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In the late 1700s, The Hermitage residence was right about where McCaffrey Playground is today, on West 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Part I of this Old New York cat tale begins in 1825 at the old Hermitage Farm on the west side of Manhattan…

In 1825, John Leake Norton distributed some handbills advertising a raffle for his land on the west side of Manhattan. His plan was to divide his portion of the Norton Farm, aka The Hermitage Farm, into parcels of 4 to 16 lots, and sell them at a price beginning at $600 for the smaller parcels.

According to The New York Times, the drawing took place in the Shakespeare Tavern at Fulton and Nassau Street. “Over mugs of ale, between smoke rings drawn from long pipes, adventurous citizens bought the Norton farm.”

That same year, John L. Norton ceded to the City of New York all that land which would be required to open 39th through 48th streets. The city paid him $10 for this land.

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The “sunken lands” along the Great Kill are clearly depicted on the Randel Farm Maps, drafted between 1818 and 1820. John L. Norton’s Hermitage is also shown (far right) as well as a few other smaller buildings on the family’s estate.

The Hermitage Farm had been in the family since about 1780, which is when John Leake purchased a tract of about 80 acres between present-day Broadway and the Hudson River from Matthew Hopper. Much of the property west of the Eleventh Avenue comprised “sunken lands” that were under the Hudson River and the Great Kill, a large stream that emptied into the Hudson at the foot of what is now 42nd Street.

When Leake died in 1792, he bequeathed the land and the home he called The Hermitage to his niece, Martha, the wife of Samuel Norton. Upon her death in 1797, the property passed on to her sons John Leake Norton, Samuel John Leake Norton, and Robert Burridge Norton.

hermitagefarmmappaintThe Hermitage Farm was a diagonal tract between Broadway and the Hudson River, from about 40th Street to 48th Street. The Great Kill stream is also noted on this 1872 map. Click here for a more detailed view. Museum of the City of New York Collections 

In the years following the sale of the Norton Farm, residential development was brisk, particularly after the city’s first street railway — the New York and Harlem — began running from Prince Street to the Harlem Bridge in 1832. Commercial development also picked up along the Hudson River after the sunken lands of the old Hermitage Farm between Eleventh Avenue and the Hudson River were filled in to create Twelfth Avenue in 1862-63.

The Green Line Car Stables

In 1864, the car stables of the Forty-second-Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad were constructed on land that had once been under water, on the east side of Twelfth Avenue at the foot of 42nd and 43rd streets. Immediately to the south of the three-story brick car stables was the large Consolidated Gas Company, and just to the north was the E.S. Higgins & Co. Carpet Factory.

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This old car barn at 65th Street (circa 1900) was probably very similar to the car stables on Twelfth Avenue and 42nd Street. Notice the streetcars inside the building and the horses waiting outside. NYPL Digital Collections

The Forty-second-Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad, also known as the Green Line because of the green lights on the cars, was a horse-drawn streetcar line that ran a zigzag path from the Weehawken Ferry (the West Shore ferry terminal) at the foot of 42nd Street to the Grand Street Ferry on the East River.

Approximately 570 horses were stabled in the Green Line car stables, along with about 50 trolley cars plus all the harnesses, bales of hay, and other equipment required to care for the horses.

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The Grand Street Horse Car Depot at 653 West 42nd Street, E.S. Higgins & Co. Carpet Factory, and Consolidated Gas Co. were all constructed on what were once sunken lands on the old Norton Farm. (The blue line denotes the old Great Kill stream and the boundary of the old sunken lands.) Numerous brick and brownstone tenements and frame buildings are also evident on this 1885 map.  

The Great Car Stables Fire

At about 10:30 p.m. on June 12, 1886, night watchman John Horner noticed smoke coming from the third-floor paint shop at the northeast corner of the car stables. He ran out and sounded the alarm, but by the time the fire engines arrived a few minutes later, the entire stable, covering 8 lots on 42nd Street, 8 lots on 43rd Street, and the entire river front, was on fire.

At the time of the fire, about 565 horses were in the building, including five that were upstairs in a special hospital for the horses. One sick horse was in slings awaiting treatment.

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The Forty-Second Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad terminated at the Grand Street Ferry depot at the foot of Grand Street and Broome Street on the East River. Here, passengers could take a ferry to either Grand Street or Broadway in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The New Metropolis, 1899; Collection of Maggie Land Blanck.  

Under the direction of Superintendent John M. Calhoun, all of the employees on site were able to lead the horses safely outside (quite an amazing feat, considering that most car stable fires of this period resulted in the deaths of hundreds of horses). Only one horse — the one in slings — perished in the flames. The other horses were taken to Justice Murray’s coach lot on 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenue.

After all the horses were out, the men focused on saving the cars by pushing them out on the tracks along 42nd Street. All but 4 cars were saved, and almost all but 40 harnesses were also saved.

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While all this was going on, about a dozen or more cats that lived in the stables, including one especially brave tabby, were fighting for their lives as the building continued to burn all around them…

In Part II, I’ll tell you what happened to the cats, and how one very brave cat found a new home at a firehouse in Chelsea following this event.

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian

“Crispin’s Crispian lived in a two-story doghouse in a garden…”

The charming story of Crispin’s Crispian — and the old New York farmhouse where his famous pet mom wrote her final children’s book — takes place on what was once known as the Louvre Farm. The 90-acre farm extended from the Old Boston Post Road (near today’s Third Avenue) to the East River between present-day East 66th Street and East 75th Street. Today we call the neighborhood Lenox Hill.

In Part I of Crispin’s Crispian, we left off in 1894. In Part II, we go back just a bit to the 1860s, which is when William and Margaret Glass purchased a few vacant lots on what was labeled Subdivision 4 of the old Louvre Farm. The lots were located on the west side of Avenue A (today’s York Avenue), between East 71st and East 72nd Street.

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Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian at her writing studio in the little frame house.

It was here in the late 1940s and early 1950s that children’s picture book author Margaret Wise Brown rented what was reported to be a tiny, 18th-century frame house, where she wrote Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself.

Margaret’s pet Kerry blue terrier, Crispin’s Crispian, was the inspiration for this book. The house was no doubt the inspiration for the setting of the story and the illustrations.

The Mysterious Frame House on East 71st Street

Sometime in the 1860s, Irish immigrants William and Margaret Glass moved from Greenwich Village to a little frame farmhouse — more like a cottage — on the northwest corner of East 71st Street and Avenue A. The Glasses reportedly lived in this cottage and operated a small dairy on the site (according to the 1870 census, the Glasses had two sons, John and Charles, and William’s occupation was “milk business.”)

