Monday, May 20, 2019

The Lost Marianna Ogden Mansion - 266 Madison Avenue



The Architectural Record, July 1896 (copyright expired)

Born in Walton, New York on June 15, 1805, William Butler Ogden would have a varied and impressive life.  Upon his father's death he took over the running of the family real estate business while still a teenager.  At the age of 30 he was elected to the New York State Assembly; but following his one-year term went west to Chicago.  In 1838 he became that frontier town's first mayor.

Ogden was highly instrumental in connecting Chicago to the East, promoting and investing in the Illinois and Michigan Canal; then founding the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad.  He later become president of the Union Pacific Railroad which linked Chicago to the West coast.

Following the Civil War Ogden purchased an estate in New York as a second home.  Ogden family historian Laura Wheeler explained in 1907 "Mr. Ogden's business interests causing him to spend so much time in New York, he determined upon possessing an eastern residence.  This was consummated in the spring of 1866 when he purchased of J. Kennedy Smyth a handsome Gothic villa called 'Boscobel' at Fordham Heights, Westchester Co., N.Y. and adjoining High Bridge."  The High Bridge, a graceful Roman style aqueduct designed by James Renwick, Jr. and completed in 1848, was a popular destination for weekend promenades with its stunning river views and natural landscape.

Ogden added to the property, extending it to ten acres, landscaped it and added a conservatory, stables and greenhouses.  The fruit orchards and flowerbeds at his Chicago estate, Ogden Grove, were duplicated.  Laura Wheeler wrote "The many gabled house is of blue-stone, with Ohio freestone trimmings, and surrounded by broad verandas, from which well-shaven lawns slope down the hill."

Frequent guests at both Villa Boscobel and Ogden Grove were Ogden's close friend, John Arnot, his wife Harriet, and their grown children John, Jr. and Marianna.   Ogden was a life-long bachelor and when there, Marianna often acted as hostess to his other guests (like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel J. Tilden).

Not long after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Ogden became "weary of business," according to Wheeler, and "retired to 'Boscobel' to spend the remaining years of his life, and enjoy a well-earned repose."  Now in his early 70's, the bachelor finally turned his focus from business to romance.

On February 9, 1875 he married Marianna Tuttle Arnot.  The 50-year-old bride was 20 years younger than the groom.  Theirs would be a short marriage.  At 2:00 on the morning of August 3, 1877, William Butler Ogden died at Villa Boscobel.  The Chicago Inter Ocean reported "His physicians informed him his death was at hand--not more than a few hours.  The dying man received the last sacrament of the Church, and quietly awaited his end."

Marianna lived on in Villa Boscobel.  In 1888 she erected the Arnot-Ogden Memorial Hospital in Elmira, New York, where she was born, as a memorial to her father and her late husband.  

The wealthy dowager was not sequestered from society in her suburban estate.  She annually leased a cottage in Newport, for instance.  

But then in 1893 she stepped into the Manhattan limelight.  Marianna purchased the vintage home of Dr. Cornelius R. Agnew at the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 39th Street and hired the Boston firm of Peabody & Stearns to design an up-to-date replacement.

Completed in 1894, its entrance was on 39th Street above a sideways stoop.  A deep light moat which provided light to the basement was protected by a solid stone wall.  The rusticated limestone base was sparsely decorated, with only a few carvings on the understated entrance.  The second and third floors were clad in brick and trimmed in stone.  A Palladian window on the Madison Avenue side boasted Renaissance carvings and a deeply-recessed shell within the arch.  In stark contrast to the 18th century inspired lower floors, the top floor behind a handsome stone balustrade took the form of a French mansard.

The firm of Davis, Reid & Alexander had handled the interior decorations.  The Real Estate Record & Guide reported on November 24 "One of the details especially noticeable is the introduction of Venetian glass mosaic for mantle facings."

The Architectural Record called the house "most original" and "certainly quite typical of the good modern house of our Eastern cities."

Marianna's decision to built in the city was most likely prompted by the erection of the Washington Bridge.  Opened on December 1, 1888 it connected Manhattan and The Bronx at 181st Street.  Suddenly Villa Boscobel was less tranquil and bucolic.

And the precise location may have been prompted by its proximity to the home of her sister, Fannie, who was married to millionaire George G. Haven.  The Haven family lived at Nos. 24-26 East 39th Street, essentially across the avenue from Marianna's new home.

The Madison Avenue mansion, like Villa Boscobel had been, was closed late every spring as Marianna traveled to her homes at Newport and Lenox.  She was at Newport on September 16, 1900 when the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. George Griswold Haven have deferred their departure for Lenox owing to the illness of Mrs. Haven's sister, Mrs. William B. Ogden, who is seriously sick at her cottage."

