Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The West 60th Street "Interior Baths" -- No. 232 West 60th Street


As the 19th century drew to a close and the city’s poor crowded into cramped tenements, the problem of bathing was increasingly serious.  In the Lower East Side in 1896 there was one bathtub for every 79 families.

Half a century earlier the public had demanded action by the city.  By the time of the Civil War middle- and upper-class families in New York had begun bathing regularly, as the Europeans did.  But the lower classes had no means to bathe.  By 1858 the Committee for Free Public Baths had been formed, but nothing would be done about the situation for decades.

Even after the New York Senate passed a law on April 21, 1895 requiring that all first and second class cities create free public bathing facilities, Manhattan's citizens would continue using the "floating baths" at the river banks.  The city's first "interior bath" did not open until 1901; governmental red tape miring the process.  

New Yorkers at a typical floating bath.  Domestic Engineer, October 19, 1912 (copyright expired)
Following the opening of the Rivington Street baths on the Lower East Side that year, the project gained momentum.  On November 24, 1903 plans were filed for two new interior baths at Nos. 538 and 430 East 11th Street, and Nos. 232 and 234 West 60th Street.  Both would cost the city $115,000 to build--more than $3 million in 2017 dollars. 

While the Upper West Side above the 60s was still a relatively new district with, mostly, fine homes and modern amenities; the neighborhood chosen for the baths was decidedly gritty.  Known as San Juan Hill (the origin of the nickname is unclear), it was a dangerous and crime-ridden area  mostly populated by poverty-stricken blacks.

Architects Werner & Windolph designed the structure, which reminded the visitor of the ancient Roman history of public baths.  Essentially Beaux Arts, the facade was splashed with ancient Roman elements.  Classical entrances--one for men and the other for women--were capped by triangular pediments.  The large arched openings exhibited Roman-style cross-hatching, and ancient boats overflowing with gruesome sea beasts carved from limestone protruded at the top of the rusticated brick piers.

Men entered on the left, women on the right.  Domestic Engineer, October 19, 1912 (copyright expired)

Perhaps surprisingly, given the seamy neighborhood, extra expense went into the elaborate brickwork--Flemish bond on the first floor, herringbone panels below the openings, and intricate diapering that resulted in a diamond pattern effect.


When the building was later extended through the block to West 59th Street, Werner & Windolf gave that elevation a starkly-different neo-Tudor facade that smacked of a firehouse.

The West 60th Street Interior Baths was remarkably different than its predecessors--it contained a plunge, or what today would be called a swimming pool.  Earlier, bathtubs and plunges had been prohibited for health purposes.

The pool here measured 66 feet by 25 feet with a sloping bottom that ran from three feet deep to seven.  Even more remarkable, according to Domestic Engineering, it was heated to a temperature of between 70 and 75 degrees.  It was open to men and women on alternating nights.

Although the atmosphere of the "plunge" was rather utilitarian, it was nonetheless an innovation.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Christian Advocate, in remarking on the trend of public baths on July 25, 1912 reported "This bath is noted for its great swimming pool, the tank of which holds 85,000 gallons of water, every drop of which is filtered, and no bather is permitted to enter the plunge without first taking a precautionary shower.  Thus there is small danger of contamination, and it is as clean as any private bath tub."  The water was completely changed three times a day.

The West 60th Street Interior Baths became, because of the pool, not merely a place for bathing, but for fun and athletics.  "The pool is largely patronized by the boys from neighboring schools," said The Christian Advocate, "who enter into all manner of water contests, and perform some truly remarkable 'stunts,' as, seated upon imaginary horses, which are in reality barrels having wooden heads attached, and gaily decked out in colored calico trappings, they dash back and forth in the water, using long poles to steady themselves, evading attacks and thrust, and boy who remains longest upon his mount of course winning the contest."


Patrons entered directly into waiting rooms where they sat on long benches awaiting their turn.  Also on the first floor were "bath cabinets," or showers.  Tiny dressing rooms contained hooks for clothing and a small marble seat.  Originally, soap and towels were provided "at a minimal charge;" but when  housewives made a habit of pinning the towels inside their skirts and spiriting them home, the practice was halted.

The Sun reported on the success of the interior baths project on July 15, 1906.  Its description of the West 60th Street facility can only be described today as shockingly racist.   "Best of all the present interior bathhouses is that at West Sixtieth street between Amsterdam and Eleventh avenues.  It is the newest of the half dozen in operation, and when it was opened the public bath officials thought it would prove a resort for the colored population that congregates thereabouts.

"Instead of that, it is rare to see one person of color there.  The bath is patronized principally by Hebrews and Italians, with the former in the lead.  Bath records show the Hebrew to be the best patron of the New York public baths, with the Italian a fairly good second."

Operating the baths was not inexpensive.  The City paid a total of $21,825 in salaries and wages for the 60th Street staff in 1910--more than half a million dollars in 2017.  But the outlay paid for more than public cleanliness and boys having a good time.  For years the pool would be the venue for public school swimming meets and for money-producing exhibitions.

One of those exhibitions caused extreme disappointment.  On April 29, 1907 Annette Kellermann, the world championship Australian swimmer, was to appear here.  But she was a no-show.

The New York Times reported "A large number of spectators, among whom were many women, had assembled and they waited patiently until nearly 11 o'clock, when the announcement that Miss Kellerman had apparently changed her plans ended their weary waiting around the tank."

To mollify the crowd, an impromptu 60-yard swimming race had been put on, and Paul Roetger, former fancy diving champion of Germany showed off his talents.  In an unexpected breach of Edwardian deportment, the restless crowd "amused itself by jeering the swimmers."

Annette Kellermann made up for the offense by appearing a month later.  Making a point that she "will give exhibitions in only four or five American cities," she appeared on May 4.  The Times announced the day before that a "special programme has been arranged for the evening."

Annette Kellerman attempted to swim the English Channel in 1905, two years before appearing here.  from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.

In 1912 at least 1,400 bathers, "mostly young boys," according to The Sun, went to the pool daily.  The open dressing rooms with the exposed hooks for clothing proved easy pickings for thieves.  On July 16 the newspaper noted that thefts "have become so common that the attendants make no attempt to keep count of them."

A. B. Carman, a teacher in the Y.M.C.A. on West 125th Street returned to his compartment to find that not only had his $95 been taken, so had his trousers.  The Sun complained "If there is no money they take a garment or a pair of shoes."

The City was aware of the problem and that same month the Record and Guide announced that bids were being taken for "construction and erection of new doors to all shower rooms, tub rooms and dressing compartments."

The baths continued to host swimming contests for years.  On January 25, 1920, for instance, The Sun reported "The 100 yard metropolitan swimming championship for women, scheduled to be held in the Interior Bath at Sixtieth street" would launch the 1920 season "in water sports for mermaids."

Another champion to visit was Hungarian-born American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller.  In announcing the Municipal Athletic Activities' swimming meet scheduled for March 31, 1922, The New York Herald promised "One of the features of the occasion will be the appearance of John Weissmuller, the season's swimming marvel and world's title holder."

Despite his astonishing career as a championship swimmer, Weissmuller would be remembered as Tarzan. from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Although he was one of the world's fastest swimmers in the 1920s, earning five Olympic gold medals; he would be better remembered for his screen role as Tarzan, starting in 1932.

Another Olympic champion who had no doubt used the pool was Gertrude Ederle.  Born nearby, her father ran a butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue, according to her biography America's Girl.  Following her successful swim across the English Channel in 1926 (a feat which eluded Annette Kellermann 11 years earlier), the girl from a humble Upper West Side home was given a ticker tape parade on Broadway.

