Friday, September 20, 2019

The J. C. Fargo House - 122 East 37th Street

Around 1856 the imposing home at No. 24 East 37th Street was completed for Patrick McCaffrey.   While it shared many of the elements of the other Italianate style residences rising along the block between Park and Lexington Avenues, its extra width--a full 25 feet--and its short stoop set it apart.  

By 1865, when East 37th Street was renumbered giving the house the new address of No. 122, McCaffrey seems to have left.  It was home to the Rev. S. A. Carey by the early 1870's.  It is unclear with which church the minister was associated; but its congregation found itself no longer able to make the payments on the house in 1873.   It would be the last year Carey lived here.

The church had taken out a chattel mortgage on the property--putting up the furnishings as collateral.  An announcement in The New York Herald on December 29, 1873 read:

Mortgage Sale--By virtue of a chattel mortgage I will expose for sale at public auction, on Tuesday, December 30, 1873, at 11 o'clock in the forenoon, at No. 122 East Thirty-seventh street, the Furniture of said premises, consisting of walnut Furniture, Carpets, Mirrors, Oil Paintings &c.; also one splendid Piano and a valuable collection of Books, and all appurtenances that go to make up a first class private residence.  Michael G. Murray, Attorney for Mortgagee

Henry Lord purchased the house in March 1885, paying $27,000, or just over $725,000 today.  Like his well-heeled neighbors, Lord haunted fashionable resorts to escape the summer heat and, occasionally, the frigid winters.  He went to Hot Springs, North Carolina for the holidays in 1889, staying at the luxurious Mountain Park Hotel.  Among its amenities, according to the New-York Tribune on December 22, was its "finely appointed and luxurious bath-house, containing large marble pools...built over some of the [hot] springs."

Lord left No. 122 that year and it was purchased by James Congdell Strong Fargo, president of the American Express Co.  Both his sons, James Francis and William Congdell, were involved in the firm.  Son James F. began construction on his own house next door at No. 120 in 1892.

Fargo was married to the former Frances Parsons Stuart, known familiarly as Fannie.  Along with their sons, they had a daughter, Annie Stuart.  The family's summer estate was at Irvington, New York, near Sunnyside.  It was there in 1882 that Annie had married William Duncan Preston.  

Tragically, Annie died giving birth to their only child, Stuart Duncan Preston, on January 1, 1884 at the age of 24.  By at least 1895 William was leasing the East 37th Street house from his father-in-law and moved in with young Stuart, along with his widowed mother, and his sister, Florence Isabelle.

Florence's engagement to Henry Graves, Jr. was announced on December 1, 1895.  The wedding took place in the fashionable St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue on January 21, 1896.  William gave his sister away and The New York Times reported "Following the ceremony, there was a small reception at the residence of the bride's mother, at 122 East Fifty-seventh [sic] Street."

The following year the Prestons moved on and in September James C. Fargo leased No. 122 to T. Suffern Tailer.   Born into an aristocratic New York family, the New-York Tribune called the Washington Square home where he grew up "one of the most beautiful homes in the city as well as one of the oldest."  In 1893 Tailer had married Maude Lorrillard, the only daughter of Pierre Lorillard.  The couple's summer residence was near the Lorillard estate in Tuxedo.  It was a wedding present from the bride's father.

Maude stole the spotlight from her husband in the society papers because of her fashion sense, her unrivaled beauty and her skill as a rider.  When the couple visited the Lorillard apartment in Paris, The Evening World commented "Doubtless Mr. and Mrs. T. Suffern Tailer will add greatly to the spirit of the autumn gayeties.  Mrs. Tailer will have an opportunity to air some of her Parisian finery at the annual autumn ball."  The Evening World described her as "beautiful in a royal way, with the arched eyebrows and Cupid-bow mouth, so emblematic of generations of breeding.  Although a famous belle, a lover of horses and athletic sports, she is associated in the minds of those who  best know her with kindly charities and unselfish consideration for those who need her aid."

The Evening World poked good-natured fun at some of Manhattan's wealthy gentlemen, including Tailer, with caricatures on August 5, 1902.  (copyright expired) 
In May 1899 James C. Fargo transferred title to No. 122 to William C. Fargo.  Despite the technical change of landlords, the Tailers continued on in the house.

