Monday, June 18, 2018

The Lost Samuel P. Townsend Mansion - Fifth Avenue at 34th Street

The extension visible to the rear held the conservatory.  To the far right is the "picture gallery."  photo from The Abbott Memorial Book, 1912 (copyright expired)
In 1799 John Thompson purchased 20 acres of farmland in today's Midtown.  It abutted the farm of Caspar Samler, to the south, on land that engulfed the area now including Madison Square Garden.  But farming on the bucolic land would last only a few more decades.

The tide of progress was already on its way.  The 1811 Commissioners' Plan laid Fifth Avenue in a straight path through Thompson's land.   William Astor recognized the potential of the property and in 1827 purchased 10 acres from Thompson for $20,500, more than half a million today.

By 1854, when Astor's son, William, married Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, Fifth Avenue (although still unpaved) extended well past 54th Street and houses were already appearing in the 30's.  Astor gave the newlyweds the plot of land at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, where they began construction of their brick and brownstone mansion.  When ground was broken there was already one massive residence under construction across the street on the northwest corner.

Samuel P. Townsend had purchased much of the land above Astor's.  His brownstone residence would outshine the William Astor mansion (and that of his brother, John Jacob Astor which would share that block) in architectural magnificence, if not in social importance.

Townsend had been a contractor, but in 1839 went into the sarsaparilla making business.  Sarsaparilla was a concoction of sassafras, birch oil and other secret ingredients and was a popular tonic.  A supreme marketer, Townsend slapped "Dr." to his name and touted Dr. S. P. Townsend's Sarsaparilla as a cure for freckles and blotches on the faces of girls; difficult menstruation, barrenness and "incontinency of urine," among women; and rheumatism, nervous debility and piles in men.  A full page advertisement in The Genessee Farmer in 1849 even promised that women "approaching that critical period, 'The turn of life,'" could delay the process by several years simply by using his sarsaparilla.

This ad in The American Advertiser in 1849 ensures "cures disease without vomiting."  (copyright expired)

"Sarsaparilla" Townsend's factory shipped to Canada, the West Indies, South America and Europe.  As his fortune grew, he branched into banking, and in 1852 was president of the Nassau Building and Mutual Loan Association, and vice-president of the Third Mechanics' Building and Mutual Loan,

Construction on his Fifth Avenue home began in 1853 and would take two years to complete.  According to Herman Michael Biggs in his 1897 Preventative Medicine in the City of New York, it "cost about $100,000, and was one of the wonders of the City."  Deemed by some the "costliest residence in the city," the price tag would be in the neighborhood of $3 million today.

The free-standing Italianate-style mansion was, indeed, imposing.  A graceful split staircase led to the entrance.  Stone balconies graced the parlor and second floor openings on the Fifth Avenue elevation, and bay windows clung to the southern side.  A scalloped, hexagonal belvedere on the roof offered panoramic views.

The New-York Tribune described it, saying "The edifice is entirely of brown stone four stories in height; and surrounded by open and handsomely laid out gardens.  A large double stoop and portico, supported by fluted Corinthian columns forms the entrance."

If Caroline Astor's visitors were impressed by her ballroom, they were stunned by Nancy Townsend's entrance hall, which rose all four floors to "an arched ceiling, beautifully ornamented in blue and gold."  Each floor, supported by columns, looked onto the grand central space.

To the left of the entrance hall was the main drawing room, 25 by 80 feet.  The ceiling was frescoed and painted panels adorned the walls.  Behind the drawing room was the dining room.  It led to the conservatory which was "richly ornamented by stained glass."

On the opposite side of the entrance hall from the drawing room was the library and the "small but unique apartment called the 'Pompeii Room,' which is a fac simile in size and frescoes, of a room in the exhumed city," said the Tribune.

The magnificent mansion was a source of city pride and a tourist destination.  Arthur Barlett Maurice recalled more than half a century later in his 1918 Fifth Avenue, "The improvements on Fifth Avenue, north of Thirty-fourth Street, began with the erection of the Townsend house, which was a feature of the city and shown to visitors.  The location was the foot of a high hill."  Maurice deemed it "one of the wonders of the town."

Surprisingly, only four years after the house was completed, the Townsends left.  The news reached as far away as Ohio, where on July 21, 1859 the Holmes Country Republican reported "The Palace of Dr. Townsend, on Fifth avenue and Twenty-fourth [sic] street has been sold.  The Rev. Gorham D. Abbott, of the Spingler Institute, has purchased it, with all its elegant furniture, for $290,000."

The article explained "Dr. Townsend is a large land owner, and will soon erect another splendid house farther up town.  So the world moves along."  The writer was not pleased with the prospect of a school moving into the "palace."  "The wholesale stores are driving the retail up town.  The schools are driving the dwellings farther and farther up.  Soon the vicinity of Central Park will alone be the fashionable quarter of the city."

The reporter's figure was slightly exaggerated.  Abbott had spent $250,000 for the house and furnishings--nonetheless a significant $7.6 million by today's standards.

Born in Maine in 1807, Abbott was educated at Bowdoin College and Andover Theological Seminary.  In 1838 he turned his focus from preaching to educating and organized The American Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; and then in 1843, with his brother, established the Abbott Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies in fashionable Colonnade Row on Lafayette Place.

His purpose, according to The American Journal of Education, was "the hope of calling attention to a higher order of education for daughters in our country, and of elevating its general character."  Daughters of wealthy businessmen, plantation owners and industrial tycoons came from across the country to receive the education necessary for a refined wife and socialite.

So successful was the venture that in 1848 Abbott erected the Spingler Institute on Union Square.  At the cornerstone laying, Abbott expressed the difficulties women faced in obtaining quality education.  "We have between one and two hundred colleges in our country, but where is the Yale, or Harvard, or Princeton for the education of females."

Rev. Gorham D. Abbott The American Journal of Education, 1866 (copyright expired)
Now, eleven years later, Abbott and his wife prepared to move the school into the Townsend house. The Ohio newspaper Western Reserve Chronicle predicted on July 20, 1859, "It will be one of the most sumptuous schools in the land, if not in the world."

The New York Evening Post chimed in "Our readers will remember the excitement that marked the completion of the Townsend Mansion, and its public exhibition...We think it a more important announcement that the Abbot Collegiate Institute...has come into the possession of this remarkable private palace.  No building on the island is more easily susceptible of metamorphosis from a dwelling to a College."

The academy had taken back its original name, the Abbott Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies.  It was no vacuous finishing school.  The young women who attended the school received a proper college level education.  In addition to learning Italian and French (required courses), the students received art education, science classes and labs, music--both voice and instrumental--and of course, moral and religious studies and deportment.

Upon opening the Fifth Avenue location, Abbott announced "It is believed there is not in the world at this day, an Institution for the education of daughters with a library of ten thousand volumes, a telescope worth five thousand dollars, and corresponding appointments in apparatus, cabinets, and works of art, that would be deemed indispensable in a college for sons."

The New-York Tribune, in August 1860, pointed out that "the gallery of paintings [is] filled with some of the choicest works of art to be found in this city."  The students who boarded here were housed on the third and fourth floors which the newspaper said "are assigned to the ordinary purposes of domestic apartments."

At the time of the Tribune's article, the editor of The New York Times was less interested in the appointments of the school than in one potential visitor.  On August 21 an article reported on the many preparations for the upcoming visit of the Prince of Wales to the city.  There was the issue of accommodations for the 19-year old heir to the throne.

