Tuesday, June 6, 2023

The Charles F. Bauerdorf House - 625 West End Avenue


photograph by the author

Developers Terence Farley's Sons completed a row of seven high-end homes that wrapped the northeast corner of West End Avenue and 90th Street in 1899.   The firm was known for erecting upscale residences, and these would not disappoint.

Prolific architect Clarence True had designed them in a modern take on Elizabethan architecture, and the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide deemed them as "the best design that has ever left his board," adding, "They are as much distinguished by their architecture as by their detail of decoration and finish."

True gave each its own personality, while harmonizing them with Flemish gables and dormers, openings framed in Gibbs-style surrounds, and continuous bandcourses.  No. 625 West End Avenue was given a full-height bowed facade.  The main , arched entrance was centered, while a more discreet service entrance sat to the side.  French windows opened onto a faux balcony at the second floor, and two ornate dormers projected from the steep mansard.

625 West End Avenue is the third house from the corner (behind the white sign).  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, October 7, 1899 (copyright expired)

The Record & Guide listed homes' amenities that met the "requirements of a first-class dwelling," such as separate servants' entrances, kitchens, laundries, parlors, drawing-rooms, dining-rooms, butlers' pantries, connected and separate bedrooms, dressing salons, bathrooms, secluded servants' quarters with bathrooms, rear stairs."

In October 1899 Terence Farley's Sons sold 625 West End Avenue to Charles Frederick Bauerdorf for $42,000 (about $1.42 million in 2023).   The wealthy attorney was born on West 14th Street on June 8, 1853, and in 1864 became a clerk in the law office of eminent lawyer David Dudley Field.  He was now a partner in the firm of Deyo & Bauerdorf.

Bauerdorf had married Annie Rohe in 1879.  When they moved into 625 West End Avenue, the couple had three teen-aged sons, Charles Rohe, George Frederick, and Walter Julius.

Empire State Notables, 1914 (copyright expired)

Charles F. Bauerdorf handled the legal affairs of many well-known and moneyed New Yorkers, but none, perhaps, was more colorful than "Al" Adams, known as the "Policy King."  The New York Herald called him "the millionaire policy shark, the released convict [and] more recently backer of bucket shops."  In 1906 Adams, "convinced himself that the future which he had dedicated to his family would be best conserved if he dropped out of it," according to the New York Herald.  He moved his family into a home near the Bauerdorfs at 471 West End Avenue, took a suite for himself at the Ansonia Hotel, and two weeks later shot himself there.  Bauerdorf was tasked with handling his complicated estate.

Early in January 1915, Charles Bauerdorf fell ill.  The 62-year-old never recovered and died a few weeks later on January 19.  His funeral was held in the drawing room of the West End Avenue house two days later.  

Charles Rohe Bauerdorf, the eldest son, followed in his father's professional footsteps, graduating from the Columbia University Law School and becoming a partner in the law firm of Bauerdorf & Taylor.  George became a "Wall St. financier and independent oil operator," according to the Daily News; and the youngest brother, Walter, went on to be a vice-president of the Central Trust Company.  

The cause of Walter's death on June 9, 1925 at just 37 years of age was bizarre.  The New York Times said it was "the result of a skin infection thought to have been contracted while in swimming at a beach resort."  That same year Annie Bauerdorf leased the West End Avenue residence that had been her home for a quarter of a century.  It became a rooming house.

A tragic sidenote to the Bauerdorf family occurred on October 12, 1944.  George's 20 year old daughter, Georgette, was living on her own in Hollywood in what the Daily News called a "luxurious apartment."  

She left work the Hollywood Canteen at around 11:15 p.m. on October 11.  The next morning Mr. and Mrs. Fred C. Atwood arrived the apartment to clean it, as they did every day, and found the door half open.  Georgette's body, clad only in her pajama top, was in the bedroom.  The Daily News reported, "The bedclothes were pulled back.  The girl's clothing was scattered over the bed and chairs, and the contents of her purse were strewn over the floor."  A washcloth had been stuffed into Georgette's mouth and "bloodstains were found on the girl's bed and on the floor of the apartment."  Police "pointed to the possibility the girl had been slain."

Daily News, October 13, 1944

Oddly enough, George Bauerdorf was not so sure.  "She may have died accidentally," he said.  "We do know that she suffered from cramps and heart pains, and refused to see a doctor, and we think perhaps they might have caused it."  A medical examination disproved that.  On November 12, the Daily News reported, "the authorities announced that the young woman had been, as they described it, 'raped,' and the accident theory necessarily had to be abandoned."  Her murderer was never found.

In the meantime, Helen Connelley ran 625 West End Avenue as a boarding house during the Depression years.  She lived steps away at 621 West End Avenue.  In 1937 she was cited for violations of the Multiple Dwellings Law because the house had no fire escapes.  

Living in the building at the time was a young German couple, Herman Hahn and his 17-year-old wife, Aimee.  They arrived in New York in the summer of 1936.  Other tenants were 30-year-old Samuel Goldberg; a man known only as Kenny; Joseph Freeman and his wife Mildren; Doran and Angelina Shaw, who were 24 and 20 years old respectively; and Dorothy Connell and Jennie Franklin.

