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God isn't alone in working in mysterious ways. The law can be equally frustrating. A good example can be found in a series of stories about the McCarthy brothers of Solvay who for years broke the law in the way they developed and maintained their various properties, but also used the law to postpone a day of reckoning.

This account begins in the year 1941, but the story began much earlier.

Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 3, 1941
Trapped on the second floor of a three-story building at 1507 Milton Avenue early today by fire which Solvay volunteers fought until long after daybreak, James McCarthy, 62, of 102 Caroline Avenue, member of a widely known Solvay family, was found dead at 3:30 a.m. He is believed to have suffocated in the dense smoke of the fire and was burned somewhat about the face and hands.

Firemen George Kelly and Norman James, former chief of the Solvay Fire Department, made the discovery while searching the burning building with spotlights as they and other firemen gained headway in their fight against the flames.

Coroner H. Ernest Gak was notified and after the body of the victim was carried out of the building, he had the remains taken to the County Morgue where autopsy showed death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from asphyxia.

Thomas McCarthy, his nephew, escaped injury when he was about to tear down the back wall of the house. He climbed up a ladder to attach a cable to the back wall and the wall fell; McCarthy rode down with the wall to the ground, uninjured. He stood holding a corner of the wall at the top as it fell.

Luckily he landed outside of instead of under the wall when it crashed to the ground.

Proceedings have been underway sometime to have this building torn down and other buildings owned by the McCarthys. A motion was made in the village board meeting recently to start proceedings, members of the board said today.

Adrian Grobsmith, a member of the board, said this morning that proceedings now would be carried through.

“The village wanted to foreclose for non-payment of taxes, and because the buildings were deliquidated, on this and other buildings,” said Mr. Grobsmith. “It was a question of procedure and the proceedings necessarily were slow. It is now a matter of human life and you can say that this and other buildings of the estate in that condition will be taken over and torn down.”

Mr. McCarthy was the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Jerome D. McCarthy of Cork, Ireland. He came to this country as a boy and had lived in Solvay more than half a century. He was a brother of Patrick V. McCarthy Sr. of the Caroline Avenue address, owner of the fire-swept building, known as the McCarthy Block.

The victim leaves two other brothers, Thomas McCarthy of Syracuse and Michael McCarthy of Yonkers, and several nieces and nephews, including Dr. Raymond McCarthy, Dr. Marguerite P. McCarthy and Mrs. Helen McCarthy Rivette, Syracuse attorney. He was unmarried.

Solvay firemen poured water into the wrecked building throughout the morning as the flames subsided. They had used eight hydrant streams at the height of the fire before the flames were quelled. Lack of wind saved nearby buildings from catching.

The McCarthy Building was constructed of tile and slate in front and wooden frame at the rear. It has been unoccupied except for the barber shop of Benjamin Kapeleski on the street floor.

It was the second fire of the night at the death scene. At 10 o’clock Solvay firemen had extinguished a minor fire in a shed adjoining the three-story building at 1511 Milton Avenue. Whether that fire had any relation to the outbreak in the larger building at midnight was unknown.

Nearby residents discovered the second fire shortly after midnight and it had gained considerable headway when a general alarm was sounded at 12:15 a.m.

Solvay’s three fire companies, Prospect, Tanner and Mountain Top responded, and the fight, directed by Chief George Grobowski, started.

Flames climbed high above the building at the height of the fire and could be seen over a wide area in the west end of the city and in Solvay.

Solvay police investigators said that no search of the building was made for humans at first, because of the understanding that the building was unoccupied. They said that at the time of the first fire, James McCarthy was seen in the street by several acquaintances.

His body was found beside a bed in a room on the second floor, Solvay police said.

For many years the upper floors of the building had been used as apartments, but neither had been occupied of late.

The body of Mr. McCarthy, a communicant of St. Cecilia’s Church, Solvay, was to be released to C. C. Carroll & Company, funeral directors, after completion of the post mortem examination.

The story has arson written all over it, but I could find no follow up on this aspect of the fire. One of the possible suspects was dead, and the other was extremely fortunate to be alive. It isn't made clear in the story, but Thomas McCarthy pulled his stunt in the morning after firemen had completed their work. Why he tried to pull the wall down was never explained. It's not as though his family was big on demolition of their property, as you will discover if you keep reading.

Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 18, 1941
With expiration of five days given Patrick V. McCarthy, 102 Caroline Avenue, Solvay, to tear down the fire ruins of his building at 1507 Milton Avenue, that village, in which his brother, James McCarthy, lost his life, June 2, members of the village board last night ordered the demolition work done.

Village workmen were assigned to pull down the walls today over the protests of the owners. Charles Close, village attorney, announced after the board’s special meeting to discuss the question.

The five days’ notice expired last Saturday, Close said, and the board decided to wait no longer for action by the owner.

Close said that the public works department is directed to attach heavy cables to the walls of the brick and frame building to haul them down, a village engineer and building inspector having found the front and side walls bulging and in danger of collapse.

Since the fire, the sidewalk in front of the building has been roped off, Close said, and pedestrians passing the place have had to walk in the road.

Village attorney Close would discover, as had his predecessors and several officials of the adjacent city of Syracuse, that the McCarthy family, apparently led by Patrick McCarthy of Solvay, were a stubborn bunch who could try the patience of a saint. And if there were a legal loophole to be found, the McCarthys would find it.

Most of what I found about the family concerned Patrick, who was introduced to me in this short item:

Syracuse Daily Journal, February 20, 1897
Mr. Patrick McCarthy of Solvay is not to be found in his usual haunts these days. It is said that he had gone to Ireland, and that there is a woman in the case. Some of his creditors up Solvay way and elsewhere say he neglected to see them before he went.

McCarthy worked in the caustic soda factory up to a year ago, since when he and his brother, John, have been engaged in building homes in Solvay. He is about thirty years old and unmarried.

Newspapers of the time were a lot like the internet is today. For example, there is no byline on the above item, which hints that Patrick McCarthy does not pay his debts. It is the first mention of the McCarthy brothers — John wasn't the only one — and also the first indication that Patrick wanted to get married. And so he did, and his first child, Helen, would become a lawyer and a huge thorn in the side of Syracuse and Solvay officials.

By 1910 Patrick was a widower with three children, living at the same address with his brother John and his family, and with their ill-fated brother James.

Like most Irish families of the era, the McCarthys tended to favor family names for their children. John D. McCarthy had a son named Dennis and a daughter named Helen. So did his brother Patrick, who seemed the family's most enterprising member.

Syracuse Herald April 2, 1917
Patrick McCarthy of Milton Avenue, the owner of a moving picture theater, reports to the police that some vandals broke into the place during the night and not content with smashing up his piano, cut his screen in several places with a knife.

As far as I can determine, this was not the theater that became known as Craig's (or the Community). McCarthy attempted to lease the building to someone else, but wound up in a lawsuit.

Syracuse Post-Standard, August 13, 1919
If the new theater in Milton Avenue does not open its doors now it will not be the fault of Patrick McCarthy, owner of the building, as he received a decision from Judge P. J. Ryan of municipal court yesterday in the suit brought against him by Edward Giner. Mr. Giner leased the theater and did not open it, and charged the owner with failing to perform the agreement, but the court now rules Mr. McCarthy did everything he was supposed to do under the lease, as it was drawn.

Patrick McCarthy and his brothers expanded their business to include several apartment buildings they built, then operated, in Solvay and the west end of Syracuse. This led to a series of legal battles with tenants, neighbors and the two municipalities. To some, the McCarthys must have been the landlords from hell. To the McCarthys, the tenants were often the problem. But by 1922 Patrick McCarthy had a new weapon in his arsenal — his very own family lawyer. And she knew how to use the legal system to block action against her family.

Syracuse Journal, June 1, 1922
Miss Helen M. McCarthy, Solvay’s only practicing woman lawyer, has won her first case tried in Municipal Court, according to a decision by Judge Burton B. Parsons, handed down Thursday. Her father, Patrick McCarthy, was awarded judgment for $44 against Thomas Gorman, Canadian World War veteran, for the rent of an apartment at 211 Lamont Avenue, Solvay. Miss McCarthy displayed considerable skill in cross-examining the defendant.

