Friday, May 26, 2017

Olde England off the Park -- 17 East 84th Street


Having learned his trade in the architectural office of his father, George Brown Pelham, George Fred Pelham opened his own office in 1890.   His son, George Fred Pelham, Jr., joined the firm in 1910. 

Pelham's designs for apartment buildings, rowhouses and hotels were impressive; but not especially out of the ordinary.  He routinely turned to the same historic styles being used by any number of New York architects--Renaissance Revival and Gothic Revival, for instance.  

In 1922 the Sagamore Realty Co. commissioned Pelham to design a half-million dollar apartment house in Bronxville, New York.  His neo-Tudor fantasy was a striking blend of half-timbering, rubble stone and slate tiling.

Pelham's rendering of the Bronxville project had noticeable similarities to 17 East 84th Street.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, October 7, 1922

Simultaneously, the architect was working on plans for a nine-story apartment building for the 2069 Broadway Corp, to be erected at Nos. 17 and 19 East 84th Street.  Designed in what the Record & Guide called "the style of Elizabethan period of English architecture," the upscale structure would share many of the charming details of its Bronxville cousin.

Completed in 1923, the $300,000 building (around $4.2 million today) was intended for the wealthy residents of the mansion-filled block.  There were just two apartments per floor, each containing five to seven rooms, along with a sprawling penthouse.

The two-story base was faced in rough-cut stone.  Here the slightly off-centered doorway was balanced by a matching, pointed-arched window.  Centered above was a carved coat of arms of two rampant lions flanking a crown-topped shield--the product of a designer's romantic imagination.

Above a projecting stone bandcourse the facade separated into two distinct but equally-charming sections.  To the west, stucco and copper-clad half-timbering created a Tudor cottage effect.  Behind the acute gable was a slate-tiled mansard.  The more severe section to the east was faced in ruddy Flemish bond brick.  Its top two floors, Elizabethan-fashion, were outlined in stone quoins.  A castellated parapet sat ready for pouring boiling oil on unwelcome invaders of East 84th Street.

As the building neared completion, a sign advertised apartments "7 Rooms, 3 Baths; 6 Rooms, 2 baths." from the collection of the New York Public Library

No. 17 quickly became home to some of New York's most recognized names in society.  George Leary, Jr. had grown up in privilege.  The family mansion was at No. 1053 Fifth Avenue and young George was well-known among the yachting and tennis set on Long Island.  His parents' Southampton summer home, Hawthorne House, was completed in 1920.  Gossip, the "International Journal of Society," called it "a pretentious affair so far as spacious grounds and larges rooms on the inside of the house are concerned."

Following George's fashionable wedding to Sarah Thomson in St. Patrick's Cathedral (performed by Archibishop Patrick Hayes, later Cardinal Hayes), the couple moved into No. 17 East 84th Street.  They remained here for years.  Despite the spacious proportions of their apartments, the guest list for the dinner and dancing to celebrate their anniversary in 1925 required larger accommodations.

Dinner was served in a private suite of the Park Lane Hotel.  "The dance followed in the Tapestry Room," reported The New York Times, "the guests for it coming on from other dinners."  Those guests bore the surnames of some of Manhattan's most elite: Dodge, Remsen, Brokaw and Goodhue among them.

Several renowned publishers and physicians were early residents.  Perhaps the most famous doctor was Bela Schick, who married Catharine C. Frieds in 1925.  The couple would live at No. 17 for decades.

A pediatrician, Schick's name lives on in the Schick Test which essentially brought an end to diphtheria as a fatal disease to thousands of children annually.  But he was also known for his touching ability to relate to his young patients.  The New York Times noted later "Visitors to a sick child in the hospital were often astonished to see the distinguished-appearing Dr. Schick in a white medical jacket squatting on the floor, his hands sticking up from his head like ears, waggling his fingers."

Although he and Catharine never had children, he held firm opinions as to their rearing.  In his 1932 book Child Care Today, he offered guidance to parents like "Love the child--that is the most important implement of discipline," and "The attitude of parents toward sex education may be summed up in these words: No emphasis and no secrecy."

It was not all work for Schick.  He and Catharine routinely appeared at concerts and traveled frequently.

Among the prominent publishers in the building was Pascal Covici, of Covici, Friede, Inc.  In 1928 he was dismayed at the Government's censorship of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Considered pornographic, it was banned in the United States.  But before the Custom House began confiscating the book, Covici had acquired a copy.

He wrote to the author, saying in part "Sincerely, I believe it to be the most vital piece of fiction I have read in the last ten years.  It would be a tragic loss to literature if your book would not be brought out in some way or other in America."

The phrase "in some way or other" was significant.  He offered to publish Lady Chatterly's Lover in the U.S. "if some of the phrases that seem to offend out Custom House officials were taken out."

The Great Depression had little effect on the upscale building.  In 1938 management reported that it was fully rented and had been for the four previous years.  Nevertheless, in November 1941 the building's owners, the Harlem Savings Bank, announced that architect J. M. Berlinger had been hired to remodel the penthouse "into two three-room apartments."

The elderly Sarah Wisner Lockwood had been living alone here since her husband's death in 1927.  I. Ferris Lockwood had been bursar of the New York Public Library.  Sarah was well-known for her charity work and had founded the New York branch of the Girls Friendly Society in 1894.

The Lockwood's daughter, Priscilla, had married Alfred F. Loomis in Grace Church on June 5, 1921.  Perhaps because of her mother's advancing age, the Loomis family moved into the building from their home at No. 122 East 76th Street in 1941.  Loomis, like George Leahy, Jr., was well-known in yachting circles.  He was the author of several books on sailing and his various vessels, docked near their country estate, The Orchard, in Huntington, Long Island, raced regularly in regattas.

Sarah Wisner Lockwood died in her apartment on October 24, 1944 at the age of 94.  Her son-in-law, Alfred, was serving as a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves in the war at the time.

The Loomis family would remain in the building for years; their names appearing regularly in the society columns.  The children received the upbringing expected in wealthy families.  Sarah, known as Sally, debuted in the ballroom of the Cosmopolitan Club on November 2, 1946.  She attended the exclusive Chapin School, then Bryn Mawr College, and was, of course, a member of the Junior League.

Sarah's brother, Alfred Worthington Loomis, was married to Louise Harding Earle in St. John's Protestant Episcopal Church in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, in May 1950.  The same church was the setting of Sarah's wedding the following year, in April, to Ward Clarke Campbell.


On November 19, 1967 while Bela and Catharine Schick were on a cruise to South America, the doctor was stricken with pleurisy.  He was brought back to New York on November 30 and he died exactly one week later at the age of 90.  The distinguished couple had lived in what The Times called their "spacious apartment" for approximately four decades.

George Fred Pelham's quaint apartment house is little changed since it elbowed itself in among private mansions in 1923.  A modern awning obscures the details of the entrance; but overall its charming personality survives.

photograph by the author

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The 1887 Chas. Lehmann Bldg. - 754 Ninth Avenue




Charles Lehmann ran his butcher shop from at No. 754 Ninth Avenue, just south of the corner of West 51st Street in the early 1880s.  He and his wife Matilda lived in the little building behind the store, with the address 754-1/2.

In January 1886 the firm of Thom & Wilson had its hands full.  The architects were simultaneously working on 11 houses on Tenth Avenue at 76th Street, 13 houses on Ninth Avenue and 64th Street and five more on Park Avenue.  They were also at work on 10 apartment houses in Midtown, three "stores and flats" on Ninth Avenue, and nine tenement buildings.

Nevertheless Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson accepted another, much less ambitious, commission to design a small building in the gritty Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.  On April 23 Thom & Wilson filed plans for a replacement "four-story brick tenement with store" for Lehmann.  The 25-foot wide structure was projected to cost $16,000 to build--a little over $415,000 today.

Lehmann's building was completed in 1887.  The cast iron elements of the two-story commercial base appear to have been selected from foundry catalogues.  In stark contrast, the upper two floors were far from off-the-shelf.