Maude and a maid left New York for Sioux Falls in February 1902 where she took a house.  Rumors were that "she had come to South Dakota for the purpose of remaining in the State for the necessary six months in order to obtain a divorce," said the New-York Tribune.  The rumors were correct.  She received a divorce on August 14 on the grounds that her husband intended to desert her.  Although the divorce was "without sensational features," it was apparently not a friendly split.  The Tribune noted that Maude had the luggage tags with her initials "M.L.T" removed and replaced with ones reading "M. L."

But it appears it was not T. Suffern who had intentions of desertion.  Just three months later, on November 10, The Evening World reported "Mrs. T. Suffern Tailer is the bride in London of the Hon. Cecil Baring."  T. Suffern Tailer was given custody of the couple's son.

John Hamilton Gourlie died on February 21, 1904.  The wealthy broker left four grown children, including an unmarried daughter Eliza.  On April 17, 1904 The New York Times reported that William C. Fargo had leased No. 122 East 37th Street to "the Misses Gourlay [sic]."  The plural reflected Eliza's guardianship of her two nieces, Nathalie and Isabelle Thacher Groulie.

The women had lived here only a year when Eliza announced Isabel's engagement to Noel Lispenard Carpender.  That winter was the season of the girls' introduction to society.  On January 27, 1906 the New-York Tribune reported on a dance she had given the evening before.  "Miss Gourlie's dance was for her two nieces, Miss Isabel and Miss Nathalie Groulie  There was no cotillion, but general dancing throughout the evening."  

Isabelle's wedding took place on April 24, 1906 at the nearby Calvary Church.  Nathalie was her sister's maid of honor.  The Sun reported that "Her aunt, Miss E. C. Gourlie, of 122 East Thirty-seventh street, with whom she makes her home, will give a reception after the ceremony."  

There would be a second wedding reception in the house two years later, almost to the day.  On April 21, 1908 Nathalie was married in St. George's Church on Stuyvesant Square to Francis Henry Appleton, Jr.   The New-York Tribune noted that the "large gathering" all "adjourned to the reception given by Miss Gourlie, the aunt of the bride, at her house in East 37th street."

James Shewan, head of the shipbuilding firm of James Shewan & Sons, died on May 7, 1914.  The Sun reported "He gave his entire estate to his wife, Ellen Shewan, and left nothing to his two sons and three daughters."   In September that year William C Fargo leased No. 122 to Ellen.  She remained only two years, and in November 1916 the house was leased to Mary Fels, the widow of Joseph Fels.

Joseph Fels had made his fortune in the soap industry.  His best selling product was the Fels-Naptha soap brand which he developed in 1894.   In 1906 he turned much of his focus on the hopes that a Jewish homeland would be founded in Israel.  Now Mary continued his work from No. 122.  It became home to The Public Publishing Company, publishers of The Public, A Journal of Democracy; and to the Zionist Society of Engineers and Agriculturalists.  

On April 5, 1919 The American Contractor announced that the group "is at present planning to send an Engineering Commission to Palestine for the purpose of making a survey of the natural resources."  The Public went further, saying that arrangements had been made "whereby young men, Zionists, technically inclined, able-bodied and anxious to go to Palestine, will get a thorough training in tractor work and in practical agricultural methods generally."  

Original detailing survives within the arched entrance.

Mary Fels left in 1919 and the house continued to be leased to wealthy tenants.  In August that year the New-York Tribune reported that "Misses Rebecca Cramp and Florence P. Gill, of Philadelphia" had leased No. 122 from Helen F. Fargo.  They were followed by C. Hammond Avery, Jr. and his new bride, Helen MacDonald in 1921, and by Frances Marion Brandon by 1925.

Brandon was an assistant corporation counsel and a force in Manhattan politics.  On June 12, 1925 The New York Times reported that she held a meeting of "some twenty leaders of Tammany Hall and about eighty other men and women well known in Democratic and social life" in the house.

But Frances's name was already better known to most New Yorkers for a scandal that had begun a few months earlier.  She had sent a notice to The Times on March 14 announcing that she was engaged to a high-powered lawyer, George J. Gillespie, Sr., of Gillespie & O'Connor.  Along with his other dealings, he was the personal counsel to Cardinal Patrick Hayes.  The announcement said the engagement had taken place on November 13, 1924, but was not announced because of the recent death of Gillespie's wife.  "It was stated that the wedding would take place early this Spring," said The New York Times.

