Prohibition-Era Funeral Home on Madison Street Hits the Market for $12.5M

A former Lower East Side funeral home with colorful gangster roots just hit the market as a multimillion-dollar “investment opportunity.”

Robert “Roxie” Vanella was a gangster-cum-undertaker who ran in the same circles as Johnnie Torrio and Al Capone. Later in life, the outlaw (and convicted murderer) went straight, and founded his namesake funeral home. Now, for the first time in nearly a century, the Madison Street HQ of that business is on the market for $12.5 million.

Touted as an “investment opportunity,” the four-building assemblage boasts a total of 21 residential units and 8,000 square-feet of commercial space that will be delivered vacant and can be subdivided. The real estate listing, via Cushman & Wakefield, leans hard on the nearby development happening in Two Bridges, name-checking the Extell monstrosity and the four towers proposed up the waterfront.

Vanella’s Funeral Chapel held down 29 Madison Street ever since Roxie started the business in 1918. Decades later – in 1965 – the mortuary expanded with a Long Island location in Oceanside.

Yet, the family business reportedly came undone last spring due to infighting and legal disputes within the ranks of latter-day ownership. According to the LI Herald, Vincent J. Vanella III, the funeral director who managed the affairs for about 35 years, filed a complaint in Nassau County Supreme Court, claiming that “his sister, Linda Vanella, sought to gain influence over their ‘post 90-year-old’ mother, Lita Vanella, a shareholder in the company, in order to gain control of the corporation’s assets, which are worth millions of dollars.” The action followed a takeover by Lita and his aunt Carmen Vanella after he reportedly failed to make “two monthly payments to his fellow shareholders.”

The Lower East Side and Oceanside locations both shuttered shortly thereafter. The drama presumably led to the listing of 27-35 Madison Street a couple weeks ago.

Founder Roxie Vanella apparently hung around with notorious gangster Johnny Torrio from a young age. Some even thought that they were cousins. The two came of age on James Street, near the Five Points neighborhood, and formed the James Street Gang.

Vanella eventually moved out west for a brief stint in Montana, where he was later arrested and charged with the shooting murder of his roommate and robbery partner Raffaele Orasio. He was convicted in 1907 of second-degree murder and sentenced to fifty years in the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge. However, socialite prison reformer Ethel Eppstein waged a successful public campaign for his release or retrial, claiming that Vanella had been convicted on circumstantial evidence. The state granted a retrial, and he became a free man in 1914.

The New York funeral chapel followed four years later.

Bonus: below is a photo of Roxie Vanella on his wedding day, circa 1920 or 1921. One of his great-grandchildren posted the image to Shorpy, further corroborating the close relationship with Johnny Torrio (his best man, on the bride’s left).

Photo: Shorpy