Contrasting materials and colors--brick, stone and terra cotta--joined in a handsome neo-Grec facade splashed with hints of Queen Anne.  Thom & Wilson used brick for much of the decorative elements--the imitation quoins and blocks flanking the third floor openings, a sawtooth bandcourse, and recessed panels, for instance.  Between the third and fourth floors two panels filled with terra cotta tiles provided visual interest.  Their swirling designs, sunbursts or sunflowers were important Aesthetic Movement motifs.  The sheet metal cornice, with its panels of swags and rosettes, included a stylish parapet that may have originally announced the construction date, or perhaps Lehmann's name.

Sadly, a coat of white paint disguises the once-colorful contrast of stone, brick and terra cotta.

Charles Lehmann reopened his butcher shop in the ground floor.  The second floor was taken by Brode & Shannon, plumbers and gas fitters.

The upper two floors contained apartments, leased to low-income working class families.  Outside their windows was the Ninth Avenue Elevated Railroad.  Not only passenger cars, but rumbling freight trains traveled up and down the avenue.

Despite the desperate conditions of Hell's Kitchen residents, one family in No. 754 struggled to improve the future of one son.  Charles F. Osborne was enrolled in the College of the City of New York while living here.  His studies may have been slowed by having to work to help the family.  It took him six years to graduate in 1895.

In 1893 Charles Lehmann leased the butcher shop to L. Meyer.  It changed hands again when R. F. Hilsmann bought the business.  He transferred ownership to Emil A. Hilsmann, most likely his son, in 1897.

An upstairs tenant, Joseph Gunterman, learned a valuable lesson on June 13, 1898 when he visited the brothel at No. 210 West 13th Street.  The place was run by Georgie Daly, a 24-year old black woman.  Gunterman told police that Daly had entered the room where "he was in the bed" with an "unknown woman" that night at around 11:40.  He claimed that when he got dressed, he was missing $50.

Georgie Daly was arrested and held for trial on grand larceny charges.  The case was heard before a grand jury on June 27, 1898.  Gunterman's story of being robbed in a house of ill-repute, however, would not have garnered sympathy from the respectable jury.  Too, his assertion that he was carrying $50 in cash--nearly $1,500 in today's dollars--was suspect considering that he lived in one of Manhattan's seamiest neighborhoods.  The jury dismissed the case.

At the time Frederick Coppolo ran his sidewalk fruit stand in front of the butcher shop.  He turned over its operation to Andres Gargula the following year.  Gargula was granted his fruit stand license on September 5, 1899.

Charles and Matilda Lehmann struggled to keep their building.  On November 1, 1905 they refinanced the property with a mortgage of $12,000; not appreciably less than the original construction cost.

Little had changed to the neighborhood in the first years of the 20th century.  The renters in No. 754 continued to be hard working, blue collar types.   James R. Hayden lived here in 1906 when he was hired by the City as an "axeman" with the Board of Water Supply.  To quality for the stable position, which came with an annual salary of $840 (less than $23,000 today), Hayden had to pass a Civil Service exam.  As the City laid water pipes and sewers, heavy laboring axemen like Hayden would be on hand to clear the sites.

On September 11, 1915, the worst accident in the history of New York's elevated railways occurred two blocks north at the 53rd Street curve.  Thirteen people died and 48 others were seriously injured. The Lehmanns still owned No. 754 a year later when the Manhattan Railway Co. proposed adding a third track to the elevated railroad.   Like other property owners along Ninth Avenue, they received a small compensation after approving the additional track.

After having been the neighborhood butcher shop for decades, the ground floor was home to H. Cohen's furniture store by the outbreak of World War I.

The Keiser family rented an apartment here in the 1920s.  Harold Keiser was 17 years old in 1923 when he and three friends went to a party in the apartment house at No. 6 Amsterdam Avenue.  The problem was that none of them had been invited and they were refused entrance.

Undaunted, the boys decided to crash the party by entering through a window by way of the rear fire escape.  They went down the block until they found a way to get to the roof of the seven-story apartment building at No. 14.  But in order to get to No. 6 they had to leap from building to building.

Keiser did not get very far.  Between No. 14 and 12 he missed.  He would doubtlessly have died in the seven-story plunge had it not been for a bizarre reprieve.  As with most apartment buildings, housewives dried their laundry on criss-crossing clotheslines.  Pulleys made it possible for them to send the wet clothes into the high voids between the buildings.

The New York Times reported "Bouncing from clothesline to clotheslines Harold Keiser...escaped with a broken right ankle."  The newspaper explained that the clotheslines which stretched from window to window across the areaway acted to break his fall.

The Keiser family was among the last residents of No. 754 Ninth Avenue.  In 1930 architect Irving Kudroff renovated the commercial floors, including vast show windows at the second floor.  The upper two floors were converted for storage.

At some point a sheet metal patch was inserted into the pediment, announcing an arcane date.

It would not be until the last quarter of the 20th century that Hell's Kitchen would see change from one of the most depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods to a trendier residential district.  Charles Lehmann's butcher shop became the Network Theater by 1979, and the Amistad Theater in 1982.  By 1981 the Stanley Harrison Acting Studio was also in the building.


Today a Mexican restaurant operates from street level, with the appropriate name Hell's Kitchen.  The upper floors have been given a regrettable coat of gray-beige paint which sadly hides Thom & Wilson's contrasting colors and materials.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The 1886 Marvin Safe Company Bldg - 468-472 West Broadway

In the early 1970s, with paper box factory on the lower floors, the building was remarkably intact--including several of the original doors.  photograph by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On February 19, 1885 fire broke out in the six-story factory of the Marvin Safe Company at No. 326 West 37th Street at around 2:40 in the morning.  A second, then a third alarm was called as "there were prospect of a serious conflagration," as explained by The New York Times the following morning.  When the blaze was finally extinguished, the building was in ruins.  One week later Building Inspector D'Oench ordered the "razing of the walls."


Owner Willis D. Marvin wasted no time in laying plans for a new factory.  He purchased the properties at Nos. 88 through 92 South Fifth Avenue, running through the block to Nos. 136 to 144 Thompson Street and hired architect Oscar S. Teale to design a "six-story brick and iron factory."  Teale's plans, filed in June that year, placed the cost of construction at $65,000--about $1.65 million today.

The Marvin Safe Company was firmly established as a leading player in the industry.  Its safes--ranging from relatively small office-sized models to gigantic vaults--were well-known for protecting their contents from fire.  The large headquarters building would house a multitude of departments--manufacturing, painting and stenciling, offices and salesrooms.   Because of the elevated train that ran down the middle of South Fifth Avenue, Teale placed the showrooms on the second floor--visible to passengers--while less noticeable ground floor retail space would be leased.

Oscar S. Teale was educated at Cooper Union, graduating in 1866, and had worked with several architectural firms, including the offices of J. Cleveland Cady and Lamb & Rich.  But it is not his professional successes for which he is best remembered, but for his avocation--magic.  Teale was an amateur magician and a close friend of Harry Houdini.  He would go on to write books on the subject, including his Higher Magic: Magic for the Artist.  Not only did he design Houdini's magnificent monument in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York; but he served as a pallbearer at the funeral.

Teale's completed Marvin Safe Company building was six stories of red-orange brick trimmed in stone and cast iron.  The Romanesque Revival tripartite design kept the visual weight low.  The hefty three-story base was dominated by three soaring arches where rough-cut stone courses decorated the piers.  Unexpected neo-Classical elements appeared in the delicately festooned panels that defined the second and third floors, and the elegant scrolled keystones draped with garlands.  The spandrels of the arches were filled with lacy cast iron decorations.


The two-story middle section featured a row of six arches joined by prominent eyebrows.  Here again the neo-Classical panels appeared and bold decorative cast iron masonry supports adorned two piers.  Teale continued to lessen the weight with each succeeding level.  The sixth floor was a light array of three sets of arched openings below pronounced lintels.  A sturdy brick corbel table took the place of a cast cornice.
 

