242-244 West 61st Street
B&W NYC Tax Photo of 242-244 West 61st Street

View of 242-244 West 61st Street from north east, Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive

242-244 West 61st Street

by Tom Miller

In July 1895, the architectural firm of Webster & Thompson filed plans for five, “five-story brick and stone flats” along the south side of 61st Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues (later Amsterdam and West End Avenues, respectively).  Each of the buildings would cost developer John B. Smith $16,000, or about $575,000 in 2024.

The San Juan Hill neighborhood was ethnically diverse, and while most of the apartment houses in the area were racially segregated, 242 and 244 West 61st Street seem to have been mixed from the start.  Like much of the district’s population, several of the initial tenants here–both black and white–were on the wrong side of the law.

On November 15, 1896, The New York Press reported, “Johnnie May, who is 15 years old, got a position as errand boy in Spielman’s dry goods commission house at No. 83 Grand street a week ago. He was bright and obliging, and made such a good impression on his employers that on last Thursday they gave him a twenty-dollar bill and sent him to the Post Office to invest it in stamps.  It proved to be a case of misplaced confidence, for Johnnie failed to return.”  Detectives came to 242 West 61st Street and knocked on his parents’ door, but the teen was not home.  And so they waited a full day, keeping watch on the entrance.  As soon as he arrived home the next night, he was arrested.

The New York Press related, “He had been having a good time and every cent of the money had been spent.  Some of it had gone in theatre tickets and the rest of it in lodging and good things to eat.”  While he awaited trial, Johnnie was held at the home of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. 

Women and girls worked to augment the families’ finances.  That was exemplified by an advertisement in The New York Times on October 5, 1896.  “Housework—By mother and daughter (18) to do entire work of small family.  Collins, 244 West 61st St.”

The Collins family received new neighbors that year.  Nathan Levy was employed in the Eastman wholesale butcher business on West 59th Street.  He and his wife, Sophia, had two children.  They moved into 244 West 61st Street in October, hoping to escape a problem.

according to The World, “Levy parted most affectionately from his wife…Then Mrs. Levy dosed herself with arsenic.”

The Levys had lived in a flat at 238 West 60th Street and took in a boarder whose wife and children were still in Germany.  At some point, the boarder began an affair with Sophia Levy.  The World reported, “Levy first asked him why he did not import his own wife instead of paying attentions to Mrs. Levy.  Then he kicked out the boarder.  Next he moved his family to No. 244 West Sixty-first street.”  The New York Herald said, “In their new home, Levy tried to do everything to make his wife and children happy.”  The plan failed.  According to The World, the former boarder “loafed outside the house, looking up at Mrs. Levy’s windows.”

Remorse and the constant presence of her former lover on the street outside was too much for the 33-year-old Sophia.  On the morning of October 19, according to The World, “Levy parted most affectionately from his wife…Then Mrs. Levy dosed herself with arsenic.”  Luckily, before it was too late, Sophia rethought her actions and ran to a drugstore.  She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, and “after an hour’s work,” according to the New York Herald, “she was declared to be out of danger.”

Two other tragedies befell tenants of 242 East 61st Street that year.  Julius Diedricksen was the son of Christopher Diedricksen, a picture frame dealer.  The eight-year-old went to play with another boy at the foot of West 59th Street on August 25.  The Sun reported, “While the two boys were amusing themselves by jumping from the pier to the railroad float Pontiac, little Diedricksen fell overboard. His companion became frightened and ran away.”  An Italian immigrant who was fishing nearby did nothing to help. 

Finally, a group of boys on the other side of the pier heard Diedricksen flailing in the water.  They dived into the river and “found young Diedricksen’s body tangled in the Italian’s fishing lines.  Then, the crowd on the dock punched the Italian.  He ran away, followed by the crowd, who threw stones at him.”  The dead boy’s body was first taken to the West 68th Street police station, then brought to his parents’ apartment here.

Later that year, on December 19, six-year-old John Goodwin traded a “number of buttons” for a firearm cartridge.  He took it home and dropped it on the stove.  The cartridge exploded and, according to The Sun, “The bullet struck the boy to the mouth and tore away part of his upper lip and nostril.  He was taken to Roosevelt Hospital.”

John Keenan lived at 244 West 61st Street in 1899 when he visited the apartment of Frederick Fritz at 240 West 61st Street, just two doors away, on July 15.  Also there that night were Edward Curran (who lived in the same building as Fritz) and two young women.  Things got ugly when, after the young men had been drinking, a fight broke out.  Edward Curran was put out of the apartment. The Sun reported, “Ten minutes later the young woman saw him climbing up the fire escape to get into the room.  He was carrying a knife in his teeth.”  Fritz struggled with him on the fire escape, and both fell to the ground.  Chaos followed.

