Thursday, August 16, 2018

St. John's Lutheran Church - 81 Christopher Street


The elaborate decorations surrounding the half-round window in the pediment--called a lunette--are 1886 additions.
In 1821 it would still be several years before Greenwich Village experienced a major population boom.  Nevertheless that year an architecturally refined church building rose on Christopher Street, between West Fourth and Bleecker Streets.  The name of the architect has been lost, but the sophisticated design was worthy of the best of the period's architects.  The octagonal belfry above the triangular pediment was a near-match to the one found on the Newgate State Prison, four blocks away near the river, designed in 1796 by Joseph-Francois Mangin.

The Newgate State Prison sat near the Hudson River, facing Christopher Street.  collection of the New York Public Library

Completed the following year, the structure was built by the Eighth Presbyterian Church, organized in 1819.  The group worshiped in its dignified, Federal-style structure until April 1842, when they sold it to the trustees of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church.   Not all of St. Matthew's congregants were especially pleased with the move to the somewhat remote location.  Two of them filed suit claiming "there was no valid contract for the sale of St. Matthew's Church."  The case ended on December 11, 1844 with judge deciding "that the complainants have no claim."

Manhattan churches often closed during the hot summer months when their more affluent congregants left the city for country homes.  On October 25, 1846 a newspaper notice announced its reopening, saying "St. Matthew's Church, in Christopher street, is open for Divine worship on the evening of every Sunday, and will so continue through the ensuing winter."

There were three Sunday services in the church--"morning, afternoon and evening"--in 1858 (know at the time it was known as St. Matthew's Wesleyan Methodist Church).  The sermons of pastor Rev. C. H. Harvey seem to have most often avoided the fire-and-brimstone railings for which Victorian preachers became noted.  His topics in 1858 covered issues like "The Rich Man and Lazarus," "The Philosophy of Life and Death," and the exhaustively-titled "The manner in which the Miracles of the Bible were performed and their perfect accordance with the Laws of Nature."

But the growing tensions between North and South may have influenced a much different sermon on May 30 that year.  Harvey's topic on May 30 was "The Moral Effects of Revolutions."

In the meantime, Rev. A. H. M. Held had founded St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1845.  The first Lutherans had arrived in New York around 1620 and by now the German Lutheran population had quadrupled.   The new congregation's first services were held in Hope Chapel, on Broadway.  Three months later it moved to the chapel of New York University on Washington Square.

Rev. Harvey's sermon on revolution would be among his last in the Christopher Street church.  That year the trustees sold it to St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church for $13,000--around $400,000 today.  Among the new congregation's improvements was a $1,250 German-built pipe organ.

In 1868 the Parsonage was constructed next door, at No. 79 Christopher Street, designed by John M. Foster.   Rev. Held lived here, and remained pastor of St. John's until ill health prompted him to step down in 1879.  He was succeeded by Rev. Dr. Augustus C. Wedekind.

On December 23, 1883 Wedekind took to the pulpit to announce that "the burden of debt...had been reduced from $25,000 to $8,000."  That was, of course, good news.  But the pastor added that he "knew that the congregation was weary of this debt" and, according to The New York Times:

He had himself undertaken to raise $4,000, and be wanted the members to subscribe $4,000 more before leaving their seats."  Within 30 minutes $2,000 had been promised.  The article added "Some of the leading members said that as soon as the debt is paid an effort will be made to erect a larger church, the present building being hardly large enough to accommodate all the communicants and their families.

At the time of the ambitious fund-raising, over 11,000 children had been baptized in the church, there had been 5,163 weddings, and the membership was around 1,500.    St. John's School, which  operated from the Parish House next door at No. 83, had about 1,000 pupils.

The cash inflow was not used to pay off the debt, but for construction.   Three years later the congregation hired architects Berg & Clark to remodel the Parish House, giving it a new Romanesque Revival brick facade, and to touch up the church itself.

The architects' plans for the church building proper, filed on July 10, called for "floor of church lowered, new windows of stained glass, interior decorations, repairs, &c."  The cost for those alterations alone was a staggering $10,000, nearly $270,000 today.  Not evident in the published plans were updates to the facade.

The architects embellished the half-round opening within the pediment with scrolls and vines, and a plaque that announced Deutsche Evangelish-Lutherische St. Johannes Kirche.  On either side of the pediment, neo-Classical balustrades topped with urns were added.

The corner balustrades and urns can be seen in this 1913 newspaper photo.  collection of the New York Public Library

The broad-ranged congregation of the German-language church included tenement-dwelling immigrants and wealthy businessmen.  Charles Knox was one of the city's best known hatters.  His Broadway store catered to the upper crust at the time when a gentleman’s closet would hold a silk top hat, a beaver business hat, a straw boater for casual recreation and multiple other hats for other purposes.  The funeral service for his wife in St. John's Lutheran Church on February 16, 1888 were impressive.  The Evening World reported "There were 150 of Mr. Knox's employees in the funeral procession."

By 1896 St. John's had been established as the meeting place for the annual Evangelical Lutheran Synod of New-York and New-Jersey.  The days-long conventions would continue to be held into the second half of the 20th century.

On December 16, 1905 the New-York Tribune reported that "the church property is now free from debt and has lately been enhanced by the installation of a three manual organ and the gift of several memorial windows."

Little by little, the German language ceded to English with separate Sunday services being celebrated in the two languages.  The incursion of English was evident in a comment by The New York Herald on November 26, 1922.  "The German tradesmen of the vicinity assembly here on Sundays in family groups of Teutonic appearance, if of American speech."

An extremely disturbing incident occured during services on March 17, 1935.  Although George Tietjen lived in Rutherford, New Jersey, he was a life-long member of St. John's and an elder.  The 59-year old arrived for Sunday evening services when, just as they began, the pastor, Rev. Dr. F. E. Oberlander, felt "a slight indisposition."  Oberlander asked Tietjen to stand in for him.

Tietjen read the Scriptures, then announced that the congregation would sing a hymn.  He read the first line, then sat down as the organist started to play.  Before the hymn began he fell to the floor.  The New York Times indelicately reported that he "dropped dead in St. John's Lutheran Church...last night while conducting the service."