The ground floor was leased to the C. & C. Electric Motor Company.  The Iron Age, in 1888, explained "They manufacture electric motors from one-eighth horse-power up for general manufacturing and mechanical purposes."

In describing the effect of the elevated railroad on businesses later, real estate operator Victor Levy noted that the second floor showroom was an advantage for the firm.  "The Marvin Safe Company building don't have their salesroom there, it is a kind of show room for advertisement for the elevated railroad.  It is a big advertisement.  It is an improvement for them."


The rear, Thompson Street, elevation is decidedly more spartan.
More than 250 employees--all male--worked in the factory.  Their grueling jobs were not pleasant.  In the spring of 1886 they walked out, demanding better wages and more humane working hours.  A compromise was achieved on May 5 with Marvin Safe Company agreeing to reduce hours of labor "to nine hours on five days of the week and eight on Saturday."  They refused to increase wages, however, except in the case of "17 men in the ironworking department, who will receive an advance of $1 a week."


The safes were not only complex and secure, but highly attractive.  The New York Clearing House, 1888 (copyright expired)
The Marvin Safe Company was understandably sensitive about the reliability of its product.  So management was apparently infuriated when The Evening World erroneously reported that one of its safes had been broken into in the offices of William E. Chamberlin.  On March 3, 1889 a retraction explained that the safe "was made by a Pennsylvania house, and this statement is made in justice to the Marvin Safe Company, whose safes are not considered as favorite objects of attack on the part of the enterprising burglar."

Not all of the Marvin Safe Company's employees worked in the factory.  A crew was required to deliver and install the safes which weighed thousands of pounds.  It was a job not without its dangers.

In 1892 a five-ton safe was delivered to the seventh floor of the Hays Building at No. 21 Maiden Lane.  The elevator suddenly jerked upward, sending a worker plummeting down the shaft, killing him instantly.  And on April 30, 1894, as workmen were hoisting a 5,000-pound safe through the elevator shaft to the 12th floor of No. 68 Nassau Street, one of the cog wheels of the windlass broke.

The Times reported "The safe fell to the stone floor at the bottom of the shaft with such force as to shake the surrounding buildings.  Frank May, one of the workmen, was struck by flying pieces of the windlass.  His arm was dislocated and he received severe contusions on the leg...John Burke, who rode up on top of the safe, jumped to one of the floors just in time to save himself."

In the spring of 1895 the City embarked on a project of widening and extending College Place.  By cutting the street through existing blocks it would form a connection to West Broadway and South Fifth Avenue--one continuous thoroughfare from Dey Street to Washington Square.  Businessmen like Willis Martin predicted confusion.  He joined others in a petition to the mayor on March 18 suggesting "the entire street should be given the name of West Broadway for its entire length."  The idea was well received and the Marvin Safe Company building received the new address of Nos. 468-472 West Broadway.

By now Marvin Safe Company had merged with two other prominent manufacturers, the Herring Safe and Lock Company of New York, and the Hall Safe and Lock Company of Cincinnati.  What would seem to have been a wise move proved otherwise and the consolidated firm was soon in trouble.

The title to the West Broadway building was in the name of Marvin's wife, Lilla.  In March 1899 plans for $1,200 in improvements were filed under her name.  The quiet updating may have been in preparation for the inevitable leasing of the factory space.  The improvements seem to have included the automatic sprinkler and fire doors soon touted in loft advertisements.

On November 25, 1899 The New York Times reported that United States Judge Kirkpatrick had denied an application "for permission to sell and dispose of the plant and stock of the concern."

In August 1900 the Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Company was reorganized and a few months later leased the four-story building at the northeast corner of Broadway and Walker Street.  Lilla B. Marvin retained ownership of the West Broadway building, which was quickly leased to multiple tenants.

Among the first were Toch Paint Supply Co., makers of "damp resisting paint," A. Hart & Company, "makers of Artistic Metal Novelties," and the Martin Brass Foundry.

Benajah M. Martin was owner of the foundry that bore his name.  He and his family lived at No. 240 West 74th Street.  His daughter Alice was frail, The New York Times describing her saying "from childhood she had been more or less an invalid," and she was constantly under a doctor's care.

Despite her condition, Alice had involved herself in mission work on Chrystie Street beginning around 1906.  But in November that year she was concerned about a condition that affected the muscles of her throat.  She convinced herself that she was suffering from tuberculosis.

On the night of November 20 the 20-year old wrote a note explaining that rather than be a burden to her family and suffer herself, she would end her life.  She then drank oxalic acid dissolved in water.  Around 7:00 her maid found her lying on her bed "suffering great agony."  Alice was dead before a doctor could arrive.  Her note ended "I give you all my love.  Good-bye to you."

Toch Paint remained in the building for several years.  They were joined by the Joseph alter Box Co. and in 1912 by M. Friedman & Co., manufacturers of canes and umbrellas, who took the fifth floor.

The Jos. Walter Box Co. foreshadowed the several similar firms who would lease space two decades later. New-York Tribune, November 29, 1911 (copyright expired)

In 1920 the Incandescent Supply Company leased the entire building, paying $21,000 a year rent (just under $250,000 today).  But before long the firm purchased the property.

Incandescent Supply Company sold the building in 1928, while still leasing a portion for its use.  Soon No. 468 West Broadway would fill with paper box makers--Livingston & Co., the Plymouth Corrugated Paper Box Co., and the Belle Box Company.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw substantial change in the Soho neighborhood as factories gave way to art galleries, boutiques and cafes.  In 1977, while the upper floors continued to be manufacturing space, the ground floor was converted to Mama Sitka's restaurant, described by Howard Thompson in The New York Times on February 28, 1979 as "a buzzing, cavernous place, with the piano across the room beyond the bar."

A year after Mama Sitka's opened, the upper floors were converted to what the Department of Buildings described as "studios--art, music, dancing or theatrical, with accessory living."  A subsequent renovation in 1983 resulted in "class A" apartments.


The ground floor saw a string of trendy tenants following Mama Sitka's.  The Circle Gallery opened by 1983 and would remain for more than a decade.  Sharing street level was Pour-Toi in 1989, a high-end boutique offering designer clothing by designers like Moschino, Gianni Versace and Karl Lagerfeld.  The first American store of Saba Australia opened here in August 1997, specializing in both men's and women's clothing; followed by Detour boutique in 2004 and Paul Smith around 2012, and currently Hugo Fine Arts Gallerie.

The Marvin Safe Company's building, designed by a magician, has suffered little change--keeping the 1886 architectural magic intact.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Lee Ping Kwan, AIA, for suggesting this post

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Hotel Hargrave -- 106-112 West 72nd Street



On January 6, 1903 Walter Stabler delivered an address to the Real Estate Class of the Y.M.C.A. on "The Development of the West Side."  In it he outlined the rather stumbling progress of developers in what was, in the mid-19th century, "one vast stretch of farm land."   It was not until the early 1880s, he pointed out, that real development took hold.   Only a few years after those rows of houses were erected many of them along the avenues and major streets were demolished as a new trend arose: residential hotels.

In George L. Felt commissioned architect Frederick C. Browne to design a 12-story hotel at Nos. 106 through 112 West 72nd Street.  The property ran through the block where four brownstones, completed in 1884, faced 71st Street.  Most likely inspired by the Parisian-type structures that had earlier begun arising along Broadway, Browne turned to the popular Beaux Arts style.

West 72nd Street retained its residential nature when the Hotel Hargrave was completed.  On Columbus Avenue the elevated railroad can be seen.  from the collection of the New York Historical Society.

Completed in 1902, the Hotel Hargrave was a bit more restrained than its larger and grander Broadway counterparts--there were no heroic sculptures nor fruit-burdened garlands, for instance.  Its brick and stone facade, however, did not disappoint.  The rusticated stone base rose three stories to an iron-railed stone balcony supported by pairs of ambitious stone brackets.  The six-story central section featured two curved copper-clad bays that culminated in frothy, carved cartouches.  Another full-width balcony introduced the upper section, dominated by a double-height copper mansard.