Gertrude Ederle, the "Queen of the Waves," received a parade down the Canyon of Heroes on August 27, 1926.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

By the time of the Great Depression the West 60th Street Interior Bath had suffered from constant use.  The Works Progress Administration closed the building in June 1938 for renovations.  The project not only provided necessary updating and repair, but gave jobs to unemployed workers.  It was most likely at this time that the Men's entrance was removed; its scar seamlessly hidden.

The renovated pool was used for a combined effort by the Department of Parks, the United Merchant Seamen's Service, and the Seamen's Church Institute in 1943.  The New York Times reported on February 20, "A learn-to-swim campaign for merchant seamen will be started tomorrow," and noted "The three agencies urged every seaman to learn this live-saving art, and pointed out there would be no charge for admission...or for instruction."


In 2013 the West 60th Street bath building opened after extensive renovations as the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, including an addition to the east designed by Belmont Freeman.  The last relic of early 20th century architecture on the block, the original facade survives handsomely intact.

photographs by the author

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Lost Woolworth Mansion -- 990 Fifth Avenue



Architecture Magazine, 1901 (copyright expired)
At the turn of the 20th century Frank Winfield Woolworth had come a long way from his family's farm in Rodman, New York.   He told a reporter "We were so poor that I never knew what it was to have an overcoat in that terribly cold climate.  One pair of cowhide boots lasted a year, or rather six moths, for the other six months I went barefoot."


Woolworth left home at the age of 21, venturing to Watertown, New York, where he convinced the owner of the dry goods store Augsbury & Moore to allow him to work free for three months.  After that he received $3.50 a week--the exact amount he was paying for his room at a boarding house.   By 1878 the 26-year old was earning $10 a week.

It was that year that the store where he was working installed a revolutionary marketing concept:  a five-cent counter.  Woolworth took the idea farther.  A year later he opened his first store in Utica, New York with $350 worth of goods purchased on a note endorsed by his father.  The store failed, but Woolworth was undaunted.

By the time of the interview there were several hundred Woolworth stores--all selling items prices at five or ten cents--and F. W. Woolworth was a wealthy man.  In 1886 he had relocated his headquarters to New York City and in 1890 moved his family into a brownstone house at No. 209 Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn.

Woolworth had married Jennie Creighton on June 11, 1876.  They had three daughters, Helena, Jessie and Edna.  It may have been the girls' rapidly approaching the ages when they would be introduced to society--and potential husbands--that prompted the Woolworths' move to Manhattan.

Whether that was the impetus or not, in December 1898 Woolworth paid Louis Stern $175,000 for the north corner of Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, a plot 27 feet wide on the avenue, stretching 110 feet down 80th Street.  The price of the site alone would amount to more than $5 million today.

Woolworth commissioned architect Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert (known professionally as C. P. H. Gilbert) to design his opulent new home.  The millionaire may have been inspired by the mansion of Isaac D. Fletcher one block to the south, designed by Gilbert and completed that same year.  The two French Gothic chateaux would bear striking similarities.

In June 1899 construction was well underway and a comment in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide that month gave a hint of the luxury the family would enjoy.  The Ellithorpe Safety Air-Cushion Co., reported the article, would be installing its air cushions at the bottom of the elevator shafts in the mansion.

Construction on the five-story residence took two years.  The family made the move from Brooklyn to Fifth Avenue in 1901.  Opening onto 80th Street, their new home was adorned with stone balconies (the heavy brackets of which at the fourth floor took the shape of gruesome winged gargoyles), delicate carvings around and above the openings, and curved bays.  The top floor detonated with elaborate dormers, gables, iron cresting and chimneys.  Spiky finials rose nearly the full story's height, ornate urns perched upon pedestals and even the chimneys wore spiny Gothic-style crowns.

The often-acerbic architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler was pleased with the finished product.  Included in his praise he said "On the long front, too, the wall is of a grateful restfulness and solidity, while the design and distribution of the dormers and chimneys animate the sky line and prevent the quietness from becoming monotonous."

photo by Wurts Bros.  Architecture magazine, 1901 (copyright expired)

Inside. the marble clad ground floor was little-used by the family.  Other than the Billiard Room (which looked onto Central Park) and the Smoking Room, it was given over to more utilitarian purposes--the kitchen, pantries and Servants' Sitting Room, for instance.  Also on this level was the "Serving Room," connected to the Butler's Pantry and Dining Room above by a back staircase.

Also on the second floor were the conservatory, or "Palm Garden," the Drawing Room, and the large Music Room where Frank Woolworth would play the Aeolian organ himself.  

The Music Room was decidedly French in style.  Woolworth was unusual among millionaires in that he played the organ himself.  photo by Wurts Bros. Architecture magazine 1901 (copyright expired)

The third floor housed the master bedroom, a guest bedroom, the library and the "Den."  The girls' bedrooms were located one floor above; and the servants' quarters in the top level.

Just three years after the family moved in, Helena was married to former Assistant District Attorney Charles E. F. McCann.  It was most likely the groom's education at St. Francis Xavier College that resulted in the wedding being held not in a fashionable Fifth Avenue church; but in St. Francis Xavier's Church on West 16th Street.  Nevertheless, according to The Tammany Times on April 23, 1904, "more than a thousand guests were present" in the church.

Helena's sisters were among the wedding party, Edna serving as maid of honor and Jessie as a bridesmaid.  Afterwards more than 500 guests filed into the Fifth Avenue mansion for the reception.

Like other forward-thinking millionaires at the time, Frank W. Woolworth was upgrading from horse-drawn carriages to motorcars.  And also like many of them, the transition caused him problems.

In October 1904 chauffeur John Ballard was driving the two Woolworth daughters along Riverside Drive when a bicycle policeman stopped him for speeding.  The speed limit was eight miles per hour; Officer McLoughlin estimated Ballard's speed at 20 mph.

When the chauffeur appeared before the judge on October 18, he did not hold back his contempt of the law; asserting that Jennie Woolworth's car was too powerful to maintain the speed limit.

"Every driver of a big automobile in the city violates the law every time he uses his machine," he complained.  "He can't help it, for the machines are not built to run as slowly as eight miles an hour; at least mine isn't."

The judge was not moved and held Ballard for trial.
A year and a half later Ballard would be stopped again, this time driving Woolworth himself.   The chauffeur was arrested and locked up.  When he appeared before Magistrate Crane on March 12, 1906, Woolworth was in the courtroom.

When the judge told the policeman that "he should have arrested the owner, instead of the chauffeur," Woolworth chimed in, saying he did not think the automobile was going as fast as the officer contended.

"Of course you don't," snapped Crane, "You automobilists never do know how fast you are going.  You go as fast as you please, and toot your horn, and if any one escapes you by the skin of his teeth you give him the laugh.  Nothing would please you automobilists so much as a machine that would go so fast that you could go by a policeman or any one else and not be seen by them."

No doubt unaccustomed to being publicly berated, the dime store mogul paid Ballard's $300 bail and left.

The Woolworth mansion would be the scene of another wedding reception on April 24, 1907.  Edna was married to Franklyn Laws Hutton in the Church of the Heavenly Rest that afternoon.   The wealthy groom was a partner in the banking firm of E. F. Hutton & Co.

Now 21-year old Jessie was the last daughter in the house.  The following March, with her parents out of town, she suffered a fright.  She was awakened from a sound sleep early on the morning of Saturday, March 21, 1907.  The Sun reported "At 1:45 o'clock, Miss Woolworth awoke and heard Margaret Burns, the cook, yelling for the police, the firemen, and the saints in her room below Miss Woolworth's one flight down.  The cook, it seemed, had been awakened by a noise and had turned on the light to find a man's two legs advancing through her window."