Around 1868-1869, the Glasses constructed a two-story brick dwelling in front of the cottage, thus hiding the tiny house away from street view. They continued to live in the cottage, which was accessible via a narrow path on 71st Street, until William passed away in the early 1880s.

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This 1879 illustration of Second Avenue at 72nd Street — the “hill” of Lenox Hill — gives you a good idea of what the Upper East Side of New York City looked like about 140 years ago.

Here’s the mystery: Just when was the frame cottage built? In his book “New York–Oddly Enough,” published in 1938, Charles G. Shaw describes the “hidden house” as an 18th-century clapboard farmhouse with small, paned windows and an open, outside staircase connecting two floors.

News reports from the 1960s also suggest that the house was at least 200 years old, which means it was built in the 1760s, when wealthy privateer David Provost owned the Louvre Farm. But for some reason, the tiny house does not appear on any maps until 1891.

Perhaps the cottage was a small outbuilding on the Provost farm and simply not labeled on any map? Or could it have been moved from another location before the Glass family arrived in the 1860s?

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In this 1855 map of Subdivision No. 4 of the Louvre Farm, no construction appears to have taken place yet, and no building lots have been created along Avenue A between 71st and 72nd Street. There’s no sign of a tiny frame house or any other structure.

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In 1868, when this map was drawn, the building lots have been created and there appear to be quite a few buildings on Subdivision No. 4, including what is probably the Glass family’s new two-story brick house. Still, I don’t see a tiny frame house. 

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The little frame house finally shows up in 1891 (see the little yellow square just above the “V” in “Avenue.”)  The two-story brick building constructed around 1868 is in front, and there was a small cobble court between the two buildings. A narrow path on 71st St. provided access. 

Following William’s passing, Margaret Glass moved into the two-story brick building with her two sons.  She apparently rented part of this building along with the tiny cottage: The 1890 census records three families at the address, including Margaret and her sons.

Cobble Court: 1930s-1940s

In 1928, when Avenue A north of 59th Street was renamed York Avenue, the Glass family’s brick building was designated 1335 York Avenue. I assume the cottage in back shared the same address.

During the Great Depression, the Glass family rented a portion of 1335 York Avenue for use as a tea room called Cobble Court (named for the cobblestone court that separated the brick building from the cottage). The tea room was run by Alta E. Dines and other members of the Cobble Court committee — mostly trained nurses and doctors’ wives who volunteered their time to help nurses who were out of work and in need of assistance.

In addition to the tea room, where, according to the New York Sun, “the chicken salad was marvelous,” Cobble Court had a gift shop and library (possibly in the cottage) as well as a mending service and a theater ticket service for the out-of-work nurses.

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In this 1935 photo, 1335 York Avenue is the little two-story brick building to the left of the  Redemptionist Fathers of New York Church. The cottage was behind this building, hidden between the five- and six-story tenements. Museum of the City of New York 

In the 1940s, the Glass’s granddaughter — also named Margaret Glass — occupied the second floor of 1335 York Avenue with her husband, Owen Healy, and their two daughters, Margaret (Margaret “Peggy” Peters) and Charlotte (Charlotte Whalen).  On the first floor, the family operated a restaurant called Healy’s Dining Room.

It was during this time that Margaret Wise Brown rented the back cottage as a writing studio.

In Part III, I’ll tell you about Margaret’s final years in the cottage, and show you some pictures of what this little house looks like today (no, it’s not on East 71st Street anymore, but it’s still standing, and it’s still somebody’s cherished home.)

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Another view of 1335 York Avenue (behind the bus) in 1935. Museum of the City of New York 

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Crispin’s Crispian was the pet Kerry blue terrier of children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown, and the inspiration for her last book, Mister Dog, which she wrote in her tiny studio in the Lenox Hill section of New York City sometime around 1945. 

In February 1966, the demolition of several old apartment buildings and a church on York Avenue between East 71st Street and East 72nd Street revealed a very tiny frame house — believed to be an 18th-century farmhouse — that had been hidden from public view for about 75 years.

It was in this little house that Margaret Wise Brown, author of such children’s classics as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, wrote what turned out to be her very last book.

Inspired by her pet terrier, Crispin’s Crispian, Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself is about a conservative dog who goes looking for a friend. The book was illustrated by Garth Williams (of the Little House books and Charlotte’s Web fame), who no doubt used the little house on York Avenue as the model for Margaret’s fictional dog (as you’ll see later in this old New York story).

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From Margaret Wise Brown’s Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself

Much has been written about the Brooklyn-born Margaret Wise Brown and her career, so I’m going to jump right to the history of this little house, where she spent just a brief time during her incredible career as one of America’s most favorite authors of children’s picture books.

Part I: The Old Louvre Farm

“It was the last fastness of the forest primeval that once covered the rocky shores of the East River, and its wildness was almost savage.”–Early account of the area known as Lenox Hill

 

In Part I, we go way back in time to when the area we know today as Lenox Hill on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was a dense and spooky forest situated on the bluffs overlooking the East River and located far, far away from the city proper.

 

It was here in a clearing that one could find a farm of about 90 acres that extended from the Old Boston Post Road (near today’s Third Avenue) to the East River between present-day 66th Street and 75th Street.

 

Our story of Crispin’s Crispian and the little frame house that he shared with Margaret Wise Brown takes place on the west side of Avenue A (today’s York Avenue) between 71st Street and 72nd Street, also known as Lot 4 of the Louvre Farm subdivision of 1855.

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On this 1868 map of the old Louvre Farm, most of the lots are still vacant. There are a few buildings near the East River, including a large barn, ice house, several dwellings, and the old David Provost mansion at the foot of present-day 69th Street. There are also 2 swimming “pools” along the river.  Click here to explore this map from the Museum of the City of New York digital collections.

 

We start on October 9, 1677, when Sir Edmund Andros, the governor of the Province of New York, granted about 60 acres to John Bassett and 30 acres to Cornelius Mattyson. Over the next 100 years, the 60-acre plot was conveyed from Bassett to William Green, to William Hallett, and to George Hallett. The 30-acre plot was conveyed to Johannes Peterson and then to George Hallet.

In 1727, Hallett conveyed the entire 90-acre farm to Abraham Lameter, who in turn sold the land to David Provost on September 11, 1742.

Provost, a New York City merchant and privateer, was extremely wealthy and thus known as Ready-Money Provost (there were rumors that he hid his money in a cave on the farm near the East River). He built a large country mansion near the river, smack in the middle of what would become East 69th Street. He called his estate the Louvre Farm.

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Following his death at the age of 90 in 1781, David Provost was buried in a tomb built into a high hill at the East River and today’s East 71st Street. His first wife, Johanna Rynders, was buried here many years earlier (1749) following her death at the age of 43. 