The Hotel Hargrave extended, partly, through to 71st Street.  When Henry L. Felt leased the new building to the Hargrave Hotel Company in March 1902, the paperwork noted that it included "the 16-foot house in the rear."  The management company, which agreed to pay $730,000 in total during its 21-year lease, had been organized specifically to run the hotel.  The New-York Tribune noted the group "is controlled by a number of wealthy club men and one of the largest wholesale manufacturers of furniture in the city.  It is to be fitted up elaborate, and will be rented as a high grade hotel.  It will be managed by a man who at present runs one of the most prominent clubs in New-York."

That manager was George Brown, who advertised the Hotel Hargrave as "New York's most accessible hotel," boasting the "six lines of transit, including Elevated and Subway express stations" nearby.  Unlike the residential hotels which were essentially high-end apartment houses without individual kitchens, the Hargrave was a "modern, high class family and transient hotel with superior appointments."  The distinction made it clear that travelers were welcomed as well.

The least expensive accommodations cost $2 per day--about $57 in today's dollars.  Brown marketed the hotel's amenities saying it offered "superior appointments," the restaurant service was "excellent," and "fine music a feature."

Thefts in turn of the century hotels were a constant problem and Brown apparently tried diligently to screen his potential employees.  When 18-year old Louis Messier applied for a bellboy position early in 1903, he seemed the perfect fit.  The young man came from a good Massachusetts family and he had graduated from a college in Montreal.  The New-York Tribune noted that he "presented good recommendations."

It was not long before police were searching for a hotel thief.  Among the guests robbed was George H. Pursur, who discovered $1,050 in jewelry missing from his room.  On February 23, 1903 two detectives entered Messier's rooms at No. 248 West 45th Street.  With Messier was 22-year old telephone operator John Cullen.  The officers found $3,400 in stolen jewelry in Messier's pockets and dresser drawer along with pawn tickets for almost that much more.

With Cullen's arrest his telephone operator position became available.  It may have been Rene Depierre, working in that position the following year, who filled the spot.  It was a job that nearly took Depierre's life on August 26, 1904.

At around 3:00 that afternoon, after connecting two rooms, he placed his hand on the metal portion of the transmitter.  According to the New-York Tribune, he "instantly fell to the floor, writhing in pain."  George Brown rushed to aid him, while bellboys ran for doctors. 

The Sun reported that Brown and other employees "saw that his arms were burned and swollen and that his face was purple."   The New-York Tribune added, "While waiting for the ambulance Depierre had an acute nervous attack, in which he constantly bit his finger nails, and the combined strength of the manager and a guest could not keep him from doing so."

All the while he was unable to speak and contorted his body as if in great pain.  His condition became more exaggerated at the hospital.  After a long period of continuous "massage treatment" he finally returned to normal.  Depierre remembered that after making the connection he felt a "terrific shock" and felt "as if red hot irons" were being thrust through his body.  After that he remembered nothing.

The hotel electrician searched for the cause, but could find nothing wrong with the switchboard.  His theory was a bit bizarre.  He told a reporter that "the telephone wires, which run underground to the hotel, may have become crossed with the Columbus avenue trolley wires, also underground."


An early postcard shows the original glass marquee and shallow stoop.  To the west, four-story brownstone homes still stand.
The Hotel Hargrave contributed in part to the women's movement in 1905 when it was the scene of the organization of the Women's Eastern Golf Association on December 13.  The club continued to meet in the hotel for years.

The success of the Hotel Hargrave prompted Frederick C. Browne to be called back in 1905 to enlarge the building.  The extension, completed in 1907, filled the entire 71st Street property.  There were now 300 guest rooms, 200 baths, a restaurant, four electric elevators and its own electric and ice making plants.


Burglaries continued to be a problem; but one guest handled an incident with amazing calm.  Samuel Fessenden was State Attorney of Connecticut and his family home was in Stamford.   The family closed the house for the winter of 1906-07 and moved into the Hargrave. 

While the family was at dinner on the evening of Saturday, February 16, the telephone rang.  Fessenden's daughter, Helen ("well known in Connecticut society," according to the New-York Tribune) left the table to answer it.  Just as she entered the darkened room a dark figure holding a revolver stepped out of a corner and ordered her not to make a noise.  He demanded that she turn over her jewelry.

Helen calmly explained that the family was in mourning and there were no jewels.  But she walked to a dresser and took two dollars from her purse, saying she was sorry that was all she had.

"Confound it, that's just my luck!" growled the burglar in hushed tones.  "This place looked good to me, and just because I am up against it and need the money there's nothing doing.  I won't fall for two bones, so here's your money back, and now, show me the way out."

Helen led him to the fire escape but before he left she "remonstrated with him on the error of his ways," according to the New-York Tribune.  When she was sure he was gone, she returned to the dining room and informed the family.  With the danger behind her, the reality of what had just transpired hit the feisty socialite.  "Miss Fessenden was much unnerved by the incident, but soon regained her composure," said the newspaper.

To the east of the hotel was Park & Tilford's high-end grocery building.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Living in the Hargrave at the time was Gustav J. Fleischmann, president of the Fleischmann Realty and Construction Company.  Their mansion at No. 18 West 86th Street, which the would share his Gustav's partner and brother and their parents, was being completed.

Only a month after Helen Fessenden's incident, on March 25, Mrs. Fleischmann noticed that a blue velvet jewelry box in her dresser had been tampered with.   Missing were two diamond festoons valued at $6,000--more than $155,000 today.

The couple had hosted a dinner party for 12 guests the evening before.  Mrs. Fleischmann became indignant when police asked about them.  "Please do not refer to that.  They were all friends, just a little party of friends, and they enter in no way into this affair.  So say no more about them."

Police knew for sure that whoever the thief was, he was in a hurry.  He left behind $20,000 worth of diamonds pearls and other gems in the same drawer; including a $15,000 diamond necklace which had been only a few inches away from the lost festoons.

Suspicion fell on the Fleishmanns' two maids and the three hotel servants who had been in the apartment to clean.  The police were confident it was "an inside job," and noted that Mrs. J. Floyd Jones had recently been robbed of a $500 pearl necklace.

Annie Cronin, a 25-year old Hotel Hargrove maid, who had been hired in October, was arrested on what today would be considered rather flimsy grounds.  One of the Fleischmann maids told Detective Price "she saw the Cronin woman standing near Mrs. Fleischmann's dressing table Sunday morning."  The New York Times admitted "This is the only evidence so far against Annie."

If indeed Annie Cronin was responsible for the robbery, she was far less professional than the burglar who made off with $5,000 worth of Martha H. Armitage's jewelry in January 6, 1908.  Called by police the Rope Ladder Hotel Thief, 21-year old James Lakin was arrested on February 24.  The daring robber was wanted for robberies and burglaries both in New York and Boston for his four-month crime spree.  He entered hotel rooms by dropping a rope ladder from the roofs.

Lakin confessed to the Armitage theft.  In reporting on the arrest, The Sun mentioned "Mrs. Robert Tainer of the Hotel Hargrave was robbed of a quantity of valuables on February 16, but Lakin said he had no hand in it."

Terror filled the hotel on November 22, 1911 when a massive explosion occurred on the corner of 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, just feet away.  A shanty had been erected there by sewer workers to hold dynamite.  Because the sticks had become partially frozen, they were being "toasted" to thaw them out.  The resultant explosion rocked the neighborhood, killed one man and injured several more.

The New York Times reported that the Hargrave "was the scene of intense excitement...Manager McGrath was in the lobby when he saw his windows go to pieces."  Almost all of the windows were blown out.

The telephone operator, Agnes Costello, "plugged every room in the house and gave a hasty assurance...that no one in the building was in danger," wrote The Evening World.  But guests were nonetheless shaken.  Rubber manufacturer E. L. Goodlove was shaving at the time.  "The shock threw his razor blade against his throat and inflicted a slight cut," the World said.

