Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Jose Julian Marti Statue - Central Park at 6th Avenue




In 1945 Sixth Avenue, at the prompting of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, was renamed the "Avenue of the Americas" to honor Pan-American ideals.  In response a new plaza was designed at the head of the avenue where it meets Central Park.  The statue of Simon Bolivar was moved to the eastern side of the entrance and a month later the statue of José de San Martin was erected on the western side.

Eleven years later the renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington announced her intention to create a statue of Cuban patriot, author and poet José Marti as a gift to the Cuban Government.  The Parks Department, in turn, announced on July 29, 1956 that it had accepted the Cuban Government's offer to erect that statue in Central Park.  It would be placed at the curve of the roadway just behind the Bolivar and San Martin statues.

The New York Times added that Huntington "has estimated her work will take more than two years to complete."  No one could have anticipated the chain of events that would take place within those two years and the problems they would cause for Huntington's monument.

That Anna Hyatt Huntington chose the Cuban hero for her subject, or that she paid for the costly work out of her own pocket was not surprising.  Her recently-deceased husband, multi-millionaire Archer M. Huntington, had organized the Hispanic Society in 1904.  He began construction of the Spanish Museum building that same year; what would become part of his sprawling Audubon Terrace complex at Broadway and 155th Street.  Within its courtyard are Anna Hyatt Huntingon's bronze equestrian statue El Cid, a limestone bas-relief of Don Quixote and another of Boabdil, the last Moorish king of Spain.

Marti, the subject of her latest project, was a leader in the quest for Cuba's freedom from Spain.  After being imprisoned in 1868, he fled to New York in 1880 to continue advocating for Cuban independence in exile.  He organized the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York in 1892.

In 1895 his support was strong enough that he returned to Cuba to fight.  He was fatally wounded during the battle of Dos Rios later that same year.  Huntington's vision of the statue would capture the moment that he was struck atop his horse.

While she steadily worked in her Redding, Connecticut studio, another revolution was playing out in Cuba.  Fidel Castro and his army of rebels were engaged in guerrilla warfare against the regime of President General Fulgencio Batista.   It culminated in the collapse of the Batista government on January 1, 1959, just as the Huntington statue was being prepared for casting.

Three weeks after Batista's fall Stuart Constable of the Department of Parks assured New Yorkers that the revolution would not affect the plans to erect the monument.  He said that "any honor paid to Marti would probably be as acceptable to the Castro Government as it was to that of General Batisa."  A spokesman at the Cuban Consulate unofficially agreed, saying "After all, Marti is a national hero."

The Bastisa Government had presented Parks Commissioner Robert Moses a check for $100,000 on December 3, 1957 to pay for a base for the Marti monument.  That massive, 16-foot-high black granite pedestal designed by Clarke & Rapuano was placed on the site to await the statue that would not come for years.

The enormous statue--it is 18-feet tall and weighs approximately five tons--was shipped to New York City and promptly "hidden" in a Bronx warehouse.  The State Department had stepped in to halt the erecting of the statue.  Authorities feared possible "disturbances" between pro-Batista and pro-Castro factions.

And, in fact, those fears were well-founded.  On February 7, 1960 the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that New York "witnessed a riot between pro and anti-Castro factions recently during a wreath-laying ceremony in Central Park at the statue of Cuban liberator Jose Marti."

That wreath-laying had, originally, been intended as the unveiling ceremony.  Marti's birthday was January 28 and plans were made to finally present the statue on that day.   But half an hour before the statue was set to be hauled onto the delivery truck, a message came from the office of Stuart Constable to stop shipment.  Constable, who a year earlier had assured that the revolution would not affect that monument's dedication, now asserted the statue was "unfinished."

Anna Hyatt Huntington assured reporters that she had finished it two years earlier.  That State Department claimed, according to The Times, that "all it knows is that the Park Commissioner, Robert Moses, asked last November if Marti's birthday would be a suitable time for erecting the statue.  The department replied that Marti's birthday, Jan. 28, would be fine."

Amid conflicting stories and excuses the bronze artwork remained in the Bronx, partly covered by tarpaulins.  Cuban-Americans, nevertheless, forged on with their plans.  So on the day once planned for the unveiling, supporters of both Castro and Batista arrived to pay honor to their hero.  War broke out between the two factions.

The anti-Castro group, which called itself La Rosa Blanca (the white rose was a symbol taken from Marti's Versos Sencillos) had obtained a permit for a ceremony and the placing of a bouquet of white roses at the pedestal.  The Movimiento 26 de julio (The 26th of July Movement, a pro-Castro group) had been refused a permit.  But that did not stop their plans.

According to The New York Times account of the incident, the Castro supporters called La Rosa Blanca members "assassins, murderers" and their opponents shot back with "communists, godless blackguards."  Before the NYPD riot squad could quell the conflict 3 people were hurt and 12 arrested.

In the spring of 1960 the black granite pedestal sat forlornly empty.  The New York Times, April 13, 1960

Four months after the ugly affair, the Havana-born New York University professor Dr. José Garcia-Mazas complained "I cannot understand why is was not unveiled last January 28.  Is it because the Park Department is afraid of a riot, or is it playing politics--that's the question."

Years passed and New Yorkers became accustomed to the sarcophagus-looking stone block; most essentially forgetting why it was there at all.  On February 1964 the San Bernardino Sun commented "In New York, covered with tarpaper, is a statue which has been causing the Department of State a lot of headaches. "  The newspaper opined that the "reason is that if the dedication ceremony was held, the Castrolites would insist on being present; so would the exiled followers of Batista.  There might be trouble."  But a more plausible reason at this point was that the United States did not want to appear to honor a Communist regime.

Later that year, on October 10, The New York Times said that the "conspicuously...horseless marble pedestal" which had now stood for five years was "puzzling tourists and New Yorkers--and irking many Cuban exiles."  The article said that Huntington's $200,000 work was "a captive of the Parks Commissioner, acting under advice from the State Department."

"And this has been the fate of the José Marti statue ever since, despite several appeals by anti-Castro Cuban groups to Mayor Wagner and the State Department, all explaining that José Marti was a national hero, the George Washington of Cuba, and that dedication of the statue would not be recognizing the Castro regime."

A few days before that article, a group of Cuban exiles had decided to take matters in their own hands.  They acquired the giant plaster model of the statue from Anna Hyatt Huntington and hauled it from her Connecticut studio to Manhattan.  At around midnight, 15 refugees readied themselves to erect it upon the granite base.  When they made too much noise, waking neighbors, six police cars responded, assuming the men were breaking into the large truck containing the statue.

The group was headed by none other than the NYU professor who had made his dissatisfaction with the Park Departments' inactivity known months earlier.  Dr. José Garcia-Mazas produced the paperwork proving he had rented the truck and the police left.

That was the least of their problems however.  Although the plaster model weighed much less than the actual bronze statue, it was too massive to lift.  According to The Times, "So they decided to reassemble the pieces on the ground, confident that the 600-pound statue would not be easily carried away by the police.  Four hours later the statue was easily carried away by the police."

The U.S. and city authorities finally relented.  On January 27, 1965 The New York Times reported "After 13 years, the bronze statue of José Marti...will finally rise next month on its long empty pedestal at the southern end of Central Park."  The date set was February 21.  And Dr. José Garcia-Mazas was back in the news to explain that it was the Sunday closest to February 24, "the day the Cuban patriot began his campaign for independence in Cuba."

