Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Wm. E. S. Griswold House - 128 East 70th Street



In 1869 developers R. & J. Cunningham completed a row of five brownstone-fronted houses on the south side of East 70th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues.   Designed by prolific architect John Sexton, they were architecturally up-to-date with stylish mansard roofs perched atop the otherwise Italianate-style homes.

The purchasers of the western-most house, No. 128, were a young family.  Soon after they moved in, on October 6, 1869, an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald seeking "A nurse to take care of two children and to do light chamberwork; must understand sewing and bring city reference."

By the late 1870's the house was owned by Hiram D. Peet and his wife, Caroline.  It is unclear whether they ever lived here; but by 1878 they were leasing the property to Marcus Otterbourg and his family.  Otterbourg was a colorful and often controversial figure in American and New York City history.

Following the end of the Civil War the Government had turned its attention to the uprising against Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.  Secretary of State William Henry Seward sent Otterbourg to Mexico in April 1866 as interim charge' d' affaires to the administration of President Benito Juarez.  In his 1914 book Maximilian in Mexico historian Percy Falcke Martin credited Otterbourg with saving the lives of many political prisoners.

"Mr. Marcus Otterbourg was occupied almost entirely in conducting negotiations with the Mexican government either for the release or the betterment in treatment of the many captives in their hands," he said in part.

Not everyone was so impressed with Otterbourg.  The New York Herald was unapologetically biased in its political reporting and for years had slammed Otterbourgh.  It commented on his hopes to be appointed a police magistrate on June 21, 1873 saying simply, "There is not a vestige of a chance for Marcus Otterbourg."

But, in fact, by the time the Otterbourg family moved into No. 128 he had been a judge in the police court for years.  The couple had three sons and a daughter.

There was quite a bit of excitement on the night of December 2, 1878.  Mrs. Otterbourg's brother, Peter Hilger, had come from Philadelphia for a visit.  Following dinner he and Marcus went to the library on the second floor and Mrs. Otterbourg retired to the front parlor.   Two of the Otterbourg young adult children went for a walk.

As Eugene Otterbourg and his sister turned from Park Avenue onto 70th Street, two men ran past them.  They were immediately followed by "a man wearing slippers, an alpacca [sic] duster, and spectacles, without his hat, much out of breath, and running with all his speed," as described by The New York Times.  That man, they quickly realized, was their father.

Eugene dropped his sister's hand and took up the flight.  He chased the men to Third Avenue and 73rd Street before they were lost in the crowd.  He returned home still not knowing why he had been chasing the them.

He discovered that his mother had checked on a noise she heard in the hall and discovered two men were removing overcoats from the coatrack.  Alerted by her screams, Otterbourg ran down the stairs in his slippers and out the door in pursuit of the thieves who made off with Hilger's and George Otterbourg's overcoats.

A lamp was used to search the streets for the overcoats.  Only George's was found.  The Times reported, "George is a young man, still at his collegiate studies, and he was much displeased when his overcoat was returned to him.  He had worn it some time, and he remarked, when Eugene handed it back to him, that if the thief had only retained it, his father would have been compelled to buy him the new one he had been pleading for all the Fall."

The newspaper added "The Justice caught a severe cold from his race in slippers."

The Otterbourgs remained in house at least through 1884; but they were most likely still here in 1887 when Caroline and Hiram Peet transferred title to No. 128 to their daughter, Carrie, as "a gift."   By 1899 Dr. Max Rosenberg was her tenant.  He was Assistant Physician in the Mt. Sinai Hospital Dispensary and an Instructor in Medicine at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital.  He remained here until Carrie Peet sold the house to Mary T. Spencer in May of 1903.

Mary would not retain ownership for long.  In September 1904 she advertised the 20-foot wide house for sale, interestingly noting it "will be put in perfect order."  On September 16, 1905 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Mary T. Spencer had sold the house, adding "The buyer has given A. Busselle, architect, an order to remodel the house into an American basement."

Two months later there was a change in architects.  On December 16 the Record & Guide reported that Clement B. Brun would be doing the $15,000 in renovations for T. J. McLoughlin.  The extensive remodeling included a four-story extension to the rear, a "new front," and reconfigured interior walls.

Brun transformed the out of date brownstone into a modern neo-Georgian style home.  With the stoop removed, the front wall was pulled to the property line.  Three stories of red brick sat upon a rusticated stone base where the double-doored entrance sat within a molded frame.  Tall casement windows at the second floor imitated French doors and were fronted by pseudo balconies.   Above the bracketed stone cornice the mansard featured two pedimented dormers.


McLoughlin sold the completed house in 1907 to William Edward Schenck Griswold and his wife, the former Evelyn Sloane.  The had been married in Lenox, Massachusetts early in September that year.  Following their honeymoon trip, The Sun reported "Mr. and Mrs. William E. S. Griswold are now in their new home, 128 East Seventieth street," on January 5, 1908.

The Griswolds were socially prominent.  William was related to the Webb and Burden families, and Evelyn was the daughter of John W. Sloane, partner in W & J. Sloane, Inc.  Her uncle William was married to Emily Vanderbilt.  Not coincidentally, Griswold would eventually become president of W. & J. Sloane.

The couple summered in the Griswold country estate, Black Hall, in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  Evelyn would eventually inherit her father's estate, Wyndhurst, in Lenox, as well.  They returned to No. 128 every winter season through 1914.  Then on March 28, 1914 The Record & Guide reported they had leased the house for three years to banker Louis Morris Starr.  But, in fact, they would never return.

The Starrs purchased the house in February 1919.   Louis was the son of Theodore B. Starr, one of the preeminent jewelers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.   In 1898 he had married Emeline Jenkins Danford.  The couple had three daughters, Caroline Margaret (who went by her middle name), Beatrice and Emeline.  The family maintained a country estate, Ontaroga Farm, in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

The Starr family traced its American roots to Dr. Comfort Starr who arrived in Massachusetts in 1634.  Louis's career in banking most likely came as a surprise not only to his family but to society in general.  Until 1908 he had been president of his father's firm, Theodore B. Starr, and he was nationally-recognized as an expert in gems.  But that year he sold his interest in the company and turned to finance.

The same year the Starrs purchased No. 128 Emeline introduced Margaret and Beatrice to society.  The girls were born in 1899 and 1901, respectively.   The debutante events began with a reception in the house on December 13.  In the evening Emeline took the group of young women to the theater, then to the Crystal Room of the Ritz-Carlton "for dancing."

The first of the daughters to lave East 70th Street was Beatrice, whose engagement to William de Ford Beal of Boston as announced in July 1922.  The wedding (deemed by the New-York Tribune as "prominent") took place in the Central Presbyterian Church on Madison Avenue.

1927 was a remarkable year in the Starr household.   The house was the scene of Caroline Margaret's wedding to Theodore Carrington Jessup on the afternoon of March 24.  Her sister, Emeline, was her maid of honor.

Just three months later, on June 4, the Starrs announced Emeline's engagement to John Hampton Lynch, Jr.    Her wedding took place in St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Ridgefield, with a reception at Ontaroga Farm.

Louis and Emeline remained at No. 128 East 70th Street until his death in February 1936.  In July 1943 it was sold to Coulton Waugh and his equally well-known wife, Elizabeth Jenkinson Waugh.

The multi-talented Waugh was an artist, cartoonist, teacher, textile designer and author.  His cartoon illustrations included Milton Caniff's "Dickie Dare," "Terry and the Pirates," and "Hank" (his own comic strip).  He wrote a series of instructional texts on painting and other books.

Elizabeth was also an artist as well as an authority on hooked rugs and the author of Collecting Hook Rugs.  She also wrote the biography Simon Bolivar and the 1943 West Point.

The couple's country home, Green Pastures Farm, was in Newburgh, New York.  It was there, on March 20, 1944 that Evelyn died.

