Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Victor Hugo Jackson House -- No. 240 Lenox Avenue

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
Since the land was acquired by New York City in 1839 until the 1870s, Mount Morris Square was a destination spot for New Yorkers.  Weekend excursions to the park far to the north were spent in picnicking and strolling in the country air.  The remoteness of the park changed in 1872 when the elevated train service was extended into Harlem.

Now, in addition to the developing Upper East and West Sides, there was another potential suburb.  Wealthy speculators rushed to grab up blocks of property and erect rows of handsome dwellings.  Among them was the row of five homes stretching from No. 240 Lenox Avenue, at the corner of 122nd street to No. 248. 

By the time the row was constructed, a fashionable neighborhood had already begun sprouting along the broad avenue.  Holy Trinity Church, later renamed St. Martin’s, sat on the opposite corner of 122nd Street; a magnificent Romanesque Revival structure designed by William A. Potter and completed in 1888.  Across Lenox Avenue was a row of identical brownstone-clad neo-Grec homes with handsome porticos.

But this new row would draw from a grab bag of styles, resulting in especially eye-catching and up-to-date residences.  Four stories tall including a high mansard roof, they sat on limestone English basements.  No. 240 anchored the row and was the most desirable because of its windows on three sides.  The Second Empire-style mansard was covered in fish scale tiles and pierced by cast metal dormers.  The cornice, too, with its twining vines and applied rosettes, was of pressed metal.  The three floors of red brick borrowed elements of Queen Anne in its bands of terra cotta tiles and multi-paned windows.  Paneled Queen Anne-style chimneys were topped by clustered terra cotta chimney pots.  Wonderfully quirky ironwork down the stoop and around the areaway featured twisted, wrought iron posts, wavy balusters, and decorative curlicues. 

The elegant row combined a variety of architectural styles -- photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

An unusual touch was the hefty, carved limestone entrance way.  A lion’s head peers out from floral decoration within the classical pediment and elaborate Corinthian capitals sit on scrolled pilasters.  Totally out of place, it would be more expected in a late 19th century apartment building.

When William S. Hollingsworth purchased the house from Harriet H. Holder on October 27, 1890, his mortgage was $28,000 (almost $700,000 today).  Hollingsworth would not hold on to the property for long and by the turn of the century it was owned by Dr. Victor Hugo Jackson.

The bachelor dentist was a pioneer in the field of orthodontics.  In 1893 he attended the World’s Columbia Dental Congress where much attention was given to his advances in straightening teeth. Dr. Jackson was blunt in his opinion on the subject of what materials were best suited for constructing the appliances.  As reported by The Dental Cosmos, “He had found nothing so good as piano-wire, having tried gold wire and iridium and gold.  These are good, but as soon as you apply heat to hard solder then you destroy all the spring and spoil the virtue of the wire.”

Perhaps No. 240 was too much house for the dentist, for it appears he took in boarders.  In 1903 sisters Anna and Elizabeth B. Craig lived here.  Both taught at Public School No. 7.  And in 1907 the 69-year old George B. Brown and his wife were living here.  George died in the house on Thursday, October 1 that year.

None of Jackson’s boarders would be as colorful as the local politician William B. Stambaugh.  In 1913 when John Purroy Mitchel received the backing of the Fusion committees (a cooperation of the Republican and Independent parties) in his run for mayor, Stambaugh launched into action.

Mitchel had already made a name for himself as a reformer and was popular among the anti-Tammany groups.  In an effort to get Charles S. Whitman elected over Mitchel, Stambaugh called a meeting in the Lenox Avenue house on August 2, 1913.  The following day The New York Times reported “The Whitman Independence League was organized at 240 Lenox Avenue yesterday afternoon.  William B. Stambaugh is the moving spirit of the new organization, which has for its purpose not only to obtain the nomination of District Attorney Whitman for Mayor, but also to put a full ticket in the field.”

The problem for Stambaugh and his followers was that Whitman was not eager to run.  He told reporters at a conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire on August 4 that he was “unalterably opposed” to the use of his name as a third candidate.

