Tuesday, December 12, 2017

H. J. Hardenbergh's 280-284 Columbus Avenue



Although it was inventor and actor Isaac Merritt Singer who founded the Singer Sewing Machine Company; it was Edward C. Clark who made it a success.  The sewing machine was not a new idea when Singer began tinkering with the contraption around 1850; several variations had already been patented.  But his improvements in 1851 resulted in the first practical machine.

Clark had been Singer's attorney since 1848 and the two became business partners.  A marketing genius, Clark's innovative ideas--like accepting trade-ins for newer models--made the Singer Company an enormous success and the partners millionaires.

Edward Clark diversified into real estate development.  In the 1870’s he teamed with fledgling architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh and erected rental cottages for summer visitors to Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York.  It would be the beginning of a long and mutually-prosperous relationship, and one which would help set Hardenbergh on the road to becoming a leading architect.

Very quickly Clark turned his attention to the rocky, mostly undeveloped Upper West Side. 
He was outspoken in his intentions to make the West Side as affluent as the East.  He encouraged landowners to work together, mutually investing in property, and issuing restrictive covenants on construction. 
In 1879 Clark began construction on an extensive project--25 rowhouses on West 73rd Street anchored by a matching four-story apartment and store building at the corner, at Nos. 280-284 Columbus Avenue.
Clark's speculation was both aggressive and risky. Years later The New York Times would remind its readers the area "was in the heart of a squatter's shanty district, where goats and pigs were more frequently encountered than carriages in the muddy streets."
Hardenbergh deftly morphed the residential row into his apartment (or "flat") building on the corner.  The brick-faced Renaissance Revival style structure was touched with modern neo-Grec elements, notably the architrave upper window enframements, and Queen Anne details like the terra cotta rosettes within the cornice frieze and the nearly whimsical rooftop pediments.  And, as if that mixture was not enough, he added delicate French balconies here and there.

The entrance to the apartments, at No. 101 West 73rd Street, mimicked the private houses along the row.  The commercial tenants used the Columbus Avenue address.
Two years after the building (middle right) was completed, the Ninth Avenue elevated was extended as far as 81st Street.  The block between 72nd and 73rd, behind Clark and Hardenbergh's Dakota Flats, was being excavated when this shot was taken.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Interestingly, the ground floor commercial spaces were leased mostly by firms involved in the real estate and development industry.   Among the first were Slawson & Hobbs, real estate agents, here in 1890; builder G. J. Harlow, and prolific developers W. W. & T. M. Hall.  By 1893 builders Egan & Hallecy was here as well and would remain for years.
By 1896 those firms were joined by builder William E. Diller; Frederick H. Birch, real estate; Thomas J. Brady's commercial plumbing business; and Moquin & Offerman, coal dealers.

 
Hardenbergh deftly transitioned from commercial to residential by matching the facade of the apartments with the private house next door, once the first in the long row of residences.

Slawson & Hobbs, run by partners Frederick G. Hobbs and George L. Slawson, was a highly-visible real estate firm on the Upper West Side.  They were highly responsible for filling the rising rowhouses and apartment buildings with tenants.  At the turn of the century, for instance, they were the sole agents for the sprawling Ansonia and Victoria apartment buildings.  In 1902 they published a booklet entitled "West Side Apartments."
That same year, on January 4, the Record & Guide commented on the firm's full-service business, calling their offices "a plant."  "Slawson & Hobbs have made up a very complete plant, embracing sales, mortgages, building plans and other items of interest that facilitates very much their extensive and constantly growing business.  The firm's offices, at No. 284 Columbus av., near 73d st., are thoroughly equipped for the quick and satisfactory dispatch of business."
Hardenbergh's eclectic mix of styles resulted in a stylish Victorian design.
Like many of the other commercial tenants, Thomas Brady's plumbing business remained in the building for years.   In 1903 The Plumbers Trade Journal gave a hint of the activity within his office.  "Still as busy as ever is the condition which Thos. Brady, of 284 Columbus avenue, Manhattan, is to be found.  His trade at this time of the year is first-class and calls for a good deal of his personal attention, besides keeping three or four men very much on the go."

After being in the building for 20 years, Slawson & Hobbs moved to No. 162 West 72nd Street in September 1910.  Five months later the Clark estate hired architect George H. Griebel to design a new storefront.  

By now Thomas Brady's plumbing business had been replaced by that of John Boyd.   Like Brady, he handled large projects, like the conversion of a five-story private residence on East 46th Street to a commercial building in July 1912.  Interestingly, when Frederick A. Clark did renovations to the apartment building directly across Columbus Avenue in 1914, John Boyd not only did the plumbing, but was the architect of record.

In the meantime, the upper floors had been initially leased to well-to-do families, followed by more middle class tenants.  When war broke out in Europe, young J. B. Johnstone sailed off to fight with Company F. 112th Infantry.   

Although peace was declared in November 1918, the soldiers were still deployed for months.  In order to provide them with a touch of home for Christmas, The Sun initiated The Sun Tobacco Fund, which provided soldiers with 17 packs of cigarettes and 23 "sacks of tobacco" each.

Now a lieutenant, Johnstone sent his written thanks to the newspaper and gave a detailed account of his much improved conditions since peace was declared.  His letter, published on January 28, 1919, said in part:

We are in a captured salient which the Americans took from the Heinies, and living in their quarters on a beautifully wooded hill.  I with another 'shavetail' have a stone cottage, with real beds, a stove which the orderly lights before reveille, a desk, chairs, wardrobe and all the comforts of a human being's home.  The mess is wonderful; pancakes with syrup galore, steak, fritters and doughnuts.
It was most likely the advent of the Great Depression that dealt a severe blow to the apartments.  On September 10, 1934 The New York Times reported that the owners, Cappa Realty Company, had leased the three upper floors "to Bertha Stegun for a rooming house.  The floors contain thirty-three rooms."

The accommodations in the "rooming house" were basic at best.  It could more adequately have been termed a flophouse.  In 1943 there were five stores at ground level, with ten SRO rooms on the second floor with one "community kitchen," and eleven SRO rooms on each of the two uppermost floors.   


Overall the building in 1941 looked little different than today.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Things seem to have improved somewhat by mid-century, however.  By 1950 Alice Margaret Chilton called the building home.  Formerly the wife of Boston architect Howland Jones, she was for many years a social worker for All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church on Henry Street.

The Columbus Avenue neighborhood experienced a renaissance in the last quarter of the 20th century as trendy restaurants and boutiques appeared.  In 1974 a renovation resulted in six apartments per floor above the storefronts.  Where builders and plumbers had once operated, The Cultured Seed opened its florist shop by 1976.

In 1982 a unique clothing shop opened here, Vermont Classics.  Owners Pauls Neustate and Sheila Silverman offered "classic clothing handmade by people who live in villages and on farms throughout New England," as described in New York Magazine on September 20.  "There are hand-knitted sweaters, quilted pillows and bed coverings.  And there are raw-silk dresses made in small workshops, as well as factory-made classic New England clothing."



At the same time Robbyn Yoffee and Jane Bloom ran Tianguis Folk Art here.  No less unique, The New York Times on February 9, 1985 described its self-made summer line as "1950's inspired fashions for women who weren't yet born in the 50's."
The store spaces continued to house popular businesses like Exotiqa, which sold imported home furnishings and "trinkets" until 2000; and the seafood restaurant Ocean Grill.  Today fashion boutiques fill the Columbus Avenue storefronts.