On December 6, 1777, David Provost gifted the 90-acre farm to his former housekeeper and second wife, Sarah Bolton Loftus. Ten years later, in 1787, Sarah conveyed the property to James Provost, David’s grandson. James in turn conveyed equal parcels of the property to his seven siblings (keeping one parcel for himself).

Jones’ Woods

Sometime around 1800, a successful innkeeper and merchant by the name of John Jones purchased the land from the Provost siblings in order to have a country seat near New York. (The Provost house became his country seat.) After his death in 1806, the farm was divided once again into lots among his children: Sarah Schermerhorn (wife of Peter Schermerhorn), James I. Jones, John Jones, Isaac Colford Jones, Frances M. Pendelton, and William H. Jones.

In time, the old Louvre Farm became known as Jones’ Woods.

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The Provost tomb was still standing in 1875 when this illustration was made, although by that time it was called the Smuggler’s Tomb. It had also been broken into and vandalized over the years — an 1857 news article reported that several human bones were scattered about. Needless to say, it was the source of many ghost stories in the 1800s. New York Public Library digital collections

In 1853, following a long debate, an act was passed in favor of creating Central Park by a vote of 12 to 10. The act authorized the purchase of the land (eminent domain) lying between 3rd Avenue and the East River from 66th Street to 75th Street.

Much opposition arose, especially because the land was inaccessible and bounded on one side by the swift current of a deep stream (some nearby property owners were in favor of the park, as they believed it would raise their property values).  In the end, the Jones’ heirs refused to sell the land.

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The first uptown site that was considered for a “great park” was Jones’ Wood.  The deal fell through in 1854 and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The act was repealed on March 6, 1854. A year later, the Jones’ siblings leased a small portion of their land (400 lots between 66th and 69th streets) for use as a public picnic ground. The northern portion, from 69th to 75th Street, was advertised for residential development.

Jones’ Wood, as the picnic grounds were called, has been called “America’s first amusement park.” It featured attractions such as billiards, bowling, a shooting gallery, donkey rides, dancing, concerts, hobby horses, and much more. (During the Civil War, the land was used extensively by the military.) There was a large coliseum near Avenue A between 68th and 70th streets, a shooting range on 70th Street, and a platform for outdoor dancing also near 70th Street.

The old Provost mansion became the Jones’ Wood Hotel under the proprietorship of Valentine Mager (pronounced Major), who leased the land from 1858 to 1860.
joneswoodhotelOver 15,000 Irish Americans gathered in Jones’ Wood in 1856 to greet countryman James Stephen. The old Provost mansion at the foot of East 69th Street — later the Jones’ Wood Hotel — is in the distance. NYPL digital collections

caledonian_joneswood_hatchingcatThe New York Caledonian Club, a Scottish social club organized in 1856, held their second annual games at Jones’ Wood on September 23, 1858. (The first event took place at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ). The club referred to the site as “a convenient and pleasantly situated park.” 

In 1857, the only public road that traversed through Jones’ Wood was Second Avenue. However, Avenue A was under contract at this time, and cherry trees were beginning to be felled for development (an old newspaper account noted that the sunshine could be seen for the first time). Several streets were opened, including 65th, 66th, 71st, and 74th streets.

joneswood1861lagententA number of tents were pitched in the woods near the river for use during the season, as this illustration from about 1861 depicts. NYPL digital collections

During the 1860s and 1870s, Jones’ Wood was the resort of working-class New Yorkers, who traveled by excursion steamers and the horsecars on Second and Third Avenue to enjoy beer, athletics, and other rowdy entertainments that were banned in Central Park.

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This 1885 map shows John F. Schultheis’ Coliseum (built in 1874) and a new picnic ground called Washington Park. Development had begun along Avenue A, particularly between 70th and 72nd Street, but there’s no sign of the little house where Crispin’s Crispian lived yet…

In 1872, John F. Schultheis became the proprietor of Jones’ Wood Park. He erected his “Coliseum” about 1874 (it had seating for 14,000 spectators), and to the north, he established a second picnic ground called “Washington Park.” By this time, the old Provost mansion, aka the Jones’ Wood Hotel, although still occupied by Schultheis, was a dilapidated ruin.

On May 16, 1894, at about 4:30 a.m., a fire broke out in the kitchen of the Coliseum, near the northeast corner of the building, which was very close to the old Provost mansion and Schultheis’ horse stables. Although the fire was contained to the east side of Avenue A, it destroyed almost everything on about 11 acres of land. When the fire was out, the only things left standing were the kitchen chimney and a merry-go-round.

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A scene from Jones’ Wood in 1872. Note the merry-go-round in the background (left), which was all that was left standing following the fire in 1894.

In Part II, we’ll return to 1868, which is when William Glass purchased a couple of lots for his dairy operation on Lot 4 of the old Louvre Farm.

 

 

 

 

 

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Handsome tabby Trent and Melvin Vaniman, the chief engineer of America, shortly after being rescued by the crew of the RMS Trent in October 1910.

The story of Trent, the large tabby cat made famous by an unsuccessful flight across the Atlantic in the airship America, has been told many times. My version of the story has a New York City history twist that you will not find in any other tale about Trent.  

 

On October 22, 1910, a month after the new Gimbel Brothers Department Store opened at Greeley Square in New York City, Walter Wellman’s 27-foot lifeboat and the large tabby cat that was rescued from his hydrogen dirigible, America, were on exhibition on the fourth floor of the new department store.

Trent, lying atop comfy pillows in a gilded cage, attracted crowds of sightseers — especially women and children — who couldn’t wait to meet the famous cat that attempted a trans-Atlantic crossing in an airship. As a continuous line of people tried to pet and woo him, Trent ignored their attention and declined to be sociable.

I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe the poor cat was trying to ignore everyone because he had just gone through a very dramatic experience that I know for a fact would have traumatized most cats for all the rest of their nine lives.

From Atlantic City Stray to Airship Mascot

americahangarThe America was a 165-long, non-rigid airship built by Mutin Godard in France in 1906 for the journalist Walter Wellman‘s attempt to reach the North Pole by air. The airship took off from Atlantic City, New Jersey, on October 15, 1910. 

In October 1910, journalist and pioneer airman Walter Wellman and five companions prepared to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the airship America. Trent was just a stray cat living with his twin brother in the airship’s hangar in Atlantic City when the airship’s navigator, Murray Simon, decided it would be good luck to have a cat on board the historic flight.

Trent — then called Kiddo — was tossed into the lifeboat, which was attached just under the airship. Here, radio man Jack Irwin had his post (America was the first aircraft to carry radio equipment).