When Margaret screamed, the would-be burglar retreated.  The hysterical cook rushed to the window to see "a man was running away through the back area trailing a rope with a hook on the end."

The more composed Jessie telephoned police who investigated the scene, finding a dirty glove the crook had left on Margaret's window sill.  The thief, it turned out, had nerves of steel.  Even as the detectives were searching the Woolworth house, a report came in that he had been scared off from No. 1045 Fifth Avenue.  Before daybreak he had broken into four other nearby mansions.

On February 1, 1912 Jessie's wedding to James Paul Donahue took place in the Woolworth residence.  The New York Times noted that after the reception, "Mr. and Mrs. Donahue left on a two months' bridal trip, which will extend through Canada to California.  Upon their return they will reside in this city."

Not only would they reside in the city, they would be neighbors of Jessie's parents and sisters.  In 1911 F. W. Woolworth embarked on an ambitious and generous building project for his three daughters.  C. P. H. Gilbert was hired once again to design three lavish homes for the women and their husbands at Nos. 2 through 6 East 80th Street.  The last would be completed in 1915.

The following year Gilbert designed Woolworth's palatial summer estate, Winfield Hall, in Glen Cove, Long Island.  

Frank Winfield Woolworth -- photo via Associated Press
The lavish lifestyle within the Manhattan and Long Island homes was evidenced in 1916 when 21-year old Joseph Dowden, the "second butler," was arrested for attempted grand larceny of the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Despite his young age, Dowden came to the Woolworths with impressive credentials.  He had worked for, among others, Mrs. Ogden Goelet, William K Vanderbilt, and William Rockefeller.
Nevertheless, other servants reported that Dowden was seen trying to open the safes, one of which contained Jennie Woolworth's gold table service.  It had been purchased in France for $30,000.  The silverware in the same safe was valued at $10,000.  (The total value would equal about $891,000 today.)

Joseph Dowden was remarkably well dressed when he was arrested on Sunday, November 12.  The New York Times reported that he "wore a silk shirt, silk tie, and a brown velour hat."  Astonishingly, all the items he had on were identified as belonging to Woolworth.

Massive wealth could not prevent tragedy and heartache.  On May 2, 1917 Edna, only 33 years old, died when an ear infection lead to a fatal heart attack.  And Woolworth's wife, Jennie, was suffering early dementia.

The following year, on June 7, Frank Woolworth petitioned the Supreme Court to declare Jennie incompetent.  The petition said that it was "to his very great regret and sadness" that the proceedings were necessary.  Although Jennie was just 65-years old, her physician of 12 years, Dr. George W. Jarman, said she had been incompetent for the past two years.  She was not insane, he explained, "but has lost her mentality, due to a pre-senile condition."

The New-York Tribune reported "She has been unable to recognize [Woolworth] or her daughters.  Her condition, according to the physician, is such as is common in people ninety years old.  There is no hope for her recovery."

Towards the end of 1918 Frank Woolworth's health began to fail.  When he had not improved by Friday, April 4, 1919, his doctors decided to move him to Winfield Hall where the fresh spring air might help.  Jennie, unable to understand what was going on, was kept at home at No. 990 Fifth Avenue.

The following week The Potter & Glass Salesman reported "The famous merchant failed to respond to medical treatment and members of his family were called."  On Monday night he slipped into unconsciousness and died at 1:50 Tuesday morning, April 8, five days before his 67th birthday.  The boy who had spent six months of the year shoeless died the head of a $65 million corporation and the owner of the tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building (which he personally paid for).

Of his more than $27 million estate Jennie inherited more than $6 million in Woolworth stocks, the Fifth Avenue mansion and Winfield Hall, along with other items.   Because of her mental condition, her holdings were placed into trust for her care, managed by Woolworth Company president Hubert T. Parsons.

On January 15, 1920 an exhibition prior to the sale of the mansion's furnishings and artwork was held at the Silo Galleries.  The New York Times mentioned "The house was a big one, 990 Fifth Avenue, corner of Eightieth Street, and the contents are notable chiefly, in this age of devotion to antiques, because they are modern."  Among the few items which did not fall into that category was the 17th century Beauvais tapestry, "The Fruit of the Fields."

Banker Jules S. Bache had paid a $20,000 deposit against the $460,000 selling price of the Woolworth mansion on January 9, 1920.  Two months later he took Hubert T. Parsons to court in an attempt to get his binder back.  His suit said that the house encroached past the property lines both on Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, making the title "unmarketable."
Two years later the issue had not been resolve and Parsons counter-sued, "seeking to compel the banker to carry out a contract for the purchase," as explained by the Record & Guide on March 4, 1922.  The Supreme Court dismissed the action.

The mansion remained unsold when Jennie Creighton Woolworth died in Winfield Hall at the age of 71 on May 21, 1924.   The following year, on June 9, it was sold a public auction to a two-person syndicate of Elias A. Cohen and Sewart W. Ehrich, who bid $385,000.  Interestingly, The Times noted "It was sold subject to the approval of the Supreme Court of the State of New York as to the rights of an infant co-owner, Barbara Hutton, a granddaughter of the late F. W. Woolworth."
The same month that the mansion was sold, this photograph was taken.  While the block was still lined with mansions, that was all about to change.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.
The newspaper added "The new owners plan to demolish the present building and to improve the plot with a fifteen-story high-class apartment house with one eight-room suite on each floor."  The auctioneer noted that the purchase by the developers "is an added indication that the day when Fifth Avenue was a private residential district is forever gone.  The lack of individual bidders clearly demonstrates this."

photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On the site of the Woolworth mansion rose the apartment building named 990 Fifth Avenue; co-designed by Rosario Candela and Warren & Wetmore.  It survives today with still merely six apartments in the building.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The 1826 Livingston House - No. 149 Mercer Street



Add caption
In 1826 Robert Schuyler completed construction on a three-and-a-half story residence in the late Federal style at No. 149 Mercer Street.  Faced in Flemish bond red brick, it was similar to other comfortable dwellings appearing on the block between Prince and Houston Streets.

It is doubtful that Schuyler and his wife, the former Lucinda Wood, ever lived in the house; but built it as an investment.  Born into one of the oldest and wealthiest New York families (Philip Pieterse Schuyler had arrived by 1650), Robert's relatives were the Livingstons, DeLanceys, Van Cortlandts and Van Rensselaers.

Nevertheless, the residence was intended for a financially-comfortable family.  The entrance, above a shallow porch, was most likely flanked by fluted columns; and above the paneled door would have been a leaded transom, possibly in the form of a fanlight.  The stone lintels sat on delightful little paneled blocks and two neat dormers with triangular pediments pierced the peaked roof.  The 25-foot wide residence boasted 14 rooms--presumably four each on the main floors and two in the attic.

The architect added tiny paneled blocks below the lintels--a handsome touch.

By the 1850s the tenor of the neighborhood was drastically changing.  Greene Street, one block to the east, had gained the reputation of Manhattan's most notorious red light district.  Change would come to No. 149 Mercer Street when its owner died in 1855.

The former upscale tone of house and the neighborhood was evidenced when auctioneer William Witters advertised the sale of the residence and its contents, to be held at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 19 that year.  He described "all the genteel household furniture, &c., in the above house--splendid carved rosewood parlor suits, mirrors, centre and side tables, window curtains, elegant carpets &c.; together with the furniture of fourteen rooms, all in good order."

The original joined chimneys survive.  photo via Preservinc.com

According to historian and preservationist Angela Serratore in her 2013 thesis "A Preservationist's Guide to the Harems, Seraglios, and Houses of Love of Manhattan: The 19th Century New York City Brothel in Two Neighborhoods," No. 149 Mercer Street became the brothel run by "Mrs. Van Ness."