In the meantime, the upper floors of Hardenbergh's stylish flat building have suffered little change.  It survives as a remarkable example of early multi-family housing in the then just-developing neighborhood.

photographs by the author

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Lost New York Club - 20 West 40th Street



The newly-completed clubhouse sat among brownstone residences of a generation earlier.  photograph by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Organized in 1845, the New York Club was the oldest men's social club in Manhattan.  After having already relocated several times, it moved into the renovated the former Philip Caswell mansion at No. 370 Fifth Avenue in 1888 after a fire destroyed its clubhouse in 1888.

The New York Club occupied the former Caswell mansion for nearly two decades.  -- photographer unknown; from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York -- http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHZECLN&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=603#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHZECLN&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=603&PN=3

But the exclusive residential neighborhood around the clubhouse quickly changed.  Just two years later William Astor demolished his childhood home a block to the south and replaced it with his Waldorf Hotel.   And in 1894 his aunt, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, followed suit, razing her brownstone mansion next door and erecting her own hotel, the Astor, joined with the Waldorf by both an apostrophe and the famous Peacock Alley.

Perhaps the last straw for the club's dignified members was the demolition in 1901 of its only neighbor on the block, the white marble palace of Alexander T. Stewart.  Commerce was overtaking the neighborhood.  After lengthy (and heated) discussions, members decided on a new site overlooking the rising New York Public Library and Bryant Park behind.  The block was transforming into a "club block," with the new Engineers' Club and  Republican Club buildings recently constructed.

On April 11, 1905 The New York Times quietly mentioned that "W. Clarence Martin has sold to E. Clifford Potter 18 and 20 West Fortieth Street, two four-story brownstone dwellings."  The site would soon be added to with the purchase of No. 22 as well.   Later that year, in December, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide revealed that the New York Club had commissioned Henry J. Hardenbergh to design a nine-story clubhouse.

Describing the proposed structure as being clad in brick and trimmed in terra cotta, the journal placed the cost of construction at $300,000--nearly $8.5 million today. "The first story will contain the club offices and cafe, and the second and third stories the library and card, billiard and committee rooms."  The entire eighth floor was consumed by the "dining hall," and the seventh held private dining rooms.  The fourth, fifth and ninth floors were filled with "sleeping rooms," necessary for wealthy club members whose mansions were shuttered during the summer months yet who needed to return to the city for business.

Hardenbergh's rendering was published in the Architectural Record on June 8. 1906 (copyright expired)

When the New York Club moved into its completed home in March 1907 The New York Times called it "a bachelor's heaven."   Hardenbergh had created a confection of deep red brick, white limestone, and terra cotta.  The first three floors were highly influenced by the Beaux Arts movement.  The centered entrance at sidewalk level was overshadowed by the three two-story arches, fronted by bowed and balustraded balconies directly above.  French gave way to Dutch on the upper floors, where Flemish Renaissance Revival referenced the city's early history.  It all culminated in a two-story, tile covered mansard with stepped gables, a prominent pediment, spiky finials and a massive terra cotta roundel.

The sleeping apartments were also used by "non-resident" members--the small group of wealthy out-of-towners who visited Manhattan regularly.  Among these was the former mayor of Toledo, Ohio, Guy G. Major.  He arrived in New York on January 6, 1912, expecting to spend a few days in the city.  His stay was prolonged when he soon developed pneumonia.  Three weeks later, on January 30, Major died in his room in the Club.


The New York Club was still one of the most prestigious of men's social clubs in 1914.  The high social standings of its 675 members high were rarely soiled by scandal.   That was sometimes simply because nearly unlimited wealth could buy one's way out of public ignominy.  Such was the case with one member that spring.

Benjamin Odio was 71 years old; a respected, retired merchant and a member of the New York Produce Exchange.  He was startled by detectives who broke into a West 47th Street apartment house in the early morning hours of May 9.  Four women were arrested, one charged with keeping and maintaining a disorderly house, or brothel, and the others for "being inmates."   Odio was taken in as well for soliciting the services of the women.

But when he was brought before the judge, it was not the wealthy clubman who was in trouble, it was Detective Lydig of the Central Office Squad who had arrested him.  Magistrate Corrigan found the officer's testimony "was insufficient to support the charge," according to The New York Times the following day.  The newspaper added "The Magistrate became indignant, and calling Lydig to the bar, censured him.  He then discharged the prisoner.  The women were held for trial."

By the time of the Great Depression the New York Club was seeing its neighborhood, once again, succumbing to commerce.  On January 25, 1931 The New York Times commented on the migration of social clubs from the area.  "In years gone by, when Fifth Avenue below Fifty-ninth Street was the fashionable residential thoroughfare of the city, it was perfectly natural that many of the best known clubs should make their headquarters there."

But now, noted the article, of the more than 20 clubs that had been located on the avenue only three remained.  And the New York Club was one of the few to hang on along the blocks just off the avenue.  But that was about to change, as well.

Once one of the most financially stable clubs in the city, in 1933 its members had to decide whether to completely disband, or to sell its clubhouse and share the Lotos Club's clubhouse at No. 110 West 57th Street.  In February the board of directors made the choice to sell.   President Clarence G. Meeks put the best possible spin on the announcement.  "In taking this step, it is to be understood that the New York Club will not be disbanded, but will really be a 'club within a club.'"

With the repeal of Prohibition in sight, the building was purchased by Schenley Distributors.  On the night of December 5, 1933, the official end of Prohibition, the New York Club's members were spending their last few days in the clubhouse.  Despite the repeal, The Times noted that the club "did not serve last night."

With alcohol once again flowing freely, Schenley soon became Schenley Affiliated Corporations, described by The Times as "formed largely of wine and liquor companies."  The various distilleries and plants were situated in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. 

The general offices filled the entire building.  In January 1934, the same month the firm moved in, it announced further expansion.  The Times reported "It was learned that in addition to manufacturing and marketing the present Schenley products, the company contemplates manufacturing certain food products as a by-product of its present industry."

The rapid and massive growth required more office space and in 1937 Schenley took more than four full floors in the Empire State Building.  By September that year the firm had leased No. 20 as the headquarters of the American Legion.  The Boy Scouts of America also maintained a first aid station in the building.  It was a coexistence that caused hearsay and uproar.

On September 23 B. B. Galasi, District Scout Commissioner of Manhattan Council squelched unsavory rumors.  He admitted the Scouts "have given aid to the Legion officials in many ways" and said "A few of their tasks consisted of escorting visitors around the city, bearing colors for State delegations [and] acting as messengers."

But, according to The New York Times, he "denied reports that the youngsters had been detailed to attend intoxicated Legionnaires."  He was backed up by Major F. J. Swentzel of the American Legion.  "We don't allow those boys to go anywhere where there are liable to be drunks...That detail is taken care of by our service committee composed of Legionnaires."

In 1945 Schenley Affiliated Corporations sold No. 20 to supporters of Freedom House, a not-for-profit group "devoted to strengthening free societies."  NAACP members and supporters had contributed towards the $150,000 purchase price.  The renovations cost another $65,000.

Now called the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building, it was dedicated on October 8, the first anniversary of Willkie's death.  Among the speakers were actress Helen Hayes, former Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, president of Brooklyn College Dr. Harry D. Gideonse, and NAACP secretary Walter White.