But now there was a new problem.  The newspaper said "There seems to be a bit of confusion about where the statue is.  The Mayor's office is certain the Department of Parks has it in storage somewhere.  But it was unable to run it down last night."  A representative of the Mayor's office promised "We are sure we will learn exactly where the statue is tomorrow morning."

And Park Commissioner Newbold Morris claimed he knew nothing about the plan.  Insisting that he was a "consistent admirer of Mrs. Huntington's works," he said that "no one had told him officially that the State Department had reversed itself.  "Until I am notified in writing by the Mayor's office there is nothing that can be done about the statue," he told a reporter.

Not surprisingly, February 21 came and went with no ceremony.  A new date was set for May 20, Cuban independence day.  In reporting on the revised date The New York Times mentioned "The sculptor, Anna Hyatt Huntington, now 88 years old, has been invited to witness the mounting of the statue on the pedestal and to come again for the dedication ceremony."

The statue was "quietly unveiled" on May 18, not the 20th.  Anna Hyatt Huntington was there, as hoped, and she was presented the city's gold medallion of honor.  The Times mentioned that "As the dedication ended a broad-shouldered Cuban--tie askew and in need of a shave--quietly placed a single white rose at the base of the pedestal and swiftly left.  He wouldn't give his name."

During the long odyssey the City of New York had grappled with another problem.  The Batista Government's gift of $100,000 to pay for the pedestal was slightly more than the actual cost.  A holding account had been established for the $10,861 while authorities wrangled about what to do with it.  Returning it to the now-Communist Cuban government no doubt seemed a bad idea.  And so finally in November 1972 the money was transferred to a reserve fund, making the City a bit richer.

Cuban-American relations began to improve in December 2014 when President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a detente--what Cubans called the deshielo cubano, or Cuban thaw.  In response the Bronx Museum of the Arts gathered donations to make a copy of the Marti statue to present to the City of Havana.

But, as had been the case more than half a century earlier, things changed while the statue was being cast.  By the time it was ready for shipment in October 2017, the Trump administration had reversed many of the Obama-era agreements.  Nevertheless New York City went on with the gift.

On October 20, 2017 Reuters reported "Cuba unveiled a replica of a New York statue of independence hero Jose Marti on Friday, putting a gift from the hometown of U.S. President Donald Trump on public display at a time of heightened U.S.-Cuba tensions."  The statue was diplomatically situated, facing the Florida Straits with the United States coast just 90 miles away.




Anna Hyatt Huntington's bronze statue is among the most impressive of Manhattan public artworks.  The power and motion of the horse and its rider caught at the moment Marti was fatally shot, are masterful.

photographs by the author

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Margaret D. Fitzpatrick House - 72 East 86th Street




On May 17, 1884 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Sigmund J. Seligman had sold the 40-foot wide plot at Nos. 70 and 72 East 86th Street for $17,600--more than $450,000 today.  The buyer, Judge Thomas Pearson, often traded in real estate, but listed with him on the deed this time were his wife, Mary, and their daughter Margaret.

Judge Pearson most often bought and sold properties rather than develop them.  And when he did erect structures, he routinely hired recognized architects to design them.  Occasionally, however, he acted as his own architect and it appears he did so for No. 72 East 86th Street.

Erected by contractor George E. Broas, the 20-foot wide home was completed in 1886 in the highly popular Queen Anne style with splashes of Renaissance Revival.  A brownstone stoop led to the architecturally quirky parlor floor above the English basement.  Rough-cut brownstone quoins--looking like a teetering stack of Jenga blocks--starkly contrasted with the formal Renaissance Revival piers and entablature of the entrance.   Above, three stories of red brick trimmed in brownstone culminated in two dramatic openings perched on a molded cornice.  Flanked by brick piers, they sprouted make-believe dormers that thrust through the slate-tiled mansard.

A crowned face stares from the carved panel above what was originally the doorway.  The transom of the parlor windows would have been originally filled with colorful stained glass.
The house may have been erected in anticipation of Margaret's upcoming marriage to James Joseph Fitzpatrick.   Her new husband seems to have been still trying to establish himself.  He was enrolled at Columbia College in 1889.

The Fitzpatricks remained in the house until April 1903 when it was sold to Fannie Eckman.  Her $15,000 mortgage, around $431,000 today, hinted at the price and reflected the upscale nature of the block.

It is doubtful that Fannie ever lived in the house.  Like Judge Pearson, she and her husband Samuel, who died in November 1901, routinely dabbled in real estate.  They purchased homes like No. 72 as lucrative rental properties.

In the meantime, in San Francisco respected physician W. Burgess Estes had problems.   He had been living as a house guest of Luman Wadham for several months in 1901 when a divorced woman, Mrs. Collins, caught his eye and then his heart.  Unfortunately, at the same time Wadham's daughter, Bertha, had become smitten with the eligible bachelor who shared their dinner table.

Bertha gave Dr. Estes a gold watch with a silver chain and two gold watch fobs.  But pricey gifts could not divert his romantic attentions from Mrs. Collins and the two were married in August.  Two weeks later Estes was behind bars.

Bertha had sworn out a warrant accusing the doctor of stealing the items.  Infuriated and publicly embarrassed, Estes insisted "it was a case of spite-work on the part of Miss Wadham because he had not married her."  The San Franciso Call reported on November 12, "He asserted that she had done everything in her power to induce him to marry her, but he had preferred Mrs. Collins, a divorced woman."  Estes added "Miss Wadham had been insulting his wife, and all he wanted was to be let alone."

The day after the article Bertha and Estes faced a judge.  Bertha told the judge that "on no consideration would she see Estes sent to jail.  All she wanted was the return of her jewelry," according to the San Francisco Call.  Although Estes had presented evidence in the form of letters from Bertha proving the items were gifts, Estes agreed to return them.  "The case was then dismissed," said the newspaper.

Shortly after the bad press Estes and his bride moved to New York City, where he formed the Sex Determinator Co. with offices at No. 75 Fifth Avenue.  Exactly what the services of the puzzlingly-named firm offered is unclear.  But by 1916 he had moved his practice into No. 72 East 86th Street.

Dr. W. Burgess Estes left 86th Street when the United States entered World War I.  He was stationed at Fort Toten, New Jersey as a First Lieutenant in the Dental Reserves Corps.  The medical office in the basement of No. 72 was taken over by Dr. Alex Abrams.

Following Fanny Eckman's death the house was sold to Pauline S. Feinman in October 1919 for $45,000--nearly $640,000 today.  Despite the doctor's office, the building was still described as a private dwelling.  Feinman would not own it long.  Two months later it was sold to "a buyer for occupancy," according to the New York Tribune on December 6.

But as was often the case with buyers who hid their names and promised "for occupancy," the house was been converted to "bachelor apartments" within a few months.  The Department of Buildings firmly noted "not more than 15 rooms to be used for sleeping purposes.  Cooking in more than two of the apartments will render this building liable to immediate vacation."

The term "bachelor apartments" was used loosely by the owners.  Among the tenants signing leases in 1921 apartments were "Miss Irmgarde Koemmerich" and "Mrs. A. Sneed."   Despite having admittedly small apartments and no kitchens, the residents were mostly well-to-do.  When James Leftwich Harrison and Pauline Carrington Mugge were married in fashionable St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue on October 8, 1921, The New York Times noted "Mr. Harrison and his bride will live at 72 East Eighty-sixth Street, when they return from their wedding trip."