About three weeks later, on October 7, the newspaper reported "Mrs. William B. Ogden, who has been quite ill here for some weeks, was able to return to her New-York residence this week, travelling in a special car."

Marianna arrived in Lenox from Newport around September 14, 1904.  After taking a short drive on the 27th, she complained of trouble breathing.  The New-York Tribune wrote "A physician was summoned and her sister, Mrs. George Griswold Haven, was called."  The following morning she seemed to have rallied.  But then, "as Mrs. Ogden was about to take some nourishment, she suddenly expired."  The 84-year-old had suffered a heart attack.

In reporting her death The New York Times mentioned "After Washington Bridge was opened Mrs. Ogden lived but little at Boscobel, preferring her residence at 266 Madison Avenue."  

The bulk of her estimated $20 million estate was left to Fannie.  But, possibly because she anticipated that her favorite niece, Marion Haven, would soon marry, she left the Madison Avenue mansion to her.   On November 2 the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. George G. Haven and Miss Marion Haven arrived in town from Lenox yesterday, and are at Mrs. William B. Ogden's house."

Marion Arnot Haven's engagement to Forsyth Wickes was announced not long after, on January 21, 1905.  The ceremony in St. Bartholomew's Church took place on April 27.  It was a social event.  The New York Times reported "The wedding was one of the most largely attended of the year, over 1,000 invitations having been issued for the church ceremony."  The Sun rather coarsely added that Marian "was the richest bride of the season."

The newlyweds spent two months at Tuxedo, New York, then sailed for Europe for the summer.  The New York Times advised "next Winter they will occupy the house at 266 Madison Avenue, inherited by Mrs. Wickes from her aunt, Mrs. W. B. Ogden."

The long honeymoon was advantageous, since the New-York Tribune advised on March 16 that the mansion "will be entirely refurnished and redecorated and will probably not be ready for the young people until the autumn."

Forsyth Wickes had spent much of his youth in France.  He had graduated from Yale in 1898 and Columbia Law School two years later.  He would become senior partner in the legal firm of Wickes, Riddell, Bloomer, Jacobi and Mcguire.


When the newlyweds moved in, as seen in this 1905 photograph, nothing about the mansion had changed outside.  The American Architect and Building News, April 22, 1905 (copyright expired)
The Wickes' social rounds in Lenox, Newport and Manhattan were brought to a halt by World War I.  Forsyth enlisted in the U. S. Army in the summer of 1917 and became a captain in the Infantry later that year.  Before the end of the year he was deployed to France.  Following the Armistice he was sent home in December 1918 and returned to civilian life the following month.   He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the French Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre.

A cultured and avid collector of 18th century French paintings and porcelain, he filled the Madison Avenue house with treasures.  Decades later his collection was listed among the 26 "most outstanding" in the world.

But by the time Forsyth returned from the war, the Madison Avenue neighborhood was noticeably changing from an upscale residential enclave to a commercial thoroughfare.  On November 15, 1919 the Record & Guide reported "The Forsyth Wickes residence a four story building at 266 Madison av...with a two-story stable in the rear has been leased for twenty-one years for business purposes."  The lease came with a $13,000 per year rent--just under $190,000 today.  The deal was possible only because, as pointed out by the New-York Tribune, "The house is outside the Murray Hill restricted zone."

Amazingly, however, nothing was changed to the exterior of the mansion.  It retained the appearance of a private residence while firms like Roberts & Thompson, silk merchants, and the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce operated from within.


In 1923 there was little hint that the former mansion was anything but a residence.  On 39th Street is Marianna Ogden's former stable.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Despite the 21-year lease, the once-elegant home was doomed.  It was demolished in 1923 to be replaced by the 19-story 266-272 Madison Avenue.




Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Henry Heide Co. Bldg - 14-16 Harrison Street





Born in Germany in 1846, Henry Heide immigrated to America at the age of 20, just after the end of the Civil War.  After briefly running a grocery store he found his true calling--making candy.  In 1868 he founded the Henry Heide Candy Company.  The firm obtained a patent in 1875 for a "new and improved preserve composition for macaroons."  Heide's almond paste would be touted as "the finest article ever invented for maccaroons [sic] and general baking purposes" by Illustrated New York in 1888.


Henry Heide in his later, prosperous years.  from the collection of the Science History Institute
On April 29, 1881 Heide purchased the two wooden houses at Nos. 14 and 16 Harrison Street from Aymar Embury.  He paid $15,500 for the properties--about $380,000 today.  Six months later, on October 29, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect George Da Cunha "is at work on plans for a stone building to be built in Harrison street, between Hudson and Greenwich streets, for Henry Heide.  It will be of brick with stone trimmings, 40x100, and will cost $30,000."  The total cost of the project now amounted to what today would equal about $1.15 million.