Not all of McCarthy's battles with tenants took place in the court room.

Syracuse Journal, February 21, 1923
Felix Priszunski, 116 Emerson Avenue, is held under $500 bail Wednesday and a charge of assaulting Patrick McCarthy, 62, 211 Lamont Avenue, Solvay, with a butcher knife, Tuesday night.

McCarthy is the defendant’s landlord, and police who responded to a hurry call had a stiff battle with Priszunski, who is said to have been drinking and as evidently half crazed.

Julius McCarty, wagonman on the patrol, had the sleeves torn out of his overcoat before police subdued Priszunski. There was little evidence that the butcher knife had been actually used on McCarthy and the charge was made third degree instead of a more serious offense when the case came before Justice B. J. Shove in Court of Special Sessions. McCarthy had a slight cut on his chin and a deep gash in one hand suffered during a struggle for possession of the knife, he said.

Priszunski is alleged to have attacked McCarthy while the latter was at the Lamont Avenue grocery store making repairs.

I'm not quite sure about the reference to the Lamont Avenue grocery store. My guess is that the store was a tenant in a McCarthy-owned building. That Patrick McCarthy was making repairs on one of his properties would, to many people, be more newsworthy than the assault.

The McCarthy brothers had a reputation for being lax about their properties, often showing complete disregard for people who lived nearby. A tragedy in 1923 may have cemented that reputation.

Syracuse Journal, July 16, 1923
Injured when a scaffold fell on him, July 4, James O’Leary, 5, son of Mrs. Catherine O’Leary, 1425 Milton Avenue, died Sunday in the Syracuse Memorial Hospital. Death was due to a fracture at the base of the skull and spinal meningitis which developed a week ago, according to an autopsy performed at the county morgue.

Mrs. O'Leary was a widow with two other young children, which may have been a factor in the resulting lawsuit. The amounts mentioned will seem small by today's standard, but they were significant at the time.

Syracuse Journal, November 14, 1923
Trial of an action for $15,000 for the death of James O’Leary, 5, who died from injuries suffered when a scaffolding fell upon him, was started in Supreme Court Wednesday before Justice Ernest I. Edgcomb. The suit is brought by Mrs. Catherine O’Leary, mother of the dead boy. Patrick McCarthy, a contractor, is defendant.

 

Syracuse Journal, November 16, 1923
Mrs. Catherine O’Leary of Solvay was awarded $3,500 by a jury in Supreme Court before Justice Ernest I. Edgcomb Thursday against McCarthy Brothers contractors, for the death of her son, James F. O’Leary, 5, who was buried beneath a scaffold when it fell.

The case had been on trial several days, but the jury was out only 40 minutes in fixing its award. The award is one of the largest in several years for the death of a child. The boy had been playing around the scaffold, though he had been warned to keep away. Leaning against one of the supports, his weight weakened it and the boy was pinned beneath the wreckage with a fractured skull.

In 1925, two McCarthy properties on Emerson Avenue, Syracuse, were heavily damaged by fire.

The first fire, in February, was at a two-family house. Occupants were two couples who between them had nine small children. All escaped safely into the street. One of the children, nine-year-old Victor Oriente, was credited with being a hero for arousing his parents and his five siblings and leading them down a smoke-filled stairway. The fire broke out in a stovepipe in the first floor apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Carmen Caiello.

Three months later, a fire partly destroyed a larger apartment building next door. This time 22 persons were forced to flee. Patrick McCarthy, listed as owner of the building, told police he thought the fire had been set. However, an investigation into the cause was inconclusive, though McCarthy's maintenance of the property came under criticism:

Syracuse Journal, May 12, 1925
Superintendent Wellington W. Taber of the Bureau of Buildings and Chief Inspector Patrick R. O’Hara of the Bureau of Fire Prevention made an investigation of the fire that partly ruined the 12-family apartment house at 916-918 Emerson Avenue, but said Tuesday they were unable to figure out how the fire started.

No reports have been turned in on the investigation as yet. Police are also making an investigation in an effort to determine the cause of the fire. The property is owned by Patrick McCarthy of Solvay.

