This Tenement Constructing’s Historical past Concerned a Gilded Age Con Artist
The tenement on East Seventh Street where I live was built in 1893, when a financial crisis in the United States had started to corrode a fabled, materialistic and short-lived time known as the Gilded Age, chronicled most recently in the HBO series of the same name.
The building’s original owner, Sigmund B. Steinmann — who once kidnapped a child violinist, among other crimes — represented the era vividly enough to have his own story line on the show.
Akin to now, it was a time of great wealth and great poverty. My East Village walk-up took in immigrants enduring the latter. Mr. Steinmann and a business partner financed it for an estimated $21,000. It had 22 apartments, each around 325 square feet. No doubt a story was behind every door.
But Mr. Steinmann seemed to be in a league of his own when it came to chicanery and exploits of the time. So I set out to investigate him and, consequently, my home of 32 years.
A quick search revealed that the actor Walter Matthau and his family had once lived in my building as they bounced around the Lower East Side, which he remembered as “a nightmare, a dreadful, horrible, stinking nightmare.”
Mr. Matthau was born in 1920, so by that time, the Tenement House Act of 1901 had mandated that existing multifamily dwellings install, among other things, indoor toilets — not just provide outhouses. According to one account, the neighbors nicknamed Mr. Matthau Shakespeare for his excessive reading habits in the shared bathroom on his floor. (Each apartment eventually had a toilet installed.)
Mr. Steinmann predated the character actor, but determining when he sold or lost the building on East Seventh Street is elusive.
Ancestry.com has his passport data. Born in Austria in 1851, he emigrated to New York in 1876 aboard a steamship from Antwerp. He became a U.S. citizen in 1883, the same year he made The Times for assaulting a painter.
In 1886, Mr. Steinmann married Theresa Pollatschek, a Hungarian immigrant. But he was on the rebound, it appears; Ancestry’s newspaper records uncovered his prior pursuit of a “Miss Isaacs.” Her father, a wealthy importer of Japanese curios, opposed their engagement, “flatly refusing to accept him as a son-in-law,” according to a news report. She married another man instead. Mr. Steinmann retaliated by suing her father for $10,000.
Deep into the soap opera at this point, I reached out to Tom Miller, whose blog, Daytonian in Manhattan, details the back stories of buildings. He helped me find more articles about Mr. Steinmann, who reportedly complained in court of the money he’d spent on Miss Isaacs. He was “fond of jewelry and not afraid to wear it,” one article said.
The next year, Mr. Steinmann, despite being newly married to Theresa, threatened to subpoena over 200 acquaintances of Mr. Isaacs “to get at the true inwardness of the matter” (that is, of his daughter rejecting him). One article had the headline: “Unshed Tears. The Banker Married Another and So Did the Lady. And Yet He Seeks Damages.”
Mr. Steinmann lost the case and was ordered to pay $200.
By 1890, he was back in court, this time for selling a $100 bond to two brothers who did not speak English. They misunderstood that it was redeemable in two years; instead, it was 40. They sued, and Mr. Steinmann was publicly denounced as a “high-handed swindler.”
The 1900 census described him as a “boarder” in Brooklyn. By 1901, he was bankrupt. But he wasn’t done.
In 1903, Mr. Steinmann, then 52, was embroiled in the plight of Kun Arpad, a Hungarian child violinist. The boy had arrived in steerage at Ellis Island, along with his mother and grandmother. Publicity materials proclaimed he was 8, a protégé of Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph I and the greatest musical genius since Mozart.
In court, Kun’s mother claimed Mr. Steinmann had tricked her into signing a contract to manage the prodigy, then kidnapped him. After recapturing her child, the mother testified that she was afraid of Mr. Steinmann, who had threatened to put her in a mental hospital.
By 1910, Theresa Steinmann was a widow, according to the census. Her husband was alive but dead to her. Later addresses for their only son included Sing Sing and an Illinois prison. He had no children, so the family tree ends.
Mr. Steinmann’s death in Manhattan in 1917 got a single line in a ledger, no cause given. Apparently, no one bothered to write an obituary. Nor are there any Steinmann descendants who could have benefited from the recent sale of my humble tenement for $8.3 million. These days, influencers, N.Y.U. students and hedge funders fill its halls.
Some historians are calling this time the Gilded Age 2.0. Time will prove if it’s any more sustainable than the last one.
Julie Besonen has covered the goings on of her East Village tenement, and the precious artifacts therein, since the onset of the pandemic.