He held the highest office in government, armed with a mandate to expunge waste and paper shuffling, to, in his words, sweep clean the detritus he had inherited. Embittered when the lease on his taxpayer-provided residence was abruptly revoked, he refused for months to vacate. Finally, in frustration, a new management team unceremoniously evicted him.
In the annals of American politics, this president would not be the first public official to begrudge the verdict of the majority and then balk at giving up his place at the seat of government. He has to look no farther than his former hometown to find a precedent to justify what some fear could become his one-man Occupy movement.
A century ago, John Sylvester Ryan’s legal claims—that he was entitled to remain in New York’s City Hall when his job as its caretaker expired—were just as risible.
Ryan was a year old when he emigrated from Ireland in 1849 with his family at the height of the potato famine. By the early 1900s, he was living in a tenement on Second Avenue in what today’s real-estate hyperbole would be recast as “Gramercy Park East.” The locality needed no logo to identify it as the personal fiefdom of Tammany boss John F. Ahearn. In 1907, Governor Charles Evans Hughes pronounced Ahearn so corrupt that he was briefly removed as Manhattan borough president. Still, Ahearn maneuvered to remain in office just long enough to promote John Sylvester Ryan in 1909 from a janitor of the Second District Municipal Court to the live-in custodian of City Hall—officially, a caretaker with a contract, which Ryan apparently took to mean a well-deserved lifetime sinecure.
He must have performed impressively as a handyman, doing Tammany’s dirty work as the Democratic machine’s Mr. Fix-It, to deserve a $300 raise to $1,200 a year and a rent-free, six-room penthouse flanking the rotunda on the third floor of New York’s City Hall. Ryan and his wife, Ellen, and five of their children were the sole residents of what was, and is, the oldest continuously functioning (to use the term loosely) city hall in the United States.
What quid on Ryan’s part merited this coveted quo?
He must have performed impressively as a handyman to deserve a rent-free, six-room penthouse.
A janitor for New York since he was 18, Ryan was also an engineer, saving the city millions of dollars annually by improving firefighting with the pumping of water through hoses at high pressure. Ryan extinguished several fires himself in City Hall, risking his life, he said, to rescue its priceless treasures, including portraits of the Founders by John Trumbull and George Washington’s original presidential desk (inherited from when New York’s former City Hall was converted into the nation’s first Capitol).
He also pinch-hit as the city’s official greeter when groups, such as the Australian Boys Band, would arrive after-hours when higher-ranking worthies had already left work. (The White House was built on a swamp; City Hall was constructed on the site of a cemetery, and Ryan also knew where the bodies were buried.)
The Beginning of the End
Ryan was enjoying the perquisites of high office until 1913, when two events suddenly jeopardized his job.
City Hall was draped in mourning crêpe for Mayor William J. Gaynor, who died of gunshot wounds that had been inflicted by a disgruntled city employee three years earlier, when Ryan stumbled over a coil of wire and broke a toe. The New York Times later said his left foot was amputated above the ankle. The Sun said he had injured his right foot. The New-York Tribune said he had fractured one of his toes and three had to be removed. But during the Democratic administration, there is no recorded complaint that his injury compromised his performance.
Only after the Republican-Fusion ticket delivered Tammany Democrats to an ignominious defeat did Ryan’s new bosses discover the dirt that had been swept under the carpets. The incoming mayor was John Purroy Mitchel, the 34-year-old reformer (who, like Gaynor, would also die prematurely when, after failing to win a second term, he joined the Air Service during World War I and fell from a plane while flying upside down over Texas without a seat belt). The new Manhattan borough president was Marcus M. Marks (better remembered as the father of American Daylight Savings Time and whose nephew Johnny wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”).
Marks wanted Ryan replaced.
City Hall was constructed on the site of a cemetery, and Ryan knew where the bodies were buried.
Ryan would acknowledge that he had agreed to vacate his apartment by April in return for a $50-a-month rent stipend until June 1, when, having passed 65, he would be dropped from the city payroll. But he later claimed he hadn’t written the letter of agreement, only signed it, and had done so under stress on his deathbed.
“It seems like ingratitude to me,” Ryan groused, from his bed. “My fight is for my legally protected position, and I mean to stay here until they move me.”
In any event, April passed. So did June. Ryan didn’t. He was given a reprieve until July 15, then a final 10-day extension. Meanwhile, city workers armed with crowbars and axes continued to demolish the apartment around him. It was being converted into the headquarters of the Municipal Art Commission (now known as the Public Design Commission; it remains in its third-floor aerie after rejecting less rarefied alternatives as unworthy of its role, which it declared, without irony, was as “the custodian of the city’s aesthetic realm”).
“Custodian Loses City Hall Home,” The Tribune’s front page blared on July 25, just under the main headline, which warned: Europe at Point of War. The next day, “the crippled exile,” as The Sun called Ryan, exited finally, inelegantly, by way of the building’s back door, hoisted on a wooden armchair by two of his sons (neither of whom was named Donald Jr. or Eric).
Sam Roberts hosts The New York Times’s weekly program on CUNY-TV and is the author of a dozen books