Rev. Oberlander had been pastor here since 1914.  He was prominent in the United Lutheran Synod and during its 1935 meetings was chairman of the Committee on Welfare and Morals.  It condemned "hasty divorces and 'easy marriages'" and ruled that the Lutheran Church could no longer raise funds through "the proceeds of card parties, dances, roulette wheels, raffles and bazaars."

Despite that seemingly rigid stance, Oberlander was beloved by his congregation.   He was 70 years old at the time of George Tietjen's sudden death, and was fighting blindness.   Nevertheless, he steadfastly took to the pulpit each week.

Oberlander well remembered the difficulties German churches underwent during World War I.  Now, with Germany ruled by Adolph Hitler's Nazi Socialist Party and newspapers filled with stories of hate, Oberlander responded.  On March 15, 1937 The New York Times reported "Speaking in German...the Rev. Dr. Fridolin Emil Oberlander urged avoidance of the prejudice prevalent abroad in his sermon yesterday morning at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church."    He reminded his congregation that "the children of Israel were God's chosen people, from whom Jesus Christ was descended."

Nine months later Oberlander was dead.  Following an illness of almost two months, he died in the Parsonage on December 5, 1937.  His obituary noted "Despite infirmity and impending blindness, Dr. Oberlander had conducted services, mostly in German, until his final illness."  The Times mentioned "His church is one of the oldest of the denomination in Manhattan and members of his congregation came from widely separated districts."

The following year on December 4, almost exactly to the day of Oberlander's death, guest speaker Rev. Dr. Samuel Trexler noted in his sermon that "St. John's had achieved the unique record of having had only four pastors since its incorporation, an average of twenty years of service for each man called to its pulpit."  A new pastor, Rev. Ernest J. Mollenauer, was scheduled to be installed on New Years Day.

The essence of the simple Federal-style interior survives.  photo via St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Seven months after the beginning of World War II the Lutheran Synod addressed the Nazi problem overseas from St. John's.  On May 23, 1940 it announced that "more than 50 per cent of the Lutherans in the world are under German domination."  The synod's publicity committee estimated that "at least half the churches in German are not in use at present," and that "up to the outbreak of the war, a great number of Lutheran ministers were said to be in concentration camps."

In response, the Lutherans established a non-commercial short wave station, WUL, in Boston for world broadcasts of Lutheran services.  A synod spokesman said "Although we know that there is a severe penalty for any German who listens to a short wave broadcast, we hope that some of them will be able to listen in...We must not despair, for religion cannot die in Germany."

By the third quarter of the 20th century the Greenwich Village neighborhood around St. John's Lutheran had vastly changed.  Christopher Street was now the heart of New York City's--if not the nation's--gay culture.  German language sermons had long since disappeared, yet St. John's remained a fundamental presence in the community.

A hand-painted face stares from one of the 1886 Eastlake -style windows.  photo via St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Perhaps nothing exemplified the congregation's ability to adapt to its changing environment than Tony 'n Tina's Wedding, the hit interactive off-Broadway show that opened in the church in 1991.  New York Magazine described it as "a wedding at St. John's Church, 81 Christopher Street; then a reception at 147 Waverly Place, with Italian buffet, champagne, and wedding cake."  The play ran for years and locals and tourists stopped in their tracks as Tony and Tina ran through a shower of rice to the waiting limousine night after night.  The church continues to stage musical and dramatic productions.

A graceful, splendid example of Federal period church architecture, St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church is rare gem.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The 1902 James J. Hill Mansion - 8 East 65th Street




On July 13, 1900 the architectural firm of Hiss & Weekes filed plans for two side-by-side mansions at Nos. 6 and 8 East 65th Street for millionaire William H. Bliss.  No. 8, at 43 feet wide, would be nearly twice the width of its neighbor.  The plans projected the cost of the project at $250,000--more than $7.5 million today.   When details were slightly changed and the architects submitted new plans on August 24, the owner of record was no longer William Bliss, but his wife, Anna.

It took two years to construct the architecturally harmonious mansions.  No. 8 (which replaced two 1879 brownstones) was a frothy celebration of the Beaux Arts style, so popular at the time among wealthy homeowners.  A full-width stone balcony at the second floor sat upon heavy console brackets.  Three sets of French doors opened onto it, set within arches filled with garland-draped cartouches and carved ribbons.  A bracketed stone cornice served as a second balcony, with heavy French railings, at the fourth floor.  Here prominent dormers rose into the copper covered mansard with its three bull's-eye windows.

The Bliss family moved into the smaller house next door, while they leased No. 8 to W. C. Gulliver.  He and his wife were well-known in coaching and pedigree dog circles.

Mrs. W. C. Gulliver (left in white) at the annual parade of the Coaching Club in 1906.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress
Newspapers seemed confused as to why the Blisses chose to live in the smaller mansion.  The Sun later mentioned "Mrs. Bliss erected a 40 [sic] foot front house at 8 and 10 East Sixty-fifth street but decided not to occupy it."  The Record & Guide said "upon completion she decided it was too large for her needs."

While the Gullivers leased the house, James J. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railroad and the Northern Pacific Railway, was spending more and more time in New York City.  Known as "the empire builder," he had amassed a tremendous fortune.  A resident of Minnesota, when he was in town he lived in an apartment in the Bolkenhayn Apartments on Fifth Avenue at 58th Street.

On June 13, 1906 The New York Times reported "Mr. Hill is the second of the Western railroad magnates to reach the decision recently that he spends enough time in New York to justify his buying a house here."  It was not simply "a house" that Hill bought, it was the sumptuous mansion at No. 8 East 65th Street.  He paid Anna B. Bliss $450,000 for the property, or abut $12.6 million today.

The Record & Guide deemed the house "one of the finest in the 5th av section," and The Times noted the exclusive nature of the neighborhood.  "Right around the corner in Fifth Avenue are the houses of Frank Jay Gould, William Guggenheim, and George Crocker, while within a block or two in either direction along the fashionable thoroughfare are the residences of George Gould, Col. John Jacob Astor, and H[enry]. O. Havemeyer."