"Several private citizens of New-York have pressed 'His Excellency the Mayor' to offer the Prince of Wales the use of their respective houses during his stay in New-York, and among them one gentleman who is the fortunate propriety of a 'Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies.'"   Abbott had offered to turn over suites within the sumptuous mansion to the royal entourage.  The editor did not hold back in his opinion.

He warned "they should consider the frailty of human nature, and remember that scriptural injunction which warns us to avoid even the appearance of things evil."  He called the idea of the youthful prince residing within a female college "essentially ludicrous."  And he suspected the Rev. Abbott's true motivation was publicity.  "It lends itself, too, to the most unfeeling criticisms on the uses to which such a proposition may be turned in the way of an 'advertisement for the Fall term."

The newspaper's concerns were laid to rest when his High Royal Highness was given nearly an entire floor in the newly-opened Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Abbott's offering of the school for the royal visit may also have had to do with repairing some devastating publicity two months earlier.   Wealthy families expected that their daughters would be strictly supervised and protected against the evils of the world outside the Institute's brownstone walls.  The serious breach of trust that occurred in June 1860 hit newspapers nationwide.

from the collection of the CUNY Graduate Center Collection, Murray Hill
On June 2 the Mississippi newspaper The Yazzo Democrat ran a headline "Abduction of a Young Southern Lady from a Fashionable School," and recounted the scandalous details.  A student, Miss Phipps of Tennessee, received a visiting relative from home, General Bynum, in the parlor.  On subsequent visits the two went out once in public "with others," and once separately.

The attentions of the relative caused Rev. Abbott and his wife to be suspicious that, as The Evening World worded it, "Gen. Bynum's visit was not in the character of a relative."  On Saturday May 19 inquiries were made at the St. Nicholas Hotel where General Bynum was staying, "and good reasons were found for not permitting any other visits."  When Bynum arrived at the school that day, he was told to leave and he promised "upon his word of honor, as a man and a gentleman," that not only would he not return, but would leave the city "forthwith."

That same evening, however, he was back.  He sent his calling card to Mrs. Abbott who appeared, just about the time Miss Phipps descended the stairs.  While the general and Mrs. Abbott argued, the girl interrupted, "very affectionately" telling Mrs. Abbott "I must bid you good bye."

Mrs. Abbott grabbed the girl and screamed for assistance.  The Evening World reported Bynum "threw" Mrs. Abbott "from him with such a violent and insulting manner as almost to prostrate her upon the floor."  The young woman rushed out the door to Bynum's waiting carriage.  As Mrs. Abbott pleaded with her to return, the staff and students "then rushed out, joining in the remonstrance, and crying out 'shame, shame, shame!"

The young Southern woman may have briefly considered the irreparable decision she was about to make.  The Evening World noted "As she stood at the carriage step, the spectators say, she paused a moment, clasped her hands, looked upward, and in a deadly pallor seemed to hesitate about the fatal step."

But, as reported in the Maryland paper The Daily Exchange, "Gen. Bynum then put his arms around her, urged her into the carriage, and they rolled away.  Mrs. Abbott followed into the street, and with loud calls, begged of spectators to interfere, and arrest the deed of violence."  That article concluded "Gen. Bynum and Miss Phipps are now at the St. Nicholas, probably a married couple--the result, doubtless, of previous arrangement in Tennessee."

That newspaper's and others' suggesting that the couple had married was purely to protect the woman's reputation.  There was no proof of a marriage.  Across the country Bynum was painted as a violent abductor and Miss Phipps as a duped victim.

The Abbott Collegiate Institute weathered the damaging publicity of the incident.  On August 23, 1862 The Chicago Daily Tribune called it "one of the best if not the very best institutions in the country...Parents and guardians who wish their daughters and wards to enjoy the highest social and religious advantages, and an intellectual training equal to that which our best colleges can afford, will be sure to have them at the Abbot [sic] Collegiate Institute."

The Institute maintained a staff of 25 instructors.  The girls' tuition, including board, went as high at $500 a year--more than $12,500 today.  The same year as the Chicago Daily Tribune's endorsement, The Home Journal said "Its library, its chemical, philosophical, and astronomical apparatus, its mineralogical cabinet, and its gallery of paintings, are of the highest and best character.  Among the privileges which the students of the institution possess, are being able to enjoy lectures, pronounced by the most distinguished minds in this country, on various subjects, chiefly relating, however, to the sciences, natural, mental and moral, to history, literature and art."

Like the free-spirited Miss Phipps, many of the Institute's students came from aristocratic Southern families.  And so when Civil War broke out, those girls packed their things and left for home.  In 1866 The American Journal of Education noted "But the disturbances of the war, and other attending circumstances, disappointed Mr. Abbott's plans, and swept away the principal fruits of his five and twenty years of effect to establish an institution for daughters worthy of the metropolis of our country."

Earlier that year Abbott leased a smaller mansion on Park Avenue.  The New York Evangelist reported "It will be gratifying news to many friends that this excellent Institution has re-opened in a very advantageous location and with the best prospects.  Dr. Abbot [sic] has taken the large house of Mr. James Suydam, at the corner of Thirty-eighth Street and Park Avenue."

The disappointment was too much for Abbott.  He announced "Circumstances make it desirable for me to have a year of respite."  But he never returned to his beloved school.  Historian Nehemiah Cleaveland wrote in 1882 "The gradual wasting away of physical powers, attended by frequent attacks of severe pain and prolonged suffering, at last terminated in paralysis and death in 1874."

In the meantime, merchant prince Alexander Tunny Stewart purchased the former Townsend mansion.  As Arthur Bartlett Maurice eloquently wrote in his 1918 Fifth Avenue, "He found brown-stone and left marble."

The 1918 book Fifth Avenue illustrated the two mansions side-by-side.  (copyright expired)
"Townsend's pride and folly was tumbled to the ground, carted away, and in its place there went up the Italian palace" of Stewart.  The French Second Empire-style mansion, clad in Italian marble, cost $2 million and would set the bar for Fifth Avenue mansions to come.  It survived until 1901.

The corner as it appears today.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The 1840 Samuel Winant House - 14 Grove Street

In 1820 23-year old Samuel Winant opened his carpentry shop at No. 17 Jacob Street.  Seven years later John Degraw did the same--his was at No. 11 Watts Street.  It appears the two men were already good friends.  Both of their families were originally from Long Island, and for a period they volunteered together with the Hook & Ladder Company No. 3 on Vandam Street, just steps away from Winant's home.  (Interestingly Peter Winant, Jr., no doubt a relative of Samuel, was also a firefighter with that company in 1821.)  Winant and Degraw both resigned from the fire house in 1830.

In 1828 the two merged their businesses as Winant & Degraw.  Their close personal relationship is reflected in the fact that Degraw began using No. 50 Vandam Street--the home of Samuel Winant--as his address.  He may have leased a room, or was simply taken in by the family.

Winant & Degraw was successful and in 1839 the partners purchased the plots on the eastern third of the block bounded by Hudson, Grove, Bedford and Barrow Streets.  In 1840 they began construction of four identical houses at Nos. 12 through 18 Grove Street.

The 21-foot wide Greek Revival-style houses were completed within the year.  Three stories of orange brick sat upon brownstone English basements.  Handsome but unassuming, the homes were modestly trimmed with stone lintels and sills.  The entrances were framed by the expected heavy stone pilasters and entabulatures of the style.