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Melvin Vaniman and Trent look like the best of friends in their publicity portrait. 

No surprise, Kiddo was not too fond of his predicament, and he put on a great display of anger and terror by meowing and running around the small space in hysterics.

Chief Engineer Melvin Vaniman was reportedly so annoyed by the antics of Kiddo that he made the first-ever in-flight radio transmission to a secretary back on land. “Roy, come and get this goddamn cat!” he yelled.

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Kiddo was renamed Trent following the rescue. 

The plan was then to lower the cat in a canvas bag to a motorboat that was running beneath the airship. Unfortunately, the seas were too rough for the boat to catch the bag, so Kiddo was forced to continue the journey.

Eventually, Kiddo settled down and took his job as feline co-pilot quite seriously. (One of his duties was to try to keep the napping men awake by lounging on their faces.)

Navigator Murray Simon, who had told the press that one must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat, wrote that Kiddo was “more useful than any barometer.”

Although the airship set several new records by staying aloft for almost 72 hours and traveling over 1000 miles, weather and other problems forced the crew to ditch the airship and join Kiddo in the lifeboat. Somewhere west of Bermuda, they sighted the Royal Mail Steamship Trent. After using  Morse code to attract the ship’s attention, Jack Irwin made the first aerial distress call by radio.

As the airship drifted out of sight — never to be seen again — the crew of the RMS Trent rescued all the men and their cat Kiddo and returned them to New York. Murray Simon reminded the crew that it had been a good idea to bring Kiddo on the journey, because cats have nine lives.

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The airship America, as seen from the deck of the RMS Trent en route to New York City. 

Trent Goes to Gimbels

Following the airship’s rescue, Melvin Vaniman and Kiddo — now called Trent — were invited to help the Gimbel brothers celebrate the opening of their New York store on Broadway and 32nd Street. As this blog explores the history of New York City through animal stories, a pictorial look at the history of Gimbels is in store.

Although Gimbel Brothers New York officially opened on September 29, 1010, the history of this particular store at Greeley Square goes back to 1874, when the Hudson Tunnel Railroad Company initiated plans to construct a railroad that would connect New Jersey and New York City via a tunnel under the mile-wide Hudson River (today we call this the PATH train).

Construction began in 1874, but litigation and lack of funding caused numerous delays over the years. Finally in February 1902, the New York and Jersey Railroad Company took over all of the railroad company’s tunnels and lines of railway, including 4,000 feet of tunnel that had already been constructed.

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Under the direction of William Gibbs McAdoo, the president of the New York and Jersey Railroad Company, the McAdoo Tunnel or Hudson Tubes, as it was called, accommodated electrified surface rail cars. The cars operated from a terminal in Jersey City (Journal Square) to a terminal in Manhattan at Christopher, Tenth, Greenwich, and Hudson streets. 

In 1904, the newly formed Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company (H&M) filed an application to extend the McAdoo Tunnel to a larger underground terminal on Sixth Avenue at 33rd Street. The proposed site was occupied by several landmarks, including Trainor’s hotel and restaurant and the Manhattan Theatre (formerly the Standard Theatre) on Sixth Avenue, all of which were condemned and demolished in 1905.

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The old Standard Theatre on Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street (later called the Manhattan Theatre), was being managed by James M. Hill when this photo was taken in 1895. The theater was one of many buildings demolished to make way for the 33rd Street terminal and, later, the Gimbel Brothers department store. New York Public Library digital collections. 

Many smaller old buildings on West 32nd and West 33rd streets were also condemned, including a house of prostitution called the House of Nations and six other properties owned by Albert J. Adams. Incidentally, Al Adams, as he was called, also had grand plans for the same site: In 1905 he had proposed to build a 42-story hotel on the site that was to be the tallest building in the world — more than 125 taller than The Times building and the Park Row Building, which were then the world’s tallest buildings.

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Greeeley Square between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, looking southwest from about 34th Street. When this photo was taken, the Manhattan Theatre and Trainor’s restaurant were still standing across from the Sixth Avenue elevated train station. It was here that the Gimbel Brothers department store would be built in 1909.  NYPL digital collections.

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The Broadway side of Greeley Square, as seen in 1807. NYPD digital collections.

On April 23, 1909, five years after the site was cleared to make way for the McAdoo system concourse at 33rd Street, the Gimbel brothers — Jacob, Isaac, Charles, Daniel, Ellis, and Louis — signed a 21-year lease with the Greeley Square Realty Company for the land atop the proposed terminal (the 33rd Street station did not open until November 1910).  Daniel Burnham (of Flatiron Building fame) was hired to design the new building.

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Following five months of excavation work, construction on the new department store started in October 1909. NYPL digital collections

On January 30, 1909, The New York Times announced that the “massive store” would “be the terminal of the McAdoo tunnel system, or Manhattan tunnels, which, by the time the store building is completed, will connect with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Erie system, and the Lackawanna & Western Railroad, handling, it is estimated, 1,000,000 persons daily.”

On December 8, 1909, a copper box containing a history of the Gimbels and other data was placed in the cornerstone. The $12 million building was completed ahead of schedule on  June 11, 1910.

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Here is Gimbels in 1920, three years before the department store merged with Saks (directly across 33rd Street), and five years before the Gimbels purchased the 18-story Cuyler Building (directly across 32nd Street) . NYPL digital collections 

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Here’s a look under and above Greeley Square at Sixth Avenue and 32nd Street in the early 1900s. At the bottom, 50 feet below the street, is the new Pennsylvania Tunnel leading out of Penn Station. Above that is the Rapid Transit subway and then the tracks of the old McAdoo system (today’s PATH). Back then, there was also a surface railroad and an elevated train with a foot bridge that served Gimbels shoppers. 

In October 1925, Gimbel Brothers announced the purchase of the Cuyler Building on the south side of 32nd Street. To connect the Gimbels store with the Cuyler Building, a three-story, copper-clad sky bridge was constructed. This bridge still stands today, albeit, it is no longer functional (check out these amazing photos taken inside the sky bridge in 2014.)

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The three-story sky bridge as it looks today. Photo by P. Gavan

On June 6, 1986, the Associated Press reported that Gimbels was going out of business. Today, the building that once paid tribute to a hero cat named Trent houses a JCPenney and the Manhattan Mall.

As for Trent, he lived out the rest of his eight remaining lives on land with Edith Wellman, the daughter of Walter Wellman, in Washington, D.C.

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The Manhattan Mall and JCPenney now occupy the old Gimbel Brothers building, and Greeley Square is occupied by an open-air food market called Broadway Bites. Photo by P. Gavan

 

 

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Major Van Buren Stephens in his custom-made casket on the day of his funeral in July 1900.

