BY ERIC FERRARA | In February of 1891, a 35-year old German man named Christian C.W. Grassman arrived in New York City and quickly established himself in the real estate field.
By the turn of the century he had co-founded the Grassman and Hirtz real estate company, located on the first floor of 94 St. Mark’s Place. The eccentric immigrant became a regular fixture in the neighborhood, especially popular among local children who thought of the rotund, white-haired German as a “Summer Santa Claus.”
Grassman, who always wore a Russian sailor cap, was known for handing out candy and coins and allowing children to run around the hallways of his office. Taking advantage of a sure thing, Italian organ grinders lined up waiting their turn to entertain the kids on the sidewalk — which Grassman paid for. Each grinder was given 25 cents for five minutes of music (before presumably going around the corner, putting on a disguise and getting back on line).
As popular as he was with the children of the neighborhood, many parents suspected Grassman was a communist and warned their kids of this “terrible man,” according to a New York Times article.
Suspicion peaked when, in 1904, Grassman placed the following international ad:
“Wanted, steamers of not less than 6,000 tonnage, to have speed of not less than 18 knots and more, and must be made so they can be fitted with armor plate… apply to Grassman & Hirtz Company, 94 St. Marks Place.”
Rumors quickly spread that Grassman was building his own navy, with plans to possibly take over the world.
When a reporter pretended to have a ship for sale, Grassman claimed that he was purchasing these ships not for himself, but to sell to an unidentified country which was in short supply of military vessels. During the conversation, he said he had bought and sold five boats thus far, but was hoping to accrue a total of 200.
There is no word on whether Grassman ever reached his goal, or what the purpose of the ad really was all about. It appears that he spent the rest of his life in the neighborhood after being naturalized as an American citizen in 1906.
The trail of Christian C.W. Grassman dries up in 1931, when the 75-year-old is listed in a city directory as living at 21 E. 14th St.
Ferrara is director, Lower East Side History Project