One resident, however, received less flattering press that same year.   A Princeton, New Jersey newspaper reported "P. A. Stoker, 42, a professional burglar giving his home address as 72 East Eighty-sixth street, New York City, is in the hospital here."

In 1953 Barlene Associates, Inc. purchased the building for "altering into apartments," as reported by The New York Times.  The conversion, completed in 1954, resulted in two apartments per floor.  It was most likely at this time that the stoop was removed and the entrance moved to street level.

The 1954 conversion did not aspire to architectural greatness.

Mid-century architects were not kind to 19th century interiors.  Almost all of the 1886 elements were removed; however current real estate listings show surprising survivors like the staircase and occasional bits of vintage woodwork.

That Thomas Pearson did not hire an architect is evidenced in the unexceptional staircase, plucked from a millworker's catalog. photo via Trulia.com   
No. 72 is the last surviving relic of the 1880's on this block of 86th Street--a time the tranquility of the neighborhood was broken only by the clop of horses hooves on the stone-paved street.

photographs by the author

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Christmas Cards, Sponges and Arson - 39-41 Walker Street




By the time the Civil War drew to a close John R. Ford had already had a varied career.  Until 1845 he had been a successful dry goods merchant in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  But that year he switched gears to enter into partnership with Christopher Meyer to form the Meyer Rubber Company in Milltown, New Jersey, makers of rubber boots and shoes.

Now in 1867, with a tremendous building boom taking place in the Tribeca district of Manhattan, he added real estate developer to his resume as well.   He demolished the two old wooden buildings at Nos. 39 and 41 Walker Street, between Broadway and Church Streets, and began construction on a modern loft building.

The name of the architect who created the handsome Italianate-style building, completed in 1868, has been lost; but the design was worthy of the best of the architects working in the district at the time.  A cast iron storefront with fluted Corinthian columns upheld four stories of marble.  Engaged columns separating the arched openings of the second floor sat on stately paneled pedestals.  As the windows grew shorter on each successive level, visually grounding the structure, their treatment became less orate--paneled pilasters at the third floor, blank pilasters at the fourth, and molded architrave frames at the fifth.  A handsome cast cornice completed the design.

The new building became home to E. B. Strange & Brother.  Born in England, brothers Edwin Brunton and Albert B. Strange had established the firm in 1838, originally importing millinery, feathers and French ribbons.  They took a bold step in 1863 by building a Brooklyn factory to manufacture its own silk ribbon and supply orders for specific colors not available from France.

By now E. B. Strange & Brother was the largest silk ribbon manufacturer in the country.  The same year they moved into the Walker Street building, they moved their factory to Paterson, New Jersey.  They also had a branch office in Paris.  Edwin oversaw the business end and Albert ran the manufacturing.

E. B. Strange & Brother dealt in other silk merchandise as well, such as scarves.  After $100 worth of scarves were stolen in 1870, detectives tracked down a portion of the merchandise to a Brooklyn store.  The scarves were traced back to John Jackson, who swept up and did other jobs at E. B. Strange & Brother.   At his hearing on April 22, Jackson's attorney supplied witnesses to support his preposterous alibi that he had simply found the scarves, worth about $2,000 in today's money.  One, a Custom House official, said "that he knew of one instance where a Government official found a lace shawl, worth $200, among the sweepings in a public store," as reported in to The New York Times.   The case was adjourned until the following week.

By 1880 E. B. Strange & Brother had moved to Nos. 42 and 44 Greene Street, replaced by Neuburger Braid Co.  Like their predecessors, the Neuburger brothers' mill was in Paterson, New Jersey.  The Silk Goods of America described the firm's dealings that year as "silk braids, fancy goods, bindings, and raw silk throwing on commission."

Neuburger Braid Co. remained in the building for over a decade.  In 1890 yet another pair of brothers, Colvert and Robert Wirths moved their "art goods" business in.   The two, both engravers, had emigrated from Hanover, Germany in the decade before the Civil War and formed Wirths Brothers.  The firm produced calendars, small illustrated books, and, perhaps most importantly, Christmas cards.

This New Year card was edged in fringe.
The idea of a Christmas card had originated in England in 1843.  The idea quickly spread to America and by the time Wirths Brothers were in the Walker Street building were highly popular.  Wirths Brothers cards went a step beyond the norm.  They designed and produced the cards and added fringe or lace, glitter, and painted satin.

The new household-sized sewing machine made it onto a Christmas card.

The quality of Wirths Brothers goods was such that they exhibited in the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.  Of its staff of 34 workers in 1895 10 were men, one was a boy under 18-years-old, 13 were women and 10 were girls under 21-years old.  They worked 53 hours a week in the factory.

Following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana on February 15, 1898, American patriotism soared.  Wirths Brothers responded by turning its attention to printing nationalistic-themed publications (some would say propaganda).  Five months after the incident Fame magazine announced "Wirths Brothers, 39-41 Walker street, New York city, have a half-page ad. of their 'war souvenirs,' 'In Memoriam,' 'Our Maine,' and 'Our Dewey.'"  And on June 16 The Fourth Estate, a weekly newspaper for the publishing industry, announced "Wirths Brothers, 39 Walker street, New York, will pay tribute to the chief topic of the time by advertising war pictures."

As the century drew to a close Wirths Brothers shared the building with a new type of tenant.  A. Kaplan, makers of shirts and waists (the popular tailored women's blouse) was here by 1899, employing 4 men and 11 women.

After being in business for more than half a century, Wirths Brothers closed in 1902.

Leousi, Clonney & Co. was in the building by 1906.  The firm imported and sold chemically bleached sponges and would remain here into the World War I years.

Leousi, Clonney & Co. offered a mail-order pamphlet on its products in 1914. American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record (copyright expired) 
Also in the building in 1910 was Abraham Sitomer, shirtwaist manufacturer; the New York Suit Case Co., run by Jacob J. Eichner; and women's apparel manufacturer, the National Novelty Clothing Company, owned by Nathan Epstein, on the third floor.

Women garment workers were beginning to organize by now, and in 1909 Abraham Sitomer thought he had successfully dealt with a labor problem.  Sitomer 's 200 female workers were members of the Waistmakers' Union.   When his staff walked off the job, he had signed the union agreement on November 28 and everything seemed to be settled.  But then when the union discovered he was selling his goods "to employers against whom the strike was still in progress," it ordered the strike resumed.

In retaliation Sitomer obtained a restraining order in January, prohibiting the union from interfering with his operation and "from intimidating any one who desires to work for him."  His affidavit charged that despite the fact that the workers were all female, the union had "threatened the strike breakers with injury and death" and had committed "many actual assaults."

Sitomer was also highly displeased with moneyed socialites, in particular Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont, for providing financial support to the strikers.  Both women were fervent early feminists. Sitomer was decidedly not.

The New York Times, on January 11, 1910 said his affidavits claimed that the strikers "have 'no respect for the law and no fear of the police, because of their female sex,' and because 'they have won the sympathy of wealthy women who pay their fines and obtain their release when they are arrested for breaches of the peace.'"

Later that year, in June, Sitomer sued a number of women whom The Times called "prominent figures in the 'votes for women' movement" to recover $50,000 damages he suffered because of the strike.  Among them was Alva Belmont.  The action, naturally, drew wide attention in the press.