Completed the following year, Da Cunha's candy factory was a handsome blend of neo-Grec and Queen Anne styles.  The first floor, above a raised loading dock, was faced in cast iron.  Here architectural details, like the pyramidal caps of the end piers, mimicked those of the upper cornice.  The windows of the second through fourth floors wore neo-Grec lintels supported on stepped brick corbels.   At the fifth floor the arched openings sat below projecting brick eyebrows.  The Queen Anne style stepped in with triangular, dog-tooth spandral panels below a honeycomb frieze formed by recessed bricks.  Above the cast metal cornice was a triangular pediment.


After more than 135 years, Henry Heide's painted announcement "Almond Paste" survives above the loading dock.
The firm's success and growth prompted Heide to lease No. 18 Harrison Street in the spring of 1886.  Architect Thomas R. Jackson was hired to connect the buildings internally.

Two years later Illustrated New York described the combined premises as "divided into manufacturing and sales departments, equipped with every modern appliance for rapid and successful production and perfect in convenience of arrangement for inspection and sale."  By now, said the writer, Henry Heide Candy was "One of the most prominent and best known houses in this line of industry in New York."  

The firm's astounding growth was evidenced in the comment "Mr. Heide has a new building in course of erection, which will connect the rear of this building through to Franklin Street, and which will be six stories high."  When completed, the candy factory was an unlikely pasting together of three separate buildings.  And then in 1891 Heide added yet another property, the adjoining Nos. 181-183 Franklin Street.  The four joined buildings comprised about 50,000 square feet.


Artistic brickwork was used to create the details of the upper floors.  
At the time Heide's bookkeeper was a young German man, Otto Kuhn.  In the days when many transactions were conducted in cash, his was a highly responsible position.  In February 1891 he approached Heide and asked "if he could be spared for a few months to take a flying trip to Europe," according to The Evening World.  (The term "flying trip" referred to its short length and had nothing to do with the yet-to-be-invented airplane.)

The 27-year-old married man may have initially intended to skip town to avoid prosecution.  The Evening World reported that not long after his departure Heide "discovered that money was missing, and an investigation of Kuhn's books, it is alleged, revealed a shortage of about $1,000."  It was a significant amount, equal to about $28,500 today.

If Kuhn had intended to remain in Europe, he changed his mind.  Detectives learned that he was aboard the White Star steamship the Britannic headed to New York and on April 10 were at the dock to meet it.  "Kuhn admitted that he had stolen the $1,000," reported The Evening World, "and squandered it in gambling houses and high living."

More serious troubles came in the form of another German-born employee, candy packer Charles Miller.   After the night watchman, August Loeffler reported that the 25-year-old Miller was a loafer, he was fired "for neglect of duty."  Enraged, Miller was bent on revenge.

On the afternoon of April 18, 1894 he sneaked into the factory and hid in the cellar.  Miller silently waited until the employees had gone home and night fell.  About 1:00 a.m. he attacked.

The following morning, according to The Sun, "the body of the night watchman was found in the basement of the factory.  His skull was crushed in, and several ribs were broken."  The cash drawer had been emptied of $17.


Charles Miller had been in the United States eight years when the murder was committed.  The Sun, August 10, 1894 (copyright expired)
Miller may have gotten away with the murder had he not remained in the vicinity.  The Sun said "he was seen hanging about the neighborhood of the factory.  Some one noticed blood on his clothes, and remembered that he had been discharged on account of the watchman's report three weeks before."  He was arrested on suspicion and confessed at Police Headquarters.

Police released a chilling description of the crime.  "Miller lay in wait for his victim and hit him on the head with a heavy hammer.  Then maddened by the sigh of blood, he had jumped on the body, breaking the ribs."

The story of Charles Miller ended in even more violence and tragedy.  After occupying cell 67 in The Tombs prison four months, he was found by a jail keeper on the morning of August 9 with his throat slashed by a razor.  Miller was still alive and taken unconscious to Bellevue Hospital.  Surgeons valiantly attempted to save his live, but he died there within a few hours.  How he obtained the razor to commit his gory suicide was never discovered.

Almost unbelievably, the Henry Heide Candy Co. had again outgrown its immense factory building.  Now, in 1895, Heide obtained the real estate at the corner of Hudson and Vandam Street and began construction of a cutting-edge structure.  When completed the factory had a daily capacity of 250,000 pounds of confectionery products.  (As an interesting side note, in the first half of the 20th century the Henry Heide company would introduce the gummy candies Jujyfruits and Jujubes, a staple for movie goers for decades.)

Henry Heide retained ownership of the four buildings on Harrison and Franklin Streets, and after the candy company moved out they were separated.  Nos. 14-16 was leased to Edward D. Depew & Co., wholesale grocers.  


