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The Forgotten Developer Who Transformed 19th-Century NYC

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James Nevius is the author of three books about New York City, the most recent of which is Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.

A century and a half from now, when housing historians of the 22nd century look back at the New York of today, who will be remembered—the starchitects of luxury high rises, like Robert A.M. Stern and Frank Gehry? Or the developers like Bruce Ratner and Donald Trump?

Let's hope all of them fare better than Thomas E. Davis, one of the most prolific New York City real estate developers of the nineteenth century, whose name is so forgotten today that we aren't even sure how it's spelled. While nearly every modern document renders his last name Davis, many contemporary sources call him Thomas E. Davies. He was, by some reports, the third largest individual landowner in New York, after John Jacob Astor and department-store mogul A.T. Stewart. Yet while Astor's name is renowned and Stewart's is familiar to those who study the period, Thomas E. Davis and his contributions to the city—including St. Mark's Place in the East Village and the New Brighton section of Staten Island—have all but faded away.

Little is known of Davis's early life. According to census records, he was born in 1795 in England, but we know nothing of his childhood—or even when he came to America. He first settled in New Brunswick, New Jersey. According to a brief biographical sketch in The Old Merchants of New York City (1863), he intended to make money in New Jersey by "engaging in the distillery business, but did not make out very well." Perhaps he was also an attorney—in some documents he is styled as "Thomas E. Davis, Esq."—but a search of available court and newspaper records shows him only as a litigant, a defendant, and a participant in foreclosure auctions (on both sides of the aisle), never as a member of the bar. By 1827 he was buying and selling property in New Brunswick, and he may have been purchasing real estate in New York even earlier: one New York Evening Post article from 1833 notes that Davis had purchased a lot on Seventh Street in 1818. If that's true, he would have been among the first people to realize the value of properties on the newly gridded—but not yet built—streets of the East Village.

St. John's Square. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

It took a full two decades after the publication of John Randel, Jr.'s comprehensive Manhattan street grid before there was a big push of downtown residents moving out of the city—the northern border of which, in those days, was considered Worth Street. Real estate developers put together rows of townhouses—known as terraces—specifically to appeal to the wealthy who were moving uptown. While not strictly speaking a terrace, the first development of note was St. John's Square near Canal Street. Built as Hudson Square by Trinity Church in 1803, the idea was that rich New Yorkers would lease the lots surrounding the square from the parish and create an upscale enclave (much like the future Gramercy Park). In 1807, Trinity erected St. John's Chapel on the eastern side of the square as an added incentive—and as a not-so-subtle reminder that the city's richest citizens were primarily Episcopalians. At first, St. John's Square wasn't successful, in part because Trinity insisted on 99-year ground leases on the lots. However, as it became more fashionable to move uptown by the mid-1820s, St. John's switched from leasing land to selling it outright, and the square was quickly de rigueur. By 1831, developers like John Jacob Astor, Samuel Ruggles, and Thomas E. Davis were poised to take advantage of the skyrocketing demand for homes "above Bleecker"—a term Davis coined for the rapidly expanding neighborhood.

We don't know when Davis moved from New Jersey to Manhattan—probably in 1830, when the Evening Post was advertising that he had unclaimed mail at the general post office. The next year, he purchased from the Stuyvesant family the entire block of Eighth Street between Second and Third Avenues, which had only been opened up by the city five years earlier. He dubbed it St. Mark's Place in honor of the nearby St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, built in the late eighteenth century on the spot of Peter Stuyvesant's family chapel. New developments often distinguished themselves by changing to a "vanity" address—a la One Bryant Park—and old New York was littered with "places" and "terraces," most of which are now as gone as the townhouses the once lined them.

