Monday, October 20, 2014

The Lost 1763 Rhinelander Sugar House

An early watercolor shows the builder's initials in wrought iron on the gable -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Henry Cuyler came from a wealthy Dutch family and in 1763 was highly involved in the importation and refining of sugar.  That year he erected a substantial building at the corner of Prince Street (later renamed Rose Street, and finally William Street) and Duane Street.  His stone and brick sugar house was both a refnery and a warehouse for the storage of sugar and molasses.

In this depiction, the Sugar House sat behind the refined homes and was accessed by an alley.  George P. Hall & Sons, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

For Colonial New York, the sugar house was massive and impressive.  At six stories tall, it was among the largest structures in the colony and dominated the buildings around it.  Cuyler was not without competition in the sugar business.  It was a highly lucrative industry and by the time he erected his sugar house, there were several others in lower Manhattan.

Valentine's Manual of 1857 romanticized the structure, placing it steps away from the Rhinelander mansion and guarded by British soldiers.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Unfortunately for the Cuyler family, they chose the wrong side in the coming war of revolution.  Instead of backing the rebellious gang set on upsetting the Government, they remained Loyalists.  That did not work out well for them.  Following the Revolution, the Act of Forfeiture was passed.  Loyalists were banned from the State under penalty of death “without benefit of Clergy” and their property sold at auction. 

William Rhinelander, like Cuyler, came from an old Knickerbocker family, and he made a fortune in the sugar business.  By 1790 he had come into possession of Cuyler’s massive sugar house. 

During the British occupation of New York large buildings such as churches and sugar houses were used as prisons.  One of these was the Livingston Sugar House on Liberty Street.  It was under the supervision of a cruel officer, Sergeant Waddy.  Possibly old-timers, after the war, confused the two buildings; or perhaps stories that the last standing sugar house in lower Manhattan was once a prison made good tourist publicity.  In any event, local lore persisted that the Rhinelander Sugar house was a Revolutionary War prison.  In 1890 historian Wesley Washington Pasko, in writing on the Prisons of the Revolution in his Old New York tip-toed around the veracity of the legend.  “The Rhinelander Sugar House, still standing, is averred by all of our older citizens to have been a prison, and there is no doubt about it, but we have seen no contemporary evidence of the fact.”

Indeed, to this day, no contemporary documentation has come to light supporting the Rhinelander building ever being used as a prison.

Yet the story succeeded in drawing tourists and the warehouse was romanticized in etchings and documented by early photographers.  Somewhat amazingly, while nearly all the Colonial architecture of Lower Manhattan was either burned (the Great Fire of 1845 destroyed 345 buildings downtown) or razed, the utilitarian Sugar House survived. 

By the last quarter of the 19th century, the old stone Sugar House was surrounded by taller commercial structures.  photo by Robert L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
By the end of the Civil War the venerable building had not served its original purpose of storing sugar for years.  Still in the possession of the Rhinelander family in 1872, it was used as a paper store by James T. Derrickson.  Victorian interest in historic architecture, however, was essentially non-existent.  Despite the dogged legend of the building’s role in American independence, within the next two decades the old Sugar House would suffer neglect and indignation.

In 1892 James Grant Wilson, in his The Memorial History of the City of New-York, wondered at the structure’s survival.  “Its solid, unbroken walls stand as a silent testimonial to the honesty of the dead and gone builder.  The date and the architect’s initials are still to be seen on the side of the building, worked in wrought-iron characters, quaint and old.”

photo by Hugo B. Sass from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

But as “quaint and old” as it was, it was severely abused.  “On the side facing toward the east many windows were walled up during the last fifteen years, but there were still six grated openings left.  Three were in the gable and the others along the south side.  Underneath them was a great vaulted passageway made of heavy masonry like the whole building.  Still another opening was to be seen alongside of it, half-hidden by rubbish, and the barred outline of another cell-window also visible after close examination.”

