It’s finally feeling like winter, for now at least, and right on cue I’m starting to think of all the winter promises I like to make myself that I know I can never really keep. Let’s see, besides the endless books and movies and albums to digest I’d really love to try to read the New York City Charter from start to finish, and the Multiple Dwelling Law as well. (Incidentally, isn’t it crazy that we write laws to govern our society and then need an entire profession to actually understand them? That’s gotta be intentional, right?) Also, I’d like to watch whatever movie is showing on the broadcast television movie channel (WNYWDT2), from start to finish, every couple of nights. That’s gotta be worth something.
I know, I know, it’s never gonna happen (damn other things!). But hey, that’s kind of a recurring theme of this blog in general, isn’t it? The endless tangents I can’t ever hope to explore; the overlapitude of life; my own personal attempt to be Wikipedia; shamelessly linking to old posts all the time. Well, what else? I suppose another winter promise of course is to write more about all the places I noticed in those warmer more carefree days. I think I can keep that one at least (as long as there’s nothing good on the movie channel). Like the old Captain Joseph Rose House on Water and Dover Streets (273 Water Street to be exact), in the South Street Seaport Historic District. Why don’t I start there?
Because it turns out that it’s a doozy. It’s not just that it’s the third oldest extant building in Manhattan (though it is! – after the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Saint Paul’s Chapel), but that its narrative arc so closely resembles that of the city in general. As the name implies, the house was constructed as the family home of Joseph Rose, perhaps as early as 1773 but no later than 1781. Rose was a sea captain and merchant, trading specifically in Honduran mahogany (the only kind of mahogany I ever buy). At the time of construction, Water Street – itself essentially landfill added to the original shoreline of Pearl Street – ran right along the East River and Captain Rose could park his ship, the Industry, on his shared pier right out back. His neighbors were mainly merchants as well, back when this area was kind of a live/work residential neighborhood (as most neighborhoods back then were), though the size and fashion of his house spoke to Rose’s success. He would move to Pearl Street in 1791, passing on the Water Street property to his son.
I’m not sure how long his son stayed put exactly, but by the early 19th century the first floor had been converted into commercial use, befitting the changing character of the neighborhood (and the city in general) as merchants, artisans and anyone else of that class moved away from living and working in the same location. Incidentally, one outcome of this separation of work from the residential household was the beginning of “bad” neighborhoods. Before you tended to have a mixture of classes (master, apprentice, servant) all living in the same vicinity, if not building; with the end of that came the sorting of classes into physically separate neighborhoods. By the mid-19th century (if not sooner) Water Street and the surrounding area had become a poor one, as was true of most of the city’s water-front neighborhoods.
It’s reputation probably wasn’t helped any when the old Rose House was bought by Christopher Keyburn in 1863 and turned into “Sportsmen’s Hall.” Keyburn, better known as Kit Burns, and even better known as one of the last known leaders of the Dead Rabbits gang, was a saloon keeper and “sportsmen,” and his hall offered drinking, dancing, gambling, bare knuckle boxing, and – most famously of all – dog and rat fights. The center of the tavern was an 8 foot wide “rat pit,” surrounded by tiered benches for the crowd; for the main attraction burlap bags of wharf rats would be released into the pit, with bets made as to how quickly a dog could kill 100 of them. (The record, apparently, was under 6 minutes, set by Burn’s prize terrier Jack. He was stuffed upon his death and given pride of place above Burn’s bar). Another star attraction was Jack the Rat, Burn’s son-in-law, who for a dime would bite the head off a live mouse. For a quarter he’d do the same with a rat. (Don’t give him a dollar.)
So yeah, they knew how to party back then. But like all good ones it couldn’t last. Sportsmen’s Hall was closed down in 1870 after an intense campaign by Henry Bergh, founder of the newly created American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (though apparently Burns simply opened a new “rat-pit” further down Water Street; he would die, at age 39, that same year). The old Rose House was leased to the more respectable Methodist Church instead, as a home for “fallen women.” After a fire in 1904 the building was turned into a warehouse, until another fire in 1974 gutted the place, leaving it essentially a roofless facade. The city would seize the property two years later for back taxes, as they were doing on a massive scale back then across the boroughs.
They held it for over two decades, until 1997, when it was sold for $1 and a 14 year tax abatement to the Sciame Development Company. Using photographs and historical records the company spent over a million dollars restoring the building to something like it’s original appearance and today, of course, its four units could command prices well over a million dollars apiece. As always with these buildings that have been gutted and then rebuilt I’ve got to wonder, is it really fair to call this the third oldest building in Manhattan? Isn’t it really the third oldest wall? I’ve asked this kind of question before I think. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s cool; it’s a good wall. I would have bought it for a dollar.