When this photograph was taken in 1941, a Gothic synagogue entrance had been erected at street level. image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
John H. Steinmetz arrived in New York City from Germany at the age of 16 in 1841. In 1868 he opened a woodworking shop on East 39th Street and soon turned his attention to building and development. Decades later, on February 17, 1917, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide would recall, "He became one of the pioneer builders in the Murray Hill, Upper West Side and Harlem sections of Manhattan, where he built hundreds of private dwellings."
Steinmetz increased his profits by cutting out the middlemen. He purchased the vacant tracts directly, sometimes putting the titles in the name of his wife, Elizabeth, and he acted as his own architect. The Record & Guide said "on account of his unusual activity in the building lines for so many years, [he] was one of the best known men in the construction field."
The couple initiated an ambitious project in May 1890 when Steinmetz filed plans for nine upscale homes that wrapped the southwest corner of West End Avenue and 103rd Street. He gave each an individual personality, with little attempt to blend their architecture. Among them was 308 West 103rd Street, which vied for attention.
Costing $12,500 to construct (about $385,000 in 2023 terms), it rose three floors above a high English basement. Faced in undressed stone, its Romanesque Revival design featured a three-sided bay that terminated in a Corinthian arcade upholding a witches cap roof. Clinging to the side was a turret with lancet windows, atop which was a romantic, Rapunzel-ready widow's watch. For the stoop, Steinmetz stepped away from the fortress-like style by giving it sinuous, flowing wing walls.
As the row neared completion in 1891, Elizabeth Steinmetz transferred title to the homes to the couple's son, Welcome (who was also an architect). On September 15 he sold the 103rd Street houses to real estate operator Wilbur F. Washburn, who paid $25,000 for each of them, or about $768,000 today.
No. 308 became home to the family of attorney William W. Scrugham. Like their neighbors, the Scrughams maintained a domestic staff, as reflected in a position-wanted ad placed by a young servant in April 1896:
Second Man or Valet--By young Englishman; under a butler; age 23; good references. Williams.
Judging by his age, Williams was most likely the Scrughams' second man--the servant who assisted the butler and stepped into that position on the butler's days off. A valet was essentially the male equivalent of a lady's maid, a highly responsible and trusted position. The valet maintained his employer's wardrobe, drew his bath and performed personal duties like shaving him.
Because the Scrughams had a second man, their staff would necessarily have at least included a butler, cook, chambermaid, and waitress (a polished servant who served in the dining and drawing rooms).
In 1899 William W. Scrugham relocated his family to Yonkers, selling 308 West 103rd Street to Henry Steers, president of a contracting firm, the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers Company.
Steers was described by the New-York Tribune as being a "large dock contractor" and "closely affiliated with Tammany Hall." He proposed what the newspaper termed a "subway scheme" early in 1909. On March 19 the it reported that the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers Company offered "to build a new subway under Lexington avenue from The Bronx to a junction with the bridge loop subway." (The "loop" connected the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges.) Steers's proposition, as viewed by the editors, was "a radical one in subway development."
He proposed to build the subway extension at his company's expense. While the equipment and railway would belong to the city, "the possession and the right to operate remain with the contracting company...until the cost, plus 15 per cent as an engineering profit and 5 per cent interest a year on the money invested, has been repair to the company."
The New-York Tribune was not the only newspaper to view the proposal with suspicion. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal on July 20, 1909 insisted, "The more the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers combination is looked into the less it will stand the light of day."
In July 1910, before construction of the subway project began, Steers sold 308 West 103rd Street to another contractor, Archibald Charles Heaphy. The Heaphys immediately hired architect J. Juch to install an elevator in the house.
Born in Chipping Norton, England in 1866, Heaphy had come to the United States in 1880, settling as a farmer in Sioux Falls (then in the Territory of Dakota). There, in 1895 he married Florence May Wise. When they moved into the 103rd Street house they had three children, 12-year-old Arthur, nine-year-old Dorothy, and six-year-old Mary.
Archibald became active in his newly-adopted neighborhood, as evidenced when Dr. Friedrich Franz Friedmann opened the nearby Friedmann Institute. On May 16, 1913 The New York Times reported, "A meeting of householders having property near West End Avenue and 103d Street, where the Friedmann Institute is located, held a meeting last night at the home of A. C. Heaphy, 308 West 103d Street."
Friedmann treated victims of tuberculosis with what he promoted as the "turtle cure." Among those speaking at the meeting was Dr. H. C. Frauenthal, who said, "what promised to be a great discovery was assuming the aspects of a joke." A committee was formed "to observe what takes place at the institute when it begins receiving tuberculosis patients, and if conditions prove to be a nuisance the householders will complain to the proper authorities."
When Archibald Heaphy attempted to vote in 1915, he received disturbing news. The Government listed him as an alien and, as such, he was not eligible. The confusion stemmed from Heaphy's citizenship papers issued in 1886 when Sioux Falls was under territorial law. Happily for Heaphy, a previous suit had set a precedent and on October 29, 1915 a judge ordered the Naturalization Bureau to issue him citizenship papers.
The Heaphy summer home was in Dutchess County, where Archibald was an active sportsman. On February 15, 1916 the Poughkeepsie newspaper The Evening Enterprise reported, "many enthusiastic sportsmen gathered last evening in the Union League Club, New York city, for the annual meeting of the Clove Valley Road and Gun Club." At the meeting, Archibald C. Heaphy was elected a director. (The success of the 12-year-old club was touted in the "club bag" of the previous season--1,336 wild ducks, 2,133 pheasants, "more than 200 partridges and woodcock, in addition to many hares and rabbits.")
In February 1923 the Heaphys announced Mary's engagement to Lieutenant Paschal Neilson Strong, Jr. The groom-to-be was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers. Dorothy, unmarried, still lived with her parents. Ten months later, on December 19, 1923, The Sun and The Globe reported that Heaphy had sold 308 West 103rd Street for the equivalent of $603,000 in today's money.
It was the end of the line for 308 West 103rd Street as a private home. A renovation completed in 1924 resulted in apartments. It was just the beginning of rapid-fire remodeling. Two years later the former mansion was converted to furnished rooms, and in 1928 it became an Orthodox synagogue. A Gothic-style entrance was erected at street level and the parlor windows were given pointed Gothic arches filled with stained glass.
The picturesque building survived until 1963 when Rabbi Bernard Bergman, head of Congregation Kehilath Israel, purchased the building and demolished it, erecting a 13-story apartment building on the site with a synagogue on the ground floor.
many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
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