And John A. McCarthy, here from Albany, was blown into his bathtub by the force of the blast.  The New York Times lightened the mood by reporting "He was not hurt and showed his appreciation of the help accorded him by turning on the water and finishing his bath.  It was the first time, it was said in the hotel, that a guest had been assisted at his bath by an explosion of dynamite."

Perhaps the most infamous guest of the Hotel Hargrave was the former President of Nicaragua, General Jose Santos Zelaya.  In November 1913 when he arrived in New York he was wanted by the Nicaraguan government for the murders of Sixto Pineda and Domingo Toribio.

According to officials, Zelaya was "plotting to return to power in Nicaragua."  He and his son, Macias, went to the Hotel Victoria, then slipped away to the Waldorf-Astoria.  Discovering that he was being followed, he quietly checked into the Hotel Hargrave on November 20.

The New-York Tribune reported on November 25 "The Secret Service men followed the party to the Hotel Hargrave, and it was thought that the former dictator was trapped.  But Zelaya has friends in New York."

After staking out the hotel for some time, officials saw no trace of the fugitive.  The Tribune reported "At the hotel desk it was learned that General Zelaya had not been seen about the hotel since Saturday night.  It was though that he might have left the place on Sunday.  The baggage, the clerk said, was still in the house, but the hotel was being closely watched by Secret Service agents."

It was later discovered that Zelaya had been spirited out of the hotel in a trunk.  He was finally arrested in a friend's apartment on West End Avenue.   The Nicaraguan Government dropped its charges and allowed him to be released from The Tombs as long as he went to Spain.

In the years just prior to World War I the Hotel Hargrave was still upscale.  An advertisement in October 1916 noted that it catered "only to a Discriminating Clientele."   A two-person suite of parlor, bath and bedroom cost $3.00 per night, or about $67 today.  The same size apartment, rented full time in 1922, cost the equivalent of $2,475 per month today.

Prohibition brought frustration to many, if not most, Americans.  One of those was Hotel Hargrave resident Harry Schloss, who attempted to take matters into his own hands.  On July 10, 1924 The New York Times reported "The blockage against rum-runners in the estuary of the Shrewsbury River resulted yesterday in the seizure of 144 bottles of liquor found in a trunk and packing case that were being loaded on a truck from a steamboat, the Mary Patton."  Customs Inspectors told reporters that the trunk was consigned to H. Schloss, Hotel Hargrave."  Harry could not be found when agents followed up at the hotel.

For years the widow Evelyn A. Mossman and her son, John, had lived a secluded life in the Hargrave.  An invalid, she never left the apartment and spent no money.  Reportedly she had no jewelry and only $25 worth of clothing.  But the eccentric recluse was by no means indigent.

After she died in her apartment on November 19, 1925 a counsel for her estate discovered that banks and corporations had been searching for her for years.  "Mrs. Mossman's securities were so widely scattered and so neglected that many stocks had been called in long before her death and dividends on them had ceased," reported The Times.  "Many bonds had unclipped coupons which had matured far back."  Because she never turned in retired stocks or collected interest on bonds, institutions had been trying to find her.

After two years of unraveling Evelyn's tangled affairs, her estate included more than $1.1 million in securities, nearly $200,000 in bank accounts, and almost $67,000 in mortgages.  It was estimated that son John would inherit approximately $1.35 million--about 18 times that much today.

The Great Depression and changing taste negatively affected the Hotel Hargrave.  Fussy Beaux Arts hotels had lost favor to modern Art Deco structures.   Instead of the upscale suites of two decades earlier, a 1937 advertisement touted wicker-furnished rooms as "comfortable living at reasonable rates."

A faded star living here at the time was Helen Lackaye.  Born in 1883, she was known for her roles in such plays as Neal of the Navy in 1915, and The Knife in 1918.  She appeared as late as 1928 in Revolt at the Vanderbilt Theater.

Helen Lackaye -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

Helen was in private life Mrs. Agnes Helene Ridings.  On October 19, 1940 she was returning home from Pennsylvania on a Baltimore & Ohio train.  She became ill and was given first aid from a train attendant; but just as the train approached the Jersey City Terminal Helen died.

Helen Lackaye would not be the last of memorable names from the theater to live in the Hotel Hargrave.    In the fall of 1951 actor James Dean arrived in New York.  According to his biographer Peter Winkler in the 2016 The Real James Dean, "Sometime later after meeting and beginning an intimate relationship with dancer Elizabeth 'Dizzy' Sheridan, they rented a tiny, dilapidated room at the Hargrave Hotel."

By the time of this mid-century postcard, a shop had been carved into the former lobby.

As the Columbus Avenue-72nd Street area underwent a renaissance in the 1970s, the bleak hotel got a make-over.  On October 28, 1973 Robert E. Tomasson, writing for The New York Times, said "West 72d Street, a major commercial thoroughfare that has undergone a marked rejuvenation in the last few years is losing its last major eyesore, the 12-story former Hotel Hargrave near Columbus Avenue."

Purchased a year earlier by Sackman Enterprises, it was undergoing a conversion to 183 apartments, ranging from studios to two bedrooms.  A subsequent renovation, completed in 1989 converted the building to 66 condominiums.

While the ground floor has been somewhat altered and a beauty and hair care shop glaringly insults the once-proud French structure, the intact upper floors of the Hotel Hargrave are reminders of a time when the jewels of monied residents were constant temptations for robbers.

photograph by the author

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Lost Church of St. Gabriel - 310 East 37th Street

 
photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1859 the Kips Bay district around East 37th Street was anything but enchanting.  Hard-working immigrants, mostly Irish, moved into the sparsely developed area.  That year Archbishop John Hughes established a new parish, the Church of St. Gabriel, and assigned an Irish-born priest, Rev. William H. Clowry, to head and organize it.

Nearly half a century later, in 1902, the United States Catholic Historical Society recalled in its Historical Records and Studies, 'it was mainly a parish of wooden shanties."  Aside from about five brick houses on 37th Street, east of Second Avenue, "there were only empty lots, a stoneyard, and the future site, at First Avenue, of the car barns, stables and repair shops of the old Belt-Line surface car service."

The writer was specific regarding two addresses.  "East of No. 305, on the north side of Thirty-seventh Street, stood the big shanty of the good Catholic, Billy Jones; east of that and farther back from the street, stood the humble shanty of another good Catholic, Mrs. Ward, afterwards Mrs. Brady, or vice versa."


A wealthy Catholic, Henry J. Anderson, donated eight building lots on East 37th Street, between First and Second Avenue for St. Gabriel's.  The generous gift was valued at $25,000, more than three-quarters of a million dollars today.

Rev. Clowry recognized that the impoverished immigrant children needed education perhaps more than religious training, and set out first to establish a school.  The the first schoolhouse--for girls--was completed before the end of 1859.  Historical Records and Studies was astounded, in retrospect, at its immediate success.  "The number of girls in attendance was eight hundred.  Eight hundred!...Think of the neighborhood as it was in those days, and then say if this was not a magnificent act of faith."

The following summer the boys' school was opened.  Corralling those street toughs into a classroom was most likely an arduous struggle.  The Historical Records and Studies remarked that a nearby field was where "bellicose boys arbitrated their differences by means of fisticuffs, while directly opposite and east of where the church now stands was the stone-yard battlefield, which beheld some bloody struggles between the Thirty-sixth Streeters and the Thirty-eighth and Thirty-ninth Streeters."

Two Brothers of the Christian Schools were assigned as teachers in the boys' school; but records were unclear as to the number of pupils.  Although one church historian felt that the success of the girls' school might have prompted parents to send their sons; he recognized that boys went off to work at an early age rather than attend classes.