The scale of the mansion belied the fact that it was technically a second home or that all of James and Mary Hill's ten children were grown.  The youngest, Walter Jerome Hill, was 21 years old at the time.

Nevertheless, the couple became a visible presence in New York Society and in the neighborhood.  In 1907 Hill erected a mansion next door, at No. 12, for his daughter, Gertrude, who had married Michael Gavin.  And a year later, in November, he spent half a million dollars to buy the four-story house directly behind the two mansions at Nos. 7 and 9 East 64th Street.  The New-York Tribune explained "The purchase was made to prevent the erection of an apartment house, which would affect the light and air of his house" and that of the Gavins.  The article added, "It was also said that Mr. Hill would probably erect on the site two houses, one of which would be for his son, Louis W. Hill."

A most disturbing incident occurred on September 29, 1911.  William and Anna Bliss were in Europe, leaving Anna's step-daughter, Kora F. Barnes behind.  Kora was the daughter of patent medicine mogul and politician Demas Barnes, who had died in 1888.

Kora had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1910; but her physician felt that she was now "practically recovered.  As a matter of fact, in July she had gone on an automobile tour of New England with three friends, taking along her companion, Kate Erskine, and her private secretary.

September 29, 1911 was her 53rd birthday and she had plans to attend the Garden City aviation meet; but the weather ruined that.  Instead she stayed at home in No. 6 with Kate and directed the staff in preparing her birthday dinner for friends, which would be followed by a theater party.

At some point Kate left the room to answer a phone call.  When she returned Kora was missing and the windows were open.  "Looking out, she saw the body of Miss Barnes," said The Times.  It was draped over the wall of the Hill property.

"Miss Barnes was a large woman weighing 170 pounds.  In falling she struck a projected ledge and landed on a stone wall separating the yards in the rear of the residence of Orme Wilson, 3 East Sixty-fourth Street, and that of J. J. Hill."

The Bliss mansion is to the right.
James and Mary Hill were at their St. Paul, Minnesota home in the spring of 1916 when James became ill on May 17.   He died at the age of 77 on May 29.  In unnecessary and posthumously-embarrassing detail, The New York Times announced the cause was "hemorrhoidal infection."

The article was written in otherwise florid prose.  "In his room, in the southeast corner on the second floor of the brownstone house, overlooking the city to which he same sixty years ago as a clerk, the end came."  It continued "Kneeling at the bed, her hands clasping the hand of the man whose wife and helpmate she had been since 1867, was Mrs. Hill."

Hill's estate was estimated at a staggering $75 million.  The funeral was held in the St. Paul house and a private mausoleum was erected on the grounds of their summer estate, North Oaks to house the body.

Mary Hill soon moved to an apartment at No. 635 Park Avenue and No. 8 was sold to wealthy real estate operator Edward Hubbard Litchfield and his wife, the former Madeleine Middagh Sands.  The couple were middle-aged, Edward being 61 and Madeleine 58 at the time of the purchase.  They had four children, Edward, Bayard, Marion and Madeline, all in their mid-30's.

Both Edward and Madeleine came from long-established Brooklyn families.  The original Litchfield estate engulfed much of what is today Prospect Park, and the Sands family owned much property just below what is today Brooklyn Heights.  Sands Street was named after her family.  The New York Times later said of Edward, "He was privately fitted for college" and earned a law degree at New York University in 1867.  But he gave up law and "entered the real estate business and amassed a fortune."

The couple had a 50,000-acre country estate, Litchfield Park, in the Adirondacks that included "a fine game preserve," according to The Times.  An avid sportsman, Edward visited Scotland every fall for the annual grouse shooting.  For several seasons he rented a baronial castle there "in which to entertain his guests."

Edward was a zealous collector of paintings, medieval armor and ancient firearms.  The 65th Street house held his collection of antique shotguns, known as fowling pieces, reputed to be among the finest in the country.

While spending time at Southampton on August 9, 1923 Madeleine died.   Only Bayard had married by now, and the three other children lived on with their father in the 65th Street house.  Their names only rarely appeared in the newspapers.  An exception was the mention seven months after Madeleine's death that "Edward H. Litchfield sailed for Nassau on March 19 where he will join his son, Mr. Bayard Sands Litchfield."

The mansion was the scene of at least one glittering entertainment in November 1928.  Edward opened the house for the debutante reception of Bayard's daughter, Barbara Victorovna Litchfield.  Brooklyn Life noted that she "comes of families which have been prominently connected with Brooklyn since an early period in its history."

In 1929 Edward's physical condition began failing.  He died of bronchial pneumonia at the age of 85 at Litchfield Park on March 3 the following year.  His obituary noted that he "had been a semi-invalid for the last year."  His funeral was held at Grace Church in Brooklyn where he had been a senior warden.

His massive estate was divided among the four children, with Edward Jr. being the largest beneficiary.  The paintings and statuary, much of which were family pieces, passed down from Edward Sr.'s father, Edwin C. Litchfield, all went to Edward.  The will insisted that Edward Jr. keep the family art collection intact.

Less than a year after her father's death, on January 2, 1931, Madeline died in the 65th Street mansion.  Her estate was valued at more than $1.6 million.

Marion and Edward were little affected by the Great Depression, living on in the French-style mansion surrounded by the invaluable collection of artwork and medieval arms and armor.  A rare entertainment occurred when Marion hosted a wedding reception in November 1932 following the marriage of her cousin, Nancy Gardiner Willard, to Dr. Frank Brock Orr.

Like his father, Edward was an avid hunter and sportsman and his advancing age did not deter him.  He was a member of the "closely limited" Flanders Club, a hunting and fishing group in Flanders, Long Island.  On the afternoon of November 25, 1949 the 75-year old and another elderly hunter, Augustus Barnard (he was 78) went duck hunting on Peconic Bay in a fishing boat.   The boat was operated by 46-year old Louis Eastwood, the superintendent of the Flanders Club.

Tragedy struck when the boat capsized about 40 feet from shore.  The heavy clothing and boots worn by the old men pulled them under.  Barnard managed to cling to the overturned hull until he was rescued.  Club employees found Edward's body and, sometime later, state police recovered the body of Eastwood.