One of the defining characteristics of the Manhattan street grid was the uniformity of house lots: 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. By purchasing an entire block, Davis was able to create larger lots (26 x 120 feet) hoping to draw a wealthier crowd. By 1832, the first houses in the development were finished: elegant, three-story federal homes set back eight feet from the lot line. Today, six of Davis's original homes remain, none in a particularly good state of repair—Nos. 4, 20, and 25 St. Mark's are still individual buildings, while Nos. 19-23 were joined together to become Arlington Hall, a social club that later morphed into the Dom and the home of the Electric Circus. The most intact (and most famous) home is No. 4, the "Hamilton-Holly" house (right). If the story of No. 4 is typical, it's clear that Davis knew how to cut a deal. In February 1832, Davis sold the house and the two adjoining properties to Samuel Rogers for $56,000 (somewhere in the range of $1.5 million today), but just a year later he bought them back for just $46,000—a $10,000 profit.

Perhaps it was that $10,000 that allowed Davis to be magnanimous toward Eliza Hamilton, widow of slain former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. In November 1833, Davis sold No. 4 to her son, so that he and his mother could move from remote Harlem to the burgeoning center of high society. Davis, having just bought the house back from Samuel Rogers for approximately $15,333 (one third of $46,000), sold it to the Hamiltons for $15,500—on paper a very modest profit. However, it was really no profit at all. To make the deal happen, Davis simultaneously purchased from the Hamiltons the famous Hamilton Grange in Harlem for $25,000, which ate up nearly his entire profit from the Samuel Rogers deal.

The nicest home Davis built along St. Mark's Place was No. 37 (now demolished) at the corner of Second Avenue. Fronting 40 feet along St. Mark's, with a grand central stair, the house was described in 1835 (when it was for sale at auction) as featuring "highly finished mahogany sliding doors." The fireplace mantels were "of the purest white marble, and remarkably beautiful," and an observatory on top of the house commanded "an extensive view." Davis sold the home to a "Mr. Kane" (probably Oliver Kane), who in 1835 resold it to Charles Graham, an associate of Davis's, for $35,000. In the 1840s, it was purchased by Eugene Keteltas, and the home remained in his family until 1912, when it was torn down for a movie theater.

At the same time that Davis was developing St. Mark's, he was also creating a similar terrace on the block of Bleecker Street between Laurens Street (present-day LaGuardia Place) and Thompson Street. Named Carroll Place after Charles Carroll, the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence, the row was the first of three housing developments that sprung up along Bleecker Street in the 1830s. The other two, DePau Row and LeRoy Place, are both gone. This is particularly a shame in the case of DePau Row—a set of six houses on the block between Thompson and Sullivan Street—which evidently had connecting doors between the parlors of every house, meaning that for a party, the doors could be opened to create a gigantic, block-long ballroom. However, a few remnants of Davis's Carroll Place still stand: Nos. 144 and 146 Bleecker Street on the south side of the street, and Nos. 145-149 on the north side. Like the Davis homes remaining on St. Mark's Place, none of these Carroll Place buildings are in great shape. For years, Nos. 144-146 housed Mori, a famous Italian restaurant. The facades were joined together in the 1920s by famed architect Raymond Hood (later senior architect of Rockefeller Center) in exchange for an apartment above the restaurant. On the other side of the street, the Bitter End and Terra Blues are both located in Davis townhouses. In 1833, the Terra Blues building was the home of great American author James Fenimore Cooper. Interestingly, Cooper only lasted a brief while on Carroll Place before moving to a Davis house at 6 St. Mark's Place, next door to the Hamiltons.

Soon, Davis was expanding his horizons. In 1834 and 1835, he acquired 100 acres on Staten Island, much of it from the estate of former governor and vice president Daniel D. Tompkins. Davis's plan was to create an elegant summer getaway on the north shore, loosely modeled on England's seaside resort of Brighton. Having dubbed the community New Brighton, Davis immediately began construction along Richmond Terrace on five Greek Revival townhouses, each with an impressive Doric colonnade. Nearby, at the corner of St. Peter's Place, Davis built a mansion for himself and his wife, Anne, likely as a summer retreat, but it seems they had little chance to spend time there. In April 1836, probably aware of the impending financial crisis, Davis sold the development to the newly formed New Brighton Association for $600,000—at the time, one of the most expensive real estate transactions in New York history. The Davis mansion was turned into the Pavilion Hotel, which—until it burned down in 1883—was one of the most famous spots on Staten Island. Soon after it opened, a Scottish traveler visited the Pavilion, remarking on its "handsome saloons, with balconies, piazzas, &c. on all sides, and a look-out place from the summit, from which the prospect is most glorious."

