, and was reached by a wide plank walk. The pavilion comprised three buildings, the largest containing about 700 bath houses. The center building was the pavilion proper, and contained a bar and restaurant. The third building was a small shanty bearing the sign “Coney Island Stock Exchange,” which contained an office of the Western Union Telegraph Company and tables for picnics.

In 1874, the Atlantic Monthly described Norton & Murray’s Pavilion as “a large, windy frame building that has weathered the storms of the coast for many a year. Every pore in its planks, every joint, every crack, is thoroughly saturated with sand…here, of all places, that the sandwich appears to be most truthfully denoted by its time-honored name.”

Point Comfort House, Coney Island

Norton and Murray erected the Point Comfort House near today’s West 33rd St., which was later owned by J.B. McPherson, one of the island’s first settlers. In 1879, the house was described as “rustic and cheerful” with “several neatly furnished rooms for sleeping” and 200 bathing houses.

James J. Sangunitto, the Original Light Keeper

There is a lot more to the history and corrupt politics of Norton’s Point — especially around the formation of the exclusive gated community of Sea Gate — but this started out as a story about the Coney Island Lighthouse, so I’ll get back on point, no pun intended, with a story rarely told about this lighthouse.

James J. Sangunitto was born in Genoa, Italy in 1838. He arrived in the United States as an infant, and at the age of 19, moved to Coney Island with his father. He married Sarah Mann and had six children: James, Albert, Mabel, Leon, Robert, and Richard.

For many years, James was the keeper of the makeshift Norton’s Point light. Every night, he would set up two oil lamps on poles to warn the vessels. On a number of occasions, he and his wife helped survivors of vessels that had foundered on the Coney Island shores. During the day, he and Sarah operated a tintype photography studio called Mammoth Photograph Gallery on Surf Avenue opposite the Sea Beach Palace and railroad depot (Sarah was reportedly credited for introducing tintype studios to Coney Island, having purchased the invention from Adolphe-Alexandre Martin of France).

Tintype by Sangunitto, Mammoth Photograph Gallery, Coney Island

This tintype photograph is one of many that can be attributed to the Sangunittos.

The Street Cleaning Department eventually installed a more permanent light on Norton’s Point to protects its garbage tug boats, but newspaper accounts say James’ actions did help prevent many wrecks. When the new lighthouse was constructed in 1890, James worked there as a watchman.

When James died in 1936 at his home at 2817 West 1st Street (now the site of a JASA retirement community near West Avenue) he was Coney Island’s oldest resident.

Congress Establishes a Lighthouse at Coney Island

In February 1889, J.O., Coleman, Commissioner of Street Cleaning, sent a letter to all New York and Brooklyn representatives in Congress asking them to pass House Bill 11,527 of 1888, “to establish lights on the western end of Coney Island.”

1880 Coney Island

In this bird’s-eye view from 1880, you can see that Norton’s Point (left) was still very much barren. The tall structure mid-island is the 300-foot tall Iron Tower, a structure from the 1876 Philadelphia Expo that had steam elevators that whisked visitors to the top for a high view of the island.

In the letter, Coleman talked about all the boats that navigated the narrow channel around the western point, including the excursion steamers and the garbage tug boats. He said his department had been maintaining a light on the point for some time, but it was just a makeshift light.

In 1889, Congress approved $25,000 to build two range lights at Norton’s Point; however, when the Lighthouse Board tried to buy the necessary land, the property owners asked for twice the estimated value of the land. No problem; the property was condemned and obtained for $3,500.

Coney Island Lighthouse

Plans for the new lighthouse were drawn up in 1889.

Work on the tower, a separate front beacon, the fog bell tower, and the keeper’s dwelling began in March 1890. The tower was designed as a square, skeleton tower with 87 steps to the eight-sided lantern room. The simple two-story dwelling had a cellar and an attic and an attached shed; a gravel path led to the shoreline. In 1896, the front tower was removed and taken to Staten Island, and the land it stood on was sold at public auction.

Lighthouse Keeper Greenwood

In 1933, when Tommy Mulligan washed ashore at Norton’s Point, Herbert Greenwood had been living at the lighthouse for 15 years. Herbert was the fourth head keeper of the lighthouse, following Thomas Higginbotham (1890 – 1910), Ernest J. Larsson (1910), and Gilbert L. Rulon (1910 – 1918). Born in Rhode Island on May 6, 1882, Herbert grew up in New London, Connecticut and joined the Coast Guard in 1900. He married Agnes Snow in 1910 and the couple took over the Coney Island lighthouse in 1918.