To the left the house James J. Hill erected for his daughter can be glimpsed.

Now alone, Marion soon moved to No. 1060 Fifth Avenue.  She died there in January 1961 at the age of 83.  The 65th Street mansion was sold to the Republic of Pakistan for use as its Consulate to the United Nations.  An alteration completed in 1951 included "offices and private apartments."  The consulate remains in the house.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The 1922 Wood, Dolson & Co. Building - 2091 Broadway



Business was such in 1922 that the real estate firm Wood, Dolson & Co. required increased office space.  Frederick R. Wood founded the firm just after the turn of the century as F. R. Wood & Co., and around 1912 took William Hamilton Dolson as a partner.  Although Wood withdrew from active participation in the firm sometime during World War I, his name remained when the company was renamed Wood, Dolson & Co. in 1919.

Now the firm negotiated a deal with the Rutgers Presbyterian Church, which owned a vacant plot on Broadway, just south of 73rd Street, next to its church building.   The lot may have remained undeveloped this long because of its odd trapezoidal shape due to the angle of Broadway.  Wood, Dolson & Co. signed a 21-year lease for about $12,500 per year, or about $15,250 a month today.

Two firms were involved in the design of the Wood, Dolson & Co. structure.  John D. Boyd was a fledgling architect, having just opened his office two years earlier.  He served as associate architect to F. B. & A. Ware.  Partners Franklin B. and Arthur Ware were veteran architects, having started their careers in the office of their father, James E. Ware, in the 1890's.

On December 9, 1922 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "The new office building for the Wood, Dodson Company, located at 2091 Broadway...is now in course of construction.  The business of this firm has recently been expanded to such an extent that all of the space in this structure will be utilized to house the executive offices, sales, renting and insurance departments of the business."

Six months earlier, when the lot was acquired, The New York Times had mentioned a challenge faced by the architects.  "There are certain restrictions on the property, and the architecture of the new structure must conform with the church building."  In response F. B. & A. Ware and John D. Boyd, "associated," had designed a three-story, slightly faceted structure clad in Tennessee marble.  They loosely described the architectural style as "in the period of Louis XVI."  The Record & Guide called the facade, "very simple in its lines but of dignified proportions."

"The large place glass windows are set in frames of ornamental cast bronze," said the Guide, "delicately modeled, and the whole is crowned with a marble cornice of simple design."   The journal made special note of the odd plot.  "The site selected presented a difficult problem to the architects, in that the facade is designed on a splayed surface, but it has been successfully handled by the architects."

The original bronze doorways can be seen in this 1922 sketch released by the architects.  Real Estate Record & Guide, December 9, 1922 (copyright expired) 
The building cost about $30,000 to erect, in the neighborhood of $438,000 today.  Wood, Dolson & Co. remained in its marble headquarters until 1940 when its lease expired.  It moved nearby to No. 241 West 72nd Street.

No. 2091 was renovated to house an office on the ground and top floors, with a "meeting room" on the second.  The first floor was leased by the West Side Defense Council in 1942 for use as a "master information center."  Although the United States was not yet involved, the war in Europe made an impact on Americans.  The New York Times reported on September 5 that the Council "hopes to establish a new and more important definition for the word 'consumer."

Mrs. Manfred Nathan was chairman of the "consumer committee" and explained "the consumer must be a good, all-around economic citizen."  The Broadway office, really a showroom of sorts, held booths and tables with visual displays to "give instruction on many things from being a good voter to caring for the baby."

The Times article noted "A booth sponsored by the Greater New York Safety Council will street home safety measures.  The health and welfare of children in wartime will be fully treated, as well as the more conventional aids to consumers, such as economic buying, conservation and rules in good nutrition."

Neo-classical urns decorate the pressed metal spandrels between the second and third floors.
While the West Side Defense Council continued its wartime work downstairs, the brokerage firm of Newburger, Loeb & Co. opened a branch office on the third floor.  The second floor became home to the Amsterdam Democratic Club.

Like dozens of other such organizations, the Amsterdam Democratic Club was formed in the 19th century as a Tammany district office.  It would remain in the Broadway building for decades, the scene of sometimes heated nomination voting, jubilant political victory parties and similar functions.

Senator James M. Mead, described by The Times as the "Democratic-American Labor-Liberal candidate for Governor," addressed the group here on October 28, 1946.  The newspaper said he ridiculed the Republican Party's efforts to "capitalize politically on current shortages on consumer goods and food."

The candidate said "They prattle about meat shortages.  How many steaks were you buying a week when Hoover was in the White House?   They prattle about shortages of automobiles.  How many cars did you have in your garage when Hoover was in the White house?"  They chatter about shortages on the production lines.  How much production was there when factories were closed and when agriculture was in ruins, banking in collapse, industry in distress and labor in despair?"

By 1949 Leslie Records, Inc. operated from the ground floor.  That year it scored a coup by getting the rights to distribute "The Brooklyn Dodgers Jump," sung by three professional ballplayers, Ralph Branca, Carl Furrilo and Erv Palica.  They were backed up by "the Ebbets Field Chorus."

Billboard magazine, July 2, 1949
But while Leslie Records sold the novelty recording, much more serious business was being conducted on the second floor that year.  The once-elegant Ansonia Apartments, built in 1904 by W. E. D. Stokes at a cost of $4 million was only feet away at the northwest corner of Broadway and 73rd Street.  After it was sold to the Dajon Realty Corporation in October 1946 things went downhill rapidly.

Tenants and employees joined forces and began meeting in the Amsterdam Democratic Club space in December 1948.  Issues on the agenda at the second meeting in January included "unjustifiably high" rent, employees inability to cash paychecks for nearly a month, and curtailment of elevator and switchboard services.

One tenant, attorney Julius L. Schapira, was quoted in The New York Times on January 26 saying "The building is in a deplorable condition, with dirty floors, ceilings and walls half-painted and radiator grills removed from the walls and scattered in the corridors."

A third meeting, on February 1, 1949, resulted in when The Times called "an enthusiastic overflow."  The article said "With the meeting-hall jammed to the walls and about 100 tenants standing outside," the group agreed to donate 1 percent of their annual rent to a "war chest" to "eliminate their grievances against Samuel Broxmeyer, owner of the building."  Simultaneously, Broxmeyer filed for bankruptcy.