Although the officials declined to discuss their findings in advance of their formal reports to the commissioner of public safety, it is understood they found that orders issued a year ago to McCarthy to make certain alterations had not been complied with.

It is understood orders were issued to the owners to remove partitions around toilets in the center of hallways on three floors. Instead of doing this, McCarthy cut holes through apartments to provide access between the two ends of the building, it is said.

The two buildings on Emerson Avenue became pieces in a prolonged legal battle between the McCarthy family and the city of Syracuse. Solvay would follow suit and soon share Syracuse's frustration. However, sub-par buildings weren't the only things owned and leased by Patrick McCarthy:

Syracuse Journal, April 14, 1926
Edward Quartier, counterman employed in the lunch cart operated by William Hudson at Wolf and Fourth North streets, had a narrow escape from injury and damage estimated at $1,000 was done to the cart by fire last Tuesday night. The blaze was caused by an explosion in the apparatus used for heating the coffee urn.

Quartier was alone in the cart when the fire broke out. He had filled the urn with water and was seated near it when the explosion occurred. His attempt to extinguish the flames failed, and when firemen arrived they found the cart enveloped in the flames.

Patrick McCarthy of Solvay is the owner of the wagon. Hudson, who lives at 214 Burdick Avenue, leases it.

A year later, in an event unrelated to the family's legal battles, Patrick McCarthy and his daughter, Helen, narrowly escaped serious injury when the car she was driving was hit by a New York Central switch engine on Emerson Avenue. Quick reaction by the engineer in applying the engine's emergency brakes was credited with possibly saving the lives of the two occupants of the automobile.

The engine was switching freight cars to factory sidings. Miss McCarthy told police she noticed the engine, but thought it would remain still until she passed the grade crossing. There was no flagman at the intersection, nor was any warning sounded. But when the vehicle reached the tracks, the engine backed up. The engineer's reaction slowed the engine and lessened the impact.

The next phase of Patrick McCarthy's life would be a running battle with Syracuse and Solvay over several pieces of property, including at least one of the fire-damaged Emerson Avenue apartment buildings. Helen McCarthy, who soon would marry George Rivette, would successfully counter almost every move made by Syracuse and Solvay officials to demolish buildings that were left unfinished or were condemned. The McCarthys responded with talk of renovations and even a few new projects, but the only people who dealt with the property were lawyers and judges. Two games — one in Solvay, the other in Syracuse — went on for several years.

Syracuse Journal, April 18, 1937
As a start in a move to make a “garden spot of Solvay,” the village board is preparing to compel the owners of two dilapidated buildings to either put them in a good state of repair or tear them down and clear the lots.

The buildings, a three-story frame structure at 110 Freeman Avenue and a frame and concrete building at 1711 Milton Avenue, are owned by Patrick and John McCarthy. Although they have both been erected for a number of years, neither structure was ever completed or occupied and both have been pronounced public nuisances and menaces too public safety.

The board became aroused when a number of complaints were received by Alderman Adrian Grobsmith, who turned them over to Mayor John J. Degan after he had made a personal inspection that convinced him the complaints of neighbors were well founded.

These complaints declared that the properties have become so dilapidated that they weave in the wind and the boards and pieces of timber and other materials are falling off of them to adjoining property and endangering the lives of persons in the vicinity.

Mayor Degan directed Richard Riley, inspector of buildings; Dr. James D. Wands, health officer, and Norman James, chief of the fire department, to make an official and thorough inspection of the properties in question.

Chief James delegated two of the department fire wardens to inspect the properties as to fire hazards and they reported that both structures constitute a fire menace.

The officials designated to inspect the properties called in Dr. Philip Raffl of the state health department and he reported that the Milton Avenue building is unsanitary.

Patrick McCarthy, who admitted ownership of the properties, appeared before the village board at its meeting last Thursday night and declared that the buildings are not a menace in any way, that they were strongly constructed and plumb.

Taxes on both pieces of property have not been paid for several years. Building Inspector Riley reported that the owners of the properties have been requested on numerous occasions to put the buildings in repair and clean them up, but that they have ignored the requests.