Approximately 2,000 persons filled West 40th Street for the ceremony as the building was promised to be a "living center" for agencies which supported his ideals.

The headquarters of the NAACP originally took two full floors.  Here the association's official journal, The Crisis, was published.  The publication continues to cover issues of civil rights, history, and politics.   The NAACP was one of seven agencies in the building, the others being the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the Citizens Housing Council of New York, the Common Council for American Unity, the Public Education Association, the World Student Service Fund, and Freedom House, itself.

Crowds gather before the flag-draped building during the dedication.  photo New York Times October 9, 1945

The Freedom House was founded in October 1941 and its charter described it as "a symbol and center" for the fight for freedom.  It was a time of international tension and threats to religious and political liberties.  According to historian David P. Forsythe in his 2008 Encyclopedia of Human Rights, "Its Wendell Willkie Memorial Building was the reply to Adolf Hitler's Braunhaus in Munich, Germany, the center for Nazi propaganda."

Beginning in 1943 the Freedom House Award was presented to an individual for "outstanding contribution to freedom" the previous year.  That year it was awarded to Walter Lippmann, and in 1944 to Sumner Welles.  The first awardee in the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who personally received the award here on April 2, 1946.   A comment in his acceptance speech noted "It is my conviction that the United States entered the war in the belief that it represented the forces of good against evil"

In 1967 the limited space in No. 20 forced the National Office of the NAACP to move uptown to No. 1790 Broadway.  It opened its new space on October 16.

photograph by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By 1983 another agency had moved into the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building.  The American Movement for World Government, Inc. was incorporated in 1954 "to promote he establishment of federal world government as a necessary condition for world peace and security."  Its founder, former commercial airline pilot William H. D. Cox, was influenced by Albert Einstein's believe that "mankind's desire for peace can be realized only by the creation of a world government."

Among the focuses of the Movement in the 1980s was nuclear disarmament.  It published a pamphlet in 1983 entitled "How to Achieve a Nuclear Freeze and Disarmament," free with a $20 membership.  An advertisement in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in December that year began "If extinction is to be avoided as the fate of the earth and all of us who inhabit it, a multilateral nuclear freeze will be an excellent beginning."

Two years later the Willkie Memorial Building was sold to the Republic National Bank.  The structure had been "mentioned as a prime candidate for landmark status," according to Joseph Berger in The New York Times on February 16, 1985.  It had been identified as early as 1979 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission "as having architectural significance."

Republic National Bank set a demolition team to work under cover of night.  Berger reported "A crew this week began ripping the carved stone and other ornaments from the Willkie Memorial Building on West 40th Street."  Buildings Commissioner Charles M. Smith, Jr. ordered the work suspended and asked the police to monitor it.  But significant amage had already been done.  The stone balustrades and carved stonework had been jack-hammered off and the chances of landmark designation were now successfully aborted.

Before long an empty lot occupied the site of Henry J. Hardenberg's fanciful New York Club.  In January 2014 plans were filed for the 33-story mixed used building designed by David Chipperfield, known as The Bryant.

The Bryant is the light-colored structure just to the left of the Empire State Building in this rendering.  via the Bryant website

Saturday, December 9, 2017

James Swan's 1854 "Steam Factory" - 159-161 Mercer Street


The aggressive lintels, cast iron storefront and ambitious cornice were added following a devastating fire in 1874.

James Swan was a pioneer in the commercializing the Mercer Street block between West Houston and Prince Streets.  In 1854 he erected a factory building on the site of the two houses at Nos. 131 and 133; the same year that construction was completed on the new Firemen's Hall next door at Nos, 127-129.

Simultaneously the firm of McNab, Carr & Co. was formed.  The fledgling brassworks that moved into Swan's building would eventually become a substantial manufacturer of "all kinds of brass cocks, plumbers' brass work, globe valves, gauge cocks, steam whistles and water gauges also wrought iron pipe and fittings and plumbers' and gas fitters's tool," according to Illustrated New York in 1888.

McNab, Carr & Co. advertised in Debow's Review in 1857.  (copyright expired)
McNab, Carr & Co. was fully operating in the building in 1855 and the following year was advertising for additional help.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune sought "A good brass cock maker."  The high quality of the firm's products was reflected in its submissions to the 1857 exhibition of the American Institute.  McNab, Carr & Co., received awards for the "second best gauge cocks," the "best stop valves," and "the best panel of brass ware."

McNab, Carr & Co. shared the building with two other tenants.  The machine shop of M. Baragwanath was not so successful, however.  On October 4, 1857 an auction was held in the building of "a large quantity of machinery, tools, &c."  The equipment from the failed business, consisting in part of cutting engines, fly wheels, belting, and drills was deemed by the auctioneer "worthy of the attention" of machinists.

Also in the building was the surgical and dental instrument factory of H. Hernstein, and the "steam-fitting and plumbing factory" of E. V. Haughwout & Co.  The three plants were able to operate because of a steam plant to the rear of the building which was highly-touted.

An 1858 advertisement in the American Medical Gazette and Journal of Health placed by H. Hernstein boasted that his "extensive stock of Surgical, Dental and other instruments...is constantly being replenished and added to from his Steam Factory, Nos. 131 and 133 Mercer Street."


Working in one of the factories that same year was William Booker, a knife grinder.  On the morning of November 4, 1859 he stopped in Meschutt's coffee saloon--apparently the pre-Civil War version of a Starbucks--only to be involved in what The New York Herald called "a desperate affray."

Booker had no sooner entered the place when George F. Finnegan and George W. Hill "began jeering him."  The pair was described by the newspaper as "reputed gamblers."  The New-York Daily Tribune added more information on Finnegan, calling him a "professional gambler" who had recently "committed a rape upon a ballet dancer."

According to Booker, before he knew what was happening, Finnegan "proceeded to blows, threw him upon the floor, pounded him with his fists, and also with a pistol."  While Booker lay on the floor, Finnegan shot his gun, the bullet lodging into the floor by Booker's head.

Hearing "the row" a passing police officer rushed into the saloon and arrested the two attackers.   News of their arrest quickly spread reached the gamblers' cronies.  The Herald reported "There was quite a representation of the fancy and gambling fraternity in court to hear the result of the examination."

William Booker was understandably late for work.

In 1859 McNab, Carr & Co. moved out when it opened its expansive factory in New Jersey.   By now E. V. Haughwout & Co. had either purchased the building or had leased it.  On November 13 that year it advertised available space in the building, noting as always, "with steam power."

A new tenant in the spring of 1860 was F. Ashley, whose factory produced his patented "screw egg beaters and churns."  By 1862 Krantz & Schnmidt, makers of "instruments," and George H. Pages gas fixtures foundry were here; and by March 1865 Howe & Bouvier, scale makers had moved in.


The Financial Panic of 1869--sparked when Jay Gould and James Fisk attempted to corner the gold market--may have been the reason that "several shops" were available in the building in April 1870.  As had been the case for nearly two decades, the advertisement touted "with steam power."

One worker in the building that year was German immigrant Jacob Schaffer.  On the same block, at No. 141 Mercer Street, was a boarding house run by Barbara Ordner.  He apparently offended the feisty proprietor on August 13, for she was taken to the Jefferson Market Courthouse "for breaking a lager beer glass over the head of Jacob Schaffer...and injuring him severely."