“I am heartbroken. I loved him as much as a human being, and he had more intelligence than a good many human beings and was far more faithful.”–Mrs. John T. Stephens, July 12, 1900

In July 1900, Mrs. John T. Stephens lost the canine love of her life. Having lost her young son just two years before, the death of her dog Major was more than she could bear.

Major, an eleven-year-old brown and white collie, entered Myra Stephens’ life when he was only three weeks old and she still went by the maiden name of Myra Van Buren. The aspiring actress from Louisiana (her stage name was Myra St. Maur) raised Major and his brother on her own until her marriage to John Stephens, a wealthy produce merchant, in 1891.

During their early married years, the Stephens traveled extensively throughout Europe, the United States, and Mexico. On every trip, Major was at their side (I don’t know if his brother also traveled with them).

The childless couple doted on Major, teaching him over 50 tricks (according to Myra he could “talk in a way” and sing in three languages) and letting him dine with them at the table. Major was especially fond of coffee — every morning a servant brought him coffee in his bedroom, but he would not drink it until a napkin was tied under his chin. After he finished, he’d hold up his mouth for someone to wipe it.

Major was also a big hit with the residents of London Terrace, a set of 36 grand brownstone row houses on West 23rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue, where Myra and John Stephens made their home.

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Major lived with the Stephens at 427 West 23rd Street, which was one of 36 Greek revival brownstone townhouses designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and constructed in 1845 on the former “Chelsea” estate of Clement C. Moore. The old 9th Avenue elevated train tracks are visible at the end of the street. NYPL digital collections 

Sometime around 1895, Myra gave birth to a baby boy. Major instantly bonded with the child, and they became best friends.

According to Myra, in 1897 Major saved a young boy from drowning in Atlanta, Georgia. For his heroics, the father of the boy presented the dog with a gold medal. A year later, Major saved two other little boys from drowning at Rockaway Beach in New York.

That same year, in 1898, the Stephens lost their young son, leaving a huge void in their lives.

Major’s Passing

In July 1900, Myra Stephens took Major to the New York Veterinary Hospital, located just a few blocks away at 117 West 25th Street. Major was not treated by chief surgeon Dr. S. K. Johnson, but Dr. Edward M. Leavy — also a very experienced surgeon — did his very best to treat the collie in his final days.

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Dr. Samuel King Johnson in an early photo of the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, where Major was reportedly buried. Photo courtesy of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.

The Stephens chose to bury their cherished dog in a small pet cemetery that had once been Dr. Johnson’s apple orchard in Hartsdale, New York. On the day of his funeral, Major was washed, combed, and placed in a satin-lined rosewood casket. The casket featured four silver handles and an oval glass plate at the top for viewing.

A gold collar adorned his neck, and flowers covered his body. As the Stephens’ many friends came to call and place more flowers on the casket, Major’s surviving brother collie stood by and howled.

Major was taken by an animal ambulance to Grand Central Station, where the casket was placed on a Harlem Line train bound for Hartsdale in Westchester County.

The Clement C. Moore Estate at Chelsea

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The Clement C. Moore property — formerly the Bishop Benjamin Moore property and the old Jacob and Teunis Somerindyke farm — was bounded by the Hudson River and present-day Eighth Ave., 19th St., and 24th St.

For several years, Major and his brother collie lived with the Stephens at 427 West 23rd Street, which was then one of a group of brownstone townhouses called London Terrace. The property has a very interesting history, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan was all hilly forest and farmland owned by Jacob and Teunis Somerindyke.

This large farm of several hundred acres was bounded by what was then called the North River (Hudson) and 8th Avenue (then called Fitzroy Road) from 14th to 24th Street. The land featured a river that flowed near present-day 10th Avenue and a small creek by the shoreline at 22nd Street.

In 1750, Captain Thomas Clarke, a retired British military man, bought a large piece (about 100 acres) of the old farm and named it Chelsea, after his native London’s Royal Hospital at Chelsea, where old soldiers lived out their final days. There, near the intersection of today’s 8th Avenue and 24th Street, he built a “snug harbor” that he called the Chelsea House.

In 1776, the year Captain Clarke died, a fire destroyed the three-story frame house. His widow, Mary Stillwell Clarke, replaced it with a larger brick Chelsea House near what would now be lots 422 and 424 on West 23rd Street. Mary defended the house against the British troops during the Revolutionary War, and remained there until her death in 1802.

The house and much of the property stayed in the family, passing to Mary’s daughter, Charity, and her husband, Benjamin Moore, the Episcopal bishop of New York and president of Columbia College.

chelseahouse2Chelsea House was on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River, near today’s West 23rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue. 

In 1779, Clement Clarke Moore was born in Chelsea House. Here, in 1822, he first recited the poem he wrote for his two daughters — “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — the classic holiday poem that begins, “T’was the night before Christmas, when all through the house…”

Legend has it that Moore based his Santa Claus on the family’s jovial and plump Dutch handyman, and that he was inspired to write the poem while being driven home one snowy night in a sleigh pulled by a horse with jingling bells.

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From Clement C. Moore’s A Visit From Saint Nicholas, illustrated by F.O.C. Darley and published by James G. Gregory in 1862.

Sometime around the 1830s, Moore began dividing his land into lots and selling them for fine residences.

In 1845, working with William Torrey (who leased the land), Moore erected a large housing development called London Terrace and Chelsea Gardens, which encompassed West 23rd and 24th streets between 9th and 10th Avenue.

Then in 1853 he razed the family seat (Chelsea House) across from London Terrace and sold the land. On that site, elaborate row houses later called Millionaires’ Row were constructed.

Moore moved into a new townhouse on West 22nd Street, where he lived until his death in 1863. This house is still standing today.

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On West 24th Street, Moore built the Chelsea Cottages, which were wood-framed, two-and three-story houses occupied by writers and artists who painted them and added sleeping porches. Behind these, facing West 23rd Street, were the London Terrace townhouses, where Major and the Stephens lived. NYPL digital collections

In 1907, a financial panic marked the beginning of the downfall for the 1845 London Terrace. The once pricey one-family homes were subdivided into rooming houses and apartments. Extra floors were added to several of the buildings, and some were converted to institutions (for example, in 1930 the townhouse where the Stephens once lived was the Florence Crittenden Home for Girls; three London Terrace homes near 10th Avenue were combined with three of the Chelsea Cottages to form the School for Social Research campus.)