“I have fought Tammany Hall all my life and shall continue to do so.  You can be sure that no amount of pressure or argument will induce me to do anything that will give aid or succor to Tammany Hall,” he said.

Stambaugh was unmoved.  The New York Times reported the following day “The Whitman Independence League, at a meeting at 240 Lenox Avenue last night, passed resolutions empowering a committee of five to meet Mr. Whitman to-day to urge him to agree to have his name submitted to the people on the primary ballot…William B. Stambaugh, Chairman of the league, said he thought the plan was a solution of the present difficulty in that the voters themselves could determine just whom they wanted for Mayor.”

Despite Stambaugh's efforts, Michel was elected Mayor of New York the following year.  But, undeterred by the setback, William B. Stambaugh threw his hat into the Congressional race that year.  On June 29, 1914 the New-York Tribune reported that he “announced his candidacy for Congress on the Republican ticket in the 19th district.”  In reporting his run, the newspaper noted he was a member “of several clubs and fraternal orders, including the Harlem Republican Club, Citizens Union, Collegiate Club of New York, and Bunting Lodge 665, F. and A. M.”

Queen Anne chimneys coexist with a French Second Empire roof.  The cast metal of the dormers and cornice is evident in the current rusting condition -- photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
In the meantime, Dr. Jackson quietly went ahead with his dentistry in his office at No. 57 West 57th Street, and worked on perfecting the science of braces.  The same year that Stambaugh ran for Congress, Jackson introduced the Jackson System of Orthodontia for straightening teeth.  He also founded the Victor Hugo Jackson Clinic of Oral Surgery and amassed a collection of dental models and library of manuscripts.

On March 1, 1924 the wealthy dentist sat down to write his will.  Although he named eight relatives, giving them a total of $52,000 from his extensive fortune, he wrote flatly that “no other relative has taken any interest in my lifework and I am not including them.”

Instead, he lavished large amounts on charities.  To the University of Michigan he bequeathed more than $150,000; $94,000 to the Dental School of the University of Buffalo; and $10,000 each to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Jackson was adamant regarding the use of his money going to the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Rather than for the care of animals, it was to “be used for the prosecution of all persons in any way connected with taking away the eyesight of animals, such as is practiced on some of our noble-spirited horses.”

Jackson’s careful and detailed will was, as it turned out, all for nothing.  He died on January 26, 1929 leaving an estate of what would amount to about $4.5 million today.  A week later his relatives filed an application to have the will pronounced void.  Jackson had inadvertently failed to have his will witnessed.

Surrogate O’Brien, on February 9, 1929, invalidated the will.  The more than $270,000 in charitable bequests were lost and Jackson’s family, whom he had purposely left out of the will, divided his fortune.

The house at No. 240 Lenox Avenue was assessed at $20,000—a fraction of its value at the turn of the century.  The Harlem neighborhood had suffered and things only got worse when later that year the country was crippled by the Great Depression.

In June 1938 the Jacob Goodman Company sold the house “to a buyer for altering,” according to The New York Times.  The “altering,” completed on December 8 that year, resulted 25 “furnished rooms” in Dr. Jackson’s cultured home.  It was now what was brutally termed a flop house.

But change came to the Mount Morris Park area towards the end of the century.  Residents realized the historic and architectural value of the century-old buildings.  A movement was initiated to preserve the heritage of the neighborhood.

The scar between the second and third floor as well as the gruesome platform below the oriel are no doubt the result of a former fire escape -- photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
In 2013 another conversion was completed on No. 240 Lenox Avenue—resulting in one spacious apartment per floor.  Dr. Victor Hugo Jackson’s handsome home still shows the scars of abuse; yet it radiates the essence of an elegant turn-of-the-century Harlem.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Lilienthal House -- No. 48 E. 74th Street

In 1870 brothers David and John Jardine designed a row of eleven Italianate rowhouses along the south side of East 74th Street.  Before long the pair would not only be designing, but erecting speculative blocks of houses in the developing area.  But these new brownstones, stretching from No. 30 through 50, were the project of developers Peter V. Winters and William T. Hunt.