 

Syracuse Journal, June 14, 1937
Legal tangle involving change of ownership prevented city action today on threat to raze an unfinished building at Milton and Avery Avenues, which has been condemned by the city as a public menace.

Mayor Marvin had directed Commissioner Rapp to proceed today with wrecking the building unless the owners, the McCarthy brothers of Solvay, took steps to either repair or raze the structure.

However, when Superintendent of Building Walter B. Kimmey made an inspection this morning before the city acted, he learned that title of the property had been transferred. Investigation revealed the property had been sold on June 5, 1933, to Helen Rivette, daughter of one of the McCarthy brothers, but the deed was not recorded until June 4, 1937.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Arthur M. Beach held that it will be necessary to serve 10 days’ notice on Mrs. Rivette before the city can act.

Helen McCarthy Rivette shrewdly turned tables on the village and the city, leaving them huffing and puffing, but unable to blow the buildings down.

Syracuse Journal, June 24, 1937
Threatening to send tractors to 108 Freeman Avenue, Solvay, to tear down a wood frame structure if an order issued today by the village board of trustees directing Patrick McCarthy and his attorney-daughter, Mrs. Helen McCarthy Rivette, to remove the structure is not complied with, Charles B. Close, village attorney, was directed by the board following a meeting Tuesday night to serve the papers on the two defendants.

At a meeting of the village board on April 27 the two defendants agreed to remove the structure within six weeks, but after repeated delays, during which time only the roof of the structure has been torn off, the village wrote another chapter in the nearly two-month-old case.

The new order states that if the owner neglects or refuses to begin the removal of the building within five days of the service of the new order, the village will advertise for bids and begin the removal, charging the costs to the two defendants.

The order also states that the building is of such construction that it is unsafe and unsound and is likely to endanger the health and lives of persons passing on the street, and that the structure fails to comply with the village building code.

Action taken by Syracuse officials to raze a building at 1301-1303 Milton Avenue, condemned as a menace to public health and safety, was halted yesterday when Mrs. Rivette, owner of the property, showed Commissioner William E. Rapp contracts calling for remodeling of the structure.

Also in Syracuse was an occupied house at 821 Willis Avenue owned by Patrick McCarthy, who on June 30, 1937, was threatened with arrest if the building wasn't vacated in 24 hours. The city also renewed efforts to demolish another building, one at Milton and Avery Avenues.

Two weeks later, on the heels of a foreclosure proceeding started by Onondaga Savings Bank on three McCarthy properties in Solvay, the village again threatened to tear down some McCarthy buildings.

The Syracuse Journal, on July 22, commenting on efforts to demolish the McCarthy building at 108-110 Freeman Avenue, said this:

"The McCarthys have had the village attorney and trustees running around in circles since the board issued its order to tear down the building last spring and have succeeded in making the situation more and more complicated ... and the building, alleged by the board to be a menace to health and a fire hazard, continues to hold up its unsightly head to taunt them."

HOWEVER, the McCarthys now had a third battle on their hands — with Onondaga Savings Bank. Helen McCarthy Rivette was up to the challenge, usually promising that if left alone the McCarthys would make the necessary repairs. The promises were never kept, but they did postpone the inevitable. Her juggling act was done on behalf of her father, who owned some of the buildings, and her uncle, Thomas McCarthy, who owned the others.

The bank's lawyer, Donald E. Carr, said all of Patrick McCarthy's buildings were in "a tumble down condition, practically beyond repair" and that the Thomas McCarthy buildings also were in a bad state of repair and most of them untenable.

Back and forth they went for several months, though one can't help but wonder about the judges involved in the court proceedings. At one point Mrs. Rivette promised that an unnamed friend of her father was about to contribute $1,000 for repairs on one of the properties. Weeks passed and the money never arrived, but the repeated promise kept the matter going past the end of the year.

Jump to 1941 and the fire at 1507 Milton Avenue that killed James McCarthy, brother of Patrick and Thomas McCarthy. At least some of the buildings that were condemned years earlier are still standing in Solvay and in Syracuse. Among them is that unoccupied building at 821 Willis Avenue that the city targeted back in 1937

Efforts are renewed in September, 1942. The condemned, concrete block structure is such a notorious eyesore that it has a name, "Blarney Castle." A familiar scenario unfolds as the city of Syracuse threatens to demolish the building. This time, however, Patrick McCarthy and his daughter quickly run out of arguments.