The good friends took the middle homes for themselves--Winant moving into No. 14 and Degraw into No. 16.  It is unclear how long the Winant family remained on Grove Street, but when Samuel died at the age of 71 on September 21, 1868, he was living in Rossville,Staten Island.

As early as 1857 the family of William H. Demarest was living at No. 14.  That year his 12-year old son, George Francis, attended Public School 38.  While some teen boys at the time cut their education short to find employment, George continued on, graduating in 1864 having "completed the full course, with modern languages."

It is not surprising that the boy's father placed importance on education.  William Demarest was a highly-valued employee of Harper & Brothers publishers.  Having started with the firm around 1832, he was now "chief cashier," a much more executive job than the term implies today.  He was not only in charge of the financial books, but kept strict records of the sales of titles and reported those numbers to their authors, like Herman Melville.

Demarest's exact accounting was evidenced in an incident in 1857 recalled by The Publishers Weekly decades later, on March 23, 1912.  Demarest "used to relate with a great deal of gusto that one morning, after John Harper had opened his mail and passed out the cash from the letters for record, the money was found twenty-five cents short.  He reported the matter to John Harper, who, in a laughing way, turned to his brothers and said: 'Demarest is making a great ado because I took twenty-five cents from the mail and gave it to a beggar.'"

Demarest's daughter, Sophia, was named after his mother, who apparently lived with the family.  The younger Sophia was married Edward W. Rachau in fashionable Grace Church on January 29, 1862.

The following year the bride's grandmother died in the Grove Street house.  Three days after Sophia Demarest's death at the age of 69 on January 11, 1863, her funeral was held in the home.

By the end of the decade William Demarest's health was failing.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on May 27, 1871 suggests that Sophia and her husband had moved into the house, possibly because of William's condition.  "Wanted--A girl to take care of a baby; must come well recommended."

The health of their employee of four decades did not go unnoticed by the Harper brothers. The following year, on April 25, 1872, The Publishers' and Stationer's Weekly reported:

A few mornings since Mr. Demarest was requested to step into the private office of the firm.  Here, without formal palaver, it was intimated that he might possibly have been a trifle overworked of late, and that a brief holiday would not be unacceptable.  For that purpose he was accorded six months' leave of absence to go abroad, his salary meanwhile to be continued, and to enable him to enjoy the trip comfortably, and as an indication of their friendship, they handed him a check for five thousand dollars.  Truly a pleasant thing nicely done.

Demarest never returned to Harper & Brothers.  The family moved to Jersey City where his wife, Eliza, died in November 1876.

In the meantime, No. 14 became home to developer Thomas Ball and his wife.   In March 1873 they looked for household help.  "Wanted -- A girl to cook, wash, iron and make herself generally useful; reference required; German preferred."  It would seem that the only responsibility not included in that broad job description was caring for the Balls' toddler.  Three months later they were seeking "a young girl as nurse, one who will make herself generally useful."

The Financial Panic of 1873 resulted in soup kitchens and bread lines similar to those that would become familiar to New Yorkers in 1929.  On March 18, 1874 The East Broadway Soup House listed recent donations from more fortunate citizens.  Included was Thomas Ball's $10 "for the purpose of buying 100 loaves of bread."  Interestingly, the notation listed his profession as "property owner."

Ball was responsible for substantial building projects, like the five-story store and tenement designed by John B. Snook on Madison Street in 1878.   The family remained at No. 14 until November 1891 when they sold it "on private terms" to Philip Sammet.  He quickly flipped the house, selling it to Margaret Johnson a month later.

Margaret ran it as a boarding house.  Among her tenants in 1894 was a draftsman, who was temporarily out of work.  His ad in the Engineering Record in September called him a "first-class map and engineering draghtsman."  His resume included 20 years experience "including six on railroad and nine on municipal work."  Giving his address as "Draughtsman, 14 Grove Street," he added that he was a "good letterer."

It was possibly Margaret Johnson who leased the basement level to a small commercial laundry.  The 4-man staff attempted to unionize in 1898 with unhappy results.   The Documents of the Senate of the State of New York in 1899 noted "On December 15th, 4 laundry workers employed at 14 Grove street, New York city, went on strike against the employment of a nonunion workman.  The men on strike had not been members of the union themselves until a few days previous to the strike, and their employer refused to force the man objected to to join their union.  the strike was not successful, and the strikers not only lost the strike but their positions as well."

While rooms continued to be rented throughout the ensuing decades, the house remained unchanged.  In the 1930's playwright Howard McLellan lived here.  He wrote his three-act play The Unknown Man here in 1931.

In 1966 a conversion was begun to convert the house to a duplex in the basement and parlor floor, and one apartment each on the upper stories.   In 1968 the Landmarks Preservation Commission lamented in its Greenwich Village Historic District designation "Until 1966, No. 14 was perhaps the last completely unaltered Greek Revival building in the City."

Apparently Dr. Gary Lazachek both lived and ran his medical office from the duplex in the 1970's.  He drew the attention of  the Congressional Subcommittee on Long-Term Care of the Special Senate Committee on Aging.  The subcommittee, which investigated Medicaid fraud, questioned the $131,956 in Medicaid funds he received in 1975.  That amount would be more in the neighborhood of $601,000 today.

Edward F. L. Bruen and his wife, the former Marian S. Gray, appeared in print for loftier reasons.  They were listed in the Social Register of New York while living here in 1985.

Samuel Winant's partner, John Degraw, lived next door, in the house with the shutters.
Despite the LPC's sorrow over the 1966 interior renovations, No. 14 Grove Street greatly maintains its 1840 outward appearance and integrity; an important presence on one of the city's most charming blocks.

photographs by the author

Friday, June 15, 2018

The George Bliss Agnew House - 121 East 69th Street

In the decade following the end of the Civil War the Upper East Side experienced rapid development.  Among the most prolific architects in the area was John Sexton, who designed scores of brownstone-fronted rowhouses.  In 1872 he embarked on an ambitious project for developer Christopher Keyes on East 69th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.

Completed the following year, the eleven identical high-stoop residences were 20-feet side and intended for financially-comfortable buyers.  Keyes priced them at $30,000 each, or about $635,000 today.

The family of well-to-do lawyer Gilbert Sutphen Van Pelt would call No. 121 home.  Van Pelt had married Annie Powell on June 17, 1863.   Gilbert was a member of the Holland Society, composed of descendants of New Amsterdam, and Annie was a Daughter of the American Revolution.  The couple would have two sons, Frederick Gilbert and William Robinson.

By the first years of the 1890's Frederick had moved to California with his wife and daughter, named Annie, after her grandmother.  Frederick's life was not a happy one.  Early in June 1893 he came east to visit the family for a week.  His mother described him during the visit as "very cheerful then and in good health, except for a severe cold that made him very nervous."

His nervousness, however, most likely did not come from a cold but from addiction.  Two weeks after he returned to San Francisco the 27-year old was dead.  On June 28, 1893 The Evening Post reported "Frederick G. Van Pelt, son of G. S. Van Pelt, a prominent jurist of New York, died yesterday from having taken thirty ounces of chloroform.  He had been addicted to the use of chloroform as an intoxicant."

The Van Pelts had received a telegram on the night of his death.  Annie hinted to a reporter from The Evening World that her daughter-in-law was responsible for Frederick's problems.  When asked if she had accompanied him on his recent trip, Annie replied "No; his wife was not with him here.  I do not know her.  My son's life has been a very sad one.  He made a great mistake, as many young men have done."

