209 West 64th Street
B&W NYC Tax Photo of 209 West 64th Street

View of 209 West 64th Street from south east, Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive

209 West 64th Street

by Tom Miller

In 1884, the Upper West Side was being developed as a new, high-end district of Manhattan—all of it except for the San Juan Hill neighborhood, where tenements and ramshackle buildings were populated by a distinctively less affluent class.  That year, Michael Egner began construction of a five-story tenement house at 209 West 64th Street, just east of Amsterdam Avenue.  Designed by C. F. Ridder, Jr. in the neo-Grec style, its brick façade was trimmed in brownstone.  Following the common tenement house layout, the first-floor entrance was centered above a short stoop.  Ridder’s plans estimated the cost of construction at $14,000 (about $431,000 in 2023).

Although he owned several Manhattan properties, Michael Egner and his wife Julia were apparently not well-to-do, and were perhaps the first residents of his new building.  While the population of San Juan Hill was a mixture of Blacks, Hispanics and whites (the latter mostly immigrants), like the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood to the south, the races were strictly segregated, and 298 West 64th Street was an all-white building.

Along with the Egners, the Gaffney family, who lived on the third floor, were original residents.  John F. Gaffney worked as a recording clerk for the city, earning “five cents per folio” in 1889.  The rigors of life in San Juan Hill were evidenced on July 21, 1892, when John’s wife, 31-year-old Kate Gaffney, threw herself from their apartment window at 3:30 in the morning.  The coroner reported, “She was instantly killed.  The cause of the suicide is not known.”

like the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood to the south, the races were strictly segregated 

A native of Ireland, Michael Egner raised pigeons on the roof of 209 West 64th Street.  On Sunday morning, March 22, 1896, he walked onto the roof to find three boys robbing his pigeon cote.  The New York World reported that they were “let go with a lecture.”  Egner’s leniency did not pay off.  Five days later, the newspaper reported that the same boys “were arrested last night while in the act of carrying off two fowls from the coop of August Kempner, at No. 315 on the same street.”  The boys, aged 10 through 12, said that Big Johnnie Norris had promised them 50 cents for stealing the birds.  The boys were turned over to the Gerry Society (a.k.a. the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), and a detective went looking for Big Johnnie.

At the turn of the century, of the 14 families living at 209 West 64th Street, nine were immigrants.  Among them was the Italian Gordano family.  Their apartment was the scene of a wedding on the night of January 5, 1902.  Joy and revelry turned to tragedy before the night was done.  The New York Sun reported that Pietro Gordano, who was seven years old, “got a seat at the wedding table, and in some way managed to get hold of a quart bottle of Italian wine, a little more than half full, and to drink most of it.”  The boy died in Roosevelt Hospital two days later.

On November 17 that year, Julie Egner died in the couple’s apartment.  Michael would continue to live there until his own death in 1911, after which his estate sold his properties, including 209 West 64th Street.

In the meantime, The McCarthy family suffered an unspeakable tragedy in the fall of 1905.  James McCarthy worked as a laborer on the elevated railroad.  Living with him and his wife were their two adult children, Mary, who worked in a cap factory; and James Jr.  On the afternoon of November 22, Mary, who was 24 years old, climbed the stairs to the elevated train at Columbus Avenue and 66th Street.  When the approaching train was about 12 feet away, she jumped onto the tracks and went to her knees “in an attitude of prayer,” according to the New-York Tribune.  Understandably, the motorman could not stop the train in time, and Mary’s body was hideously mangled.  The Midland Journal of Rising Sun, Maryland, noted, “Several women among those who were on the platform fainted.”

Not wanting to unduly traumatize the family, Patrolman McKeon went to the McCarthy apartment and asked James Jr. to accompany him to the station house, where his sister was feeling ill.  Once there, he was told the truth so he could break it to his parents as gently as possible.

He had commandeered the automobile of L. P. McNamara, who also became an unwilling participant in the madcap car chase.

Fred Weiland, who owned and ran a taxicab, lived here in 1913.  He gave four passengers an unexpected wild ride on the night of September 1.  Thomas Nickson stepped off the curb in front of the Hotel Marie Antoinette at Broadway and 67th Street and was hit by Weiland.  The 60-year-old suffered a concussion and a broken leg.  But rather than stop, Weiland attempted to escape with his passengers in the back seat.  A furious chase ensued as Moses Feltenstein, who had witnessed the hit-and-run, ordered his chauffeur to pursue the taxi.  “Close behind the Feltenstein auto was Policeman O’Flaherty of the West Sixty-eighth Street Station,” reported The New York Times.  He had commandeered the automobile of L. P. McNamara, who also became an unwilling participant in the madcap car chase.  Finally, Feltenstein’s chauffeur managed to force Weiland’s cab against the curb.  When Officer O’Flaherty caught up, Weiland’s passengers “had escaped,” said the article.  Wieland was arrested on a charge of felonious assault.

The residents of 209 West 64th Street worked—whether they were male or female.  An advertisement in the New York Herald on October 14, 1921, read, “Intelligent woman wishes work in an apartment house.  M. R.  209 West 64th.”

By mid-century, the demographics of the building had changed.  Of the 19 families living here that year, only five were immigrants.  And unlike the original families, who came from Germany and Ireland, these hailed from Greece, Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico and Austria.

Michael Egner’s tenement house survived until 1984, when it and surrounding buildings were demolished to make way for the Fiorella La Guardia High School of Music and Art.

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

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