Five years after her death the house was converted to apartments, two per floor.   Its most celebrated tenant would be American novelist John Kennedy Toole, who shared the fourth floor apartment beginning in the spring of 1960 with friend Kent Taliaferro.  Toole's best known novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, would not be published until 1980, eleven years after his suicide.


Outwardly little has changed today to the prim neo-Georgian house more than a century after its make-over.

photographs by the author

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Sadly Abused 1819 Dyer House - 325 Canal Street


The appearance of the upper portion of No. 325 in 1819 would have been similar to the houses on either side.
Canal Street got its name from the eight-foot wide drainage canal (perhaps better described as a trench) that ran down its center.  Construction on the canal had begun in 1805 and was completed in 1811.  The conduit came with problems.  The slow-moving water smelled and was a breeding ground for mosquitoes.  As development encroached within just a few years it became obvious that something had to be done.  In 1819 the canal was covered over, creating an especially broad 100-foot wide roadway.

Immediately construction of brick-faced homes began, among the very first being that of John Dyer, completed prior to 1820.  At three and a half stories tall and three bays wide, it was a commodious residence.  A single dormer most likely poked through the peaked roof of the Federal-style edifice.

In 1860 Canal Street was renumbered, giving the former Dyer house the address of No. 325.  By then the encroachment of commerce had arrived and the former private homes were converted for businesses.  In 1862 No. 325 was home to J. Cook's fancy goods store at street level and his hat-making shop above.  A want ad on September 17 sought:  "Ladies' Dress Caps--Wanted experienced hands to make ladies' dress caps.  Apply to J. Cook, wholesale and retail dealer in ladies' dress caps, laces, ribbons, &c."

Within the decade Charles J. Brill was making hats in an upstairs space.  He was almost assuredly related to Samuel Brill, who ran his dry goods store next door at No. 327.   Charles was looking for a "first class milliner" in 1873.

In the meantime, the ground floor had been home to a French restaurant for several years.  But conflict between its owners took them to the breaking point in the spring of 1872.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on May 7 offered "A good French restaurant for sale--In a good street down town; a good bargain for a man who understands the business; reason for selling dissatisfaction in partnership.  Inquire of Mr. Zaebson, 325 Canal street."

Sharing the upper portion with Brill was Colmer's fur business.  It was the target of a substantial burglary on December 1, 1872.  A desperate plea was announced in newspapers three days later:

$800 reward--For restoring the whole of the Furs stolen from my stone on the night of December 1 and no questions asked; for any part of the goods returned I will give the reward in proportion to the above.
COLMER, 325 Canal street

The value of the lost stock was evidenced in the sizable reward, more than $16,500 by today's standards.

It may have been the calamitous Financial Panic of 1873 that resulted in the entire upper portion of the building being vacant in 1875.  The owner advertised "Second and Third Lofts--Cheap rent to a reliable party" on September 12.  Within the year E. A. Bracket "jobber and millinery goods" was leasing space.

In 1877 the aging structure was renovated to create a modern commercial structure.  A cast iron storefront was installed and the roof raised to a full floor.  The investment proved successful and the building soon filled with garment manufacturers.  

"Work given out" meant that women could do sewing at home, allowing them to watch children, etc. Rockland County Journal, October 20, 1888 (copyright expired) 
As the century drew to a close Bernheim & Co., shirtmakers, had a sizable operation.  It employed 35 men, 15 women and 7 girls under 21 years old.  The staff worked 59 hours per week, not including weekend hours.  Also in the building was Mayer & Co. which bought and sold overages, the stock of bankrupt or burned out businesses, and similar goods.

The (Washington D.C.) Evening Times, December 27, 1897 (copyright expired)
Mayer & Co. remained in the building until its own bankruptcy in October 1907.  Glick & Lodner was in the building at the time, dealers in "cloths, cassimeres, etc."  But change was on the very near horizon.

By the end of World War I No. 325 was home to Thomas J. Ivans's business.  A "building contractor, plumber, steam and gas fitter," Ivans had been in the business for decades by now.  On September 1, 1918 The Plumbers' Trade Journal thinly veiled its disdain of the union movement in reporting on Ivans's innovative hiring policies.  The article said that Ivans had formerly contacted that magazine to find skilled workers.  "That was before the day of the trade unions.  Mr. Ivans meets the shortage of competent helpers by a sort of selective draft, and he gets good results, too."

The Canal Street block in 1928 was little changed since the last years of the 19th century.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
T. J. Ivans, which would remain in the building into the 1920's, was a pioneer in the changing personality of Canal Street.  By mid-century the street was filling with plastics and electronics businesses.   In 1949 Pocket Radio Craft was in No. 325, advertising in Popular Science magazine for its "3 Tube pocket radio kit."  Amateur radio buffs who sent in $9.95 would receive a do-it-yourself kit "complete [with] all parts, headphone, batteries, etc."  The ad mentioned that instructions were included, as well.

Gyro Electronics, Co., was here through the 1950's.  It, too, courted the home workbench tinkerers.   An article in Popular Science in August 1957 gave its readers step-by-step directions to make "A Speed Alarm You Can Build."  The article noted that all the parts were available at Gyro Electronics Co. on Canal Street.

Sharing the building at the time was a similar firm, Radionic Products, Co., dealers in radio parts.


The Soho-Tribeca renaissance resulted in the resurrection and restoration of some buildings along Canal Street--like the recent make-over of the contemporary Federal-style houses next door at 321 and 323.  That good fortune has yet to visit the 200-year old disrespected and graffiti covered 325, however.

photographs by the author

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The 1855 Row at Nos. 446 through 450 West 20th Street




In the 1840's Caleb O. Terrill was listed in city directories as "mason;" but by the early 1850's he had changed his title to "builder."   In 1854 he embarked on an ambitious project of erecting three high-end homes at Nos. 330 through 334 West 20th Street, facing the tranquil grounds of the General Theological Seminary.

The block, between Ninth and Tenth Avenue, was becoming lined with elegant rowhouses.  Terrill's three 16-foot wide dwellings were designed in the Anglo-Italianate style, foregoing the common high stoop in favor of low porches a few steps above the sidewalk.  The rusticated brownstone first floors included round-arched openings.  The three stories of red brick above were trimmed in brownstone.  The common pressed metal cornice included an unusual frieze of bosses protruding through diamond-shaped openings, creating a honeycomb effect.

It is possible that Terrill never saw them completed.  He died on October 25, 1855, one year after the death of his wife, the former Polly H. Cook, on September 9, 1854. 

Jonas W. Terrill, acting as administrator of Caleb's estate, oversaw an auction of Nos. 332 and 334 on March 22, 1856.  The announcement described them as "two elegant English basement houses...with handsome brown stone basements, superbly built and beautifully finished, with all the improvements of furnace, gas, water closets, baths, &c."  The Terrill estate maintained ownership of No. 330.

In 1865 20th Street was renumbered, giving the houses the addresses of 446 through 450.

The family at No. 450 was looking for a new cook in December 1868.  The family had at least one toddler, who would tragically perish in the house seven months later.  On July 12, 1869 The New York Herald reported "A boy four years old, residing at 450 West Twentieth street, died yesterday evening from burns received while playing with lucifer matches."  ("Lucifer" matches were notoriously dangerous, sometimes igniting explosively and throwing hot sparks several feet.)

No. 446 appears to have been operated as a boarding house at the time.  A baffling advertisement appeared in The New York Herald on April 9, 1869 that read "If Mr. Winters, Upholsterer, will call immediately at Mrs. Dickinson's 446 West Twentieth street, he will hear of something to his advantage."

By 1872 there was a different family leasing No. 446.  They were looking for a servant girl in April that year, to work "as chambermaid and laundress; wages $13."   The following year in September when the family had a room available to rent out, they carefully worded their advertisement to avoid possible problems later.

Elegantly furnished room, with or without Board, to gentleman and wife or two single gentlemen in a private Jewish family; terms reasonable.

