The House That Tweed Built

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In this fashion, so crude and yet so straightforward, the taxpayers of New York were fleeced of thirteen million dollars. What made the building of the county courthouse a classic in the annals of American graft was the way in which money was spent. As the reformer Robert Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle) put it, the bills rendered by the Tweed contractors were not merely monstrous, “they [were] manifestly fabulous.” For just three tables and forty chairs, for example, the city paid $179,729.60. Roscoe Conkling, the Republican senator from New York, complained that the money spent for furnishings was nearly three times as much as it cost the Grant administration to run the entire United States diplomatic corps for two years—and if one recalls the Grant administration, this was quite a feat. Conkling was referring to the cost of furniture, carpets, and shades supplied by a firm headed by an old boyhood chum of Boss Tweed’s, James Ingersoll. The amount spent on these items was “the rather startling sum” of $5,691,144.26. Fascinated by the bill for $350,000 for carpets alone, the New York Times asked Ingersoll for an explanation. “There is one thing you people down in the Times don’t seem to take into account,” was the angry reply. “The carpets in these public buildings need to be changed a great deal oftener than in private houses.” Even after this explanation the Times concluded that the city had been overcharged $336,821.31.

John Keyser, the plumbing contractor for the building, set a record to be envied even by his highly paid colleagues of today. He received nearly a million and a half dollars for “plumbing and gas light fixtures.” It was estimated that in one year alone, Keyser made over a million dollars. Compared to Ingersoll and Keyser, Tweed’s carpenter, “Lucky” George Miller, submitted puny bills. Lumber estimated to be worth not more than $48,000 cost the city only $460,000. As for the building’s marble, it was supplied by a quarry owned by the Boss. The New York Times , always a pesky critic of Tweed, claimed it cost more to quarry the marble than it had cost to build the entire courthouse in Brooklyn.

SIDEBAR: THE HOUSE THAT SAM BUILT

The prices for safes and awnings suggested an obsession with security and shade. J. McBride Davidson, who maintained a private bar in his office for select politicians, charged over $400,000 for safes. James W. Smith charged $150 apiece for 160 awnings. Considering this, plus the charge for carpentry, a newspaper calculated that each courthouse window cost an astounding $8,000. Smith defended himself by saying that his bill for awnings included taking them down in the fall, putting them up again in the spring, and repairing them. Another manufacturer said that the awnings were worth not more than $12.50 apiece.

When a person is building a house he does not usually expect to receive a huge bill for repairs before the structure is completed. Yet the house that Tweed built cost the taxpayers of New York nearly two million dollars in repairs before it was finished. Here Andrew Garvey, a 240-pound ex-fireman, set a record which won for him the title “Prince of Plasterers.” In one year Garvey charged the city $500,000 for plastering, and $1,000,000 for repairing the same work. His bill for the three-year plastering job in a supposedly marble building was $2,870,464.06—the Times suggested the six cents be donated to charity—and of this, $1,294,684.13 went for repairs! If Garvey was a prince, Tweed’s carpenter rated at least an earldom. For “repairing and altering wood work,” Lucky George was paid nearly $800,000. Compared to his colleagues, however, John Keyser was only a knight in tarnished armor. He received merely $51,481.74 for repairing his plumbing and lighting fixtures.

For all the shocking display of gluttony, there was sprinkled throughout the Ring’s secret account books evidence of good humor, a certain dash, a feeling that here were men who really enjoyed their work. For example, a check was drawn to the order of Fillippo Donnoruma for $66,000. It was endorsed by “Phillip Dummy.” Another check, for $64,000, was made out to “T. C. Cash.” And wedged in among columns of massive figures was this tiny masterpiece of understatement: “Brooms, etc. … $41,190.95.”

Then there was the charge for thermometers, which must be described as flippant. Tweed bought eleven thermometers for the new courthouse, each five feet long and one foot wide and encased in a gaudily carved frame. The faces were made of inexpensive paper, highly varnished and badly painted. Everything about them was cheap. The cost of the eleven thermometers was exactly $7,500. A reporter asked a reputable thermometer manufacturer how many thermometers he could supply for this amount. “For $7,500,” he said, “I could line the courthouse.” The New York Printing Company’s charge of $186,495.61 for stationery was unique. It included the printing of all the reams of contractors’ bills as well as the repair bills.