Helen Connelley's failure to install fire escapes proved deadly on August 13, 1937.  Early that morning fire broke out in the rear second floor apartment of the man known as Kenny.  It was discovered around 6 a.m. by the Freemans, who lived on the same floor.  The New York Times reported, "Aroused by smoke, they sought in vain to open the door of Kenny's room, burning themselves in the effort, and then they fled."

The inferno would destroy True's charismatic upper floors.  Daily News, August 14, 1937

The Hahns smelled the smoke and fled downstairs, leaving a valuable cello in their room.  "They reached the ground floor as Freeman broke open the front door," said The New York Times.  "This created a draft which sent the fire roaring up the stairwell."  The roomers on the upper floors were now trapped, and hung out the windows screaming for help.  Living on the top floor was Samuel Goldberg.  The article said, "He apparently was not awakened by either the smoke or noise."  Both Goldberg and Kenny perished in the inferno.  Additionally, eleven people including two fire fighters were injured.

The top two floors were destroyed by the fire.  Charles and George Bauerdorf sold the property to the Hanover Construction Corporation (their mother had died in 1930).  On May 22, 1939, The New York Times reported that the new owners planned "extensive alterations" to the structure.  "When altered the house will have ten apartments of two and one-half rooms each," said the article.  Where Clarence True's mansard and dormers had been, the architect placed an rather uninspired brick wall, the bowed facade of which matched the lower floors.

The house as it appeared two years after the renovations.  Note that the entrance has been moved to the former service door.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The apartments, two per floor, became home to financially comfortable tenants.  In the 1950s, for instance, Joseph F. Keller and his family lived here.  He was the president of Equi-Flaw, Inc., a manufacturer of gear pumps and gas compressors.

Living here in 1960 was Phillis Hoffman and her four-year-old daughter, Andrea.  Her husband, Herbert, was the former curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Phillis Hoffman went to court in May that year to get permanent custody of Andrea.  She told the judge that her husband "has no present interest" in her or her daughter.  The Daily News explained, "As proof, Mrs. Phyllis Hoffman noted that since January, when her husband, Herbert, went to work for a museum in Hamburg, Germany, he has not written or communicated with either of them."

There are still just two apartments per floor in the converted mansion.

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Monday, June 5, 2023

The Lost Guaranty Trust Company Building - 140 Broadway


The Architectural Record, July 7, 1913 (copyright expired)

The New York Guaranty and Indemnity Company was founded in 1863.  By the first decade of the 20th century (now known as the Guaranty Trust Company), it was a major player in the New York banking industry.

On May 6, 1911 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the bank had purchased the southeast corner of Broadway and Liberty Street.  On the site was the seven-story, granite Mutual Life Insurance building, erected the same year that the New York Guaranty and Indemnity Company was founded.  The article noted, "according to gossip, the new owner paid close to $2,250,000."  The staggering amount would translate to more than $66 million in 2023.

On the same day the bank announced that the architectural firm of York & Sawyer had been commissioned to design the replacement bank and office building.  The Record & Guide reported, "At this time it has not been definitely decided whether to erect a skyscraper or to erect a banking structure for the sole use of the trust company.  Some of the directors favor one and some the other."  Coming to a consensus was urgent, as the projected completion date for the structure was May 1, 1912.

The directors decided to forego a skyscraper.  Instead, York & Sawyer designed an eight-story neo-Classic bank building clad in stone.   The dignified design featured entrances on Broadway and Liberty Street deeply recessed behind  monumental Ionic columns.  Corinthian piers separated the openings of the fifth through seventh floors.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the New York Public Library

As the structure rose, the Record & Guide commented, "The building is an exceptional one in that it will be occupied exclusively by one corporation, and will, therefore, be adapted solely to its own purposes."  Among those adaptations were the "wide unobstructed floor spaces," said the article.  To accomplish that, York & Sawyer brought in what the Record & Guide described as "unusually long span trusses and girders."  They allowed for 51-foot long spaces on the first through third floors uncluttered with columns.  The public would see the results in the first floor's cavernous banking room.

Architectural Record, July 7, 1913 (copyright expired)

Construction missed its deadline of May 1, 1912.  Exactly one month afterward the Record & Guide reported that the steel framework had been completed.  Part of the delay had to do with the excavation.  The article explained that the foundations went 60 to 90 feet below grade, and "the surface of the rock was found to be inclined very considerably from the horizonal."  The structure, completed in 1913, cost the bank $1 million to construct--nearly three times that much today.

Despite the problems, the result was an exceptionally stately structure.  It won Sawyer & York the medal of honor for architecture at the American Institute of Architects dinner on February 13, 1914.

Architectural Record, July 7, 1913 (copyright expired)

On July 15, 1916, the Imperial Russian Government opened a bank account here.  Less than a year later, the it was overthrown, succeeded by the Provisional Government of Russia.  The United States recognized Boris Bakhmeteff as Ambassador of Russia on July 5, 1917, and shortly afterward the Guaranty Trust Company informed the new government that its account was overdrawn.  Five million dollars was deposited into the account a week later.

But more trouble was on the horizon.  On November 7, 1917 the Provisional Government was overthrown, succeeded by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  The United States would not recognize the Soviet Union, and so the $5 million sat in the account for nearly three decades.