Wilson’s description served as a sort of obituary for the Sugar House.  That year the Rhinelander family decided to demolish it in order to erect a modern office building on the site.  As was typical of the time, newspapers followed the course of demolition with emotional, nostalgic articles that lamented the loss of another landmark.  But, as was also typical, no one raised a hand to protest.

Demolition of the massive stone structure proved difficult.  Photo by Robert L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The long-lived urban legend that the Rhinelander Sugar House had been a British prison where American boys suffered misery and torture resulted in two of the windows with their wrought iron grills being preserved.  One was donated to the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York and was installed in the Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx.  The other was incorporated into the new Rhinelander office building, demolished in 1968.

While the Victorian office building was lost, the window was not.  It was moved to a pedestrian zone behind One Police Plaza where it is maintained by the New York City Police Department.  And the legend came along with it.

On May 6, 1968 The New York Times wrote “A small, barred window from a sugar house used as a British prison during the Revolutionary War will be spared during demolition for the new Brooklyn Bridge ramp system.”   When the window was unveiled, it bore a plaque reading in part “This window was originally part of the five story Sugar House built in 1763 at the corner of Duane and Rose Streets and used by the British during the Revolutionary War as a prison for American Patriots.”

An urban legend, most likely untrue, resulted in this small piece of Colonial history to be preserved.
As is often the case, legend trumped history and in this case it resulted in a small chunk of historic preservation. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Frederick Zobel's 1913 Colony Arcade Building

At the turn of the last century the block of West 38th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was lined with brownstone rowhouses.  By now the millinery district would reached this far north, engulfing the once fashionable neighborhood.  As the homeowners fled, the businesses moved in.

That quickly changed, as well.  The old houses were quickly snapped up by developers who razed them for soaring loft and store buildings.  On March 25, 1911 The Sun made note of the changes.  “Before the development of the section began most of the structures in the district were of the old fashioned brownstone front type, with here and there a small business building.   There were many milliners and dressmakers in the section, and these used their parlor floors and basements for show and workrooms.  Now, however they have fine quarters in these new light and airy structures and the old time building is rapidly a thing of the past.”

Developer William H. Wheeler seemed to be determined to transform the block of West 38th Street alone.  At the time of The Sun’s article, he had replaced four brownstones at Nos. 8 through 14 with the Murray Hill Building; two at Nos. 28 and 30 for his Wheeler Building; and the day before had purchased Nos. 24 and 26 where he intended to build “a twelve story store and loft building.”

But Judson S. Todd would make his mark on the block as well.  Like Wheeler, Todd and his Holland Holding Co. were a major force in Manhattan real estate.  On January 21, 1912 The New York Times reported that Mrs. M. J. Parrott had sold Todd the two houses at Nos. 65 and 67 West 38th Street, and that Dr. J. E. Serre sold him the house next door at No. 63.  The newspaper pointed out that Todd “last week purchased…the abutting property, 62 and 64 West Thirty-ninth Street.”

In 1911 brownstones like these at Nos. 60 and 62 still lined West 38th Street.  from the Collection of the New York Public Library
The developer now owned a large plot running through the block and he immediately put architect Frederick C. Zobel, to work on designs.  The choice of architect was no doubt influenced by the organization of the Colony Construction Company, of which Zobel’s brother, Robert P. Zobel, was president.

Two months later plans were filed for a “twelve-story store and light manufacturing building” with an anticipated cost of $400,000—about $9.3 million today.  “The façade will be of brick and terra cotta, and it will be fireproof through,” reported The Times. 

The building was completed in 1913.  Although the 38th Street side was wider that the 39th—62 feet as opposed to 46 feet—Zobel masterfully designed identical facades.  Within the past decade terra cotta had been used to create elaborate Gothic Revival commercial structures like the Woolworth and World’s Tower Buildings.  It now appeared on Zobel’s Colony Arcade.  The lower three floors were embellished with Gothic arches, heraldic shields, and quatrefoils.  Demanding the most attention, however, were the magnificently-executed pairs of spread-winged eagles that perched above the entrances.