The meetings in the Amsterdam Democratic Club bore fruit.  Broxmeyer was eventually sentenced to five years in jail and the Ansonia was liquidated in at a foreclosure auction for $40,000 to a mortgage holder.

In the meantime, Newburger, Loeb & Co. remained on the top floor into the 1960's.  By 1983 the store was occupied by Workbench, where household items like a tea cart of "plasticcoated wire" able to withstand outdoor weather could be procured.


Even with its altered storefront, Wood, Dolson & Co.'s unusual and slightly askew building is barely changed since 1922.  And the firm's name--a mystery to most passersby--still proudly survives, carved into the white marble facade.

photographs by the author

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Lost H. Gregory House - No. 821 Broadway


When this photo was taken around 1897, Duque gave 10-day photography instruction in the attic.  Tailors Abeles & Farian would soon be gone from the second floor.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.
By 1832 New York City had expanded northward to the former farm of Henry Spingler, a portion of which was being transformed into Union Square Park.  The blocks of Broadway just to the south were quickly being lined with handsome brick residences, including No. 821 at the northwest corner of East 12th Street.

Three and a half stories tall, it featured the substantial proportions and impressive elements of an upscale home.  Below the high, joined chimneys on the side, an arched opening was flanked by handsome quarter-round windows.  Above the Broadway roof line were two especially tall dormers which held arched windows.   It appears that the house most likely always had two shops at street level.

By 1837 one was home to H. Gregory's confectionery store.  The candy maker had another shop on William Street.  He touted his best-selling product that year, Gregory's Vanilla Cream Candy:

The above very justly celebrated Candy can now be had genuine, together with a general assortment of Lozenges, and other Confectionary [sic], all made of refined Sugar, and warranted pure, at No. 131 William street, and at 821 Broadway, by H. Gregory, the original inventor of the Vanilla Cream Candy.

By 1841 at least one boarder, shipmaster John A. Pierce, was living in the upper portion.  That year John McElwain ran his "morocco dresser" shop next to the candy store.  Morocco was a type of goat leather and morocco dressers tanned or softened it.

The candy store was being operated by John Demarest in 1843 while Dr. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, who now lived upstairs, ran his pharmacy in the other half.  It was the beginning of a long tradition of drug stores in the space.

Nineteenth century doctors commonly operated their own drug stores where they mixed and formulated medicines and remedies.  On November 21, 1850 an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune read, "Drug Clerk Wanted--A young man thoroughly acquainted with the business, and who can give city reference, may obtain a situation by applying at 821 Broadway.  A graduate of the College of Pharmacy preferred."

In the meantime, extra rooms continued to be leased upstairs.  An advertisement in April 1849 offered "Furnished Rooms to Let--Parlor and Bedrooms, suitable for single gentlemen, or a small genteel family, in the immediate neighborhood of Union Park and Grace Church."

By 1853 Dr. Van Renselaer had moved on and No. 821 was home to dentist George McNeil and Charles McNeil, probably his son or brother, who ran the drugstore.

Born in Norway, Gunerius Gabrielson opened his florist store at No. 374 Broadway around 1857.  The successful and talented florist was awarded a gold medal at the exhibition of the American Institute for "the best floral basket" that year.  Within the decade he moved his flower shop next to the pharmacy and his family into the upper portion of the house.

Gabrielson was still here in 1878 when his 21-year old son went missing.  Gunerius, Jr. left the house on Saturday morning, January 19 to spend the weekend with Henry Metcalf on Staten Island.  The following Monday he boarded a boat back to New York City.    The New York Times reported four days later, "He had with him, when seen on the boat, a basket of flowers and a traveling-bag, and in conversation with some gentlemen friends remarked that he would go to the lower cabin and deliver the reticule to its owner (a lady)."

Gabrielson did, indeed, deliver the handbag to the woman, but she later said that after he left the cabin she never saw him again.  When the boat docked, Gabrielson did not get off.  The flowers he had brought on board were found in the upper cabin.  The Times remarked "At his home, his effects, including his bank-book, were found intact."  It is unclear whether the missing man was ever found.

Gabrielson advertised his shop in the December 18, 1881 issue of The Stage (copyright expired)

Gabrielson's florist shop was gone by 1888 and that space was now home to the Donigan sisters' corset store.  The drugstore was operated by George E. Shiel that year, and the residential floors were rapidly being taken over by businesses.   Shield's pharmacy was the scene of a frightening incident on February 20.

While he was taking care of a customer, a large bottle of alcohol fell from a shelf and smashed on the cast iron radiator.  The alcohol poured down the hot pipes and a significant explosion followed.  The New York Times reported that the blast "blew out the front and side windows of the store.  The shelving and partition blazed up, and Shiel in endeavoring to extinguish the flames was severely burned about the hands and face."

The blast terrified the women in the corset shop, which was separated from the drugstore by what the newspaper called "a wooden partition."  The Donigan sisters and their half-dozen female workers rushed from the store onto Broadway.  After a messenger boy ran to the fire house on 13th Street the fire was soon extinguished.

As the turn of the century approached, the corset store of E. & E. Donigan was still here (the shop to the right).  I. C. Istel's cigar store is in the former pharmacy space, and tailors Abeles & Farian occupied part of the upper floors.   from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1890 the intriguingly named Wilsonia Magnetic Clothing Co. was in the building.   Around that time I. C. Istel installed his cigar store in former pharmacy.  Before long he purchased the building and in 1899 made $7,500 in improvements to "the lofts" upstairs, and installed a new entrance to his corner cigar store.  Behind it on 12th Street was a small lunchroom.   The second floor was by now occupied by merchant tailor S. Tillis, and the third by furrier I. Kaufmann.  Despite the extensive alterations (costing more than $200,000 today), the building maintained its patrician, domestic appearance.

During the summer of 1902 Istel took his family to Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey.  Shortly after breakfast on August 27 the family could not find nine-year old Charles.   A panicked search ensued, but it was not until that night that the boy's body was found floating in the lake.