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London Terrace in 1925, just four years before its demise. NYPL digital collections

 By 1929, developer Henry Mandel had acquired control of the block — well, all of the buildings except the house at 429 West 23rd Street. As Mandel began demolishing all of the buildings, Tillie Hart, once the next-door neighbor of the Stephens, held her ground, barricading herself in and refusing to leave until the sheriffs forced her out in October of that year.

Mandel replaced the old townhouses with ten apartment buildings and four taller tower-like structures at each corner. The buildings contained 1,665 apartments, plus an abundance of amenities such as an indoor swimming pool, supervised rooftop play area, gymnasium, penthouse recreational club, sun deck for infants, courtyard garden, and a rooftop marine deck furnished to look like an ocean liner.

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The new London Terrace in 1930. NYPL digital collections

The Passing of Myra Van Buren Stephens

In the years following Major’s death, Myra Stephens became more attached to dogs and less attached to the real world.

In February 1904, she headed up an enterprise called the Idlewild Canine Cemetery Association. The association reportedly purchased five acres of land just north of the train depot in Central Islip for use as a cemetery for poodles. There are no further reports of this dog cemetery (although I did find this recent story about a woman charged with having a pet cemetery in her Central Islip yard. Hmm…)

In 1920, while living in a friend’s 17-room house at 1155 Guion Avenue (108th Street) in Richmond Hill, Queens, Myra was charged with keeping numerous dogs in a boarding kennel without a kennel permit. By this time her life had taken a turn for the worse, and she was often seen knocking on theater stage doors and begging for assistance from the actors and actresses.

On November 12, 1931, the sound of whimpering dogs got the attention of a policeman, who broke into Myra’s squalid, six-room tenement apartment at 1250 Second Avenue. There, Myra was found dead on the floor surrounded by her 11 dogs. Myra was taken to the city morgue and the dogs were taken to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

427west23rd_hatchingcatMajor’s old home at 427 West 23rd Street is now part of London Terrace Gardens. 

 

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Margaret Owen and Lilly in 1922

When we left Part I of this curious cat tale of Old New York, young Margaret Owen was just about to dunk her two Angora cats into a basin of blue dye. The blue cats, she thought, would match her blue suit and look great parading down the boardwalk at Atlantic City. They’d also make a great gift for Otto Harbach and Arthur Hammerstein, the writer and director of “The Blue Kitten.” 

Margaret Owen was obsessed with the color blue. Everything in her apartment was blue, as were all her clothes and accessories. The petite singer had also recently auditioned for a chorus role in “The Blue Kitten,” which was appearing at the Selwyn Theatre (today, the American Airlines Theatre) on West 42nd Street.

So one day, while dying some old woolen stockings in a basin of blue dye, she got a wicked idea when her cat Lilly dipped her paw into the basin. She picked up the cat and dunked her right into the bowl of blue water. Then it was her cat Otto’s turn (I don’t know if this was his name, but several newspaper articles refer to him as Otto).

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“The Blue Kitten” was a musical comedy that ran from January to May 1922 at the Selwyn Theatre.

Despite the cats’ howls, Lilly held them down in the water for about five minutes until she was sure the dye had taken. (She took care not to immerse their heads – she used a piece of cotton dipped in the dye to swab their faces.) When she was all done, she wrapped the cats in an old blue towel and placed them on a blue cushion to dry.

Now, Margaret Owen was not the only person who rented an apartment from building owner Clarice Carleton Holland at 75 West 50th Street. Hearing the cats’ howls and thinking that Margaret was killing them, several neighbors called the Humane Society.

Over the next few days, things did not go well for poor Otto. Sensing something was wrong with the lackadaisical cat, Margaret took Otto to Dr. Harry K. Miller’s dog and cat hospital (aka, The New York Canine Infirmary), which was then located at 146 West 53rd Street. There, the blue Angora succumbed to an apparent poison in the dye.

Enter stage left, Harry Moran, Superintendent of New York’s Humane Society. Harry Moran told Margaret he was taking her and Lilly to the West Side Magistrates Court, where she would appear before Magistrate Peter A. Hatting on charges of animal cruelty.

Midtown Community Court New York

The old West Side Magistrates Court at 314 West 54th Street was built in 1894. Today it’s home to the Midtown Community Court. The building still bears its terra cotta visions of justice.

Margaret put the blue cat in a blue silk bag and brought her to the court, where she was met by her attorney, Benedict A. Leerburger of the firm of House, Grossman & Vorhaus.

Magistrate Hatting ordered Margaret, Superintendent Moran, Mr. Leerburburger, and the cat to go to the Humane Society headquarters to have Lilly’s fur analysed by a chemist.

Pending the test results and Lilly’s status, the judge said, he would make his decision.

“If Miss Owens and Mr. Leerburger want any lunch, the Humane Society will supply them with it,” the judge reportedly said as he sent them on their way to have Lilly examined.

“What kind of lunch?” Mr. Leerburger asked the magistrate. “I can’t get along on a cat’s diet,” the attorney said. “I need more than milk for sustenance.”

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Margaret at court with Lilly, who was then still dyed blue (you can just barely make out the cat on her shoulders).

 

Two veterinarians and a specialist on poison were called to assist with Lilly at the Humane Society. They washed the cat and had the water analyzed. It turned out that the blue dye contained 5% arsenic.

Because Lilly had licked a lot of the dye off and become very sick, the magistrate said it was almost a case of fatal poisoning. (Margaret denied knowing anything about Otto, claiming that he was a friend’s cat that she had taken to the animal hospital as a favor for her.)

Mrs. Anna Doyle, Margaret Owen’s probation officer, was convinced that Margaret had not intended to harm the cats. Lilly had survived the ordeal, so Mrs. Doyle asked the judge to go easy on Miss Owen.

“You’re a spoiled child,” the magistrate admonished Margaret during her sentencing. “What you need is a guardian. Are you married? No? Then I’ll send you back to your father until you get another guardian.”

In addition to remanding Margaret to her parents in Florida, Judge Hatting told her that the Humane Society would have custody of Lilly until her blue color had vanished.

Margaret’s Story Goes Viral

Within days after Margaret appeared in court with Lilly, the story of the blue-dyed cat that had died from dyeing (referring to Otto) made all the major newspapers across the United States. Her story was also cabled to the Paris newspapers, where the idea of dying your pets to match your wardrobe was much appreciated by the high-society Parisian women.

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The Paris women were a little more intelligent, though. First, they thought it would be better to dye their dogs, since cats aren’t fond of parading about with their mistresses. They also found that coffee, caramel, or tea, mixed with cream (and a little bit of quinine to discourage licking), made a great safe dye.

Superintendent Moran was completely against this fad, and had a reputation for prosecuting those who tried it in New York City. Even if coffee, tea, and caramel was used, he said, these were poisonous for animals, and thus, punishable under the law as a misdemeanor crime against animals.