In the meantime, Alexander J. Hemphill was chairman of the board of the Guaranty Trust Company in the post-World War I years.  On January 22, 1920, he became ill in his office and was quickly diagnosed with influenza.  The world had just emerged from the devastating 1918-1919 pandemic that had claimed at least 50 million lives world-wide.  An outbreak within the building could have caused panic among the staff.  Understandably, the bank took immediate action.  The New York Times reported that he "was removed to his house."  Happily, Hemphill's case was not severe and he recovered.

The Architectural Record, July 7, 1913 (copyright expired)

Accountant Thomas Leonard was employed here in 1929.  The unmarried 23-year-old lived with his parents in Jersey City.  In 1933 Leonard's mother died, "and the shock upset him," according to The New York Times.  Apparently, the emotional trauma was worse than anyone suspected.

The accounting department where Leonard worked was on the top floor, nearly invisible from street level.  He and his co-workers were already at their desks at 6 a.m. on July 12, 1934.  While no one was watching, the young man climbed out the window.  The New York Times reported, "One of the clerks looked up and saw him clinging to the window frame, his face pale and drawn, his eyes fixed on the concrete courtyard. He edged back as the other clerks stood up."

"Don't come near me.  Get away or I'll jump," he warned.

One of the clerks telephoned the police and soon five squad cars and a fire truck arrived.  As the commotion increased on the street, Leonard's good friend and colleague Franklin Stanley stepped out onto the ledge.  He distracted Leonard while Patrolman Thomas Wilson inched closer from the other side.  As Stanley calmly talked to Leonard, he gradually edged closer and closer to his friend, and so did Wilson.  Finally they were near enough that both men lunged, pushing Leonard back into the office.

The top floor and the ledge on which Thomas Leonard teetered can be seen in this photograph by Irving Underhill.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The article said, "The clerks there held him until Dr. Wittman came from Beekman Street Hospital to treat him for hysteria.  Later he was taken to the psychopathic ward in Bellevue Hospital."

A merger of the Guaranty Trust Company and J. P. Morgan & Co. in 1959, resulted in the Morgan Guaranty Trust.  Two years later the bank sold its building to Erwin S. Wolfson of the Wolfson Management Corporation.  Little by little, that firm was acquiring property on the block.  

Then, on May 28, 1963, The New York Times reported, "A 40-story office building is planned at 140 Broadway in the entire square block bounded by Broadway, Liberty, Nassau and Cedar Streets."  The article noted, "Morgan Guaranty will move its offices to 23 Wall Street."

The newly-formed 140 Broadway Corporation hired the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design the skyscraper, which was completed in 1967.

photo by Mark Frank and Cloe Carli

many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for suggesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to LaptrinhX.com

Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Alexander Keller House - 209 East 61st Street


In 1873 builders Breen & Nason commenced construction on a row of three high-stooped brownstone houses at 205 through 209 East 61st Street.  Acting as their own architects, they designed the identical homes in the Italianate style, with classical pediments over the parlor floor openings and prominent cornices atop the upper floor windows.  Completed in 1874, each of the 20-foot-wide houses cost the developers $14,000 to erect, or about $327,000 in 2023.

The eastern-most of the row, 209 East 61st Street, became home to the Alexander Keller family.  Keller and his wife had three children, David, Sidney and Martha.  The family took in one or two boarders and their succinct advertisements over the years were always similarly worded.  A typical ad on January 31, 1883 read, "First Class Rooms and Board, in Jewish family, 209 East 61st st."  The clear mention of the family's religion was almost assuredly intended to stave off potential anti-Semitic problems.

Following their father's death in 1896, the heirs leased the house to Rosa and Bernard Metz.  Living with the couple were their adult children Paul, Edwin, Joseph and Hattie, along with Hattie's husband George Gattel.  The family was upper-middle class--Edwin was a knit goods salesman, Bernhard a commission merchant, Joseph worked in the drygoods business, and George Gattel was a partner with Samuel Benjinsohn in the firm of Gattel & Benjinsohn, makers of collars and cuffs, on Canal Street.  

Paul Metz was a piano tuner with the Weber-Wheelock Piano Company.  Seemingly the black sheep of the family, he found himself behind bars on September 29 that year.  He had gone to Scotch Plains, New Jersey with another Weber-Wheelock employee to deliver a piano to Brenner's Hotel.  While there, a livery stable owner, Frank Allen, recognized him as the man who had tuned a piano for Mr. and Mrs. William Stanberry in the same town a week earlier.  On that day Mrs. Stanberry had discovered jewelry missing from her home.

Allen notified the Stanberrys, who came to the hotel, identified Metz as the man who had been in their home, and had him arrested.  The Sun reported, "Metz protested and asserted his innocence."  Unfortunately, his troubles had only begun.  The newspaper said, "Metz was then brought to Plainfield to answer to a charge preferred by Mrs. N. Pendleton Rogers, who identified him as the person who had entered her house on Sept. 1 and stolen silverware."  (According to a descendent, Amy B. Cohen, Paul Metz "abandoned the family and disappeared in 1900.")

Despite the embarrassment, Hattie Gattel was involved in polite society.  On November 4, 1900, for instance, the New York Herald announced, "The Thursday Afternoon Whist Club will inaugurate its season on Thursday afternoon.  The first meeting will be held at the residence of Mrs. George Gattel, No. 209 East Sixty-first street."  The article mentioned, "the prizes, it is said, will be unusually handsome."