The first floor of the boys' school doubled as a chapel.  The 1,500-member congregation worshiped here for five years; unable to start construction on a permanent church because of the Civil War.  The cornerstone was finally laid in 1864.  The church had commissioned architect Henry Engelbert to design the structure.  Engelbert was a favorite of the Catholic Church at the time and, in fact, would be called in to handle the restorations of Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street following a devastating fire.

Engelbert turned to "the Gothic architecture of the thirteenth century."   He faced the front in brownstone, while the sides were of red brick.  The congregation, accustomed to living in the barest of conditions, would have been awed at their new place of worship.

The Catholic Churches of New York City, 1878, (copyright expired)

Completed in 1865 the church was 68 feet wide and stretched back 138 feet.  A tower and spire rose 168 feet above the unpaved road.  The interiors were meant to inspire both reverence and wonder. 

Eighteen slender clustered columns upheld the fan-groined ceiling.  The church could accommodate 2,000 persons.  "The chancel is finished in the richest style of ornamentation," said The Catholic Churches of New York City, "and possesses a new feature in the shape of two arches--the interior one twenty feet wide, and the exterior one thirty, so that the large altar can be seen from every part of the church."

The double arch of the chancel was an innovation.  Note the overlaid Gothic tracery on the ceiling of the arch.  The marble memorial alter was installed in 1885. The Catholic Church in the United States of America, 1914 (copyright expired)

The chancel featured a large painting of the Annunciation, by Italian artist Giuseppe Mazolini.  It was a copy of Baroque artist Guido Reni's original in the Quirinal Chapel in Rome.  Two side altars, "elaborately finished," were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and to St. Joseph.

A faithful copy of The Annunciation to Mary adorned the altar area.  the Museum of the Louvre

The dedication of the $80,000 church was held on November 12, 1865.  Not only was Archbishop John McCloskey on hand, but a "long line of clergymen" that included the Bishop Lynch of Charleston.  The crowd was so large that not everyone could get in; others could not afford the $1 entrance fee for the service.  Nevertheless, The New York Times said "not a seat could be found, while the aisles were crowded almost to suffocation."

Rev. Clowry's emphasis on education continued, prompting The New York Herald to remark on July 11, 1879 that since his founding of the parish he had devoted "all his energies to the education of the children of his parish, and with such success that the schools under the charge of the Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers are in a most flourishing condition, teaching over sixteen hundred pupils."

By the time of the article the church membership had swollen to 12,000, at least on paper.  A collection was begun in 1879 among the members as the 13th anniversary of Clowry's ordination approached.  On July 10 a "very handsome testimonial" was given to the priest that included the presentation of a check for $1,204.50.

Rev. Clowry died around midnight on June 11, 1884.  His impressive funeral service was held in the Church of St. Gabriel on June 14.  Assisting were several priests, seven monsignors, two bishops and Archbishop Michael Corrigan.  Immediately afterward, his body was interred in a grave between the church the the rectory.

The organ loft sat above the main entrance.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Monsignor John M. Farley was among those celebrating the funeral mass.  He was Secretary to Cardinal McCloskey, a particularly elevated position in the Catholic Church.  The following week he was replaced and assigned as pastor of St. Gabriel's.  While some may have viewed the change as a demotion of sorts, it in no way diminished his station in the Church and he was elevated to papal chamberlain that same year.

The much-devoted followers of the late priest quickly laid plans for a memorial to him.  On July 6, 1884 The New York Times noted "It is stated that in place of the erection of a monument over his grave, between the church and rectory, many of the congregation would much prefer to contribute for a memorial altar of marble to replace the present high altar in the church."

That new altar was dedicated in November 1885.  Replacing an altar was no simple task because of the sacred aspects of both pieces.  On Friday the 27th The Times reported "The ceremony was begun Wednesday evening by the exposition and veneration of the relics, the recitation of the divine office, and by the vigil which was kept up all night by the members of the Young Men's Sodality.  The mystical function was continued at 8 o'clock yesterday by the Archbishop...at 10 A. M. Archbishop Corrigan celebrated a solemn pontifical mass."  Once again the chancel was filled with bishops, monsignors, and various other priests.

The magnificent fan vaulting can be seen in this view of the gallery.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Church of St. Gabriel was, of course, repeatedly the scene of Irish funerals.  Some, however, stood out.

One was that of James Brennan, a policeman shot by gangster Henry Carlton, alias "Handsome Harry."  The Evening World ran a headline on October 30, 1888 that read "At Their Comrade's Bier--Martyred Policeman Brennan Sadly Laid at Rest."  In Victorian prose the article described (perhaps in too much detail) "the policeman who had closed a white record by death in the discharge of his duty lay calmly sleeping in his coffin.  The wounds made by two of the three bullets which Carlton sent hissing into his head were concealed by neat pieces of white court-plaster."

Ranks of policemen, four abreast, had marched ahead of the hearse.  As the casket was placed on the black catafalque before the altar, the front pews filled with blue uniforms while "the rest of the church was crowded with men and women."

General Thomas Fancis Bourke was among the best known of the fighters for Irish independence, known as the Fenian Movement.  His funeral on November 13, 1889, understandably drew considerable attention.

Calling him "the Irish agitator," The New York Times reported "A large crowd attended the funeral services, composed mainly of colaboraters [sic] in the cause so dear to the dead man and for which he gave up the best years of his life.  The floral offerings from the various societies of which he was a member were exquisite and numerous."

The church was packed with representatives from the heavily-Irish New York Police Department, politicians, the Irish Volunteers of the National Guard, several judges, and military officers.

But no funeral was so emotionally-charged or widely reported than that of 13-year old Mary Cunningham.  The girl lived in a tenement across from the church, at No. 315 East 37th Street, with her widowed mother.   The New-York Tribune described her as "a pupil at St. Gabriel's School, and was considered a good child.  She had considerable taste for music, and took lessons in the piano from a daughter of Police-Sergeant Hatton."

Around 8:30 on the morning of May 30, 1896, Mary's mother left the apartment "telling her daughter to remain in care of the house and to do certain work around the rooms," according to the Tribune.  Because it was Memorial Day, most of the other tenants were out enjoying the holiday.

Mrs. Cunningham returned at around 2:30.  She was surprised when Mary did not come out to meet her.  When she walked into a bedroom, she found Mary on the floor with her head beneath the bed.  "Pulling her into view she was horrified to discover that there was a towel tied around her neck and that her eyes were black and blue as if she had received a severe beating.  The tongue protruded from the mouth and was black and swollen."

Mrs. Cunningham ran screaming into the hallway.  By the time police arrived, she had understandably become hysterical.  Investigators noted that "The condition of the room and of the girl's clothing indicated that a struggle had taken place."  The New-York Tribune added "The police believe that an attempt was made to assault the girl, and that she was murdered because of her resistance."

While the search for Mary's murderer went on, her funeral was held in the Church of St. Gabriel on June 2.  The New York Times reported "The crowds of people left scarcely room in the street for the undertakers' assistants to carry the white casket of the strangled girl across the street from her home...to St. Gabriel's Church, and even the roofs of the neighborhood were weighted with a great number of curious people."

The pathos of the girls' murder and the poignancy of her mother's grief (the newspaper said she "almost hysterical, kept close to the casket, wailing and weeping."  The emotional funeral drew throngs.  "So great was the crowd that pressed toward the entrance to the church that to guard life the police were obliged to use all their strength to keep the mob back."

Eight boys acted as pall bearers, each wearing a white band on his right arm.  They escorted the hearse to the 34th Street Ferry to be transported to the cemetery.

An innocent man almost paid dearly for Mary's death.  An Italian delivery boy, Joseph Ferrone, told police he witnessed Edward McCormack "bending over the body of Mary Cunningham" when he was delivering ice to the building.  It was a serious accusation.  A guilty verdict would result in McCormack's being hanged.

New Yorkers were convinced that the murderer had been found until they read the shocking report on June 26 that Ferrone admitted he made up his story to garner attention.  His attorney asked the court to be lenient.  Assistant District Attorney O'Hare was less inclined to go easy on the boy.  "The bail should be very high.  This young scamp deserves to be hanged," he told the judge.