Apparently Mrs. Van Ness operated in the house at least until 1859.  On June 27, 1862 it was offered "To let, at a low rent, with immediate possession."  The advertisement in The New York Herald boasted a "large yard, &c.; two entrances; one room convenient for a bar."

Madame Bell picked up where Mrs. Van Ness had left off.  Her name was brought up in court on February 17, 1864 when Sara R. Melville sued her husband, Henry, for divorce.

The couple has been married in February 1858; but Henry soon drifted.  The New York Times reported that Sara alleged he "has been in the habit of visiting a house of ill-fame at No. 149 Mercer-street, in this City, where he had committed various acts of adultery with one Mme. Bell and others."

Because Henry denied the charges, the scandalous details were aired in open court.  Readers of The Times could only speculate, however.  The newspaper said "the evidence is unfit for publication."

The Melville trial was not the first time the brothel had made the news.  A year earlier, on October 24, 1863 The New York Herald reported that a client had been robbed.  The newspaper used a nearly-comical euphemism to avoid saying outright that the victim was visiting a prostitute.

"James McClusky complained, before Justice Kelly, that while taking a peep at the elephant, in No. 149 Mercer street, on Thursday evening, he was relieved of his gold watch and chain, valued at $85.  He had grave suspicions as to the honesty of one of the lady boarders named Margaret J. Murphy."

Margaret had most likely felt secure in her crime.  Few victims reported such thefts for fear of the public scandal that would follow.  But she had lifted a rather pricey watch, the value of which would be around $1,675 today.  The Sun reported "The magistrate thought Margaret's movements smacked of dishonesty, and committed her for trial in default of $500 bail."

Prostitutes and scandals seem to have left No. 149 Mercer Street by 1871 when it was being operated as a boarding house.  On July 10 that year the proprietor advertised for "A good cook, middle aged woman preferred, for a private boarding house; will get a good home and liberal salary."

The venture was apparently short-lived.  On December 13 that year and auction was held, selling "the entire elegant, costly Furniture of a three story house, consisting of Velvet and Brusels Carpets, Parlor Suits, Bedsteads, Bedding, Hair Mattresses, Mirrors, &c."

It was the end of the line for No. 149 Mercer Street as a residential property.  C. Weisenstein was selling "saloon fixtures" here by 1876.  And in 1880 three businesses filled the former house.

Albert and Gustave Herzig operated their furrier business here.  Possibly father and son, they both lived at No. 309 East 56th Street.  The artificial flower making shop of Aline Lauretzi was on the second floor; and the clothing firm of Kolasky & Pottitzer occupied the main floor.  Abram and August Pottitzer, and their partner Fred Kolasky, sold hats, pants and "pantaloons."

It was most likely Kolasky & Pottizer who placed an advertisement that year for "experienced hands wanted on bead work; good pay."  Aline Lauretzi was hiring at the same time.  On September 7, 1880 an ad read "Artificial Flowers--Wanted, a young man who understands cutting and starching."  Five months later an advertisement in The Sun sought "Good hands on roses, buds, blossom; work given out; good wages."  The mention of "work given out" referred to the practice of workers--normally women--who did piece work in their homes.

A change in tenants came by 1885 when H. Schoenfeld and S. Schoenfeld sold "millinery fixtures" here; and M. Feigel & Bro. operated from the basement and lower floors.  Originally M. Feigel & Bro. dealt in paints and oils used for building purposes--coloring mortar, for example.

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 27, 1885 (copyright expired)

Before long the firm branched out, importing and manufacturing "colors, dye-stuffs, varnishes, bleaching agents" and other chemicals necessary in the production of hats.  The Millinery Trade Review mentioned in January 1889 "They have all the dyes, chemicals, colors, anilines, alcohols, acids, salts varnishes, etc., etc., needed and used by manufacturers of straw goods, feathers, and flowers.

The chemicals and products used were highly flammable and dangerous.  Millinery Trade Review, January 1889 (copyright expired)

The combustible stock caught fire in September 1887, and again two months later.  This time it caused a near panic along Mercer Street.  On November 5  The New York Times reported "A fire broke out at 6 o'clock last evening in the cellar of the building 149 Mercer-street, occupied by Feigel & Brother, dealers in oils, paints, and varnishes.  It was caused by the ignition of benzine,, and a cloud of dense smoke rushed out into the street."

Next door was the feather factory of J. Weill & Co., where 50 young women were working; and the furrier shop of Lyon Brothers where another 100 were at work.  "When the girls heard of the fire and saw the smoke they imagined that the buildings where they are employed were on fire and they became panic-stricken and rushed for the stairs."  Supervisors reassured the women that there was no danger and sent them back to their places.

A bizarre incident involving the theft of six barrels of oil from M. Feigel & Bro. occurred in December 1889.  By an amazing fluke, a Feigel employee was passing by the home of Union Hill, New Jersey Councilman Daniel Sturm and noticed the politician with two of the barrels.  He notified police and Sturm was arrested.

The councilman's alibi was suspicious.  The Times wrote "Mr. Sturm says that he received the barrels innocently.  His wife gave a stranger permission to leave the oil under his shed."  According to him, she he found out about it, he "immediately started to roll the barrels into the street."  That was when he was spotted.

No. 149 was owned at the time by Louise E. Monnot, who had inherited it from George Ponsot.   Like George, who lived in Paris, Louise was an absentee landlord, residing in London.  Her attorneys, the Coudert Brothers, managed the property.

M. Feigel & Bro. was gone from Mercer Street by the turn of the century.  By now No. 149 was a stark anachronism, surrounded by tall loft buildings.  By 1913 the Forest Box and Lumber Co. had moved into the first floor; and in 1915 the Dorothy Waist Company, run by Max Goldberg, was on an upper story.

Goldberg's operation would supply the break into a scandalous arson and theft scheme following a fire on June 25, 1915.   When Lieutenant Gibney from the nearby Fire Truck Company 20 responded with his men, he found that the doors to Dorothy Waist Company had already been broken into.

After the blaze was extinguished, Goldberg realized that $800 worth of custom silk and $400 worth of cutting machinery were missing.  The pattern of the silk was unique; so when it was found in the tailor shop of Simon Lidz on Orchard Street, it was easily identified.  According to The Evening World, Lidz "asserts he had for years bought loot from firemen of Truck No. 20 and from those of another company."

Two firefighters, John P. S. Ferrick and William Maloney, were indicted on charges of burglary and grand larceny.  The pair would break into businesses, steal goods, then set the buildings on fire to hide the crimes.

In 1918 the Couderts engaged architect Ellwood Williams to do $1,800 in renovations.  It is possibly at this time that a large opening was broken into the first floor wall for the box and lumber company.

Two years later the estate of Louise E. Monnot sold the building to its tenant of five years, the Forest Box and Lumber Company.  The asking price, $22,500, would be equal to about $266,000 today.  The firm changed its name to the Mercer Box and Lumber Company by 1922.  It would remain in the building, producing pine boxes like those used for fruit, into the 1960s.

The change in Soho from a gritty industrial neighborhood to one of art galleries, artists' lofts and performance venues began in the last quarter of the 20th century.  In 1978 No. 149 Mercer Street was converted to "joint living-work quarters for artists;" just one per floor.

By 1986 the Ubu Reportory Theatre was using the ground floor; and in 1991 the Bullot Gallery was here, sharing space with After the Rain, a trendy gift shop which opened in December 1989.  An opening advertisement said it featured "New York's most extensive collection of kaleidoscopes and optical toys."