The row was completed in 1871.  Each carbon-copy home was four stories tall over a deep English basement.  Hefty stone Italianate newels flanked the steep stoops.  Intended for merchant-class families, there was nothing extraordinary in their design to set them apart from scores of similar dwellings being constructed in Manhattan and Brooklyn at the time.

Two years after the houses were completed the Financial Panic of 1873 set in.  The devastating depression was perhaps the cause of the foreclosure of No. 48 in July 1879.  The owner had company in his “embarrassment;” at the same foreclosure auction was No. 26 East 74th Street, half a block away.

No. 48 was purchased at the auction by Moses Ehrenreich and his wife, Hannah.  The deed, as was customary, was put in Hannah’s name.  Ehrenreich was a member of Ehrenreich Bros., a well-known factoring firm in the retail coal business.  He would also serve as president of the Coal Exchange.

Hannah Ehrenreich followed the proprieties of a well-to-do Victorian woman.  When daughter Blanche became engaged to Dr. J. Lowengood, she hosted “at homes” on December 24 and 31, 1893.  In the 19th and early 20th century, announcing that one was “at home” was a signal that guests were welcomed to call.  It was a less formal method of inviting guests and one way socialites coordinated their entertainments.

The practice would be repeated in November 1902 when Lillian Ehrenreich became engaged to George H. Shumen of Boston.  But Moses and Hannah had other issues to deal with that year as well.

By the time Lillian met George, the East 74th Street neighborhood was rapidly changing.  As mansions rose along Fifth Avenue, the affluent district spread eastward.  Millionaires purchased the 1870s brownstones and either razed or remodeled them into stylish, modern residences. 

In 1900 Frank L. Froment lived next door to the Ehrenreich family.  That year, like so many of his neighbors, he stripped off the facade and created a fine American basement mansion with a bold three-story angled base.  Hannah and Moses Ehrenreich, however, were less than pleased.

To their eye Froment had overstepped his property line by four inches, crowding their stoop, and stealing that amount of brownstone from their home.  In 1901 they took Froment to court demanding that he undo the damage.

Court papers explained “in removing the old front his workmen cut some of the brown stone of which the front wall of the plaintiff’s house was constructed, and it was to restrain this interference with the plaintiff’s front wall and stoop, and to require the defendant to restore the premises to the condition they were in before this interference by him.”

The court was taxed with determining at which point in the party wall the property changed from Froment’s to Ehrenreich’s.  It would not be an easy task.  The New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ehrenreich; directing Froment “to restore the front of the plaintiff’s said house to its original condition” following a vertical line from the sidewalk to the roofline directly along the center of the party wall.

Any victory Moses and Hannah celebrated would be short-lived.  Froment appealed and they were all back in court in June 1902.  Following that hearing, the judge determined that the earlier judgment be reversed and a new trial ordered.

None of this resulted in good neighborly relations and before long Frank Froment moved from No. 50 to No. 52; leaving his newly remodeled home as a buffer.

The messy legal matter was put aside on June 17, 1903 when Lillian Beatrice Ehrenreich married George Harrison Shuman in Delmonico’s.  The New York Times reported the following day that “The bridal couple will leave New York to-day on the sloop-yacht Lamont for an extended cruise up the New England coast.  After their return they will be at home both in Boston and this city.”

After more than 30 years in the old brownstone, Ehrenreich sold it in 1911 to Dr. Howard Lilienthal, attending surgeon to Bellevue Hospital and visiting surgeon to Mount Sinai Hospital.  He would also serve as consulting surgeon to the Jewish Maternity and the Har Moriah Hospitals, and to the Hospital for Deformities and Joint Diseases.

There was good reason for Lilienthal's purchase.  Shortly afterward, on November 7, Lilienthal married Edith Strode in the Church of the Ascension.  “After a short trip South Dr. and Mrs. Lilienthal will occupy their new residence at 48 East Seventy-fourth Street,” announced The Times.

Before the newlyweds would move in, however, Lilienthal would do what nearly every other homeowner on the block had already done—remodel his new house.  He commissioned architect S. Edson Gage to strip off the brownstone and update the residence into a modern neo-Georgian dwelling.