Curren ran to his apartment and slammed the door.  Fritz tried to kick in the door, after which Curran and his father, Patrick, “rushed from the rooms and attacked Fritz.”  Somehow or other, Keenan, who “had a weapon,” became involved as well.  The Sun reported, “There was a hard battle in the hall and the two young women ran to Fritz’s assistant.  The arrival of three policemen put an end to the fight.”  Frederick Fritz, who was 22, got the worst of it.  He was taken to Roosevelt Hospital at midnight, “suffering from three stab wounds that looked as if they had been made with the tines of a big fork.”  The Currens and Keenan were arrested.

Henry Johnston came to a violent end on December 18, 1900.  He was described by the Daily Eagle that day as “the negro who was shot last night by Watchman Charles Fromm.”  Fromm had caught Johnston trying to break into the Sajum & Keahelran showrooms at 15 East 17th Street at 5:00 that morning.  The article said, “Shortly before Johnston died he told Detectives Lookwood and flyers [i.e., searchers] of the West Thirtieth street station that they would find some stolen goods at 242 West Sixty-first street.  The detectives went there and found twenty-five pieces of Indian embroidery and a dozen silk shirt waists that had been stolen from 15 West Seventeenth Street.”

In the summer of 1905, Philip Watkins lived at 244 West 61st Street.  According to Ella Johnson, who lived at 237 West 77th Street, she was walking along Amsterdam Avenue on June 30 when “Watkins grabbed her purse and disappeared with it,” as reported by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  Two days later, Detectives Phelen and Wall showed up to arrest him.  However, Watkins spotted them before they entered the building and ran to the roof.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, “Once on the roof, a merry chase began.  Watkins was fleet of foot and daring, and he leaped from one roof to another, going at the top of his speed, although some of the houses are four and five feet apart.”  Eventually, of course, Watkins ran out of buildings when he reached the end of the block.  “The two detectives grabbed him, and there was a rough and tumble struggle on the roof, the three at times rolling perilously near the edge.  Finally, the negro was clubbed into submission and locked up.” 

“Once on the roof, a merry chase began.  Watkins was fleet of foot and daring, and he leaped from one roof to another, going at the top of his speed, although some of the houses are four and five feet apart.”

Josephine Barrett, who worked in a laundry in Long Island City, found herself behind bars on June 31, 1925.  The following day, the Queens, New York Daily Star explained, “Because Josephine Barnett, negress, 242 West Sixty-first street, Manhattan, let her anger get the best of her while working…and because she wound up and punched Victoria Johnson in the mouth and kicked her in the shins, she was sentenced to ten days in the work house.”  The Brooklyn Daily Star added that the conflict arose “over their prowess in their forms of employment.”

By 1937, only 242 and 244 West 61st Street remained of the five original tenements.  An overgrown yard occupied the site next to No. 242.  The desperate and sometimes dangerous conditions of San Juan Hill were evidenced there on July 28 that year.  Delbert Calburn, who lived at 244 West 61st Street, went into the lot looking for firewood.  Horrifically, he noticed a human foot protruding from a fire set by a homeless man.

The New York Age reported, “Dying embers of a hoboe’s fire on West 61st street last Sunday were found to conceal the mutilated and charred remains of a murder victim.”  The victim had been bludgeoned to death, and his limbs were removed with a butcher’s saw.  “The remains had apparently been enclosed in a sack and thrown into the fire which burned in a vacant lot between 234 and 242 West 61st Street,” said the article.  The medical examiner described the deceased as a black man between 25 and 30 years of age.  The New York Age said detectives had begun “an immediate canvas of the neighboring colored population and of hoboes who frequent the lot in an effort to identify the victim.”

By the time Jose Saxon lived at 244 West 61st Street in 1964, the San Juan Hill neighborhood was already experiencing drastic change.  The target of a massive urban renewal project, blocks of structures were being demolished.  One of the reasons for the proposed eradication of the district was reflected in Saxon’s arrest that year for burglary with two others.  The New York Times said on November 12, 1964, “The police said the three men were all narcotics users and needed money to support their habit.”

Surprisingly, 242 and 244 West 61st Street were not razed.  In 2009, they were joined internally, and all hints of their 1895 brownstone facades were eliminated.  The bland countenance of the merged structures hides the dramatic stories that played out within their walls.

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

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