That same month on Friday June 17, an elderly jewelry vendor, Moses Sachs, was robbed of $3,000 in jewelry and several hundred dollars in cash, strangled and stuffed alive into a trunk.  His body was found the following morning in a hallway.  A description of the trunk was sent out by the police and it drew the attention of Jacob J Eichner.  He recognized it as coming from his store.

Eichner gave authorities all the information he could.  On June 21 The Times said that he "sells the trunks wholesale...to about 200 Jewish and Italian dealers throughout the city.  Owing to its gaudy appearance this style of trunk, known to the trade as 'Style 23,' is popular with foreigners, particularly Italians."  His information led detectives to the Lower East Side where street peddlers were plentiful and where the body of the murdered jeweler was found.

The following year The Insurance Press reported that a small fire had caused about $15,000 in damages to the National Novelty Clothing Company on January 27.  Nathan Epstein was ordered by the Fire Department to make repairs to a faulty stove which had caused the fire.

Less than two weeks later, on February 8 another fire broke out in the shop, this one causing about $30,000 in losses to stock and equipment.  This time Assistant Fire Marshall Samuel E. Willis looked closer into the matter.  On May 1, 1911 The Times reported that Epstein "was arrested at his home...yesterday, charged with arson, and locked up in the Tombs."  The article noted that "Mr. Willis learned that Epstein collected a large amount of insurance.

After tinkering with an idea for nearly seven years and making over 300 models, George H. Rives obtained three separate patents for his Rives Holdfast Finger Cot.  He moved his new operation, which made and sold only the one item, into Nos. 39-41 Walker Street in 1913.  A forerunner of today's "rubber finger" used in offices everywhere, the rubber gadget enabled speedy flipping through paperwork and envelopes.

Telephony magazine, January 10, 1914. (copyright expired)
Rives said in an advertisement that the idea "came to me about two years ago while mounting a horse.  I noted the saddle did not turn, and also that the circulation in the animal was not affected, otherwise he would not have lasted very long."  He promised that using a Finger Cot eliminated the need to "spit on your fingers" thereby avoiding tuberculosis and "other dangerous diseases."

Luggage and Leather Goods, March 1920 (copyright expired)

The New York Suit Case Co. remained in the building well into the 1920's.  By then the Ford estate had sold the property to the colorful Ray Wilner Sundelson.  Born in Russia in 1874, she became the first woman general agent of the Equitable Life Assurance Society and a member of its Board of Managers.  She earned the sobriquet "The First Lady of Life Insurance."

By the mid-1930's Astrup Co. took up much of the building.  Based in Chicago, it dealt in "flame-proofed and unflame-proofed canvas and muslin" and catered mostly to the theater trade.  Its sturdy fabrics were used for stage sets.  In 1939 the firm purchased the building and would stay until about 1961.

A similar firm here in the 1940's was Wallace H Gibson, an exporter of "cotton duck, colored ducks, water proof duck sheeting and filter twills."

The building was the scene of a frightening event on February 18, 1975.  Harry W. Whatley was serving two concurrent one-year sentences for attempted bribery and perjury.  He had only a few months left to serve when he was taken to the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street early that morning.  Suddenly he bolted, racing through traffic with the officer in pursuit.  Then he disappeared.

For almost two hours an army of 50 police officers carrying automatic rifles searched the area for the 29-year old.  He was tracked to No. 39-41 Walker Street by Captain McPherson, who had been with Whatley when he ran.  Rather than call in the troops, he said that he "vainly tried to coax him into surrendering."  He explained "I knew the inmate and I figured I could talk to him.  But he said he wasn't going back."

Coaxing did not work and Whatley managed to escape from another exit.  Around 10:20 a.m. Captain George McClancy ended the search.  "It's over," he reportedly said, "He's gone and we're satisfied that he is not in any of these buildings."

At the time of the daring escape galleries, boutiques and restaurants were taking over the factory spaces of Tribeca.  In 1976 Miriam Berns opened her dance space Studio 505 on the second floor.  Then in 1990 the upper floors were converted to "class A apartments with home occupation."

Today a somewhat circus-like paint job gives the cast iron columns of the incredibly-intact storefront a striped effect.

photograph by the author

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Public School No. 7 - 272 West 10th Street



In 1884 the Journal of the Board of Education of the City of New York reported that the Committee on Sites and New Schools had appropriated "$6,500 for No. 272 West Tenth street."   The address, located about a block from the Hudson River piers, sat within a marginal neighborhood.  Immigrant families lived in the tenements and old houses around the site.

The Board of Education hired architect David L. Stagg to design Public School 7.  Completed in 1886 it was an animated take on the often somber neo-Grec style which Stagg married to the more playful Queen Anne.   He cleverly gave the building a symmetrical silhouette, then treated the end pavilions of the three-part vertical design independently.  Two colors of brick--beige and red--worked with limestone and terra cotta to create a colorful, vibrant design.

While decorative terra cotta plaques and rondels added to the design, it was the adept brickwork that stole the show.
Teachers in the New York school system were modestly compensated.  In 1891 Miss M. A. Rohda (female teachers were rarely married) began working here.  She received the starting salary of $386 per year, or around $900 a month today.

An unofficial tradition in the public schools was an outing for the older students at the end of the school year.  In 1891 about 500 students from Public School No. 7 and another school "clubbed together" as worded by The New York Times, and "deputed J. Frank Write, Principal of Public School No. 7...to engage the new steamer General Slocum."

The General Slocum was a newly-launched 235-foot steam sidewheeler especially designed for river excursions for large groups.  (It is remembered for the horrific loss of more than 1,000 lives when it burned to the waterline on June 14, 1904.)  The Times explained "The idea was to go up the Hudson to West Point view the cadets, and return home by moonlight."

The plan was highly popular.  The $1 tickets were pricey--in the neighborhood of $28 today--and were no doubt a hardship for many of the immigrant children's families.  Nevertheless they sold rapidly, according to the newspaper.  On the morning of the outing several of the throng of students were accompanied by their mothers.  But disappointment was on the horizon.

The Times reported on June 28, "But when over five hundred people collected on Jewell's Wharf yesterday morning, wrapped in shawls and overcoats, there was no Gen. Slocum, neither man nor boat.  The would-be excursionists waited for an hour."  Finally Principal Wright arrived.  He explained that he had not been able to book the General Slocum "or any other boat" for the day.   The joy-crushing incident underscores the nearly impossible challenge of getting a mass message out to student families at the time.

In 1897 the school was given a new number, Public School No. 107.  It was around the same time that it began changing from an ordinary school to one operated under forward-thinking social and educational theories.

City children often had no other place to play summer games like kick-the-can and stick ball than the streets.  It was a dangerous and dirty prospect (the horse-drawn vehicles were not only deadly, but they left omnipresent horse dung in the streets).  On July 2, 1898 the Record & Guide announced that the school yard of Public School No. 107 would remain open through the summer as a playground.

With appropriate Victorian decorum, boys and girls entered the play yard through separate gates.
Tuberculosis was responsible for a large percentage of tenement deaths in the first years of the 20th century.  It was generally felt that the close stifling air of the tenements was responsible for the disease (in fact, it was the crowded conditions that facilitated the rapid transmission).  In response public schools in the tenement districts initiated "fresh air classes."  Public School No. 107 added them in 1906.

