169 West 64th Street
B&W NYC Tax Photo of 169 West 64th Street

View of 169 West 64th Street from south, Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive

169 West 64th Street

by Tom Miller

On March 25, 1887, architect A. Spence filed plans for a group of seven buildings in the San Juan Hill district for developer H. W. Smith.  Six were private dwellings, while one was to be a five-story tenement building.  (The term tenement referred to any multi-family structure at the time.)  Spence projected the cost to erect the tenement at $20,000 (equal to about $635,000 in 2024).

Completed before the year’s end, 169 West 64th Street was a grab bag of styles.  Spence drew on Ruskinian Gothic for the first, second, and fourth floors.  Atop the stoop, a stone portico with Gothic arches upheld by medieval-style columns sheltered the entrance.  The windows of the first, second, and fourth floors wore rough-cut voussoirs and transoms of stained glass.  The third-floor openings were given Renaissance Revival lintels and portrait keystones, while the fifth floor was designed in the new neo-Grec style, a single-stone lintel connecting all the openings.  Termed a double-flat, the building held two apartments per floor.

While much of the San Juan Hill neighborhood was home to residents who struggled financially, 169 West 64th Street was filled with middle-class residents.  Among the early tenants was Charles A. Downer, who taught in the Boys’ Department of Grammar School No. 55 on West 20th Street.  Another was Jason Hinman, an 1885 graduate of Amherst College and former instructor at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.  In 1893, he became Chief Assistant of the city’s Criminal Division.  He and his wife were at the Sea Girt Hotel in Asbury Park on July 25, 1897, when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Just as she lifted a scuttle of coal to the open furnace door, a backdraft blew flames out, which caught her clothing on fire. 

The family of Cecil Hartley lived here by 1895.  Son Bernard C. attended the Free Academy of the City of New York that year, and in 1902, his brother John H. Hartley would enroll there.  The differences between the financial status of tenants of 169 West 64th Street and many other San Juan Hill residents were reflected that year when the boys’ mother donated new pieces of goods to The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.

Joseph Stephenbush and his wife Christiana lived in the basement apartment.  Joseph was the building’s janitor and Christiana helped in the running of the building.  Just before 9:00 pm on the cold night of February 26, 1900, Joseph headed for the rear of the basement to add coal to the furnace.  The New-York Tribune reported, “His wife stopped him, saying she would fix the fire for the night.”  Joseph returned to their rooms while Christina continued to the back.  Just as she lifted a scuttle of coal to the open furnace door, a backdraft blew flames out, which caught her clothing on fire.  The article said, “She ran into the room where her husband was sitting, and he tried to tear her clothing from her body.”

Panicked, and with her clothing still blazing, Christiana ran to another room.  When Lieutenant Hauck of Engine Company No. 40 entered the apartment, he found Christiana’s charred body in that room.  In trying to tear the clothing from his wife, Joseph’s hands and arms were severely burned.  He was taken to a hospital for treatment.

Unlike much of San Juan Hill, only two immigrant families were at 169 West 64th Street in 1900.  They came from England and Switzerland rather than the more expected Germany, Ireland, Italy, or Puerto Rico.

Resident David H. Blair partnered with his brother Walter in May 1907 to form the commission brokerage firm of Blair Bros.  With offices at 20 Broad Street, they transacted business in the Consolidated Stock Exchange.  In September 1912, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle commented, “This firm did considerable business on the exchange.”

William H. Friedman was hired by the city as a junior assistant in the drafting and engineering department on May 25, 1914.  His salary was $901, or about $27,400 today.  The following year, he passed the civil service test for a position as a topographical draftsman.  When he was promoted to junior engineer in 1917, his salary was increased to $1,350.

Another tragedy occurred here on July 23, 1917.  The Evening Telegram reported succinctly, “Pitching from the window of the fifth floor of No. 169 West Sixty-fourth street this afternoon while hanging out clothes. Miss Josephine Staub, forty-five years old was instantly killed.”

As the Great Depression tightened its grip on America, the demographics of 169 West 64th Street changed.  In 1930, nine of the eleven families living here were immigrants, hailing from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Spain, Cuba, Chile, and Canada.  Little by little, the respectability of the residents changed, as well.

The pair came up with an ingenious plan to rob the baths and its patrons that year.

Sharing an apartment in 1943 were 21-year-old Vernon Jackson and 27-year-old George Panistky, alias George Penn.  Both worked in the Everard Baths on West 28th Street.  The pair came up with an ingenious plan to rob the baths and its patrons that year.  Early on the morning of December 26, William Riley, Jr. charged into the establishment, flashing a revolver (it had been supplied by Panitsky).  He “overcame” Panistky and pretended to kidnap Jackson. 

Investigators tracked Riley and Jackson to Newburgh, New York, where Sergeant Howard Stanton of the Newburgh detective squad took up the case.  He traced Riley to Liberty, New York, where State Troopers arrested him “and the hoax was exposed,” as worded by the Peekskill, New York Evening Star.  Riley had $661 on him when arrested and police found $1,365 in cash in the rear compartment of Jackson’s car, “together with three watches and a revolver.”  When Panitsky was arrested, he had another $117 in cash on him.  The men were charged with robbery, grand larceny, and violation of the Sullivan Law.  (The Sullivan Act was a gun control law enacted in 1911.)

When musician Arnold Fromme lived here in 1959, the end of the line for 169 West 64th Street and the neighboring buildings on the block was near.  They were demolished in 1961 to make way for the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art.

Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com

Let's Keep in Touch!

Let's Keep in Touch!

Want the latest news?
Care to share about something in the neighborhood?
Be the first to hear about upcoming events?

Join the LW! email list!

You're Subscribed!

Share This