Prior to the restoration the dormers were in sorry repair and the fascia board below the roofline had fallen away.  photo via Preservinc.com

In 2003 a facade restoration was completed by preservation architects Preserv.  The brickwork and dormers were repaired, new period-appropriate wooden windows were installed, and a synthetic slate roof installed.

After nearly 200 years the miraculous survivor is a reminder of a time when this stretch of Mercer Street was lined with merchant-class homes; and of a less respectable period when ladies of the night snatched valuables from their unwitting clients.

photographs by the author

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Cornelia Dike House - No. 648 West 158th Street



A Google Street View in 2016 shows the house in a sorry state of repair.
In the 18th century the land far north of the city--areas which would later earn the names Washington Heights, Harlem and Harlem Heights, for instance--was dotted with farms and the country estates of the wealthy, like the elegant Georgian mansion of Roger Morris (known today as the Morris-Jumel Mansion).

The area's refreshing breezes and hilly geography continued to lure wealthy residents for decades following the Revolution.  In 1841 renowned naturalist and illustrator James John Audubon purchased 20 acres of the former estate of British Colonel John Maunsell, which had been enlarged by his nephew John Watkins.  Audubon erected a home here where he lived with his family until his death in January 1851.

Audubon's widow, Lucy, left the estate in 1854 and rented the house.  When she died in 1874 at the age of 86 the area was still sparsely developed.  But that began to change as improvements in public transportation inched northward.  By the mid 1880s rowhouses appeared around what was now known as Audubon Park and within a decade development was in full swing.

In 1896 architect John P. Leo got in on the trend, buying eight plots along West 158th Street from another architect, August W. Cordes.  Acting as his own developer, Leo designed the houses in a nearly-balanced A-B-B-A-A-B-B-C plan.  Why No. 648 stood starkly apart from the otherwise symmetrical row is puzzling.


Two years later Leo added to the string when merchant John Lilliendahl hired him to design Nos. 626 through 632.  Once again Leo created matching pairs, although they had little in common with his earlier row.

The houses were intended for well-to-do families and, in fact, August Cordes purchased No. 634.  The family of Walter Stabler, controller of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, moved into No. 648--the end house that refused to conform.

Because a narrow drive abutted the property, it was the most desirable home on the row, with sunlight on three sides.  Leo took advantage of the exposed side elevation by adding two handsome projecting bays.  The brown brick facade was ornamented with Georgian style elements: an elaborate triangular pediment over the entrance, supported by fluted, engaged Corinthian columns; openings at the second story grouped in a Palladium-like arrangement and surmounted by an elegant swan-necked pediment, and double keystones in the stone lintels of the third floor.  Unusual brick quoins ran up the sides.  Neo-classical garlands pressed into the cornice frieze mimicked those above the second floor windows.

Delicate 18th century-inspired details survive despite the structure's horrific abuse.

Walter Stabler and his wife, Clara, had three children.  Clara seems to have had a small fortune of her own and was listed as a major stockholder of the Metropolitan Bank.   Living with them in the house was a nurse and a cook.

Well-respected in the insurance and real estate industries, The National Civic Review said of him, "In his position in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Mr. Stabler is one of the largest and most scientific lenders of mortgage money in the world and possesses an extraordinarily broad knowledge of real estate conditions."

In the meantime, Cornelia A. Dike was also involved, to a degree, in real estate.  Although she had graduated from Vassar in 1879 and pursued a career in education, she was a director in the real estate firm of Oscar D. and Herbert V. Dike.  Neither she nor her sister, Alice had married and they shared in the estate of their father, Henry A. Dike.

Born in 1825 in Providence, Dike became involved in the wool business in New York City with Joseph Ripley.  He and his brothers, James P. and Camden C., subsequently formed the firm of Dike Brothers, woolen merchants.  At the time of his death on July 20, 1887 he had established a sizeable fortune, was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and a Director of the Chatham National Bank.

Alice lived on Washington Square; but Cornelia, known familiarly as Nina, was a bit more parsimonious.  By 1921 she was living in No. 648 West 158th Street and renting rooms.  On February 27 that year she advertised "Well furnished, large room, suitable for business lady; $50 monthly."

The rent, equal to more than $650 a month today, reflected the still-upscale tenor of the neighborhood.  And despite the fact that groups of houses all around were rapidly being demolished for modern apartment buildings, the row that included Cornelia's home remained intact.

When Alice did in 1930 she left an estate of over $100,000, just under $1.5 million today.  She either felt Cornelia had enough money or the two were not getting along well; for her will divided the estate equally between the League of Nations Non-Partisan Association and Smith College.  Cornelia received $1,000 and "personal effects."

Cornelia had six boarders living with her at the time.  She nevertheless continued her position as socialite and hostess.  On May 16, 1934 she opened her gardens to the Vassar Club's city garden tour.  The other two gardens visited that day were those of the wealthy Mrs. Walter Ewing Hope and Mrs. Richard Billings.

On September 5, 1943 the garden was the scene of a tea in honor of poet Mark Van Doren, who read from his writings.  In reporting on the event, The New York Times noted "Miss Dike's garden has been combined with those of several neighbors along 158th Street to provide the last reminder of Audubon Park, where until a few years ago stood the home of John James Audubon."

The article mentioned another former estate, now gone.  "The party took place a few yards from the site of the house where Lady Randolph Churchill, American-born mother of Prime Minster Winston Churchill, lived for a while as a child, Jennie Jerome."

Little notice was paid when Cornelia A. Dike died in the house on January 25, 1947.  A one-line obituary merely informed readers that the funeral would be held there two days later.

Cornelia's death foreshadowed a major change to the once-elegant home.  Later that year Daisy Saunders paid $12,000 cash for the property and in 1955 it was converted to furnished rooms with a "community kitchen" on the top floor.

In January 2017 the house is gutted and renovations begun.  The tiny street at the side was possibly the carriage drive of the former Wheelock estate.

The remainder of the 20th century was not kind, and by around 2000 the house sat vacant.  Squatters and vandals broke in and twice fire damaged the home.  In 2009 the Landmarks Preservation Commission laid out the boundaries for the Audubon Park Historic District, which astoundingly stopped just feet short of including the surviving row that included No. 648 West 158th Street.

That same year the house was put on the market for $895,000.  With no takers, the price was lowered to $759,000 in 2010.  Eventually Cornelia Dike's house, where society teas were served in the garden, was purchased and in 2016 plans were filed to convert it to a two-family residence.

Despite their obvious abuse, the survival of the homes along the row is astonishing.

Despite the puzzling snub by the LPC, John P. Leo's row survives as a reminder when private homes sprung up around Audubon Park.  In January 2017 No. 648 is gutted and, without landmark designation, the owners are not obligated to preserve its architectural integrity.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Steve Smith for requesting this post

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fanelli Cafe - No. 94 Prince Street


As the 18th century drew to a close, New York City was encroaching northward into former estates and farmland.  Some of them, like the property of wealthy loyalist James DeLancey, had been confiscated after their owners had been banished.

In 1797 a new street was laid out, running more-or-less east-west.  The land was owned by the Bayard family; having been deeded to Nicholas Bayard (nephew of Peter Stuyvesant) by the British Government in 1697.  Oddly enough, just 14 years after New Yorkers celebrated the evacuation of the British, it was given the name Prince Street.

By the 1820s the neighborhood had filled with brick-faced Federal style homes.  But the respectable tone of the district quickly declined.  By mid-century Greene and Mercer Streets were the center of Manhattan's red light district.

A small wooden house and store was located at the southwest corner of Prince and Mercer  in 1846.  The following year it was leased to 31-year old German immigrant Herman Gerken.  Gerken and his German wife, Anna, lived upstairs.  The couple would have four children, Anna, Henry, Maria (or Mary) and Theodore (called Gath). 