A map of New Brighton. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

Today, the only building left from Davis's brief time at New Brighton is 404 Richmond Terrace, originally the summer home of a Manhattan merchant named Henry P. Robertson. After changing hands many times—being converted into a hotel, back into a private home, and then into a lodge for the Knights of Columbus—in 1965 the building became the catering hall Pavilion on the Terrace, which closed in 2005. Recently purchased, the building's new owners hope to turn it back into a restaurant/banquet hall soon.

Davis's forays into New York City real estate weren't limited to large-scale developments. One standout individual home that Davis built—on speculation, which was almost always the case—is 68 East 7th Street (right), constructed in 1835. Despite a terrible Italianate update in the 1850s, the original Greek Revival detailing is still apparent. Davis also invested in commercial real estate downtown. After the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed much of the Wall Street area, Davis swiftly capitalized on the redevelopment of the Financial District. In 1838, a new building he'd constructed at the corner of Wall and Hanover Streets—advertised as fireproof to lure leery buyers—sold for $223,000 to the North American Trust and Banking Company. This is a remarkable amount considering the financial panic that gripped the city in 1837. One of Davis's earliest investment partners was the banking firm of JL&S Joseph (who were the Rothchilds' representatives in New York). Right before the financial downturn, the Josephs had constructed a new bank on that same corner of Wall and Hanover. One night, right before the financial downturn, the new bank "fell to the ground...with a crash that shook all Wall Street." Maybe it was an omen. Soon, the market faltered, the Josephs' firm imploded, and Davis swept in to take advantage of his former partners' misfortune. He built his new fireproof structure and pocketed $223,000.

Not every transaction went in Davis's favor. In 1839, he purchased 6 Park Place (where the Woolworth Building now stands) for $20,000. Just three years later, the property was in foreclosure and snapped up at auction for $14,800. But such setbacks didn't seem to stop Davis for long.

By 1840, the march of polite society uptown had left the old "above Bleecker" neighborhood behind, with elegant houses (including Davis's own) lining Union Square and Gramercy Park. Taking advantage of depressed property values following the Panic of 1837, Davis swept up 400 lots along Fifth Avenue in an auction in 1840. Most he resold to individual buyers, but the block between 31st and 32nd Streets he developed as a whole. Alas, no trace of this (unnamed) development remains. There's one nineteenth-century home on the block—the 1853 Murdock mansion at 313 Fifth Avenue—but it replaced Davis's original structure. Around this same time, Davis also bought back some of the properties on Staten Island he'd sold to the New Brighton Association, one of which—a lot and house on Richmond Terrace—was the only property he later made sure to highlight in his will.

By the 1850s, Davis's name is attached to fewer real estate transactions, but he was far from idle. In 1852, Davis was part of a syndicate vying to operate a street railroad along Broadway. The construction of public transit has always riled the city—just look at the Second Avenue subway—but the plans for a Broadway streetcar were particularly acrimonious. A.T. Stewart, New York's richest merchant and the inventor of the modern department store, was adamantly opposed to streetcars, fearing the mass transit would not only physically hamper his wealthy clientele from coming to his store in private carriages but also draw the lower classes to the street. Davis's plan for a street railroad involved paying the city $10,000 a year for ten years to operate the railroad and charging 5 cents per fare (or, if the city was willing to forgo the annual fee, reducing the fare to 3 cents). Davis's syndicate did not win the bid—it went to a man named Jacob Sharp—but the mayor, feeling pressure from A.T. Stewart, vetoed the measure. And while the city council overrode his veto, its members soon found themselves mired in scandal when a judge decreed that earlier public transit rights and privileges had been granted by the council only because of gifts and bribery. The Broadway streetcar's death blow came in 1854, when Davis and his partners sued, claiming Sharp's bid had never been aboveboard. There's some truth there: city councilman William "Boss" Tweed was a stockholder in Sharp's venture and Peter B. Sweeny, who would go on to be an integral part of the so-called Tweed Ring, was Sharp's partner. But Davis's syndicate wasn't aboveboard, either. In fact, evidence points to Davis's bids—and all the others that tried to undermine Sharp—having been financed by A.T. Stewart simply as a way to ensure that streetcars would never run on Broadway.