Gilbert Sutphen Van Pelt died on November 11, 1906 at the age of 69.  Annie remained in the 69th Street house and it was around this time that Frederick's teen-aged daughter moved in with her.

The entrance doors of the Van Pelt house were graced with bronze doorknobs executed by famous French sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme They had been brought from Paris as a gift from Annie's father.   On the morning of February 15, 1907 Annie was horrified to find them missing.

The New York Times reported "Mrs. Van Pelt believes the thieves do not know the real value of the doorknobs and will sell them for junk."  The article added "Mrs. Van Pelt, however, will give a great deal for the return of the bronzes, because, aside from their value as specimens of the work of the great French painter and sculptor, they have the especial value of association, having been brought from Europe by her father."  It is unclear if Annie ever recovered her doorknobs.

Annie died on May 16, 1909 at the age of 68.  She left an estate of more than $3.3 million in today's dollars. She left $500 to each of her servants, a generous $14,000 today.   The New York Times reported that the bulk of the estate was died equally between her son, William, and her granddaughter, Annie.  The teen's portion was held in trust.

The following April Annie's estate placed the house on the market.  Described as a "handsome four story, basement, and cellar brownstone (high stoop) dwelling," it was purchased by Catherine S. Auchincloss on May 6 for $59,500.  Rather bizarrely, she signed the paperwork exactly two days after her husband, Edgar S. Auchincloss, died.

Auchincloss had been a wealthy importer.  The couple had a son, Edgar, Jr., and three unmarried daughters, Mary Bliss, Elizabeth Ellen and Katrina.   His detailed will left explicit directions on how his estate was to be invested and included an unusual bequest.  The New York Times reported "In a codicil Mr. Auchincloss left $500 each to his surviving brothers to buy some personal token in his memory."

Catherine did not let grief get in the way of remodeling.  In September that year she hired the architectural firm of R. H. Robertson & Sons to make "extensive alterations and additions" to the home.   The brownstone front and stoop were removed, replaced by a fashionable neo-Georgian brick and stone facade.  The entrance was now firmly on the sidewalk.  A stone balcony with iron railings fronted French doors at the second floor, or piano nobile, where the dining room and drawing rooms were situated.  Paneled lintels at the third floor and splayed lintels at the fourth contributed to the 18th century design.  A dormered mansard was slightly disguised by a stone balustrade above the bracketed cornice.

photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Interestingly, upon completion of the massive remodeling in 1911, she sold the house to George Bliss Agnew and purchased No. 123 next door--another of the original 1873 row. 

The next door neighbors must have been close, for on the same day, September 17, 1915, architect W. I. Morris filed plans for renovations to both houses.  They were identical in scope, "extend stairs and bedrooms," at a cost of $3,000 each.  (In 1930 Catherine would hire architect William F. Dominick to completely remodel No. 123.)

Agnew's family on his father's side first arrived in Philadelphia in 1786.  His mother, Mary Hervey Bliss, traced her American roots to Thomas Bliss who settled in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1635.  Born in 1868, George graduated from Princeton College in 1891.  He entered the Wall Street firm of Cuyler, Morgan & Co.   Rather floridly, in 1902 The Successful American said "Soon after his graduation he surrendered the allurements of a professional life for the desk of the counting-room, and his life, so far, has been devoted mainly to financial and commercial pursuits, in which he has displayed remarkable vigor, together with integrity of character, perseverance and shrewd business tact."

But by the time Agnew moved his family into No. 121 his devotion to commerce had given way to political pursuits.  He was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1903 through 1906 and a member of the New York State Senate from 1907 to 1910.

Agnew and his wife, the former Emily D. Gruban, were married in 1908.  They had four sons, George, Jr., A. Gifford, Charles D., and David P., and a daughter, Madelaine.  George's wide-spread business interests included directorships in the Mexican Northern Railway, Robbins Conveying Belt Company, Intertype Corporation, and the Erie & Kalamazzo Railroad.  He was heavily involved in mining and was president of the North Star Mines of California, and a director of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, the Empire Star Mines and Compania Metalurgica Mexicana, and the president of the Gauley Mountain Coal Company of West Virginia.

George B. Agnew cut a rather dashing figure.  The Successful American, November 1902 (copyright expired)
The Agnews' country home was in Westchester County, in South Salem.  It was in the Presbyterian Church there that Madelaine's wedding to Hastings Foot 2nd took place on September 17, 1938.  The bride had enjoyed a privileged youth, attending the exclusive Spencer School and then Sarah Lawrence College.  Her marriage ceremony did not fall short.  There were 22 people in the wedding party.  A reception in the Agnew summer home followed.

After an illness of only a few days, the 73-year old George B. Agnew died in the East 69th Street house on June 21, 1941.   The former senator's funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church where he had worshiped for for nearly six decades.

Agnew's will left generous amounts to charitable, educational and religious institutions.  Princeton, for example, received $25,000 (more than $410,000 today).  Emily inherited the house and its furnishings.  George had put aside $5,000 to be distributed among the servants by Emily.

Emily's period of mourning was interrupted just three months later when George, Jr. married Mary Althea Eldredge in a surprisingly elaborate ceremony in Glen Cove, Long Island.

Emily died on July 9, 1947.  No. 121 became home to the Lebanese Consulate General that year.   Four years later it was converted to a doctor's office and two duplex apartments.

The Agnew house continues to have just two apartments inside.  And from the street little has changed since a new widow gave it a major face lift in 1910.

photograph by the author

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Corsets and Bolts - 81 White Street

Acting as trustee for the estate of Mary W. Hopkins, Stephen L. Hopkins acquired the old, two-story wooden house at No. 81 White Street in 1881.   Like all the brick and wooden dwellings in the neighborhood, it was soon to go.

The Hopkins estate contracted architect Charles C. Haight to design a modern loft building in its place.  Romanesque Revival had gained a sturdy foothold in architectural taste by now, greatly empowered by Henry Hobson Richardson's works, like his masterful Trinity Church in Boston.  The medieval-inspired style often relied on heavy carvings, massive arches, and muscular stonework.

So it is perhaps a bit surprising that Haight chose the style for the 25-foot wide plot.  His solution was a pleasing toned-down version of Romanesque Revival with no carvings nor chunky medieval columns.  Instead the asymmetrical red brick facade was relieved by brownstone bandcourses.  Above the ground floor where a cast iron storefront nestled within the brick, three stories of wide and narrow openings culminated in rounded windows capped with a continuous brownstone archivolt (or "eyebrow").  Haight successfully created the illusion of two three-story arches.  Carved brownstone bosses dripped from the points of the archivolts, the architect's historic nod to the middle ages.

Although an arcade might have been expected for the top floor--certainly in keeping with the style--Haight opted for side-by-side rectangular windows topped with a common brownstone lintel.  At either side were brick corbels which originally upheld an architecturally appropriate cornice, perhaps lost in the devastating fire seven years later.

Among the first tenants was Caxton Bookbinding Co.  In July 1883 the firm was looking for a "good book cutter."   Another early firm was Ferris Bros., manufacturers of corsets.  The company offered corsets for all ages of users, including (hard to believe today) infants.

Terra Haute Weekly Gazette, August 12, 1886 (copyright expired)
Caxton Bookbinding was still in the building in 1888.   It shared the upper floors with three dry goods commission merchants--Posner Brothers, Mahler & Myer, and S. Lepousky.  At street level was Simon & Strelitzer, cloth commission merchants.

