Posts Tagged ‘New York City History’

In Part I of this Old New York cat tale, we left off at the the car stables of the Forty-second-Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad, on the east side of Twelfth Avenue at the foot of 42nd and 43rd streets. It is the night of June 12, 1886, and about a dozen cats are fighting for their lives as a large fire burns their home to the ground…

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Engine Company 1, stationed at 165 West 29th Street (pictured here sometime between 1873 and 1881), was one of the many engine companies that responded to the car stable fire. As the stables continued to burn, many firefighters helped rescue the cats that had been living there.

The Rescued Cats of the Green Line Car Stables

From the June 14, 1886, issue of The New York Times:

Rescued cats were a drug in the market at the Forty-second-street fire early yesterday morning. The car stables seemed alive with them when the fire was under control, and a half dozen firemen each got a cat. They were scorched, drenched, and thoroughly frightened animals when the firemen took them in charge.

How they had managed to stay in the burning building for the two or three hours they must have been there before falling walls and floors sent them scurrying out of the doors into Forty-second-street without being burned to death is a mystery that even the firemen cannot solve.

Of all the cats saved by the firemen, there was one feline in particular that evidently had at least 10 lives. This kitty, later named Hero by the men of Engine Company No. 1, was rescued by Assistant Chief John McCabe.

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Hero’s hero: Assistant Chief John McCabe.

According to the Times, the tabby had been seen lurking behind a chimney on top of the wall on 42nd Street just after the roof had collapsed. As the firemen approached her, she ran quickly along the wall toward the river, trying to limit the amount of time her paws had to land on the very hot bricks.

At one point she tried to jump from the wall to a telegraph pole, but instead she scurried along to a portion of the wall nearest the river, where the bricks were cooler. When the firemen found her again, they directed a stream of water against the wall below her in an effort to cool off the bricks. This only frightened her more, causing her to hide in space in the wall.

The tabby continued to hide for about an hour, until the firemen were forced to direct their hoses toward her once again to extinguish some flames in the area. Everyone had assumed the poor cat had roasted to death, but when the water hit the wall she jumped out of her hiding spot and tried to escape again.

About five minutes later, “a forlorn-looking cat with her hair well singed off” jumped from a window on 43rd Street. Assistant Chief John “Bucky” McCabe caught her, and, wrapping her up tenderly, turned her over to the care of one of the firemen from Engine Company No. 1.

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Hero the tabby cat made her new home at the firehouse at 165 West 29th Street, pictured here sometime in the early 1900s.

The men immediately brought the kitty to their engine house and treated her burned and blistered paws with liniment and tender care. According to news accounts, by the next day, the cat the men named Hero was recovering, and her paws “were resuming something like their normal condition.”

The Firehouse at 165 West 29th Street

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The old firehouse is still standing at 165 West 29th Street. Photo by P. Gavan

Metropolitan Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 was organized on July 31, 1865, at 4 Centre Street (northeast corner of City Hall Park), in the former headquarters of the Exempt Engine Company, a reserve corps that was composed exclusively of exempt members of New York’s volunteer fire department. (The Exempt Engine Company was organized on November 14, 1854, at the home of H.B. Venn at 298 Bowery, a building with a very interesting history.)

On February 17, 1873, Engine Company No. 1 was reorganized at 165 West 29th Street (first photo above). A new firehouse at this same location was constructed in 1881 (photo at right). The firemen stayed at this location until 1946, when they moved to 142 West 31st Street, where today they share quarters with Ladder Company 24. (Incidentally, Father Mychal Judge was the fire chaplain at this firehouse until he became the first officially recorded victim of the September 11, 2001. attacks.)

The firehouse on West 29th Street was constructed on what had once been the estate of James A. Stewart. Stewart was a wine merchant who had a country seat along what was once called Stewart Street, a diagonal street that intersected his property bounded by 29th and 31st streets, the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway), and the Fitz Roy Road (near today’s 8th Avenue).

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In 1809, James A. Stewart sold about 71 lots on Stewart Street (depicted in blue and green on the 1867 map) to Matthias Ward, who in turn conveyed the lots to David Dunham in 1810. The lots were sold at auction for the Dunham estate in 1825 to Charles Smyth.