Edward Depew advertised on a jutting sign at the front and a painted ad on the western elevation.  Note the now-lost pediment.  New York, the Metropolis, 1902 (copyright expired)

The residency of Edward D. Depew & Co. was relatively short-lived.  On December 30, 1908 the New York Produce Review and American Creamery reported "The Harrison Street Cold Storage Company has secured a twelve years lease on the six story and basement brick buildings at 14 and 16 Harrison street."  The article said the structure "will be entirely refitted for modern cold storage...The new plant will be insulated with cork board from the Armstrong Cork Company of Pittsburg."  The Harrison Street block was developing into what would be called the "butter and egg district" and the journal commented that the building would be "carrying butter and eggs."

Henry Heide hired architect Nelson K. Vanderbeck to upgrade the building for his tenant in the spring of 1911.  Vanderbeck's plans called for "cast-iron columns in 6-sty refrigerating warehouse."  

Five years later, in July 1916, Heide liquidated all of his Franklin Street and Harrison Street properties, selling them to the Red Diamond Realty Corporation.  The new landlords leased the building to the Merchants Refrigerating Co.  

In 1918 to The New York Butter Packing Co. rented space from that firm.  The New York Produce Review and American Creamery explained that The New York Butter Packing Co. would "receive, store and deliver butter and eggs" from the address.  It was a depot of sorts for the firm, its large packing and shipping plant being located at Newcomerstown, Ohio.

Two years later the New York Butter Packing Co. merged with C. F. Bullard's Cudahy Packing Co. to form C. F. Bullard & Co.  The American Produce Review reported that its offices would be at No. 171 Duane Street, and it would use the Harrison Street building as its warehouse.  "The new concern will handle butter, cheese and eggs."

As mid-century approached the J. S. Hoffman Company, cheese merchants, leased the building.  On May 7, 1945 The New York Sun reported that the firm had purchased the building, along with the two structures at Nos. 179 through 183 Franklin Street.  And once again the structures were internally connected.  The deal amounted to $1.75 million in today's dollars.

By the last quarter of the 20th century artists were displacing cheese, egg and butter dealers in the block's vintage loft buildings.  The former Henry Heide Candy factory was converted to "joint living/work quarters for artists."  There was one residence per floor through fourth story, with a duplex above.  It may have been around this time that the pediment was removed.

The duplex became home to a celebrated occupant.  In 1977 playright Edward Albee purchased the space, filling it with modern art masterpieces by the likes of Chagall and Kandinsky, as well as a collection of African art.   


Albee posed in the Harrison Street duplex for The New York Times.  photo by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times, June 16, 1991
The long wooden dining room table, where Albee reportedly wrote portions of his plays, was the scene of script readings, and the vast open space saw rehearsals.  Once a year Albee threw his anticipated Christmas party attended by stage and screen royalty like Marlene Deitrich, Kathleen Turner and Lauren Bacall.  Albee's summer estate was in Montauk, Long Island.


The Harrison Street duplex was for decades the home of one of America's greatest playwrights.  photos via Douglas Elliman Real Estate 
Edward Albee died on September 16, 2016, having won three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and two Tony Awards for  Best Play.  Among his best-known works were The Zoo Story, The Sandbox, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and A Delicate Balance.  



Albee's 4,515 square foot duplex was recently placed on the market for $7.5 million.  In the meantime, the former candy factory is little changed--other than the lost pediment--including the permanent awning over the loading dock.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Douglas Elliman agent Tom Titone for showing me around the Albee apartment 

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Schumacher & Ettlinger Building - 32-36 Bleecker Street




In 1796 the plot of land at what would become Bleecker Street between Mott and Mulberry Streets was part of Anthony Smith's farm.   But by the decade following the Civil War the blockfront sat within a vibrant commercial area.  At No. 36 Bleecker Street was the shop of Bauch & Gougelmann, who advertised "Artificial human eyes made to order on reasonable terms."

As early as 1880 Louis Ettlinger owned the properties at Nos. 32 through 36.  A partner in Schumacher & Ettlinger, lithographers, in 1882 he commissioned architect Edward E. Raht to erect a modern printing house on the site.   Completed three years later, the massive red brick structure was an industrial take on Romanesque Revival (although oddly enough the marble upper story lintels were holdovers of a generation or two earlier).  It wore a Second Empire mansard roof, and a beefy cast iron storefront faced Bleecker Street.

The heavy machinery and stock had barely been moved into the new building when disaster struck in the form of a devastating fire.  The Report of the Fire Department of the City of New York documented: "The fire was caused by spontaneous combustion of oily rubbish carelessly thrown into the waste-paper room in the basement."

Fighting the inferno required twenty fire engines.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported "The colony of Italians and other inmates of the tenement houses adjoining the building on Mott street were hurried from their homes, and were no sooner out of the way than two five-ton water tanks fell from the roof of No. 34, carrying with them portions of the roof and front and side walls...When the roof fell in the sparks flew up, and fell again half a mile away."