Dr. Hester D. Jenkins explained a few years later, "when the children are born of immigrant parents, who came to this country with very little notion of health or hygiene, they must not only learn to live from people outside of their homes, but furthermore the homes need all the enlightenment that the children can bring into them."  The children in the fresh air classes were given information that they were instructed to pass on to their parents, such as "the need of fresh air, or the danger of spitting, coughing and sneezing."

Many of the families who sent their children to Public School No. 107 could not afford to provide them with lunch.  In 1908 Mable Kittredge began lobbying for the "three-cent luncheons."  Two years of convincing resulted in Public School No. 107 being one of the test schools for the program on November 23, 1910.  New Outlook magazine wrote on January 7, 1911 "Everybody can grasp the fact that a school-child, especially one that is already under-nourished, needs a midday meal" and said "There are therefore thousands of children who can at the utmost gain nothing but dubious scraps by going to their homes at midday."

Public School No. 107 received a new, equipped kitchen and lunchroom.  Now, for just three cents, the students could buy a hot lunch.

Another innovation in the school was the introduction of special classes for the physically disabled.  Children who were born with mobility issues in the 19th and early 20th century had dismal prospects.  Here special instruction was provided to prepare them for a wage-earning skill down the road.  The Sun reported several years later "Not so many years ago, besides being cut off from the usual joys of a normal life the crippled child had to while the hours of the dreary day in some dark tenement home, not even helped to get an education, which is presumed to be the right of every American child, regardless of its condition."

Tenement children never had bountiful Christmases.  So public schools hosted celebrations on the last day of classes before the holiday.  On December 21, 1911 two parties were held in Public School 107--one in the morning for the older children, and one for the younger students in the afternoon.  There was a large Christmas tree on the stage of the assembly hall and Francis Crisson, the father of one of the teachers, dressed in a Santa suit to hand out half-pound boxes of candy.

Elizabeth Crisson pulled aside Willie McClellan, who had already received his box, and sent him with a message to a classroom on an upper floor.  The Evening World reported "Willie had not been out of the room a moment when he came swiftly but quietly back and whispered in Miss Crisson's ear--whispered, mind you, and the kid only ten years old: 'Miss Crissen, please ma'am, there's a fire burning in Room 207."

The teacher asked if it were a large fire.  "No, ma'am, but it's all over the teacher's desk and the platform."   Elizabeth Crisson told him to hurry to the principal's office, where the fire alarm was located.  The bell for early dismissal was sounded and the principal came to the auditorium stage.

When she announced "Children, we will have a quick dismissal drill now," she was met with a chorus of rebellion.  The Evening World reported "'No, no,' shouted a hundred voices.  'Have it another time.  We want Santa Claus.'"  They were told Santa would be there when they returned as the teachers in the room realized this was no drill.

"The grumbling children rose, formed in lines and marched to the corridor.  They they walked into a dense cloud of smoke," reported the World.  "'Why, it's a real fire!' they said."


Newspapers praised the orderly evacuation, taking note especially of little Willie's calm handling of the situation.  "Neither from the manner of the boy nor that of the teacher did any of the children in the room suspect that danger threatened," reported the New-York Tribune.  The article added "in less than three minutes after the news was first spread one thousand children, about seventy of whom were cripples, and twenty teachers had marched out of the building to the sidewalk."

The Tribune's estimate of the size of the student body was somewhat inflated.  The Evening World began its account saying "Seven hundred and eight little children from four to twelve yeas old, sixty-five of them a special class of cripples and three of them altogether helpless, were marched and carried out of Public School No. 107...to-day without the slightest panic, without a shout or a scream, though the halls were filled with choking smoke from a fire in a third story classroom."  Firefighters extinguished the blaze shortly after.

As the 1913 school year began the lunch program in Public School No. 107 was made available to the disabled students for just a penny.   On November 9 that year The Sun reported "In Public School 107 there are about eighty cripples, boys and girls, ranging from 5 years of age upward.  These cripples are supplied with warm, nourishing food at cost."  The article said "Without exception almost the cripples take advantage of the service of lunches except one boy whose ailment is his stoutness and he has been advised to limit his food supply at the counter."

The Sun ran a photo of the "crippled schoolchildren" filing into the lunchroom.  November 9, 1913 (copyright expired)
A special class of special needs students were those diagnosed with anemia.  At the time of the article the school's principal, Mrs. Tupper, was about to inaugurate "a system of serving the children in the anaemic classes with mid-morning milk."  The Sun described their special arrangements.  "There are about twenty-one children in this school, which is situated in the heart of the Greenwich Village, who are anaemic and for whom a special room is provided on the top floor of the school plant, where they recline in easy chairs, wound up in warm woollen blankets with hoods, where they are taught their daily lessons.  Each afternoon these children lie down in their chairs and go to sleep for three-quarters of an hour.  It is for these children that milk will be provided at 10:30 each morning so that they may build up their bodies."

In the first year of the Great Depression The New York Times reported that due to "Manhattan's constant loss of inhabitants," the Board of Education would be "abandoning three schools."  Among them was Public School No. 107, which was closed in June 1930.  Seven months later, on January 8, 1931, auctioneer Thomas F. Burchill announced he "had been ordered to sell the property" by the city.

In a happy coincidence of timing, the New York Central Railroad was eyeing the property at the southwest corner of Barrow and Washington Streets, occupied by the school building of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Veronica.  The railroad purchased Public School No. 107, then negotiated with the church.

On April 19, 1931 The New York Times reported that the old St. Veronica's School had been sold and the church paid New York Central Railroad $372,300 for the West 10th Street building.  The church estimated that the remodeling of No. 272 West 10th Street would be completed by summer.

The dedication of the new parochial school was held on May 1, 1932.  The still edgy make-up of the neighborhood was evidenced in the comments of the speakers.  Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes said in part "I was glad to come and see Greenwich Village.  Had I strayed around down here alone tongues might have begun to wag."  Another speaker, Municipal Court Justice William J. Caffrey, mentioned that he "had feared Cardinal Hayes would not accept an invitation to that part of the city."

In addition to educating its juvenile parishioners, St. Veronica's rented out the assembly room to various groups when the school was not in session.  It was repeatedly the scene of union meetings of the International Longshoremen's Association in the late 1930's, for instance; especially during their 1937 labor strike.

St. Veronica's school remained in the vintage structure until its closing in 1963.   In September 1970 the newly-formed K-8 Village Community School opened in the building.  The independent school was established by local parents with a first-year enrollment of 170.  In 2003 architect Leo Blackman was commissioned to expand the building.  His remarkably harmonious addition echoed Stagg's banded ground floor and the spirited contrast of the red and beige brick--perfectly matched to the original.


photographs by the author

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Wm. H. B. Totten House - 15 West 73rd Street


The entrance, reached by a high stone stoop, was originally where the arched window is today.

Edward C. Clark was president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company in the 1870's when embarked on a second, perhaps more passionate, interest: real estate development.  Clark envisioned the rocky underdeveloped Upper West Side as a suburb for upper and upper-middle class families.

In 1877 he purchased 30 building lots on Eighth Avenue (later named Central Park West) between 72nd and 73rd Streets; and kept adding to his holdings until by 1881 he owned nearly the entire block between Eighth and Ninth (later Columbus) Avenues and 73rd to 74th Streets.

Clark already had a close relationship with architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh.   Two years after construction began on the high-end Dakota Apartment, the pair set to work on another aggressive project nearby.  Hardenbergh designed 28 townhouses stretching from No. 15 to 67 West 73rd Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.   Construction was done in two phases, with the eastern group of homes completed in 1884, and Nos. 29 through 67 a year later.  They flowed together as a picturesque grouping, harmonizing their architecture with that of the Dakota.