In 1853 Gerken purchased the property, and five years later replaced it with a handsome five-story Italianate structure of red brick.   The openings were given brownstone sills and lintels.  A cast metal cornice with paneled frieze and foliate brackets completed the design. Gerken's saloon, which he euphemistically listed as "grocery," was in the ground floor space.

The Gerken family moved into the building, as did other renters.  One was a Mrs. Eldridge, who it seems, gave birth to an unwanted child in 1860.  On July 23, 1861 she placed an advertisement in The New York Herald in an attempt to find what today would be termed a foster family.

Board Wanted--For a Child Fifteen Months old--Inquire of Mrs. Eldridge, No. 94 Prince street, corner of Mercer, between 9 o'clock A.M. and 4 o'clock P.M.  None but American or Scotch need apply.

John Gerken worked in the saloon by 1863.  On the evening of March 3, three men briefly stopped in, paying with a $5 note.   Just weeks before the Government passed the National Currency Act establishing the Federal dollar, states and territories still printed their own notes.  This one was issued by The Highland Bank of Hudson City, New Jersey.

Except that it wasn't.

On March 6 The New York Times reported that a "well-concocted" counterfeit ring had been broken.  "About thirty of these notes were passed off upon shopkeepers and various retail dealers, in the neighborhood of Greene, Spring, Prince and Broome streets before the fraud was discovered."


The newspaper described the ringleader, George McDougal as a "well-dressed young man," who was "very prepossessing in his appearance, and, from his conversational powers, a man of education."  He appeared on March 5 at the Jefferson Market Police Court, where "he was confronted" by four complainants, including John Gerken.


In 1865 Adolph Hillon leased and operated the saloon.  He, his wife Mary, and their son George, lived upstairs.  Late on the night of October 13, 1865 George Hillon was visiting in the Gerken apartment.  Things got out of hand when Anna and her son, Henry, got into an argument.  The following day The New York Herald reported "by some unexplained means a pistol in the pantaloons pocket of the young man exploded, the ball lodging in his right thigh."

Infuriated, Henry pulled out the weapon and fired at his mother.  The bullet hit her in the face, lodging in her upper jaw.  In an apparent blind rage, he fired again, this time grazing George Hillon in the cheek.  "The fourth shot took effect in one of his own fingers," said the article.

Police soon arrived and took the parties to the station house.  The police surgeon was able to extract the ball from Henry's leg; but Anna was in much more serious condition.  She was taken to the New York Hospital.

Two days later The New York Herald reported that "the desperate young man arrested late on Friday night" had been arraigned on a charge of felonious assault and held on $1,500 bail.  Anna, "who is still lying in a dangerous condition at the New York Hospital," was unable to file charges, so George Hillon filed charges for not only for himself, but on her behalf.

At the time the downstairs saloon was listed in directories as a "porter house," a bar specializing in serving dark, porter beer.  In the neighborhood filled with brothels, its patrons would have been mostly working class immigrants more familiar with inexpensive beer than wine or spirits.

In the 19th century it was not the saloon owner, but whoever was on duty who was arrested for excise violations--most often serving liquor on Sundays.  Adolph Hillon was arrested, then arraigned at the Jefferson Market Courthouse on June 29, 1866.  His bail was set at $100, more than $1,500 today.

The following year, in February, William Smith was arrested for "exposing liquors for sale on the Sabbath."  His $300 bail made Hillon's seem affordable.

Herman Gerken's will left Anna "the use and profits of all my real and personal estate."  Each of the children received $1,500.  Although Maria was married when the estate was settled in 1867, she was still a minor; so the courts ruled she was "entitled to one-quarter of the amount, which must be paid to her husband, who is her general guardian."

Henry had opened his own saloon at No. 63 New Bowery by now.  But like his father he had problems with the Excise Board.  Finally, on November 26 that year, his liquor license was revoked.

Anna Gerken retained possession of the building; but she was apparently not interested in running the business.  On August 8, 1868 she placed an advertisement in The New York Herald.  "Oyster and Dining Saloon, with Private Supper Rooms for sale."

The upper floors had been operated as a boarding house; but while the Gerken family kept possession of the building, they left No. 94 Prince Street in 1870.  An auction was held on August 16 that year to liquidate the "boarding house and restaurant furniture."

Commerce had already begun taking over the Prince and Mercer Street neighborhood and the first of businesses within the upper rooms appeared in 1871 when Schmidlin & Driscoll, dealers in "lamps and reflections" were listed here.

Around the same time C. Richard and his partner ran an artificial flower manufacturing shop in the building.  On June 3, 1874 Richard looked to retire and offered a "splendid chance to make money--A businessman, with some cash, wanted, to take the place of a partner retiring, in a well paying business."

When he had no takers by September, he amended his advertisement.  "For Sale--A business in the artificial flowers line, cheap for cash; a competent man will remain to run the shop if desired."  He finally found a buyer in French immigrant Paul Madoule, who would be here into the 1890s.  The artificial flowers he made were indispensable for the millinery industry.

In 1878 Nicholas Gerdes took over operation of the saloon.   His liquor license in 1883 cost him $75, more than $1,800 in 2017 dollars.  It was most likely Gerdes who was responsible for the late Victorian saloon front that survives, with its exquisite etched and cut glass door panels.  His saloon would remain here until 1902.  More than a barkeeper, he dealt in neighborhood real estate as well; and in 1890 hired architect Julius Kastner to design alterations to his commercial building at No. 110 Washington Place.

In the transom above the splendid cut-and-etched glass doors, Nicholas Gerdes' name can still be seen.

Meanwhile the upper floors filled with apparel millinery and related firms.  In 1889 Frederick Oppenheimer headed Nusbaum & Oppenheimer, manufacturers of artificial flowers here; while the related company, Nusbaum & Co. made "straw and felt hats and bonnets" was also in the building.

On August 20, 1893 The New York Times reported "Soon after Frederick Oppenheimer's artificial flower factory, at 94 Prince Street, was closed yesterday smoke was seen coming from the upper window on the Prince Street side of the building."  Shortly after fire fighters arrived from the nearby Mercer Street station, the pumpers ran out of water.  A second alarm was ordered.

"When a full supply of water came it was the work of five minutes to get control of the flames, which had destroyed the roof and burned out the fourth and fifth floors," said the newspaper.  Oppenheimer's losses were estimated at between $20,000 and $25,000, and damages to the building were set at $4,000.

Cloak manufacturer Henry Neadel was in the repaired building by 1899.  That year, in July, his domestic problems became public when his wife, Bessie, sued him for "a limited divorce," $8 a week alimony and lawyer fees.  She accused her husband of "becoming infatuated with a model in his employ," neglecting her, and leaving her without means of support.  She said he "was taking the model round to theatres and other places of amusement and spending money lavishly upon her."


Neadel had another story.  He denied having an affair and said, "I never experienced a happy day with my wife since within a short time after our marriage, as she is possessed of an ungovernable temper and of a very disagreeable disposition, and has a great and abnormal avarice and desire for money."

Once he got started, he aired all the dirty laundry.  "My bed was not cleaned for months at a time, and my nights during the Summer were tortures to me and afforded me no sleep, because I had to lie awake fighting off bedbugs, all of which was the result of the neglect and carelessness of the plaintiff."

Neadel insisted his wife never cooked for him, but "would send to a delicatessen store and buy a roll, a little cheese, and a bottle of soda water;" the only meals he had for six months.  She would go through his pockets and take his money.  According to his testimony, when he asked for it back she would "scream in a loud voice 'Murderer!' and 'Stop hitting me!' so as to arouse the neighbors" and make then think he was abusing her.