The article said "The large building was entirely gutted and the valuable machinery was pretty well destroyed.  The total loss is about $350,000 of which $100,000 is on the building."  The financial loss was staggering, nearly $9.5 million today.

Edward E. Raht was called back to design the extensive repairs, which included completely rebuilding the topmost floors.  This time he forewent the marble lintels on the Bleecker Street elevation, opting for segmental-arched openings.  The projecting central portion of the front was given Queen Anne touches in the form of dog-toothed brick panels.  Romantic medieval corbel courses decorated the fifth and sixth floors.  


The extent of the rebuilding can be seen in the change in fenestration beginning at the fifth floor.

There would be one more remodeling to come.  In 1892 Louis Ettlinger hired the architectural firm of Schickel & Co. to add a top floor, as reported in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide.  Although mostly unseen from the street, the addition showed off with a Queen Anne style multi-level parapet.

The enlargement of the building may have been prompted by Schumacher & Ettlinger's merger with other printers.  In its January 1892 issue, The American Art Printer reported that "a lithographers' trust has been formed consisting of the firms of George S. Harris & Sons...Schumacher & Ettlinger, the Knapp Company, F. Heppenheimer's Sons, Geo. H. Buek, and the Giles Company...The trust will be known as the American Lithographic Company."


Scientific American Building Edition, April 1897 (copyright expired)
In 1897 Louis Ettlinger sold the Bleecker Street building.  Schumacher & Ettlinger, as part of the American Lithographic Company, moved to East 19th Street.  In its place now was the wholesale paper firm, Henry Lindemeyr & Sons.

The company sold printing papers to publishers, lithographers, and other large printing establishments.  It would remain in the building for decades, advertising in March 1924 that its papers were "tested for printing, folding and binding qualities."

In 1930 the building was leased by another wholesale paper firm, Aaronson Brothers.  Their move was reported in the Paper Trade Journal, which noted "they are occupying the entire building, a six-story structure with basement having a total floor area of 70,000 square feet."  Like Henry Lindenmeyr & Sons, Aaronson Brothers would operate from the building for decades.

Before the dawn of the 21st century the personality of the neighborhood changed.  Now known as Noho, factories were nudged out as galleries, restaurants and residential spaces engulfed the district.

Stillman Development International purchased the Schumacher & Ettlinger building and embarked on a $70 million conversion to a total of 20 condominiums, led by Morris Adjmi Architects.  The project was named the Schumacher, an unintentional snub to Louis Ettlinger who, in fact, was the owner of the building when Schumacher & Ettlinger was here.

On July 26, 2013 Robin Finn wrote an article in The New York Times entitled "Call Me Mansion."  It explored the recent trend among developers to term large multilevel condominiums as "mansions."  Included in the article was the Schumacher, still under construction, which would include four such spaces.

Finn questioned the feasibility of these houses-within-apartment buildings.  "Few are functional yet, but that didn't stop the modern art fancier Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns the largest private collection of Warhols in the world, from contracting to buy not just one but two of the four mansions offered by prospectus at the Schumacher...Once combined they will provide him with a 9,000-square-foot playpen/gallery and his very own front door.  Maybe two."

Even Mugrabi struggled with the term.  "When I think of mansions I think of the Frick, or a humongous house on the Upper East Side.  I guess I'm going to have one of my own downtown, but I probably won't call it my mansion.  I'll call it home.  Or my pied-à-terre."

Developer Roy Stillman defended the term at the Schumacher, where the four triplex mansions ranged in price from $6.75 million to just under $11 million.  "These homes convey Old World grandeur.  From a subjective perspective, I can say that they are bona fide mansions and pass the straight-face test."  (Mugrabi's two-mansion purchase cost him $18.6 million and came as a "white box," without interior walls or finishes.)


The Schumacher's lush interiors make it difficult to envision printing presses and bales of paper. images via streeteasy.com

The Schumacher got a highly visible resident in actor Jonah Hill in May 2016.  The actor, producer and director paid $9.16 million for his 3,280-square-foot apartment with four bedrooms and as many baths.


The careful restoration of the more than 130-year-old structure brought it back to its handsome Victorian appearance.

photographs by the author

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Isabella - 307 East 85th Street






On July 28, 1881 butcher Richard Roach and his wife, Mary, purchased the 25-foot wide, three-story wooden house at No. 307 East 85th Street, just east of Second Avenue, from Jacob Groy.  They paid $7,000 for the property (an affordable $177,000 today) which included a two-story frame dwelling in the rear yard.  As part of the deal the Roaches inherited tenants, Richard Bryson and his wife, who lived in the back house.  It was not a happy coexistence.