A fire broke out in the building at around 7:30 on the night of January 2.  It traveled up the elevator shaft, spreading throughout the structure.   An inferno resulted when it reached the bookbinding shop, with its highly flammable contents.  The Sun reported "The cloths, book bindings, paste, paints, and chemicals in the Caxton book concern's rooms burned fiercely.  The fire burst through the iron shutters at the rear and shot toward the houses on Franklin street."

The thick smoke made White Street "absolutely dark," said the newspaper.  So intense was the heat that windows of factories facing Walker Street, a block to the north, blew out.  Despite the frigid winter temperatures, "the sidewalk below these buildings were so hot that dripping water turned to steam."

The New York Times reported "At 10 o'clock the extent of the disaster was the gutting of 81, the seriously damaging of 79 and 83 and 85, and the gutting of the sixth floor of 82 and 84 White-street."  Caxton alone suffered $35,000 in lost stock and machinery--more than $900,000 in today's dollars.

Charles C. Haight was brought back to make repairs.  He filed plans on March 9 with a projected cost of more than a third of a million dollars today.

The renovated building was leased to J. H. Bishop "the well-known manufacturer of skin rugs and sleigh robes," as described by the Fur Trade Review on July 1, 1890.   The product were a necessity for winter passengers in open sleighs.  The magazine said the Wyandotte, Michigan-based firm "has fitted it up for a warehouse and salesrooms for the display of his very popular productions."

J. H. Bishop's enormous stock of fur robes and rugs came from their plant in Michigan. Fur Trade Review, July 1, 1890 (copyright expired)
An advertisement that year warned retailers "Do NOT buy your Sleigh Robes or Skin Rugs until you see our line.  We are showing the largest line of 'Fur Rugs,' Sheepskin Mats and Goatskin Sleigh Robes we have ever shown."

The early 1890's saw an array of factories on the upper floors.  L. Livingston & Co. was here by 1893 making pocketbooks.  Its large workforce included 50 men, 30 boys under 21 years of age, 15 boys under 16, 3 women, and one girl under 21 years old.  Their workweek was 60 hours, not including weekends.

Smaller shops at the time were Jacob Gray, makers of suspenders; and Max Ludwig who employed just 6 men and a boy making "corset steels."

The Hopkins family still owned No. 81 in 1906 when Louise D. Hopkins leased it to the Raven Gloss Manufacturing Company.  The firm manufactured shoe polish and introduced its Cadet White that year--reflecting a new fashion trend in footwear.

On August 29, 1906 Boot and Shoe Recorder published an article entitled "Are White Shoes Being Worn by Everyone?" which began "One would think every man, woman and child in this country were wearing white canvas shoes from the enormous daily shipments of Cadet White from the factory of the Raven Gloss Company at 81 White street, New York City."

The firm had long produced its Button's Raven Gloss, which the magazine described as "a shoe dressing that has become famous, and is known to every buyer of shoes, that is whose who use shoe polish, and there are very few who do not use it."

In January 1919 the U. T. Hungerford Brass and Copper Co. purchased the building.   Despite its name, the firm dealt in a broad array of metals, including "German silver," bronze and aluminum.  Its headquarters, the 17-story Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building facing Lafayette Street, was just 50 feet to the east.

The Hungerford Building, which survives, was pictured on the firm's letterhead.

The new owners hired architect William E. Austin to improve the aging building and convert it for warehousing.  His plans, filed the following month, called for replacing the stairs with new "fireproof" versions, added an elevator, and replacing doors.  The renovations joined No. 81 internally with No. 79 and it was most likely at this time that the storefront was replaced with truck doors.

No. 81 and its next door neighbor were joined internally in 1919.

In 1927 Case Brass and Copper Company acquired the firm, including the White Street warehouse.  The firm remained in the building for decades.

In 1960 the combined buildings were purchased by William Abramowitz, head of the Concord Radio Corporation.  The New York Times reported he intended to use the building "for his other electronic enterprises."

Major change came to Nos. 79-81 in 2006 when a conversion resulted in two apartments per floor above street level.   By 2012 No. 81 was home to Space on White, a performance space for emerging artists.  It has since closed.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

From Brewery to Off-Broadway - 38 Commerce St, the Cherry Lane Theatre

On November 24, 1827 Alexander McLachlan pressed a local brewer name Bacon for payment on a loan.  Unable to pay, Bacon executed a mortgage of $1,523 to McLachlan against the $3,000 debt (around $76,000 today).  The mortgage included "his stock of beer, malt and hops, together with the brewing utensils, hogsheads, barrels and kegs in the brewery" as well as "two horses, two drays and the harness of same, a pleasure waggon and harness."

Court papers revealed that "the mortgage was to be void on payment of the sum of $1523 on or before the 24th May, 1828."  McLachlan, according to the courts, was "frequently in the brewery, but never interfering in the business, or intimating that he had any control over the property."  Bacon kept his financial trouble hidden from his employees and his creditors.  Until the due date to pay McLachlan rolled around, that is.

In the spring of 1828 McLachlan found himself the owner of a brewery.  Rather than sell the business, he embraced the role of brewer (perhaps due to those frequent visits).  In 1836 he leased land from the Gomez family, which owned much of the surrounding property, and constructed a new brick brewery on Commerce Street, a few feet west of Bedford Street.

McLachlan's choice of sites is a bit surprising.  At the time similar businesses were cropping up nearer the riverfront.  The neighborhood of Commerce and Bedford Streets was quiet, residential, and still sparsely developed.

McLachlan's architect made no attempt to pretend this was anything but a utilitarian structure.  The three-story brewery featured a double-doored truck bay where horse-drawn wagons would come and go laden with loads of heavy barrels.

Sometime in the late 1850's McLachlan moved his business to No. 99 Greenwich Avenue, where he advertised "Croton Ale from Alexander McLachlan, Brewer and Maltster."  The Commerce Street building was used by T. R. McDermott in the early 1860's, most likely as a tobacco warehouse.  Charles McDermott was an established tobacco merchant at the time.

In 1873 the building became the storage warehouse of Jas. Michales & Son.  The firm touted its modern improvements, perfect for the storing of valuable household items.  An typical advertisement in 1874 read:

Storage Warehouse--For furniture, pianos, baggage, &c., in separate rooms, and low rates; separate department for pianos, mirrors, paintings, &c.; we invite the attention of parties who intend to store their furniture to our accommodations for the storing of goods, style of rooms, light, ventilation, &c.; all goods taken up and down on elevators; the warehouses are guarded day and night by private watchmen."

Michales & Son appears to have gone out of business in 1878.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on May 29 that year offered: "Nine upright showcases, with stands, for sale cheap to pay charges."

The former brewery filled a variety of uses, including a box factory, as the neighborhood changed around it.  By the end of World War I the Greenwich Village was Manhattan's Left Bank--the haunt of its art, music and literary community.  In the mid-1920's intimate off-Broadway theaters appeared along Greenwich Village's tree-lined streets, including the Grove Street Theatre and the Greenwich Village Theatre.

In 1923 Alexander McLachlan's brewery building underwent a conversation to a theater.  The Provincetown Players commissioned Cleon Throckmorton to design what would be named the Cherry Lane Theatre.  (As was happening throughout the neighborhood, an expansive window was installed on the top floor to accommodate an artist's studio.)  The tiny auditorium with its 200 seats opened in May the following year.