10 Years Later…

I do not know what happened to Margaret Owen and Lilly. Hopefully they lived happily ever after in Florida, but for some reason I don’t think Margaret kept herself out of trouble for the rest of her life.

What I do know is that in 1930, Clarice Carleton Holland, the widow of Dr. Bukk G. Carleton, sold the building at 75 West 50th Street to William F. Beach, who in turn sold it the Underel Holding Corporation on behalf of John D. Rockefeller. By 1931 the holding corporation had acquired all the lots on the street, giving them the entire 50th Street frontage on which to construct Radio City Music Hall.

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Once upon a time, a young woman dyed her cats blue in an old brownstone and brick apartment on this very site at the northeast corner of W. 50th Street and Sixth Ave. Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932. Photo by P. Gavan

Incidentally, the animal hospital where Margaret Owen brought Otto and Lilly is still in operation as the Miller-Clark Animal Hospital in Mamaroneck, New York. Established in 1902 at 118 West 188th Street (according to old newspaper ads), it is one of the longest running veterinary practices in New York.

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Here is Lilly, Margaret Owen’s once pure white Angora cat, in February 1922.

Every once and a while I come across an old animal story that goes into my special folder called “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” The following Old New York City cat tale is somewhat funny, very bizarre, and a bit tragic. It most certainly belongs in my special folder.

Once upon a time, a young woman was obsessed with blue…

Blue eyes, check. Blue clothes, check. Blue rugs and draperies, check. Blue walls and electric lamp shades, check. Blue china and blue satin chairs, check. Blue cats…hmmm

Miss Margaret Owen was a wealthy and temperamental petite young lady who just loved the color blue. Everything she owned was blue – well, almost everything. The blue-eyed singer had even tried out for the chorus in “The Blue Kitten,” a musical comedy based on the book by Otto Harbach and William Gary Duncan, and directed by Arthur Hammerstein.

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Margaret Owen with Lilly in 1922

She said blue soothed her and calmed her sometimes overwrought nerves.

Although she was only 22 years old, Margaret had her own spacious apartment in a five-story brownstone and brick apartment building in midtown Manhattan. She also had a maid to do all her washing and cleaning. (All courtesy of her wealthy father, H.W. Owen, a former stock broker who had retired to Florida.)

One day in January 1922, Margaret’s maid took the day off. That left Margaret alone with a pair of yellowing wool stockings that were driving her mad. She simply could have no peace until she did something with those stockings.

So Margaret rolled up the sleeves of her blue smock and turned on the hot water faucet for the marble basin in her blue dressing room. She poured in a bottle of indigo and a few packets of Diamond–brand blue dye. Her new blue stockings were going to look so perfect with her pretty blue suit…

Well, everything was going fine until Lilly, one of Margaret’s two white Angora cats, came bounding into the room. When the curious, eight-month-old kitty dipped a white paw into the blue basin, Margaret clapped her hands in delight!

As it turns out, Margaret had recently bought a blue leash for her kittens, because she had heard that women were walking their cats on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. She thought, wouldn’t it be romantic to be the mistress of a very beautiful blue cat that she could parade down the boardwalk? And wouldn’t a blue cat make a great gift for Arthur Hammerstein?

Oh heck, wouldn’t it be great to also give Otto Harbach a blue cat while she was at it? All she had to do was dunk her kitties in the blue water, just like her stockings…

A Brief History of Margaret Owen’s Neighborhood

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Margaret Owen lived with Lilly and Otto at 75 West 50th Street, which would have been just to the left out of sight (this 1931 photo shows #1 to #71, right to left). All of these brownstone and brick apartments on the north side of West 50th Street were purchased and torn down in the year this photo was taken. In the background is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. New York Public Library digital collections 

This story takes place in Margaret’s apartment building at the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street. This part of Manhattan was the site of the 18th-century Hopper Farm, aka, The Great Kill Farm, a large 300-acre estate that extended from about Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River between 48th and 55th streets. (The Great Kill was a small stream that emptied into the Hudson River at the foot of what is now 42nd Street.)

Hopper Homestead

The Hopper homestead, located near Hopper’s Lane (a diagonal road that ran just west of present-day Broadway between 51st and 53rd Street), was still standing in 1872 when The New York Times wrote about the quaint old house. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Over the years, two large lots of the Hopper estate on the east side of the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) were conveyed to numerous people, starting with John Horn in 1782, followed by his daughter Jemima and her husband Matthew Dikeman (1815), James Meinell (1822), and the New York Dry Dock Company (1843).

In 1859, all of the old Hopper land along Sixth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets was still vacant, save for a few shanties once occupied by the piggeries of Hogtown (the pigs had all been cleared out that year, in what The New York Times called “The Great War on the New York Piggeries”). One such shanty still standing on the very site of Margaret’s apartment was occupied by an Irish hermit named Billy who killed himself in 1860.

hogtownnewyorkThe district of Hogtown extended from 50th Street to 58th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue. This illustration is a view of Sixth Avenue at 56th and 57th streets sometime prior to 1859. Today this is the site of Carnegie Hall, constructed in 1889.  

That year (1859), Joseph D. Beers, who now owned the land on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street, signed a covenant with the Trustees of Columbia College, who owned the adjacent property (what would later be the apartment buildings shown above at #1 to #69).

Under the covenant, the land could only be used for first-class dwelling houses and never for any business purposes. The covenant was supposed to be binding to all persons who owned the land from that day forward.

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The land between Sixth and Fifth Avenue and 50th and 51st Street was still vacant — save for one building near Fifth Avenue — when the Dripps map was created in 1867. 

In February 1871, Joseph Beers conveyed his land to Anna M. Lynch, who built a brownstone with a basement office that was used for a real estate business. The trustees of the college took Mrs. Lynch to court for breaking the covenant, but she ended up selling the property to Thomas Thatcher during the trial.

By this time, the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad had been erected along Sixth Avenue and many businesses were in the area, so the case was dismissed. Shortly thereafter, the block was filled with four- and five-story brownstone and brick apartment buildings like the one where Margaret lived with her Angora cats.

Back to Lilly and Otto…

I know you’re dying to know what happened to the blue-dyed cats, so stay tuned for Part II of this crazy cat story. Meow.

 

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The 65-acre Cortelyou farm and homestead where part of this story takes place was located on the Fresh Kills Road (now Arthur Kill Road) near the intersection of present-day Cortelyou Avenue. This oil painting was painted in 1843 by Jasper F. Cropsey, a relative of the Cortelyou family. Cropsey was born on a farm in Rossville, Staten Island. He worked as an architect, and also owned 100 acres of land in my hometown of Warwick, New York, where he became a well-known Hudson River School painter. 