Nos. 131-133 Mercer Street was owned and managed by Strouse Brothers by now.  On October 20, 1870 Seligman Strouse was cited for an "unsafe rear wall."  Three years later Strouse Brothers received citations for not having fire escapes.

In the meantime the empty factory spaces had filled.  In 1871 Otto Loehr's photographic apparatus and camera box business was in the building.  Around the same time the woodworking shop of Kern, Werle & Barth moved in.

Herman Barth worked for Kern, Werle & Barth in 1873.  The 19-year old was involved in a devastating accident on July 7.  The New York Herald reported that "while at work in the sawmill" he "had two fingers and the thumb of the left hand cut off."

The Fire Department's citation of no fire escapes in 1873 was of little consequence on September 23 the following year.  There was no one in the building at 1:45 in the morning when fire broke out.

Kern, Werle & Barth's saw mill had been taken over by Otto Schlee.  The second floor was occupied by picture frame and looking glass manufacturers Sigler Brothers, the third by Otto Loehr.  A rear building was occupied by Jacob Sauter's "French millinery box factory" and David Glein's wood turning business.

The fire started in the boiler room below Schlee's saw mill.  The New York Times remarked "Owing to the inflammable nature of the contents of the building the flames spread rapidly and soon enveloped the building in the rear, which was almost completely gutted."

The fact that Firemen's Hall was next door no doubt saved the building from complete destruction.  Strouse Brothers estimated the damage at $12,000, more than a quarter of a million by today's terms.

The 20-year old factory received a modern make-over as part of the repairs.  A new cast iron storefront by Ayers & McCandless Iron Works, was installed, which featured thin, paneled pilasters with Corinthian capitals.  The foundry was most likely responsible for the bold cast iron lintels and the ambitious new cornice, as well.

The new, modern cornice would have been equally at home atop a Broadway retail store.

 Undeterred, Otto Loehr was still in the building in 1881 when he received two awards from the American Institute--one honorable mention for his photographic dark tent, and another for his "stereoscopic camera box."

Sharp's Publishing Co. moved into the renovated building.  The firm produced periodicals like the 34-page monthly, the American Milliner and Dressmaker.  Fashion-minded ladies could subscribe for $1.50 a year.  Pettengill's Newspaper Directory described the magazine in 1878, saying in part "It is one of the neatest publications of this kind.  It is thorough in the execution of its illustrations, in its descriptions of styles, and in its literary department."

The presence of the fashion magazine was evidence of the arrival of garment and millinery manufacturers in the Mercer Street area.  By 1880 a major tenant in Nos. 131-133 was A Reves & Son, apparel makers.  The firm was doing well that year, advertising in June for "operators on gingham suits and ulsters; none but good hands;" and again in November for a "first-class operator on fine dolmans; high price paid; none but good hand need apply."  The latter advertisement hinted at the no-nonsense environment of the shop:  "Come ready to work."

Sharing the building that year was Bernstein & Co., "chenille makers," and Robert Cunningham, a dealer in feathers.  Feathers, along with ribbons and artificial flowers, were an important element in ladies' hats.

Cunningham was the focus of a possible insurance fraud investigation in 1883.  On the morning of Friday, June 8, according to his wife, "he put on his best clothes before leaving home for business."  After spending a few hours at his Mercer Street office, he headed home.  Around 11:30 a man jumped from the rear of the Hamilton Ferry boat which was headed to Brooklyn where Cunningham lived.

The Sun reported that one witness "saw him go overboard, and with several others saw the man struggle for a time in the swift current and finally go down."  A boat was dispatched, but only a man's hat was recovered.  In the lining was a piece of paper that read "Robert Cunningham.  148 Fourteenth street.  South Brooklyn."

There seemed to be no reason why Cunningham would have killed himself.  The Sun noted "His business was prosperous, he had a comfortable income, and his domestic relations were happy."  He did, however, have a $25,000 life insurance policy; motive enough in 1883.

The insurance company put private detective Robert Pinkerton on the case. While a sign on the door of Cunningham's Mercer Street business read "Closed on account of the death of Robert Cunningham," Pinkerton began to suspect that the feather merchant was far from dead.

He told reporters that, for one thing, there was only one eye witness.  And, as reported by The Sun, "His struggle in the water was so short and he sank so quickly that many who ran to look when the cry of 'Man overboard!' was raised did not see him."   And his son admitted that he "frequently heard his father speak in condemnation of suicide."

Pinkerton suspected the suicide was a hoax.  He suggested to the press that "a hat had been thrown overboard and that then a false cry of 'Man overboard!' had been raised."

But Cunningham had, indeed, died.  His body was carried by the currents and found later in the East River.  That did not end the legal drama, however.  The insurance companies argued with the family's attorneys as to whether it was suicide or accident.  And the Union Ferry Company was censured by a jury for its life saving procedures (it had taken over 20 minutes to launch a life boat).  In the end, the family received none of the insurance benefits.  Because it was proved that Cunningham had paid the premiums with company money, the funds went its creditors.

In the spring of 1886 Mercer Street was renumbered.  Nos. 131-133 received its new address of Nos. 159-161.


At the turn of the century the J. S. Plummer & Co., dealers in "importers of straw goods," was leasing the entire building from Stouse Brothers; while subleasing to other firms.  The company was headed by brothers Charles and Walter Burr.

The firm was founded in 1861 by Jerome S. Plummer.  A family operation, Charles entered the firm when he married Plummer's daughter, Carrie.  Walter followed suit by marrying Carrie's sister, Florence.  When Jerome Plummer died in 1895, the Burr brothers took over the business.

Walter (top) and Charles Burr were young, handsome and wealthy in 1902 when these photos were taken.  from New York the Metropolis, 1902, copyright expired.

In the summer of 1905 Charles's family, like all moneyed New Yorkers, had left the city.  And like most wealthy businessmen who remained to conduct buiness, he was staying at his club, the exclusive Union League Club.  The cost and bother of keeping a city house staffed and maintained for a single occupant made little sense.

Charles attended an outing of the Mystic Shriners at College Point in the middle of June.  The New York Times reported "He ate heartily of clams and fish."  The following day he fell ill.  The clams which Burr heartily ate were tainted and he died at the Union League Club the following Monday night.

Walter Burr continued on with the business, renewing the lease "for a long term" on the Mercer Street building the following year.

J. S. Plummer & Co. was gone by 1921 when Jacob Kaufman manufactured leather bags in the building.  It continued to house a variety of manufacturers past mid-century, while the Mercer Street block was experiencing a decided decline.  Nos. 159-161 Mercer Street was, like most of its neighbors, bedraggled and abused by the early 1960s when the first signs of renaissance appeared.

Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor Gene Vass and his wife, apparel designer Joan, moved into the vacant top floor factory loft in the building at that time.  They, like other pioneering Soho artists, actors and intellectuals, were in fact violating building department laws.

It was here that Joan Vass held her first fashion shows.  They were not glamorous accommodations.  Buyers could reach the space only by a freight elevator. 

The upper floors would not be legalized until 1995 when they were deemed by the Department of Buildings as joint living and working quarters for artists.  Before then the Cast Iron Gallery had opened at street level.  The gallery not only showcased contemporary art, but provided events.  On November 23, 1991, for instance, it hosted a "Storybook Hour, with the Japanese children's book illustrator and author Shomei Yoh."  The gallery tempted participants by noting "Japanese rice cookies and Japanese yogurt will be served."

