Friday, December 23, 2016

The Screndson House--No. 40 Gramercy Park North




In 1831 James Duane’s Gramercy Farm on the east side of Manhattan included both fields and swampy marshland.  With the city inching ever northward, Samuel B. Ruggles recognized the potential of the area and purchased land from Duane to develop into a fashionable enclave ringing a central, private park.

A year later he had drained the marsh and enclosed what would be Gramercy Square (later Gramercy Park) with a heavy cast iron fence in 1833.  In 1844 he began the landscaping of the park and one by one grand residences began rising along the 60 plots that surrounded it.

The exclusive residential tone of Gramercy Square spilled down the side streets.  Just steps to the east, construction of No. 144 East 21st Street was begun in 1852 and completed the following year.  The brownstone-faced Anglo-Italianate house was on the cutting edge of residential fashion.  A shallow stoop led to the arched entrance which was mirrored by the shape of the parlor window. 

An elegant stone balcony at the second floor stretched the width of the building and was accessed through tall French windows.  One floor above, miniature versions appeared as balconettes.  Above it all, an elaborate fascia board decorated the wooden cornice, upheld by three elaborate Italianate brackets.

The well-to-do Screndson family seem to have been its first occupants.  Working for Mrs. Screndson seems to have been a challenge.  On February 14, 1853 two notices, possibly placed by the same servant, appeared in The New York Herald.  The “respectable young woman” was seeking a new job as a chambermaid and laundress, or as a “first rate cook” who “has no objection to assist in washing and ironing, if required.”

The following year, in September her replacement, “a young girl” was looking for a new job as well.  Things apparently did not go well for the next woman, either.  On February 23, 1855 she advertised “Wanted—By a young woman, a situation, as a first rate cook, washer and ironer, or as chambermaid and seamstress.”

Son Erasmus Screndson was a “piano-forte” maker.  The 25-year old would find himself caught up in the deadly Draft Riots of 1863.

Early on the morning of Monday, July 13, after tempers had simmered for a day over the seemingly rigged Civil War draft lottery, rioting broke at.   Initially the mobs attacked military and governmental buildings which symbolized the unfairness of the draft.  But by noon the rabble turned their focus to innocent blacks, private homes, and businesses.

Five days of mayhem and bloodshed resulted in at least 120 dead and approximately 2,000 injured.  The Colored Orphan Asylum was burned to the ground and the children barely escaped with their lives.  Among those injured by what Governor Horatio Seymour called a “ruffianly mob” was Erasmus Screndson.  He had almost made it home from work when he was shot in the foot at the corner of 21st Street and Third Avenue.  His injuries, happily, were not life-threatening.

Life for the domestic staff had not improved.  Situation wanted notices routinely appeared in the newspapers; and in October 1865 the Screndson cook was looking for a new job.  She described herself as “cook in a private family; understands her business thoroughly; best city reference from last place where she has lived nearly three years.”

The surviving carvings around the first floor openings, with delicate foliate touches, suggest the details that were shaved away on the upper floors.

By the late 1870s, when William H. Arnoux moved into the house, its address had changed to the more exclusive-sounding No. 40 Gramercy Park North.  A member of the law firm Arnoux, Rich & Woodford, he was appointed a judge of the Superior Court by Governor Alonzo B. Cornell in January 1, 1882.  It was an elevated position which brought with it a $15,000 salary—equal to about $360,000 in 2016.

The New York Times reported “Lawyers admit that this appointment is one in every way worth to be made, as Mr. Arnoux is in excellent standing at the Bar, and possessed of the ability and attainments fitting him, in every respect, for the position.”  There was one lawyer, however, who disagreed. 

Arnoux would fill the seat of Judge Gilbert M. Speir, whose retirement at the age of 70 was required by law.  But Richard O’Gorman filed suit, saying that in the past November’s election, he had been voted into the position.

The drawn-out court battle went so far as O’Gorman’s suggesting that Speir was not really 70 years old after all.  The former judge was required to testify in court, producing his family Bible as evidence.  After months of wrangling, during which O’Gorman called Arnoux a “usurper,” the jury could come to no decision.  Nine months after the case had begun, Judge Donohue dismissed the case refusing to take sides.  The Times explained “It was entirely useless, therefore, to try the case as it would occupy about a month in the trial, and the courts now have no time to spare.”

Judge Arnoux, whom a newspaper said was “a student of science, literature and art,” sold No. 40 in March 1885 for $40,000 (just over $1 million in today's dollars).  Despite the handsome sale price and the still-upscale reputation of Gramercy Park; within a decade the house, like so many others in the neighborhood, was being operated as a high-end boarding house.