Whether the tragedy had anything to do with Istel's selling No. 821 is conjecture; but seven months later developers R. C. Smith & Co. announced plans for a "10-story fireproof building" to be erected on the site.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on February 28, 1903 "The new building is estimated to cost between $150,000 and $175,000."

The problem for R. C. Smith & Co. in erecting its new headquarters building may have been that Mary Hopepin Smith still owned the land under the old buildings on the proposed site.  But for whatever reason the project never went forward and the vintage structures survived another three years.

Another developer, The Richmond Realty Co., announced on March 10, 1906 it had commissioned architect Samuel Sass to design a 12-story loft building.  But that plan, too, would run into a snag.

On December 29 the Record & Guide explained "Work on the new 12-story loft building at Broadway and 12th st...stopped seven weeks ago pending an adjustment of ownership."   The renegotiation may have had to do with Mary Hopepin Smith's name change following her marriage (she was now legally Mary H. S. Register).   Construction resumed in 1907 and was completed in 1908.  That building survives.



Saturday, August 11, 2018

The 1855 Thomas Galwey House - 48 West 20th Street




In the decade before the outbreak of Civil War lavish brownstone homes lined the block of West 20th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Begun in 1854, the 25-foot wide Italianate style row house at No. 48 was completed the following year.  The upscale residence rose four stories above a high English basement.  Its dignified design included architrave openings with scrolled keystones and a prominent metal cornice with paired foliate brackets.

Documents show the house was constructed for D. E. Aguirre; but that may be a clerical mistake.  Peter A. Aguirre was a partner with Thomas Galwey in the importing firm of Aguirre & Galwey on Pearl Street.  The firm owned at least one of its own sailing ships and imported items like molasses.

Whichever Aguirre built No. 48, it was Thomas Galwey and his wife, Sophia, who moved in.  Five years later the couple had a scare when somehow a fire broke out in a wardrobe upstairs.  On October 15, 1860 The New York Times reported "At 11 1/2 o'clock a fire occurred at the residence of Mr. Thomas Galloway [sic], No. 48 West Twentieth-street.  It originated in a clothes-press."  A passerby who happened to be a volunteer fire fighter rushed in and extinguished the fire.

Sophia T. Galwey died in the house on January 21, 1861.  Her funeral was held here two days later.

The elegance of the Victorian interiors with their costly furnishings was evidenced when Galwey sold everything and moved to the country in 1870.  The auction sale listed in part "rosewood and black walnut Parlor Suits, Centre Tables, black walnut Bookcase, rosewood, walnut, black walnut Parlor Writing Desks, black walnut Chamber Suits, Bedsteads; marble top Dressing Bureaus."

At the time of Thomas Galwey's death in his Westchester County home on February 23, 1874 No. 48 was home to E. P. Fabbri and his wife.   The wealthy businessman was treasurer of the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. of N.Y. and the Edison Electric Light Co.  The couple were highly involved in charitable organizations.  Mrs. Fabbri was a manager in the New York Orthopaedic Dispensary and Hospital, and a member of the committee member in The Italian School under the charge of the Children's Aid Society.  Fabbri was a trustee in the Health Home or Sanitarium at Coney Island among many other involvements.

When Mark M. Stanfield purchased the house in 1884 he enlarged it to the rear with a one-story extension.  Stanfield was the proprietor of the lavish Victoria Hotel on Fifth Avenue, owned by the fabulously wealthy and autocratic Mrs. Paran Stevens.   A widower, he had three grown sons, George Otis, Hugh M. and Henry R. Stanfield.

Henry was perhaps the most interesting of the three.  A Civil War veteran he was an operatic tenor and had toured Europe under the name of Signor Del Santis.  He was married to the former Florestine Youenes, described by The New York Times as a "member of an old New Orleans family."

Mark Stanfield would not live in the home especially long.  He died on May 28, 1890 and his will created shock within his family.  He left in trust the income of $25,000 to George, of $20,000 to Hugh, and to Henry the income of $10,000.  His lesser amount was no doubt due to the fact that Mark left Florestine the income of $20,000.  The trusts were not insignificant, the $20,000 amounts equal to more than half a million today.   What unnerved the family was that Henry and Florestine's 17-year old son, Douglas, received the bulk of the estate--around $250,000 or $7 million today.

On August 20, 1890 The New York Times ran the headline "Too Much For A Grandson" and reported that the Stanfield brothers had initiated "objections to the will."  In the meantime, Florestine was appointed "guardian of the estate" until Douglas reached his 21st birthday.  Included in Douglas's inheritance was the 20th Street house, his grandfather's Morris Plains country estate with its stable of horses, and the proprietorship of the Victoria Hotel.

Florestine leased No. 48, furnished, to a succession of moneyed tenants.  Mrs. Catherine Colville was here in 1892.  Like Mrs. Fabbri, she was active in charities and was treasurer of the American Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless.  The following year Mrs. Ruth Ross Lee, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution was living here; and in September 1894 Florestine leased the house to J. C. Clifford.

By now Henry Stanfield had died and Florestine and Douglas were living in the Victoria Hotel and managing it.  The Times later noted that Douglas's "quarters in his hotel had several art treasures and antiques."

Placing the boy's fortune in his mother's hands proved to be a disastrous move.  The Stanfields "entertained many notables at parties" and Douglas, according to The Times, "at one time affected a garb reminiscent of Beau Brummel."  There was nothing left of the inheritance by the spring of 1895. 

The trustees of the estate of Paran Stevens, owners of the Victoria, filed suit for $75,000 in back rent on April 5 that year (unbelievably, more than $2.2 million today).  They obtained an injunction stopping Florestine and Douglas "from removing the furniture and mirrors in the hotel and in the house at 48 West Twentieth street."  The Sun reported that "young Stanfield, through his assignee, was preparing to dispose of this movable property, which descended to him from his grandfather, in order to meet his private debts."

With nowhere else to go, Florestine and Douglas moved into No. 48.  By now the neighborhood had drastically changed.  Sixth Avenue, steps away, was lined with retail emporiums and the massive Cammeyer building, reportedly the largest shoe store in the world, edged up to the Stanfield house.  On January 18, 1899 the mother and son nearly lost their home to a fire in the Cammeyer store.