In 2006 the Cast Iron Gallery was replaced by the boutique, Nave.  That retailer was replaced in 2010 by Marni, still in the space today.

photographs by the author

Friday, December 8, 2017

Dorothy Caruso's Skinny Studio - 143 east 62nd Street



The line of brick along the side elevation the depth of the 1929 forward extension of the facade.
In 1868 the 62nd Street block between Lexington and Third Avenues saw a flurry of construction.  Formerly open and rural, the plots were sold to builders and contractors that year and rows of brownstone-fronted rowhouses soon followed.  One house, No. 143, stood out--not because of any architectural significance, but because of its unusual proportions.  At just 12.5 feet wide, it was a nearly half as wide as the common townhouse.

Built by Anna and Warren P. Crandall, who owned several other properties in the neighborhood, the skinny house seems to have been a dollhouse version of its neighbors.  They described it in an advertisement on April 16, 1871.  "A nice little brown stone house, 143 East Sixty-second street, near Lexington avenue...Modern improvements; rent $1,400."  The rent would be equal to about $2,400 a month today.

Later that year, in October, the Crandalls sold several parcels to real estate operator John Murphy , including No. 143.  By the 1890s it was home to Charles H. Liebert and his wife, Charlotte.  The German-born attorney was active in the German community, taking a box at the annual German Charity Ball in the Waldorf-Astoria, for example; and was highly involved in the New York Athletic Club.

The Lieberts moved down the block to No. 234 East 62nd Street at around the turn of the century.  Their former house became the home and office of Dr. John Slocum.   He was a fixture on the 62nd Street block for more than two decades, finally selling the house around 1928 to another physician and neighbor, Dr. Robert H. Fowler.

Fowler, whose summer estate was in Syosset, Long Island, lived and operated his "private hospital" steps away at No. 153.  His purchase was purely an investment and he remodeled the old house by removing the stoop and extending the front forward to the property line.  His architect gave the old house a Mediterranean make-over with a diapered brick facade and slate mansard.

On May 25, 1929 The New York Times noted that "Romeyn Park Benjamin leased from Dr. Robert H. Fowler the four-story American basement dwelling."  Benjamin's sister, Dorothy, was the widow of famed operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso.  He was the general manager of her newly-formed business endeavor, the Dorothy Caruso Reproducing Studio.

The following week the newspaper reported "Without the fanfare of a formal opening or any activity which would distinguish her studio from a normal place of business, Mrs. Enrico Caruso...made her debut yesterday as a business woman."

Although busy "arranging the rooms, fretting over workmen's delay in making installations" and other preparations, Dorothy paused to answer the reporter's questions.  She flatly admitted she "was not in the business for fun, but for money."  Hers was a remarkable venture--making personal recordings.

"Mrs. Caruso's business is the making of individual phonograph records, which instantly reproduce and perpetuate on aluminum anything from a greeting to a sales letter, as she explained it," said the article.  Dorothy was careful to distinguish her services from those which had made her husband's music available in families' living rooms.


"This is the first time my name has ever been connected with any business.  Our business will not compete with the phonograph record companies.  We shall make only personal records for customers."

The ground floor contained a reception area and the two recording studios.  The Times said "The walls of the studios are hung with heavy stuffs which serve the double purpose of decoration and sound absorption."  On the second floor were individual rooms where customers could hear the finished products on phonographs before approving them.

Dorothy seemed determined to make it on her own.  The only reminder of her famous husband was a life-size bronze bust of the tenor just inside the entrance.

Later that year The American Exporter explained the process saying "A blank Speak-O-Phone record is placed on the metal disk of specially processed aluminum, on which a personal record can be made in a few minutes."  The magazine promised that it was "possible for anyone to make personal phonograph records...for no more than the cost of an ordinary record."

Dorothy Caruso's ambitious venture did not last especially long; at least not on East 62nd Street.  It was soon the studio of artist and photographer George M. Kessler.   Kessler's photography had been well-received over the years, being exhibited as early as 1921.  But it was possibly the Great Depression that ruined his business.  On August 15, 1934 he filed for bankruptcy.

The next change to No. 143 came in May 1950 when it was purchased by real estate operator Michael Charles Berg, who went professionally by his initials, for his offices.  Berg commissioned Samuel A. Hertz to update the building.  While the architect renovated the interior spaces for Berg's offices, he did little to the striking exterior other than replacing a doorway with a wide shop window.

On June 13, 1950, one month after Berg purchased the building and before alterations were begun, Wurts Bros. snapped this photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In reporting on the renovations on December 10, 1950, The New York Times remarked on the building's extreme narrowness.  "In these days of tall buildings which take up whole blocks, the four-story brick town house at 143 East Sixty-second Street offers a striking contrast because of the tiny plot it occupies."  Reminding readers that it "was occupied for more than a quarter of a century by Dr. John Slocum as his residence and office," the newspaper said "It stands as one of the narrowest structures in the borough." 

Berg's $35,000 in renovations (more in the neighborhood of $350,000 today), resulted in a store at ground level, Berg's offices on the second floor, and apartments above.

Berg was well-known for his remodeling and reconditioning of vintage houses, starting around 1925; but he had a much more colorful past.  He was celebrated world-wide as a trick cyclist.

While growing up on the Lower East Side, he loved his bicycle.  In 1900, at the age of 14, he joined a circus and, according to The New York Times decades later, "soon developed sufficient skill to establish his own act, which toured the world and gave command performances before royalty."

His nephew, Leo Feinberg explained "With his partner on his shoulders, he would race down a ladder on a unicycle, straight toward the audience.  As a rule, the spectators, certain that the pair would crash onto them, would attempt to scatter."  But at the very last second, Berg would turn sharply away.  Berg and his partner, Al Berman, took the cycling act all over the globe with the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville group.

Berg's business dealings at No. 143 would be far less thrilling, but most likely more financially rewarding.

M. C. Berg sold the building to Mildred Bernstein in February 1959 "for investment."  She leased the store to Ted and Nancy Price, who had run their custom furniture store, the Barn at Ben Robyn, in Huntington, Long Island.  But the winter of 1958 had been severe and prompted the couple to reconsider their remote location.   They opened in the 62nd Street location in September.

The Prices marketed their "furniture, furnishings and gifts" as "Jamaican Originals;" but it was a misleading description.  While the reproduction furniture was crafted in the Caribbean using Jamaican mahogany, it was in fact detailed reproductions of American and European 18th century designs.

On September 26, 1959 The New York Times remarked on several of the pieces displayed, including a $1,200 highboy and a $450 lowboy copied originals in museums.  "An end table with a bombe front, just high enough to nestle under the arm of a sofa is $350.  A miniature chest, copied from an old Chippendale spice cabinet, is eight inches high and ten inches long.  It is lined in gay printed wallpaper and has four little drawers."

The Barn at Ben Robyn remained in the space until 1965 when it became home to Tender Buttons.  The unique shop had begun the year before when Diana Epstein, an editor for Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia, purchased a defunct button store.   An antique restorer, Millicent Saffro, dropped in to buy a button and was fascinated by the still disorganized hoard.  The two women became partners.

Epstein and Safro massed an inventory of millions of vintage buttons.  Together they wrote Buttons, published in 1991, and Epstein published A Collector's Guide to Buttons and The Button Book.

