Friday, January 13, 2017

The Cornelia Dike House - No. 648 West 158th Street

A Google Street View in 2016 shows the house in a sorry state of repair.
In the 18th century the land far north of the city--areas which would later earn the names Washington Heights, Harlem and Harlem Heights, for instance--was dotted with farms and the country estates of the wealthy, like the elegant Georgian mansion of Roger Morris (known today as the Morris-Jumel Mansion).

The area's refreshing breezes and hilly geography continued to lure wealthy residents for decades following the Revolution.  In 1841 renowned naturalist and illustrator James John Audubon purchased 20 acres of the former estate of British Colonel John Maunsell, which had been enlarged by his nephew John Watkins.  Audubon erected a home here where he lived with his family until his death in January 1851.

Audubon's widow, Lucy, left the estate in 1854 and rented the house.  When she died in 1874 at the age of 86 the area was still sparsely developed.  But that began to change as improvements in public transportation inched northward.  By the mid 1880s rowhouses appeared around what was now known as Audubon Park and within a decade development was in full swing.

In 1896 architect John P. Leo got in on the trend, buying eight plots along West 158th Street from another architect, August W. Cordes.  Acting as his own developer, Leo designed the houses in a nearly-balanced A-B-B-A-A-B-B-C plan.  Why No. 648 stood starkly apart from the otherwise symmetrical row is puzzling.

Two years later Leo added to the string when merchant John Lilliendahl hired him to design Nos. 626 through 632.  Once again Leo created matching pairs, although they had little in common with his earlier row.

The houses were intended for well-to-do families and, in fact, August Cordes purchased No. 634.  The family of Walter Stabler, controller of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, moved into No. 648--the end house that refused to conform.

Because a narrow drive abutted the property, it was the most desirable home on the row, with sunlight on three sides.  Leo took advantage of the exposed side elevation by adding two handsome projecting bays.  The brown brick facade was ornamented with Georgian style elements: an elaborate triangular pediment over the entrance, supported by fluted, engaged Corinthian columns; openings at the second story grouped in a Palladium-like arrangement and surmounted by an elegant swan-necked pediment, and double keystones in the stone lintels of the third floor.  Unusual brick quoins ran up the sides.  Neo-classical garlands pressed into the cornice frieze mimicked those above the second floor windows.

Delicate 18th century-inspired details survive despite the structure's horrific abuse.

Walter Stabler and his wife, Clara, had three children.  Clara seems to have had a small fortune of her own and was listed as a major stockholder of the Metropolitan Bank.   Living with them in the house was a nurse and a cook.

Well-respected in the insurance and real estate industries, The National Civic Review said of him, "In his position in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Mr. Stabler is one of the largest and most scientific lenders of mortgage money in the world and possesses an extraordinarily broad knowledge of real estate conditions."

In the meantime, Cornelia A. Dike was also involved, to a degree, in real estate.  Although she had graduated from Vassar in 1879 and pursued a career in education, she was a director in the real estate firm of Oscar D. and Herbert V. Dike.  Neither she nor her sister, Alice had married and they shared in the estate of their father, Henry A. Dike.

Born in 1825 in Providence, Dike became involved in the wool business in New York City with Joseph Ripley.  He and his brothers, James P. and Camden C., subsequently formed the firm of Dike Brothers, woolen merchants.  At the time of his death on July 20, 1887 he had established a sizeable fortune, was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and a Director of the Chatham National Bank.

Alice lived on Washington Square; but Cornelia, known familiarly as Nina, was a bit more parsimonious.  By 1921 she was living in No. 648 West 158th Street and renting rooms.  On February 27 that year she advertised "Well furnished, large room, suitable for business lady; $50 monthly."

The rent, equal to more than $650 a month today, reflected the still-upscale tenor of the neighborhood.  And despite the fact that groups of houses all around were rapidly being demolished for modern apartment buildings, the row that included Cornelia's home remained intact.

When Alice did in 1930 she left an estate of over $100,000, just under $1.5 million today.  She either felt Cornelia had enough money or the two were not getting along well; for her will divided the estate equally between the League of Nations Non-Partisan Association and Smith College.  Cornelia received $1,000 and "personal effects."

Cornelia had six boarders living with her at the time.  She nevertheless continued her position as socialite and hostess.  On May 16, 1934 she opened her gardens to the Vassar Club's city garden tour.  The other two gardens visited that day were those of the wealthy Mrs. Walter Ewing Hope and Mrs. Richard Billings.

On September 5, 1943 the garden was the scene of a tea in honor of poet Mark Van Doren, who read from his writings.  In reporting on the event, The New York Times noted "Miss Dike's garden has been combined with those of several neighbors along 158th Street to provide the last reminder of Audubon Park, where until a few years ago stood the home of John James Audubon."

The article mentioned another former estate, now gone.  "The party took place a few yards from the site of the house where Lady Randolph Churchill, American-born mother of Prime Minster Winston Churchill, lived for a while as a child, Jennie Jerome."

Little notice was paid when Cornelia A. Dike died in the house on January 25, 1947.  A one-line obituary merely informed readers that the funeral would be held there two days later.

Cornelia's death foreshadowed a major change to the once-elegant home.  Later that year Daisy Saunders paid $12,000 cash for the property and in 1955 it was converted to furnished rooms with a "community kitchen" on the top floor.

In January 2017 the house is gutted and renovations begun.  The tiny street at the side was possibly the carriage drive of the former Wheelock estate.

The remainder of the 20th century was not kind, and by around 2000 the house sat vacant.  Squatters and vandals broke in and twice fire damaged the home.  In 2009 the Landmarks Preservation Commission laid out the boundaries for the Audubon Park Historic District, which astoundingly stopped just feet short of including the surviving row that included No. 648 West 158th Street.

That same year the house was put on the market for $895,000.  With no takers, the price was lowered to $759,000 in 2010.  Eventually Cornelia Dike's house, where society teas were served in the garden, was purchased and in 2016 plans were filed to convert it to a two-family residence.

Despite their obvious abuse, the survival of the homes along the row is astonishing.

Despite the puzzling snub by the LPC, John P. Leo's row survives as a reminder when private homes sprung up around Audubon Park.  In January 2017 No. 648 is gutted and, without landmark designation, the owners are not obligated to preserve its architectural integrity.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Steve Smith for requesting this post


  1. So disappointing to see the neglect in this house. I assume it was lovely inside when built. Now it looks like the place is trashed.

  2. Thank you, I knew this home would have a good story!