Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The New York Mercantile Exchange - 628-630 Broadway




Henry Newman, the principal in Henry Newman & Co., was an importer of tailors' trimmings and clothiers' supplies.   It may have been the news that the New York Mercantile Exchange was looking for larger headquarters that prompted him to embark on a construction project in 1882.

In January of the previous year J. H. Mahoney had purchased at an executor's sale the two old buildings at Nos. 628 and 630 Broadway, between Houston and Bleecker Streets.  The price he paid, $111,200 (around $2.7 million today) reflected the influx of commercial buildings along this section of Broadway.

Newman leased the properties and hired H. J. Schwarzmann & Co. to design a six-story commercial building.  According to the Engineering Record on February 23, 1882, the projected construction costs were $125,000; more than $3 million in today's dollars.  (Interestingly, while plans were filed under H. J. Schwarzmann & Co., the 1898 A History of Real Estate, Building and Architecture in New York City gave full credit to another firm, Buchman & Deisler.)

The building, completed in 1883, would have been little different than scores of other cast iron fronted buildings were it not for its eye-catching, unique ornamentation  The Aesthetic Movement was taking hold in America, appearing mostly in furniture and artwork.  The movement stressed natural motifs--birds, flowers, and leaves, for instance--and Far Eastern influences.  H. J. Schwarzmann & Co. took it from the drawing room to the facade of Newman's building.

The engaged columns of the ground floor storefront, along with those on each of the succeeding floors, took the form of bamboo poles.  Recessed panels on the side piers at this level were incised with stylized leaf designs.  Applied cast iron flowers to the side were slightly offset from the panels.

The remarkable decoration continued at the second and third floors with thin palm trees and clumps of calla lilies.  The trees terminated in just two fronds.  Like the cast iron plants on the third and fifth floor piers, the palms and lilies no doubt once sprouted from a now-lost cornice.

A decorative cornice once upheld the now-floating palm trees and lilies at the second floor.

The filigree panels forming Moorish-type arches that framed the top story openings were almost assuredly repeated throughout the lower floors.  One can easily imagine the overall delicate and lacy Asian appearance they created.

Newman had the architects incorporate the name "The New York Mercantile Exchange" into the cast iron facade.   And, indeed, that group did temporarily lease space on the second floor for offices and showrooms.  Newman moved his own business into the building, sharing the third, fifth and sixth floors with Cohn, Ball & Co., makers of boys' and men's clothing.  On the fourth floor in 1884 was clothing merchant L. Clark, and the two street level stores were home to Joseph W. Lester & Co., a hat shop, at No. 628 and I. Oberndorfer & Co.'s "gentlemen's furnishing goods" at No. 630.

Just after 4:00 on the morning of August 19, 1884 fire was discovered on the fifth floor.   Firefighters had the blaze out within an hour, but the damage was significant.  Both Cohn, Ball & Co. and Henry Newman & Co. had their new fall and winter inventory stored there.

The New York Times reported "When the firemen entered the building the upper floors were so filled with smoke that it was impossible to move about until the skylight on the roof had been smashed and the front windows on Broadway had been broken out."

Although the fire was confined to the fifth floor, as was often the case with 19th and early 20th century fires water damage was severe.   Joseph W. Lester & Co., for instance, lost $4,000 in ruined hats, and I. Oberndorfer & Co. suffered $5,000 in losses.

The pressed frieze of leaves below the cornice reflects an Aesthetic Movement motif.  The filigree frames of the upper floor windows, almost assuredly, continued throughout the facade.

The building was repaired and the former Cohn, Ball & Co. (by now renamed Ball & Co.) celebrated is grand reopening in March 1886.  The fire may have ruined Newman's plans for a long-term tenant in the New York Mercantile Exchange, however.  It completed its own building on Harrison Street that same year.

Ball & Co. had expanded, now taking several floors.  The New York Times called it "an immense store," and noted "down stairs is their retail department and up stairs the manufacturing is done."  The firm touted its "new and spacious stores" as having "the largest stock of fine clothing for men, youths and boys ever exhibited in this city."  Men's spring overcoats, "made of meltons, cassimeres and corkscrews" were priced at between $6 and $12 (a reasonable $316 today for the most expensive model).

Later that year Ball & Co. launched a clever marketing scheme.  For every purchase of $15 or over the customer would receive a Limoges clock.  On November 24, 1886 The Times commented "These clocks are really good time-keepers."

Other tenants in the refurbished building were clothing firms of Leo Schlesinger, Vanderhoef & Co., Rindskopf & Barbier, W. Hillman & Co., J. Klee & Co., Joseph Rosenthal, and Charles Simon & Co.

Tragedy repeated itself on July 2, 1887 when fire broke out again.  This time total damages to the various tenants amounted to $130,000 and it was apparently the last straw for Ball & Co.  The firm did not return to Nos. 628-630 Broadway.

Henry Newman's tenant list slowly reflected the migration of the millinery district from south of Houston Street.  In 1888 William McElhinney & Co., milliners, was in the building, as was Henry Zeimer & Co., "importers of artificial flowers." 

The Evening World, March 8, 1893 (copyright expired)

The apparel industry was stunned when Henry Newman & Co. declared bankruptcy in May 1894.  The Clothier and Furnisher reported that the announcement "produced an immense sensation throughout the trade, and expressions of sympathy with the defunct firm could be heard in every quarter of the market."

J. H. Mahoney still owned the building.  He died in 1901 but his estate continued its management.  In April 1901 I. Isaac & Co., "neckwear manufacturers" moved in.  Then in 1902 the entire building was leased to The New York Millinery & Supply Company.  Negotiations for that lease were most likely the cause of the $3,000 in alterations the Mahoney estate made on the building that year.


The firm advertised one of its Pattern Hats in July 1904.  The Millinery Trade Review (copyright expired)

The New York Millinery & Supply Company offered the latest in women's head wear.   Its new line of 1904 fall and winter hats was unveiled on August 9,  The firm tempted buyers saying "We are showing a most superb line of Ladies' and Misses' correct, artistic, snappy Millinery Merchandise."  The announcement added "Our famous $3.50 each Pattern Hats are wonders in value--each one embodying the swellest, latest and most popular New York and Parisian ideas."

The firm sub-leased space to non-competing tenants.  Among them in 1907 were Millen, Aikenhead & Co. makers of men's pajamas and shirts, Eisenberg & Settel, men's overcoats and clothing makers, (which moved in on February 1), and Proser Bros. whose hand-made worsted suits ranged from $7 to $9 that year.
Fairchild's Men's Wear Directory, 1907
The Steinfeld Brothers toy store was in the ground floor retail space.  They were doing a brisk business in Rudolph Fleischer's popular teddy bears.  Following a well-publicized story of President Theodore Roosevelt's 1902 bear hunting trip in Mississippi during which he refused to shoot a cornered bear cub, toy manufacturers like Fleischer cranked out thousands of the cuddly plush animals.

Just before the Republican convention in 1907 Steinfeld Brothers ordered another 525 dozen teddy bears from Fleischer.  The store, according to the New-York Tribune later, "figured that President Roosevelt would accept a third term.  Teddy bears would still be a valuable investment with Mr. Roosevelt in the White House four years more"

But to the management's amazement and dismay, it was William Howard Taft who received the nomination.  Despite their standing purchase order, Steinfeld Brothers told the manufacturer they would accept 20 dozen bears, but no more.

Rudolph Fleischer went to court.  He told reporters the bears were not bears any longer, but "white elephants."  The New-York Tribune reported on July 4, 1908 "Fleischer says they broke their contract, and now he wants damages."

The New York Millinery & Supply Co. remained in the building for years.  Its large staff of hat makers and shop girls was entirely female.  In 1913 it employed 31 women and two office workers.

In 1915 women's hat fashions--like New York Millinery & Supply Co.'s "Knickerbocker hat"--were decidedly less exuberant.  The American Angler, January 1915 (copyright expired)

In the years following the end of World War I the millinery and apparel districts moved northward.  The Broadway section just above Houston Street saw drastic change during the Depression years.   The store space became home to the Bleecker Trading Corporation, a check-cashing operation.