In 1905 Joseph G. Metz purchased the house.  By now he was secretary and director of A. Richter & Co.  Only two years later, however, the property was sold again, and again in 1913--this time to Henry Louis Walther and his wife Susanna.  The couple had two school-aged boys.

On the night of July 9, 1914 the boys were awakened by the sound of someone trying to break in through the skylight.  They "raised an alarm" by yelling out a window for a policeman.  Chaos followed.  The Evening World reported, "Then some one in a house in Sixty-second street had fired several revolver shots out of the window."  The gunshots "brought half a dozen policemen to Third avenue and Sixty-first street," said the article, who caught two men running out of the apartment building at 1035 Third Avenue.

Police identified William Brady and Timothy Gaynor as "members of the Pansies, a gang which loiters in the neighborhood of Eightieth street and Second avenue."  Both had previously been arrested for minor crimes.  Investigators found a rope ladder hanging from the apartment building to the roofs of the row of houses.  "Apparently the youths had crossed the roofs to the Walter [sic] home under the supposition that the Walters [sic] were away."  The Walther boys had prevented what would have been a much worse situation.

The Walther's residency would be short.  Later that year they sold 209 East 61st Street to Dr. Martin Rehling.  A graduate of New York University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College, he was an associate professor of Surgery at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School, and an adjunct surgeon at the German Hospital and Dispensary.  He would remain in the house until the early 1940s.

Dr. Rehling lived in the house when this photo was taken in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Change came when a renovation, completed in 1945, resulted in two duplex apartments.  The upper apartment was leased by 31-year-old actor Montgomery Clift in 1951.  He was already a star and heartthrob, and that year A Place In The Sun premiered, co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters.  

While living here he spent much of the time away in filming.  In 1953 he starred in Terminal Station and From Here to Eternity, in 1957 Raintree County was released, and 1958 saw the premiers of The Young Lions and Lonelyhearts.  That year he began the filming of Suddenly, Last Summer.

Montgomery Clift, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Clift carefully guarded his privacy and did his best to hide his homosexuality from the public.  But it was hard to conceal after fire broke out in the building on the morning of September 25, 1959 at around 10:30.  Clift and a man were in bed, passed out after taking drugs or alcohol.  Firefighters had to break into the apartment and rescue the pair.  The Schenectady Gazette reported, "Firemen said Clift and an unidentified friend were escorted from the top floor of the three story brownstone building to the roof and then to an adjoining roof to safety.  Clift occupies the upper two floors of the building."

According to Charles Casillo in his 2021 book Elizabeth and Monty - The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship

Whatever the reason for the fire, the surrounding news did Monty no good, adding to his already badly tarnished image.  He was already widely-considered a high-risk actor, and the story simply proved his recklessness.  The surrounding gossip only confirmed his homosexuality in executives' eyes and underlined his dangerous substance abuse.

Montgomery Clift moved down the block to 217 East 61st Street, where he died on July 23, 1966.

The 2021 renovation included a whimsical and delightful stoop railing.

The fire damage was repaired and the configuration of duplexes remained until 2021 when a renovation returned 209 East 61st Street to a single family home.  It is the last of the 1874 row to retain its stoop and period architectural details.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to LaptrinhX.com 

Friday, June 2, 2023

The 1895 Gibbes Building - 66 West Broadway


In the early decades of the 19th century, the neighborhood around West Broadway and Murray Street was home to affluent families.  An advertisement in 1833 gave a telling description of 65 Murray Street, on the northwest corner of West Broadway.  The three-story-and-attic house had "folding doors between front and back parlors" (what today we would call pocket doors), "handsome marble mantle pieces, grates in first and second stories, four finished bed-rooms in the garret."  The garret, or attic, bedrooms would have been reserved for four live-in servants. The ad called 65 Murray Street a "desirable residence for genteel families."

But as the end of the century neared, little hint of the Federal style homes survived as loft and store buildings increasingly replaced them.  On February 2, 1895, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported, "At No. 65 Murray street a new seven-story stone and iron fire-proof store and loft building, 25x125, is to be erected."  Horace S. Ely & Co. had hired architect William E. Bloodgood to design the structure.  

Bloodgood had been active in the district for two decades, often working in partnership with Freeman Bloodgood as Bloodgood & Bloodgood.   Among his handsome designs in the area was 510 Broadway, completed in 1879.

His design for the Gibbes Building would be markedly modern and different, one of the first New York City structures to draw on the Commercial Style, which was still developing in Chicago.  Clad in Roman brick above a two-story cast iron base, its verticality was underscored with five four-story elliptical arches on West Broadway, each separated by Ionic piers.  The deeply overhanging cornice and the exposed rivet heads of the second story lintel were typical of the Commercial Style.  Bloodgood was not willing to completely forego tried-and-true styles, adorning the two-story limestone entrance frame with Beaux Arts decoration, and giving the cast iron piers expected 19th century ornamentation.

The Record & Guide noted the up-to-date amenities.  "The structure will contain elevators, steam-heating equipment, electric wiring and fixtures, structural, architectural and galvanized ironwork, iron shutters, and sanitary plumbing."