In 1809, James A. Stewart advertised for sale or lease “a very convenient country seat” and about 71 lots (each 25 feet x 100 feet) along Stewart Street. According to the ad, the home was very roomy, and featured four rooms on the first floor, fireplaces, a coach house, stable, about two acres of mowing ground or pasture, a garden with fruit trees, a good well, and “a cistern that never fails.” The ad also boasted that Stewart Street would be “the handsomest road in the city,” as it was 58 feet wide and featured two rows of trees.

In 1810,  Stewart asked the Common Council to accept Stewart Street as a public road. But Street Commissioner Samuel Stillwell said that the diagonal road might interfere with the the new grid plan then under consideration (the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811).

Stewart Street remained as just stakes in the ground until it was eventually reorganized into conventional lots. However, the buildings on the north and south sides of 30th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway still follow the original diagonal, as one can see in Google Earth:

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All of the buildings on the south side of West 30th Street have recently been demolished to make way for the future Virgin Hotel at 1205-1227 Broadway, so today only those buildings on the north side of the street preserve the old diagonal line from Stewart Street. 

 The Demise of Deputy Chief John McCabe

John McCabe, better known as Bucky, was a printer by trade who started his long career with New York City’s fire department as a runner for Oceanus Engine Company No. 11 at 99 Wooster Street.  He joined the city’s new paid fire department in September 1865, was promoted to Battalion Chief in 1881, and to Second Assistant Chief in 1884. By the time he retired due to health reasons in 1893, he was Deputy Chief of the department.

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Deputy Chief John McCabe around 1893.

On the morning of April 25, 1895, John Bucky McCabe left his home at 78 Washington Place, bought a revolver and a pack of cartridges, and walked over to the John E. Milholland Club at 111 Clinton Place (today’s 8th Street). John was president of the political club, which had been founded in 1893 to fight the “Platt Machine” and “Boss Platt” (Thomas C. Platt), the reportedly corrupt leader of the Republican Party in New York State.

At 12:15 p.m., after talking with some friends in the club for about an hour, John McCabe walked into the back room and shot himself in the head. According to news reports, McCabe had been privy to corrupt activity and so he chose to end his life rather than testify and implicate his close friends (including state senators and officers in the fire department).

As General O.J. LaGrange, president of the Board of Fire Commissioners, told the press during the hearings on April 28, “He  had  been  trusted  by  his  associate,  or some  of  them,  with  things  that  he  could  not tell.   He   expected   to   be  called   before this   committee. He  had  Irish  blood  In  his  veins, and  could  not  be  an  Informer.”

The Demise of Hero the Cat 

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John E. Milholland was a newspaper editor and social reformer who played a large role in the city’s pneumatic tube mail system. He was also very interested in advancing the rights of the colored race (which back then included Jews and African-Americans), and was a founder and treasurer of the NAACP.

Three months after McCabe’s death, on July 16, 1895, a fire started in the cellar of the firehouse at 165 West 29th Street. Nearly all the members of the company were in the firehouse at the time, including another man by the name of McCabe — Engineer Thomas McCabe.

Although the men were able to save the horses and the fire apparatus, two gray cats that made their home in the cellar perished in the fire. I can’t say for sure that one of these cats was Hero, but one has to note the irony.

The Car Barns Burn Again

On March 4, 1906, the rebuilt car barns at the foot of West 42nd Street were destroyed in another spectacular fire. This fire was way more devastating then the one 20 years earlier; one man was killed and the fire forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents in nearby tenements and patrons at the adjacent Terminal Cafe and Annex Hotel.

Once again the car barns were rebuilt (see photo below), but sometime before 1941 the building was demolished, leaving an empty 27,000 square foot lot. That year the lot was leased by a syndicate that planned to operate a large gas station on the site.

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The car barns of the 42nd Street and 34th Street trolley lines in 1915. 

Today, the site where a tabby cat named Hero was rescued from a fire in 1886 is occupied by the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York at 520 12th Avenue (constructed in 1962).

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Popular in England during the 17th and 18th centuries, illegal bear-baiting took place occasionally in New York City in the mid-1800s, most notably at James McLaughlin’s dog pit at 155 First Avenue (corner of East 10th Street). In bear-baiting, the bear would be chained by the neck or leg to a stake and harassed by dogs.

The following story is not for the squeamish — it was not an easy story for me to write, but I think it’s an important story to tell as it says a lot about society in New York City just before and during the Civil War. Plus, there seems to be a lot of talk about Russian bears in the political news these days, so it’s a timely tale to tell.