The basement and parlor levels of No. 15 were faced in stone.  A high stone stoop led to the arched double-doored entrance which was outlined by a delicate parade of carved leaves.  The centered opening at the second floor featured a stone balconette, Renaissance-inspired carvings within the frame, and a colorful stained glass transom.  Between the third floor windows was a carved three-quarter profile portrait.  Two joined brick-faced dormers punched through the slate-tiled mansard.

Speculations regarding the subject of the portrait plaque has included actor Edwin Booth or writer Mark Twin.

Rather than sell the completed homes, as most developers would have done, Clark retained ownership, leasing them to well-heeled families.  No. 15 became home to William Henry Brackett Totten and his family.  

The Totten family arrive on Staten Island in 1767 acquired much property in the area around what was known as Bentley.  By 1869 the neighborhood was named Tottenville.  It was there that William was born to Abraham Cole and Mary Brackett Totten on February 13, 1831.   At the age of 19 he moved to New York City and entered the grocery business.  Shortly after marrying Sarah B. Castree, the daughter of millionaire John Castree, in 1856, he went into the butter and cheese commission business, forming W. H. B. Totten & Co. with partner Robert T. Pierce.


from Morris's Memorial History of Staten Island, New York (1900, copyright expired)
Additionally, in 1895 Totten was appointed president of the Irving Savings Institution (the position held by his father-in-law until his death in 1888), and was a director in the Merchants' Refrigerating Co.

William and Sarah had five children, Henry Wade, Willard Ray, Clarissa (known as Clara), Annie and Elsie.  The family maintained a summer estate in Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey.  The Totten children grew up in a life of privilege.  Clara, for instance, attended Rutgers Female Institute and College, graduating in 1879.  She was active in its Alumnae Association, holding the position of corresponding secretary for decades.

The door of No. 15 wore a wreath of black crepe on March 10, 1900.  On the previous morning young Harry Wade Totten died in the house.  Although he was a member of the New-York Athletic Club, he had not yet entered the business world.

William, like so many of the well-to-do businessmen living in the neighborhood, was highly active in the affairs of the Upper West Side.  He joined the West End Association, becoming its vice-president by 1906, and was a member of the West Side Republican Club.

Sarah Baldwin Totten died at the summer house on August 18, 1904.  The New-York Tribune described her estate as "large, all in personal property."  William inherited "all the household furniture and everything appertaining to housekeeping," while Sarah's jewelry was divided among the children.  Everything else was to be divided among them, "share and share alike."

Interestingly, Sarah had been empowered to dispose of her father's estate but had not done so  Her will passed that authority to Elsie.  Oddly enough, it would be several years before she took care of that, as well.

Willard moved out of the 73rd Street house a few months later.  Elsie married Allen B. A. Bradley on January 22, 1907 in the West End College Church.  Perhaps fearing that her aging father would be left alone if Annie married, Clara remained at No. 15 with her husband, William W. Kennedy, following their wedding.

Stone blossoms sprout from the underside of the balconette.  Carved panels decorate the sides of the recessed opening, framed by an exquisite rope of leaves and berries.
On October 8, 1909, Willard returned to Manhattan after closing his Avon, New Jersey summer house.  The next day he suffered a fatal heart attack.  Society was stunned a month later when it became known that he had been secretly married for four years.

On November 19 The Sun reported "From a wedding announcement received here to-day it is learned that Miss Sallie Creveling of Asbury Park, daughter of Mrs. Mary Creveling, a dressmaker, was married to the late Willard Ray Totten...on October 16, 1905."  It went on to say "Last summer, Mr. Totten and the supposed Miss Creveling were much together.  It was believed they were engaged to be married, but that they had been four years married was not suspected."

The newspaper explained that the sudden revelation by Sallie "is believed to be the initial step in proceedings by the young widow to obtain possession of Mr. Totten's estate, which is valued at $200,000."  It is unclear whether Willard's family knew of the union.  Nevertheless an attorney "admitted that the marriage was a fact and said that the Tottens were pleased to have her in the family."

Sallie's coming forth would prove more profitable in 1915 when Elsie got around to settling her grandfather's $1.75 million estate.  She received a $30,000 slice, equal to about $755,000 today.

By then the Totten family had left No 15.  In 1909 William H. B. Totten retired, living "quietly between his home in this city and his cottage at Avon," according to the New York Produce Review.

With its long-term tenant gone, the Clark estate posted a "For Rent" advertisement in the New-York Tribune on September 26, 1909.  "In a restricted neighborhood, opposite the Dakota Park, convenient to elevated and subway stations; electric lights throughout; indirect radiation heating system.  Rent, including heat $3,300 per year."  The pricey rent would be about $7,640 per month today.

Dr. William Francis Honan had no problem coming up with the rent.  He no doubt signed the lease in anticipation of his upcoming marriage to Maude Ives Park on October 27.  The well-known physician had graduated from the New York Homeopathic Medical College in 1889 and was the author of many articles, such as the 1907 "Surgery and the Public."

Perhaps even more than for his medical work, Honan was familiar to the public because of his former marriage.  His first wife, Ida von Claussen, was by any estimation colorful.  She was the granddaughter of wealthy builder Matthew Byrnes, now deceased.  In 1901 the couple adopted a little girl, Natalie.  Their names were routinely mentioned in society columns as they came and went at fashionable summer resorts.

But Ida's growing eccentricities prompted a separation around 1902.  She left her husband, taking Natalie with her.  In 1904 Honan was living in the Hotel Regent at 70th Street and Broadway, providing Ida with the equivalent of just under $3,000 a month alimony in today's dollars.  In January 1905 she had him arrested and jailed for non-support.

She complained to the judge that "for the last few years she had received practically nothing from her husband."  She admitted she received $250 per month personal income from the Hotel Lorraine on Fifth Avenue, part of her inheritance from her grandfather.

Honan testified that "he was willing to provide a home for his wife, but that she would not live with him."  Idea admitted that was true, "but added that she was afraid, as her husband had one occasion chased her with a razor, and o another had threatened to 'cut her heart out,'" as reported in the New-York Tribune on January 29.

The judge, considering that her total monthly income topped $10,000 by today's standards, dismissed the case, "stating that there seemed little likelihood that Mrs. Honan would become a public charge."

Ida sue for divorce in South Dakota in 1906, charging William with abandonment.  He appeared in court there, most likely happy to be done with his difficult wife.  It would turn out that he was premature in his relief.

Ida's name soon appeared in newspapers nation-wide.  She styled herself as Countess Ida von Claussen and in 1907 she had aspirations of being introduced to the King of Sweden.  When that did not happen she demanded that the American Minister to Sweden, Charles E. Graves, be fired.  The Evening World reported "President Roosevelt refused her request, and she denounced him, threatening to sue him for $1,000,000."

Ida not only threatened to sue Roosevelt for $1 million, she did.  In the course of her legal action, she was annoyed by Charles Strauss, the Chairman of the Board of Water Supply.  She fired off a threatening letter to him, which resulted in her being arrested and spending six months on Blackwell's Island.  Natalie was given over to Honan's custody.

Now Ida discovered that her former husband had remarried.  She took him to court in January 1911, claiming the divorce was invalid "because she had not acquired proper residence" in South Dakota.  She demanded a proper New York State divorce and alimony.   The courts dismissed her action.

