Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Old Guard Hdqtrs - No. 307 West 91st Street


In 1896 construction began on a row of seven brick and stone rowhouses at Nos. 303 through 315 West 91st Street.  Developers Smith & Stewart had commissioned prolific architect Clarence True to design the structures, and he created a string of harmonious, yet individual, Renaissance Revival homes completed early the following year.

In February 1897 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that Smith & Stewart had sold No. 307 to Frank Koewing.  The bow-fronted house was clad in rough-cut limestone above a planar rusticated base.  The columned entrance portico, just one step above the sidewalk, provided a stone-balustraded balcony to the parlor level.  Here a three-part opening was capped by a handsome pediment filled with Renaissance-style carving.

Born in Bremen, Germany, Koewing had started his career with the Butterick Publishing Company in Chicago, the first firm to print and distribute sewing patterns.  He left to established his own company, the Standard Fashion Publishing Company in New York.   He and his wife, the former Jessie Smith, had three daughters.

Frank Koewing's fortunes grew; but his health failed.  Finally, he sold his company to his former employers, Butterick Publishing, and retired at the age of 45.  As the family prepared to relocated to their expansive home in West Orange, New Jersey, they sold No. 307 in November 1904 to Dr. Thomas Linwood Bennett.

The 35-year old physician was already well known and respected in medical circles.  Considered the first professional anesthetist in America, he had arrived in New York in 1897.  He invented the Bennett Inhaler, which The New York Times described in 1932 as "an apparatus which for many years was considered standard equipment for the administration of anesthetic and which, with minor modifications, is commonly used today."

He and his wife, Ida, who were married in 1893 had two daughters.  The family had been living at No. 17 West 90th Street.  Upon moving into the 91st Street house, Bennett made at least one significant alteration by installing a custom-made mahogany-cased pipe organ, constructed by the Hutchings-Votey Co. of Boston.  While domestic pipe organs were, at the time, a hallmark of high-end residences; there was another reason for the expensive addition.  Ida was a graduate of the Cincinnati College of Music and a well-known organist.

The doctor also splurged on his fast-moving mahogany "runabout" boat designed by Henry J. Gielow.  Capable of carrying 10 passengers, Bennett boasted it was "fast, about 25 miles" and the "highest grade boat built."

The 91st Street house was filled with watercolors and oils by contemporary American artists.  The Times later said Bennett was "considered an amateur connoisseur."

Considered the expert in his field, the physician was "increasingly he was called more and more to difficult and hazardous cases," according to The Times.  And he was called to cases concerning the very wealthy, as well.

Such was the case on January 16, 1909 when the immensely wealthy philanthropist Mrs. Russell Sage fell in the hallway of her mansion at No. 632 Fifth Avenue while escorting a visitor out.  The 80-year old's right arm was fractured.  Her personal physician summoned a surgeon to help set the bone; but nothing was done until Thomas L. Bennett arrived.

On February 23, 1910 Ida Bennett died unexpectedly in the house at the age of 40.  Her funeral was held in the house.

Perhaps a bit shocking to some, almost immediately after the expected period of mourning Bennett remarried in June 1911.  He and his bride, Ethel Hope, were married at her parents' home in Bayside, Long Island.  The New York Times explained "Dr. Bennett met his future bride on a professional call to New York Hospital, where she was a trained nurse."

Ethel may have had reservations about moving into the home Bennett had shared with Ida.  A month after the wedding the Record & Guide reported he had sold the house.  If there was a pending transaction, it fell through and the Bennetts remained for another nine years--during which time two daughters were born.

The parlor floor hall as it appears today.  photo via Century 21

A sale did come about in February 1920 when Bennett sold No. 307 West 91st Street to The Old Guard of New York.  Perhaps the city's most venerated military organization, it was formed in 1826 as the Tompkins Blues.  Over the decades it had served as honor guard at the funeral of President James Monroe and traditionally was present in all Gubernatorial and Mayoral events, such as inaugurations.
Dr. Bennett did not donate the pipe organ to the Old Guard.  He sold it instead.  The Architectural Record, June 1920 (copyright expired)

The Old Guard brought an extensive collection of military memorabilia to its new headquarters.  It also relocated the impressive stained glass window that had graced the former armory.  Somewhat coincidentally, the main panel fit perfectly into the parlor floor opening.

In 1898 the casket of Isaac E. Hoagland laid in state in the former Old Guard armory.  In the background can be seen the stained glass window.  photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The old stained glass panel fits perfectly where, originally, French windows led to the balcony.  photo via Century 21

Typical of the pomp and grandeur of the Old Guard events was the celebration of its 100th anniversary in 1926.  On April 22, a reception and installation of officers in the house was followed by an impressive and lengthy parade.  "Next the Old Guard, accompanied by an escort of United States soldiers, sailors and marines and military organizations from Boston, Hartford and Philadelphia, will march to St. Thomas's Church at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, for a memorial service," reported The New York Times.  Later that evening a dinner was held at the Waldorf-Astoria.

While that centennial celebration may have been a bit more elaborate, the memorial service and procession were an annual event.  So too was the Annual Ball, held traditionally on the last Friday of January since 1826 when Governor De Witt Clinton and Mayor William Paulding were among the guests.

In reporting on the Ball in 1936, The Times mentioned "The midnight parade, traditional feature of the ball, will be repeated and in this ceremony will be seen uniforms worn in every American war since the Revolution."

Captain Frank H. Clement had died on February 18, 1921.  He left $250,000 to the Old Guard; part of which was used later to refurbish the library on the third floor of the 91st Street headquarters.  Around 100 members and guests attended the dedication ceremony on January 10, 1953.

Unfortunately, funds like those bequeathed by Captain Clement were rarer as years passed.  The New York Landmarks Conservancy examined by building in 2016 and noted "The house is in generally good condition, but has suffered some deterioration due to deferred maintenance.  The roof and parapets in particular are in poor condition and require attention."

photo via Century 21

Sadly, the august organization did not have the funds to address the problems.  Former Commandant Arthur Gallagher told the New York Post "If Donald Trump decided he wanted to be a friend to the Old Guard and give $4 million so we could renovate our building, that would be great.  We'd love to be able to keep the building, but we need to have the money to keep it."


No such windfall came.  And so in 2016 the house was put on the market for $9.5 million, signaling what is no doubt the end of an era in Manhattan history.

photographs by the author

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