The Cherry Lane Theatre saw a succession of managers and theatrical companies.  In 1927 the New Playwrights took over; and on January 22, 1930 The New York Times noted that the theater would open that week "under the management of Paul Gilmore.  'The Short Cut,' with Helen Holmes in the leading role, will be the play."  Gilmore would continue to manage the theater for its succession of troupes for a decade.

Seven years later, on August 16, 1937, the newspaper announced "The American Show Shop, 38 Commerce Street, will test another new play this evening.  Call it 'That Rib of Adam,' written in blank verse by a lawyer, Franklin G. Manley."  The edgy production exemplified the avant garde offerings the theater would become known for.

In October 1939 well-known Broadway producer Richard Herdon announced that he and a group of associated had leased the theater "with a view to trying out a series of revues for possible presentation uptown."   The auditorium was updated, including a restaurant  At the same time the second floor was converted to a lounge, dressing rooms and two apartments.  There were now four apartments on the third floor and two on the fourth.

Herndon's venture was short-lived and by 1941 the Cherry Lane Theatre was home to the Savoy Opera Guild, which staged operettas.

On November 27 that year The Times noted "After the three final performances of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Iolanthe' tonight, Friday and Saturday nights in the Cherry Lane Theatre...the Savoy Opera Guild will present 'The Mikado.'"  Apparently The Mikado was a box office success.  The group revived it in 1942 and in 1943.

Next to move in was the Hedgerow Theatre which opened on January 16, 1945 with Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.  Critic Lewis Nichols was less than complimentary in his review.  "Unfortunately, it is necessary to shoot the silver bullet at this point; the Hedgerow's production is not the best the play has seen hereabout during recent years."

The Gilmore Stock Company was here in 1948, and the newly-formed Off Broadway, Inc. in 1949.  Off Broadway opened on  June 6 with Gertrude Stein's Yes Is for a Very Young Man, a play about France during the Nazi occupation.  The small cast that night was made up of a young Anthony Franciosa, Michael Grazzo, Bea Arthur and Kim Stanley.

The Madonna Players opened with a new production of Jerome K. Jerome's The Passing of the third Floor Back on April 26, 1951.  But the end of the line for the little theater appeared to be close at hand at the time.  Within the year it was announced that the building might be demolished to erect an apartment house.

But locals came to the rescue.  On September 29, 1952 The Times announced "A group of civic-spirited residents headed by Kenneth Carroad outbid commercial interests and acquired title from the Gomez family, which had owned the structure since 1819."  The newspaper reminded readers that the Cherry Lane "has always been a laboratory for experimental plays," adding "Theatres of this kind have their place and purpose as proving grounds for ideas, actors, directors and scenic designers.  There is always the possibility that another Eugene O'Neill or Robert Edmund Jones may emerge."

The venue continued to present new plays and introduce fledgling thespians.  When Paul Vincent Carroll's drama The Wise Have Not Spoken was debuted on February 10, 1954, its sets were designed by Edgar Lansbury, brother of actress Angela Lansbury.

A glance through the playbills reveals names which would later become well-known to theater, television and motion picture audiences.  Among the cast of To Be Young, Gifted and Black in January 1969 was Cicely Tyson.  Others who appeared on the stage were Kevin Bacon, Barbara Streisand and Gene Hackman.

The theater was in bad shape in 1994 when it closed its doors.  It sat vacant for two years before actress, singer and dancer Angelina Fiordellisi purchased the property for $1.7 million and refurbished it for another $3 million.  (Two years later, in 1998, she opened an even tinier theater, the Alternative Space, next door.)

Unfortunately, the Cherry Lane Theatre found itself $250,000 in debt in 2010.  In December Fiordellisi announced that she intended to sell.   But once again, reaction was swift.  On August 24, 2011 Fiordellisi reported that a "steady stream of theater bookings" had flowed in.  She told reporters that the entire debt would most likely be erased within the year.

The historical significance of Alexander McLachlan's 1836 brewery building certainly is not based on its architectural beauty.  And while its piecemeal alterations and no-nonsense industrial personality create an undeniable charm; it is the story of the nearly 100-year old Cherry Lane Theatre here that makes the Commerce Street building an important piece of Greenwich Village and American theater history.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Campion House -- 327 and 329 West 108th Street

Born in London in 1844, Thomas Graham attended public schools in New York City.  His father was a builder and, upon coming to America, a staunch abolitionist.  Thomas set out on a career in architecture, studying in the office of Jardine & Thompson; but he left at the outbreak of the Civil War to serve with the First New York Engineers.  Upon his return to New York, he learned the cabinet making and stair building trade.  But he switched careers in 1870 again when he again took up architecture and building.

In 1898 Leslie's History of the Greater New York noted "He now has his son, William Van Wyck Graham, associated with him in various building operations."  William was 25 years old at the time and he and his father had just embarked on a new project--seven upscale row houses on West 108th Street, between Riverside Drive and  Broadway.  Thomas acted as architect while William was the owner and builder of record.

By the fall of 1899 the houses, stretching from No. 317 to 329 West 108th Street, were taking shape.  On November 4 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide remarked on the homes, which Thomas Graham described as "the finest and best equipped American basement residences ever offered to the public for sale in this city."  The Guide noted "They are all built, finished and fitting in the most approved style of modern domestic construction, with hard woods, tiles, mosaics, sanitary plumbing, and the closest attention to the necessity of producing large, airy apartments, rich in appearance and containing all the requirements of elegance and comfort."

Four of the homes were 18 feet wide, handsome but not atypical of the luxurious rowhouses rising throughout the Upper West Side.  The two western-most homes, however, Nos. 327 and 329, were nothing short of mansions.   No. 329 was lavish 40-feet wide and, because the Grahams had set aside a 10-foot swatch to the side, it was designed as a corner house with bay windows on the side and views of Riverside Park.

"The largest house, No. 329, is practically a corner of Riverside Drive," said the article, which added that the narrow "permanent easement" "gives it all the many advantages of a front on that famous thoroughfare.  It contains a fireproof shaft for an automatic elevator.  It is generously designed, and no expense has been spared to make it a perfect residence for an opulent family."

Although the row was nearly a year from completion, William Van Wyck Graham had "prepared elegant books containing elevations and floor plans" for potential buyers.

Thomas Graham's rendering included well-dressed pedestrians, ball-playing boys, and a nanny with her charge.  No. 329 was designed as a corner structure.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, November 4, 1899 (copyright expired)
William Van Wyck Graham seemed to be leading an enviable life.  In addition to his successful business with his father, he was engaged to be married.  But things took a tragic turn in August 1900.   On September 1 The Sun reported "William Van Wyck Graham, 25 years old, son of Thomas Graham, a New York architect, committed suicide late last night on the lawn in front of the New York Infant Asylum by drinking enough carbolic acid to kill a dozen men."

The article noted "Graham was engaged to be married and a letter from the young woman dated Aug. 20 was found in his pocket.  It was evident that he had visited her while he was drinking and that they had quarreled."

Following the tragedy Thomas Graham stopped work on the 108th Street houses.  In December the unfinished row was sold at auction.  Emil Goldmark purchased the homes, but did nothing with them before they were lost in foreclosure in August 1902 to Hugh J. Gallagher.

Gallagher was obviously more aggressive in moving the high-end properties.  Two weeks after his purchase he sold Nos. 327 and 329 to Charles D. Wilder and George W. Wilder, respectively.  Both were officers in the Butterick Publishing Co.; George was its president and Charles its treasurer.  The two hired the architectural firm of Horgan & Slattery to complete the houses.  (It is no coincidence that the architects were simultaneously doing renovations to the building at No. 18 West 23rd Street for Butterick Publishing Co.)