The massive blaze nearly destroyed the building.  The New York Times reported "The flames made the dwelling at 48 West Twentieth Street, uninhabitable, and its owner and tenant, Mrs. H. R. Stanfield and her son...were obliged to vacate.  They managed to get most of their furniture into vans and out of danger."

When the smell of fire and smoke were finally purged, Florestine briefly leased the house to The College Women's Club.  On December 10, 1899 The Times reported "It has just opened well-appointed club rooms at 48 West Twentieth Street, and it was confidently prophesied last night that by next season the club's cherished ambition will be realized and it will be giving entertainments in its own house."

That soon proved to be ill-grounded confidence.  Six months later, in June 1900, Florestine Stanfield sold the property to Cammeyer. 

Douglas Maxwell Stanfield's life would be an interesting, if not necessarily a financially successful one.  Upon his death in May 1950 The Times recalled him as the "former Broadway actor, who inherited a fortune from his grandfather and in later years worked as a day laborer."

After a brief but rather successfully career on stage, he moved to his grandfather's Morris Plains estate around 1910.  Little by little he sold off parts of the grounds to survive, and around 1915 took a job as a road worker for the county.  When he died at 77 he was living off the county pension on "what was left of the estate in Morris Plains."

Back on 20th Street, after purchasing the house in 1900, A. J. Cammeyer hired architect Charles Rentz to do $3,000 in renovations, including new steel beams and girders and new openings.  The facade retained its domestic appearance, however, and it appears the shoe firm used the house only as an annex for storage.

In 1914 Cammeyer joined the other retail establishments in abandoning Sixth Avenue as the shopping district moved further uptown.  In 1919 No. 48 was leased to M. & L. Diamond Co., makers of trunks and "fibre cases" (i.e., suit cases).  Owned by Minnie and Louis Diamond, the firm remained in the former house until being forced into bankruptcy in August 1921.

Owners Fried-Furman made significant changes to the once grand home in 1925 when architect Joseph J. Furman converted the former basement and parlor levels to a store, and the upper floors to factory space.

Not especially attractive even at the time, Furman's alterations included a two-story extension where the stoop and areaway had been.  Faced in beige brick, it included a storefront at street level and three large show windows at the second floor.  A single door led to the upper floors.  A pierced brick parapet was a half-hearted attempt at architectural decoration.   The brownstone facade of the upper three floors retained its 1855 appearance.

Among the small factories and offices doing business from the building at mid-century was Tee Jay Toys, Inc.  The firm made and sold novelties here for several years.  In March 1956 if offered its new "All plush 30" standing bear."  The ad promised "cotton stuffed--no straw."


The Ladies Mile was rediscovered in the last quarter of the 20th century.  The former department stores which had sat neglected and abused for decades were renovated as apartments, clothing stores and restaurants.  The dingy store at No. 48 still awaits a similar reformation.  But above the 1925 distraction, the remnants of Thomas Galwey's once-proud mansion survive.

photographs by the author

Friday, August 10, 2018

The 1874 Michael Puels Building - 285 Bleecker Street




In the spring of 1874 38-year old butcher Michael Puels embarked on an ambitious project.  Born in Bavaria, he had garnered enough money to acquire the 25-foot wide building at No. 285 Bleecker Street.  Now he envisioned a five-story building which would not only accommodate his butcher shop, but provide rental income from the apartments above.  It seems that Puels' American dream was happening.

On March 20, 1874 architect Julius Boekell filed plans for the "five-story brick store and tenement."  Also born in Germany, Boekell is perhaps best remembered for the striking First German Baptist Church on East 14th Street he had designed five years earlier.

Puels always intended that he and his wife, Clara, would live in one of the apartments over his store.  But he would never see his building completed.   A few months after ground was broken, on Wednesday, August 26, Puels died.  His funeral was held in St. John's German Lutheran Church on Christopher Street the following Sunday.

Clara forged ahead with the project.  The completed Italianate-style structure was faced in orange brick above the cast iron storefront.   Boekell added elaborate pre-cast elements which elevated the design above the norm.   The openings sat on molded, cornice-like sills supported by pretty decorated brackets.  Effusive lintels adorned the segmental-arched windows, each wearing a lacy tiara-like ornament called an acroterion.  The over-the-top cast iron cornice included an arched pediment and the large plaque: M. PUELS 1874.  It not only dated the building, but memorialized its owner.



The shop space was leased to butcher J. Andre.  Clara Puels moved into one of the apartments as her building filled with ten blue collar families.  The residents in 1876 were policeman John O'Shea; watchman Thomas McDonough; Edwin Rogers, a porter; cabinetmaker Adolph Sabberton; two clerks, Camille Feniel and Charles E. Blum; Philip Bouton, whose drygoods store was directly across the street at No. 286; "driver" Charles Ryerson; Bertha Magner who dealt in "men's furnishings;" and William H. Fanning, an artist.

After two decades at the location, Andre sold his butcher shop to Louis J. Schwartz on November 1, 1895.  But, somewhat surprisingly, his business was slow to take off.  In an apparent effort to increase sales, he applied to the city for a license to use the sidewalk for a "newsstand or fruit stand."  It was granted on December 3.  But Schwartz's troubles continued.

On December 20 he locked the doors, disconnected the tube to the gas meter, and inhaled the gas.  He was later found dead.  The New York Times remarked "He had occupied the store only two months and had not been successful.  He had been drinking heavily."

Clara Puels leased the store to F. A. Ecks & Co., which listed itself as a delicatessen.  The company operated another shop in Brooklyn.

After owning and living in No. 285 for more than three decades, Clara sold the property on April 3, 1906 to Louis P. Dowdney.   The sale sparked a game of real estate hot potato.  Dowdney held it only three days before selling it to Denis M. Gallo.  Gallo sold it to Camille Sisti and Giacinta Rubino on April 17; and they resold it on Lorenzo Ciaffone and his wife, Lucia, 10 months later on February 21, 1907.  The surnames of the string of owners reflect the heavily Italian population that lived in the Bleecker Street neighborhood at the time.