Herbert Greenwood

Herbert Greenwood was described as a six-foot tall husky man with a deep voice.

For 27 years, Herbert tended to his lighthouse duties, climbing the 87 steps to fill the oil lamp and clean the giant reflectors every day (and then, when the lamp was replaced by a 500-watt bulb in 1936, cleaning the six revolving lenses and red screen and oiling the mechanism that turned the lenses on a regular basis). He took his job very seriously, knowing that the lighthouse helped mariners get their bearing on Norton’s Point.

Although Herbert and Agnes led a fairly secluded life, they still got their mail delivered twice a day (back then the postman always rang twice) and had access to three major rapid transit lines. They also had some exciting times, like the night in 1928 when they rowed out in their boat to rescue two naval prisoners that had escaped the army transport U.S.E. Grant.

After retiring in 1941, Herbert and Agnes returned to New Haven, where Herbert died in July 1975.

Coney Island Lighthouse

In this Google Earth screen-grab, you can see how narrow the shoreline is in front of the grassy yard of the lighthouse.

Thirty-seven years later, Hurricane Sandy ripped through the eastern seaboard, doing considerable damage to New York’s coastal communities. Only a few months ago, the Coney Island Lighthouse was still surrounded by rubble from the storm that had been pushed ashore by the sea. Many of the 750 homes that were damaged are still boarded up, and the bulkhead that once safeguarded Sea Gate has been completely destroyed.

Some say that if another hurricane of Sandy’s magnitude were to strike again, the entire island could be totally destroyed by the sea. Even a fighter-cat like Tommy Mulligan wouldn’t be able to survive that.

Norton's Point Lighthouse, Coney Island

“In a district now given up to department stores, with the trolleys crashing by and the elevated railway within a few yards, it stood, an excellent example of the stately brownstone family homes of a century ago. Its garden is still kept up. Its fine trees give a pleasant shade, and its old fashioned wooden gate and railings speak of the fashion of a bygone age. Until a very few years ago it was maintained as a small farm and the visitor to the city was often brought to see the very last cow which ever browsed in lower Manhattan as it cropped the little stretch of turf.” — New York Times, July 23, 1908

The Other Last Cow Standing

The Van Beuren Homestead, West 14th Street

In 1908, Miss Elizabeth Spingler Van Beuren and her brother Frederick T. Van Beuren were living in the four-story brownstone at 21 West 14th Street (far right) and their sister Mrs. Emily Van Beuren Reynolds was living in the three-story brick home to the left of the gardens at 29 West 14th.

I recently wrote about the old Peter Goelet estate on the corner of Broadway and 19th Street, and the extraordinary spectacle of cows, storks, guinea-pigs, and other animals that fed quietly in the busiest and most bustling part of Manhattan.

In that story, I said that Peter Goelet’s cow was the last to graze on Broadway north of Union Square. While this was not a false claim, I failed to mention that there was another cow still grazing very nearby in New York City at this time, on the north side of West 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue.

The Downtown Farm

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Van Beuren Homestead was a city landmark, a curious world unto itself surrounded by large department stores and loft office buildings. The two grand homes at #21 and #29, where the elderly Miss Elizabeth Spingler Van Beuren and her sister Mrs. Emily Augusta Van Beuren Reynolds lived, were connected by a large fenced-in garden that extended to 15th Street.

Van Beuren estate

This illustration by Charles Mielatzdone shows the driveway that connected 14th Street with the stables at the rear of the property.

On the property, which took up about 12 city blocks, were chicken coops, dovecotes, arbors, sheds, brick stables, and a conservatory. Up until the the 1890s, a cow could often be seen roaming in the yard as well as two horses and some chickens and doves. Local residents called the curiosity “the downtown farm.”

Van Beuren Homestead

In addition to the large garden, the Van Beuren Homestead had a conservatory where the sisters grew exotic plants like Syrian palms and rare plants from Egypt. This illustration of #29 is one of a series of 16 etchings by Charles Mielatzdone done for Emily Augusta Van Beuren Reynolds, 1913.