The family of William Berri, Sr. lived next door and began leasing rooms at the same time.  An ad in The New York Herald on April 22, 1873 offered "Front basement, large parlor, all of Third Floor; one on Fourth, 448 West Twentieth street; all improvements; fine order and locality.  $60 month."   The rent was substantial, equaling about $1,270 per month today.

The Berris' leasing of rooms apparently had more to do with unused space than financial need.  William Berri, Sr. was the head of Wm. Berri's Sons, described by the American Carpet and Upholstery Journal as "one of the oldest carpet concerns in the country."  William Berri began by manufacturing "oil-cloths" in the 1840's.   He opened his first carpet store on Fulton Avenue in Brooklyn on April 1, 1859 and brought his sons, Eugene D. and William, Jr. into the firm in 1870.

William Berri died in the house on Sunday evening, July 26, 1874.  The 60-year old's funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

Interestingly, his widow, Sarah, dabbled in real estate.  On September 20, 1884 The American Architect and Building News reported that "Mrs. S. Berri, 448 West Twentieth St., New York," had hired architects J. B. McElfatrick Sons & De Baud to design a three-story tenement on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.

On December 16, 1887, the title to No. 448 was transferred to the Berri daughters, Cora S., Lilla C, and Julia.  Before the month was out it was the scene of a wedding.

On December 30 The Evening World reported "Miss Lilla C. Berri was married to Mr. Christian Schuckle, at the home of the bride's mother, Mrs. Sarah E. Berri, of 448 West Twentieth street, last evening."  The article mentioned "The floral decorations of the house were on an extensive scale."

The Berri family would retain ownership of the house until January 1891, when the sisters sold it to Philip Boyer.   That same year Emma Terrill sold No. 446 to James Carlton Cady.  Called by The New York Times an "important ice man," Cady was the head of the Glasco Ice Company.

Born in Hartland, Vermont in 1846, he and his wife, Annie, had two daughters, Sophrona and Mae, and a son, James, Jr.   He had started his career in the ice business in Chelsea at the age of 18 and over the decades watched small family-owned firms get gobbled up one-by-one by large corporations.  Cady vehemently refused to sell out, risking his family's financial stability more than once.

The family had lived in the house for nearly three decades when The Sun reported on December 5, 1919 "James Carlton Cady, head of the only independent ice manufacturing establishment in the city, who is said to have lost several fortunes in his fight against the larger companies, died in his home at 446 West Twentieth street, yesterday, at the age of 73 years."  His funeral was held in the house the following afternoon.

In the meantime perhaps the most colorful residents of the row had lived at No. 430.  In the 1870's Frank Converse was well known for his minstrel performances.  On January 12, 1873 The New York Herald had advertised an "immense attraction this week," saying the San Francisco Minstrels would was in town.  The notice mentioned the "First appearance of the wonderful Banjo artist, Mr. Frank Converse" and urged "Don't fail to see him."

from the collection of Harvard University, Houghton Library

Called the "Father of the Banjo," Frank Buchanan Converse was born in Elmira, New York in 1837.  He did not invent the instrument, but he perfected it.  He was married in 1861 to Harriet Maxwell, another Elmira native, and the daughter and granddaughter of Indian traders.  The New York Times later said that the two men "had been so liked by the Senecas that they had been adopted by them."

Harriet Maxwell Converse (original source unknown)
They were a happy, if unlikely couple.  Harriet wrote poetry and was a personal friend of John G. Whittier.  Much of her poetry was written under the pseudonyms of Musidora and Salome.  By the time the couple rented rooms at No. 450, she was best known for her affiliation with Native Americans.  In 1884 she had been adopted by the Senecas and in 1891 she lobbied tirelessly against the Whipple bill which proposed to force Indians off their reservations.

Because of her work she was made a chief of the Six Nations--the only time a white woman was so honored.  On September 12, 1897 The Times reported "Mrs. Converse, or Ta-le-wanoh, as she is called by the Indians, is a Seneca Indian chief of the Snipe clan, adopted by this tribe in recognition of her services to the redmen of New York State.  Her father, Thomas Maxwell of Elmira, always paid the keenest attention to Indian matters.  For many years Mrs. Converse has followed up legislation in their interest, visited with great frequency the reservations in the western part of the State, and kept a watchful eye on the Indians of New York City."

The Converse apartment was filled with Native American relics and decorations.  On August 16, 1903 The Sun reported that "The Iroquois Indians of New York State have sent to Mrs. Harriet Maxwell Converse, 450 West Twentieth street, a 'live' or real false face, as a mark of their appreciation of her devotion to them for many years."

The wooden Ga-Gon-Sa was just one of Harriet's many Native American artifacts in the house.  The Sun, August 16, 1903 (copyright expired)
The mask was said to contain medicinal powers and had to be returned to the reservation once each year when, according to the article, "the leader of the society will wear it at the New Year's feast that it may 'dance with its brothers.'"  Were anyone other than the leader or Harriet Converse touch it, "it is liable to poison whoever else may handle it."

Two weeks later Frank Converse died suddenly in the 20th Street house.  On September 6, 1903 The Sun reported, "His wife, Mrs. Harriet Maxwell Converse, the well-known writer and lecturer on Indian topics, is prostrated, and last night was under medical care."

Harriet never recovered from her husband's death.  On November 18 she visited "some Indian friends," according to The New York Times, and complained of not feeling well.  The newspaper said "Feeling that she had not long to live, she returned home and addressed a package to Joseph Keppler of Puck, in which she surrendered some secret medicine of the Indian order of which she was a member, it being the duty of the members to do so before death."

Shortly before midnight one of the women who lived in the house noticed Harriet's door was ajar.  She and some of the other women checked and found her unconscious.  She died shortly afterward.

On November 20 The Times wrote "All day long yesterday Indians in the city went to the house to take a last look at the little room on the top floor, in which she had a part of what was once the most complete collection of Iroquois relics in existence, and where she made it a custom to receive her Indian friends."

The Sun reported "It was well known among Mrs. Converse's friends that she wished to have the Indian burial ritual used at her funeral."  The article noted that the funeral "would be conducted according to the Indian ritual and that Corn Planter, chief of the Wolf clan of the Senecas and priest of 'Gon-oi-din,' Iroquois religion, would undoubtedly officiate."

Harriet's extensive and valuable collection of Native American artifacts were bequeathed to the American Museum of Natural History.

While Nos. 448 and 450 continued to be operated as rooming houses past mid-century, No. 446 remained a private home.  In the 1980's it was home to author and literary critic Ronald Christ.

In the meantime, the other two houses were converted to one apartment per floor--No. 448 in 1963, and No. 450 in 1968.  Perhaps the most celebrated resident of No. 450 after the Converses was composer and writer Nicolas Nabokov.  He was best known for having composed the music to Don Quixote, the full-length ballet created by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet in 1965.  He died at the age of 75 on April 6, 1978.


photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Church of St. Monica - 413 East 79th Street



In the decade after the end of the Civil War the Upper East Side saw rapid development.  The opening of the Third Avenue subway line in 1878 and the Second Avenue line the following year made the district more desirable and convenient.  And as the population increased so did the need for schools, fire and police stations, and churches. 

In June 1879 (one month after he dedicated the new St. Patrick's Cathedral) Archbishop John McCloskey approved the organization of a new parish, St. Monica, at the lower hem of the Yorkville neighborhood.  Land was acquired on West 79th Street, between First and York Avenues.

On September 24, 1881 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Catholic Church "are going to build a church, to be known as St. Monica's Church."  Architects Babcock & McAvoy were preparing plans, the article noted, for a 100-foot wide structure with a seating capacity of 1,800.

"The front and basement will be constructed of bluestone, trimmed with granite, and the sides and rear of brick, with stone trimmings."  The construction costs were projected at more than $3 million in today's dollars.

The Rev. James J. Doughtery was appointed pastor of the fledgling parish.  As work began on the church, services were held initially above a 78th Street feed store, then in the chapel of the unfinished structure.   As with all new parishes, aggressive fund raising went on to attack the debt of building.  On December 5, 1883 The New York Times noted "The envelope collection in the chapel of the Church of St. Monica, in East Seventy-ninth-street, last Sunday, amounted to $1,500, which, with $7,000 as the proceeds of the late fair, makes $8,500 as the amount contributed by the people of the parish within the last six weeks for the reduction of the church debt."