Hell in New York City

Three hundred beings human only in shape were crowded together in a close, noise some cellar only about 20 feet square, and a great part of that space was taken up by the pit Saturday night. The animals were tortured merely for the amusement of the spectators. The programme advertised three days beforehand: The sports of the evening would commence with bear baiting, badger and coon drawing, wolf hunting and rat killing.

The bear was baited by five dogs until he caught them in his paws and crunched them half to death, amid the yells and cheers of the assembled fancy. More than a dozen dogs baited the badger. There was also a match between two dogs who fought with such fury that in five minutes their passing could be heard above the shouts of their masters: and when they were stopped for a moment in one place, they marked it with a pool of blood.

The dogs fought for 20 minutes until they were helpless. The men kept cheering them on even though they were exhausted. Then a bag of rats was dropped into the pit, and men and dogs jumped in kicking. When all the rats were killed, a dog and raccoon were pitted against each other. This went on until early on Monday morning by a raffle for dogs still bleeding from the fights.– New York Tribune, January 29, 1855, “Hell in New York”

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A scene at Kit Burn’s Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street, one of several “sporting” establishments that featured rat-baiting in New York City in the 1800s.

The Dog Pits of New York City

In the 1850s and 1860s a brutal pastime called rat-baiting reached new heights in popularity in New York City. Basically, rat-baiting involved pitting a dog against a rat until they fought to the death. When the rats did not provide enough excitement for the mostly young sporting men and male tourists who came to these events, other animals including raccoons, badgers, pigs, and sometimes a bear would take the place of the rats.

Oftentimes, champion dogs were pitted against other dogs. And later in the century it became popular to pit rats against men wearing heavy boots.

Rat-baiting events were not legal, but they were openly patronized and often advertised in publications like The New York Clipper, a weekly entertainment newspaper published in New York City from 1853 to 1924.

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A typical scene at a rat-baiting event.

The dogs at these “sporting” events were, for the most part, terrier breeds who were trained for about six months and sent into the pit when they were about a year old. The rats were provided for free — neighborhood boys were paid to catch them, at a rate of 5 to 12 cents each.

The dog pits, at places like McLaughlin’s on First Avenue, Kit Burns’s Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street, and Jacob Roome’s pit at 140 Church Street, were basically open wooden boxes with walls about 8 feet long and about 4 feet high.

James McLaughlin and His Champion Rat-Baiting Dogs

James McLaughlin was one of the most famous breeders of champion rat-baiting dogs. From about 1854 to 1859, he held “canine exhibitions” at his dog pit at 155 First Avenue. Oftentimes his own terriers, including Whiskey and Princey, participated in the events.

These events were usually advertised in The New York Clipper, such as this announcement that appeared in April 1859:

 April 25, 1859 – A great canine exhibition on Easter Monday…Muzzles and silver collars, and prize for the dog who kills his five rats in the shortest amount of time. Princey, the champion at 24 pounds, open to fight any dog in the world for $100 or $200.  Crib, 44 pounds, Billy, 18 pounds, Mr. O’Brien’s dog, Blinker, 15 pounds, Nelson and Fan of Staten Island, Dick of Newark, Sailor of Brooklyn, the slut Lady, the slut Rosy of Brooklyn, the Yorkville slut. Weighing to commence at 7 p.m., the show started at 8 p.m. Tickets 25 cents. Collars and rats free of charge.

Another announcement read:

A Grand Ratting Exhibition will be given at James McLaughlin’s Sportsman’s Retreat, 155 First Avenue, on Friday Evening, May 26, 1854. There is 4 handsome collars to be run for; 200 Rats to be killed, this is a real chance for gentlemen wishing to try their Dogs, as Collars and Rats will be given free. On that night there will be 10 Rats for large Dogs, and 8 Rats for small dogs; the Dogs making the best time to receive the Collars. The Badger Sport will be beated for a handsome Collar; the Bear and Coon will be on hand. Doors open at eight o’clock.

Sometime in January 1855, a Russian bear named Dennis was reportedly baited at McLaughlin’s. I don’t know the fate of the bear or the dogs that attacked it. But I do know that shortly thereafter, James McLaughlin and 30 spectators were arrested by the police of the 17th Ward. McLaughlin was charged with keeping a disorderly place and was held on $300 bail.

I don’t know if it was this arrest that changed his career path, but I do know that in the 1860s McLaughlin renamed his place Union Hall, which featured sparring events with men only. In later years, McLaughlin continued breeding terriers, but for the dog show circuit at Madison Square Garden as opposed to the rat-baiting circuit.