The Colony Arcade Building quickly filled with tenants and, as expected, most were millinery firms.  Shortly after its doors opened it was home to The Crest Brand Bandeau Co “makers of bandeaux and hat linings.”  The Illustrated Milliner reported in June 1913 that “The offices and sample rooms are being tastefully fitted up and all the appurtenances of manufacturing this line of goods have been installed.”

Jos. Levin Co moved in during the building's first year of operation.  The Illustrated Milliner, June 1913 (copyright expired)
Simultaneously, Jos. Levin Co., Inc. was in the building, manufacturing tailored hats; as was Bonhotal Co.  Once settled in, Bonhotal Co. advertised that its “early Fall lines” were ready, including “tailored and fancy hats” and 150 styles of “black and mourning hats.”

Soon other ladies’ hat manufacturers were here, including Richard Sentner; Sternberger & Marks; and H. Goldfarb (advertising “Every new idea in shape, material and trimmings—clever models with ribbons, gold and silver ornaments, fancies, flowers, ostrich, etc.”).  A manufacturer not in the millinery industry was Harry Rothleder who leased space toward the end of 1913.  The firm manufactured and sold furs in the building.

Sentner's $36 price tag was for a dozen hats -- Dry Goods Economist, July 1914 (copyright expired)
Little by little over the years, as the Garment District crept into the area, the Colony Arcade Building would see more apparel firms.  In the meantime, however, the enormous ground floor space—a full 20,000 square feet—was leased by Winifred T. McDonald “for a term of years” in October 1914.  In reporting on the deal, The New York Times felt it was a reflection of the “growing importance of the Thirty-eighth Street block, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, due to the Lord & Taylor store at Fifth Avenue and the new elevated station at Sixth Avenue.”

Cast metal spandrels carried on the Gothic motif.
McDonald shared the newspaper’s enthusiasm.  With the rapid rise of commercial buildings and the migration of department stores northward from the old Ladies’ Mile; the neighborhood was flooded with workers and shoppers.  All of them needed to be fed.  The perceived potential was enough to induce the female entrepreneur to sign the $400,000 aggregate lease.

The Times said “After extensive alterations the place will be opened as a restaurant and tearoom.”  Winifred McDonald hired architect Patrick Reynolds to do the $7,000 in alterations.  The tearoom and café was opened early in 1915.  To separate the working men from the female shoppers and shop girls, the tearoom and café were separate from the “men’s grill.” 

Winifred T. McDonald offered music to her patrons -- The Sun, May 23, 1915 (copyright expired)

Later that year the 39th Street block was closed off for a 4th of July block party thrown by workers in the area.  Hattie Meyer worked as a seamstress and the 35-year old participated in the Vacation Committee’s plans for the event.  When the day came, she left her house at No. 228 East 12th Street dressed all in white with a red, white and blue badge, and excitedly headed off to the festivities.

“She had entered the block in West Thirty-ninth street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, where the celebration was taking place, when she became ill and started to fall,” reported The Sun on July 6.  People passing by saw her drop to the pavement and helped her into the hallway of the Colony Arcade.  “An ambulance was called from the New York Hospital, but before it arrived Miss Mayer died.”

The seamstress’s body was removed to the West 13th Street police station.  The Sun said “The band kept on playing and none of the Fourth of July dancers knew of the fate of one of their committee members.”

Harry Silverstein was working for Freundlick & Sons in the building in 1916.  Around 1:00 on a Saturday in February that year he was walking along Fifth Avenue nearby at 45th Street, when he noticed a necklace on the ground.  The honest worker took it to a lawyer, David Lewis, and the pair searched the lost and found ads in The World.  The newspaper reported on February 21 that “they noticed that a necklace answering the description of the one Silverstein found had been lost by Mrs. Emil Sperling, who lives at the St. Regis Hotel.”

The pearl necklace with a silver clasp had dropped from her neck while walking down Fifth Avenue.  The attorney took the necklace to Mr. Sperling who handed him a $600 reward for Silverstein.  “The necklace was valued at $12,000,” said The World.  The garment worker’s honesty earned him what would be essentially that same amount in today’s dollars.