Diana Epstein died in 1998, but more than half a century after opening the shop here, Millicent Saffro continues selling buttons--some rare, some not, but all mesmerizing for the button crowd.


After nearly a century and a half of colorful history, the skinny little house is a charming presence steps away from the clamor of Lexington Avenue.

photographs by the author

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The 1848 Richard Dongan House - 234 West 10th Street



The wooden gate to the left hides the "horsewalk" which provided access to the stables in the rear.
Development of the Amos Street block between Hudson and Herring (later renamed Bleecker) Streets was well underway in the early 1830s.   Richard Dongan's family were already landowners in the area; decades later New York City historian Henry Browne noted that land on Greenwich Street "north from West Tenth, (formerly Amos Street) [was] purchased by old Richard Amos the gardener, from the Earl of Northumberland."

The younger Dongan purchased the plot at No. 130 Amos Street around 1838; but while construction continued on the block, it would be a decade before he built his house.  Unlike its earlier, Federal-style neighbors, the Dongan house was designed in the newly popular Greek Revival style.  Completed in 1848, it was three stories tall above a brick-faced basement level.  In place of a peaked roof with dormers, the squat attic level was a full floor high below a slightly sloping roof.  The simple treatment of the single door entrance, with its transom to admit light and the two simple pilasters, marked this as the home of a working class family.

The shared horsewalk between the Dongan house and its neighbor to the east led to the rear yards where both house had wooden stables.   Although Amos Street formally became West 10th Street in 1857, William Dongan still used the Amos Street address in 1859 when directories listed him as a "cartman."

By the end of the Civil War No. 234 West 10th Street was home to the Russell family.  H. Russell operated a coal yard and seems to have used the stable for storing his delivery wagons and horses.  He seems to have wearied of running the business by 1868.  On June 4 he advertised "Coal business--the stock, fixtures and lease of a Coal Yard for sale or a partner taken."

That same year he upgraded the backyard stable by, apparently, tearing it down and starting over.   In October he offered "To second hand lumber dealers--buildings on 234 West Tenth street for sale."

Within the year the Russell family was gone from West 10th Street.  The new owner, M. S. Hewitt, may have gotten the entire contents of the stable building in the deal.  On November 21, 1869 he advertised in The New York Herald, "For sale cheap--One dirt wagon, four trucks and some good work Horses, all in good order."

In would appear that he was successful in selling only the dirt wagon.   Nearly a year later, in September, he offered "For sale--fourteen horses and four trucks."

Hewitt seems to have been a bachelor, living in the 10th Street house alone.  He was a member of the Antioch Baptist Church at the corner of Bleecker and Morton streets, and of the Washington Lodge at No. 275 Bleecker Street.  The young man would not enjoy his new house for long.  He died suddenly on Friday, July 28, 1871 at just 35 years old.   Presumably because he had no immediate family, his funeral was not held in the house, as would have been otherwise expected, but at the Antioch Baptist Church.


By the last decade of the 19th century No. 234 was being operated as a boarding house.  Blue collar renters, not always model residents, came and went.

One shady character who claimed to live here was Frank Rodgers.  He found himself in jail just after midnight on July 7, 1893 after being caught in Union Square "rifling the pockets of a sleeping man," according to The New York Times.

Police were not as interested in his robbing the homeless man, but with the fact that he closely resembled the description of "Jack the Shearer" alias "Jack the Clipper."   That apparently fetish-driven fiend had been terrorizing women, cutting off locks of their hair and fleeing away.

The newspaper said "The man answers closely the descriptions given of the man who cut the hair of Miss Agnes O'Neill of 129 West Forty-eighth Street and of Miss Caroline Clundt of Williamsburg."  The article added "When arrested he had in his pockets a razor, a patent hair clipper, and a sharp silver-plated table knife without a handle."

Rodgers explained in the Jefferson Market Police Court the following morning that he was a paperhanger and lived at No. 234 West 10th Street.  And he "was merely holding the razor, hair cutter, and knife for a friend, a barber who is soon going into business."  He was unable to give his barber friend's name.

Following up on the alibi, a reporter knocked on the door of No. 234.  No one had heard of Frank Rodgers.  The boarding house proprietress did say, "There was a paperhanger there two months ago calling himself Frank Higgins, who was ejected for non-payment of rent."

Another boarder who found himself behind bars was "Garry" Hendrickson.  His crime, while not intentional, was tragic.  On the evening of May 10, 1900 he was driving what the New-York Tribune described as "an immense truck drawn by two heavy horses" along Worth Street.

Two little girls, 10-year old Rachel Lyons and her 4-year old sister, Mamie, were heading home to No. 3 Baxter Street from playing in Mulberry Bend Park.   Just as they stepped into the street, Hendrickson's rig came rumbling along.

The Tribune reported "In trying to save her sister Rachel fell, and the front wheel ran over her left thigh, smashing the bones to fragments.  The younger child held on to her sister's hand."  Hendrickson was alerted by the cries of the little girls and the shouts of the pedestrians.  He yanked the reins, halting the heavy vehicle just before the back wheel crushed their heads.

Nevertheless, Rachel was critically wounded.  The doctors at the Hudson Street Hospital said "her life was in great danger," according to the newspaper.  Hendrickson was arrested and jailed.  He claimed he had not even the children before hearing them cry out.

A life-long resident of Greenwich Village at the time was Joseph J. Fitzhenry.  In March 1912 he leased No. 234, returning it to a single-family home.  He was the president of the trucking company J. J. Fitzhenry, Inc, and partner with August F. Groll in the Consolidated Tungsten Lamp Co.  Both firms were located at No. 125 Greenwich Street.

Half a century earlier, in 1865, a group of neighborhood boys formed the Tough Club.  The New-York Tribune pointed out that "tough" meant "strong and not rowdy."  Membership was not terminated by age or success.  And in 1907 there were still three original members.  "Three of the boys are still left of that Munchausen crowd--Simon M. Sharp, who is four years older than Mark Twain, but says he feels four years younger; Andrew Bell, who has kept his youth by selling flour on the Produce Exchange, and John Hopkins," said the Tribune on December 26, 1907.

Fitzhenry was president of the club by then, and every year it hosted a Christmas party for the less fortunate Greenwich Village children.  That Christmas there were about 350 in attendance, who were fed ice cream and given toys, including "games, and Teddy bears, and dolls that could sit up and speak."

The Tribune noted that the older boys were not interested in singing Christmas carols.  "Being real New Yorkers, they sang 'Harrigan, That's Me,' and 'School Days.'"

Among the youths who received special guidance and help from Joseph Fitzhenry was Frank Rowan, whose father was a personal friend.   During the summer of 1914 Fitzhenry gave the teen money "to make a fresh start."   Rowan repaid him with treachery.

On Thursday evening, August 20 the family went out.  When they returned to find the house burglarized.  The Evening World said "Mr. Fitzhenry reported to the police that night that jewelry and clothing worth $300 were missing when he returned."  An investigation provided witnesses who had seen Rowan entering the house.

A week later The Evening World explained "Rowan recently became acquainted with Edith Dupont of No. 83 Perry street and paid her much attention.  He had need of rather more money than had been given to him."   Unable to find the teen, but aware of his interest in Edith, detectives tailed her.  When Rowan met her at Glen Island Park, they pounced.

"She was overcome with humiliation when the young man was arrested," said The World, "and convinced the police she did not know he was not a proper person to have as a friend."