In 1895 there were at least three boarders at No. 40: William B. McLachlin, Fayne Moore, and opera singer Madame Rosa Linde.

A contralto, Madame Linde was well-known in opera circles.  On August 39, 1895 The Times reported on the “second of the series of Mme. Linde’s musicales” given “in her parlors, 40 Gramercy Park.”  The newspaper noted “The rooms were decorated with ferns, foliage, and Autumn flowers.”

Although artists like Senor Albertini sang and the Italian pianist Clementino de Machhi “rendered a nocturne and ballade by Chopin;” it was Rosa Linde who commanding the evening’s attention.  The Times noted “The contralto voice of Mme. Linde was heard to excellent advantage in ‘Amour Viens Aider,’ from Saint-Saens ‘Samson and Delilah,’ and, as an encore, she gave Murio-Celli’s ‘Bells of Love,’ which was composed expressly for her.”

William McLachlin became one of the main figures in a law suit that same year when he fell victim to a fraudulent employment agency.   Temporarily out of work, he applied to the United Commercial Company hoping to find a position in a real estate or insurance firm.  The president, George B. Townsend, promised to find him a position at $12 a week.  But first McLachlin had to pay a $100 security deposit.

When no offers came after two weeks, McLachlin started checking around.  He found 50 other men who had been swindled in the same manner.  The officers of the United Commercial Exchanged were arrested in February 1895.  McLachlin, it would appear, lost his $100.

The press attention received by Fayne Strahan was rather scandalous.  In August, 1896 she met Martin Mahon at a musicale at the New Amsterdam Hotel.  She returned to the hotel the following day after she realized she had lost a diamond pin.  There she ran into the married Mahon again.

The following afternoon Mahon appeared at her rooms at No. 40 Gramercy Park, presumably to let Fayne know that he had ordered the hotel detective to search for the pin.  The seemingly innocent visit developed into a romance.

Later Fayne testified “Mahon called on me very frequently after that.  He invited me to go out driving, which I did.  About September, 1896, I moved to Thirty-second Street, and then he called on me nearly every day.”

The adulterous affair would probably never had come to public notice had not Fayne married W. A. E. Moore on April 9, 1897.  Moore turned out to be physically and verbally abusive, prompting Fayne to reignite her affair with Mahon.  But on the night of November 4, 1898 Moore crashed into the room at the Grenoble Hotel and found the couple together.

“When Mr. Moore came in he assaulted Mahon and he assaulted me,” related Fayne.  “Mahon went on his knees and said: ‘Do not kill me, for the sake of my wife and children; if you kill me you kill them.’  When he turned his pistol on me I said, ‘Spare me and I will go away.’  I left the place then.  I did not return until Nov. 6, when I went to get my clothes, and was arrested.”

Fayne Strahan Moore was arrested on charges filed by her Mahon “who accuses her of having aided in robbing him of $170 and a diamond pin,” reported The New York Times.  The sordid and tangled twists of the illicit love story were gobbled up by newspaper readers throughout the trial.

Other residents here before the turn of the century included Richard Cox and his wife.  Cox had owned a men’s furnishing store at Broadway and Liberty Street for more than 30 years.  He was an intimate friend of Henry Ward Beecher. 

Mrs. John A. Norris lived here in 1899.  On November 19 that year she attended the Metropolitan Opera.  During the performance a man tapped her on the shoulder, telling her that Admiral Schley was only a few seats back.  When she turned to look, the man cut the gold chain around her neck and fled with her gold and jeweled opera glasses.  She reported their value at $250.

Mrs. Eliza Omeara also lived here.  In 1900 Dr. W. M. Richards opened a sanitarium for alcoholics directly across the street at No. 145 East 21st Street.    The New York Times remarked “Gramercy Park is so exclusive that it never occurred to the people who lived there that any one would even conceive of such a plan.”  But after ambulances came and went, men were seen “zigzagging in indirect course of progress,” and broken glass appeared in the curbs, the neighbors investigated.  The newspaper said “and they discovered that right in their midst was a home for inebriates.”

Eliza Omeara joined in the group concern.  She told a reporter on November 7, 1900 “I’m very glad to hear that the doctor has decided to discontinue his sanitarium, or whatever it was, here.  It was awful.  I have made no special complaints, though of course everybody in the neighborhood has been exercised over it.”

Five months later No. 40 Gramercy Park was threatened.  Developer Charles Buek purchased the house, along with No. 39 and No. 148 East 21st Street in April 1901.  He announced “A twelve-story bachelor hotel will be erected on the site.”