Syracuse Herald-Journal, January 24, 1943
A suit against the city brought by Patrick V. McCarthy, 100 Caroline Avenue, Solvay, former owner of property at 821 Willis Avenue, once known as “Blarney Castle,” was dismissed because of “facts insufficient to constitute an action,” by Judge Jesse E. Kingsley in special term of Supreme Court, Friday.

Mr. McCarthy was seeking to regain ownership of the site of his former building recently razed by the city following its condemnation as a public menace.

The city took title to the property under a tax deed in December, 1941. Mr. McCarthy’s action alleged that the city had entered into an agreement with him to sell the property back after he had made improvements. Merwin W. Lay, counsel to the real estate commission, brought the motion to have the case dismissed.

Incredibly, condemned buildings on Emerson Avenue, an obvious fire hazard, remained. Just as incredibly, Patrick McCarthy was still fighting to keep what was left of them.

Syracuse Herald-Journal, November 16, 1942
As 10 firemen started tearing down the charred remnant of a condemned three-story apartment house at 916 Emerson Avenue today, Mrs. Helen McCarthy Rivette, Syracuse attorney, whose father, Patrick McCarthy, owns the property, said she would seek an injunction to stop the demolition.

The three-story frame building was the scene of a 3-3 alarm fire Saturday afternoon, which, as high winds whipped the flames, threatened for a time to spread to nearby buildings. The roof and top floor were destroyed.

Fire Marshal Charles Wilkes condemned the building as unfit for occupancy and a fire hazard four years ago and a little later the Health Department denounced it as unsanitary. The building was vacated, but nothing was done to tear it down.

This morning, however, City Engineer Nelson F. Pitts and Fire Department authorities agreed that the building would have to come down at once, together with another condemned McCarthy house next door at 914 Emerson Avenue.

Ten men, manning hook and ladder Truck 6 and the “turb” truck, which is equipped with long tow lines, started demolishing the old apartment house. Mr. Pitts and Fire Marshal Wilkes supervised the job.

Not long after the work started, Mrs. Rivette appeared and demanded that the firemen leave the property. When they went on working, regardless of her protests, she departed, asserting that she would seek an injunction to halt the razing of the two buildings.

Even after those buildings were demolished, three more McCarthy buildings remained in the 900 block of Emerson Avenue. Two of them, at 934 and 936, were scenes of a fire in the spring of 1942. A year later residents of the street petitioned the city to eliminate the "fire hazard, health menace and detriment to neighboring property."

At this point Patrick McCarthy disappears from newspaper accounts; at least, from the only Syracuse newspaper available on fultonhistory.com. That would be the Herald-Journal and Herald-American. The website has copies of both papers only through 1945.

Stepping in to take his place is George F. Rivette, husband of attorney Helen McCarthy Rivette. He came into possession of a building on Lamont Avenue that had been built as the original Prospect School, which at the time of its construction had four classrooms.

By the 1940s the building, converted into a residence, had been condemned by the village board as a nuisance, fire hazard and health menace. The Rivettes set out to save the building, claiming they could make the necessary repairs for $1,000. The village board claimed it would cost at least ten times as much. And once more the battle lines were drawn.

In January, 1944, the village won the court battle and ordered the building immediately demolished. I believe this time, finally, the building was torn down. The long saga of the McCarthy brothers and their dilapidated buildings finally ended.

FOOTNOTE: Professionally speaking, things did not go well for attorney Helen McCarthy Rivette during the last half of her career. In 1964 she was disbarred by the appellate division of the state Supreme Court in Rochester. Ten years earlier she had been suspended for two years after a complaint was lodged by the Onondaga County Bar Association

At issue were annulment actions she began for clients when, the court ruled, she should have known the facts of each case didn't warrant such action. Helen McCarthy Rivette died in 1970 at the age of 71.

 
For more about Solvay way back when, check out
the Solvay-Geddes Historical Society.
 
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