The Spingler Farm

The story of the Van Beuren Homestead really goes back to Elias Brevoort and his wife, Leah Persell Brevoort, who owned about 40 acres of farmland just south of today’s Union Square in the mid-1700s (#56 and #57 on this 1852 Valentine farm map). In 1762, Elias sold about 22 acres of the Brevoort farm along 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue (#57 in the 1852 Valentine farm map here) to John Smith, a wealthy leather dresser and slaveholder. John built his country residence in the center of the south side of 14th Street, just west of Fifth Avenue, and a barn on the southwest corner of today’s 14th Street and Fifth Avenue (today’s 80 Fifth Avenue).

On February 29, 1788, following John Smith’s death, New York Mayor James Duane and other executors of John’s will sold the land to Christian Henrich Spengler (Henry Spingler), a German shopkeeper, for 950 pounds (or about $4,700). From that point on, the land was known as Spingler’s farm.

Brevoort Estate

The Brevoort mansion stood in the middle of the estate at Broadway and 10th Street (the location of today’s Grace Episcopal Church). When Broadway was extended in the early 1800s, Henricus Brevoort refused to budge, determined to preserve his stone house. Had Broadway been extended in a straight line from 10th Street, and 11th Street been opened through 4th Street, the house would have been destroyed. Hence, today Broadway and 4th Street go on a diagonal at this intersection rather than run parallel to other north-south avenues. Photo by Professor Moore, Columbia University, 1848.

Christopher Henry Spingler (1747-1814)

Christopher Henry Spingler (1747-1814), a butcher and shopkeeper, founded the Spingler Institute, a fashionable school for girls on Union Square. The 1897 Spingler Building still stands at 5-9 Union Square West.

Henry Spingler and his wife, Mary Bonsall Spingler, originally lived in the former home of John Smith, which The New York Times called “a quaintly built Dutch structure.” But according to the newspaper, Henry “soon found that it was lonely living down the lane from the Bowery Road.” So he built a modern mansion on a hill by what is now part of Union Square. The new Spingler mansion faced the Bowery Road, or what is now Fourth Avenue. Henry lived in this home until his death in 1814.

Sometime following his death, a portion of Henry’s land that included the house on the hill was taken over by the city for construction of a new public square. At this time, Henry Spingler’s daughter Elizabeth (Eliza) was living in the house with her husband, Lieutenant James Fonderden, and their daughters, Mary, Frances, and Josephine. Undaunted by all the construction activity, the family moved back into the old Dutch farmhouse.

Spingler Farmhouse, 14th Street west of Fifth Avenue

This 1848 painting by W.R Miller shows the old 1762 John Smith farmhouse, where the Spinglers lived before moving to their new house on what is now part of Union Square. The yellow frame farmhouse stood about 375 feet from the road, and was accessed by a country lane from the Bowery Road (4th Avenue) before 14th Street was opened. In 1879, George A. Hearn moved his department store to this very site.

In 1830, 20-year-old Mary Spingler Fonderden married Colonel Michael Murray Van Beuren, a descendant of Johannes Van Beuren, who was a prominent and prosperous Dutch settler in New Amsterdam. The couple had eight children: Elizabeth, Mary Louise, Henry, Josephine, Emily, Michael, Clarence, and Frederick.

Michael Murray Van Beuren

Michael Van Beuren was reportedly a mechanic when he first married, but over the years he did an excellent job managing the vast holdings of the Spingler-Van Beuren estate.

Over the years the Van Beuren family lived at 303 Greenwich Street and 35 Bond Street. They also owned a horse farm in New Vernon, New Jersey – what is now the Van Beuren Farms residential development on Van Beuren Road (it took them five hours by horse and carriage to make the trip from New York City.)

The Van Beuren Mansion at 21 West 14th Street

It was Mary Van Beuren who persuaded her mother, Eliza, to leave the old Dutch farmhouse and erect a more suitable home after Eliza’s husband died in 1838. Eliza selected a lot on 14th Street just to the east and across from the farmhouse and constructed a double brownstone in the style of the old Spingler mansion. The new mansion at #21 was four stories high over a very deep English basement, and it stretched five bays wide. There were stone balconies flanking the entrance, rosewood doors and interior woodwork, and an iron picket fence protecting the wide lot.

Mary and Michael Van Beuren and their children moved in with Eliza sometime around 1940.

Van Beuren estate

A large poplar tree planted in 1838 was a popular place for carriages to receive or drop off their passengers.