But for some reason, Buek’s grand project never came to pass.  And by 1903 the boarding house had become less exclusive.  While the operator still offered “excellent table” and the use of the private park; an advertisement noted “transients accommodated.”

In 1908 dentist John Gulick, his wife and 19-year old son Earl lived at No. 40 Gramercy Park.  Earl had made a name for himself as a boy soprano, and had toured the country with President William McKinley.  Earl even sang at the assassinated President’s funeral.  But by now his voice and his fate had changed.

In May 1908 Earl met with three friends and they went to a café on 41st Street near Seventh Avenue.  When they left, one of group, Alexander H. Dunlap, and Earl got “into a friendly scuffle,” according to Dunlap.  But the scuffle ended with him lying on the sidewalk and missing $60.  Dunlap’s story was, perhaps a bit white-washed.  The Times noted that “With three others, Gulick and Dunlap had been together in many saloons.”

Earl Gulick learned that Dunlap had filed a complaint against him for stealing the cash.  He turned himself into the Sixth Avenue Detective Bureau on May 21 and he was locked up in the Tombs where he spent what he called “a horrible night.”  The following morning he appeared before Magistrate Cornell.  The Times said “The Magistrate gave the one-time ‘angel-faced’ boy singer some good advice against the allurements of Broadway, and the young man said he appreciated the advise.”

The newspaper added “He embraced his father, Dr. John Gulick…and then hurried to his home, at 40 Gramercy Park, where his mother lay prostrated with grief over the arrest.”

Perhaps to save his home, another tenant, Leon Jamaine, purchased No. 40 from the Charles Buek Construction Co. in December 1909.  He spend $130,000 on the aging building.  Four years later he hired architect Paul Meyer to do $100 in renovations to the stonework.  It may have been at this time that the Anglo-Italianate detailing around the openings was shaved flat.

In 1914 the tenant list included Dr. Max Heinmann.  Born in Berlin in 1897 he was an attending physician at the German Dispensary and was connected with the Opthalmic German Hospital. 

The wife of architect Marshall Francis Oliver and their children were also here at the time.  She began a divorce suit against him on January 27, 1914, alleging “that her husband was guilty of misconduct with women at an east side hotel.”  A newspaper noted “Oliver put in no defense.”

Also boarding here that year was 93-year old Emily Berry Egan.  The Times noted “She was a descendant of John Berry, Governor of New York, in the time of Charles II, and was born in the Berry mansion in West Broadway.” 

Foxhall Daingerfield surprised his relatives and friends on October 25, 1914 by announcing he was “going on the stage.”   A graduate of Washington and Lee University, his father was Algernon Daingerfield, the Secretary of The Jockey Club.  Daingerfield had been a successful magazine writer and playwright.  Now he was hired by the Shuberts for a small character role in The Battle Cry, a play about Kentucky life.  Daingerfield played Milt McBriar, “a Kentucky mountaineer.”

A small notice appeared in The Sun on May 5, 1918 announcing the death of Grace M. Sheldon in No. 40.  Grace had been a teacher in the New York public schools for many years.   Her husband, Theodore, survived her.  The tiny obituary would have sparked little notice had it not been for the events of two days later.

At around 10:00 on the night of May 7, 45-year old Theodore Sheldon shot and killed himself in Central Park.  He was identified by cards and letters in his pockets, including his discharge papers from the United States Army.  He had served in the Spanish-American War as a private until 1898.

The New-York Tribune said his relatives said that since Grace’s death he had been depressed, “and is believed to have taken his life in a fit of despondency.”

Among the notable residents during the Depression years was Dr. George Schwartz.  In 1930 the esteemed surgeon operated on famous theatrical producer Daniel Frohman after he was hit by a taxicab; on March 23, 1931 he performed a gallstone operation on Aaron Zimbalist, father of violinist Efrem Zimbalist; and the following year, in December, he operated on Supreme Court Justice William T. Collins for “osteomyelitis of the leg.”

Somehow No. 40 Gramercy Park escaped demolition as modern apartment buildings replaced the old houses along the block.  In 1961 the new owner announced intentions to modernize the building.  “The remodeling plans include a self-service elevator.”

The replacement balcony ironwork does not attempt to mimic the original; but is a rather attractive solution.
In 1970 a renovation resulted in two roomy duplexes above a first floor doctor’s office.  Then in 2001 the structure was returned to a single-family home.  Today, squashed between 20th century apartment buildings, the unlikely survivor dons an inexplicable coat of ruddy brown paint, applied in 2016.

photographs by the author

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