Archive for May, 2016


Kaiser, pictured here in the Christian Advocate Vol. 87 in 1914, was described as a glossy black cat with dainty white nose, breast, and mittens.

Many articles have been written about the iconic Equitable Building fire, but few mention Kaiser, the Equitable Fire Cat. I came across one small article published in 1914 that made brief mention of a cat, and I did some research. I’ll share my findings in this two-part cat tale of Old New York.

Philip Lights  a Match

On January 9, 1912, just after 5 a.m., Philip O’Brien, an employee at the Café Savarin restaurant, lit the gas for a stove in his small office at 12 Pine Street, on the corner of Broadway.

The Café Savarin, which opened in 1888, occupied eight floors of the Equitable Building. Philip O’Brien’s office — described more like a small booth — was in the basement among the wine vaults and a receiving room for supplies. Not too far away were the steam elevators and dumb waiters that opened at each floor.

The basement was also a favorite hunting ground for Kaiser, a black and white cat that had been on rat patrol at the Equitable Building since about 1907.

On this morning, Philip O’Brien must have been distracted, because he admitted to throwing the still-lit match in the garbage. Less then 20 minutes later, his office was engulfed in flames. As Philip and other employees tried to extinguish the flames, the fire spread to the elevators and dumb waiters, giving it access to the entire Equitable Building.


When the Cafe Savarin opened in 1888, The New York Times called it a “gorgeous eating house for New Yorkers who appreciate the gastronomic art.” The cafe, named after Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, cost “no less than $1 million” to furnish throughout.

As the fire raged inside, the winds were gusting up to 68 miles an hour outside, making the sub-freezing temperatures even colder. Down in the basement Kaiser was just waking up to start a new day of rat catching.

The Equitable Building

Completed on May 1, 1870, the eight-story Equitable Building at 120 Broadway was considered the first skyscraper in New York City (it held the record for 14 years as the world’s largest building at 130 feet). It also featured the first public elevators in the city (it had 6 Otis elevators).


The Equitable Building, which was actually five buildings constructed over time and connected together, occupied the entire block bordered by Broadway, Nassau, Cedar, and Pine streets. Cafe Savarin was on the Pine Street side of the structure.

The building was home to some of the most well established banking, insurance, and law offices of the Gilded Age, such as the Hanover Fire Insurance Company, Mercantile Trust Company, Union Pacific, and the exclusive Lawyer’s Club.  The main tenant and owner was the Equitable Life Assurance Society, hence the building was often called the Equitable Building or the Equitable Life Building.

In the basement of the Equitable Building, where Kaiser worked as head mouser, safe boxes and vaults were filled with several billion dollars worth of securities, stocks, and bonds.


New building proposed in 1909

In 1909, plans were filed to replace the building with the structure at left, a 62-story building (909 feet) that would have been the second tallest man-made structure (the Eiffel Tower is 984 feet tall).

Those plans obviously fell through. I wonder if I’d even be telling this story if the new building had been constructed as planned.

The Great Fire of 1912

At 5:34 in the morning on January 9, the first fire alarm was pulled at Box 24 on the corner of Pine and Nassau streets. The first due responding fire companies (four engines, two ladders, two battalion chiefs, and the deputy chief of the First Division) arrived within minutes.

The first-in engine company, Engine 6, which was stationed at 113 Liberty Street, immediately stretched a line into the cellar and began operating.

At 5:55, Deputy Chief John Binns transmitted second and third alarms. This brought Chief of Department John Kenlon and Fire Commissioner Joseph Johnson to the scene.

With the fire raging out of control, Brooklyn fire companies were also called in to help – it was the first time in the history of the city’s fire department that Brooklyn responded to a Manhattan fire.

Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo (who had resigned as fire commissioner shortly after the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911), ordered police officers to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge to allow the responding companies to get to the Equitable Building as fast as possible. Nine engines, four hook and ladder trucks, a water tower, a searchlight engine, and numerous hose tenders rolled into the scene under the command of Brooklyn Fire Chief Thomas Lally.

Oblivious to all that was going on around her, Kaiser continued to patrol the basement for rats and mice, just like she’d done for the past five years.


The water from the fire hoses turned the Equitable Building into a giant iceberg on Broadway. Some of the most haunting and yet artistic photographs were taken during and after the fire. Museum of the History of New York Collections

At about 6 a.m., the first of six casualties occurred when three waiters of Cafe Savarin were trapped on the mansard roof after trying to escape to the top floor by elevator. Firefighters tried to rescue them, but the ladders were three stories too short.