The wonderfully detailed facade survives, even at street level.
The aggressive development of the district had an unexpected and undesired consequence.  The hundreds of factory and shop workers mobbed the sidewalks and spilled onto upscale Fifth Avenue.  Refined shoppers were loathe to battle the hoards of workmen and the fashionable tone of the avenue was threatened.  The Save New York Movement was born.

The Movement established a “restricted zone” and encouraged manufacturers to avoid it.  The mayor supported the program and initiated zoning restrictions for construction going forward from 32nd Street to 59th Street, from Third to Seventh Avenue.  J. H. Burton, Chairman of the Save New York Committee, explained to Buildings and Building Management magazine that the movement was designed “to preserve the character of our shopping, retail and residence sections.”

The Movement made itself known in the Colony Arcade Building in 1916 when one of its largest tenants moved out.  On November 14 that year The New York Times reported “Hollow & Perlow, one of the largest manufacturers of silk waists in the city, who moved uptown when the northward movement of trade began several years ago, have declared their allegiance to the ‘Save New York Movement,’ and will move out of the restricted zone.”  The firm, “which employs a large force” had decided to move south to 25th Street.

Millinery and apparel workers cram the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue in 1917 -- Buildings and Building Management, February 1917 (copyright expired)

“We are in hearty sympathy with the ‘Save New York Movement,’ and believe that this wonderful business section of New York City should not be marred or depreciated by the manufacturing industry,” said D. Parlow.  “Success to the movement, which should be supported by every manufacturer who has the interest of the trade at heart, even if they do entail a sacrifice of choice location.”

In 1922 Robert P. Zobel sold the building to Brooklyn real estate operators Levy Brothers.  The $1.25 million all-cash deal drew understandable attention.  The New York Times noted that the building “is occupied almost exclusively by the millinery trade and shows a gross annual rent of about $150,000.” 

While the Colony Arcade Building continued to be occupied by hat manufacturers, a vastly different firm moved in within a few years.  The Radiovision Corporation was among the pioneering television firms.  On July 9, 1928 it conducted a public demonstration at the Hotel Mayflower of the Cooley “Rayfoto” system.  Invented by Austin G. Cooley, The New York Times reported that “The apparatus demonstrated transmitted and received four by five inch pictures in less than three minutes each.”

Later that year, in August, Radiovision Corporation announced the invention of “a new light cell, which…will greatly aid the realization of practical radio television.”  During a demonstration of the cell, the company’s vice president, Edgar H. Felix said “it can be utilized to perform such functions about the house as turning on the hot-water heater, starting the furnace or closing the windows at sunrise.”

That never happened.

The building continued to house hat firms through the last quarter of the 20th century.  Most amazingly, however, the ground floors of the handsome structure were never destroyed by modernization.  The building was converted by in 2012 to a boutique hotel, the Refinery Hotel.  Zobel’s eye-catching terra cotta façade survives astoundingly intact on a block that was almost entirely transformed during the first decades of the 20th century.

 photographs by the author

Friday, October 17, 2014

The 1897 Aldrich Mansion -- No. 271 W. 72nd Street

In 1890 developer Spencer Aldrich began construction on New York City’s third skeleton-framed structure—the 12-story Columbia Building at No. 29 Broadway designed by Youngs & Cable.  Completed a year later, the massive chateau-like structure featured a rounded tower, pointed-capped dormers and a three-story roof that drew the eye upward.  Aldrich obviously was attracted to the style, which was manifested similarly in his town home five years later.
Aldrich's Columbia Building rose high above the other Broadway buildings -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Aldrich was born into wealth.  One of four children, he was the son of Herman D. and Elizabeth Aldrich.  His father was a principal in McCurdy, Aldrich & Spencer, deemed by The Insurance Times to be “the leading house in the American dry goods commission business.”  In an astonishing coincidence, Herman and his best friend and business partner Robert H. McCurdy died on the same day, from the same disorder: valvular disease of the heart. 