When Judge Cowing reminded Ferrone's attorney that a man might have been executed, O'Hare chimed in.  "This is a most vicious scoundrel.  The young pirate caused a man to be kept in prison, and he was on the brink of being indicted for murder for the perjury of this boy."

Ferrone's bail was finally set at $2,500--almost $73,000 today.  The murderer of Mary Cunningham was never found.

In the meantime, John Murphy Farley's career within the Catholic Church continued to rise.  In 1891 he became Vicar General for the Archdiocese, and was raised to the rank of domestic prelate in 1892.  On November 18, 1895 he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop by Pope Leo XIII.

All the while he continued to lead St. Gabriel's congregation.  On Christmas Day 1897 The Sun reported that he had modernized the sanctuary with electric lighting.  "The confessionals are all supplied with the incandescent bulbs, beautiful effects are produced by electric bulbs in the arch of the apse, and the stations of the cross are illumined by concealed lights."  The article stressed that candles would continue to serve their religious roles--for processions, altar lights, and vigil candles, for instance.

In the fall of 1902 the Vatican announced that John Farley had been made Archbishop of New York, succeeding Michael Corrigan.   His assistant at the Church of St. Gabriel was Patrick Joseph Hayes, who would follow in his footsteps by becoming Archbishop of New York following Farley's death in 1918.

By the time of the Great Depression, the Kips Bay neighborhood around the Church of St. Gabriel was no longer the shantytown it had been in 1859.  The city embarked on a massive engineering project in October 1936--the Queens Midtown Tunnel.   Three years later the Work's Progress Administration's New York City Guide remarked "The entire block on which the church stands is scheduled to be razed to make way for an approach to the Queens Midtown Tunnel."

By the time the book was published, the last mass in the church had already been celebrated.  On January 16, 1939 The New York Times reported "With an overflow congregation of 2,500 persons in attendance" the final service had taken place.  A choir of 75 voices "composed of present and former residents of the parish" had been specially brought together for the event.  The article noted Rev. Thaddeus W. Tierney wanted this to be a "joyful rather than sad" service.  "But even as Father Tierney spoke scores of men and women throughout the church were seen weeping."

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
The church, the school, and the neighboring tenement buildings were demolished later that year.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Leon M. Hirsch House - 15 East 94th St



Doubling as architects and developers, Robert N. Cleverdon and Joseph Putzel began construction of nearly the entire northern blockfront of East 94th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues in 1892.  Designed as two projects--one group of five houses, the other of six--the Romanesque Revival residence were aimed at the upper class.  Plans projected the building costs to be $20,000 each; more than half a million dollars today.

The more easterly row, Nos. 15 through 25, were designed in an A-B-C-C-B-A pattern.  The two end homes strayed from the strictly Romanesque Revival style with striking results.  While the other homes displayed the expected squat or beefy columns with complex medieval capitals, the parlor levels of the end houses were formal and classical.  Four stately, fluted Doric columns upheld a purely Greek entablature.  The Doric order reappeared at the top level in a dramatic and visually stunning loggia.

An intricate dentiled cornice runs below the pressed frieze. Swirling carvings on either end of the frieze below the loggia were up-to-date takes on the Romanesque.

The second floor was dominated by a projecting bay.  The shape of the oversized, triangular pediments of the little flanking openings, too, balked at the Romanesque; while conceding to the style in the carved decorations.  Below the cast metal cornice, which upheld an unusual and decorative arcade-like parapet, was a frieze of neo-Classical wreaths and garlands.

The rolling, foliate brackets at the base of the bay--serving no purpose than to be visually appealing--are a charming detail.

Leon M. Hirsch purchased No. 15 in the spring of 1895, a few months after its completion.  He paid $39,000--a little over $1.1 million today.   The house would be an active one--Hirsch and his wife, the former Sarah Strauss, had six children.

Leon Hirsch was 55-years old at the time.  He had come to New York from his native Paris when he was 7 years old.  An enterprising youth, he started his own business at the age of 17 when he noticed an opportunity hiding in plain sight.

Shoe manufacturers provided retailers with samples to be used by their "drummers"--the men who stood on the sidewalk in front of the stores to lure customers inside.  When the season was over and new styles appeared, the samples were returned.  Unable to sell them as new, the makers discarded them.  The teen recognized that the practice was not only as a pitiable waste; but a splendid business opportunity.

Hirsch began buying the nearly-new samples at absurdly low prices.  The manufacturers were, of course, eager to get rid of them with at least some cash return.  He then resold the shoes, prompting The New York Times to later note "He then made a more or less secure corner of the sample shoe market in New York for some time, and his business grew."

His business not only grew, but made Hirsch rich.  By the time he purchased the 94th Street house, he was also heavily investing in real estate.

The first major event in the house was the wedding of daughter Aline to Dr. Henry Spitzer in January 1899.  The social stature to which the boy who resold shoe samples had climbed was evidenced by the wedding being covered by the New-York Tribune.  The article noted that Aline's lace veil was "held in place by a diamond ornament, a gift from the bridegroom."

In January 1909 Hirsch caught a cold traveling between the house and his shoe store in the Centre Market on the Lower East Side.  On the 29th it developed into pneumonia and he died at the age of 65 just five days later on February 3.

Financially, his death could not have come at a more inopportune time for Sarah.  His estate, all of which was left to her, was tied up in what The New York Times called "large property holdings."  But the devastating effects of the Financial Panic of 1907, considered one of the three worst depressions since the end of the Civil War, were still being felt nationwide.  There was still a $20,000 mortgage on the 94th Street house and the real estate environment made liquidating the Hirsch holdings impossible.

Sarah kept up appearances, while she gleaned the income from the properties.  In November 1913 daughter Nannette was married to the well-to-do lawyer Jacob Newman in the Hotel Gotham.   Sarah's brother, Charles Straus gave the bride away.  He was president of the Board of Water Supply of the City of New York.  No one in the ballroom that afternoon would suspect that Sarah was struggling.

Society weddings were expensive events.  One week after Nannette's, Sarah announced the engagement of Gladys on December 7, with the wedding to be held in June 1914.   It may have been the cause of the family's selling of Leon's art collection.

On January 23, 1914 the American Art Galleries announced the upcoming "unrestricted Public Sale" of the "private collection of valuable paintings by the Old Masters and early English painters formed by the late Leon Hirsch."

Then on March 29 Charles Straus, as executor of Hirsch's estate, petitioned the courts "for leave to place a second mortgage of $15,000" on the 94th street house.  Straus was frank in describing his sister's financial plight and explained that all efforts to liquidate the Hirsch real estate were fruitless.

The wedding of Gladys to William W. Silberman was held in the house on June 6.  Charles Strauss once again stood in for the bride's father in giving her away.  This would be the last social event Sarah would preside over here.  She died on December 4 that year.

The family leased the house to Dr. Antonio M. Crispin, finally selling it to him in October of 1920. 
Born in Havana, Cuba in 1871, he had come to New York at the age of 7.  When just 20 years old he received his medical degree from the Bellevue Medical School.

He and his wife, Dorothy, had two daughters and one son.  By the time he moved into the former Hirsch house, he was head surgeon of the French, Columbus and Broad Street Hospitals.  Nationally-recognized, he wrote technical articles in periodicals like The Literary Digest, the Monthly Cyclopedia and Medical Bulletin, and The American Journal of Surgery. He co-founded the Spanish-American Medical Society in New York, and served as its president.

The couple's unmarried daughter, Maria, was still living with her parents as late as 1934 when she was listed as a member of the Association of Private School Teachers.

After being retired for several years, Crispin moved to Boonton, New Jersey around 1939.  The house was sold and in February 1940 a conversion to apartments--two per floor--was completed.  Other than removing the stoop and moving the entrance to the basement level, the renovations left the facade mostly untouched.