By the time the firefighters, including Fireman James F. Molloy of Engine 32, tried to rescue them with a rope-rifle shot from a neighboring building, the roof had begun to collapse.  The trapped men jumped to their deaths onto Cedar Street.


Fire Commissioner Joseph Johnson (left) with icicle-laden Chief John Kenlon.

Fire Battalion Chief William Walsh and Captain Charles Bass of Engine 4 were also killed in the fire when the building caved in while they were doing a search on the fourth floor. Fireman James G. Brown of Ladder 1, who was with Walsh and Bass, survived after being hurled through a door into another wing of the building by the air pressure of the collapse. His efforts to retrieve Walsh and Bass from the building failed, not for lack of desperately trying.

At the time of the collapse, William Giblin, the president of the Mercantile Deposit Company, a clerk, and a watchmen became trapped while searching for important documents in a massive vault. Giblin and the clerk were rescued from the basement two hours later, when firefighters were finally able to hack through the two-inch steel bars in the windows. The watchman did not survive.


Kaiser the cat did not escape through the windows during this rescue, even as firefighters continued to pour water into the cellar to control the fire near the trapped men.

As the morning wore on, the temperatures dropped even more. Soon Broadway and nearby streets were coated with layers of ice, hoses were frozen solid, fire apparatuses were jammed, and the firemen were covered in icicles.

By the time the fire was finally contained at 9:30 a.m., the Equitable Building was an ice-covered tomb in ruins.

Recovery Efforts

On January 13, four days after the Equitable fire started, workers were finally able to crack through the ice and search for the body of Battalion Chief Walsh. It took many hours to free his frozen corpse from the ruins. The following day, the body of watchman William Campion, his hand still frozen to an iron bar on a window, was carefully removed from the cellar.


This haunting scene from the Equitable fire’s aftermath is a chilling foreshadowing of the scene following the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. Museum of the City of New York Collections

On January 25, 16 days after the fire started, workmen who were trying to salvage the contents of the cellar vaults and safe boxes found a “sad wreck of a cat” in the front part of the lower floor. Kaiser, who apparently had more than nine lives, had miraculously survived the conflagration.

In Part II of the Equitable Fire Cat tale, I’ll tell you more about Kaiser’s rescue. And in the final part of this story, I’ll tell you about another surprising animal rescue from the building and explore the history of the site where the old Equitable Life Building one stood before a man named Philip tossed a lit match into a rubbish can.


Can you believe that a cat and another small animal survived almost two weeks without food and water in this ice fortress?



Say cheese! Cat portraits were one of Jessie Tarbox Beals’ specialties.

In Part I and Part II of this Old New York Bohemian cat tale, many of the photos were taken by photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals.

In this final post in the series, I’ll share many of her cat photos and take you on a tour of her Sheridan Square studio in Greenwich Village — then and now.

Born in Canada in 1870, Jessie was a young schoolteacher in 1888 when she reportedly won a small camera for selling magazine subscriptions. Much has been written about Jessie, her career, and her husband, Alfred, so I’ll jump to 1905, which is when the couple moved to New York City and rented the old Stanley Studio at 159 Sixth Avenue.


Jessie Tarbox Beals in the Stanley Studio on Sixth Avenue


Jessie was a big fan of the bohemian life in Greenwich Village, and she reportedly loved spending time with movers and shakers like Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Eugene O’Neill.

These acquaintances — as well her long work hours — put a strain on her marriage. In 1917, when their daughter Nanette was just six years old, the Beals separated.

By then, Jessie had opened her own photo gallery and tearoom in a tiny building at 6 1/2 Sheridan Square.

Jessie spent several years in Greenwich Village taking photographs of all that captured its Bohemian nature. Some of her favorite subjects were the tearooms and cafes where writers and artists – and cats — congregated, as well as the Village’s crooked alleys and mews (as in Washington Mews, not kitten mews).


Mrs. William S. Hofstra, president of the Atlantic Cat Club, and her cat Laddie Loupin, who won Best in Show at the 1906 Madison Square Garden Cat Show.

The Little Shop at 6 1/2 Sheridan Square

Jessie was drawn to the quaint little tearooms in Sheridan Square, so it’s no wonder she set up shop there, too.

She chose an old, one-story converted stable that had previously been home to a saddle and harness maker (1915 and earlier). She shared her small space with an artist by the name of Flora Ta’Bois, and later, with Elizabeth Koenig’s Crumperie.

Just next door in the same small building was Romayne Benjamin and Teddy Peck’s gift shop called the Treasure Box, which sold everything from handcrafted Persian scarves to odd pieces of jewelry and chinaware.

Jessie called her shop the Village Art Gallery. When she wasn’t busy taking photos, she spent time her in shop selling her prized photographs along with tea and postage stamps.