By the time Spencer Aldrich and his wife chose the 50-foot long building plot at the northeast corner of West 72nd Street and West End Avenue the neighborhood had already begun filling with stylish homes.  But none would outdo the Adrich mansion.

Gilbert Schellenger sat down in 1895 to design the house—a Romanesque fantasy of turrets, gables, arches and chimneys that commanded the corner.  Four stories high, it was completed in 1897 and stretched nearly three times the width of a conventional townhouse.  Schellenger used a variety of materials to create a masterwork.  A turn-of-the-century sketch shows the entrance—a deep, arched portico set on clustered pillars above a side-turned stoop—squarely centered within the West End Avenue elevation.  Nevertheless, the house took the address of No. 271 West 72nd Street.

A light-colored scar, just left of the green awning, marks the site of original entrance portico.

Aldrich was not only a major developer, but was for a time the President of the Real Estate Exchange.  He and his wife, the former Harriette Holley Dall, had five children, four of which were girls.  As could be expected, entertainments in the house would center around the feminine members of the household as they reached coming-out age.  And it would not be long.

In the meantime, however, the Aldrich family spent their summers at their Long Island estate near Babylon on the Great South Bay.

Two years after moving into their new mansion, it filled with the chatter of wealthy women as Harriette gave the first of debutante receptions on December 16, 1899.  This was for daughter Louise.   Her sisters would follow close behind.  Mary Austen Aldrich was feted in the house in 1902 and Helen Hudson Aldrich’s and Maude Holley Aldrich's debutante receptions were in 1905.  

The narrower, 72nd Street facade was no less impressive.
Six months later the house was abuzz again as plans were prepared for Louise Dall Aldrich’s marriage to William Meissner.  The ceremony took place in the Church of All Angels on June 16, 1906 with the bride’s uncle, Rev. J. Nevitt Steele, officiating.  The New-York Tribune noted that the bride’s down was “trimmed with old point d’Alencon that had been used on the gowns of three other brides in her family.”

Ushering in church that day was Spencer Wyman Aldrich, Jr.  Spencer would graduate from the University of Virginia the following year.  He would find himself ushering in the Church of All Angels once again, on October 28, 1909, as sister Helen married the impressively-named Talcott Hunt Clarke.

Brooklyn Heights had its own high society circles.  A few days prior to Helen’s marriage, on October 24, 1909, the New-York Tribune assumed “It is likely that a number of people from the Heights will cross the river on Thursday next for the wedding…of Miss Helen Hudson Aldrich and Talcott Hunt Clarke of Buffalo.”  Following the ceremony Brooklynites and New Yorkers alike filed into the 72nd Street mansion for what The Sun called “a large reception.”

Schellenger's complex upper floor included both brick and copper-clad dormers pointing in different directions; unique chimneys and decorative cresting.

In 1911 the family apparently traveled, for the house was leased at $7,000 for the year—about $170,000 today.  In January that year the mansion would be the scene of a terrifying incident.  On January 20 The New York Times reported “In the morning crowd traveling down town from the Bronx in a subway express yesterday there was a young negro, who resented the jostling to which all the straphangers were subjected.  He finally drew a knife, and before he fought his way to the open [doors] at Seventy-second street, had slashed two of his fellow passengers, a girl and a man.”

The incident started when the swaying car caused one, then another, of the passengers to bump against Vernon Graham who was standing by the subway car’s doors.  When Mary McAuley, a stenographer, was thrown against him, he made a remark that, according to The Times, “was so offensive,” that another passenger Daniel McGowan, “ordered him to hold his tongue.”

When the train stopped at the 96th Street station, Mary McAuley needed to get off in order to transfer to the local.  But to do so she had to pass Graham.  She saw him pull a knife.

“Look out!” He has a knife in his hand,” she cried to McGowen.  It infuriated the already upset Graham who, according to the girl, tried to strike her with the knife.  When she dodged the blow, he struck again.  “She staggered a little and then fainted, her body falling through the doorway to the station platform,” said The Times.