She and Honan were back in court in June.  In an article entitled "The 'Countess' In High Jinks," The Sun reported on June 3 that she drove up to the Domestic Relations Court "attired in purple velvet and sparkling with diamonds."  She was now appealing for custody and support of Natalie.

"The Countess said she didn't want any of his money for herself.  She was able to go to Europe whenever the mood came over her and move in the highest social circles there--oh! even among royal personages."  Once again she was rebuffed by the court.  "When the Magistrate refused the complainant became abusive and declared that there was no justice there."

Outside the courtroom she snatched roses from a woman and tore them to pieces.  When court officers tried to remove her, "She struggled against ejectment and lay upon the floor and kicked.  It required six men to eject her, for she is 6 feet high and built on athletic lines," said the newspaper.

Outside she raised her fist in the air and announced "Tell the Judge I would like to hand him one of these."  Extra policemen were called to move along the growing crowd as the "countess" lingered for more than an hour.  "When the audience dispersed the Countess, who was her ow chauffeur, opened up the throttle, took the high clutch and headed for Fifth avenue like an expert."

Dr. William Honan was finally rid of Ida von Claussen.  But her story did not end there.  She was soon judged mentally unstable and sent to the insane asylum at Middletown.  Shortly after her release in 1915 she married Francis Dona, a Canadian.  That marriage did not work out; and on September 10, 1920 The Evening World reported "The marriage took place [in Reno] yesterday of Ida von Claussen, of New York, who gave her age as thirty-nine...to Capt. Raymond H. Mayberry.  The bridegroom is an actor and lives in Los Angeles."

Five days later the same newspaper ran the headline "Ida Von Claussen, Six Days A Bride, Sues 3d Husband."  The article listed "the remarkable record established by Countess Ida von Claussen-Honan-Dona-Mayberry in six days.  On the same day, September 9, it said, she met, became engaged to and married Mayberry.  On September 14 she sued to have the marriage annulled.  Her complaint charged him with marrying her "solely for the purpose of obtaining from her financial assistance and support."

In the meantime, Dr. Honan had remarried.  Maude Ives Honan had died in the 73rd Street house on February 15, 1915.  In 1917 Honan and his new wife, Grace, moved to the opposite side of the park, at No. 116 East 63rd Street.

No. 15 became home to Dr. Ernest Simons Bishop.  A bachelor, he was a pioneer in the treatment of opiate addiction.  Bishop recognized and fought against common fallacies still in place today.  He testified at a meeting of the New York State Department of Narcotic Drug Control in April 1919, for instance, that drugs were not indicative of "moral decay."

The Sun reported he said "that many charming persons in the best society took narcotics regularly and that their morals were not impaired."  He was among the first to declare that "The appetite for drugs is a disease, an absolutely material thing."  To those in the room who were positive that all addicts were disheveled, dirty criminals he promised "You meet only one class of drug addicts, those who are arrested."

Bishop's method of treating addicts was to wean them off the drugs, not withdrawal them abruptly.  He warned doing so, which was the accepted method of treatment, could physically harm or kill the patient.  His controversial and outspoken opinion did not earn him any friends in mainstream medicine and on February 10, 1920 he was indicted on 26 counts of filling drug prescriptions.  The New York Times later remarked "Dr. Bishop's theory that addicts were medical cases and not legal cases brought him into conflict with the Federal authorities."  It was probably no coincidence that his book The Narcotic Drug Problem had been released that month.

Bishop was cleared of any violations in 1925 after, according to The Times, "prominent persons in both the medical and legal professions came to his defense."  He continued to work feverishly for drug treatment reform.

In the spring of 1922 the Clark estate began selling off much of its properties.  In May Dr. Bishop purchased No. 15, spending $45,000 on the house (about $658,000 today). 

Bishop was his summer home in Blandford, Massachusetts in 1926 when he contracted influenza and died a week later on November 17, 1926 at the age of 50.  His obituaries lauded his career and his ground-breaking research into opiate addiction and treatment.

In 1942 No. 15 West 73rd Street was converted to apartments, one per floor.  The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to a few steps below street level.  Among the first tenants to move in that year was Tamara Swann, known to motion picture and theater audiences merely as Tamara.

The Russian-born chanteuse's throaty voice earned her roles like the Russian princess in Jerome Kern's 1933 Roberta, in which she introduced "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."  Almost immediately after moving into No. 15, she boarded the airplane the Yankee Clipper with other stars heading to entertain World War II troops at the overseas USO Camp Shows.

Tamara lived in No. 15 only a few weeks before her untimely death.  original source unknown
On the night of February 22, 1943 she was seated in the plane next to motion picture star, singer Jane Froman.  Somewhere over Lisbon, Portugal the Yankee Clipper crashed.  Tamara was among those killed.

On April 24 Billboard magazine reported "About 350 people, representing all branches of show biz and headed by Bert Lytell, president of Actors' Equity, paid final homage yesterday to Tamara (Swann), singer, who lost her life in the crash of the Pan-American Clipper at Lisbon."

Another tenant in the theatrical profession was Joseph Geiger, Broadway producer, who moved in around 1947.

The house with the more than its fair share of history has notably changed since its completion in 1884.  An architecturally incongruous doorway, unsympathetic replacement windows and a serious coat of grime are regrettable.  Nonetheless, Hardenbergh's Renaissance-influenced design struggles valiantly to shine through.

photographs by the author

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Lost House of Daché - 78-80 East 56th Sreet


Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938
By any account Lilly Daché had invented herself.  She claimed she was born in France; however the petition for naturalization of her husband, Jean Despres (a vice president of Coty) in 1940 declared she was, in fact, born in Poland.  Rumors hinted that she might also have been Romanian and Jewish.  Her birth year was  reported both as 1893 and 1904.  What was not arguable, however, was her design talent and her brilliant marketing and business sense.

Arriving in Hoboken, New Jersey on September 13, 1924, Daché started out as a sales clerk in Macy's, then in a women's hat boutique, the Bonnet Shop, on Broadway at 77th Street.  She and a co-worker, milliner Hattie Fredericks, purchased that shop for $1,000 on installments in 1926. Their deposit was $200.  Within a few months Lilly bought out her partner.

Lilly Daché's creative designs, at a time when no woman would leave her front door without a hat, were exotic and ground-breaking.  And expensive.  She would be responsible for introducing the turban to female wardrobes and shocking the fashion world with deliciously bizarre designs.

Lilly rapidly expanded with two more boutiques, and then in 1928 merged them into a single Midtown shop.  Her organizational acumen was a sharp as her designing abilities and she formed Lilly Daché, Inc. to operate the business.  According to Susan Ware in her 2004 Notable American Women, "Hats with cherries and hats without; sleek-fitting cloches, exotic turbans, glamour snoods; even something called the half-hat--such was the stock-in-trade of Lilly Daché."

Lilly checks one of her creations in 1956.   photograph by Leoard Mccombe for Life magazine.
Ware noted that at a time "when a decent hat could be had for $2.95, run-of-the-line Daché creations ranged in price from $39.50 to $79.50."  The onset of the Great Depression made little impact on Lilly's high-end sales and in 1936 she embarked on her greatest move yet.  She  organized another firm, the 78 East Fifty-Sixty Street Realty Corporation, of which she was president, and laid plans for a lavish structure to house her millinery business including a two-story residences for herself and her husband.