The Gibbes Building filled, mostly, with publishing firms.  A notable exception was William Somerville's Sons, which signed a lease in 1895.  "The Messrs. Sommerville have become very extensive dealers in scrap rubber," said The India Rubber World.

More typical tenants were the Industrial Press, publishers of  the monthly periodical Machinery; William E. Wilkins, publisher of the Merchants' Review; and Ashbel R. Elliott, head of A. R. Elliott Advertising and A. R. Elliott Publishing Co., which published medical books.  Also associated with the latter firm were Daniel M. and John M. Elliott.

At around noon on October 29, 1900, John M. Elliott took a lunch break on the roof of the Gibbes Building.  Twenty-five minutes later a massive explosion occurred in the Tarrant Building at Greenwich and Warren Streets, about a block and a half away.   Elliot watched in astonishment, later describing the event to a reporter from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle who reported:

He says the force of the first explosion was directly upward for a matter of thirty feet.  Then the column of debris spread and fell.  The roof of the building went up with the rest and he could hear the cries and screams of injured people.  The third explosion shook the building where he was and debris fell all about him.

Thomas McFarland, a clerk, had also left his desk in the Gibbes Building around noon.  He was standing in front of the Home Made Restaurant when the first blast occurred.  He told a reporter from the New-York Tribune, "I was hurled against a truck and lay there for some time without knowing what had happened.  I was badly bruised, but was not other wise hurt."

Another passerby to be blown off his feet was Harry Rose.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "When he picked himself up he said he saw bodies flying through the air and landing in the flames."  The horror of the event sent working girls rushing for safety.  "At the building at 66 West Broadway," said The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "a large number of girls employed in buildings nearer the explosion took refuge."

Edward F. Sweet was a private insurance broker.  His one-man business did not necessitate an office and around the time of the explosion he was renting desk space from A. R. Elliott.  An advertisement in The Evening Post on January 31, 1902 read in part, "If applied for promptly, I can supply a limited amount of absolutely safe life annuities on exceptionally favorable terms."  

It was common for well-to-do businessmen to move into their clubs or to a high-end boarding house during the summer months when their families went off to resorts.  The practice defrayed the expense and bother of keeping their homes open and full staff of servants employed.  Sweet's wife sailed to Europe in the summer of 1902, and he took rooms in a boarding house on Fifth Avenue at 99th Street.

The 50-year-old Sweet was an avid bicyclist, or "wheelman."  The Evening World said his bicycle was "his almost constant companion."  On September 12, the newspaper reported, "Edward F. Sweet, an insurance broker at No. 66 West Broadway, was found dead to-day on the beach at Fort Hamilton.  His body, naked except for a pair of swimming trunks, was discovered by a policeman."  The New York Times presumed he was the victim of "a fatal swim," saying "Not far away on the beach lay his bicycle and a bicycle suit."

By 1911 the publishers in the Gibbes Building were being supplanted by crockery and glass firms.  Among the tenants that year were the New York offices of Fostoria Glass Company, the French China Company, Central Glass Works, and the Consolidated Lamp & Glass Company.

The Gibbes Building in 1914 looked little different than it does today.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Not every publisher had left the building, though.  As late as 1922 the A. R. Elliott Publishing Co. was still here, publishing the American Druggist, the New York Medical Journal, and the Spanish language Revista Americana, De Farmacia, Medicina y Hospitales.

At some point St. Luke's Hospital acquired the property.  It sold the Gibbes Building in March 1920 to the 416 West 215th Street Corporation.  The transaction prompted the New-York Tribune to mention, "It is occupied by many crockery firms," and The New York Times to call it "by far the finest office building in the neighborhood" and to point out its "graceful lines with perfect light arrangement."

Among the tenants at the time along with A. R. Elliott and the Consolidated Lamp & Glass Co. were the drug firm Meteor Products Co., Inc., the M. C. Liebert Manufacturing Co., the National Rattan & Cane Co., and the exporting firm Pass & Seymour, Inc.  Sharing a floor with Pass & Seymour were the Eagle Safety Razor Company and the Marcelle Hair Net Company.  On the second floor was Stewart's Chrystal & China Shop.

Like scores of companies owned by German Americans, the National Rattan & Cane Co. had been seized by the Government during World War I under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act.  It was still being operated by a Government administrator in 1920 when the Gibbes Building changed hands.

On the night of May 11, 1921, burglars broke into the Gibbes Building.  The safe crackers systematically went from one office to another, eventually hitting eleven companies and breaking into seven safes.  Their hard and long work went unrewarded, however.  The following day the New York Herald reported that after forcing open the safes "with bars and chisels" the would-be thieves "were disappointed in their search for loot."  The article said, 'no money or securities were stolen from any of the offices."  The Evening World explained, "downtown business men keep no money in the safes these days."

Gutsy robbers were more successful on August 24, 1934.  Just after George Ferris opened his jewelry shop two men walked in
and overpowered him.  They placed Ferris in handcuffs, then made off with 36 bar pins valued at $300.  The Sun reported, "Ferris was taken to Police Headquarters where the handcuffs were sawed from his wrists."