("Fairs" were the most common method of raising money by churches.  Women sold home-made and donated goods, like table linens, as well as pies and cakes.)

Like most Victorian pastors, Rev. Doughtery had decided opinions about social ills.  On Sunday March 14, 1886 he initiated his series of sermons on the "Evils of Modern Societies."  The subjects of his seven discourses were Irreverence, Indifference, Irreligion, Education, Home Life, Public Life, and Triumph Over Evil.

Churches routinely hosted summer excursions to picnic grounds.  The day-long outings gave city-bound children and their parents a break from the stifling heat and daily drudgery.  On  the morning of May 29, 1900 parishioners of the Church of St. Monica gathered at the 90th Street pier in anticipation of an outing at Idlewild Park, on Long Island.  They were most likely more than a bit troubled when they saw furious activity--and a sunken vessel.

The evening before the barges Charles Spear and the Susquehanna were being towed to the pier when the Charles Spear hit a rock that gashed an large hole in her hull.  Tug boats managed to get the large craft to the pier, where it abruptly sank.  The Myers Excursion Barge Company, which owned the crafts, assured the church "The excursion need not be interfered with, as other barges are available."

Among the parishioners of St. Monica's Church in 1902 was the family of Policeman Edward Burns.  Burns, coincidentally, was the beat cop in the immediate neighborhood.  The Evening World called him "big and scrupulously conscientious over the custody of streets in the vicinity of St. Monica's Church."  He was also scrupulously conscientious about the sanctity of church property, a fact that became evident on November 13.

A few days earlier James Ross had lost his job as an ashcart driver with the City's Street Cleaning Department.  The despondent man drank until he was thrown out of a nearby saloon, and then out of a drugstore where he had just purchased rat poison.  Ross stumbled to the steps of St. Monica where he swallowed the poison.

The Evening World reported that Officer Burns "was dumfounded [sic] early to-day when he discovered the form of a poorly dressed man lying on the steps over which he and his family went to worship last Sunday."  Ross told Burns, "I have just committed suicide."

Burns was less concerned about saving Ross's life than preserving the sanctity of the church steps.  "Rather than have a suicide disgrace the stone steps leading into St. Monica's Catholic church, in Seventy-ninth street," related the newspaper, "Policeman Edward Burns today carried the writhing body of James Ross for half a block before calling an ambulance."

Calling Burns "very indignant," The Evening World quoted him as saying:

The idea of his taking the dope on the church steps.  He ought to get six months for that alone.  I am going to see that he gets his due, for I think he did it on purpose.  Just to think of trying to die in front of a church after being thrown out of a saloon and a drug store!  He must have thought the church was easy, but I nabbed him in time.

Rather astonishingly, those stone steps led to a still-uncompleted building, 20 years after construction had begun.  A temporary wooden structure had made do to date.  But on March 27, 1904 the New-York Tribune reported that "Plans have been filed...by Schickel & Ditmars, architects, for the completion of the church building of St. Monica's Roman Catholic Church, in East Seventy-ninth-st...The basement only of the building is at present finished."

The Record & Guide announced that the plans included "stone and brick, slate roofing, nickel-plated plumbing, electric wiring, organ and steam" at a cost of $70,000.  Because the structure would be placed atop the Babcock & McAvoy chapel and basement, the plans were filed under "Alterations" rather than "Projected Buildings."  The New-York Tribune reported that the building would be "of decorative Gothic design."

And indeed it would be.

The architects had designed an English Gothic structure of beige brick and stone.  Schickel & Ditmars forewent a towering steeple in favor of four stone spires sprouting Gothic crockets.  A massive central stained glass window dominated the design, overwhelming even the handsome, projecting stone entrance directly below.

A year later, on May 8, 1905, the New-York Tribune reported "With all the pomp and ceremony of the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church the cornerstone of the new Church of St. Monica, 79th-st., near 1st-ave., was laid yesterday afternoon in the presence of an immense throng.  The new church is being built around and above the edifice in which the people have been worshipping."

By now, according to the article, construction costs had double, now estimated at $150,000 (about $4.3 million today).  The Tribune predicted "It is expected to have the church completed this fall."

A hansom cab waits in front of the steps in this sketch, possible issued by the architects' office.  New-York Tribune, November 29, 1907 (copyright expired)
On November 29, 1908 the newspaper reported on the dedication of the structure.  While it called the ceremonies "elaborate," the article was more focused on the size and beauty of the building.

It said "The new church is among the largest Catholic churches in the city" and its "spacious and adorned interior make the church one of the most complete and ornate to be found in the country.  It is familiarly spoken of as the East Side Cathedral."

photograph by Wurts Brothers, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The article placed the seating capacity at 1,300 on the main floor and noted "the main alter is forty feet high and made of Carara marble, as are also the side alters and the statues."

Wurts Brothers captured the newly-completed interiors around the time of the dedication.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On the afternoon of February 14, 1911 two thieves picked the wrong church to rob.  At around 5:30 Sexton Hugh P. Connolly entered to discover Raffale Fantano and Cheli Guilio tampering with the poor box.  The New York Times reported "He rushed at them, shouting for help, and grappled with Guilio."  Father William Jordan rushed in to handle Fantano.

Father Jordan told police later "I got within five yards of my man before he saw me and when he did so I lost no time, as I did not know what weapons he carried.  I smashed him in the left eye and got him by the throat.  He is a strong fellow and he threw me, but we rolled over and he swore loudly in Italian as I pummeled him."

Pummeled him, he did.  The Times recounted "Father Jordan used up his man so completely that he needed the attention of an ambulance surgeon before he could be taken from the East Eighty-eighth Street Station to Police Headquarters."

Father Jordan and Sexton Connolly dragged the men to the police station themselves, no doubt astonishing the cops on duty there.  The crooks had managed to pull $3.35 from the poor box, and it was not their first visit.  "The church, according to Father Jordan, has suffered for a long time from poor-box thefts, but not until last night was the problem of the money's disappearance solve," reported the newspaper.

Two months later the incident was largely forgotten as the church prepared for a yearly fund-raising event that would surely raise eyebrows today.  On April 26 The Evening World reported that "Preparations for the annual minstrel show of St. Monica's Roman Catholic Church...are complete.  Yorkville is on edge, for this is the banner entertainment of the year in that part of the city."

The article said that a "chorus of ninety girls and half as many young men" would perform.  It added "The proceeds will be devoted to lifting the debt incurred when the Rev. Father Lennon in 1907 raised St. Monica's from n old type wooden structure to a big modern church."

Ticket buyers could look forward to Miss Edna Schaufele singing "How Can They Tell I'm Irish?" accompanied by eight dancing girls.  In addition, said The Evening World, "'Implicitus' Joe Farley, the veteran interlocutor, and 'Dinklepop' Peter Buckley will be on the job."

The onslaught of the Great Depression seriously affected Yorkville residents and, subsequently, the Church of St. Monica.  Its pastor since 1913, Father Arthur J. Kenny had been elevated to Monsignor in 1926.  He watched his congregation decline to 3,900 by 1942, about 30% fewer than in the 1920's.  Monsignor Kenny turned the focus of the church's outreach to serving the unemployed and needy.

Three decades after taking the pulpit here, Monsignor Kenny died in April 1943.  The Times called him "A quiet and retiring man who sunned publicity."  Dwindling membership did not prevent the church from being crowded with 1,200 mourners on April 24, the day of his funeral.  The services were led by Auxiliary Bishop Stephen J. Donahue and attended by another Auxiliary Bishop, J. Francis A. McIntyre, two monsignors and 50 priests and seminarians.

With the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the parish just months away, fire broke out in the church in August 1953.  The four-alarm blaze resulted in significant damage "necessitating considerable renovation," as noted by The Times.