A Brief History of First Avenue

When Petrus Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of New Netherland, surrendered to the British in 1664, the King offered him a 62-acre tract of land on the lower east side of New York. Stuyvesant established his country seat on his Bouwerie (or Bouwerij, the Dutch word for farm), which covered what we call today the East Village and Stuyvesant Town (from about 6th Street to 23rd Street, between Fourth Avenue and Avenue C). He named his home Petersfield.

Stuyvesant built his home on a high slope facing the East River, right about where today’s First Avenue intersects with 15th and 16th streets. He lived in the home until his death in 1672.

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Peter Stuyvesant’s country seat near present-day First Avenue and 15th Street. 

More than 100 years after Stuyvesant’s death, First Avenue was one of the 12 north-south avenues proposed as part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 for Manhattan. The southern portions of the Avenue, where Stuyvesant’s old home was located, were cut and laid out shortly after the plan was adopted.

In 1831, an article in the New York Mirror reported that the Stuyvesant house was still standing, albeit, “it appeared to be tottering on its ancient base” as all the earth around it was being removed to use as landfill in other areas. According to the article, the two-story house with gambled roof was constructed of brick painted yellow. Part of the building on the northeast corner had fallen down, and its demise was imminent.

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In this engraving from the December 31, 1831 issue of the New York Mirror, the old Peter Stuyvesant house near First Avenue and 15th Street does appear to be tottering. NYPL digital collections

For almost three centuries, the Stuyvesant farm remained in the family, although little by little, parcels were sold off for development.

In 1820, Peter Gerard Stuyvesant sold 60 lots adjoining First, Second, and Third avenues from 10th through 13th streets. Based on this account in The Evening Post (November 18, 1820), the five-story with basement tenement at 155 First Avenue was probably constructed around this time.

155-157 First Avenue

In the early 1900s, First Avenue from about 1st to 14th streets was filled with peddlers and their pushcarts. Mayor Fiorello Henry LaGuardia, elected to office in 1934, removed the pushcarts from city streets and abolished the city’s filthy, crowded open-air markets.

In place of the open-air markets and pushcarts, LaGuardia used federal Works Progress Administration funds to build several indoor markets that had running water and loading platforms.  In 1937, architects Albert W. Lewis and John D. Churchill were commissioned by the Department of Markets to design several of these markets, including the First Avenue Retail Market.

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Mayor LaGuardia addresses the crowd at the grand opening of the First Avenue Retail Market in 1938. The market closed in 1965. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Constructed in 1938, the indoor market occupied an L-shaped building that spanned 155-157 First Avenue and 230-240 East 10th Street.  Where once terrier dogs fought rats and bears, there was now a bustling neighborhood market where merchants sold cheese (the rats would have loved that), vegetables, and other grocery products.

When the market closed in 1965,  the city’s Sanitation Department took over the 30,000 square foot building for use as a storage warehouse for paperwork and small equipment. The Sanitation Department was the sole occupant of the building until 1987, which is when Crystal Field and her husband, George Bartenieff, moved in with their small theater group, the Theater for the New City.

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Inside the First Avenue Retail Market in 1938. 

Founded in 1970, the Theater for the New City is, according to The New York Times, “Off Off Broadway’s answer to the mom and pop grocery.” According to the theater’s website, each year TNC produces about 35 new American plays by emerging and established writers and theater companies that have no permanent home.

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The old First Avenue Retail Market as it looks today. Google Streets

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Margaret Wise Brown and her Kerry blue terrier Crispin’s Crispian in the 1940s.

In this final chapter of Crispin’s Crispian, I’ll tell the fascinating story of what happened to the old New York City farmhouse on York Avenue in Lenox Hill where his famous pet mom, Margaret Wise Brown, wrote her final children’s book, Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself.

In Part II of this Old New York dog tale, we left off in the 1940s, when Margaret Glass and her husband Owen Healy occupied their two-story brick building at 1335 York Avenue and ran a neighborhood dining room on the property. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, children’s picture book author Margaret Wise Brown rented the small, 18th-century cottage hidden on the back lot behind the Healy’s brick apartment house for use as her studio.

Born in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood in 1910 (Margaret and her family lived in an existing two-family house at 118 Milton Street), Margaret spent much of her career in New York City. She first lived in her own flat at 21 West 10th Street, and then, during her long affair with Blanche Oelrichs (stage name, Michael Strange, a wealthy socialite and ex-wife of John Barrymore and Harrison Tweed), she shared an apartment with her partner at 10 Gracie Court near the East River.