On the evening of September 4, 1941 Oliver Scherman was alone there when a gunman, around 45 years old, walked in around 6:15.  He pushed a revolver through the grill of the cashier's cage and ordered "Give me all the money you have."

The New York Times opined "He had apparently been watching the place for some time and knew when Scherman would be lone."  The cashier handed him everything in the till.  The thief left the checks behind, but took about $2,000 in cash.

Among the upper floor tenants was the Capitol Folding Box Company, Inc.  In 1945 that firm broke through the basement wall to connect to the building next door at Nos. 632-634 Broadway.

Fire once again struck the building in 1951, this one on the lower floors.  The architectural firm of Emery Roth & Sons was commissioned to repair the damages, including the construction of a new lobby.

Another brazen robbery took place in the building just over a decade later.  A holdover from the apparel manufacturing days, Rettinger Raincoat Manufacturing Company operated from an upper floor.  Until the second half of the 20th century payroll was customarily distributed in the form of cash.  It was a tempting arrangement for robbers.

On June 24, 1953 Bertha Rosen, the company's bookkeeper, returned from the bank with the payroll.  As she entered the elevator, two men pushed their way in.  One brandished a pistol.  They snatched the $2,569 in cash, wrapped it in a newspaper, and fled the building.

Beginning in 1940 the city had been plagued by a mad bomb maker who planted 28 devices, 23 of which exploded.   On December 1, 1956 six patrons were injured when a homemade bomb exploded in the Brooklyn Paramount Theater.  Three days later a surge of bomb threats sent police scurrying throughout the city.  The following day The New York Times reported "Thirteen new threats yesterday to bomb public places, including theatres, schools, an airlines terminal, a ship and an Army base, intensified the police hunt for a deranged perpetrator."

Among the calls was that received at 1:30 p.m. warning that a bomb was set to explode at No. 630 Broadway.  That call was a hoax and no device was found.

By the last quarter of the century this section of Broadway was dingy and neglected.  In 1981 Nos 620-630 Broadway was home to the Commercial Plastics and Supply Corporation, described by The New York Times as "the largest of a half-dozen plastics merchants clustered together."


But the neighborhood, soon to be known as Noho, was on the brink of rediscovery.  As former loft buildings were restored and rehabilitated, No. 628-630 received a make-over in 1990.  Today the strikingly exotic cast iron building is as remarkable as it was in 1883.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The 1933 Midtown Theatre -- 2626 Broadway



The seven-story Glenham Apartments opened at No. 2626 Broadway, between 99th and 100th Streets, in 1902.  The sprawling apartments--seven and eight rooms each-- were by no means inexpensive.  They rented for between $800 to $1000 per year, equal to as much as $2,400 per month today.

The Great Depression may have dealt a significant blow to the building's owners; or it may have simply been the changing neighborhood that brought about the end to the Glenham.   It was demolished in November 1931.  Brothers Arlington and Harvey Hall, partners in the A. C. & H. M. Realty Co. envisioned a motion picture theater on the site.

Both Russel M. Boak and Hyman F. Paris had worked in the drafting rooms of architect Emery Roth.  They struck out as partners in 1927, forming the firm Boak & Paris.  By now they were giving their own spin to the Art Deco style, most often in the form of apartment buildings.  The firm was awarded the commission to design the theater (with the inexplicably misleading name Midtown) in 1932 and they filed plans that December. 

With the arrival of the Great Depression the lavish motion picture palaces of the 1920s, with their pipe organs and cavernous lobbies, became a thing of the past.  Boak & Paris produced a relatively intimate theater.  What it lacked in the earlier grandeur it made up for in its sleek, streamlined design.

Completed on June 2, 1933, the theater was on the cutting edge of architectural trends.   The black-and-silver stripes of the glazed terra cotta street level facade was echoed in the four chrome bands that girded the overhanging marquee.  Boak & Paris used illumination as an element of the theater's architecture, dramatically lighting the underside of the marquee, its lettering and decorations, and casting flood lights on the upper facade.

Shortly after its opening Wurts Bros. photographed the theater at night in 1933.  Double Harness starring William Powell and Ann Harding was playing, along with a "Musical Revue" with Alex Gray and Bernice Claire.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was that upper facade that set the Midtown Theatre apart.  The stair-stepping lines of the gray terra cotta on either side of the central section drew the eye to the large colorful medallion.  Here two figures, one weeping and holding the Greek mask of Tragedy and the other dancing with the mask of Comedy, represented theater.  The black terra cotta wall on which it appeared was trimmed in thin red lines and culminated in a wavy parapet and Empire State Building-like ziggurats.

The clean, Art Deco lines were carried on in the auditorium in the carpeting, lighting fixtures and stylish ceiling decoration.  photo by Wurts Bros. 1933.

Depression Era Americans escaped the reality of everyday life at the movies.  Here, for at least a while, they could forget the gloom outside the darkened theater while they watched upbeat Busby Berkeley musicals and Marx Brothers comedies.  Upper West Side residents saw first-run motion pictures at the Midtown Theatre, no longer having to ride the subway to Times Square.

Even during the Depression many New Yorkers got away from the city in the summer.  With a diminished clientele some motion picture theaters, like the Midtown, closed for the month of July.  On August 9, 1938 The New York Times reported that the theater would be reopening that week, showing the comedy The Rage of Paris starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Danielle Darrieux, and the mystery There's Always a Woman with Joan Blondell, Melvyn Douglas and Mary Astor.



Fred J. Dollinger was the manager of the Midtown Theatre in the early 1940s and he took his job very seriously.  Among his duties was ensuring that motorists obeyed the no-parking rules directly in front of the theater so movie-goers could easily be dropped off or picked up.

And so when Alexander J. Mayer pulled up at the curbside around 6:20 on the night of September 10, 1942, the theater's doorman pointed out that he could not park there.  Mayer ignored the warning and went to a nearby restaurant.  Dollinger decided to teach him a lesson on obeying the rules.

Mayer had been in the restaurant only a few minutes before a passerby, Louis Smith, came in and told him his left rear tire had been slashed.   He pointed out Dollinger as the culprit.

In night court Dollinger insisted he had not committed the deed; but Mayer had brought along his witness. The following day The New York Times reported "The price of an automobile tire was $50 for Fred J. Dollinger, 60 years old, a motion picture theatre manager, last night, and he didn't even get the tire."

The terra cotta medallion of Tragedy and Comedy can only be called spectacular.

Motion picture theaters in general suffered a tremendous blow following the advent of television.  Families that routinely went to the movies once or twice a week now stayed home.  In the 1970s the Midtown Theatre, which for four decades had presented only first-class entertainment, became an adult film theater.   It was rescued in 1982 when Daniel Talbot, owner of New Yorker Films, purchased it and spent $300,000 to renovated as a specialized theater that screened vintage and foreign films.  He renamed the 535-seat theater the Metro.

The Metro became known for its film festivals.  In the summer of 1983 it offered a George Cukor festival that included the 1933 Dinner at Eight and the 1938 Holiday with Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Lew Ayres.

The following spring the Metro was the site of the 10th "Perspectives on French Cinema" series.  Five directors personally introduced their works and 11 new French films were screened.   Among the films being premiered in America was 24-year old Caroline Roboh's Clementine Tango.  The program notes described the plot as being about "an aristocratic young man who discovers traces of his father's past love affairs in a freakish Pigalle nightclub" and "a seductive but innocent adolescent girl enamored of tango dancing."

Soon, however, the theater was renovated by Clearview Cinemas.  By 1986 the auditorium had been sliced in half with one 325-seat "twin" theater on the lower section and 200 seats on the upper.  Boak & Paris's striking Art Deco interiors were still intact; although severed at the waist.

A 1999 advertisement carried out the Art Deco theme.  The double-bill featured a horror and an action film.

A terrifying incident occurred on May 9, 1999 when two armed men entered the theater around 10:30 at night.  They ordered the concession stand employee to take them to the manager's office.  There they tied up both men and two other employees with duct tape before making off with around $2,000 in the day's receipts.

The Metro closed in 2002.  After two failed attempts to reopen, rumors spread that it would be replaced by a Gristede's grocery store.  Then, happily, in November 2004 it reopened as an independent theater called the Embassy's New Metro Twin.  Similar to the first Metro incarnation, it screened foreign and independent films.