Joseph J Fitzhenry left West 10th Street in 1916, when he rented a house on Fourth Avenue.  No. 234 was leased to a succession of residents, including M. Delaney in 1919, and Mary V. Doyle the following year.  The widow of John Doyle, her funeral was held in the house in May 1920.

No. 234 had been owned by one real estate firm then another for many years.  In June 1928 it was sold by the V. Green Company to the Morwin Corporation.  It seemed to be the end of the line for the venerable little house.  The Times advised "The buyers will demolish the present structure and erect a six-story elevator apartment house."

Something, possibly the advent of the Great Depression, upset those ambitious plans.  And by now the charm of Greenwich Village's winding street and vintage architecture was attracting a new demographic--moneyed professional families.

No. 234 survived and became home to attorney Norman W. Wassman and his wife, the former Emilie Pleydell.  Wassman, a 1919 graduated of the University of Michigan, worked in the legal firm of E. B. Sanford at No. 165 Broadway.  The corporate counsel of the American News Company, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Justice of the Municipal Court in 1929.

Emilie was the daughter of Arthur C. and Ella Miller Pleydell.  The New York Times called Arthur an "internationally known authority on taxation."  For more than two decades he had been secretary of the New York Tax Reform Association.  Pleydell died on May 30, 1932 and his funeral was held in the his daughter's West 10th Street house on June 2.

The significant change from the time when cartmen stabled their wagons and horses in the rear yard to now was evidenced not only by Wassman's membership in the pricey Downtown Athletic Club; but in Emilie's expensive wardrobe.  One of her French couturier dresses, a gold lame gown by the House of Lanvin, is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Following a long illness, Normal Wassman died in St. Vincent's Hospital at the age of 56 on January 8, 1952.  Emilie left the house shortly afterward, and it became home to William J. and Nan C. Sowerwine by 1954.

Throughout the rest of the century the house escaped being converted to apartments.  When it sold in November 1988 for $960,000, it was described as having three bedrooms, two baths, four fireplaces and a den.

A renovation in 2003 resulted in what Home and Garden TV watchers call an "open floor plan."  While a few period details remain, there is little left inside that Richard Dongan or even Emilie Wassman would recognize.   Outside is a different story.  The charming brick house retains its 1848 character; an important piece of the architectural crazy quilt of periods and styles along the block.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"The Westminster," 108 West 17th Street



By 1881 the 17th Street block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was no longer quiet residential neighborhood it had been in the 1850s.   Lavish retail emporiums had already begun transforming Sixth Avenue to New York's major shopping thoroughfare, and three years earlier the Sixth Avenue El had been extended this far north.    

The widowed Ann Simpson lived in the little, two-story 25-foot wide brick house at No. 108 West 17th Street.  On November 7 that year she sold it to developer Christopher Mooney for $12,000, or about $291,000 today.   Mooney saw potential in the changing neighborhood and was already in the process of constructing a five-story tenement nearby at No. 215 West 16th Street.

Within two weeks Mooney's architect, C. F. Ridder, Jr., filed plans to replace the old house with a "five story brown stone tenement" to cost $12,000--exactly the amount Mooney had paid for the property.  Ridder was busy at the time designing tenements, commercial and industrial buildings like the two-story No. 831 Washington Street completed the same year.

The speed of construction of No 108 was blinding by today's standards and was completed within six months.  The paint was barely dry before Mooney sold the 25-foot wide building to Charles L. Ritzmann on April 26, 1882.  The $35,000 sales price grossed him an $11,000 profit, a tidy $266,000 in today's dollars.

Ridder had created an up-to-the-minute neo-Grec apartment house.  Its handsome design and amenities prompted the Real Estate Record & Guide to called it a "stone front flat" rather than a tenement--a significant step up in the minds of real estate operators and potential tenants.  Above the centered entrance at sidewalk level four identical floors of neat, architrave-framed openings featured molded cornices upheld by decorative carved brackets.  A complex cast iron cornice completed the design.

Despite its attractive appearance, the site--steps away from bustling Sixth Avenue and its noisy train, and six blocks below 23rd Street's theaters and music halls--prevented No. 108 from anything near what could be called "upscale."  And the attention the initial tenants sometimes drew was not always the most desirable.

Such was the case on February 17, 1887 when Dr. Alexander J. Peet was called to the apartment of an unnamed "lady" who expressed extreme alarm at the wild actions of her gentleman caller.   Peet was the physician of actor James B. Radcliff, who had recently appeared as Jonathan Wild in the play Jack Sheppard at Koster & Bial's music hall at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street.   When Peet arrived at the apartment, he recognized his patient as Radcliff. 

The doctor quickly immediately why the woman had been alarmed. According to The New York Times the following day, "Radcliff began to abuse him, and when he attempted to assault the doctor the latter threw himself on a lounge and parried his blows with his feet."  At one point the actor broke a chair over the doctor's shoulders.  Finally Peet was able to overpower his assailant and police were called.

The following morning in the Jefferson Market Police Court Radcliff said he "had not the slightest recollection of what happened when the doctor came."  The Times reported "In fact, he was surprised when he woke up and found himself in a cell in the West Thirtieth-street station house."  The actor explained, "He could not take liquor without its having a speedy and disastrous effect on him, and calling on a lady friend in the evening, he drank 'a little gin and a little beer.'"

His excuse did not impress Justice Murray who imposed $300 bail awaiting trial--a significant $13,000 today.  The money was supplied by the son of the proprietor of Poole's Theatre where the actor was scheduled to appear the following week.

Charles Ritzmann sold the building in June that year to T. Johnson for the exact amount he had spent for it five years earlier.  The transaction was evidence that while property values were stable, they were not improving.

Adelaide Gerehorne was the janitress of the building in 1895.  With the position came a small apartment, most likely in the basement.  Described by The Sun as a "stout, colored woman," Adelaide took her job seriously, and she was not pleased when 31-year old Grace Walden visited the building in mid-March that year and "created a disturbance."

Already irritated by the woman's previous alcohol-charged display, Adelaide reached the end of her patience a few nights later.  According to The Sun's report, Walden ("a handsome, diamonded young white woman") had "dined well" with a gray-haired man of about 50, then arrived at No. 108 to call on a friend.

"After ringing her friend's bell last night and getting no response, she rang all the bells in the house.  She gave the bell of the janitress a few extra rings."  It was an ill-advised move.  Adelaide "came out in a hurry" and ordered the pair to leave.  Grace Walden had no intention of leaving nor taking orders from a custodian and attempted to push her way in.  Adelaide pushed back, landing Grace on the pavement.  A knock-down, drag-out fight then ensued.

The Sun said the "scrap, confined mostly to hair-pulling and screaming, drew a crowd last night in front of the apartment house at 108 West Seventeenth street...But for the arrival of Policeman John McDonald of the West Thirtieth street station, there is no telling how the battle might have ended."  The onlookers appear to have reveled in the female brawl; the newspaper said it was accompanied by "screams and yells from the crowd."

The well-dressed Grace Walden, born in Charleston, South Carolina, was dumbfounded when it was not Adelaide, but she who was locked up on the charge of disorderly conduct.  "Mrs. Walden fell to the floor and uttered screams which were heard half a block away," reported The Sun.

A. B. Dazzi traveled to Europe in 1897, returning on the French steamship La Normandie on January 17, 1898.  As he attempted to pass through customs, a gold brooch with rubies and emeralds was discovered hidden in his clothing.  He was detained and accused of smuggling.