Daniel McGowan leaped to the platform behind the attacker and attempted to wrestle him to submission.  He was met with stabs to the neck and hands.  Vernon Graham had a good lead on the infuriated pack that chased him from the subway; and although badly injured, McGowan led the crowd.

When the fugitive reached the corner of West 72nd Street and West End Avenue, he saw the grill-work door to the basement of the Aldrich mansion opened and ducked in.  When McGowan and Policeman Murphy who had joined in the chase arrived, they found “a frightened servant, who had retreated to the corner of the kitchen.”  The servant pointed to a locked pantry door.  “They broke it down and found their quarry, back to the wall and still showing fight,” said the newspaper.  “Murphy closed upon him and the chase was over.”

Things returned to normal at No. 271 West 72nd Street.  That year Spencer Wyman Aldrich, Jr. became engaged to Imogen Gaither.  The following year, with nearly all of their children married and gone, the Aldriches moved to No. 29 West 50th Street.

The 72nd Street mansion briefly was home to J. Clark Read, administrator of Camp Champlain, a summer camp for boys, and secretary of the Berkley School.  But by 1916 the William Carleton Shanley family lived here.

Shanley and his wife, the former Mary Ledwith, had three children; William Carleton Bayley Shanley, Jr., Bernard and Grace.  A tragic accident occurred for the family on December 12, 1916 when the Shanley limousine, driven by chauffeur Edward Simpson, struck and knocked down Mrs. Charlotte Ryan on West 32nd Street.

Mrs. Ryan initially brushed off the accident, saying she was not injured and had no time to go to the hospital because she was Christmas shopping.  Finally she was convinced to go to the French Hospital.  “There it was learned that she had been injured internally.  She died soon after she got there,” reported The Sun the following day.

In the Shanley’s household staff in 1919 was James C. Boyd.  At the time the homes of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens had been plagued by a thief who counted among his victims Harold S. Vanderbilt and Mrs O. H. P. Belmont.  Before Boyd left the Shanley’s employ in January, they too had been robbed.

On April 7, 1920 police nabbed James Boyd.   He gained entrance into the mansions by obtaining a job—he was Mrs. Belmont’s butler—then leaving after a few months.  When he was arrested he admitted to having taken $160 worth of Mrs. Shanley’s jewelry.

At the time of the robbery William Junior was serving in the United States Army as a Second Lieutenant.  During the war he had been deployed overseas.  He had graduated from Princeton in 1916, just prior to the U.S. entrance into the war; and would later graduate from Columbia Law School.

While he was fighting abroad, Mollie Kelly, daughter of the wealthy sugar mogul Hugh Kelly, helped the war efforts by working in the canteen division of the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense.  In 1922 William had rejoined the civilian sector and was practicing law.  On November 24 that year he and Mollie Kelly announced their engagement.  The Evening World headline announced “Betrothal Announced of Popular Girl Here to Wm. C. Shanley Jr.”

The Evening World called Mollie "A Popular Girl" November 25, 1922 (copyright expired)
The last of debutante entertainments in the 72nd Street mansion occurred on December 17, 1927.  The all-female reception for Helen Lois Shanley was followed by a theater party to which eligible young men were invited.

The years following the Great Depression were not kind to the Aldrich mansion.  In 1951 the big old house was considered neither historic nor architecturally important.  It was considered a big old house.

That year alterations were completed which resulted in stores at ground level, a doctor’s office and stores on the floor above, and four apartments on the upper stories.  The imposing entrance stoop on West End Avenue was chopped off and the rough-cut stone façade was broken through for retail space.

In the first decade of the 21st century the old mansion got a bit of a facelift when Architecture Restoration Conservation oversaw a restoration of sorts.  The corner turret was rebuilt, a new slate roof was installed and the stone and brickwork were cleaned and repointed.

The completed project, which highlights the remains of Shellenger’s wonderful design, makes the vandalism to the lower floors seem even more barbaric.  Fortunately, however, New Yorkers need only look up to savor a glimpse of what was.

photographs taken by the author