But that venture, too, did not survive.  In November 2005 the owner, Albert Bialek, gave up and padlocked the doors.  He explained to reporter Alex Mindlin of The New York Times  "As a neighborhood theater, the building is obsolete.  It can't compete with the bigger multiscreen houses."

The Landmarks Preservation Commission gave Bialek permission to demolish Boak & Paris's stunning interiors.  He told Mindlin he considered "leasing the space to a dinner theater, a restaurant or a store."


In the summer of 2008 a large FOR SALE sign covered the marquee.  One option after another came and went, including proposals to renovate the space as an Urban Outfitters store and a home for an arts-education nonprofit.  Then, in 2012 The Alamo Drafthouse seemed to have come to the rescue.

The Texas-based motion picture theater chain announced its intentions to open a New York branch.  In a press release the company said "The Alamo Drafthouse at the Metro will provide food and drink service to your seat and will uphold its famously strict no-talking policy."  (That policy included a prohibition against cell phones.)

But the high hopes of preservationists and Upper West Siders were dashed in October the following year when Alamo Drafthouse Cinema's website announced "too much has changed since we initially began work on the location."  After having spent almost $1 million on the project, CEO Tim League sighed "We were shovel-ready, but we didn't lift the shovel...We've invested a lot of time and money into it."  The firm had made the decision that the spot was simply not "financially viable."

When a lease was signed in 2015 with Planet Fitness, it was seen by many as, at least, a way of preserving the building.  Councilman Mark D. Levine said "I think any tenant is better than abandonment.  And while it is a chain, at least it isn't a Duane Reade."  And Planet Fitness promised that it would respect the structure's historic details in creating its gym.


But in the summer of 2017 the marquee still proclaims SPACE AVAILABLE and the Art Deco treasure sits vacant and unused 12 years after its doors were last closed.

photographs by the author

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Lost John Taylor Johnston Mansion - 8 Fifth Avenue



The blinds were pulled down when this photograph was shot around 1912, possibly because the family was gone for the summer.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1856 John Taylor Johnston had an immense personal fortune.  His parents were John Johnston, a Scottish-born shipping baron and banker, and Margaret Taylor.   The son of privilege, he traveled to Europe at the age of 13, seeing the museums of Rome, Venice and Florence and visiting galleries where his father purchased old masters.

Johnston graduated from the University of the City of New York in 1839 and Yale College law school in 1841. Two years later he accompanied his parents to Europe again, browsing through the Louvre with his mother while his father added to his art collection.

It was on that trip that Johnston met Frances Colles, the daughter of James Colles, an art broker for wealthy Louisiana plantation owners.  Romance bloomed and back in the United States the couple eventually married in 1851.

In 1848 Johnston "was induced" (as The New York Times worded it) to become president of the 25-mile long Somerville and Eason Railroad.  He quickly transformed it to the 400-mile Central Railroad of New-Jersey, a freight line carrying coal.

Johnston's parents lived on Washington Square.  In 1855 he began construction of his own lavish mansion a block north of the park, at the southwest corner of West 8th Street.  The plot was leased from William C. Rhinelander, whose 1839 mansion was one of the first on Washington Square.

Johnston chose for his architect Frederick Diaper who, according to the Architectural Record decades later, in 1917, "was assisted by Mr. A. J. Bloor."  Diaper was responsible for the sprawling William Patterson Van Rensselaer manor house upstate, and the New York Library Society Building.

Completed in 1856, the Taylor home left no doubt as to the wealth of its owner.  Three bays wide, the Italianate mansion rose four floors above an English basement and stretched far back along West 8th Street.  But Diaper had placed his client's house a notch above the elegant brick homes of Washington Square and the brownstone mansions of Fifth Avenue--it was faced in gleaming white Vermont marble.

Photographed by Berenice Abbott in 1936, the marble mansion stands out beside its brownstone neighbors.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Taylor followed, then surpassed, his father's passion for art collecting.  Despite the size of his mansion, before long he renovated the private stable, directly behind the house on West 8th Street, into a private gallery.   (Taylor's brother, John Boorman Taylor, was no less passionate and in 1857 built the famous Tenth Street Studio building nearby on West 10th Street, exclusively for artists.)

Johnston renovated his private stable, directly behind the mansion, for his art gallery.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The first real step in establishing the Metropolitan Museum of Art was taken in Johnston's marble mansion on December 26, 1870.  The New York Times reported that "A large number of gentlemen, interested in the subject of the progress of art in the City, were invited by Mr. John Taylor Johnston to meet the officers of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday evening at his residence, No 8 Fifth Avenue."

The article noted "After an hour spent in the examination of Mr. Johnston's magnificent gallery of pictures, the subject of the meeting, the raising of funds to establish the Museum, was opened by the host."  Among the dozens of millionaires in attendance that evening were James W. Beekman, J. Pierpont Morgan, Levi P. Morton, Henry G. Marquand, Alexander Stuart, Rutherford Stuyvesant and Alexander Van Rensselaer.

There were esteemed American artists in the gathering as well, including John Quincy Adams Ward, John LaFarge, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederick E. Church; and leading architects such as James Renwick, Calvert Vaux, and Richard Morris Hunt.

When the men filed out that cold evening they had pledged $45,000 (or about $854,000 today) towards the goal of $250,000 to establish the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Johnston would be its first president.

In the meantime, Johnston's gallery held what was considered "one of the most important art collections in America," according to The New York Times years later.   He opened it to the public once a year and "was in the habit of assembling in it all the artists of New-York."  In it hung both European and American masterworks.  Works by Daubigny, Breton, Corot, Thomas Cole, Gilbert Stuart and Durand hung near Frederick Church's "Niagara" and one of Johnston's favorite acquisitions, J. M. W. Turner's "The Slave Ship."

Turner's "The Slave Ship" was considered one of Johnston's greatest acquisitions.  Museum of Fine Arts Boston
John and Frances raised five children in the house--Colles, John Herbert, Frances, Eva and Emily.  (An infant boy, died in 1886.)  The family summered in their 100-acre country estate near Plainfield, New Jersey.

In 1877 Johnston showed symptoms of what was called "creeping paralysis."  He retired from the railroad that year and, perhaps shocking to many, sold his beloved art collection.  The Times reported "In his collection, which was the result of many years' purchasing, were example of the American, German, and English schools.  This sale was one of the first great art sales in this city and it is said that the pictures realized a handsome profit."

John Taylor Johnston  from The History of the St. Andrew's Society of the State of New York, 1906 (copyright expired)

Despite his disability, Johnston remained the president Metropolitan Museum of Art and was the president of the Governing Board of the University of the City of New-York.  He sat on the boards of the Presbyterian Hospital, the Woman's Hospital, and the St. Andrews Society.

Frances busied herself with charitable causes, as was expected of wealthy wives.  In the winter of 1886, for instance, she met with a group of socialites to discuss establishing "at an early date an asylum for destitute orphan Italian girls at some point on the Harlem Railroad, near New-York."  The asylum would train the girls as "house servants of a high grade."

Eva was introduced to society in February 1886.  Frances hosted a cotillion in the house, which The Times deemed "an exceedingly pretty one."  The newspaper added "It has been some time since this once most hospitable of New-York houses has been opened to society."

The lull in entertaining in the mansion was most likely due to family health problems.   Eva's brother, Colles, was 33 years old at the time of her coming-out.  Never married, he still lived in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Educated as a lawyer, he was vice-president of Central New Jersey Land Improvement Company.  But because of his father's limited mobility he devoted much of his time to handling his business affairs.  Colle's health, however, was a problem, too.  He suffered from a lingering case of "consumption," better known today as tuberculosis.  Seven months after Eva's debut dance he died in the Plainfield house.

Two years later, Frances Colles Johnston died in the Fifth Avenue mansion.

One by one the aging John Taylor Johnson saw his children marry.  Emily married Robert W. De Forest, Eva married Henry E. Coe, and on April 30, 1892 Frances was wed to Pierre Mali in the family home.