Donations poured in to restore the structure and seven months later, on March 8, 1954, The New York Times reported that the goal of $125,000 had been surpassed by $66,000 with money still coming in.  On October 25, the same newspaper reported that Cardinal Francis Spellman had celebrated the jubilee mass in the renovated church.  "There was a capacity congregation of 1,800."

Change in the demographics of Yorkville and times in general were reflected in the parishioners and the activities of the Church of St. Monica over the subsequent decades.  On October 16, 1980, for instance, it was the scene of an event hosted by the Irish Arts Center.  It featured "traditional music and dance--jigs, flings, reels, and mazurkas."  The Times added "Special instruction in Irish ceili dancing will be offered."


As Catholic Church attendance in general lessened and income subsequently suffered, the Archdiocese looked at closing parishes throughout the city.  In November 2014 Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced the closing of the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the church for the city's deaf Catholics, on East 83rd Street.  Its congregation, as well as that of St. Stephen of Hungary, were merged with St. Monica.  The action resulted in the somewhat cumbersome name of The church of St. Monica-St. Elizabeth of Hungary-St. Stephen of Hungary.

Sadly, Schickel & Ditmars's striking English Gothic structure, once referred to as the Cathedral of the East Side, is often overlooked today.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Manhasset Apartments - 2801-2825 Broadway




While development continued with a fury throughout most of the Upper West Wide in the 1890's, the district around what was known as Schuyler Square (later Strauss Park) was ignored.  The fact was, there was no convenient way to get there.

But that was all about to change.  In 1894 plans were announced for the city's first subway line, which included stops at West 96th Street and West 110th Street.  Developers descended upon the vacant plots.  In 1897 construction began on the first apartment building in the Schuyler Square neighborhood, and by the end of the following year the number had risen to six.

On May 29, 1899 John W. Noble, Jr. purchased the property on the western side of Broadway between 108th and 109th Street from Jacob D. Butler.  The Record & Guide noted that the site included two, two-story wooden buildings and vacant plots.  Of the staggering $255,000 price (nearly $7.8 million today), Noble mortgaged about half from Butler.

Noble partnered with his brother, William, to construct two matching apartment buildings on the site.  William was already well-known in real estate circles as a building contractor and developer, responsible for several large hotels and apartment houses throughout the city.   The pair, under the name William Noble & Co., hired Joseph Wolf to design the upscale structure that would be known as The Manhasset.

Wolf filed plans for an eight-story "brick and stone" apartment house.  The two sections successfully pretended to be a single building.  Their two-story rusticated stone base upheld a five-story central section of pink-beige brick decorated with contrasting stone in the form of pseudo balconies, broken pediments, and cartouches. 

Intended for well-to-do occupants, the apartments were expansive.  There would be just three per floor in the northern building, and four per floor in the half facing 108th Street.

But construction had barely begun when trouble came.  The Record & Guide later commented that William Noble "occupied a prominent position as a builder, but was unfortunate in his ventures.  With both the Grenoble and Empire Hotel, which were his most important undertakings in this city, he met with lose, nor was he luckier with some other building ventures."

It came to a disastrous end in 1899, with construction of The Manhasset still underway.  Noble filed for voluntary bankruptcy "for $1,000,000" as reported in The Record & Guide.  The amount would be more than 30 times that much today.

William Noble & Co., however, limped along long enough to see the buildings finished in 1901, the same year that Jacob D. Butler foreclosed.  But Butler had grander plans.  On February 15, 1902 the Record & Guide announced he would "add three stories and a roof garden" to the buildings.  "He also arranged for an electric cab service from the building to the L station for the convenience of tenants."

(William Noble, incidentally, suffered a fatal stroke three months later, dying on May 21.)

Rather than bring Joseph Wolf back to make made the enlargements, Butler hired Janes & Leo.  The firm designed the top two of the additional three floors as a nearly vertical slate-covered mansard.  Additionally, they placed majestic stone entrances within the light courts.

The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1910 (copyright expired)

The original interior layout was changed, as well, nearly doubling the original number of apartments.  An advertisement explained "With its 200 feet frontage on Broadway the Manhasset has six apartments on each floor in suites of six, seven and nine rooms, and one, two and three baths."  In noted that along with "every modern improvement," there were "four elevators, two for the exclusive use of tenants and two for servants and freight."

The layout included two seemingly awkward apartments in the center.  The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1910 (copyright expired)
Butler had put the title of the property in the name of his wife, Carrie.  The couple sold The Manhasset for $3 million in January 1910 to the newly-formed Realty Assets Company.   The firm immediately set out to convert the Broadway street level to shops--a project that turned out to be a massive undertaking.  Architect Clarence Shunway's 14 storefronts under a metal cornice required serious underpinning of the heavy structure.


On December 17 that year The Record & Guide pointed out that "altering the first story into a number of stores was a very complicated structural feat, as well as an expensive one."  While the plans, filed in July, estimated that cost at $1.6 million in current dollars, the article felt it "probably does not fully cover the cost to the owners."  (And, indeed, that same week The Engineering Record adjusted the price tag to $75,000--more than $2 million today.)

Replacing the Broadway facade was the simple part.  The foundations had to be extended four feet deeper.  The Guide noted that amazingly, "While the work was going on the upper part of the building was undisturbed."

The Engineering Record, December 10, 1910 (copyright expired)

The Engineering Record reported "The shoring and steel work have now been successfully accomplished without accident and without interfering with any tenants or with any portion of the building."

One of the tenants apparently not disturbed, at least by the ongoing construction, was H. S. Morse.  Instead, it was bees that bothered him.   Morse owned the nearby tennis court behind the building.  When he went there to play on Monday, May 30 that year he found it, according to The New York Times, "occupied by thousands of bees which had apparently cruised across the Hudson from the Jersey shore."

His court keeper assured Morse there was no danger, "as bees never stung people in May."  Morse was unconvinced.   He began throwing stones at a post which had become covered in bees "fully six inches deep."   The swarm was only momentarily annoyed, and they quickly returned.

Before long locals gathered, offering any number of solutions to Morse's bee problem.  "One man brought a barrel with molasses in it and a box to cover over the end when the insects went in after the syrup," reported The Times, "but the bees just droned away on the post and appeared to be having a convention to decide on the price of honey this Summer."

Eventually the tennis players decided that the bees, indeed, did not sting in May and played on all afternoon.  Nevertheless, the bees' unwilling landlord was intent on evicting them.  "Mr. Morse said it was a case of either moving the court or the bees.  He added that to any person who could make use of them the bees were worth money and he didn't care how soon some one came along and took them away."

In its advertisements, The Realty Assets Co. called its renovated building "one of the largest, most attractive and up to date apartment houses in New York" with "apartments of 6, 7, 8 and 9 rooms."  Rents in 1912 ranged from $1,200 to $2,400 a year--or about $5,200 a month for the most expensive today.

Frank N. Hoffstot, president of the Pressed Steel Car Company, purchased The Manhasset in May 1919.  He was delving into real estate investment at the time, having recently purchased Euclid Hall on Broadway between 85th and 86th Streets.  In reporting on the sale, the New-York Tribune noted "He has no present intention of altering the Manhasset."  The building would change hands at least once before being lost in foreclosure in 1932.

One of the Broadway shops was occupied as a Western Union Telegraph Company branch in 1941.  On the morning of September 14 that year the office was staffed by three young employees, including 25 year old Mary Mitchell,, when three well-dressed men entered at around 11:40.

One of them mumbled something to Mary, which she did not understand.  The New York Times said that Western Union employees were "under instructions to be polite at all times," so Mary replied "Pardon me. sir, I didn't hear you."  This time he made himself clear.

"This is a stick-up."

The three employees were ordered into a rear room and the supposed gunmen (they merely held heir hands in their pockets to suggest being armed) grabbed $60 from the cash register and ran.  The headline of The Times article read "Never Omit Courtesy / Western Union Girls Do Not Except Stick-Up Men."