In January 1896, the tiny hamlet of Greenridge, Staten Island, was all a buzz over the reported sighting of a large, ferocious black bear. Doors were closed and barred at dusk, and guns and pistols were cleaned and loaded.

All those men who loved to tell their tall tales of bravery were oddly reluctant to venture alone over the country roads from Rossville to Richmond — even during daylight hours.

The story of the bear sighting originated with Greenridge resident David H. Cortelyou, a former Civil War veteran and army captain who owned a large farm and homestead on the Fresh Kills Road (today’s Arthur Kill Road). Many people had heard his war stories of valor, so they didn’t bother to question his tall tale about the large black bear.

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The hamlet of Greenridge and the small fishing village of Giffords-by-Sea (now Great Kills), is shown here (top and bottom center) on this 1907 map be E. Robinson. NYPL digital collections

As the story goes, it was David’s 18-year-old son, Stephen, who first came upon the bear while walking along the road one night near the house. Stephen told his father that he had heard a strange noise in the woods; a moment later, a large dark animal emerged and ran after him, making a sound between a grunt and a bark. Maybe that was the first clue…

Grabbing their loaded shotguns and revolvers, David and his son went back outside and fired a few shots into the bushes. No animal appeared, so they went back indoors.

The next night, John Mahoney, the Cortelyou’s hired man, fired two shots at what he also thought was a bear. Again, no bear — or any other animal, for that matter — emerged from the woods.

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The Cortelyou family owned land on either side of Fresh Kills Road, as shown on this 1874 map. In 1880, George W. White purchased the 240-acre Underhill farm adjacent to the Cortelyou farm. This farm was at one time the home of Judge Benjamin Seaman (1719-1785), a Loyalist and the last Colonial judge of Staten Island. J.S. Underhill was probably a descendant of Benjamin’s sister Elizabeth and her husband, Amos Underhill. (Seaside Avenue, center, is today’s Richmond Avenue.)

During the course of the week, rumors quickly spread of people having seen the bear in their barns or near their houses. For several days, hunting parties scoured the woods for miles around in search of the elusive wild creature.

Over at James Carroll’s hotel for fishermen at Giffords-by-the-Sea, the bear was also a hot topic. On January 15, a band of men gathered at the hotel and pledged to catch it. In the party were Carroll; David Cortelyou; Tom Williams (aka The Cat); Eden Nolan, the sporting blacksmith of Greenridge; Tom Hogan; Tom Monaghan Tom Kenney; Gabe Gile; Bill King, the noted fox hunter of Richmond; and several other sporting men.

The brave men spent an hour loading their guns and revolvers, and discussing plans for the hunt. Reaching the Cortelyou’s house just before dark, the party made their way through the snow in the bushes where the bear had last been seen.

Just a few minutes into the hunt, the men heard a muffled growl coming from the vicinity of George White’s farm. Williams climbed up a tree and another man fell onto his back and started kicking and screaming. Monaghan barricade himself against the fence and covered his head with his coat.

The other men ran down the road, leaving Cortelyou, Carroll, and King alone to face the ferocious creature…

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Here’s the Cortelyou homestead sometime around 1900. If you look at the Cropsey painting above, you’ll see the house on the far left. The property remained in the family until about 1906, when it was purchased by the South New York Villa Site Co. for a prospective housing subdivision. Today, much of the site is occupied by a shopping center. 

The Cortelyou Family

The Cortelyou family of Staten Island and Long Island (also spelled Corteleau) have a long history in New York, dating back to 1652, when Jacques Cortelyou, a French Huguenot surveyor, arrived in America. In 1657, Jacques laid out the town of New Utrecht (Brooklyn) into 20 lots of 50 acres each, one of which he made his home, where he lived with his wife and four sons.

The first Staten Island Cortelyou of record was Jacques’s son Jacques Jr. He and his wife Jaccmynytie (Jemima) VanPelt had two children: a daughter, Deborah, born in 1720, and a son, Aaron, born in 1726. Aaron’s son Peter, born in 1768, and his wife, Emma Hillier, were the parents of Lawrence Hillier Cortelyou, who was born in 1802 in the house pictured above.

Lawrence Cortelyou was a grocer, farmer, and a county judge in New York, and one of the founders of the Richmond County Mutual Insurance Company. In addition to the farm at Greenridge, Lawrence owned the old Henry Seaman cottage at 218 Center Street in Richmondtown, now preserved and on display in Historic Richmond Town.

Lawrence Cortelyou died in the farmhouse in September 1884. His son David Heckle Cortelyou, born in 1849, took over the farm while still maintaining a residence on Manor Road in West New Brighton.

David Cortelyou was a Civil War veteran, having enlisted in the New York 6th Calvary (Company E) in 1861 and reaching the rank of major. He also served as a second lieutenant in the regular army at Kinney, Texas, where he was involved in several battles with the Native Americans. David retired from the army with honors in 1873 and returned to Staten Island, where he worked as a county clerk, the secretary of the Richmond County Mutual Insurance Company, and a part-time bear hunter.

Back to the Bear Hunt at the White Farm…

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Here’s a photo of George White’s farm at 814 Arthur Kill Road in 1924. The French Church, established between 1683 and 1698, once stood on this property in front of the large dairy building (there are reportedly still a few dilapidated gravestones on the spot).   

With guns in hand, Cortelyou, Carroll, and King pushed through the bushes and made their way toward the White farm. There, at the base of rock, they found one of George’s St. Bernard dogs. Apparently the dog had trailed some small animal to its nest under the rock and had been digging at the dirt to get at it.

The strange muffled growl the men had heard was not a bear, but the dog with its head in the hole.

newdorpmoravianchurchDavid Cortelyou died on June 8, 1912, and is buried with his family in the Moravian Church cemetery in New Dorp. Organized in 1763, the Moravian Church is the second-oldest church on Staten Island, preceded by St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Richmondtown.  The present church, built in 1837, was designed by Jasper Cropsey. The building was modified in the 1950s, which is when the bell tower was replaced with the present steeple. 

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Here’s an aerial “Google Earth” view of the site of the old White and Cortelyou farms on Arthur Kill Road. Amazingly, much of the land on the north side of the road still remains vacant, and is probably very close to what it looked like 150 years ago during the great Greenridge bear hunt.

CortelyouSite.jpgThis old structure at the intersection of Arthur Kill Road and Cortelyou Avenue is right about on the spot of the old Cortelyou farmhouse. A housing development and strip mall occupy the rest of the old farm on the south side of the road (as seen above).