The Building at 213 Genesee Street

by R. J. Richards

Copyright© 2012 by R. J. Richards

Fiction Story: This work is loosely based on an actual building in Syracuse, NY. Though most of the incidents depicted in the story were fictitious,as well as the address, they were actually happening all over the country at the time. The plot of the story becomes clear at the very end of the reading. Perhaps it will make some readers wonder.

Tags: Historical   Slow   Transformation  

It was done. A lot of hard work, planning, money and nearly a year of labor went into its making, but as Dave Logan looked upon his creation, he was pleased. The building was exactly as he'd envisioned it. As far as the architect could see, it was his finest piece of work. At six stories high, the structure dominated the small city, and he was certain there wasn't another like it anywhere in the world.

Oh, there were other pie shaped buildings in some of the larger cities across the country, but the narrow end of his creation was shaped like a lazy W with balconies going up the middle front of the building on each floor. The bottom of the structure was ringed with pillars while the front balconies were sported by tall, large pillars on each side. The roof was framed in little bowling pin shaped pillars also, and he thought their smoky grey color went well with the red brick walls.

The year was 1887, and the red brick structure sported every modern indemnity available, and Mr. Logan was certain that the building would be quickly sold and filled. But the city officials who'd gathered at 213 Genesee Street for the ribbon cutting ceremony looked at one another in doubt. To Dave, his creation was nothing less than a thing of beauty, but to others it was an ugly monstrosity dominating the middle of their developing city, and true to their misgivings, few people wished to occupy the structure.

Dave Logan was both bitterly disappointed and heavily in debt. He'd hoped his reputation would carry him through and would be turning people away as they clambered to live in his new building. It was only because of his reputation that he was able to get the financial backing he needed to build his creation in the first place, and now it threatened to ruin him.

Mr. Logan never built another project. His good reputation had been ruined, and the building at 213 Genesee Street quickly became known as Dave's Folly. A year later and desperate, the financially ruined man sold the still empty structure for a mere fraction of what it cost to a visiting businessman named Randall Callaway. He thought to turn it into a boarding house for young women. "A place for a girl to stay while working to begin her new life," he told everyone.

There were many such places across the country at the time but none in the small Central New York city. The town itself was a bustle of activity with the Erie Canal going through it as well as a north-south highway, and with all the people passing through, Randall thought it the perfect place for such an enterprise.

In spite of the building's hideous appearance, the boarding house slowly began to fill. As Mr. Callaway suspected, the need for lodging young women in their transition in life was greater than their feelings about living in such a repulsive building. Most only stayed a month or two and some for only a couple of weeks, but there were others who stayed much longer.

Randall placed a sign on the tall building that could easily be read by those coming into the city on the canal or the rail road that ran along side it, and often times it was the first place young women went when they arrived.

There were many new industries booming across America in the 1890s, and with the rapid technological advances in photography, pornography was one of them. Up until then, only the very wealthy could afford to purchase pornographic material, but now, lewd photos of naked, or near naked women, were easily mass produced and sold as post cards. The idea quickly spread from France to America where there were no postal laws prohibiting them.

A man known only as Dexter found that a boarding house such as the one in Central New York was the perfect place to find young women willing to pose for his camera for such purposes.

Most of the women who found lodging at 213 Genesee Street had jobs, and Randall Callaway had strict rules about when the doors were to be locked at night, gentlemen visitors and such, but Dexter quickly found ways around the rules. He often times met with the girls off premises or conned his way into their rooms during visiting hours. There were always at least a couple of women who needed money badly enough to pose for a few pictures, and some for much more than a few, at least until they could find more legitimate work.

Dexter always promised the photos would be used on postcards sold abroad or far off California, and no one in the east would ever see them. That's what he said, but postcards got mailed and made their way all over, and what the girls didn't know was that they were distributed from New York City and were sent throughout the country before they were even sold in nearby Canada or far off Europe.

The blow to the reputation of the boarding house was irreparable. The women living there were shunned as harlots by those living in the city, and it even ruined the lives of some who'd lived there in the past.

