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A Forgotten House and a Forgotten Hero

Because of the limits on how much time I’m willing to invest in a single blog post, my trips down historical rabbit-holes sometimes end in an unsatisfying manner. The Francis/Briggs/Stephens house, above, is an example, although trying to find out more about it led to some other interesting results.

The house was at 146th Street and Girard Avenue, in Mott Haven, a part of The Bronx that was mostly industrial for a long time, and still partially is. It was built in 1830, in what was then a bucolic area north of New York near Macombs Dam. Extension of the New York and Harlem Railroad in 1842 ended the area’s isolation but also, I imagine, made it a lot noisier and dirtier. It’s not clear when the house was owned and occupied by Joseph Francis, but the 1937 HABS survey calls it the “Francis Mansion,” suggesting he may have been the first owner. Francis was the inventor of a lightweight pressed-metal lifeboat, for which he received high praise and honors both from the national government and internationally. He was quite famous then and completely obscure today. Even in 1937, his fame had receded to the point where the HABS records had to explain that this house survey is distinct from the survey of the first shore life-saving station, in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, because that survey includes a “Francis Patent Metallic Life Car.”

It’s not immediately obvious who the “Captain Briggs” was who owned the house later in the nineteenth century: the Briggs family was quite active in the Bronx and there were a lot of them. After Briggs, the house was owned by Olin Stephens, who was a coal merchant and Bronx promoter – he was at one point the president of the North Side Board of Trade, shortly after the consolidation of New York with the outer boroughs. The Bronx was the “North Side” for a short period among boosters who felt that the northward movement of the business and high-end residential neighborhoods up Manhattan island would inevitably lead to them ending up on the mainland in the Bronx. (Spoiler warning: it didn’t happen.) Stephens is forgotten today but his grandson, Olin Stephens II, was quite famous as a racing yacht designer and someone who brought analytic designs to sailboats. That feels like closure, bringing the story back around to Francis’s work.

It is difficult to get information on what happened to the house. The HABS photos show it to be in good repair in 1937, although it must have been a bizarre anomaly in that neighborhood by then. It was on the northeast corner of 146th Street and Girard Ave, a site now occupied by a large 1949 building owned by New York State. It seems to be yet another building that might have been deemed historic if it survived into the 1960s.