Another apparel firm operating from the upper floors was furrier Pike & Rosenberg which remained until declaring bankruptcy in 1913.  By now Charles Hirschbein had succeeded Nicholas Gerdes in running the saloon; followed by Harry Green in 1905, who named it the Prince Cafe.  Business was substantially affected by Prohibition, which went into effect in January 1920.  In 1922 the Green family sold the business to Michael Fanelli.

The following year The New York Times reported on June 19 that Mrs. Anna C. H. Gerken had leased the "entire five-story building, 94 Prince Street," to the Nelson Dairy Lunch Company.  The article said the firm "will occupy same after extensive alterations are made" and noted "This building has been in this family and under one ownership for more than seventy years."

If the Nelson Dairy Lunch Company intended to install a luncheonette in the former barroom, it never came to pass.  And in 1928 Fanelli's employee Harry Bruns joined the long tradition of workers hauled off to jail.  He was fined $250 on November by Federal Judge William Bondy for possessing liquor.  The judge explained the substantial fine (nearly $3,500 today) saying "The question is one of observing or not observing the law.  Penalties will be severe enough to make lawbreakers realize that there is such a thing as law enforcement."

Throughout the century, as delivery trucks rumbled down the stone-paved streets, and the cast iron and brick loft buildings gathered rust and grime; the vintage saloon front of Fanelli's Cafe remained untouched.  In the last quarter of the century Soho was reinvented as a trendy district of artists' lofts, galleries and shops.  Once the haunt of immigrant workers, Fanelli's now hosted artists, musicians, and tourists.


In 1982 the Fanelli family sold the business to Hans Noe, whose family still operates the landmark bar.  After 160 years Herman Gerken's red brick building survives little changed in a neighborhood that is anything but.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The 1898 "Gabay Bldg." -- Nos. 143-147 Franklin Street



In 1897 those in the know in real estate circles recognized the opportunities still available in the district which would later be known as Tribeca.  Already the neighborhood had filled with looming commercial buildings spurred by the nearby Hudson River Railroad's freight terminal.

So that year when the widow Margetta K. Welsh offered for sale the three abutting two-story "brick and frame tenements and stores" at Nos. 143 through 147 Franklin Street, real estate operators jumped.  The titles would change hands about three times within days--the last being on June 19 when Henry G. Gabay paid Henry Walsh $105,000 for the properties (more than $3 million in 2017).

Gabay started out as a plumber employed by Butcher & Butler.  In 1877 he and a co-worker, Timothy McAuliffe, took over the firm, renaming it McAuliffe & Gabay.  McAuliffe died the year before Gabay purchased the Franklin Street properties.  Although they had continued their successful plumbing business, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted "the firm has been more prominent of late years as builders whose operations were carried on in the uptown sections of the city east and west of Central Park."

While McAuliffe & Gabay had commissioned some of the best-known architects for earlier projects--Thom & Wilson and A. B. Ogden & Son, for instance--for Nos. 143-147 Franklin Street Henry Gabay turned to an architect more known for his residential designs.

Henry Anderson would design a striking 69-foot wide loft and store building six stories tall.  Faced in yellow Roman brick and trimmed in limestone and terra cotta, its Renaissance Revival design was splashed with Romanesque Revival touches.   As the building neared completion on January 15, 1898 The Record & Guide noted it "is of modern iron frame construction.  The lighting throughout is done by electricity, although the building is piped for gas, and there is an electric freight elevator."


The arched openings and terra cotta eyebrows borrow from Romanesque Revival; while the pained faces and elaborate keystones are Renaissance Revival.

Gabay recognized the demand of a structure suitable for industrial tenants with heavy machinery.  The Record & Guide said "it is especially adapted to the use of one tenant, and more particularly, one conducting a business which it is necessary to store heavy goods.  The new building is one of the strongest and most substantially-built in this locality."  The upper floors were able to carry 430 pounds per square foot.

Anderson's sketch of the Franklin Street elevation was published by the Record & Guide on January 15, 1898 (copyright expired)

Among Gabay's first tenants was the American Woolen Company which signed a $14,000 three-year lease.  Organized in the spring of 1899, it was capitalized with a staggering $65 million.  A consortium of East Coast mills, it caused many small firms to tremble.  On May 29 J. Clifford Woodhull attempted to calm outsiders, telling reporters "Those who have the impression that the object of the combination is to advance the prices of goods will be mistaken."  Nevertheless, he added "New acquisitions to the combination are being made from day to day, and success is assured."  Indeed, within days the new organization had gobbled up the Mascoma Flannel Company and the Riverside Woolen Company.

In March 1900 Gabay sold the building to J. W. Doane for $250,000.  His tenants would include two salvage companies--the Underwriters' Salvage Company and The Gans Salvage Co.

The Standard, March 23, 1907 (copyright expired)

The two firms routinely held auctions of items recovered from fires, ships, flooded buildings and other corporate casualties.  In March 1905, for instance, Gans Salvage Company auctioned "$75,000 worth of men's and boys' genuine Priestley cravenettes [water repellent coats], women's and misses' American Rubber Company cravenettes, men's Rover (double texture) rain coats, men's and boys' Cyclone coats, firemen's coats, and a complete variety of other rubber garment from stock of Merchants' Rubber Company, New York."

In 1909 John A. Lowell's Bank Note Company operated from the building.   A steel plate engraver and printer of stocks and bond certificates, bank checks, and related items; the structure was ideal for its heavy presses.

Leo Popper & Sons glass company had moved into No. 143-147 Franklin Street by 1911.  That year it employed four men, two women and two children between 14 and 16 years old who made "glass buttons and beads."  Other employees manufactured plate glass mirrors, mirror-backed signs, and a variety of other glass products.

Founded by Leo Popper, an Austrian immigrant, in 1879, by 1894 the firm was internationally-known for its art glass buttons.  According to New York, 1894: Illustrated, "They import immense quantities of glass from Germany, France, Belgium, England, Austria and other foreign countries, carrying one of the largest and finest assorted stocks of French plate glass, window, car and coach glass, enameled, colored, ground and cathedral glass to be found in the city."

Despite U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of non-intervention in World War I, Germany continued to attack U.S. merchant ships and conducted sabotage.  On July 29, 1916, German agents set fire to a complex of warehouses and ships in the New York Harbor that held munitions, explosives and fuel intended for the Allies.  The resulting blast, known as the Black Tom Explosion, caused damage for several city blocks, sent debris raining down in Manhattan and New Jersey and damaged the Statue of Liberty.  The glass to repair the Statue's torch was supplied by Leo Popper & Sons.

The firm would remain in the building for decades; employing about 20 artisans at its peak.  It would provide the colored glass for the windows of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Washington National Cathedral.


Independent Starch Company was making its Fluffy Ruffles Starch here by 1947.  The Evening World, August 18, 1922 (copyright expired)

Throughout the rest of the century other industrial tenants would come and go, like Independent Starch Company, making its laundry starch here in the 1920s; the George E. Athans Co., makers of glass storage and canning jars at mid-century; and Lan Yik Foods, Inc., dealers in Asian foods.



Through it all the cast iron-faced ground floor survived surprisingly intact. While the cornices and parapets of the two end bays have been lost, Henry Anderson's impressive facade is otherwise little altered.   In 2016 Urban Archeology left the expansive retail space when plans to convert the structure into residences was announced.    
  photographs by the author

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Thom & Wilson's 1889 No. 25 West 88th Street




When developers Ryan & Rawnsley hired architects Thom & Wilson to design a row of five houses on West 88th Street in 1888, they had big plans.  The Upper West Side was quickly taking shape as developers grabbed up vacant building plots to create was was essentially a new suburb. 