Other than the expected updates, like replacement windows, the Hirsch house looks little different than it did in February 1940 when the stoop was taken away.  Its one-time twin at No. 25 East 94th Street has been radically altered; leaving No. 15 to display Cleverdon & Putzel's surprising and engaging blend of two totally unrelated historical styles.

photographs by the author

Friday, May 19, 2017

Cleverdon & Putzel's 1896 No. 20 Bond Street





The area around Broadway, Lafayette Place and Great Jones Street was an aristocratic enclave in the 1820s and '30s.  But Bond Street outshone its neighbors in several cases in terms of elegant mansions.  One of these was the marble-fronted residence of Knowles Taylor at No. 20 Bond Street, erected in 1824.

In 1830 Taylor moved to No. 8 Bond Street, and No. 20 became home to Judge John Duer, “one of the most eminent of New York jurists,” according to Valentine’s Manual of the City of New York.  Duer would become Chief Justice of the Superior Court in 1857 and was the editor of Duer’s Reports.  His stay at No. 20, like Taylor’s, would not be especially long.  He moved to No. 97 St. Mark’s Place in 1838.

The next wealthy owner of the house was Maria Banyer, the widow of Goldsborough Banyer and a daughter of Chief Justice John Jay.  Shortly after moving in, she held a meeting of ten ladies in the house in the fall of 1839.  The women founded the “Colored Home” that afternoon.  For years it would stand on East 65th Street, just off Fifth Avenue.  Maria lived in the mansion until her death at the age of 75 on Friday night, November 21, 1856.

On March 26, 1857 A. S. Hope paid $17,000 for the “marble-front three-story dwelling.”  He had to pay separately--an other $9,325--for the rear lot, facing Great Jones Street, on which the private stable stood.  Although the neighborhood was already seeing change (Bond Street had the largest concentration of dental offices in the city in the 1850s), it still retained its mostly upscale distinction; reflected in the combined price of approximately $735,000 in today's dollars.

Like the owners before him, Hope filled the house with expensive furnishings and artwork.  On December 14, 1862, when he prepared to leave New York City, he placed an advertisement in The New York Herald offering his “magnificent rosewood seven octave piano” for $240; less than half the $500 he had paid for it only five months earlier.  He described it as having “carved legs and mouldings, overstrung bass, of superior tone and finish, made by one of the best makers.”

Hope would be among the last homeowners to enjoy Bond Street as an exclusive residential enclave.  Following the end of the Civil War wealthy citizens moved northward as commerce continued to inch into the area.  Finally, in November 1880 architect G. F. Pendleton filed plans for owner E. P. Dickie to convert the mansion for business.  The marble front was “altered” and all the interior walls removed, replaced with “girders and columns instead.”

Dickie held on to the property until 1894, leasing to businesses.  That year the massive project to connect Elm Street to the south with Lafayette Place, creating Lafayette Street, began.  The new thoroughfare would cut directly through the Bond Street block, suddenly making No. 20 a corner property.

In April 1894 the prolific real estate brother team of Henry and Samuel Corn purchased No. 20 for $41,000.  It may have been the coming Elm Street project that prompted them to have second thoughts; or it may have been the astounding profit offered.  Just days later they resold the property to Weil & Mayer for $100,000.  The firm, headed by Siegfried Mayer, announced its intentions of erecting “a seven-story brick business building on the site.”

On December 14, 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide commented on the firm.  “Weil & Mayer, the well-known real estate investors and operators, are, or were a year or so ago, the most extensive owners of flat and tenement property, and were credited with the ownership of 130 such buildings.”  But now they were disposing of their tenement holdings “at reasonable prices and giving their attention to investments in business property.”

Such was the case with No. 20 Bond Street.  The firm commissioned Cleverdon & Putzel to design a modern loft and store building to replace the marble mansion.  As if playing with children’s building blocks, the architects stacked disparate styles one atop another in one- and two-story sections.

The midsection explodes in a dizzying feast of carved designs.
The two story cast iron base was less exciting than most.  A shop window was flanked by two double-doored entrances—one to the store and the other to the upper stories.  The second floor held a dignified row of tall six-over-six windows, most likely fronting a showroom.

The restrained stone-faced third floor supported an exotic two-story Moorish Revival section that dizzied the passerby with swirling arabesques, engaged columns and an ornate cornice.  The sedately Romanesque Revival uppermost section was clad in brick and trimmed in stone.  Four openings on each level visually connected to form tall arches.  The overall design was unified by the repeated use of elaborately carved cornices and friezes.

The rounded portion of the cast cornice originally supported a decorative flag pole.
Weil & Mayer quickly sold their “modern store and business building,” as described the Record & Guide on March 14, 1896.   Their apparent profit was slim.  Having paid $100,000 for the property, they now sold it for “something more than $100,000.”

The building was resold in January 1898 for $125,000, prompting the Record & Guide to say the sale “speaks well for values in that neighborhood.”

In 1899 the building was home to an unlikely tenant: The Protective League of Salt Water Fishermen.  That year it adopted a platform to “protect the gamefish of the Hudson River between Bedlow’s Island and Tarrytown Light.”  At the time striped bass and other fish were being netted for use in fertilizing plants.

The group added two more issues to its crusade the following year.  The New York Times described the environmental “follies” saying “fishing waters are rapidly becoming spoiled by sewage and depopulated through the rapacity of the net and mossbunker fishermen and the unreasoning desire of some men to take home fingerlings, which are of no earthly use, except as food for domestic cats.”

Also in the building was Alfred McKenna & Co., manufacturers of “hat frames.”  Among its employees in 1902 was German-immigrant Max Alexander, a 53-year old salesman.  On the evening of October 23 that year Alexander left work and went uptown to his club, the German language Aschenbroedel Verein on East 86th Street.

The following day The Evening World reported that the big card room was crowded “with members engaged in games of cards, the favorite ‘scat’ and pinochle.  The atmosphere was smoke-laden, but the players were happy.  So was the rotund Alexander.”

As Alexander’s game went on beer glasses were replenished, each time with a fresh papier-mâché coaster printed with a German slogan.   Players recalled later that “the mottoes had more fascination for him than the game.”

One player commented “Max is sentimental tonight.”
Another replied, “He is really dreaming over those mottoes, wine, women and good living.”

Alexander’s response was surprisingly philosophical and dark.  “Yes, but in the midst of life we are in death.  We can’t always hope to live for their enjoyment.”

The portly man won the next hand and pounded the table so vigorously “that the beer glasses and motto discs fairly jumped from the board,” according to The Evening World.   His score for that game set a record at the club.  The cards were dealt for a new game.

Alexander’s friends waited for him to play his hand.  He sat with his head slightly back, his eyes only partially opened.  Becoming impatient, they raised their voices, “Your play, Max; hurry up!”

The Evening World wrote “Alexander’s head hung forward limply. He was dead.”  Somewhat dramatically the newspaper reported “Beneath his glass of beer was the disc bearing the motto: ‘Gesundheit is besser wie krankheit.”  Health is better than sickness.

Alfred McKenna & Co. would remain in the building making hat frames for years.  Other millinery and apparel firms here were Henry Kastner, neckwear maker in 1906; Rosenberg & Daseuer, manufacturers “of flowers and fancy feathers,” who moved here from No. 40 East 9th Street in 1915; and William Berkowits who took the second floor in 1916 for his hat frame factory.

Through the 1920s No. 20 Bond Street continued to house apparel and millinery firms.  In 1921 Perl & Patrino, Inc. was still here, making children’s hats; and in 1924 the Beaver Shirt Company leased the sixth floor.

But by 1939 when the building was sold, then resold within two weeks, the neighborhood was in decline.  The property was assessed at just $29,000, almost half of which was the value of the land. 

But as Manhattan neighborhoods do, the gritty Noho area rebounded.  In 1993 the building was converted to “joint living and work quarters for artists.”   Today, while partially obscured by grime and a fire escape, Cleverdon & Putzel’s eccentric façade is little changed.  Even the 19th century entrance doors survive on the eastern side.

photographs by the author