The style was currently quite fashionable among the moneyed set in New York and, with its dignified lines and lack of ostentatious ornament, created an appropriate home for the doctor.  Gage produced a handsome Colonial-inspired house that restrained itself among its more showy neighbors.

The house as it appeared when Dr. Lilienthal purchased it.  Frank Froment's pushy remodel is to the left.

The newlyweds placed evergreens on the balcony of their newly-remodeled home.  Someone forgot to close the hatch to the basement entrance before the photograph was taken.   both photographs by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
A nearly-severe limestone base supported three stories of red brick trimmed with paneled limestone lintels.  A charming third floor balcony relieved the flat façade.  The fifth floor was disguised by a stone balustrade above the cornice.

As World War I broke out, Lilienthal joined the Medical Reserve Corps of the U.S. Army as First Lieutenant.  It is possibly his war duties that prompted the Lilienthals to lease the house furnished to Miss Mary Olcott of Ridgefield, Connecticut in October of 1917.

Then The Sun reported on May 30 the following year that “Mrs. Howard Lillienthal has sold the five story American basement residence…to a buyer for occupancy.”  The house became home to Dr. Arthur Stein.

Stein had graduated from the University of Strassburg in 1901.  By now he was Associate Gynecologist at Lenox Hill and Harlem Hospitals.  Like Lilienthal, he also worked at the Hospital for Deformities and Joint Diseases.  Stein and his wife, Alice, would remain in the house until June 1929, when they sold it to yet another physician, heart specialist Dr. Henry James.

James was well-regarded and had established himself as the physician of some of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.  When Chauncey M. Depew, Jr., son of the well-known senator, died of pneumonia on January 25, 1931, it was Dr. James who was attending him.

1941 was a year of upheaval in the household.  On February 19, 1941 Henry James’ wife, the former Rosalie O’Brien, died in Doctor’s Hospital.   Then, just over two weeks later with World War II raging in Europe, their son, 23-year old Morgan James was inducted in the Army.

The doctor bounced back from his grief, however, and less than a year after his wife’s death he married Lady Thornton on February 8, 1942.  The wealthy bride was the widow of the chairman and president of the Canadian National Railways.

The last of the doctor’s sons, Philip Ranson James would leave the house in 1950.  Educated at Columbia, his engagement was announced in February of that year.  Somewhat ironically, his bride-to-be was Catherine O’Brien, who shared the same maiden name as his mother.  The couple was married in Southampton on September 10.

Seven years later Dr. Henry James died in the house of pneumonia at the age of 76 on July 14, 1957.  At the time of his death he had been Senior Attending Physician at Bellevue for 27 years.

The house was sold the following year in March to the Jewish Braille Institute of America as its headquarters.  The institution maintained a free circulating library of more than 15,000 braille volumes and a collection of talking books.  The house was completely renovated as offices, including the installation of an elevator.

The 21st century saw many of the Upper East Side’s surviving mansions reconverted to private residences.  In 2005 No. 48 was restored as a private residence and in 2009 it became home to Hal Prince and his wife, Judith.  The theatrical producer and director paid $12.5 million for the property and set to work creating what one real estate columnist called “highly personalized décor.”

No trace of the neo-Georgian interiors remained after the renovation.  photo
The back wall of the neo-Georgian structure was replaced with glass.  There was now a four-story atrium, and in the basement a gym and staff suite.  On October 25, 2013 The New York Times reported that the “robustly decorated” town house had sold for $19.1 million.

While not a nail head survives of S. Gages 1911 interiors; the exterior has been meticulously maintained.  And perhaps to Moses and Hannah Ehrenreich’s posthumous satisfaction, Frank Froment’s offensive house next door has been replaced by an apartment building.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Billy the Oysterman -- No. 11 E. 20th Street

When William Brady began construction of the three-story Italianate rowhouse at No. 11 East 20th Street in 1852, he was a little late to the party.  By now businesses were infiltrating the residential neighborhood between Madison Square and Union Square along Broadway.  No sooner had the brick-faced house been completed in 1853 than tax documents reveal that it housed small shops.