The New York Times reported "The marriage was performed before an altar erected in the northern end of the art gallery, covered with white altar cloth and decorated with a brass cross and bunches of lilies."  The groom was the Vice Consul of Belgium and so among the guests were the Belgian Minister, Count and Countess Gaston d'Arschot of the Belgian Legation, and the Consuls General of China, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, Russia, and Turkey.

Just over three weeks later, on May 23, John Henry became the last of the children to marry.  His wedding to Celestine (known as Teenie) Noel was performed in her parent's residence on Waverley Place.

The marriages did not leave their father alone in his marble mansion.  Following their two-week honeymoon Frances returned to the house with her new husband.  And none of the others were far away--John Herbert lived at 20 Washington Square, Eva and Henry Coe lived at No. 5 East 10th Street, and Emily and Robert De Forest were at No. 7 Washington Square.

Long an invalid, on the morning of March 24, 1893 John Taylor Johnston died at No. 8 Fifth Avenue.  His $1.5 million estate--worth about 40 times that much today--was divided equally among the four children after specific bequests, such as the $10,000 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an equal amount to the University of the City of New York.  Each of his five grandchildren received $1,000.

Frances and Pierre inherited both No. 8 Fifth Avenue and the Plainfield estate.   Four days after Johnston's death, the latest grandson, John Taylor Johnston Mali, was born in the house.  Amazingly, on the same day Eva had a baby boy, Colles J. Coe.

Five years after Johnston's death Pierre became the Consul General to Belgium.  While the Fifth Avenue mansion had been quiet during her father's final years, Frances revived it as a center of Manhattan social activity.

She was a member of the exclusive Thursday Evening Club, initiated by Mrs. John Jay in her Washington Square mansion in February 1878.  Mrs. Jay intended the social club to "maintain its standard, and to make it increasingly a centre of intellectual intercourse and recreation, by resisting every tendency to ostentation or extravagance in its entertainments."  Members were expected to host occasional meetings which included literary or artistic program.

On the night of December 10, 1903 the group assembled in the Mali house.  "The programme consisted of reading from 'Pippa Passes' by Arthur Howard Pickering and songs by Miss Katherine Lee Jones, with Arthur Rosenstein as accompanist, and a large supper was served," reported The Times.   The millionaire couples attending that evening had names like Dodge, Rhinelander, Bowdoin, Schieffelin, and Lydig.  The socially visible Bishop Henry C. Potter was there as well.

Frances routinely hosted dances and dinners, such as the "small and early dance for young people not yet out" in February 1912.   Later that year the entertainments would focus on daughter Gertrude's debut.  The first of these was the dinner dance given on Friday, December 13.  Frances's siblings aided in making it a sumptuous affair.  The New York Times noted on November 10, "Mrs. Robert W. de Forest and Mrs. J. Herbert Johnston, also Mrs. Henry E. Coe, will give dinners for the debutantes of the last two seasons, taking their guests afterward to Mrs. Mali's."

The guests at J. T. Johnston Mali's 21st birthday party on March 28, 1914 included several of the eligible debutantes of that season.  Simultaneously, his cousin Colles was celebrating his 21st birthday in the Coe mansion on East 10th Street.  When the Mali dinner was over, the entire group joined the Coe party for a dance.

That winter No. 8 Fifth Avenue would be the scene of Eva Mali's debutante entertainments.  The following November her parents announced her engagement to David W. Noyes of Boston.  But something seems to have gone awry.  On February 27, 1916 The Times reported that Frances had given a "small dance last evening" for Eva.  "There were about 125 guests in all, and all were of the young set."  Gertrude and Eva helped her mother receive.  There was no mention of Noyes made.

By now the blocks of Fifth Avenue closer to 14th Street had become heavily commercialized.  Those millionaires had several years earlier moved northward.  But, perhaps because of its proximity to the still fashionable Washington Square, the blocks around the Mali residence remained upscale and residential.  In 1918 Arthur Barlett Maurice's book Fifth Avenue noted some of the Mali's wealthy and important neighbors.

Lispenard Stewart lived next door in No. 6 and Spender Witherbee at No. 4.  Other mansions in the immediate neighborhood housed Dr. Robert J. Kahn, Charles De Rham, Mrs. Peter F. Collier and Edwin W. Coggeshall.

Frances Mali continued her routine of lavish entertaining.  She held a dance on April 22, 1920 for Elizabeth H. Frank, daughter of Mrs. Abbot A. Low, to celebrant her engagement to Seth Low.  And later that year, on December 18, 1920 she hosted a dinner for her debutante cousin, Harriet Camac.

On October 4, 1923 Pierre Mali died at the age of 67 in the Plainfield, New Jersey estate.  Frances inherited his personal property, while the four children received his "money and securities."  He explained in his will that Frances "has independent means of her own."

Only Henry was still living in at No. 8 Fifth Avenue with his mother.  The other children were married by now.

Following her period of mourning Frances offered the mansion as the scene of a benefit bridge party for the Judson Health Centre on January 15, 1925.  She was washing her hands in an upstairs washroom when the first of her 80 guests rang the bell.  In her haste to greet her guests, she neglected to put her rings back on her fingers.

It was several hours after the party was over that she realized she was missing her rings.  She set her servants on a complete search of the house, but they were nowhere to be found.  On February 4 The New York Times reported "Although Mrs. Mali hesitated to question the honesty of any of her guests, she decided a few days ago to put the matter into the hands of the police."

Although the intrinsic value of the jewelry was several thousand dollars, Frances explained they had even more sentimental value.  "One, an octagonal ruby surrounded by diamonds, was her engagement ring," said The Times.  "The other, a large sapphire, with two diamonds on either side of it, was given to her by her father when she was 18 years old."  It is unclear if the rings were ever recovered.

Frances Mali left the venerable Fifth Avenue house in 1928, giving up the leasehold her family had held with the Rhinelander estate since 1855.  She died later that year, in December, at No. 944 Fifth Avenue.

In the meantime, the Rhinelander family had sold the entire block from Washington Square North to 8th Street.  It was announced in September that the new owner, A. E. Lefcourt, intended to replace the three houses with "a large housing improvement."

The developer's plans were thwarted, most likely, by the Stock Market Crash and the advent of the Great Depression.  Instead of being demolished, No. 8 was converted to apartments, called Marble House.

photo by Berenice Abbott from the collection of the New York Public Library

New owners attempted to demolished the block again in 1945.  On May 9 architect Sylvan Bien filed plans for a 28-story apartment house on the side for Chalfonte Syndicate, Inc.  The $2.8 million building was projected to house 399 families.

But that plan, too, fell through.  By January 1950 the property was owned by a new syndicate headed by Samuel Rudin.  He announced his intentions to immediately develop the site with a 300-family apartment building.

At the time No. 8 was home home of New York University's Center for Safety Education.  The upper floor still contained apartments.  The house's stables, once home to John Taylor Johnston's famous art gallery, was now the Clay Club, which provided studio space to artists.

Local residents and historians rallied against the demolition of the vintage homes.  Their protests went as far as Washington DC where legislation was introduced to save the houses as a "precious historical heritage for "all the people throughout the land."

The movement gained momentum, pulling powerful names like architect Harvy Wiley Corbett and the president of the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, Major General Ulysses S. Grant III into the battle.  The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society weighed in on the side of the Rhinelander properties.

But decades before historic preservation had gained true power, it was all to no avail.  The houses were demolished to be replaced by Emery Roth & Sons' 1951 apartment building, 2 Fifth Avenue.

The Johnston mansion sat at the far right corner of this photo.  via twofifth.com


Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Sarah D. Gardiner Mansion - 3 East 82nd Street




Terrence Farley was a prominent builder in the 1880s, highly involved in the flurry of construction on the Upper West Side.  His three sons, Joseph, John and James followed in his footsteps; but while John and James carried on as T. Farley's Sons, Joseph struck out on his own.

Joseph started his business in 1895.  He focused on high-end speculative residences, sparing no expense on the opulence he knew his customers would demand.  In 1900 he began work on two abutting homes at Nos. 3 and 5 East 82nd Street.  Although the pair shared the same building permit; the architects, Janes & Leo, treated the design of each separately.  The lavish five-story Beaux Arts style homes were completed a year later. 