In her 1946 memoirs, Talking Through my Hats, Lilly explained that her husband was reticent to spend lavishly on a building project during the Depression, but she prevailed.  "So at last we signed the papers for the property, and then we started planning the building which was to be a monument to hats, and to beauty, and to things that seem frivolous ad silly sometimes, but which really are so important to the lives of every woman."

On November 9, 1936 The New York Times reported that Lilly had announced plans to demolish the two existing buildings at Nos. 78 and 80 East 56th Street, to be replaced by "a modernistic structure erected for occupancy about June 1, 1937."  Construction would take slightly longer.  But on September 15, 1937 Vogue magazine reported "Lilly Daché has packed up her hat-boxes and moved into the nine-story building at 78 East Fifty-Sixth Street, which she herself has just built.  T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings designed the interiors, with a grand staircase sweeping up to the Salon."

That Robsjohn-Gibbings was the only name mentioned was worth note.  The structure had been designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon which had worked, by Lilly's prompting, with Paris architect George Letelie.  Lilly gave Letelie the lion's share of credit for the design, rarely, if ever, mentioning the American architects.  In her autobiography she totally ignored Shreve, Lame & Harmon; and instead called Letelie "a brilliant young architect."  She wrote that she felt if "George could come, I was sure, my building would be the picture of my dreams."  (George was, not coincidentally, Lilly's brother-in-law; the husband of Jean Despres' sister, Marguerite.)

The entrance was recessed within the stone facade.  Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938
According to Life magazine on September 13, 1937, the House of Daché cost $500,000 to construct--a considerable $8.5 million today.  Sitting on a two-story limestone base, the upper seven stories were faced in stucco.   In February 1939  the Fifth Avenue Association announced the architectural awards for the best buildings erected from January 1, 1932 through October 1, 1938.  No. 78 East 56th Street received the award for "the best individual building."  No mention of the architects was included in the announcement.

The sleek, early Modernism design was as impressive inside as out; and for some perhaps more so.  Architectural Record & Building News explained that the building "consists of three units: four floors for the design, manufacture and sale of women's hats, a penthouse apartment for Mme. Daché and three loft floors to be rented."  (The rental idea never came to pass.)  The article mentioned the Parisian-style treatment of the shop spaces "where 'class appeal' is a very essential part of the sale.  The public ares are as little as possible like those of the average store:  counters, display cases, adding machines--all are carefully hidden from the customer."  No merchandise was displayed.  Instead, customers sat in mirror-walled recesses and hats were brought to them.

Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938
Architectural Record & Building News pointed out that "Moreover, the salesrooms are arranged for the progressive elimination of the customers, so that only the hardiest reach Mme. Daché's Bureau on the third floor."  Among those "hardiest" were stars like Marlene Dietrich and Gertrude Lawrence.  Eleanor Roosevelt, Louella Parsons and Dorothy Parker were repeat customers.  And it was Lilly Daché who designed the fruit-laden turbans worn by Carmine Miranda.

The Reception Room (above) and the Salon gave no hint of retail activity.  Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938
The top two floors were home to Lilly and her husband.  Custom-designed furnishings and textiles worked in harmony with the architecture.  In the living room was a stone- and mirror-faced fireplace and on the marble floor of Lilly's dressing room was a "monkey fur rug."

The living room, shot from the staircase, included built-in rosewood furniture. Architectural Record & Building News, March 1938 
Not everyone was wowed by Lilly's sometimes innovative designs.  In July 1936 she had spent $2,500 on original headgear worn by Belgian Congo natives.  The headdresses, composed of shells, hides, and feathers, were to be a source of inspiration.

In 1937 Life magazine wrote "On Sept. 13 she will open her new ten-story building on Manhattan's East 56th Street, with an exhibition of what threatens to become the 'African style' in hats this fall and winter.  For $32.50 a Lilly Daché customer can, so far as headgear goes, look just like a Congo chief."

Life magazine pictured Lilly's inspiration and her resulting designs.  September 13, 1937
The unnamed author of the article was brutal.  Saying that Lilly "does a thumping big business throughout the U.S.," the article added "One reason why women's hats look the way they do is probably because the leading creative hat designers cannot draw.  They see an African native, a Matisse painting, or a lopsided stovepipe which gives them their inspiration...Lilly Daché uses this system.  It is admittedly a good one because she now owns the largest exclusive millinery business in the world."  Nonetheless, the critic called her creations "outlandish."

Lilly suffered some bad press when, on March 5, 1941, most of her 120 employees walked off the job.  Representatives from the Millinery Workers Union told reporters that female workers making hats "for the masses," which sold at wholesale for $12 per dozen, earned $30 for a 35-hour week.  In contrast, Lilly's workers, who worked on hats selling for $35 each, made from $16 to $22 for a 40-hour week.

Lilly denied the charges, telling a reporter from The New York Times that "The strike was originated by agents of a union which apparently represents a minority."  She said the union leaders "have made impossible demands and in addition do not represent the workers."  The newspaper mentioned that she was "irked by the presence of union pickets outside her door."

When Lilly staged the fashion show of her spring collection on January 13, 1949, there were more than hats in the line.  The Times reported "Yesterday...Lilly Dache added a new facet to her already well-known reputation as a milliner that of a full scale designer of coats, suits and dresses."  Lilly's collection of apparel was well received.  "So well did each part of the costumes complement the other, the overall effect of the manikins [i.e. models] as they whirled and twirled down [the] runway was one of perfection."

Lilly's tremendous success and subsequent personal fortune was evidenced early in May 1953.  In a panic she called police to report that a diamond and platinum bracelet had disappeared from her penthouse  She placed the value at $10,250--nearly $94,000 today.  Detectives could find no signs of a break-in.  According to The New York Times, they "told a very sad Miss Daché that it looked like a case of loser's weepers."

Lilly at her work desk in 1956.  Life magazine September 1956
Three weeks later Lilly removed a dress from her closet and found in the pocket her missing bracelet.  On May 14 The Times wrote "The police said yesterday that Miss Daché had supplied her own happy--and traditional ending--to the nursery rhyme, in a finder's keepers climax."  The article said "The police are happy, the insurance company is happy, and Miss Daché is happy--if somewhat embarrassed."

Visitors to Lilly's apartment climbed a pink-striped stair hall with carpeting which read in part "welcome to my penthouse" Life magazine September 1956 

Indefatigable, Lilly became president of Lilly Daché Hair Products, and in 1956 published her second book, Lilly Dachés Glamour Book."  She included exercise and diet instructions among her beauty tips.  She warned her readers about the cringe-inducing "secretarial spread."  But she stressed that exercise and diet should not be a punishment.


Large statues and a rubber tree decorated Lilly's work room. Life magazine September 1956 
"Before you start any kind of diet or exercise plan, there is something that I believe in the bottom of my heart is much more important.  It is what the Americans call fun, and Frenchmen call joie de vivre...If anything isn't fun, the heck with it."

The end of the House of Daché came in 1969 following Jean Despres' retirement.  Lilly closed the business and left New York.  She and Jean spent the rest of their lives in their homes in Florida and France.  She died in France, on New Year's Eve, 1989.

In the meantime, No. 78 East 56th Street was remodeled in 1971.  It is unclear how drastically the brilliant 1937 design was altered.  Not that it much matters.   In 1986 the building was demolished to make way for the Park Avenue Tower with entrances on East 55th and 56th Streets.


many thanks to reader Matthew Priest for suggesting this post