George W. Wilder had paid $105,000 for No. 329--about $4.4 million today.  The cost to finish his house was about $35,000, $10,000 more than his brother's.  The plans called for "new retaining wall, shafts, tank &c."

It was no doubt George's highly visible and responsible position that prompted him to fib to the police when he was stopped for speeding in 1905.

Yonkers police had had enough of drivers flashing along the roadways at more than 8 miles per hour.  On April 9 they planned a sting.  Cops were stationed at quarter mile intervals.  When one cop would signal the next, he would set his timer.  Any car that traveled the quarter mile in less than one minute and 53 seconds was speeding.

The ploy worked and six drivers were pulled over, including Wilder.  The New-York Tribune noted "All of the cars were of the large touring kind and had parties of women aboard."  Flora Nichols Wilder and her companions waited outside of the police headquarters while her husband was processed inside.  When he was asked his profession, he said he was the chauffeur, no doubt hoping to avoid unflattering publicity.

No doubt when his name and address were printed in the newspapers along with "driver" as his occupation, Wilder suffered good natured ribbing at his clubs.

George and Flora purchased a winter home in 1910, a sprawling Spanish Colonial style residence in Redlands, California.

The George Wilders escaped the brutal New York winters in Redlands, California.  (copyright expired)
In May 1915 Charles sold No. 327 to J. Louis Schaefer and his wife, the former Susan Karsch.  Schaefer was treasurer of W. R. Grace & Co., president of the Grace National Bank, and a director in a score of other corporations.  The couple had four children, Bernard Karsch, J. Louis, Jr., Kathryn Christine and Susan Grace (she went by her middle name which was possibly a nod to William Russell Grace, founder of W. R. Grace & Co.).

Both of the Schaefer boys were enrolled in Princeton, but with war raging overseas, they both enlisted in the Army.  They both held the rank of private in 1916.

When the conflict first broke out their father had made a remarkable move.  He was in Italy in 1914 when he and scores of other wealthy Americans suddenly had no way to get home.  As reported in The Times, he "chartered the steamship Principessa Mafalda at Genoa, enabling many stranded Americans to return home."

Entwined dolphins surmount the vestibule window of No. 327.  Above, a cherub peers from behind a scroll in the elaborate cartouche, while the outstretched wings of an angel provide support for a window platform higher up.
When George Wilder put No. 329 on the market that year, J. Louis Schaefer purchased it for about $80,000.  He had no intentions of moving his family into the slightly larger home; but was most likely skittish because of the 13-story apartment building that had just been completed on the Riverside Drive corner.  (It was most likely that same building that prompted Wilder to sell.)  By maintaining ownership of No. 329 and the 10-foot easement, Schaefer could prevent a 50-foot wide building from going up next door to his mansion.  He leased house to moneyed families (giving him the opportunity to choose his next door neighbors).

Following the war J. Louis, Jr. joined W. R. Grace & Co. in its Domestic Credit Department.  Kathryn graduated from Barnard College in 1920.   The close ties between the Grace family and the Schaefers was evidenced when Bernard married Betsy Rice Lovejoy on  September 11, 1924.  Among his ushers was Russell Grace d' Oench, grandson of William Russell Grace.

Louis, Jr. was next to marry.  His wedding to Marguerita C. Sandbloom took place on January 5, 1926; followed by Kathryn's wedding on January 14, the following year.  In reporting on her marriage to Carl Norman Gerdau, The New York Times noted "Mr. Gerdau and his bride will sail today on the Colombo to pass several months in Spain."

Nineteen days later J. Louis Schaefer was dead.  On February 5 he walked to the garage on West 109th Street where he kept his car.   He, Susan and Grace were preparing to leave for a weekend at their country home in Neponsit, Long Island.  Just as he entered the car, he collapsed.  By the time a doctor arrived, he was dead.

J. Louis, Jr. and his wife were living in Seattle and, of course, Kathryn was on her honeymoon.  Neither could be present at the funeral in St. Luke's Lutheran Church on West 46th Street on February 8.   The Times headline read "Throng Mourns J. Louis Schaefer" and reported that hundreds stood in the vestibule of the church, unable to be seated, and the street outside was crowded with those unable to get in.

Schaefer's estate was valued at just under $3 million, more in the neighborhood of $43 million today.  There were few bequests other than to Susan and other family members.  An exception was Lillian G. McEvoy, his secretary for two decades.  She received a lump amount of $19,000, along with a yearly annuity of $2,500 "in recognition of faithful service."  Schaefer apparently suspected she would generously give the inheritance to family members or others.  A clause stressed that she "use the $2,500 yearly for herself" and directed "that if she did not keep her agreement to do so the payments be discontinued."

J. Louis Schaefer had sold No. 329 to Jesuit organization The America Press in 1926.  Now called "Campion House," it housed the editorial offices of America, a Catholic weekly.  The priests who worked on the publication lived in the upper floors.  Susan and Grace remained in No. 327 until 1930 when they moved to Park Avenue and sold the house to the group.

The two mansions were internally connected, and a nearly seamless alteration of the facade transformed the doorway of No. 327 to a window.  On April 10, 1931 The New York Times reported "The editors of America, a Catholic weekly review, were hosts yesterday afternoon to 200 guests at an information reception marking the official opening of the periodical's new offices at 329 West 108th Street...Each editor has a private office and private living quarters."

Campion House soon had other groups under its roof.  A month after the official opening, the newly-formed Catholic Poetry Society of America moved its offices in.  And in November 1937 Spanish priests in the dioceses of New York, Brooklyn, Newark and Philadelphia organized the Spiritual Union of Spanish Priests in the United States.  They, too, opened their offices here.

The editor-in-chief of America was Father John LaFarge. The priest came from an artistic family.  He was the son of famous American artist, John LaFarge, the brother of architect Christopher Grant LaFarge, and novelist Oliver LaFarge was his nephew.   Father LaFarge, however, was not known for the arts, but for his work for human rights.

A crusader for racial equality and he was a visible force behind the Civil Rights Movement.
He founded the Catholic Interracial Council and in 1936 conducted the first course in interracial justice offered at the School of Catholic Action at Fordham University.  So fervid was he in his beliefs that he testified before the Senate Committee To Prohibit Discrimination in Employment in 1944.  He said in part:

These men are not enthusiasts, nor utopian idealists, nor revolutionaries, nor seekers of position and political influence.  They are hard, sober realists, in daily contact with the sordid facts of human existence...The question of racial discrimination in employment opportunity is a national question and must be treated on a national basis...If such legislation is not provided, such as is now laid before Congress, the door will be laid wide open for the worst type of revolutionary agitation.

On November 7, 1955, on the eve of his double jubilee as priest and Jesuit, the 75-year old commented on race relations in the United States.  He felt that there had been "extraordinary improvement" within the last ten or fifteen years, and predicted acceleration.

On November 6, 1963 The New York Times reported that the Society of Jesus had purchased the nine-story building at No. 106 West 56th Street.  "The Jesuits will move their editorial and magazine offices from 329 West 108th Street, where they have been for 37 years," said the article.

Eighteen days later Rev. John LaFarge died in the 108th Street house at the age of 83.  He had just completed another book, Reflections on Growing Old.  His other works, on the whole, were more pointed to his passion, with titles that included Interracial Justice, The Catholic Viewpoint on Race Relations and The Race Question and the Negro.