The newly-completed No. 3 was sold to millionaire Solomon Loeb, a founder of the banking firm Kuhn, Loeb & Co. for $160,000--about $4.7 million today.  On May 18, 1901 The New York Times reported on rumors that he had bought the house as a gift "for one of his daughters, who as recently married."

When asked, Loeb replied that "he had not yet decided what he would do with the property."  But before long he made up his mind.

He transferred title to his daughter, Nina, and her husband Paul Warburg.  The couple were in no way "recently married," having wed in 1895. 

When the Warburgs, with their five-year old son James and infant daughter Bettina, moved in, Paul was still dividing his time between Hamburg and New York.  A member of his own family's German banking firm M. M. Warburg & Co.; he was now also a member of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.  It was not until 1902 that Warburg made his permanent home New York and he would not become a U.S. citizen until 1911.

Manhattan society was, for the most part, made up of Episcopalians with some ultra-wealthy Roman Catholics tolerated (although not in the ballroom of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor).  Despite the staggering wealth of some Jewish families, they were generally excluded from social events and exclusive clubs.

No. 3 East 82nd Street, therefore, was rarely the scene of grand entertainments; and then the guest list was for the most part limited to the wealthy Jewish community.


Nos. 3 and 5 (right) East 82nd just after completion in 1901.  The undeveloped plot next door is protected by a rather primitive, in comparison, picket fence.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
When the Betty Loeb Musical Foundation of New-York City, for instance, was incorporated on January 15, 1903 "to promote musical interests and the advancement of musical education in New-York," the directors were all from the Loeb family:  Theresa Schiff, Morris Loeb, Grita Seligman, James Loeb, and Nina Warburg. 

For some reason, Solomon Loeb's lavish gift seems to have fallen short.  Following his death in December 1903, Warburg purchased the two old homes at Nos. 15 and 17 East 80th Street and commissioned mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design a magnificent 45-foot wide replacement.

In the fall of 1906 the Warburgs closed the 82nd Street house and left for Germany.  They would not return until their new mansion was completed.

Paul Warburg in 1908, just months after leaving the 82nd Street mansion.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

During the family's absence, the chauffeur checked on the Warburg automobiles in July 1907.  They were kept at a garage at No. 36 West 43rd Street.  To his surprise and panic, one was missing.

Police were notified and a search begun.  Then, a week later, a mechanic, John Chandler, unexpectedly drove the car into the garage.  He was as surprised as the garage owners and the police.  He explained that before Warburg left for Europe he instructed Chandler "to repair and test the car."

Why the chauffeur was unaware of the instructions, and why Chandler had not informed the garage operators that he was taking the car made the excuse suspicious.  Nevertheless, The New York Times reported "The matter will be laid aside until Mr. Warburg returns from abroad."

When the Warburgs returned in the summer of 1908 they moved into the new 80th Street mansion.  On September 23 the New-York Tribune reported that Warburg had sold the 82nd Street house to Robert Hager, Jr.

The 24-year old Hager had been educated at the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover and Yale University.  He had left Yale in April 1906 to marry Dorothy Quincy Trowbridge.  A baby daughter soon followed.

Hager's incomplete college education made little difference to the family's lifestyle.  He was born into wealth, his father being a retired banker.  At the time of his purchase of the Warburg residence the family was living in a vintage mansion along the former Millionaires Row at No. 537 Fifth Avenue.  He paid Warburg $130,000 for the 82nd Street house--around $3.5 million today.

Like the Warburgs, the Hagers did not remain in the 25-foot wide mansion long.  Hager sold it for $150,000 in January 1913 to David M. Gardiner.

Gardiner came from one of the oldest and wealthiest New York families.  It traced its American origins to Sir Lionel Gardiner, who purchased the 3,300-acre Gardiner's Island from the Native American Mohawk tribe in 1639 for, reportedly, "a barrel of rum, blankets, a gun and a large black dog."  King Charles I made it official by granting him the island.  Gardiner's Island was "an independent manor ruled only by the owner" until shortly after the Revolution, when it became part of the United States.


Gardiner was 41 years old and a bachelor when he purchased No. 3.  Moving in with him was his unmarried sister, Sarah Diodati Gardener.  They had one brother, Robert, who was married.

The brother and sister lived quietly, spending their summers in their country estates in West Islip and East Hampton, Long Island.  Their names rarely appeared in the newspapers until a rather ugly legal battle was initiated by their sister-in-law, Nora Gardiner, in 1921.

On December 8, 1919 the Gardiner's uncle, Charles G. Thompson died, leaving an estate of over $7 million.  Robert Gardiner had died only months earlier and so was left out of the will.  Sarah and David each received $150,000 each; a comfortable $2 million today.  Feeling that Robert's two children should have benefited from the inheritance, they offered to give Alexandra and Robert $100,000.

But when Nora challenged the the Thompson will in 1920, and the estate of her mother-in-law (who had died in 1916) the following year, Sarah and David were incensed.   They asked the Surrogates' Court to annul the assignment of the $100,000, saying it was "executed by mistake."

Nora fought back, initiating yet another court case against the brother and sister.  It ended on September 1, 1921 when the courts directed David and Sarah to "make good their gift of $100,000."

A few months later, in February, David once again was in court, this time as the plaintiff.   He had been duped by con artist Samuel T. Greenfield in a phony stock scam.  Greenfield knew that Gardiner owned $70,000  of a certain oil stock.  He told Gardiner that he had an interested buyer.  It was revealed in court on February 14, 1922 that "Greenfield persuaded him to swap his $70,000 worth of good stock for shares of other stocks which are, according to Assistant District Attorney Unger, who has looked them up, practically worthless."

Although Greenfield was indicted, Gardiner was out a massive amount of money.

In the meantime, Sarah busied herself with charitable works, among her favorites the Seamen's Church Institute.  She regularly hosted sewing classes and teas in the mansion for its benefit.

Much of David's philanthropic focus was on Long Island, and on Friday night, November 19, 1927 he was at the center of the dedication ceremonies of the newly-completed parish hall of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bay Shore.  Just as he moved to hand the keys to the Rev. William R. Watson, he fell to the floor of the platform.   Within minutes he was dead from a heart attack.

Sarah Gardiner's East Hampton estate as it appeared in 1942.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Sarah, who was 64 years old at the time, continued to live on in 82nd Street mansion and the Long Island summer estates.  She added dramatically to her real estate holdings in 1937 when she rescued Gardiner's Island from foreclosure.

Lion Gardiner, "thirteenth proprietor of the island," according to The Times, had died on February 27, 1936.  The will of his childless uncle Jonathan T. Gardiner, who had died only three years earlier, directed that the island "should be sold to a person bearing the surname of Gardiner." 

Lion took a mortgage of $345,000 to buy the property.  Now the Bank of New York and Trust Company foreclosed on his widow, Ida L. Gardiner and an auction sale was scheduled for June 10.

Sarah stepped in, saving the 300-year Gardiner family ownership.  Interestingly she never stayed on the property, telling friends it was "too isolated."  Instead she leased the island and the manor house with its colonial antiques to wealthy families like Clarance Mackey (until 1938) and polo player and sportsman Winston Guest and his wife.

As Sarah grew older and more feeble, she took a companion to live with her in the 82nd Street house--one with another old New York family name.  Florence Van Rensselaer counted among her ancestors not only the old Dutch Van Renselaer family, but the Schuylers and Livingstons.  She would go on to publish The Van Rensselaers in Holland and In America in 1956.

Sarah died in No. 3 East 82nd Street on January 5, 1953 at the age of 90.  Florence Van Rensselaer received $150,000 and a life estate in a $200,000 trust.  Alexandra Diodati Gardiner Creel, her niece named in the 1921 lawsuit, inherited the house and $100,000.  She and her brother, Robert, became the new owners of Gardiner's Island.

Alexandra almost immediately sold No. 3 and it was converted to three apartments per floor in 1954.  In 1980 it was purchased by the Wenjil Realty Company.  As the tenants gradually moved out, their apartments were not re-rented.    From about 1994 until the fall of 1997 the grand brick and stone mansion sat unoccupied while the owner, Dr. Carlo Civelli, worked on renovations in disorganized stages.  He gutted the interiors and filed plans to alter the house into a mix of apartments.