By 1963 the building was home, rather unexpectedly, to the Eastern Trading Company.  Far from New York's Chinatown, it was the source of hard-to-find authentic ingredients for chef Florence Lin, who taught Chinese cuisine at the China Institute.

Three years later The New York Times culinary columnist Craig Claiborne interviewed Grace Chu, author of The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking.  Like Florence Lin, she advised that the ingredients (including the chopsticks) could be found at the Eastern Trading Company in The Manhasset.

The Asian tradition continued when East Wind Trading Company opened by 1973.  On October 8 that year The Times journalist Richard P. Shepard called it "a commodious, neatly laid out store dealing in food, literature and various articles from China."

The newspaper was equally taken with the Middle Eastern restaurant, Rainbow Chicken, here in by 1985.  Marian Burros said "the most highly seasoned and best grilled chicken some from a tiny store called Rainbow Chicken.  Golden brown, juicy and suffused with Middle Eastern spices."

The Health Department was not so enthusiastic, slapping Rainbow Chicken with violations in August the following year.  But the little restaurant persevered and nearly a decade later The Times was still a fan, saying on July 2, 1995, it "makes a good grilled chicken, crisp around the edges and juicy."

On March 11, 1999 The Manhasset was two weeks away from the completion of a $2.5 million renovation.  That afternoon a devastating eight-alarm fire started in a ground floor restaurant and swept through the building.  The tenants were, as The Times worded it, "abruptly homeless."  Among them was 104-year old Louise Stern who had moved into her apartment in the 1940's.  She told reporters "The firemen carried me down.  We had to get out in a hurry."

Louise had been unaware where was a fire and when she heard a banging on the door, she shuffled over with her walker to answer it.  Although she did not remember much about the incident, neighbors later recalled she opened the door to the firemen and said "Please come in gentlemen.  I'm sorry I cannot offer you any tea."

Robert C. Cornell narrowly escaped his 10-floor apartment by climbing out a window and "inching along a ledge in bare feet," as he later described.   Denise Pelligrini, her husband Laddie de Paur, were at work.  Mr. de Paur's 72-year old mother was babysitting their three children (the youngest only 16 months old) in their 11th floor apartment.  The elderly woman opened the door with the infant in her arms, to see fire.

With the renovation still underway, there was a workman on the scaffolding outside the window.  Mrs. de Paur handed the baby to him.  A fire fighter then helped the rest of the family climb out the window to a safer lower floor where they waited to be evacuated.

Of the 134 apartments, half were rent-regulated and the other half were co-ops.  Three months after the fire The Times described the residents as being "as diverse as the Upper West Side itself.  There were single people sharing the rents on modest apartments and freelancers who worked at home.  There were elderly people who were able to remain in the neighborhood because of regulated rents and Social Security, but who are now struggling to rent a temporary shelter on their limited fixed incomes."


While the north end of the building was devastated, tenants in the 108th Street section were able to return to their apartments within a few months.  Today no hint of the fire remains and the majestic Manhasset still commands the same attention it did more than 110 years ago.

photographs by the author

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Lost Herman O. Armour House - 856 Fifth Avenue



The brilliant stained glass transoms of almost every window in the house can be clearly seen in this photo..  Photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Herman Ossian Armour was born on March 2, 1837 in Stockbridge, New York; one of six sons of farmer Danforth Armour.  At the age of 18 he left home "having been attracted by the opportunities offered in the West to young and progressive men," as explained in the New-York Tribune decades later.   While most adventurous teens heading West in 1855 would have been seeking California gold, Armour went only as far as Milwaukee where he went opened a butcher shop.  It eventually became Armour, Plakington & Co.

Ambitious and seemingly tireless, he left the business in charge of his partner, John Plankington, in 1862 and headed to Chicago, where he established a grain commission business.  Three years later he moved again, opening a branch office of Armour, Plankington & Co. (now a major pork packing business) in New York City.  In 1868 founded the commission house, H. O. Armour & Company, in New York City.

By now Herman's brother Philip, oversaw the Midwestern packing business, renamed Armour & Co. in 1870.  In 1875 that operation was moved to Chicago.

Herman and his wife, the former Mary A. Jacks, had two daughters, Mary and Juliana.   The family lived in a fashionable section of Brooklyn, where Armour's wife died in 1870, leaving Herman to raise the little girls alone.  (Albeit with a significant domestic staff.)

The American Monthly Review of Reviews, January 1901  (copyright expired)
In January 1881 Heber R. Bishop sold the four building plots at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 67th Street for a total of $300,000.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on January 22 "On the ground thus secured, three houses will be built on the avenue and one 30 foot house on the street."  Bishop had sold three of the plots to Hugh Lamb, a partner in the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich.   The corner plot went to Herman Armour.  The transaction included another $200,000 for the mansion that would be built on the site, also designed by Lamb & Rich.

The firm designed four similar, but distinct, homes in the Queen Anne style which were completed before the year's end.  The Record & Guide called them "the highest grade houses offered for sale on 5th av."  The Armour house was four stories of red brick above a rough-cut stone basement.  The relatively sedate design relied on scalloped gables and dormers, and projecting bays at different levels to provide interest.  The three balconies, two at the fourth floor and one at the third, were protected by ornate iron railings.

Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue, 1910 (copyright expired)

It may have been his daughters' domestic futures that prompted Armour to move to Manhattan.  But it was his own clandestine romance that shocked New York in the winter of 1887.  The New York Times remarked on February 5 that his marriage at Syracuse, New York a few days earlier to Jane P. Livingston "came as a complete surprise."  The article went on, "Surprise was not lessened by the fact that both of the contracting parties belong here...Naturally Mr. Armour's acquaintances wondered why he and a New-York lady should go to Syracuse to be married."  The newspaper finally surmised, "A 'homestead' honeymoon was the most likely conjecture, as Mr. Armour came from that part of the State."  The groom was 50 years old and his bride was 43.

The family summered most often in Long Branch, New Jersey.  There they rubbed shoulders with millionaires like Pierre Lorillard, Jr., John Sloane, Moses Taylor and Julia Grant, widow of the former President.

Back in Manhattan, the Armours rarely entertained on a large scale.  While their names appeared in society columns as guests at balls and receptions; Jennie, as she was familiarly known, was seldom listed as a hostess.

It is possible that Herman, like Joseph Pulitzer for instance, simply did not like the domestic disruption entertainments caused.  He seems to have been more interested in politics; the Armour name most often appearing in print connected with political meetings and dinners.

Nevertheless, the house was not without music and entertainment.  On February 13, 1888, for instance, the New York Amusement Gazette reported "Mrs. H. O. Ormond [sic] 856 Fifth Avenue, will give a pink dinner and dance for her daughters, on Tuesday evening."

When this photo was taken, No. 2 East 67th Street (behind) had been demolished and replaced.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Juliana was married to Dr. Farquhar Ferguson in 1890.  The wealthy couple would become well known as patrons of the arts and establish a sprawling country estate, the Monastery, on Huntington Harbor, Long Island.

On April 2, 1893 The New York Times printed a one-line article entitled "An Interesting Engagement."   It read "Last week brought forth the announcement of the engagement of Miss Mary Armour, youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. W. [sic] Armour of 856 Fifth Avenue, to W. A. Nichols."  (The fact that newspapers seemed unable to get the family's names correct must have been a constant irritation.)

By the time of Mary's engagement the family's summer residence was outside of Tarrytown, New York.  Her wedding took place on the lawn of the estate, Waldheim, on June 20.  The New York Times reported "As the Russian Court Orchestra played the wedding march the bride, leaning on the arm of her father, came out of the mansion and walked down a carpeted lane and was received by the guests under the tall oak trees."

Following the ceremony, "a wedding breakfast was served by Berger on the lawn in a large marquee, in which there were eight tables," said the article.

With both his daughters now married, Herman was annoyed when envelopes began arriving at the Fifth Avenue house addressed to "Miss Armour."  Inside each was the same printed circular from a matrimonial agent promising to find her a husband.

