The 200-year history of a Bleecker Street house

Every house in New York City has a story. And the story of the Federal-style, Flemish bond brick residence at 58 Bleecker Street begins in the early 19th century with a Roosevelt.

58 Bleecker Street in 2021

Jacobus “James” Roosevelt III—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great-grandfather—had the house at Bleecker and Crosby Streets built for himself and his family in 1823. It was once part of a row; a two-story carriage house was constructed a few years later that still survives next door on Crosby Street.

James Roosevelt was a patrician citizen of the growing metropolis. Born in 1760, he was the fifth generation of Roosevelts in New York City since his ancestor, Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt, immigrated from Holland to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, according to Shannon Butler’s Roosevelt Homes of the Hudson Valley.

Roosevelt followed his father into the sugar refining and banking businesses, and he also had a farm in Harlem, wrote Butler. He dabbled a bit in politics, serving in the New York State Assembly and as an alderman on the City Council. But business and a little philanthropy were his main occupations.

When the neighborhood near his South Street primary residence became undesirable, Roosevelt relocated to newly fashionable Bleecker Street—where other prominent New Yorkers were building houses as well.

During his two decades or so living in the house, Roosevelt watched his neighborhood become one of the most elite in the 1830s and 1840s city. Still, his life was marked by tragedy. Roosevelt’s first two wives died, and he received visitors at the house in 1827 after his 19-year-old son Walker lost his life, according the Evening Post.

Jacobus “James” Roosevelt, the elite New Yorker who built the house

Roosevelt died in 1847. His widow, Harriet Howland Roosevelt, stayed in the home for several years. By 1856, however, she likely passed away or moved on; an ad in the New York Times noted that an estate sale was being held in the house and all furniture was to be sold, including the “elegant rosewood parlor furniture, covered with damask,” “mahogany bedroom furniture,” and a large carriage.

In 1857, the house entered a wildly different phase. Elizabeth Blackwell—the first female physician not just in New York City but the entire country—rented the house and opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children there on May 12.

Blackwell, along with her doctor sister, outfitted Roosevelt’s old home with a maternity center and surgical suite. The doors opened the doors to the increasing number of poor families in the once-posh neighborhood. The infirmary, which treated women at no cost, also trained female doctors.

“Forty-six indoor patients, each remaining on an average of three weeks in the house, have been treated, comprising 30 cases of general disease, 13 midwifery cases, and 3 surgical operations,” wrote the New York Times in December 1857, summing up the first six months of the infirmary.

The Roosevelt house, 1939-1941

By the 1860s, however, Roosevelt’s house was serving an entirely different function. It was home to a dressmaker, who placed an ad in the New York Daily Herald in 1863 to inform “the ladies of New York and environs that she will have her grand opening day” on March 26 and “she respectfully invites them to give her a visit.”

Through much of the 19th century, this eastern end of Bleecker Street held steady as a retail area. A furniture store occupied the ground floor in the 1870s, and a feather shop took the space in 1891, according to the LPC report.

The main house in 1975, with the carriage house behind it

Manufacturing arrived in the 20th century; the upper floors were converted to manufacturing lofts. The ground floor became a restaurant. “The house continued in that usage into the mid-20th century,” the LPC report states.

By the 1990s, things changed once again for Roosevelt’s former residence. Bleecker Street between the East Village and the soon to be named Nolita was once again a destination neighborhood. By the mid-1990s, Bleecker Street Bar held court on the ground floor. Today, the bar is gone.

58 Bleecker Street in 2011

Alterations over the last 200 years include changes to the roofline. The Dutch-style stepped gables still extant in 2011 (see above) are gone, and today it’s perfectly pitched with both chimneys rising high. Perhaps this third floor facade was rebuilt, and the coat of red paint removed.

Scaffolding currently outside the Bleecker Street side tells us that Roosevelt’s house is getting ready for its next incarnation in an ever-changing New York City.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York Times 1856; fifth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon 2013.3.1.68; seventh image: Wikipedia]

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8 Responses to “The 200-year history of a Bleecker Street house”

  1. Shayne Davidson Says:

    If only walls could talk!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I feel like these walls do talk, and they’re telling us they really like this corner and don’t want to be bulldozed.

  2. jms Says:

    Were the buildings along Bleecker renumbered? The Times auction notice has “64 Bleecker” highlighted, which I couldn’t help but notice isn’t the same as 58 Bleecker. Nowadays that address would be part of the 1897 Empire State Bank Building — or, as we all prefer to call it, the original Empire State Building.

    I must have stood next to the modest Roosevelt house scores of times, not giving it a second thought, as I gazed rapturously across Bleecker at the Bayard–Condict Building. Thanks for the informative post.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re welcome! I should have mentioned that yes, the street was renumbered, I believe in the 1860s.

  3. kenny Says:

    Plaque on the wall reads: ‘In this building, the first female doctor in America, Elizabeth Blackwell, established the first hospital for, staffed, and run by women. The New York Infirmary for Women and Children opened on May12,1857, a date which was also the birthday of Blackwell’s friend and collaborator Florence Nightingale. Groundbreaking at the time, the hospital provided free medical care for indigent women and children, and offered clinical experience and instruction for women determined to expand their skills as physicians.’
    Imagine how desperately needed this was for the thousands of residents and workers (many sweat shops within blocks, think Triangle Shirtwaist Factory) in the area.

  4. Aaron Says:

    Where do you find info on a building? I did the DOB website but doesn’t even tell me anything. House is in Queens, built in 1920 so there wasn’t even a CO.

  5. Alex Says:

    Question on the Dutch stepped gables — they don’t seem to be in the 1939 picture – the top of the roof look like a straight flat rectangle above the slopes areas front and back, and then they are there in the 1974 picture. Weird.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I have to say I’m puzzled by that, how it appears to be a flat rectangle as you say. I wish a clearer photo could be found, or at least an explanation.

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