In 1865 the firm of Locke & Craige owned the building.  A year earlier U.S. Congress House Documents documented that the government had paid the firm $721.10 “for a site and building for a post office in the city of New York.”  With the money from selling its building, the company apparently bought No. 11 East 20th.

At some point around 1870 the building got a facelift with neo-Grec lintels over the openings, a pedimented cornice, and a two-story shop front.  By 1900 the neighborhood had become a major shopping district.  That year owner Sarah Hale Witthaus hired contractor James Waddell to install a modern storefront with expansive windows at the second floor.  It attracted a new tenant, furrier Robert Arnold.  On July 1, 1902 Fur Trade Review noted “Mr. Robert Arnold, importing and manufacturing furrier, has removed to exceptionally desirable premises at 11 East Twentieth street, near Broadway.”

The building was sold in 1906 to “an investor.”  Soon Arp Laue signed a 15-year lease on the building for an aggregate rental of $75,000.  The quiet existence of No. 11 East 20th Street was soon to change.

The following year, next door at Nos. 7 and 9, Holtz & Freystedt built an impressive 12-story Beaux Arts building.  The restaurateurs reserved the lower two floors for its French-inspired restaurant. 

In the meantime, German immigrant William T. Ockendorf ran his own restaurant on West Third Street.  Known as “Billy the Oysterman,” he started out small, opening an oyster stand in a basement at Wooster and West Third Streets.  Oysters sold for “a cent a-piece.”  Later he moved his restaurant with its sawdust-covered floors upstairs on West Third Street.  Later The New York Times would reminisce “’Billy the Oysterman’ became an institution known throughout the city.”

In 1910 the man who had started his new life selling oysters for a penny personally walked into the Albany Statehouse to incorporate his business.  He had big plans. 

A year earlier Holtz & Freystedt expanded its restaurant, breaking through the wall to No. 11.  The plan would be short lived, however.  By 1912, with business failing, Holtz & Freystedt abandoned the expanded space.  A year later it closed its doors for good.

As quickly as Holtz & Freystedt evacuated No. 11, Billy the Oysterman moved in.  The New York Times said “The present restaurant of ‘Billy the Oysterman’ offers a sharp contrast with the saw-dust covered floors of the earlier places  It has tiled floors, mounted fish on the walls and expensive furniture.”

The by time Billy the Oysterman moved into No. 11 (lower right) it was already squeezed between towering buildings.  The wall of windows at the second floor and the centered doorway can be seen.  photograph by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Billy the Oysterman took up the lower two floors and the top floor was leased to various businesses throughout the years.  Katz & Co., owned by Phil Katz, was here in 1915, according to The American Cloak and Suit Review; and Baumann-Marx Realty Co., Inc. had its offices in the building in 1918.

William T. Ockendorf died on January 20, 1914.  He had amassed an estate equaling over $1 million today “mainly accumulated in the oyster business,” said The Sun on February 1.  Ockendorf left the business to his three sons, George, Harvey and William. 

George Washington Ockendon, the eldest son, took on the sobriquet of Billy the Oysterman.  Like his brothers, he had a public school education and learned the business first-hand.  Despite his sometimes rough-edged demeanor, he was a consummate host.  The New York Times remembered on December 11, 1928 “With his brothers, he would personally greet the prominent guests.  Among those who came frequently were Governor Smith, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and leaders of sport, politics and the stage.”

Business flourished, requiring additional staff.  On a single day in 1918 two advertisements appeared in the New-York Tribune.  One read “Kitchenmen Wanted—No Sunday work,” the other simply said “Oysterman—No Sunday work.  Billy the Oysterman.”

George Ockendon not only had a large personality, he had a large physique.  The Sun took the opportunity to poke fun at Ockendon’s girth on April 5, 1919 following the auction of actress Marjorie Rambeau’s furniture.