At some point Civelli abandoned his project and in 2006 a new renovation returned the mansion to a single family home.  Despite its sad treatment in the last decade of the 20th century, the exterior appears little difference than when Paul and Nina Warburg moved in in 1901.

photographs by the author

Friday, August 11, 2017

Horgan & Slattery's 1893 No. 57 Laight Street

Unlike many of Tribeca's muscular Romanesque Revival loft buildings, No. 57 Laight St. is light and graceful.

In 1828 R. Pattison lived in the brick-faced home at No. 57 Laight Street.  Its 25-foot width suggests that it was on par with the Federal-style mansions that ringed St. John's Park, just a block away.   Despite the apparent upscale tone of the house itself, Pattison's rear yard privy was deemed "a nuisance" by the Common Council on December 29 that year.

Change in the neighborhood came quickly.  The house was being operated as a boarding house in the 1830s, run by the widow Hannah Vanriper.  In 1846 the ground floor had been converted for business and Henry Hollsberg and his family lived above his grocery store.  By 1860 the Helms family owned the building, and the grocery store was run by brothers Dederick and Frederick.  The Helms family held title to the building as late as 1875.

What had been a neighborhood of wealth and refinement was now one of warehouses and commerce.  St. John's Park was demolished for the Hudson River Railroad's private freight terminal.  The roomers in No. 57 Laight Street were common laborers.  Among them in 1880 was the family of 11-year old Edward Radcliffe.

Edward was a problem for his parents.  The New York Times described him as "a wayward boy."  He ran away from home the first week of May that year, and "was reclaimed by his father at Police Headquarters."   Two weeks later, on May 25, Edward was "lounging in the express office" at No. 401 Washington Street where the Custom House broker gave him whiskey.  His father found him drunk in a Washington Street stable.  He took him home, gave him supper and the family all went to bed at around 8:00.

Although Radcliffe checked on his son at around 2:00 a.m., the boy attempted another escape soon afterward.  He tried to slip out through the window with fatal results.  His "mutilated" body was found in the rear yard by a milkman at around 4:00.

By the time of the tragedy the old building sat on valuable real estate.  In 1892 architects Horgan & Slattery, acting as their own developers, demolished it and commenced construction on a modern loft building.  Their Renaissance Revival-style factory and store, completed the following year, was especially pleasing.

What little dimension there was on the flat-faced facade was created by slightly recessing the three-story arcades of the Collister Street elevation.  Even the sills and lintels were flush with the brick.  Instead of overt decoration, Horgan & Slattery used materials to make the structure stand out.

Variegated orange-hued ironspot Roman brick gave life and movement to the facade.  Bullnose bricks rounded and softened the corners.  Thin brick voussoirs created dramatic sunburst-like effects over the arched openings.

Rounded corners, variegated brick and visually-powerful voussoirs eliminated the need for conspicuous decoration.

Rather surprisingly in a neighborhood of freight warehouses and produce concerns, No. 57 Laight Street filled with glass and mirror dealers.  In 1898 its tenant list included Schrenk & Co., "looking glass;" John Proessl, who also dealt in looking glasses; the United Bavarian Looking Glass Works; and Tritschler, Winterhalder & Co., "druggists' glassware."

Their landlord was Anna Woerishoffer, whose husband, well-known stock broker Charles F. Woerishoffer, had died in 1886.  His estate was valued at upwards to $4 million--a significant $105 million today.  Anna generously used her wealth for public good.  In January 1910, for instance, she donated $100,000 to the German Hospital and Dispensary, and on October 24, 1911 was recognized by the Prussian Government for her "distinguished services in the field of social betterment."

She nevertheless retained possession of No. 57 Laight Street until 1912, when she sold it to the Denver Chemical Manufacturing Company.  A tragic side note was that, despite Anna Woerishoffer's selfless philanthropies and social work, she became a victim of the anti-German sentiment that swept America during World War I.  On March 20, 1918, according to Internal Revenue Service documents, she was "held to be a German subject, and an alien enemy."

The Denver Chemical Manufacturing Company spent $750 in 1913 on what alteration plans described as "fireproofing."  Despite its name, the firm was founded and based in New York City.  It made one item, a cream marketed as Antiphlogistine, which it introduced in 1893.

The original trademark application for Antiphlogistine described it as "possessing curative properties and being a curative remedy for injuries and acute and chronic inflammatory affections."  By the time Denver Chemical Manufacturing Company moved into the Laight Street building, the cream was being marketed as an "instantaneous cure" for almost anything, including "inflamed breasts, orchitis, boils, sprains, felons, periostitis, chronic ulcers, and such other local affections."


A 1907 ad in The Medical World promised remedy to lung problems.  (copyright expired)
Denver Chemical Manufacturing remained in the building until September 1919, when it sold it to R. U. Delapenha & Co., importers and representatives of the Seaboard Rice Company.   Their Comet Rice was advertised in newspapers nationwide.  A clever marketing ploy was the free rice recipe booklet available to readers who wrote in.

A typical ad in the Washington D. C. Evening Star offered a free recipe booklet.  April 9, 1923 (copyright expired)

An advertisement pretending to be a news article appeared in newspapers on March 1, 1927.  A seemingly serious headline in the Texas Breckenridge Daily American read "Debutantes Watch Diet."  The "article" began "The whirl of social affairs taxes body and mind alike.  But the younger set overcome fatigue by watching what they eat."  What seemed at first to be a human interest story quickly became an apparent ad.  The following paragraph opened "Because Comet Rice is so uniform in size, it cooks into a savory heap of light, white, fluffy flakes."

Among the directors of R. U Delapenha & Co. was Cecil E. Delapenha.   The success of the firm afford him and his wife, Dela, to live lavishly on the sixth floor of the upscale Century Apartments on Central Park West.   The couple had no children.

On July 17, 1933 Cecil left his apartment as usual.  Dela, who was 48 years old at the time, was suffering depression, termed by doctors as "melancholia" at the time.  Shortly after her husband had left, she turned on the six gas jets of the kitchen range, the seated herself on a chair to await her death.  She forgot, however, to extinguish a pilot light.

Gas filled the room and it is unknown if Dela passed out from the fumes.   When the gas exploded it blew out the apartment windows and those of the apartment directly above.  The New York Times reported "The force of the explosion had hurled her to the floor."

The blast alerted tenants and the superintendent, Frederick Moore, who entered the apartment with a passkey and extinguished the small fire that had resulted.  Dela was dead.

With the repeal of Prohibition, R. U. Delapenha & Co. added Myer's Rum to its offerings.  It went back to a tried-and-true marketing strategy for its new product.  An advertisement in Life magazine on November 30, 1942 noted "For new free Rum Recipe Book write R. U. Delapenha & Co."

The ad pictured two well dressed gentlemen in front of a roaring fire.  "What better way to spend an idle evening hour than with good companionship, a good fire and a cheering drink made with Myer's--the dark Jamaica Rum?"

In addition R. U. Delapenha & Co. manufactured its own product in Jersey City, described as "glazed pineapple and citron and crystallized ginger."

After three decades in the Laight Street building, R. U. Delapenha & Co. sold it in 1951 to Pasquale Gauriglio.   He operated his paper stock warehouse from here through the 1960s.  By then the Tribeca district was seeing evidence of change once again.  Discovered by artists, its lofts and stores were being converted to galleries, restaurants and living spaces.

By 1972 the lower portion of No. 57 had been converted to an off-off-Broadway theater, The Trust, run by dancer and choreographer William Dunas.   In May that year his "Our Lady of Late" was performed here.  Don McDonaugh of The New York Times called it "murky dance both in content and lighting."  The following year Robert Magginson & Associates performed here in "I Went With Him And She Came With Me."