Roach immediately informed Bryson that he would be raising his rent.  Bryson refused to pay the increase so Roach had "dispossess papers" served on him.  Bryson went to court, produced his five-year lease from Groy with the stated rent, and won his argument.

On April 17, 1882 the New York Herald reported "Since that time Roach has, as is alleged, done everything in his power to annoy him."  It came to a climax on Saturday, April 15, 1882 when a neighbor informed Bryson "that Roach had gone about among the neighbors circulating reports derogatory to the character of Mrs. Bryson."  Irate, Bryson stormed around the corner to Roach's butcher shop at No. 1646 Second Avenue.  The New York Herald said "the enraged husband opened upon him with all the violence of injured innocence."

The verbal battle escalated into a fist fight and before long Roach's "butcher's boy," 21-year-old William Delmage came to his employer's aid.  Outnumbered, Bryson pulled out his "immense revolver" and struck Delmage on the forehead.  All three were arrested and taken to the station house where they were held at $500 bail returnable only after they kept the peace for six months.  Bryson's firearm was confiscated.

How long the uneasy cohabitation existed after that is unclear.  But on March 31, 1888 The City Record announced that Richard Roach had hired architect P. H. Gilvarry to design a five-story apartment building on the site.  

The journal's description of the building as an apartment house was both complimentary and surprising.  Even the better multi-family buildings at the time were routinely listed as tenements.  The Isabella, as Roach called his building, would straddle the distinction at best.

Gilvarry ran into problems as construction commenced.  City inspectors "disapproved" this specifications for plumbing, for instance, delaying progress.  

The completed structure was a happy hodge-podge of architectural styles.   A short stone stoop led to the arched entrance, centered within the rusticated base.  The second and fifth floors were Romanesque Revival, their arched openings outlined in sandstone and capped with Roman brick laid in a striking sunburst pattern.  The continuous stone bandcourses and the ghosts of shaved-off lintels at the third and fourth floors smack of neo-Grec, while a neo-Classical pressed metal cornice topped it all off.

While Gilvarry's overall design was attractive enough; it was his used of Queen Anne-style terra cotta accents that caught the eye.  Large, square panels between the third and fourth floors depicted swirling leaves and vines, a seashell, and a stylized sunflower or daisy.  But the terra cotta tour de force was was centered between the large openings of the second floor.  A plaque within a plaque announced "Isabella" on a billowing sash, surrounded by hefty stylized foliate forms in the corners of the main panel.


Today the name plaque is nearly obliterated from view by a tangle of fire escape ladders and stairs.
Expectedly the Isabella filled with working-class tenants.  Among the earliest were William T. Roach (whether he was a relative of the developer is uncertain), a plumber; and Levi B. Tibbetts, an iron worker.  Both were here by 1892.

Mark D. Converss lived in the building at the same time.  Like so many in the neighborhood, he looked forward to the regular Thursday summer concerts in East River Park (now known as Carl Schurz Park).  

But on June 16 The Evening World reported “There is a prospect that the regular Thursday concert at East River Park one week from to day will be given in the evening instead of afternoon, and that to-day will see the last day concert in this pleasant resort, whose frequenters are prevented by their work from visiting it in the daytime.”  Paul Dana, President of the Park Commissioners, foresaw a danger to children.  He told a reporter “The only question seems to be whether the railing along the esplanade, next to the river front, is safe, with the crowds of children that would be attracted there by evening concerts.”

The Evening World felt Dana was being needlessly cautious.  "The only remaining objection to the evening concerts at the Park now appears to be the unsafe condition of the railing along the river front, and this certainly is trivial."  Asserting that "the last few days hint that the warm season has fairy set in, and this is another forcible argument against further delay in the matter," the newspaper circulated a petition urging the Park Commissioners to forge ahead with the concerts.  Mark Converss whole-heartedly agreed and added his name to the petition.
Below the lush terra cotta sprandrel panel the ghost of an eared lintel is evident.

In the first years of the 20th century New York City businessmen were terrorized by the Black Hand, an Italian-American extortion group also known as La Mano Nera.  Although the Yorkville neighborhood was heavily German, the barbershop in the basement of the Isabella was run by Sicilian-born Frank Chimera.  His association with the Black Hand proved fatal to him.

Chimera lived in a "sleeping-room" at the back of the shop.  On Saturday morning, May 23, 1914 his body was found there.  His throat had been slashed.  The murder led to a chilling discovery.  Investigators found not only a completed bomb (described by authorities as being "such as is used by Italian black hand extortioners"), but eight sticks of dynamite, a package of smokeless powder, half a dozen electric fuses with fulminating caps, and other bomb-making elements.

Gilvarrry framed the arched openings with rounded bricks.  The Romanesque Revival detail of the stone eyebrows has been lost.