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Margaret always loved animals. During her childhood, she and her sister, Roberta, had about 30 rabbits, one dog of their own, and about 6 “borrowed dogs.” 

Sometime during the 1940s, Margaret and Michael lived in adjacent apartments at 186 East End Avenue. It was during this time that Michael gave Crispin’s Crispian to Margaret. Every day, Margaret would take the Kerry blue terrier to her studio, where he reportedly had full run of the place.

The two-story cottage, called Cobble Court because of the cobblestone court that separated it from the brick apartment building, was reportedly unheated, so Margaret covered the walls of the living space with animal fur (don’t ask me how she did this). She spent her days writing in the cottage, and sometimes at night she would host dinner parties there.

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The crooked little house in this 1967 newspaper illustration from Mister Dog looks familiar…

It was here that Margaret wrote Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself,  a charming picture story about a conservative dog who lives in a two-story doghouse and wants to find a little child to be his friend. The book was inspired by Crispin’s Crispian, the setting was no doubt based on the Cobble Court cottage, and there’s a good chance that the child is based on Albert Clarke, a little boy who lived in a tenement that Margaret passed by every day to get to her back-lot cottage.

Margaret’s Final Days

In 1952, 42-year-old Margaret met 26-year-old James Stillman “Pebble” Rockefeller, a bearded sailor who descended from Andrew Carnegie. Although the two were engaged, they never got the chance to marry. That year, she was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst while in France. Although she lived through the surgery, she died two weeks later on November 13 of an embolism.

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Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian at the Cobble Court cottage in the late 1940s.

Although she had supposedly asked to leave Crispin’s Crispian in the care of an old friend, I came across a news article that stated her sister, Roberta Rauch of Jamaica, Vermont, was bequeathed $20,000 to take care of the famous terrier. Albert Clarke, the little boy from the tenement, was reportedly willed the royalties from most of Margaret’s books published up to the time of her death.

Cobble Court’s Not-so-Final Days

From about 1950 to 1966, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York tried to persuade Margaret Glass Healy and her brothers to sell the property, including the two houses and the land. They finally reached a deal, and the property was sold for about $75,000.

At this time, the little farmhouse was being rented by Swedish-born Mr. and Mrs. Sven Bernhard. They had made extensive renovations to the home since moving there in 1960, and did not want to move when the archdiocese ordered them out to make room for a large nursing home (the Mary Manning Walsh Home for Aged at 1339 York Avenue).

So they made a deal: the couple would leave, but only if they could take the house with them. With the help of architect William C. Shopsin, they purchased a vacant 3600-square foot lot for $30,000 on Charles Street and made arrangements for the house be moved to Greenwich Village.

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On March 5th, 1967, the farmhouse (including the cobblestones from the courtyard) was loaded onto a flatbed and brought to the vacant double lot off at Charles and Greenwich Street (most city lots are 25 feet wide, but since the house is 26 feet wide, the couple had to purchase two lots to accommodate it). As the truck pulled away, Mrs. Bernhard exclaimed, “It’s saved! It’s saved!”

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The 18th-century cottage, hidden for 100 years behind 1335 York Avenue and 435 East 71st Street, was revealed during demolition work in February 1966.

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On March 5, 1967, the house was loaded on a flatbed truck and transported to Greenwich Village. This view is of the back of the house, which apparently had not been painted white. It cost the Bernhard’s $6,500 to move the 26-foot-wide house. 

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Here’s the four-room, 900-square-foot house being pulled down 14th Street on what appears to be a rainy day.

The Bernhards continued living in the home on Charles Street for twenty years. They sold the house for about $725,000 in 1986 and moved to Mystic, Connecticut.

In 1988, the house was purchased by its current owners, Eliot Brodsky and Suri Bieler. The couple worked hard to restore it, adding a 540-square-foot addition when their son was born that earned them an award from the Greenwich Village Historical Society for its canted angles that match the original house.

“It’s as if a farmhouse, in the manner of a spaceship, fell from the sky and landed smack in the middle of a dense urban setting.”–Off the Grid, 2011

 

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Today, the six-room, wood-frame house, with its well-manicured yard and driveway, looks very much out of place at 121 Charles Street. Photo by P. Gavan

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Now, should you ever find yourself walking past this house on Charles Street, you have a great story to tell. Photo by P. Gavan