“The big thud on Broadway’s consciousness occurred when Billy the Oysterman, who looks as though he carries a large part of the stock of his restaurant on Twentieth street concealed on his person, bought a huge mahogany chair, formerly the property of Grover Cleveland, with compartments that might be useful before prohibition sets in.  It was whispered that Billy went to the chair—or vice versa—not because he bid $23, but because he was the only one present who could fit its dimensions, Billy breaking the scales at something like 300 pounds.”

The newspaper’s mention of hidden compartments and Prohibition was somewhat foretelling.  The Ockendon brothers had no intention of letting Prohibition put an end to their selling alcohol.  The restaurant’s first brush with dry agents ended with a lucky break.  On April 23, 1921 The Times reported that “Policeman George Chaffers of the East Twenty-second Street Station said he had found three sealed bottles of whisky in a handbag in the apartment of Ockendon at the East Twentieth Street address.”

The policeman did not have a search warrant and Judge Thomas J. Nolan begrudgingly discharged George Ockendon.  Nolan was not happy.  “This testimony opens up another angle of the situation.  The policeman acting under orders is not to be criticised, but the orders seem to be absolutely contrary to law and repulsive to the Constitution.”

Jacketed waiters serve in the handsome downstairs room.  The staircase to the second floor dining room can be seen behind the oyster bar.  photograph Gas Logic magazine, June 1918 (copyright expired)

Billy the Oysterman would not continue to be so lucky.  George used the third floor and basement to warehouse liquor and established a “private bar” in his office for trusted patrons.  On October 24, 1922 Prohibition agents purchased drinks served by waiter Otto Seidt.  The following day they returned, this time with a search warrant.

Eight agents descended on Billy the Oysterman at noon and swarmed over the restaurant.  According to The Evening World later that day, “They discovered ten cases of whiskey and several barrels of bottled beer and ale of unauthorized but strongly verbalized authority.”  The New York Times reported “The total value of the seized goods at the current bootleg prices was given at $5,000” and increased the number of cases of whiskey to 25.

When the agents crashed into the private bar, according to The Times, “A patron…was about to place a glass of whisky to his lips.  The agent snatched it away from him and placed it with the other seized stuff.”

The Evening World said “The patrons of the place showed strong indignation.  Some were unhappy because ‘so much good stuff had to go to waste;’ others were incensed against the management because they had never learned that forbidden beverages were to be had in the place.”

According to the New-York Tribune “A crowd gathered and watched the agents load cases and barrels on a big warehouse truck.”  The newspaper provided a more detailed inventory of Billy’s stash.  “In the seizure were cases of wines, gin, whisky and cordials.  The beer alone was reported to be worth $5,000.  The liquors, including choice wines, were worth probably $5,000 more.”

By now Billy the Oysterman had taken over the former Holtz & Freystedt space as well.  The brothers--perhaps in part because they ignored Prohibition--were doing quite well for themselves.  The restaurant’s 1921 Profit and Loss Statement disclosed that George was earning $19,500 a year, and his brothers $12,000 each.  Those figures would equal about $240,000 and $150,000 today.  George’s salary was of intense interest to his wife, Florence, who began divorce proceedings in 1922.

Despite Federal raids, Billy the Oysterman continued on with relative normalcy.  The same year that agents made their noon raid, the Upholstery Association of America took over the second floor for its annual elections.  “Following the election of officers a beefsteak dinner and smoker will be provided by Billy the Oysterman,” announced The Upholsterer and Interior Decorator.

The Ockendons would not surrender in their battle against Prohibition. In 1926 the restaurant donated $50 to the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.  And two years later George’s brother William got even with one government agent.

William was in the restaurant in June 1928 when undercover agents Palmer F. Tubbs and Samuel Kupferman ordered a drink.  When they were served, they identified themselves.  But Kupferman took William Ockendon aside and said he would “fix things up” for $500.  Ockendon paid the bribe.  Then immediately went to authorities.

On August 2 William Ockendon took the stand to testify as a witness for the Government before a Grand Jury.  In return for his testimony against the corrupt agents, he received immunity for the liquor sales.

George W. Ockendon died four months later in December, never to see the repeal of Prohibition.  The hard-edged and feisty restaurateur got the last word at least in one respect.  The divorce initiated by Florence was not yet finalized.  When George’s estate was filed he had cut her out of the will, leaving her a meager $500.