An unexpected tenant by the mid-1930s was the Aquarium Stock Company of New York.  Founded in 1910, it was the country's largest supplier of aquarium products.  When the Sportsmen's Show opened in the Grand Central Palace in 1938, the company presented a stunning display.  The New York Sun reported on February 19, "Twenty-one stainless steel domestic aquaria, comprising fifty species of tropical fish, are among the features to be seen."  The journalist was especially taken with "a ghost fish from the Amazon, called aternarchus albifrons."

Among the tenants in the 1940s was Harry Ross, who bought and sold "microscopes, telescopes, binoculars; all scientific, chemical laboratory apparatus," according to an ad in Popular Science in 1944.

Little changed today, the Gibbes Building remains, as judged by The New York Times a century ago, one of the finest buildings in the area.

 photographs by the author
many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
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Thursday, June 1, 2023

The 1929 Warren Hall / Baptist Tabernacle - 162-166 Second Avenue


Founded in 1839, the Baptist Tabernacle left its Mulberry Street location in 1850 and erected a striking Gothic Revival building at 166 Second Avenue between 10th and 11th Street, designed by David Henry Arnot.  In 1886 a large parish house was constructed next door.  Despite its official name, the church was widely known as the Second Avenue Baptist Church.

The Baptist Tabernacle and the parish house are at the right.  The New-York Historical Society building occupied the corner of East 11th Street.  image from King's Views of New York City 1892, copyright expired

By the turn of the century the neighborhood, once filled with the mansions of "some of the best known of New Yorkers," according to The New York Times, was one of immigrants and tenement buildings.  On December 6, 1909 the newspaper said that the Second Avenue Baptist Church, "one of the oldest church edifices" in the city, "has been described 'as a congregation of thirty languages."

But with no more wealthy congregants, debts began to mount and by the 1920s a solution was needed.  At the time, a new concept was sweeping metropolitan areas--the "skyscraper church."   Congregations from coast to coast were demolishing their old structures and erecting apartment or office buildings that incorporated a ground floor church space.  In theory the congregation would reap tremendous income from the rental properties.  Not everyone was thrilled by the concept.  The New York Times, for instance, editorialized, "Must we visualize a New York in which no spire points heavenward?"

In 1928 the trustees demolished its masterful church and the parish house and hired hotel and apartment building architect Emery Roth to design a 15-story combination "apartment hotel" and church building on the site.  Their choice in architects may have been prompted by Roth's skyscraper church, the Hotel Carteret, which he had designed for the Chelsea Presbyterian Church two years earlier.

A 1929 real estate brochure featured the building on the cover. from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries

Completed in October 1929, Warren Hall was entered at 166 Second Avenue.  The Baptist Tabernacle entrance was on the opposite end of the building, at 162 Second Avenue.  The doorways reflected the stark differences in their purposes.  The round-arched entrance to Warren Hall was flanked by fluted pilasters that terminated in Art Deco urns of flowers.  Between, a bas relief panel depicted scantily-clothed figures on either side of a basket of fruit.  In severe contrast, the entrance to the church was unmistakably ecclesiastical.  Its pointed Gothic arch and heavy double gates with Gothic tracery sat below a crenellated entablature carved with the church's name.  On either side were bas relief torches, symbols of inspiration and knowledge.  Roth's only other nod to the ecclesiastical motif came as three angels that served as the balcony bases at the third floor.

photograph by Beyond My Ken

A brochure for Warren Hall insisted that the neighborhood was on an upswing, saying, "This district, so rich in City tradition is once more coming into prominence as a desirable location for the modern home."  It boasted two- and three-room apartments "each consisting of large living room, foyer, kitchen, bath and several roomy closets."  The three-room suites came with "large Dining Alcove Rooms."  The advertisement noted, "Kitchens are equipped with artistic dressers [i.e., cupboards], gas range and mechanical refrigeration, and are lighted by windows."

Warren Hall brochure, 1929,  from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries

The fifteenth floor, or penthouse, held four apartments.  They were "designed in the form of country bungalows, yet have all the city conveniences, large private roof gardens and wood-burning fireplaces," said the brochure.

Residents of the 15th floor enjoyed outdoor space.  Warren Hall brochure, 1929,  from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries

Although Warren Hall opened in the fall of 1929, it would take a few months before the Baptist Tabernacle was completed.  On March 3, 1930, The New York Times reported, "Six nationalities worshiped in their own languages yesterday at the first regular Sunday services of the Baptist Tabernacle in its new edifice in the fourteen-story apartment house at 164 Second Avenue."

The church engulfed the entire ground floor other than the Warren Hall entrance.  The New York Times explained that the congregations of the Second Avenue Baptist Church--the Italian Baptist Church, the First Estonian Church, the Russian Church, the Polish Church, and the Chinese Baptist Church--were "housed under one roof and incorporated into the tabernacle."  Their "three chapels, standing side by side from north to south, occupy all of the ground floor of the $1,200,000 apartment house, and are connected by a corridor extending from the separate entrance for the church," said the article.

Change would once again come.  In 1953 stores were installed at street level, signaling a vast reduction in floor space for church use.  It was a temporary fix, and four years later the church space was converted to the Gate Theatre.

In August 1959 the Gate Theatre produced a revival of The Drunkard.  The New York Age commented that it "has been acted more often in the United States than any other by an American author--except possibly 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.'"  Indeed, Matt Conley who had the title role had already played it more than 1,000 times.