As one man said to his wife who was a previous resident, "And when will one of those postcards with your picture show up?"

No one wanted to be seen at the boarding house after that, and no new tenants came either. Randall was ruined. He quickly became the proud owner of a building no one wanted to live in, and his personal reputation was ruined also. No matter how much he denied it, and even though there was never any proof of his involvement, many people believed he'd actually perpetrated the whole business with the postcards.

A year later, Dexter was found dead in the south side cemetery. He'd been shot several times by the angry father of one of the young women whose picture had adorned several of the popular postcards.

By 1900, the building became known as Randall's Brothel, and the structure fell into disuse and remained so for nearly ten years when it was next purchased by a firm in New York City. They specialized in administrating exclusive girl's schools and thought there would be a market for one upstate. The trim was repainted, new light fixtures were put in and three months later, with the renovations complete, the doors were opened to its first class of students.

The school was to become one of the most prestigious finishing schools in the state and beyond. The best teachers that could be found were hired. The school master had years of experience both in America and abroad, and all began well.

It was the firm's reputation and the names that made up the faculty that attracted the first class of students, and the success of those students brought in those that followed. The girls themselves hated going to the ugly building that housed their school and dorm rooms, but even so, they excelled in their academics and looked forward to the day they would finally be able to leave the awful looking structure.

Everyone was making preparations for the graduation of the first class when the scandal hit the local papers. It seemed that one of the faculty members traded passing grades for sexual liaisons with several of the students. There was a formal investigation, and it was found that not only were the rumors true but more than one teacher was involved as well as more than a few students.

The damage to the school's reputation was insurmountable. Colleges began to return applications. The integrity of the school had been compromised, and the grades of all of the students came into question. The firm itself suffered also and was eventually forced out of business as its other schools closed one by one. No one trusted its schools, and people refused to send their daughters to one of them.

This time, the building which became known as the Deviant's Corner, remained boarded up until after the First World War. Then in 1919 the county poorhouse burned down, and the city and county officials held an emergency meeting to discuss what could be done.

At this time, an ambitious man named Percival Fields stepped up to the podium and suggested they use Deviant's Corner as the poorhouse. "That New York City Firm that owns it I hear is near bankrupt. I'm willin' to bet they'll be happy to be rid of the place for only a nominal cost. Hell, I'll even oversee the project myself!"

Percy's suggestion was met with immediate approval. The gavel slammed down, and a new beginning for the Deviant's Corner was sounded. Mr. Fields was all smiles. A quick solution to a difficult problem was just what he needed. He knew full well that something like this could eventually catapult him to the mayor's seat.

Percival liked speaking at the podium and continued, saying, "With its past as a girl's school, it won't need much fixin' up to turn it into the poorhouse." Then laughing loudly, he added, "Maybe with it being so ugly no one will want to stay there long and save us all some money!"

Within weeks, the thirty one year old building was operating as the county poorhouse, and everyone was happy except for the nearby merchants who were wary of being so close to the vagrants and other disreputable people who often stayed in a poorhouse.

Facilities such as those were not known to be particularly happy places, but the dismal mood of the new poorhouse surpassed anything like it elsewhere. The staff hated working there, and it was an added burden to transport its inhabitants back and forth to the fields where they grew their own food and kept the livestock. Still, true to Percival's joke, people dreaded living there, and those who were simple vagrants quickly moved on, but it was also difficult to maintain staff there.

It was just before the elections when a few of the mental patients on the sixth floor broke out and caused considerable damage on the fifth floor that served as the hospital. A few made it down to the fourth floor where the women were housed, terrorizing several of them, and one lunatic made it as far as the third floor where the children stayed. A young boy was badly beaten before some men from the second floor were finally able to subdue him and drag the man back up to the top floor.

The story was carried in the newspaper, and a week later, the facility was being inspected by the state. Besides the numerous safety violations, they discovered a moving camera and a container of film in the basement. It was soon obvious that someone was using the equipment to film several of the children in various sexual acts. The silent shorties of such material were the new rage among certain circles, and as deplorable as it was, there were no laws prohibiting it. Therefore, no one was formally charged, but the good citizens of the small city could not believe that such debased material could come from their very own home town.