Although still conducting a meticulous investigation of the site, Owen Egan, Inspector of Combustibles for the Fire Department said evidence so far "indicates that the place was used as a bomb factory."  The Evening World reported "Inspector Egan's theory is that the place was used by bomb throwers and that Chimera's throat was cut in a dispute over the proceeds of an adventure of which he had knowledge."

John Orosz lived in the building at around the time of the murder.  He made his living driving a delivery wagon.  On the evening of May 9, 1916 his temper ran him afoul of two civic-minded boys.  

A common--albeit it dangerous--form of recreation for little boys was to jump unseen onto the back of wagons and streetcars and take a ride.  That night Orosz was on First Avenue when he realized that at some point he had picked up two unwelcome passengers.  The infuriated man drew his horse to a stop at Fifth Street and "made a dash," as worded in The Sun, for the boys and began beating them.  

The Police Department ran a program called the "Juvenile Force" which recruited youths to fight crime.  Given the title of patrolman, they were not armed, but kept a look-out for criminal activity.  The program not only added to the "eyes and ears" of the regular officers, but helped guide boys in the right direction.  Unfortunately for Orosz the Juvenile Force was out that night.

One 13-year-old patrolman witnessed the beating.  The Sun reported "What that driver did to the two small boys before they could escape got Patrolman Fingermap's dander up to such a pitch that he ran out and placed the man under arrest."  The journalist admitted that it was doubtful that the teen could have successfully held his prisoner were it not for the arrival of another juvenile force officer, Joseph Scheillowitz.  He was 11.  The boys held onto the struggling driver until Policeman McWilliams, a regular officer, arrived.  

In night court the boys testified to what Orosz had done.  "Both of these young men were highly complimented by the Magistrate and went away very happy, no doubt," concluded The Sun.  John Orosz was not so happy.  He was sentenced to two days in jail.  

As the United States entered World War II in April 1917 the widowed Sophie Moutner lived in the Isabella with her son, Henry.  The young man enlisted in the United States Naval Reserves on August 6, 1918 as an apprentice seaman.  He was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for boot camp; but would never see action.  Less than two months after he enlisted, on October 3, he died of pneumonia at the Naval Hospital there.  

One tenant here in the early 1920's was Joseph Pressler, whose major focus seems to have been amateur athletics.  And he covered all the sports.  He headed the Clover Base Ball Club in 1922 when he announced in The Brooklyn Standard Union on August 26 that the team was "playing home on Saturdays, has a few open Sunday dates."  The team had a 17-19 record at the time.

The following year, on November 22, 1923 he placed an advertisement for the basketball teams he headed.  "The Unity Five, formerly Original Central Five, 135 pounds, and Penn Five, 140 pounds, desire games with teams of same weight.  Only first class teams will be booked."  




As Yorkville slowly changed, so did the Isabella.  By 1968 much of the German population had dispersed and the colorful ethnic flavor of the neighborhood was increasingly diluted.  That year a renovation resulted in four apartments on the first floor and two each on the upper floors.  (It may have been at this time that some of the sandstone detailing on the exterior was shaved off.)  An adjustment to that floor plan was completed in 1987, creating a third apartment on floors two, three and five; a total of 17 apartments in the building.  

Passing by the Isabella without a glance is easy.  But a pause to take in that glorious terra cotta panel hidden behind the iron fire escape is visual treat.
photographs by the author  

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The 1913 Shubert Theatre - 233 West 44th Street




On June 17, 1905 the Chicago Eagle reported distressing news--among the 22 persons kills in "the terrible railroad disaster near Harrisburg, Pa." was 23-year-old Sam S. Shubert.  The young man's rise from near poverty to a nationally-known theatrical manager smacked of a Horatio Algier story.  "Sixteen years ago he was selling papers on the streets of Syracuse, N. Y. and at the time there was nothing to distinguish him from the hundreds of other newsboys in that city," said the newspaper.

The course of his life took a decisive turn when he landed a job as an usher in a theater.  By the time he was 18 he managed a road company, and not long after leased a theater and then another, until by the time of his death he owned or controlled around two dozen playhouses in America and two in England.  His amazing, 15-year career generated an estate of $500,000--about $14.7 million today.

Shubert had taken his brothers Lee and Jacob (familiarly known as J. J.) into the business.  The Chicago Eagle advised "they will carry on the many undertakings of which he was the head."  And indeed they did.

The following year, on July 27, 1906, The New York Times ran the headline "Another Shubert Theatre."  In reporting on the upcoming opening of the Lincoln Square Theatre, the article noted it would be the seventh Shubert-owned playhouse in Manhattan.

And then on June 8, 1912 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Henry Beaumont Herts had filed plans for still another--a $150,000 theater to be built at 221-233 West 44th Street.  It was half of a joint project by the Shubert brothers and Winthrop Ames.  Herts also designed the abutting theater facing 45th Street to be operated by Ames.  A unique characteristic of the site was the private roadway connecting the two streets, eventually named Shubert Alley.  It allowed Herts to design what otherwise would be mid-block buildings as corner structures.