As was the case with so many 19th century Tribeca loft buildings, No. 57 Laight Street was converted to "loft dwellings" in 1986 with one residence per floor.  Tucked away on the relatively quiet side street, the dignified structure is easily missed.

photographs by the author

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Elegance Preserved - No. 116 Sullivan Street



In the first decades of the 19th century the sprawling farms and country estates in the proximity of Greenwich Village were seeing the first signs of development.  Aaron Burr had barely fled his elegant Richmond Hill estate in 1804 before John Jacob Astor acquired the land and laid out streets and building plots.  Even more far-sighted, the Bayard family had hired Theodore Goerck to create a plan of streets and plots in 1788.  Their East and West Farms, divided by the Great George Road (later part of Broadway), abutted the Richmond Hill property to the east.

Among the streets on the Bayard farm was Sullivan Street, named for Brigadier General John Sullivan whose acclaimed military abilities during the Revolution were still fresh in New Yorkers' minds.   The block between Prince and Spring Streets would not see serious development until the early 1830s.

In 1832 wealthy bookbinder Charles Starr joined the flurry of speculative development in the area when he erected a row of seven upscale homes on the west side of the block.  Starr's confidence that the neighborhood would become exclusive was reflected in his own home within the row at No. 110 Sullivan Street.  It's expansive 32-foot width equaled that of the homes of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens.

Like that residence, No. 116 exhibited expensive architectural details.  Faced in red Flemish bond brick, its openings were trimmed in brownstone.  Two and a half stories tall, its pitched roof was covered in slate shingled and pierced with dormers.  It was on the entrance, however, that Starr's architect lavished his attention.

Sitting above a four-step stone stoop, the doorway sat within an arched brownstone surround broken by two paneled blocks and a wedge-shaped keystone.  An overlight, no doubt once filled with a lacy leaded fan, was recessed within a fully-paneled soffit.  Below, separating the fluted Ionic columns flanking the door and the half-columns that disappeared into the stone frame, were exceptionally elegant sidelights.  Skillful wood carvers fashioned the frames of the three oval openings to simulate fabric curtains, pulled open and held with rings.


John Nerrick and his wife, Hannah, lived at No. 116 in 1843.  Apparently, despite his handsome home and lifestyle, Nerrick was in financial straits.  That year he borrowed $20 from his brother-in-law, David Devoe, a shady character described by The New York Herald as "so well known as an offender."  His troubles would soon be far more serious than financial problems.

On the night of May 24, 1843 the tailor store of William H. Lightbody, at the corner of Mercer and Houston Streets was broken into.  Clothing  (listed as "2 coats, 3 pairs of pantaloons, 3 vests, 1 boot, etc., worth upward of $45) was stolen.  The goods would be worth a little more than $1,500 today.

Most of the stolen property was later discovered in a trunk in Newark, New Jersey, where witnesses said it was left by Devoe.  When Devoe was arrested, he was wearing one pair of the stolen pantaloons, and the key to the trunk was found in his pocket.  Also in his pockets were pawn tickets for more of the clothing and counterfeit bills.  It seemed like an open-and-shut case.

But at Devoe's trial, on December 20, the finger of suspicion pointed to John Nerrick, instead.  The New-York Daily Tribune reported "For defence it was proved that the trunk containing the recovered clothing was brought to 116 Sullivan street and taken to Newark by John Nerrick, who put it into Devoe's possession for a loan of $20."

Called as a witness was Hannah Nerrick, whose uneasy testimony would decide the fates of her husband and her brother.   She told the jury that her husband had, indeed, given the trunk to Devoe as security for the loan.   Those in the courtroom were possibly shocked when she then declared that Devoe was sick at New Providence, New Jersey, at the time of the burglary.  He could not have committed the crime.

Although David Devoe was quickly determined not guilty; he was held prisoner on another indictment against him.   John Nerrick was sent to the Philadelphia State Prison.

Financial problems followed the next occupant of No. 116.  In January 1859 the unnamed owner had died and his wife was struggling financially.  She tried renting rooms, placing an advertisement that read "A suit of handsome furnished rooms to let--With or without board; also board for one or two persons, where all the comforts of a home will be found, with a widow lady, without children."

Renting out rooms was apparently not enough.  Four months later, on April 26, strangers filed through the house as A. J. Bleecker, Son & Co. sold all its furnishings at auction.

The owner in 1870 had purchased the house for investment purposes.  When he advertised it for lease in April that year, it was described as having "two basements, two parlors, extension and rooms up stairs; splendid yard."  The rent was "cheap to a responsible tenant."

Two years later the house was remodeled to a full four floors capped by a handsome bracketed cornice.  By now the neighborhood had noticeably changed.   Wealthy homeowners had moved away as the area filled with immigrants and blacks.  The boarders in the house next door, at No. 114, in the 1870s seem to have been all black, for example.

The working class boarders in No. 116 in 1876 included E. Sloat, who advertised in March "Wanted--A small second hand drilling machine."

The house was offered for sale in 1878 and the owner seems to have been eager to dispose of it.  His ad on February 11 offered "For sale at a bargain."

The last decade of the 19th century continued to see hard-working tenants; while the basement level was being used commercially.  Frederick Streicer, a porter, lived here; as did Henry C. Shaefer who ran a grocery store at No. 11 West Houston Street.  Joseph Riper listed the address for his gold leaf business in 1893.  He employed 3 men in his shop that year.  They worked 60 hours per week, plus 10 hours on Saturdays.

By the turn of the century the population in the neighborhood was almost entirely Italian.  Brothers John, Louis and David Cella began buying up Sullivan Street property in 1898.  That year they purchased No. 114; in 1907 Louis and John acquired No. 111; and John purchased No. 116 soon thereafter.

In 1910 John Cella made slight improvements for his tenants, adding sinks and new windows.  The renovations cost him $200, or around $5,200 in today's dollars.  His brothers had sold their shares of the house next door, where he and his family lived, by 1910.  In 1913 No. 114 was appraised at $16,000; and No. 116 was appraised at $17,000.  Despite the somewhat gritty personality of the neighborhood, the property value of No. 116 was equal to about $425,000 today.

The Cellas continued to update their rooming house in 1917 when "water closets" were added.  Until now tenants would have made do with a privy in the rear yard.

Throughout the subsequent decades Italian Americans continued to rent rooms here.  In the late 1930s and early 1940s, for instance, James V. Piselli lived in the house.  His name was annually included on the Government's list of Community Party members.


In 1963 renovations were completed that resulted in a duplex apartment in the basement and first floor, and two apartments on each of the upper stories.  Through some small miracle, as Sullivan Street filled with tenement buildings and apartment houses, No. 116 with its incredible entranceway survived mostly intact since its 1872 alteration to four floors.

photographs by the author

photographs by the author

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The 1855 Giraud House - 432 West 23rd Street



The doorway of No. 430 (left) was seamlessly converted to a window when the two houses were internally combined in 1993.

In 1828 Edward Giraud purchased the two three-story brick houses at Nos. 152 and 154 William Street, build in 1816, on the southeast corner of Ann Street.  The 38-year old merchant and his wife had a newborn son, Edward, Jr.  Another son, Pierre, was born on November 28, 1833, and Henry in 1838.  Pierre would develop wanderlust and in 1849, at just 16, he left home to enter the mercantile marine service.

By then the downtown neighborhood had become commercial.  While Giraud retained possession of the Federal-style houses, Edward Jr. moved to the newly-developing Chelsea district with his wife, the former Mary Wilder.  By 1855 the couple was living at No. 96 West 26th Street.

That same year William B. Smith built three Anglo-Italianate homes at Nos. 428 to 432 West 23rd Street.   Just 16-feet and two bays wide, their modern design placed the entrance nearly at ground level.  The bold rustication of the bases was interrupted by arched openings with highly-unusual carved keystones.


The segmental-arched windows of the second and third floors were capped with handsome carved lintels supported by scrolled brackets.  A single cornice unified the project.  Interestingly, Smith's architect distinguished the middle house by designing the third floor windows just a few inches longer than those of its neighbors.

Tragedy struck the Giraud family in 1855.  Edward Jr.'s wife was described by her physician as "naturally of a very nervous temperament."   Early that year she began acting in what was deemed "a singular manner."  It culminated on Saturday afternoon, March 24 when the 27-year old told her servant girl that she was going to Hoboken and would return that evening.

Instead, Mary went to her bedroom and sliced her neck with a razor.  Edward returned home around 9:00 and, as described in The New York Times, "was horror-stricken with the sight of his wife lying on the floor a corpse, with a razor beside her."