Ryan & Rawnsley intended for their speculative project to catch the attention of financially-comfortable families.  The completed homes would, indeed, be attention-grabbing.

Thom & Wilson filed plans on March 23, 1888 for five brownstone-fronted dwellings stretching from No. 25 to 33 West 88th Street, between Eighth Avenue (later renamed Central Park West) and Columbus Avenue.  The plans projected the cost of each house at $20,000--in the neighborhood of $515,000 in 2017.

Completed in the spring of 1889, the row was an over-the-top medley of Renaissance Revival ornamentation.  The facades were a visual overload of textures and shapes--arches, rusticated and fluted pilasters, intricate carvings, angled bays and dog-legged stoops.  Nos. 25, 29 and were identical; while Nos. 27 and 31 were near twins.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide was impressed.  On June 22, 1889 it declared "The passer-by on the north side of 88th street, a few hundred feet west of the Central Park, cannot fail to notice a group of five stately-looking private residences."  The Guide noted the "considerable carved work in floral and figure designs," then described the interiors.

The decorative profusion includes pretty carved bows on the stoop railings; an overflowing flower basket, shell and face in a niche; and an elaborate lion's head keystone over the entrance.

Noting that the rooms were trimmed in hardwood, the article said that on the parlor floors were "reception, drawing and dining rooms, flanked by a butler's pantry, with a private stairway leading to the culinary department.  The entrance to each house is barred by three massive mahogany doors--storm, vestibule and hall--with windows of beveled glass."  Built-in furniture on this level included "handsome mirrors and hat stands" in the foyers, and a "handsome bouffe" in the dining rooms.

The upper floors are no less decorated than those below.

While the parlor floor was trimmed in mahogany, the second and third floors were in oak.  The two bedrooms on the second floor were "laid out en salon."  The Guide said "The saloons are larger than usual, and one finds oneself surrounded on all sides by mirrors, with a profusion of closets and an attractive toilet-stand."  A bathroom to the rear of this floor "has a cosy and rich appearance, and has a porcelain tub and a French bowl."  The third floor was similar to the second, and every room included a fireplace.

The stair hall was illuminated by a stained glass skylight.  Ryan & Rawnsley provided the latest in appliances in the basement service level.  "The 'Defiance' range, porcelain washtubs and other necessities complete the domestic arrangements on this floor."

The first to be sold was No. 25.  On October 19, 1889 The Record & Guide reported that "Ryan & Rawnsley have sold one of their row of fine dwellings...to Mrs. Hanna.  This is the house nearest to 8th avenue."

"Mrs. Hanna" may have been Hanna Morganstein.  The family of Max Morganstein lived in the house as late as 1896, when he served on the jury of the corruption trial of Police Captain Thomas Killilea in May.  Killilea was charged with having accepted a $100 "gratuity" from the manager of the Manhattan Field for "his services in preserving order during the Yale-Princeton foot ball game on Thanksgiving Day, 1894."

At the time Max Morganstein was President of the West-Chester Hardwood Company at No. 68 Broad Street.  His brother, Ernest, was a partner in the firm.

In February 1903 Charles Brenneman and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased No. 25.  The couple had two children, 29-year old son, Charles Stanley Brenneman,  who had graduated from City University in 1894; and Mary N. Benneman.

The sumptuous doorway is Thom & Wilson's late Victorian take on a Federal-style Gibbs surround.  The stoop decorations include a stylized dolphin panel, knotted bows, and a fearsome winged creature over the grilled basement opening.

Charles S. Brenneman was the Treasurer of the United Real Estate Owners' Organizations.  He and Elizabeth would be the first of a string of residents to bring unwanted publicity to No. 25 West 88th Street.

When Elizabeth's grandfather, Frederick Leonhard died, Charles was the executor of his estate.  A long-running court case ensued in 1900 when other relatives accused the Brennemans of investing $12,388.71 of the estate's money in real estate.  Not only, the relatives accused, did they not see any proceeds from the investments; but the Brennemans "received certain rents, issues, and profits" which they neglected to account for.

It would not be long before Charles S. Brenneman was back in court regarding an unrelated suit.  He purchased a large amount of stock in the Jefferson Gold & Silver Mining Company in Round Mountain, Nevada.  With Warren J. Flick he organized Brenneman & Flick to run the operation.  On October 23, 1908 the men visited the offices of the Joshua Hendy Iron Works in San Francisco and ordered $10,502.00 worth of mining machinery.

On July 14, 1909 Joshua Hendy Iron Works sent a telegram to No. 25 East 88th Street which read "When will we obtain settlement [of] our account.  Wire answer."

Two days later Charles Jr. replied "Wire received.  Father away west.  Have advised him."  And the following day the California firm received a brief telegram "Your message received.  Will send you letter.  Brenneman."

In the promised letter Brenneman blamed the delay in payment on Flick.  "Mrs. Flick left some time ago to go to a sanitarium with Mr. Flick."  That caused delays in opening the mine.  Brenneman closed his letter with "Trusting that we may be granted an extension of your patience."

The extension of patience lasted only so long.  The Joshua Hendy Iron Works continued to sent statements to No. 25 West 88th Street; but, according to court papers "Brenneman, however, says he did not receive any statement."  The case finally landed in New York Circuit Court on February 13, 1911.

Somewhat ironically, in the meantime Mary N. Brenneman had become a lawyer.  She kept up appearances for the family and by 1912 she was President of the Portia Club, founded in 1901 by graduates of the women's law class of New York University.  On Thursday, December 5, 1912 the club hosted a Speakers' Day at the Hotel Astor.  The Women Lawyers' Journal noted "The President, Miss Mary N. Brenneman, ably presided and introduced the speakers...Discussion on civic improvements followed."

Public Service Commissioner John E. Eustis most likely wished he had not accepted the invitation to speak a year earlier.  The New York Times reported on December 22, 1911 that he had "experienced a sample of feminine curiosity that for a moment took him off his feet."

One woman lawyer wanted to know why the subway was not extended to Pennsylvania Station.  As he tried to explain his case, another asked why "universal [mass transit] transfers were not put into effect at once."  Before he could completely respond, he was interrupted by another woman who wanted to know why "people couldn't get to Coney Island for 5 cents when they could go to the Bronx Zoo for a nickel."  Eustis made an excuse to duck out.  "The Commissioner got out of the maelstrom of question marks by hurriedly pleading another engagement."

By the Depression years many of the private homes off Central Park were being converted to apartments.  The Brenneman family retained ownership of No. 25; but in 1934 leased it to Lawrence B. Conklin who converted the house to a triplex in the basement through second floors, and a duplex above.

When E. Brenneman leased the house on April 2, 1938 to Fred Steffenbaer, however, a more significant change followed.  Building Department records indicate that it was converted to "furnished rooms and apartments."

Among the residents here in 1941 was 47-year old Richard Montgomery Jordan.  When he applied to the South Shore Trust Company on Long Island for a $400 personal loan, he said he was a public relations officer employed by the Treasury Department.

That was not the case.

When it was revealed that he had posed as an employee of the Government, he was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in jail on February 11, 1943.

Bad press visited No. 25 West 88th Street again on September 10, 1975 when resident Thomas Fasy and three other men got into an argument a block away, on 88th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.  The 33-year old Fasy suffered a gunshot in the altercation.

Thom & Wilson's extravagantly-embellished row survives almost intact.

The configuration of the apartments changed several times.  In 2002 it was returned to a single family home; divided to two residences in 2008; and reconverted to a private residence in 2015.  As could be expected, nothing remains of Thom & Wilson's Renaissance Revival interiors which so impressed The Real Estate Record & Guide in 1889.

But the sumptuous exterior of the house (which was recently offered for $19 million) is mostly untouched.

photographs by the author