Dazzi insisted he had bought the $200 pin--worth nearly $6,000 in today's dollars--for his wife.  The story was suspect, given the couple's humble lifestyle, and did not explain away why he had hidden the jewelry.  He was held at $1,500 bail awaiting examination.

Later that year, on October 1, Adelaide Gerehorne smelled lighting gas coming from the apartment of a new tenant.   A Mrs. De La Motte had moved in two weeks earlier.  The 35-year old suffered from rheumatism which made walking difficult.   Adelaide entered the apartment to find her unconscious in the middle of the room.  The Times reported "The gas chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling had been broken off and lay at the woman's feet."  Doctors at New York Hospital were not optimistic, saying she "might die."

By the time Sarah Ballin purchased the building in December 1900, it had been christened "The Westminster."  The marketing ploy perhaps attempted to give the address a more well-to-do sound.  It nevertheless continued to be home to middle-class tenants like the widow Doretta Wohltman, who received her husband's Police Department pension of $300 a year.

Shortly after Morris Jacoby bought the property in 1910 he hired architect Oscar Lewinson to make substantial renovations to the ground floor--installing stores on either side of the entrance at a cost of $1,500.

George Martin lived in the building in 1912 when he was involved in a bizarre and tragic incident at his workplace.  He was an elevator operator in the Nemo Building at No. 120 East 16th Street.  Following a heavy rainstorm on the night of July 21 he and three other employees went to the roof with the building's super, Thomas Halley, to unclog a drain pipe that was causing water to back up.

Among them was 55-year old porter Robert Kinsela.  He waded into the 16-inch deep water, found the clogged pipe, and thrust his arm in to the shoulder.  As soon as he cleared the obstruction the large volume of water rushed down the pipe.  The Times reported "the suction held his arm as in a vise.  He was thrown forward and his head went under water."

Martin and his co-workers rushed to help, but they could not free his arm.  "Neither could they force the unfortunate man's head above water without breaking his neck," explained the article.  They struggled for 15 minutes before the water drained enough that the suction abated and his arm was freed.  By then it was too late and the father of nine was dead.

Following the end of World War I the department stores had all abandoned Sixth Avenue and the neighborhood became increasingly industrial.  In 1921 there were 75 people living in No. 108, which the Los Angeles Herald described as "mostly Greeks and Spaniards."

The California newspaper was reporting on an unspeakable tragedy that had occurred early on the morning of November 14.  While the tenants were asleep, fire broke out.  It swept through the building with unbelievable swiftness.

"So much progress had the fire made before it was discovered and so rapidly did it spread that several of the victims were burned in their beds without a chance for life," said the article.  The employees of the post office branch across the street spotted the flames and sounded an alarm which woke many of the occupants.  Panic and terror followed.

When fire fighters arrived 25-year old Benjamin Diaz was clinging to a third floor window sill.  Before a ladder could reach him he lost his grip, crushing his skull on the sidewalk.  When the blaze was extinguished the building had been gutted.  Ten occupants were dead--two of them children.  Another would not survive much longer.  The Los Angeles Herald reported "Fireman Patrick Foley risked his life when he plunged through the flames to rescue an unidentified woman who was so badly burned that she is now dying in Bellevue."  In addition the newspaper said that "Thirty persons were burned or injured in the mad scramble" to escape.

The then-unidentified woman was Mrs. Esporie Inonas.  On June 20 the following year Fireman Foley and Lt. George Foster were awarded medals of heroism for the courage "at great personal risk" in pulling her from the inferno.

The stone facade survived the blaze and the interior was reconstructed.

During the winter of 1926 the city was plagued with a serious outbreak of influenza and pneumonia.  The crisis spawned an outbreak of what Dr. S. Dana Hubbard, head of the Health Department's Bureau of Illegal Practice, called a rash of "full-fledged quacks."  On March 26 Hubbard estimated there were approximately 1,500 such "doctors" in the city and told reporters "Some of them have been bold enough to treat such diseases, and this is undoubtedly the most dangerous practice to which a quack could resort."

One victim was Mrs. Emilia Valez who lived at No. 108 West 17th Street.  She took her 10-year old son, Francis, to Maurice S. O'Connor who took an x-ray and "promised to cure him for $180."  Emilia took her Francis to see the 24-year old "doctor" twice a week for three months.  In fact, when O'Connor appeared in court on March 26 it was revealed that he was a clerk and interpreter.   Emilia could hardly have afforded the fees she had paid--nearly $2,500 today--for the worthless treatments.

Later that year the building got a new tenant, Charles Edward Rogers, alias Dennis Lindsey.  He had lived there a few months when he faced a judge on August 19, 1926 for burglarizing the rooms of two other tenants, John Prodler and William Sturges.  When arrested he had the pawn tickets for $500 worth of jewelry taken from Prowdler's apartment.  Sturges claimed he had stolen $160 in cash from his rooms.

Rogers came up with a bizarre defense.  He claimed he had been a Sergeant in the Scots Guards and came to America upon his discharge a few months earlier.  His reason to come was "to learn for himself the merits of prohibition."

He claimed that back home he was accustomed to drinking two quarts of liquor a day.   Hearing reports of the evils of Prohibition, he said he determined to find out if it were "as bad as reported."  After months without liquor, according to Rogers, he had three drinks on the night of August 18.  They made him "go balmy."

His next recollection was being arrested and charged with burglary.  Unfortunately for his extraordinary alibi, the facts did not support it.  The British Consulate said there was no record of his service.

Writer Allan Stuart was a resident here in 1936 at a time when disturbing developments were taking place in Europe.  Adolph Hitler had risen to power in Germany three years earlier, but the growing threat was not widely recognized by many Americans.  Like many artists and writers, Stuart was a member of the Communist Party.  The group was more in tune with the danger.

For the second time that year Stuart and other party members staged a riotous protest on a German ocean liner on August 21, 1936.   Dressed in evening clothes and pretended to be among the 1,000 guests bidding good-bye to the 800 passengers on the Bremen, they began handing out anti-Nazi fliers and yelling "Hitler must be kept out of Spain."

In what The Times called "a wild melee" the protestors "fought with pier police and members of the crew, trading blows with fists and swinging deck chairs."  A "riot call" brought 70 policemen, four patrol cars and an emergency squad of eight officers.  Stuart was among 12 protestors arrested.

At their trial which began a week later, the defense attorney, Joseph Tauber, questioned the Bremer's captain, who admitted he was a member of the Nazi Party and "owed allegiance to Hitler."   Tauber warned the court "Hitler is planning a world war."

The judge disagreed.  At the sentencing on August 31 he stressed "The question involved in the demonstration does not concern the United States, it concerns only Germany and Spain."  His short-sightedness would prove itself within a few years.  In the meantime, he insisted "This kind of a demonstration must be stopped.  If it is condoned, what is coming next?"  Stuart was sentenced to five days in jail.


The 17th Street block and the neighborhood in general suffered substantial decline during mid-century.  But in the last quarter of the century the revival of Chelsea reached No. 108.  In 1978-79 a renovation resulted in two apartments per floor.  Architecturally unsympathetic storefronts were patched on at some point.  But other than a coat of paint and replacement windows, the upper floors where several startling stories and one horrific tragedy played out, are little changed.

photographs by the author