At the same time the streetcar issue was playing out in the local press, the Davis family was embroiled in a much larger, national issue: the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, in which Scott, a slave, was suing for his freedom because he had lived extensively in free territories. Davis and his wife, Anne, had eight children, and in 1850, his daughter Isabel married a frontiersman named John F.A. Sanford. It was Sanford's sister and her husband who'd been Scott's slaveholders. When the husband died, Sanford became the owner of record, and thus the defendant in the landmark case Scott v. Sandford (sometimes dubbed the worst decision in American jurisprudence) that denied Scott his freedom, nullified the Missouri Compromise, and led to the Civil War. (Note that just like Davis's, Sanford's name suffered from various spellings in his own lifetime, including in the Supreme Court's decision.)

Davis often partnered with his sons-in-law in various ventures. In 1856, Sanford convinced Davis and another son-in-law, Frederick Gebhard, to invest in a scheme to build a power generator at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. (While the company ultimately succeeded, it wasn't a good investment for Davis.) This wasn't Davis's first foray out of state; back in 1835, he'd become a director of the New Washington Association, a planned community near Galveston, in what was then Mexican territory. In 1836, the Texas Revolution began, effectively scuttling the venture.

The Pavilion Hotel, the former Davis Mansion on Staten Island. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

After the Civil War, Davis disappears from view. In 1863, the Old Merchants of New York listed him as living "in Union Square, near Seventeenth Street. He gives good dinners, receives in magnificent style, and his house is visited by all the great foreigners that come to New York City." Maybe the lure of all those great foreigners was too much: by the time he drew up his will in 1870, though he referred to himself as "Thomas E. Davis of New York," he was living in Florence, Italy, the home of his daughter Lizzie, who had married an Italian nobleman. When Davis died on March 16, 1878, nearly all of his family was abroad: his wife and three daughters in Paris; Davis and Lizzie in Florence; and another daughter in Bonagia, Italy. Only his son, Thomas E. Davis, Jr., remained in New York to oversee his affairs. As the New York Times pointed out, Davis died with a net worth of about $2 million—half in cash and half in property. For his son, Davis singled out a "lot of land in New Brighton, Staten Island, on Richmond Terrace," in his will, even though the house was at the time leased to Franklin Osgood, the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club. The rest of the estate (minus the "horses, carriages, harness, diamonds, jewelry, bijouterie silver, furniture, ornaments" etc. that he bequeathed to his wife) was to be split amongst his daughters and to create a trust for his grandchildren. One granddaughter went on to marry a Vanderbilt, while his grandson, Frederick Gebhard Jr., became a noted playboy. However, while Davis's properties continued to enrich his descendants for some time, by the Gilded Age his name had faded from view, and his accomplishments along with them. In the eras of Beaux-Arts mansions and luxury apartment buildings, terraces of houses likes the ones Davis had built seemed a quaint relic of a bygone era. In fact, Davis's most lasting legacy might not be in New York at all, but in the rows of identical townhomes that grace "new urbanist" planned communities throughout the country and give middle-class homeowners the chance to live in "above Bleecker" enclaves all their own.
· Bleecker Street's Evolution from Sleep Suburb to America's Left Bank [Curbed NY]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed National]