The Death of the Van Beuren Matriarch

On August 8, 1894, about 15 years after her husband died, Mary Van Beuren died in the family mansion. The New York Times reported:

“The great brownstone house in which Mrs. Van Beuren lived a retired life in the midst of the bustle of one of New-York’s busiest retail business districts, has long been a source of curiosity to those not acquainted with its history and the history of the Van Beuren family. Standing back from the street, and surrounded by ample grounds, it has the appearance of a country mansion out of place.”

Following Mary Van Beuren’s death, several of her adult children continued to live in the house, including her widowed daughter Mary Louise Davis and her children (daughter Louise and twin sons Michael and John), her son Frederick and his family, and her unmarried daughter, Elizabeth. Across the garden, at 29 West 14th Street, another widowed daughter, Emily Augusta Reynolds, made her home.

Van Beuren portrait

Members of the extended Van Beuren family pose on the grounds of the 14th Street mansion on an undisclosed date.

On January 31, 1902, Mary Louise Davis died at the home. She was laid to rest in the Spingler vault at the St. Mark’s Church graveyard on Second Avenue and 10th Street. Over the next six years, her spinster sister Elizabeth would watch several funerals and marriages take place at the home.

Mary Louise Van Beuren Davis

Mary Louise Davis, the second child of Michael and Mary Van Beuren, was the wife of John William Davis, an attorney who served as a captain with the 83rd Volunteers in the Civil War. During the Draft Race Riots of 1863, the extended Van Beuren/Davis family hid on the top floor of 21 West 14th Street while a black servant hid in a shed on the property.

When Elizabeth Van Beuren died on July 1, 1908, at the age of 79, many people were reminded of the the never-married Peter Goelet and his residence on 19th and Broadway – they assumed that, as did the Goelet residence, the Van Beuren house would also be demolished and replaced by an office building. However, Emily Reynolds, still living next door, was quick to squash ideas of development. As the New York Tribune noted, “Mrs. Reynolds said yesterday that the Van Beuren homestead would still be kept intact, in spite of the death of her sister.”

The End of a Dynasty

By the time Elizabeth passed, her sister Emily had been a widow for more than 25 years. She had also lost two sons: Frederick died in 1892 at age 11 and James died of typhoid fever at the Morristown farm in 1895.

29 West 14th Street, 1911

Emily Augusta Van Beuren Reynolds, the widow of Dr. James B. Reynolds, hired Charles Mielatzdone to do a portfolio of drawings of the Van Beuren homestead, including this color sketch of her home.

In 1908, the same year her sister passed, Emily Augusta Van Beuren Reynolds purchased a mansion at 1069 Fifth Avenue (88th Street) in a foreclosure deal. She moved into this home and died there in February 1914 with an estate of $3.8 million, including the mansion — valued at $250,000 — a one-quarter interest in 135 parcels of Manhattan realty, and a $7,000 diamond and pearl dog collar. All of her estate went to her daughter, Mrs. Josephine Thomas.

Apartment building at 1067 5th Avenue.]

When she died in 1914, Emily Augusta Van Beuren Reynolds was living at the mansion at 1069 Fifth Avenue, seen here on the left in 1917. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

Although the old home at 21 West 14th Street stayed intact for many years, all of the Van Beuren occupants had moved out and relocated uptown or to New Jersey by about 1909. In 1911, the widening of 14th Street necessitated the removal of the ornamental high stoop, and many of the fine garden trees were taken down.

The two homes with their gardens and outbuildings survived until 1927, after the Spingler-Van Beuren Estate, Inc., which held title to the vast holdings, placed the vacant portion of the lot on the market for a long-term lease. A company called 25 West Fourteenth Street Corporation reportedly leased the land to the west of the old mansion.

21 West 14th Street, Van Buren mansion

In this photo from 1925, you can see the back of 21 West 14th Street and a portion of the stables in the far right. Two years later, the Van Beuren Homestead was gone. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

Then in 1927, The New York Times reported that the landmark home was being demolished to be replaced by a nondescript theater and office building.

At that time, the 23,000 square-foot property was assessed at about $12 million. Today, where cows and horses once grazed, and beautiful trees and flowers bloomed, there are retail stores and a very imposing but bland brick apartment building.

West 14th Street, east from 6th Avenue.

This 1890 photo shows West 14th Street, looking east from Sixth Avenue. You can see the trees of the Van Beuren estate on the left. R.H. Macy’s had a store at 14th and Sixth, which is just visible on the right. Museum of the City of New York Collections.