The Ciaffones, who lived nearby at No. 110 Thompson Street, not only halted the rapid-fire turnover in ownership; but improved the aging structure.  On July 9, 1910 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Ciaffone had hired architect Max Muller to make "extensive changes."  Most significant was a new storefront and a fire escape.  The alterations cost Ciaffone $5,000--or about $133,000 today.

When the Ciaffones sold the building in 1918 the store was home to the Royal Tea Co., run by L. Rothman.  The ongoing world war at the time would change the lives of all Americans in one way or another.  It seriously affected the Lagazio family who lived upstairs that year when son Salveni was drafted into what the New-York Tribune called "the New National Army."  On April 2 he was sent to the Camp Upton at Yaphank, Long Island.  (Ironically, in the 1930's Yaphank became a center of Nazi activity and the former training camp was renamed Camp Siegfried.  Nazi uniform-wearing bund members held parades and carried swastika emblazoned banners and flags.)

The heavily Italian personality of Bleecker Street continued throughout the 20th century.  In 1976 the store space became home to the chef Alfredo Viazzi's restaurant Tavola Calda da Alfredo.  The New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton, on June 4, called Viazzi a "maestro" and described his fare as "lusciously, soul-satisfying."

In 1964 Onofrio Ottomanelli had purchased the building.  His butcher shop, Ottomanelli Brothers had been in business since 1900 and since 1957 had operated a few steps away at No. 281 Bleecker Street.  In 1989 when Viazza's lease ran out, Ottomanelli moved in--returning the space to a butcher shop as Michael Puels intended more than a century earlier.

The city-wide repute of the shop was reflected when The New York Times reported on a murder upstairs on November 5, 1999.  "The victim, who detectives described as a 48-year-old white man, was found at 4:15 p.m. by a tenant of the building at 285 Bleecker Street, also home to O. Ottomanelli & Sons, one of the city's oldest and best-known meat markets."

The man (who was not a resident) had been bludgeoned to death.  His body was discovered by 29-year old film editor Luis Moreno who lived on the top floor.


The handsome 1874 building which Michael Puels tragically never lived to see still houses O. Ottomanelli & Sons meat market.  The brick facade has been painted and some of the delicate cast iron window decorations have broken off; but overall Julius Boekell's lovely Victorian tenement and store survives beautifully.

photographs by the author

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Isaac Duckworth's 1868 54 Lispenard Street



Louis Duhain, Jr. was born in 1829 in "a hotel then standing at Bowling Green," according to the New-York Tribune.   After being  educated in Richmond, Virginia he joined his father's artificial flower and millinery feathers importing business.

Following Duhain, Sr.'s death, Louis and his brother, August D. Duhain, took over the business, now named L. Duhain, Jr. & Co.  August moved to Paris to oversee that branch office while Louis ran the Broadway-based business.

Louis's interests went beyond feathers and flowers.  In May 1868 he was awarded a patent for a new "mode of ornamenting fabrics."  The clever process used small translucent beads made of "gum arabic or other gum" secured to the fabric, to give the appearance of drops of water.

Construction in Manhattan had come to a near stop during the Civil War while the blue collar workforce was off fighting.  Peace brought a building boom.  It was mere months after the final shot was fired when Duhain hired architect Isaac F. Duckworth to design a five story loft building at No. 54 Lispenard Street in 1866.

Completed in 1868 the iron-faced building was designed in the new French Second Empire style.  Paneled piers ran up the sides and flat Corinthian-crowned pilasters separated the openings.  As he often did, Duckworth consummated the design with an elaborate cornice with an arched pediment announcing the construction date.

The project was purely an investment for Duhain.  His business remained on Broadway as the Lispenard building filled with textile and apparel firms.  Among the first were J. Gottscho & Brothers, silk merchants.

The six tenants in the mid-1870's reflected the dry goods district that now engulfed the Lispenard block.  Lipe, Nearing & Co. dealt in "woollens;" as did Josephus Hill.  Morris Nathanson and Leo Kaufman were both listed merely as "clothing" merchants; and Julius Schroeder and Ansell Hecht dealt in "trimmings" and "rufflings" respectively.

On July 1, 1881 Duhain sold No. 54 to Thomas H. O'Connor for $45,000--just over $1 million today.   The wealthy O'Connor was a trustee of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank.  His family operated a steel and hardware firm in San Francisco.

The last decade of the century saw more apparel than textile firms in the building.  Suspender manufacturers Carl Winderman and Equitable Suspender Co. shared the building with Samuel Platt, "wrappers" (the informal morning apparel worn by women, often to breakfast); and Abramovics & Eisner, makers of ladies' cloaks.  Not fitting the mold was Brodsky Bros., manufacturers of pocketbooks.

The tradition continued through the first decades of the 20th century.  But as the textile and garment industries moved north of 34th Street by mid-century, the Lispenard Street block saw significant decline.  The certificate of occupancy in 1962 demanded that the second story be used only for storage and that the upper floors were "to remain vacant."  The restriction was possibly for fire and safety reasons in the nearly century-old structure.

Eventually the Tribeca renaissance caught up with No. 54.  In 1977 Women in the Trades had its offices here.  Described as an "organization of skilled craftswomen that serves as a resource and information center and as a support group," it worked with the National Council of Neighborhood Women to obtain funds to operate an outreach program.

The building next door at No. 52 had been completed the same year at No. 54 and was also five stories tall.  but a 1937 fire had left a two-story stub.   In 2002, with Tribeca's old loft buildings being converted to galleries, restaurants and upscale housing, the owners sought to demolish the little building and erect a five-story apartment building.  The plans were shot down by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The owners' architects, Studio JS2, went back to the drawing board and came up with a design that would connect Nos. 52 and 54 and add a two-story addition above.  The plans received what The TribecaTrib called "a scathing rejection."  LPC Commissioner Diana Chapin said "this is very bland."

A mutually-acceptable compromise was finally achieved in an unapologetically modern, yet handsomely harmonizing three story addition to No. 52, completed in 2017.   While the combined structures share the address of No. 52 today, they maintain their separate personalities.  Amazingly, other than replacement windows, the 1868 storefront of No. 54 is virtually intact.

photograph by the author