Comments Off on 1906: Speck, the Momma Cat Who Saved Christmas for 16 Families at 27 Second Avenue on the Lower East Side

Speck was an ordinary New York City cat who led an ordinary life in Frederick Turkowsky’s plumbing shop at 27 Second Avenue. Up until December 5, 1906, very few people on the Lower East Side, save for Frederick, even knew she existed.

According to a plumbing trade journal published in April 1905, Frederick was already established in a shop at 28 Second Avenue when he opened a second basement shop and storeroom across the street in a four-story tenement at 27 Second Avenue. Speck spent much of her time in the basement shop, sleeping peacefully in the cozy box that Frederick provided for her. It was in this box that Speck gave birth to kittens during the week of Thanksgiving 1906.

A tenement fire on Second Avenue is depicted in this 1869 image. New York Public Library Digital Collections

A tenement fire on Second Avenue is depicted in this 1869 image. New York Public Library Digital Collections

 

Two weeks later, on December 5, Speck and her kittens were enjoying a nap in the box when a defective gas meter exploded, setting fire to the ceiling and walls. Frederick had already locked up and left for the day when the explosion took place. With the door locked, there was no way for Speck and her kittens to get out. So she did what any ordinary cat would do in this situation: she cried lustily.

Roundsman Henry Hellmers of the Fifteenth Precinct on East Fifth Street was making the rounds when he heard the cat crying as he passed by the tenement. Hellmers had been on patrol since being appointed to the New York Police Department in 1896 (he was promoted to roundsman in 1905), so he could recognize trouble when he heard it.

Peering through the door leading to the basement, he could see the flames licking the ceiling and walls. Upstairs in the apartments, the members of 16 families who lived in the tiny old-law apartments still had no idea what was happening below.

By the time the firemen from Ladder 9 arrived from their station house at 209 Elizabeth Street, the fire had made rapid progress. Down in the basement, as the fire raged on, poor Speck and her four kittens were still trapped.

Fireman Hurley and Speck to the Rescue

It was fireman Joseph Hurley of Ladder 9 who smashed down the door leading to the basement. He saw Speck, with one of her kittens in her mouth, at the top of a low landing.

Speck ran up the steps and deposited her kitten on the sidewalk. Then she ran back into the building and groped her way back to the corner of the room to save the rest. As Speck rescued her four kittens, the firemen continued to battle the blaze.

Following the fire, Roundsman Hellmers said he probably would have walked right by the building had Speck not cried out for help. By late that afternoon, everyone throughout the neighborhood was talking about the hero cat and calling her the best four-footed mother on the Lower East Side.

The fire caused minimal damage to the building–about $500 worth–and everyone except perhaps Frederick Turkowsky were able to celebrate and enjoy the holiday season in their homes.

A Brief History of 27 Second Avenue

The land that now comprises the Lower East Side was originally part of the Dutch West India Company’s Bowery No. 2, acquired by Petrus Stuyvesant, and Bowery No. 3, granted to Gerrit Hendricksen and later acquired by Phillip Minthorne around 1732. Both these large farms were bordered on the west by the Bowery Lane (today’s Bowery).

In 1746, Minthorne tried to sell a portion of his farm without success:

To be sold, a very good small farm or plantation in the Bowery-Lane, a little above a mile from the city of New York, situate between the Plantation of Geradus Stuyvesandt, Esq.; and the House of Capt. Isaac De Peyster; There is on it a good Dwelling-House and Barn, and a good bearing Orchard, with about ten Acres of Meadow, both fresh and salt; The whole contains about fifty Acres more or less, all in good Fence and Repair.

The Minthorne property occupied all of the fan-like sections just west of The Bowery, as shown on this 1767 Ratzer Map of New York City.

The Philip Minthorne property occupied all of the fan-like sections just west of Bowery Lane, as shown on this 1767 Ratzer Map of New York City. To the south was the homestead of Isaac de Peyster and to the north was the large plantation of Geradus Stuyvesant, the grandson of Governor Peter Stuyvesant.

Following Minthorne’s death in 1756, much of the eastern half of the 110-acre bowery was sold to John Jacob Astor. The western half was divided into 27 individual lots, three for each of his nine children: Philip Minthorne, a farmer; John, a cooper; Henry, a tinman; Mangle, a cooper; Hannah, the wife of Viert Banta, a house carpenter; Hilah, the wife of Abraham Cock, a cooper; Margaret, the wife of Nicholas Romaine, a carpenter; Sarah, the wife of Samuel Hallet, a carpenter; and Francyntje (Frankey), the wife of Paulus Banta, also a carpenter.

The fan-like pattern of the old Minthorne estate is still visible on this 1909 tax map. 27 Second Avenue, where Speck the cat saved the day, was erected on the land once owned by Margaret Minthorne and her husband Nicholas Romaine.

The fan-like pattern of the old Minthorne estate is still visible on this 1915 tax map. The tenement at 27 Second Avenue, where Speck the cat saved the day, was erected on the land once owned by Margaret Minthorne and her husband Nicholas Romaine. By 1915, the old tenement had been replaced by a moving-picture theater. The much larger Second Avenue Theatre, which specialized in Yiddish theater, was behind it (the entrance to the Second Avenue Theatre was actually at 33 Second Avenue, even though the theater was on East First Street).

Development in this area picked up during the 1830s, with elegant single-family row houses turning once empty land into one of New York’s most prestigious neighborhoods. By the 1850s, many immigrants began to settle in the area as wealthier residents moved farther uptown. The lovely row houses were converted for multiple-family dwellings and boarding houses, and eventually replaced by tenements to accommodate the housing demand.

The narrow, four-story tenements at 27 and 29 Second Avenue were built around 1900 (29 Second Avenue still stands, and is now a high-end residence with retail space on the ground floor).

In the early 1900s, 27 Second Avenue was a boarding house owned by George Norris. Sometime between the basement fire in 1906 and 1913, the tenements at 23, 25, and 27 Second Avenue were razed to make way for a new marble-front “photo play” theater designed by Louis A. Sheinart, an architect of many theaters of this period.

In this view of Second Avenue looking north from East 1st Street, the photo plays theater is visible on the left, a couple of buildings north of the Woolworth Theatre. New York Public Library Digital Collection

In this view of Second Avenue looking north from East First Street, the photo plays theater at 23-27 Second Avenue is visible on the left, a couple of buildings north of the Woolworth Theatre. When this photo was taken, the theater was owned by The New Law Theatre Corporation, under the directorship of E. and C. Mayer and L. Schneider. The small theater could seat 540 people. New York Public Library Digital Collection

 

Today, the old theater at 23-27 Second Avenue is occupied by the Exile Professional Gym dance studio.

Today, the old theater at 23-27 Second Avenue is occupied by the Exile Professional Gym dance studio. To the right is 29 Second Avenue, which features two high-end apartments (the building has since been painted white on the outside).

 

Here's an aerial view of 23-27 Second Avenue. Notice how the buildings follow the old diagonal property lines from the Minthorne farm.

Here’s an aerial view of 23-27 Second Avenue. Notice how the buildings follow the old diagonal property lines from the Minthorne farm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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