Having reached the end of his patience, Herman marched into the Jefferson Market Court on June 27, 1894, complaining that the agent was "annoying his daughter by sending her letters."  He told Justice Ryan "The impertinence of the agent is rendered doubly odious by the circumstance that my daughter is married and has children."

When the judge suggested that he swear out a warrant for the man's arrest, Armour declined.  "Mr. Armour did not think this punishment would fit the crime," said The Evening World.  He told a reporter he did not think the letters were sent with malicious intent; but he did feel that "As a citizen I deemed it my duty to show the circular to the police...That's the whole matter in a nutshell."

The avenue in front of the Armour house (behind the awning) was lined with sleek carriages arriving for the wedding of Anna Gould at No. 857 on March 2, 1895 Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
In June 1901 Herman and Jennie leased the General Wilson B. French cottage in Saratoga, New York for the summer.   Mary there was with her parents in September.  On September 7 Herman drove to New York City to handle business, but was back the same day.   The following morning, according to the Minnesota newspaper The Bemidji Pioneer, "he enjoyed his usual drive and appeared much refreshed by his outing."

The newspaper reported "He was conversing with friends on the piazza of his cottage when suddenly his head dropped to one side and he expired almost immediately."  Jennie and Mary were both on the porch at the time.  In reporting on his shocking death, the New-York Tribune added, "His wife was Miss Jennie P. Livingston, a woman of strong character, who, he was accustomed to say, was invaluable to him as a counselor in his business."

The funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue home three days later, on September 11.  The Times reported that the service "was of the simplest character, and was attended by only the immediate relatives of Mr. Armour, close friends, and a few business associates."  Among them were former Mayor Franklin Edson, Senator Thomas C. Platt, and high ranking business and banking figures.

Following her period of mourning, Jennie spent less and less time in New York.   In August 1902 she was in France; and when the steamship Kaiser Wilhelm II arrived in New York from Cherbourg on August 30, 1904, The Times noted that among the passengers disembarking were W. D. Rockefeller, Baroness de Reinelt, Baroness Alice de Rose, Baron P. de Morogues, and Jennie Armour.

On June 6, 1908 the San Francisco Call reported that Jennie had arrived on the Nippon Maru.  "Mrs. Armour, in company with Miss A. L. Barrett, has been touring the world and is now on the way home," it said.  "The ladies were accompanied by E. T. Atkinson, who travels with them in the double capacity of guide and courier.  They will remain here for a few days as guests of the St. Francis [Hotel]."

In February 1910 Jennie sold the now-outdated mansion to Elbert H. Gary, chairman of the board of the United States Steel Corporation.  The Record & Guide pointed out the changes in the immediate neighborhood.  "No. 854, the former residence of Mr. Andrews, has been torn down and rebuilt by Mr. Beekman...No. 855, residence of the late Simon Berg, was rebuilt by him; No. 2 East 67th st (one of the four [of the original Lamb & Rich row]), owned by Henri P. Wertheim, was torn down and rebuilt by him."

The article advised "No. 856 will be demolished by the new owner, who will construct on this site one of the handsomest dwellings on the av."  In June 1910 mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert filed plans for a new $300,000 mansion for Garry.

Less than two decades after it was constructed, the Gary mansion was being demolished in 1927.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was, indeed, "one of the handsomest dwellings" on the avenue; but it did not last.  In 1927 it was razed to be replaced by the apartment building designed by Shreve & Lamb, which survives.

In 1929 Wurts Bros. photographed the newly-completed building from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Delightfully Eccentric - 18 West 23rd Street


The eclecic mix and match of alterations leaves no hint of the original 1857 house.
R. C. Voorhees began construction on two houses at Nos. 16 and 18 West 23rd Street in 1856.  The upscale, brownstone-fronted residences would take two years to complete.  The block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues would be home to some of Manhattan's wealthiest and most respected families.

Voorhees sold No. 18 Dr. Egbert Guernsey and his wife, the former Sarah Lefferts Schneck.   Guernsey was born on July 8, 1823 in Litchfield, Connecticut.  The Egbert family traced its roots in New England to the 17th century.  He was educated at Phillip's Andover, Yale University, and received his medical degree from University of the City of New York in 1846.  By now Guernsey was a trustee in the newly-established New York Homoeopathic Medical College and a professor of obstetrics and diseases of women.

When the Guernseys moved into No. 18 they had an 8-year old son, William.  Two years later, in 1859, daughter Florence was born in the house.  William eventually went into medicine and in 1874 both he and his father listed their practices here.

Wealthy families like the Guernseys housed their several vehicles and horses in private carriage houses.   By 1871 the old Miner family mansion on Fifth Avenue between 21st and 22nd Street was occupied by the exclusive Dobson & Co. glassware store.  (A dozen claret glasses that year were advertised for $600--nearly $12,500 in today's dollars.)   Egbert Guernsey leased the conveniently-located stable behind the mansion for his use.

The staff consisted of grooms, stable boys, coachmen and others.  In 1875 John H. Jones headed the stable operation and occasionally used 18-year old William A. Jones to do odd jobs.  The younger Jones took a nap on the afternoon of December 19 that year; one he would soon regret.

Jones woke up to discover the stable on fire.  Instead of calling for help or attempting to douse the flames, he panicked and ran.  It was not a good choice for a black teen in 1875.

The New York Herald reported "A fire broke out yesterday afternoon in the two-story brick stable in the rear of No. 166 Fifth avenue, which is occupied by Dr. Guernsey, of No. 18 West Twenty-third street.  It was ten minutes past two o'clock when a negro named William A. Jones, aged eighteen years, was seen by some citizens, who were passing at the time, to rush through the stable door into the street without giving any notice of a fire."

Jones had no sooner run by when flames shot out of the windows and doors of the carriage house.  It appeared obvious to the witnesses that the teen had set the fire.  "Two or three of the citizens at once seized Jones, guessing from his apparent want of desire to extinguish the flames that he had been the cause of the fire."

The newspaper did not hide its disdain for beat cops in reporting that "As usual in cases of emergency, no policeman was at hand and two blocks had to be gone over before one could be found."  Private citizens helped rescue "all the horses, four or five carriages and part of the harness;" but Guernsey suffered $2,000 worth of damage to other carriages and harnesses.  Damage to the building was $500.

In the meantime, "Jones, the suspected incendiary, was taken to the Twenty-ninth precinct station house."  There he told his story and insisted he "barely escaped to the street in time to save his life."  Police were not totally convinced and he was held pending an investigation to find the origin of the fire.

Dr. Guernsey was well-known for his attempts to improve the condition of the poor and public sanitation in general.  He personally visited tenement houses as delivered reports to the New York Sanitation Association.  In reporting on Nos. 88-90 Sheriff Street in 1865 he flatly said "This nuisance should be destroyed."  He said in part "The carbonic-acid gas, in conjunction with the other emanations from bones, rags and human filth, defies description...The inhabitants lead a miserable existence and their children wilt and die in their infancy."

Sarah was no less involved in her own charitable causes.  She was highly involved in events benefiting the West Side Homoeopathic Dispensary, like the Children's Carnival on February 26, 1878.  Newspapers reported that tickets to the events could be purchased from Sarah at the West 23rd Street house.

In 1881 Sarah was among five women appointed by Governor Alonzo B. Cornell to select a site for the proposed House of Refuge for Women.  A New-York Tribune reporter visited her on August 3 for an update.  She was frank about her feelings of greed versus compassion.  "The trouble is the people ask too much for their land...Now if some charitable person would give twenty-five or fifty acres of land in a healthy situation, near a good stream of water, it would amply repay him in a few yeas by the good it would do."  The Tribune titled the article "Reforming Bad Women."

By the time Sarah Guernsey was doing her part to reform bad women, her 23rd Street neighborhood was becoming intolerably commercial.   The breaking point for the family finally came early in March 1883 when the New-York Tribune remarked "Another of the few private houses left in Twenty-third-st. between Fifth and Sixth aves. will be given up for business on May 1, when Dr. Egbert Guernsey will remove his family up-town."