Before long Edward would move to No. 432 West 23rd Street with his parents.

Henry, too, was having problems.  Like his brother, Pierre, he had left home for a life on the seas.  He was working as a cabin boy on the clipper ship Ariel in August 1855 when its captain, W. H. Eayres, was found murdered.  His head had been smashed in with a hammer or axe.

Just before the body was discovered several shipmates had noticed that Giraud vomited, was ashen and sickly.  It was at first simply dismissed as sea sickness.  An investigation revealed that it Giraud was apparently the last to see the captain alive.  Now shipmates wondered if his nausea was, instead, caused by the gruesome murder.

On September 10 The New York Times reported that a Coroner's Jury decided that the first mate, Nicholas Wheaton Lakeman was most likely the murderer and "that Henry Giraud, a boy on board the said vessel, and that George Anderson, another boy on the said vessel, were also concerned in the perpetration of the said deed."

Close inspection reveals that the third story windows of the middle house are slightly longer that those on either side.

In the end Henry was cleared.  In the meantime, Pierre had been working his way up in the merchant marines.  In 1860 he was made captain of the steamer Saratoga.  Then the following year, after the outbreak of civil war, he was appointed acting master of the Union iron-clad Montauk.

Pierre was second in command of the vessel when it blew up the Confederate privateer the Nashville.   The New York Times reported "His conduct in this action and his bravery during the subsequent attack upon Fort McAllister first brought him into prominent notice."

Privately, Pierre was less impressed with the action than his superiors.  He wrote a letter to his parents in February 1863 in which he said the skirmish with the CSS Nashville "was handled badly," and blamed his commander, Captain Worden, saying he was "pleasant" but "excitable."

He was less harsh on himself.  In describing the attack on Fort McAllister, he said he had worked the guns and "made some splendid shots."

Pierre Giraud's military career continued to soar.  Piloting the Ossipee into the bay of Mobile, he "engaged in another brilliant action against the Confederate iron-clad Tennessee, and after its capture was personally deputed by Admiral Farragut to receive the sword of Admiral Buchanan, the wounded commander of the Confederate fleet," according to The Times later.

Frank Leslie's Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War offered a depiction of the battle of Mobile Bay in 1896 (copyright expired)
Whether by coincidence or not, when Pierre was made captain of the United States flagship the Tennessee, Henry Giraud was on board as Acting Master's Mate.

By the end of the war Giraud was highly respected for his skill and bravery.  Now a Lieutenant Commander, he sailed the steamer Onward to Japan.  The New York Herald reported that he was "one of the few survivors of that vessel, when she was run into by a British steamer commanded by Captain Eyre and sun off Hong Kong."

Upon his return to New York in 1869 he retired from the Navy and took command of the school ship the United States Mercury.  Pierre joined his family in the 23rd Street house.

The reunion of Pierre with his brother would not be long-lasting.  On June 24, 1873 Edward Jr. died in the house at the age of 44.  His funeral was held there two days later.

 On April 1, 1875 Pierre fell ill.   Three days later he died of what The New York Herald reported was "enlargement of the heart."  For the second time in as many years a funeral was held in the drawing room of No. 432.  It would not be the last.

Only three months later Edward Giraud died.  He was 84 years old

It appears that Henry immediately leased No. 432.  In April 1876 a resident advertised for sale a "No. 3 wood frame sash and moulding machine, and tools, moulding irons, &c."  And in March 1878 "T.L." was looking for "A Gordon pressman who is a licensed engineer."


On December 24, 1895 Henry Giraud sold the house to Frances J. Cushman for $14,250--in the neighborhood of $420,000 today.  She was the wife of developer Joseph Cushman, whose family had owned and developed properties in the Chelsea district since the 1830s.

Leasing the house at the time was John Glass, Jr., the president of the John Glass Jr. Construction Co.  Like the Cushman family, he was involved in real estate improvement in the area.  In July 1897, for instance, he hired architect G. A. Schellenger to do $85,000 worth of alterations to a building stretching between 17th and 18th Street, just west of Seventh Avenue.

Following the expiration of Glass's lease the Cushman family moved in.  Joseph Wood Cushman was 30 years old when he married Frances J. Rathbone in 1893.  Their son, Holbrook, was born the year they purchased the 23rd Street house.

The Cushmans had another son, Don Alonzo in November 1898.  He was named after Joseph's grandfather who had been largely responsible for turning Clement Clarke Moore's country estate, Chelsea, into a residential neighborhood.  Sadly, little Don Alonzo died five months later.

In 1900 the Biographical Directory of the State of New York noted that Joseph was the senior member of J. W. Cushman & Co. and of Cushman & Denison.  He was also president of the City Land Improvement Company.

The family left West 23rd Street by 1917 when Joseph Cushman died at his 200-acre country estate in Westchester County, New York.  They were living at No. 59 West 51st Street, squarely within Manhattan's mansion district.

No. 432 was now home to Oliver H. Patterson, printer and stationer.  In November that year he purchased the Trade Printing & Binding Company and incorporated it on January 1, 1918 as Oliver H. Patterson, Inc., with himself as president.

In 1929 the block had taken on a grittier appearance.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

But the fine rowhouses along the block of West 23rd Street would not remain private homes for much longer.  During the Great Depression the owners were renting rooms in No. 432 and in 1937 were cited with a "multiple dwelling violation" by the Department of Buildings.

One of the roomers here in 1943 was the self-taught amateur sculptor, Joseph Quattrone.  Seven years earlier, during the height of the Depression, his dress business had failed and his wife walked out on him.  The 38 year old had spent three nights without food and slept in the subways.  He later told a reporter that he vowed at that time to build a shrine to his patron saint, St. Theresa.

He lived in a room at the rear of a store for a few years until he had enough money to rent a nicer room at No. 432 West 23rd Street.  All the while he collected odds and ends to build his shrine.  A Catholic newspaper wrote an article about his efforts, and through that he received contributions of old buckles and pins, which he used for their rhinestones.  The little money he could scrape together was used to buy small pieces of marble and gold plate.  He scoured trash bins for parts of brass.

As the summer of 1943 approached, Quattrone's astonishing miniature shrine was nearly complete.  Standing four feet high, it weighed 200 pounds.   In June the Leo House, a block away at No. 332 West 23rd Street, arranged with Quattrone to exhibit the extraordinary piece. 

The New York Times deemed the shrine "elaborate" and noted "There was a statue of St. Theresa in the center, behind a glass, bronze-lined door.  Even the hinges on the door were hand-wrought...The dome, made of gold, silver and pewter, was ten inches high and weighted two pounds.  On it were two bronze angels and a cross mounted with rhinestones."

On June 14 the newspaper reported heart-wrenching news.  "The dome of an elaborate shrine on which a poor man lavished all his savings and the leisure time of seven years was stolen Saturday night."  The article explained "On Saturday night, he borrowed a pushcart from a friend and in it placed the shrine, in sections.  He left it for a while to look around his house.  When he returned the dome was gone."

The house continued to operate as a rooming house for decades.  By the 1970s the Chelsea district was suffering decline, a condition reflected in the tenant list.  James Mahoney lived here in 1971.  The 41-year old had a criminal record of five arrests and two robbery convictions.  He was arrested again in June that year on first degree assault charges.

Mahoney's problems went beyond his criminal career.  Three times after being placed in The Tombs he was sent to Bellevue Hospital because of his erratic behavior.  On August 10 he was transferred to the mental facility at Rikers Island and was held there until September 21.

His Supreme Court hearing was scheduled for September 24.  He would not appear.  On the afternoon of the 23rd a Tombs staff psychiatrist visited him, reporting that he "appeared to be in a psychotic state, pacing back and forth in his cell and hallucinating."

The psychiatrist left Mahoney and was preparing paperwork to have him transferred again to Rikers Island when only minutes later notification came that Mahoney had hanged himself by a bed sheet.


The Chelsea neighborhood experienced a renaissance in the last years of the 20th century.  In 1993 No. 432 was internally combined with No. 430.  The entrance to the latter house was converted into a window and a total of nine upscale apartments, some of them duplexes, were created.

photographs by the author