In this 1915 photograph of Nos. 3-6 Sheridan Square, you can just make out the one-story building at far right, which was occupied by T. Samoski, a saddle and harness maker. Museum of the City of New York Collections



Here’s that same tiny building around 1917, when Jessie took this photo. The writing says, “Jane and Howard on their bi-daily preambulatory passage pausing patiently before the celebrated marts of giftery, the Village Art Gallery and the Treasure Box in Sheridan Square.” The building to the right was No. 7-8 Sheridan Square. Museum of the City of New York Collections


Jessie and her Bohemian pals enjoy some al fresco dining.

Jessie probably would have stayed in Sheridan Square a while longer if she and her neighbors at No. 7, 8, and 9 Sheridan Square and 76 Grove Street had not been forced to leave. In 1919, these properties were purchased by the Corn Exchange Bank. All of the old buildings were torn down and replaced with a new building for the bank.


The Corn Exchange Bank building in 1930. Note the new look for Nos. 6 and 8 Sheridan Square, at left.  Museum of the City of New York Collections


The bank is still standing, but all the old buildings at Nos. 3-6 Sheridan Square have been replaced by a large apartment building.

Over the next eight years, Jessie moved about New York City, first renting a large loft at 333 Fourth Avenue (while living at 17 West 47th Street), then moving into a duplex apartment and studio at 13 East 57th Street, and then to 715 Lexington Avenue.


More cats, you say! Here’s another of Jessie’s whimsical kitty photos.

In 1928, Jessie and Nanette moved to California, where Jessie specialized in taking photographs of estates for the wives of motion picture executives. Business slowed down after the stock market crash, so she returned to New York in 1934, where she rented space in a darkroom and lived in a basement apartment at 114 West 11th Street.

Jessie continued to take photographs of gardens and estates for many years, although she never regained the success she had enjoyed in earlier years.


By 1941, a lifetime of hard work and extravagant living had taken its toll on Ms. Beals.  Bedridden and destitute, Jessie was admitted to the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital, where she died on May 30, 1942, at the age of 71.

Although many of Jessie’s photographs and negatives were lost or destroyed because she had no safe place to store them, the photographer Alexander Alland was able to purchase numerous prints and negatives from Jessie’s heirs, which he published in a 1978 biography titled Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photographer.

What About Crazy Cat?

This three-part series grew out of one sentence about a black-and-white cat named Crazy Cat, which I read in Anna Alice Chapin’s book Greenwich Village.  Crazy Cat was a popular fixture in Sheridan Square; one of the places he liked to hang out was near the studio of Don Dickerman, who made wooden pirate toys that he displayed in his tearoom on Washington Place, which he called the Pirate’s Cave.

I don’t know if Crazy Cat followed Don when he moved his tearoom to 8 Christopher Street, but I just came across an old news article that sent a few chills down my spine. According to the article, on April 22, 1922, a fire broke out at Don’s tearoom, then called the Pirate’s Den. Several birds and 15 cats that all belonged to Don perished in the fire. Only one black-and-white cat escaped unharmed.


The End. Meow.


Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals; New York Historical Society

In Part I of this Old New York cat tale, we met Crazy Cat, a black and white cat that called Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village his home. Crazy Cat did not belong to any one human in particular, but rather made the rounds from one tearoom to another, no doubt dining on a few morsels or taking a cat nap near a warm fire in every establishment that would welcome him.

During this time, a female photographer who had a small studio in an old converted horse stable at 6 1/2 Sheridan Square was also making the rounds with camera in hand. She captured the Bohemian lifestyle in her photographs, many of which featured women business owners and their cats.

Sometime around 1918, give or take a year, Jessie Tarbox Beals took a series of photos of Grace Godwin Sperry, the proprietor of a tearoom at 58 Washington Square South. As the photo below shows, Grace apparently had a black and white Tuxedo cat — maybe this cat was Crazy Cat, and maybe Grace Godwin’s Garret was one of his neighborhood haunts.


Grace Godwin plays guitar while her cat takes a nap in her tearoom at 58 Washington Square South. The words under the painting on the wall say, “This place ain’t bohemian.”

 Grace Godwin’s Garret

Grace Godwin’s tearoom and the site it occupied on Washington Square South has an interesting history going back to the 17th century, when the land in this area was home to a number of freed African-born slaves who received Dutch land grants and established farms near the area of today’s Washington Square Park.

Under British rule, the land in this part of Greenwich Village was owned by Elbert Herring, who had a large farm just south of what was called Skinner Road (present-day Christopher Street). Following the Revolutionary War, around 1780 or so, the city purchased land from Herring for use as a potter’s field for poor and indigent people, mostly victims of yellow fever. A gallows for public executions was also erected on the site where Stanford White’s Washington Square Arch now stands.