The house was in Sarah's name.  So when plans were filed by architects D. & J. Jardine to install "two artist's skylights in roof" in September 1884, the owner was listed as "Mrs. Egbert Guernsey."  The minor alterations cost the equivalent of about $9,000 today.

New York's entertainment district had moved onto West 23rd Street by now.   Among the theaters along the thoroughfare was Koster & Bial's Music Hall, on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue; Booth's Theatre on the opposite corner; and the Grand Opera House on the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue.   So it is not surprising that early tenants of the converted Guernsey mansion were involved in the theater.  Among them were producer and manager Daniel Frohman, managers Gale & Spader, and the Lyceum School.  When the new Lyceum School Building was erected in 1885, many of the theatrical tenants moved there from No. 18.

In 1891 the building was shared by the Aeolian Company and George H. Polley & Co.   Aeolian sold its parlor organs and pianos while upstairs the Boston-based Polley & Co. was a publishing house.

Thomas W. Polley, a partner with his brother George, represented the firm in New York.   For several years the bachelor had boarded with the the family of the windowed Mrs. Homer Baldwin at No. 71 East 85th Street.  He was treated essentially as one of the family, so when the Baldwins celebrated Christmas at Niagara Falls they urged the 34-year old Polley to come along.

On Christmas Day The Evening World reported "Last evening the Baldwin household held their Christmas celebration, exchanging gifts and having a jolly time."  For some reason that night they changed their plans.  They were supposed to return to New York City on Christmas night; instead they boarded the New York Central Railroad train after opening their presents.

Along with Polley and his 60-year old landlady were her children, 30-year old Homer, who worked at the Hazard Manufacturing Company, and 23-year old Lillian.  She had graduated from Normal College in 1888 and was engaged to "an estimable young business man," according to The Evening World.  Homer's wife, Lilian, was also along.

As the train sped to New York, another high-speed passenger train was heading north.  Through some horrifying human error both trains were on the same track.  Just outside of Hastings-on-the-Hudson the two trains met, telescoping into one another with a deadly impact.

Nine people died immediately.  Others were scalded, burned, and crushed.  The Evening World wrote "Saddest of all is the tragedy which has befallen the family of Mrs. Homer Baldwin...The mother is dead, the sons and his wife and the beautiful young sister are mangled and burned, the latter not being expected to live the day out, and the father of the young lady's betrothed lies in the Morgue at Tarrytown."  Also in the morgue was Thomas W. Polley.

The following day the New-York Tribune updated the condition of the passengers.  Of the Baldwin party, only Homer had survived.  His wife, sister, and her fiance had all succumbed overnight.

The Aeolian Company proudly touted its automatic organ and pianos.  On April 3, 1892 The Sun noted "The advantages offered by the Aeolian are evident at a glance to any one who takes the trouble to listen to it in the warerooms at 18 West twenty-third street, where it may be heard at any time."  Not only could customers purchase a self-playing instrument, there were approximately 5,000 pieces of music to choose from.

"And yet the Aeolian is not the soulless work of a music box," explained the article, "the player can really guide the music of the Aeolian as a leader conducts an orchestra, and can give infinite expression by changing the time, the power, and the use of different combinations of steps."

In March 1895 Sarah Guernsey made additional updates to her former house, hiring architect R. H. Anderson to install an elevator shaft, change the stairs and make other alterations.  The $3,000 in changes did not apparently extend to the facade.

Aeolian Company continued to lease space and by 1899 was additionally publishing The Aeolian Quarterly here.

The instruments were not cheap.  The price of the illustrated parlor organ would be in the neighborhood of $15,000 today.  The Cosmopolitan, October 1895 (copyright expired)
On September 10, 1902 The New York Times announced that the building "now occupied by the Aeolian Company" had been leased.  The new tenant was the Butterick Publishing Company, and before moving in it commissioned architects Horgan & Slattery to make significant changes.

The firm filed plans on November 8.  They called for new walls, new vents and a new skylight; but most significantly a "new store front."  The cast iron front featured Renaissance Revival-style panels within the piers and pretty filigree arches.

Snippets of the Horgan & Slattery storefront survive on the first and second floors.
Surprisingly after investing $10,000 in the remodeling, Butterick Publishing subleased the building in the summer of 1907 to high-end milliner and furrier Simon Lindau.  The Real Estate Record & Guide announced he "will open a store as a branch of his present establishment at 933 Broadway."

Lindau, too, would not stay on especially long, leaving in the summer of 1911.  The first floor became home to Maxwell's jewelry store and Odell's fur and millinery shop (which extended onto the second floor).  The top three floors were vacant.

The following year, on December 26, an explosion in the basement occured around 9:50 at night.  By the time fire fighters arrived the fire had spread up the elevator shaft "and the blaze began to leap twenty feet above the roof," as reported by The Times.  A crowd of several thousand crammed West 23rd Street to watch the firemen fight the blaze.  It was extinguished without major damage to the building.  The newspaper reported "The major part of the damage was the ruin of furs by water."

Both Sarah Guernsey and William N. Guernsey had died in 1901, followed by Dr. Egbert Guernsey in 1903.  The title to No. 18 had passed to Florence Guernsey.  Among her tenants was the pottery store of M. Warren, the sole agent for Zanesville Pottery; and furniture dealer Charles S. Nathan who leased the store in January 1917.

Florence Guernsey never married.  She was highly active in women clubs and, according to the New-York Tribune, "early in life she showed a keen interest in all movements looking to the advancement of women."  She died on January 17, 1919.

No. 18 was sold at auction in March 1920, then quickly resold a month later to Charles H. Hall "who will use it for his New York warerooms," according to The Real Estate Record & Guide on April 17.

Charles Hall Inc, was founded in 1873 in Springfield, Massachusetts as a retail store selling china, glassware and general household goods.  Now No. 18 became "Hall House" where the firm's wholesale operations were based.  The building quickly proved to be too small and in 1924 the firm moved to No. 3 East 40th Street.

No. 18 was sold to Joseph M. Crucet and once again the building received a make-over.  Crucet commissiond Edward L. Middleton to do a startling update which resulted in a Mediterranean flavored splattering of Arts & Crafts-style tiles, two Spanish-tiled overhanging roofs at the second and fifth floors, and a stucco-faced parapet.  Rather surprisingly, almost nothing was done to the two-story 1902 Renaissance-Revival storefront.

Crucet's firm, the Crucet Manufacturing Company, was well-known for its handsome table and floor lamps.  In March, even while the renovations were taking place, Crucet leased the second floor to the Roseville Pottery Company for its showroom.

A 1920's advertisement suggested the wide range of lamps the firm offered.  Good Furniture Magazine, (copyright expired)

In June 1950 Bengor Products Company moved into the store and mezzanine.  Formed by Ben and Lou Gordon in 1925, the firm was emblematic of the change in businesses along the block.  In reporting on the move, Billboard magazine said the new store was "in the heart of the novelty import-export business."

Among the novelties Bengor hawked was the book Passions of Paris which gave the unsuspecting "reader" an electric shock. Billboard magazine, March 1, 1952

Bengor Products remained in the building for years, selling products the good taste of which were sometimes questionable.  In 1966 the firm marketed "Mr. John," described in the American Import & Export Bulletin as a "novelty gag-joke item shaped to resemble a urinal with a flush valve."

As the 20th century drew to a close Bengor Products and its gag items were gone.  In 1997 New York Magazine commented on "beauty pearls filled with moisturizer, cleanser or face scrub" that could be purchased at MCM Salon here.


In 2010 the top floors were converted to apartments.  A Mexican restaurant operates from the ground floor today and a spa from the second floor.  The eccentric mish-mash of upgrades to the old structure makes for a delightfully unique presence on the block--with no hint of the 1858 house hidden somewhere within.

photographs by the author