The title of Billy the Oysterman passed to William Thomas Ockendon, now the oldest brother.  The fame of the restaurant only increased.  In 1934 William Ockendon estimated he had sold 41,693,063 oysters; later putting the estimate into the context of a barrel a day—upwards to 1,400 oysters daily.  In 1935 Cole Porter wrote “A Picture of Me Without You.”  The lyrics included Billy the Oysterman:

Picture H. G. Wells without a brain
Picture Av’rell Harriman without a train,
Picture Tintern Abbey without a cloister,
Picture Billy the Oysterman without an oyster

William continued the family’s attention to fresh food and good service.  On November 19, 1934 his passion would nearly require that he be physically restrained.  The following day The New York Times wrote “An ultramarine-finned sailfish and a lean-jawed barracuda, both safely stuffed, stared fixedly last night from the walls of Billy the Oysterman’s…as the Society of Restaurateurs debated the merits of the table d’hote and the a la carte meal.”  The newspaper said “William Ockendon—Billy the Oysterman himself—was regarded as having struck the most telling blow”

The restaurant owners had come to decide whether offering limited menus of ready-made items would save them “from financial ruin.”  The very idea incensed Ockendon.

Standing before the association he said “I am 100 per cent opposed to the table d’hote meal.  I think it’s a joke—“  He was interrupted by an owner who said “It’s no joke; we use the same food for the table d’hote as the a la carte meal.  We—“

Now Ockendon interrupted in what The Times called a roar.  “There was never a roast chicken roasted at 11 o’clock to serve at 12 o’clock, that was good at 2 o’clock.”

When the debate between the two men verged on verbal violence, William Zelser of the White Horse Tavern “struck a conciliatory note.”  He soothed the men saying “There is room for both types of restaurant in this city.”

The Times ended its recap of the evening saying “Finally the echoes of the debate died away and the sailfish and the barracuda stared down upon empty tables and well-filled ash trays.”

Billy the Oysterman opened a second restaurant at No. 10 West 47th Street in 1938.  By now the restaurant was known nation-wide.  Forbes Magazine had commended two years earlier “Billy the Oysterman, like Oscar of the Waldorf, has become a national institution, foodwise.”

In 1938 the New York City Guide, published by the Federal Writers’ Project, listed the prices at Billy the Oysterman as “lunch from 85 cents, dinner $2.00.”  By 1946 when No. 11 East 20th Street was sold by the Fifth Avenue Bank of New York, the 47th Street location had become the main restaurant.  No. 11 was termed “a branch.”  Four years later Billy the Oysterman closed the 20th Street restaurant after nearly half a century of business.  The 47th Street operation closed in 1953.

A 1940s menu from the 47th Street restaurant mentions West 20th Street a "branch"

When William Ockendon died in October 1961 at the age of 80, The New York Times fondly reminisced of his passion for serving good food; and it brought up the heated debate of 1934.  “He once confessed that he himself was not fond of oysters and added that, perhaps, he had seen too many.  He was, however, a champion of the casual manner of dining and once lectured the Society of Restaurateurs on the beauties of the table d’hote and the evils of the a la carte fashions.”

The restaurant tradition at No. 11 East 20th Street continued when Miriam Novalle purchased the building in 1996.  She told a Times reporter ”I just want to be in the tea business.”  With Rhode Island restaurateur Hank Kates, she opened her tea shop, salon and mail order company called T Salon.

The centered entrance created in 1900 was moved to the side before the shop opened later that fall.  T Salon would remain in the space until the early 2000s.  It was replaced by ‘Wichcraft, a trendy sandwich shop that remains there today.  In 2009 owner Tom Colicchio expanded to the second floor, where dinner was now served with waiter service and wine.

Once a destination so well known that Cole Porter’s mention of it was universally understood, the little building at No. 11 East 20th is a bit sorry looking and mostly overlooked today.  Squashed between two towering buildings, it was the home of an important page of Manhattan’s culinary and social history, now forgotten.

photograph by the author