Naturally, Percy's chances for political success were completely ruined. After all, it was he who suggested the place be made into the county poorhouse to begin with, and it was he who oversaw its operation. There were even rumors circulating that it was he who had filmed the children and sold the racy shorties. Only a few days passed before he couldn't even show his face in public without being humiliated.

A month later, he was forced to leave the city altogether. His wife divorced him, and he ended up working as a hired hand on a small farm in Pennsylvania where he lived out the remainder of his life in obscurity. Percy's Calamity, as the building was widely called than, was only in operation for six years.

Percy's Calamity only remained closed for a few months when Nicolas Bernhardt thought it could be put to good use by bringing new people and business into the small city. His idea was to reopen it as a hotel for vaudeville acts. The first floor could be converted into a vaudeville theatre while the upper floors could be used as a hotel for the various entertainers who would be performing there.

It was really a stroke of genius since there were very few theatres for vaudeville acts in the area, and typically the performers had a difficult time acquiring lodging in the towns that did have them.

Since many people distrusted the vaudeville performers everyone agreed that Percy's Calamity would be a good place for them. It was well away from where decent folks lived, and any noise they made with their cast parties and rehearsals would largely go unnoticed. Unlike the people that stayed at the poorhouse, they brought business to the local merchants also.

At first the idea worked well. People came and laid their money down to see the shows in spite of the ugly building that contained them. Those who performed there thought that staying in the hideous place was better than most places they've been to. At least there, people left them alone, and Nicolas didn't try to cheat them. Besides, at Nicky's Place, they weren't around anyone except other performers. Most of those on the vaudeville circuit knew or at least heard of each other and got along with each other as if they were all part of a large family.

Two years went by, and Nicolas thought to expand his growing business, and though he never thought his small city theatre would ever rival the Palace in New York City, he thought it would do quite well. Already, people were coming from other Central New York areas to see the shows, and more vaudeville performers were coming to the city to stay at his hotel as well.

He began to turn more of the largely empty building into a massive entertainment center. He spent most all of his money turning a portion of the second floor into another small theatre. The third floor was separated into large double or triple rooms for performers to rehearse their acts, and that caused more of the rooms in the upper floors to be occupied. He even added a restaurant so people could eat before or after the shows as well as capture more money from those who stayed there.

Mr. Bernhardt had to sell his own house to help raise the money for all the renovations and moved into the largest apartment on the top floor himself. His wife hated even the idea of living around all those "traveling vagabonds," as she called them much less having to actually live in that awful looking building, but Nicolas convinced her it would only be for a year or two at the most.

"The way the money will be coming in after the expansion, I promise you that in three years tops, we will be able to have a house twice as nice as the one we sold, and I will be able to afford to buy you almost anything you desire," he told her.

The renovations were completed in 1928, and at first, it appeared he would recover his expenses in even less time than he'd planned. His only competition was a small motion picture theatre on the other side of town, and it was difficult for them to get new movies on a regular basis. Elsewhere, the expanding movie industry was having a dramatic impact on vaudeville, and as theatres were converted to show movies in other cities, more and better acts came to his, and he made even more money.

Monday, October 28th, 1929 changed everything. The stock market crashed, the country was in chaos, and there suddenly wasn't any money anywhere. The Midwest was becoming a dust bowl from an extended drought, and people no longer had the money to see the shows. Vaudeville was dead, and the new talkies that Hollywood was putting out nailed the coffin shut.

Nicolas and his wife were stuck in the ugly building, and soon after, she left him. He tried turning the place into a movie theatre, but during those hard times, there was only so much money to go around for entertainment, and by then the more established theatre on the other side of town drew the larger crowd.

Nicolas was destitute, and a month later his body was found floating in the slow moving creek that wound its way through the small city. Some say he was murdered by his wife's angry brother, while others said he'd committed suicide. Either way, Nicky's Bane, as the building was now nicknamed, was once again empty.

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