His obituary that engulfed half a page in The New York Times mentioned that he had been a founder of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.  It noted "What delighted him was that the movement produced affluent white farmers willing to fight for the rights of Mexican migrants, Puerto Rican laborers and Negro sharecroppers."

The 10-foot wide easement that once provided sunlight and air to No. 329, now acts as a service alley.
In 1984 Campion House was converted to apartments.  In stark contrast to the sympathetic architectural alterations that were made in 1931, the Thomas Graham's stately mansard roof was brutally butchered to provide an additional story.

photographs by the author

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Lost New York House of Refuge - 5th Avenue and Broadway

The institution grounds sat above the X that would be formed by the crossing of Fifth Avenue and Broadway later.  Valentine's Manual, (copyright expired)

In 1806 the United States Arsenal was erected near the junction of the Bloomingdale and Old Post Roads.  It would be several decades before the northern tide of the city would reach this far.   The two-story frame building was, according to the General Government "for the purpose of an arsenal and deposit of military stores."   When the War of 1812 erupted the Arsenal was converted to a barracks.

The reconfigured barracks building as it appeared when the Society moved in. Our Police Protectors, 1885 (copyright expired)

In 1824 the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents was formed.  New York State law treated juvenile delinquency as a crime; however the wealthy men who formed the Society felt that reformation was a better option than incarceration.  What the wayward youth needed was religious instruction, industrial training and sufficient food.

After the military facility was moved to Castle William, the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents paid paid $6,000 for the barracks--about $157,000 today--along with the triangular plot of land in front formed by the junctions of the roads.   According to the authors of the 1918 The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and its Mysteries, "This location was then far out of town, in the midst of a rich farming district.  It consisted of about four acres."

Two stone-faced wings were added as well as a significant deterrent to escape.  The Society's report said "A more convenient or eligible situation could not probably have been selected.  The lot of ground, 320 feet by 300, is enclosed by a stone wall 17 feet in height, and more than two feet thick."

The New York House of Refuge was opened on January 1, 1825.  The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and its Mysteries wrote "The inmates consisted of six girls and three boys, who had been brought in by the police.  This proportion would seem to establish the fact that the women are twice as bad as the sterner sex, although we are too gallant to believe it."

The opening ceremonies included an address by District Attorney Hugh Maxwell.  He returned to the facility ten months later to check on its work.  He announced in October 1825 "I am happy to state that the House of Refuge has had a most benign influence in diminishing the number of juvenile delinquents.  The most depraved boys have been withdrawn from the haunts of vice, and the effect of the examples set them has in a great degree been destroyed."

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

One wing housed boys, the other was for girls.  The Society report stressed "there is no communication between them."  Only children between the ages of 6 and 16 were accepted.

The first floor of  the "Boys' Refuge" included a dining room, common hall, superintendent's office and tailor's and shoemaker's shops.  On the second story were the hospital and dormitories.  The 132 separate rooms were not for the claustrophobic--measuring 312 by 7 feet.  Two open aisles, 10 by 110 feet, were used as classrooms, furnished with desks and benches.  The Society noted "In school the older and more vicious boys are separated from the younger and more innocent, and a kindergarten is maintained for the younger boys."

The report said "The Girls' Refuge is finished in a superior manner to that for the Boys."  On the first floor were the kitchen, dining room and work rooms, as well as "a neat Parlor and Chamber for the Matron, a Committee Room, and a Laundry."  At the south end was the chapel, large enough to accommodate "140 boys, 70 girls, and 300 visitors."  The girls had their own hospital.  There were half as many dormitory rooms on the second floor than in the boys' wing.

On the grounds was a two-story stone house for the superintendent and his family, and a brick house for the Assistant Keeper and his family.  Boys were put to work in several other buildings where they not only learned a trade, but provided income for the institution.  Contractors paid for the labor of the boys, provided the material and the instructors, while staff from the House were placed in each shop "to maintain discipline."

The two story "Work-House" was where 40 boys were employed making chairs.  A single-story wooden building where 30 boys worked making brass nails and saddlery was connected to a foundry building.  The girls worked within the main building.  "The principal industries here are sewing and laundry work," according to the Society report.

Other outbuildings included a wooden bakery and storehouse building, and a combined stable and carriage house.  The report noted "A part of the ground is laid out into kitchen and flower gardens, grass plots and gravel walks.  There are four wells on the premises, of excellent soft water.  Adjoining the south wall, the Society occupies an angular piece of ground, containing about one acre as a pasture."

Cows graze in the pasture at the south portion of the grounds.  Our Police Protectors, 1885 (copyright expired)
The boys and girls who lived within the 17-foot walls may have had a differing opinion to the report's assertion "The whole aspect of the establishment is cheerful and comfortable, and it has little or none of the appearance of a prison."

Eliza Bailey, who arrived at the House of Refuge in 1836, was a typical case.  The Herald reported on January 7, "Eliza Bailey, a mild simple looking girl, was charged with stealing at various times from Mrs. L. St. John, No. 202 Broadway, money to the amount of eighty dollars and clothing valued at twenty more.  She confessed to the theft, but declared there was not as much money as was stated in the indictment."

Edward Pirnie arrived a week later.  The Herald reported on January 14 "Wm. Brown, alias 'Rise and Flutter,' Edward Pirnie, alias Prine, John Harvey, and Joseph Lawrence alias Portuguese Joe, were charged with burglary in the third degree, in breaking into the house of Mr. Walter B. Townsend, No. 33 Madison street."  The boys made off with $14 in silverware and other articles.  They were all found guilty, "But Edward Prine was sent to the house of refuge until he could be sent to sea, being only 16 years of age."

Being "sent to sea" was the common means of solving the problem of repeat offenders.  Teen-aged crooks and incorrigibles were indentured on sailing ships.  The theory was that they would turn to a career as sailors rather than crime.  The convenient truth was that the practice got rid of a menace.  Boys at the House of Refuge who did not successfully learn a trade or were otherwise unfit for society were sent to sea upon reaching the age of 17.

Tragically, the children who ended up in the courts and subsequently in the House of Refuge were most often victims of a cruel accident of birth.  Born into poverty and often neglected or abandoned, they had little recourse other than crime.

A pitiful example came to light in the summer of 1838.  On August 1 the Morning Herald reported "Two little girls of the age of scarcely nine years, were arraigned for stealing a basket of clothing from the side walk at Washington market.  It appeared in the course of the investigation that the step father of the children compelled them to go about town and steal whatever they could lay their hands upon; and in the default of their bringing plunder home at the close of the day, the infernal monster would scourge them with ratans over the naked flesh until the blood followed the lash."

The girls' story was confirmed by scars and recent wounds.  The article said "The Court very mercifully committed the children to the custody of the keeper of the House of Refuge, which, by the by, is one of the most benevolent institutions in the United States."

The following year the House of Refuge burned.  A new location was procured on East 23rd Street at the river until a substantial new facility was built on Randall's Island in 1854.

In the meantime, the Old Post Road was closed on April 27, 1844 and the following year Fifth Avenue was extended from 23rd to 28th Street.  The Bloomingdale Road, or Broadway, was straightened, and no remnant of the extensive House of Refuge grounds remained.  Today the grave and monument of General William Jenkins Worth sits directly above the site of the building.

The House of Refuge sat where the obelisk marking the grave of General Worth (center) is today.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.