By 1964 the Cricket Theater shared the space with the Gate.  In addition to offering plays for children on weekend afternoons, it presented serious drama, like Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot that dealt with racial tensions, which opened on March 2, 1964.

On September 17, 1970 The New York Times reported that Robert L. Steele had purchased both theaters.  Continuing to use the name the Gate Theater, the article said he "plans to present a new musical, 'Stage Movie," the following month.

Around the same time, part of the former church space (presumably the basement) was converted to a nightclub, Sanctum Sanctorum.  The New York Times called it "a so-called 'juice bar,'" meaning that it did not have a license to sell alcohol.  But patrons found other ways to get high. 

On April 18, 1973 The New York Times reported that Sanctum Sanctorum had been ordered temporarily closed "because of drug selling and other unlawful activity."  The closing, said the article, was "part of the Mayor's campaign to close the several nonalcoholic discotheque-like enterprises that have attracted youthful clientele and a number of drug dealers."

The owners, Jerry Sands and CinemaDisco Corporation, argued that the club was a private facility.  State Supreme Court Justice Sidney A. Fine disagreed, saying their contention "is really a dance to camouflage the illegal activity."

The Gate Theater continued until 1977, replaced by the Theater for the New City.  Known familiarly as TNC, it was founded in 1971 in the West Village.  A sort of triplex, the space now held three theaters, named after Joe Cino, Charles Stanley, and James Waring.

In 1978, according to The New York Times, the theater commissioned Sam Shepard to write Buried Child, which premiered here the following year.  It became the first off-off-Broadway play to win the Pulitzer Price.  In 1984 the theater would premier two Heiner Muller plays, Hamletmachine and Quartett.

Unfortunately, when the landlord increased the rent a reported 300 percent in 1984, the Theater for the New City was forced to relocate, moving out a few years later.  The space that had seen the introduction of award winning drama became a Mayfair Supermarket in 1996.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Graham Nash for requesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to LaptrinhX.com

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The 1937 Rockefeller Apartments - 17 West 54th Street


photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the New York Public Library

Five years after ground was broken for the massive Rockefeller Center building project, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his son Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller embarked on another--two back-to-back apartment buildings nearby on West 54th and 55th Streets between Fifth And Sixth Avenues.  The Rockefeller Apartments would be the first commission for the newly-established architectural firm of Harrison & Foilhoux and undoubtedly resulted from the high esteem Nelson Rockefeller had developed for Wallace Kirkman Harrison.  (The two were also distantly related--Harrison's wife was the sister of  Abby Rockefeller's first husband.  Abby was Nelson's older sister.)

The nearly-matching buildings--at 17 West 54th Street and 24 West 55th Street--would be separated by a common garden.  Completed in 1937, their International Style design was cutting edge.  The architects ignored the current building codes by providing an additional 15 percent natural light and ventilation to the apartments than was required.  The most eye-catching elements of 17 West 54th Street were the four tower-like rounded bays with vast cantilevered windows.

Critics were impressed.  The often acerbic Lewis Mumford (who called Rockefeller Center, "bad with an almost juvenile badness") deemed the Rockefeller Apartments "the most brilliant and most successful example of modern architecture in the city."  Bettina J. Vigleze wrote, "These new Rockefeller apartment houses, each having six-room duplex apartments, are one of today's outstanding examples of modern architecture."

photo by Epigenius

The bays, "almost entirely enclosed in glass, serve as solariums and as dining rooms," said Vigleze.  There were six apartments per floor (four in the penthouse level).  Among their amenities were wood-burning fireplaces, "all-metal kitchen equipment," filtered air, and "intercepted call" service (which meant that for those residents who did not have a maid to answer the telephone, a lobby employee screened the calls).  

The Midtown location made the Rockefeller Apartments perfect for businessmen (especially those who would be working in Rockefeller Center) and executives who lived in the suburbs and needed a pied-à-terre.  According to Daniel Okrent in his 2004 Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, Nelson Rockefeller...

commissioned a real estate firm to seek tenants by canvassing every single firm that had offices in Rockefeller Center. He ordered Merle Crowell to beat the publicity drums.  He installed 'a full-size replica of a typical suite' on one of the RCA Building's setbacks, and even charged admission to those who wished to tour it.

The marketing blitz worked.  In the months before the building's completion, newspapers reported on apartments being leased to Nellie H. Sullivan, Mary T. Dougherty, and Mrs. Mary E. Fisher.  When the Rockefeller Apartments opened on October 1, 1936, the building was fully rented.

Another couple who had rented an apartment during its construction were publisher Eltinge F. Warner and his wife.  On October 15, 1936, The New York Sun reported that they "have returned from their dune house at East Hampton and are at the Savoy-Plaza prior to moving into one of the Rockefeller apartments at 17 West Fifty-fourth street."  The "dune house" was a massive mansion designed by Robert Tappan for the Warners in 1926.

Warner had been the publisher of the literary magazine The Smart Set, which he sold in 1930 to William Randolph Hearst.  Among the popular magazines he still published was Field & Stream.  He was also a partner in the silent motion picture firm Town & Country Films.