In 1819, Daniel Megie (possibly McGee), the city’s gravedigger and hangman, purchased a small plot across from the potter’s field from John Ireland for $300. There, at the southeast corner of present-day Washington Square South and Thompson Street, he lived in a small circa 1800 frame house, where he also stored the tools of his trade. The address of the gravedigger’s house was reportedly #58 Washington Square South.


In this photograph by Jessie Tarbox Beals, Grace Godwin looks out the window of her tearoom — Grace Godwin’s Garret — at 58 Washington Square South. The adjoining buildings at 244 and 246 Thompson Street were reportedly occupied by a roadhouse of ill repute, which was a famous meeting place for celebrities in the sporting world. The buildings also housed a tavern and coffee house for travelers (the stagecoaches would stop there to change horses).  

Daniel Megie lived at this address until 1821, when the city’s potter’s field was removed to the area of present-day Bryant Park. When he moved out that year, he sold the building to Joseph Dean. Over the next 60 years, the property was owned by Alfred S. Pell, Frederick E. Richard, Peter Gilsey, John De Ruyter, and Samuel McCreery (New York Times, March 2, 1913). At some point during the late 1880s, the home was occupied by New York Governor Lucius Robinson.

In the 1910s, #58 was home to a popular soda fountain, candy, and cigar shop on the ground floor and Guido Bruno’s Garret on the second floor, where local artists exhibited their work. (Bruno, who also published a small newspaper at this location, called the building “the most forlorn-looking two-story frame building that can be found in New York.”) The frame buildings were reportedly heavily damaged in a fire in 1916, in which Bruno lost many historical items of great value (including unpublished manuscripts by Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain).

The buildings were apparently salvaged following the fire in 1916. When Jessie Tarbox Beals took the photograph above around 1918, Grace Godwin had taken over the upstairs, where she served breakfast, afternoon tea, spaghetti dinners, and after-dinner coffee to mostly out-of-towners who spotted the garret from the Fifth Avenue bus terminus.


Grace Godwin, who took over the garret in 1917, was known for her spaghetti dinners. I don’t see Crazy Cat in this photo, but I’m sure he enjoyed some of those dinners, too.

In August 1927,  The New York Times reported that the old brick and timber buildings on the corner of Washington Square South and Thompson Street were set to be demolished and replaced by a 15-story apartment building. At this time, the property was owned by Dr. Joseph J. Lordi, and #58 was Romany Marie’s Tavern.

These plans apparently fell through, probably due to the proposed height and zoning regulations. A photo of the “Red Row” from 1945 shows a small empty lot with a bare tree where #58 once stood; #61, the “House of Genius,” is to the right of the four-story building:



Here’s another view of the empty lot where #58 once stood.


In the 1930s, banker James Speyer purchased the parcel along Washington Square South between Thompson Street, LaGuardia Place, and West 3rd Street.

The plan was to construct a very modern apartment complex on the site, which would be designed by architect Emery Roth. Roth’s “winged fantasy apartment house” never took flight, thanks to zoning laws and the Great Depression.


Emery Roth envisioned a modern “premier residence” on Washington Square South, featuring four apartment wings radiating from a large and ornate central tower.

In 1945, James Speyer sold the property for $2 million to Anthony Campagna, who planned on constructing apartments for 302 families on the site after the war ended. The new apartments would feature garden courts and be called “House of Genuis” in honor of 61 Washington Square South, an old rooming house formerly owned by Madame Catherine R. Branchard, where many writers, poets, and other artists once lived (see photo above).

About 50 residents who lived in the buildings fought against the plan, but the developer secured evictions in January 1948 and reduced the entire block to rubble. In the end, however, the high-rise never rose. Campagna sold the property to New York University, which began constructing its $3.5 million Loeb Student Center in 1952.


An artist’s rendering of NYU’s Loeb Student Center appeared in The New York Times in 1957. Today a very different looking building houses NYU’s Center for Academic and Spiritual Life.



For 10 years, between demolition of the Red Row on Washington Square South and completion of the Loeb Student Center, the vacant lots served as a pseudo-recreational area for the neighborhood.


In this aerial view of Washington Square from the 1990s, the Loeb Student Center is to the right of the large red brick building. Note the World Trade Center in the background.

Part III: Jessie Tarbox Beals and the Bohemian Cats


Cats were one of Jessie Tarbox Beals’ favorite subjects. Who can blame her? In Part III of this cat tale, I’ll take you on a tour of Jessie’s Greenwich Village through some adorable cat photos.