Shubert Alley accommodated automobiles at the time of this photograph, around 1915.  To the west foundations are being excavated for another theater.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In honor of their brother, the Shuberts named the venue the Sam B. Shubert Memorial Theatre.  Competed in the summer of 1913, the five-story theater was designed in what is loosely termed "Venetian Renaissance."  Herts's ornamentation relied as much on sgraffito--a process of etching and coloring plaster while wet--as on carvings.  Delicate panels recalled the frescoes of Pompeii.



The intricate decorations were painstakingly executed on wet plaster.
Herts left his mark on his work by placing an oval sgraffito depiction of a winged fairy-like figure directly above the corner entrance.  She holds in a plaque announcing the architect's name and the construction date.



Despite the overall stately appearance of the design, Herts managed to sneak in playful details.  The Corinthian capitals of the rusticated piers at the corner, for instance, depict pairs of goats apparently trying to escape from the snarling lions' heads directly above them.

The press never seem to have warmed to the official name of the venue and from the first referred to it simply as the Shubert Theatre.  The Shubert brothers scored a coup for opening night.   British actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson was hailed as one of the finest thespians of his time; and now he was retiring.  In September 1913 he arrived in New York to begin his farewell tour, which would begin with Hamlet on October 2 at the Shubert.  Co-starring with him as Ophelia would be his wife, Gertrude Elliott.

Following the performance Forbes-Robertson addressed the audience after numerous curtain calls.  The New York Times reported "Then...he spoke to the standing audience very briefly, dwelling upon the beauties of the new theatre which he had opened and speaking of what a fitting monument it was to the late Sam Shubert."


The auditorium features sumptuous plaster work and painted panels. photo via shubert.nyc
The overflow crowd, prompted both by the last appearance of the celebrated thespian and curiosity to see the theater, proved the efficiency of Hertz's many exits and of Shubert Alley.  The Times said "despite the lateness of the hour, many persons in the audience spent some time in inspecting the new theatre.  Outside the congestion of vehicles of all sorts was greatly relieved by the private roadway connecting Forty-fourth and Forty-fifth Streets."


The Evening Telegram, November 14, 1920 (copyright expired)
With a seating of about 1,400, the Shubert was the scene of benefit performances early on, like the spectacular variety show to benefit disabled World War I soldiers in 1920.

An unusual event took place on March 3, 1922 when the memorial service for Ellin Prince Lowery Speyer was held here.  Speyer was the founder and president of the Women's League for Animals.    A headline in The Evening Telegram on March 1 announced "Actresses to Honor Memory of Woman Friend of Animals" and the article reported "Women of the stage will conduct memorial services in honor of Mrs. James Speyer in the Shubert Theatre...Actresses regarded Mrs. Speyer as their especial friend."  Along with recognized names like Elizabeth Marbury, Elsie De Wolfe and Julia Arthur, a sole male, producer Daniel Frohman, served on organizing committee.

Mrs. Speyer's would not be the last memorial service in the Shubert Theatre.  For years, into the 1930's, it was the scene of the annual Police Department ceremonies to honor officers who had died the previous year.

The Greenwich Village Follies had been staged for several years at the Greenwich Village Theatre.  But by 1918 its success had outgrown the neighborhood venue.  On November 19, 1922 The Evening Telegram reported on the fourth annual production at the Shubert.  It had run 11 weeks at the time with no end in sight.

The Shubert Theatre saw illustrious plays and illustrious thespians throughout the decades.  On March 28, 1939 Katharine Hepburn opened in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story; the following year in August 1941 Pal Joey moved here from the Barrymore Theatre because of the Shubert's larger capacity.   The Rodgers & Hart musical starred the 29-year-old Gene Kelly opposite the significantly older Vivienne Segal.

Two months later, on October 22, Maxwell Anderson's Candle in the Wind opened, starring Helen Hayes.  It was directed by Alfred Lunt and the cast included actress and singer Lotte Lenya.


Among the Othello cast members in this 1943 photo are Richard Basehart and Jose Ferrer.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Productions which became American classics that opened here included Paint Your Wagon, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Bye Bye Birdie, Oliver!, The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd, and A Little Night Music.  In 1975 A Chorus Line opened in the Shubert and ran for fifteen years--a total of 6,137 performances.  It set the record for the longest running play on Broadway.

The large capacity of the auditorium has made it a repeat venue for the Tony Awards ceremonies.

Other than the removal of the pediments of the rooftop dormers, inside and out the Shubert Theatre has changed little.  Its location on Shubert Alley makes it one of the most recognizable of the Broadway theater icons.

photographs by the author