The apartments were the last word in modernity (note the hidden closet to the right)  photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Bringing unwelcome publicity to the address in 1938 was 24-year-0ld resident Benjamin Jolly.  In an era when even the hint of homosexuality could ruin one's professional career, he used it to his advantage.  But his scheme ended on August 26, 1938 when, according to The Sun, "an extortion gang operating in the midtown area was believed by the police today to have been broken up with the arrest of three young men."

Two nights earlier 26-year-old broker Stephen Hart met Jolly "on Broadway...and took him to his home at 77 West Fifty-third street," explained the article.  The next morning Hart went to his office.  Jolly left soon after, taking with him a golf bag and clubs.  Later Jolly's cohorts, brothers William and Lawrence Lee, appeared at Hart's Wall Street office and demanded money.  The trio had every reason to expect that their victim, like others before him, would not go to the police.  But they were wrong.  Hart stalled them, notified detectives, and when the Lees returned he gave them marked bills.  All three men were arrested.

The Rockefeller Apartments' proximity to the theater district attracted another type of tenant, as well.  In 1940 actor Louis Calhern and his actress wife Natalie Schafer lived here.  Calhern's chiseled features made him a matinee idol and by the time the couple moved into the Rockefeller Apartments he had appeared in 21 Broadway plays and several silent films.

Natalie Shafer in a 1942 studio publicity shot.  (public domain)

Natalie Schafer's Broadway roles were mostly supporting parts.  Her last play while living here was the 1941 Lady in the Dark starring Gertrude Lawrence.  It ran for 467 performances and closed in May 1942.  

Louis Calhern in the 1921 The Blot, from the collection of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

That was a pivotal year for the couple.  Louis Calhern's alcoholism ended their marriage that year.  Natalie relocated to Los Angeles to work in films.  Despite her dozens of roles over the subsequent decades, she is best remembered for the television character Lovie Howell on Gilligan's Island

Living here by 1940 were Lester J. Saul and his wife Rebecca.  Lester was 74 years old and his wife was 70.  Saul was highly respected in the clothing industry and had been president of the Wholesale Men's Furnishing Association.  

An illness that Rebecca began suffering around the end of 1941 became too much for her to bear.  On the morning of April 6, 1942 the Sauls' chauffeur became concerned when she did not answer the doorbell.  He notified the building superintendent, John Gibbs, who entered the apartment.  Rebecca was found dead on the floor of the kitchen with a gas burner on the stove open.  Her death was listed as a suicide.

By the late 1958s the Robert Ward Cutlers lived in the Rockefeller Apartments.  An architect, Cutler graduated from Syracuse University in 1928.  He was director and president of the Building Research Institute, president of the New York Building Congress, president of the Architects League of New York City, and president of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  He and his wife, Doris Saxton were married in 1929.   They had two children, Denise and Robert Jr.   

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Doris founded the annual Doric Debutante Cotillion.  It was an outgrowth of her involvement with the Women's Architectural Auxiliary of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  The Cutlers' Rockefeller Apartments suite buzzed each year as the winter season approached.  On November 24, 1964, for instance, The New York Times reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ward Cutler will give a reception tomorrow in their home at 17 West 54th Street to honor the mothers of the six young women who will be presented at the Doric Debutante Cotillion at the Metropolitan Club on Dec. 26."

The Cutlers' summer estate was Land's Sake, in Old Chatham, New York.  The New York Times journalist Cynthia Kellogg commented on August 24, 1958, "when there are two theories of decor in one family, something has to give."  The solution for the Cutlers, she wrote, was that "Mr. Cutler decorated the small city apartment in his way.  Mrs. Cutler decorated the country house her way.  Result:  Everybody's happy."

Among the tenants in the late 1960's was lawyer and playwright Benjamin M. Kaye.   He was a founder and the senior partner in the legal firm of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler.  His unlikely side job as a playwright resulted in works like the 1926 She Didn't Say No! which was adapted as the 1941 motion picture, I Want My Wife.  His play The Curtain Rises opened in 1933 starring Jean Arthur, and On Stage was produced on Broadway in 1935.

As if two professions were not enough, Kaye was also a lyricist, writing the lyrics for songs like "Top of the Morning," "Remember Me" and "If Love Is Anything."  He was credited with bringing Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart together as collaborators.

Also involved in the theater was Muriel Knowles Shubert, the widow of Jacob J. Shubert--one of the three famous Shubert brothers.  Born in Huron, Ohio, she met her husband when she started work for the Shuberts as a chorus girl in 1919.  Following Jacob Shubert's death in 1963, she moved to 17 West 54th Street, living here until her death on March 26, 1970.

Among Mrs. Schubert's neighbors had been Prague-born musicologist and critic Jan Lowenbach and his wife Vilma.  Born in 1880, Lowenbach was trained in music as a boy.  From 1946 to 1948 he was the chief of the music department of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Arts and Education.  He escaped to Switzerland just prior to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, then relocated to New York in 1948.

While living in the Rockefeller Apartments, he lectured widely, wrote critical articles and commentaries on musicians, and music for periodicals in America and Europe.  He also wrote the librettos for Jaroslav Kricka's opera The Gentleman in White, and for Bohuslav Martinu's The Soldier and the Dancer.

photo by Epicgenius

Harrison & Foilhoux's striking Rockefeller Apartments was designated an individual New York City landmark in June 1984.

many thanks to Missy VanBuren-Brown for prompting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to LaptrinhX.com