When he read the newspaper reports of his engagement Gillespie was infuriated.  He first called the newspaper and then told a reporter in person "I have never been engaged to her and I never will be.  The idea of marrying Miss Brandon has never occurred to me."  Oddly, Frances told The Times she would marry him despite his denial.

It all ended up in the courts, with Frances bringing a series of lawsuits against Gillespie charging breach of promise, fraud, $74,000 which she says he owed her, and $500,000 in damages.  (Frances apparently was greatly damaged, her suit topping $7 million by today's standards.)  The issued dragged on for years and on February 28, 1930 The Times reported that the jury could not come up with a verdict.  The case would have to start over.

Photographed around 1940, the house had lost its Italianate detailing, once similar to those on the houses further up the block. photo via NYC Department of Records & Information Services.
By then Frances had lost her job as assistant corporation counsel and had left East 37th Street.  Afterward the house was converted to apartments and by the late 1930's the Victorian brownstone facade details had been shaved flat.

Looking somewhat spartan without its 1856 architectural elements, today there are four apartments in the building.

photographs by the author

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Pierre Ouvrier House - 247 West 13th Street

The solid, paneled doors are original.  At some point metal cornices were added to the windows; a subtle upgrade.  
Not all the real estate developers in the first half of the 19th century were men.  In 1854 Mary Ann C. Rogers commissioned the construction of six rowhouses on West 13th Street just east of Greenwich Avenue.  Three stories of red-orange brick sat upon rusticated brownstone English basements.  Tall stoops led to the double-doored entrances within molded, elliptical arched frames under a simple cornice.  Ample transoms provided light into the foyer.  The architect chose not to run the identical bracketed cornices together, giving each residence its independence.

No. 247 became home to the Elias Wasson family.  Wasson and his wife, Maria, had at least one daughter.  Another, Isabella Anne, had died at just one year and two months old on December 15, 1841.  

Wasson was a partner in Inglis & Wasson, dealers in "blue stone and flags [i.e., flag stones]."  No. 247 was convenient to his business, its office and stone yard being at the corner of 13th Street and Tenth Avenue.  On May 1, 1855 the partnership was dissolved and Elias Wasson continued running it alone.

Maria Wasson died at the age of 44 on February 7, 1860.  Her funeral was held in the house and she was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

By 1872 Pierre Ouvrier and his wife, Marguerite, had purchased the house.  As was often the case, the title was put in her name.  The couple had six children, at least three of them, Jules, Louis and Charles, lived in the house.

Ouvrier was born in a Pyrenees village in Southern France in 1808.  While still a boy he went to Paris where he learned cabinet making.  In 1841 he came to New York and established a business on Harrison Street.  Five years later he partnered with Martin Martins to form the piano making firm of Martins & Ouvrier.  Then, in 1867 the partnership was dissolved and Ouvrier reorganized with his sons, creating Ouvrier & Sons.  The firm earned a superb reputation making high-end square grand and upright instruments.

In December 1874 Louis Ouvrier had to temporarily put piano making on hold when he was appointed to the jury in a high-profile murder case.  Tammany Hall bigwig Richard "Boss" Croker was accused of murdering John McKenna on election day that year.  McKenna was a lieutenant of James O'Brien, who was running for Congress against Tammany candidate Abram S. Hewitt.   The New York Times called McKenna's death the result of "an affray" at the polls.

Visibly opposing the corrupt and powerful Tammany regime was a risky proposition.  And that may have had much to do with Ouvrier and his peers failing to come to a verdict in the case.  Croker walked free.

The year 1881 was a traumatic one at No. 247 West 13th Street.  On January 15 Marguerite died.  Following her funeral in the house, a requiem mass was held in the French-language Church of St. Vincent de Paul on West 23rd Street. 

Shortly afterward Pierre Ouvrier fell, breaking his thigh.  It was just beginning to heal when, on April 4 he "was stricken with apoplexy," as reported by The New York Times.  (Today the condition would be most often be diagnosed as a stroke.)  Ouvrier was partially conscious for three days before slipping into a coma.  He died on April 9 at the age of 73.  The New York Times called him "one of the oldest piano manufacturers in this country."  The article noted "His sons were associated with him in the business, and will continue it."

Eight months later there was another death in the house.  Charles Louis, the six-month old son of Louis and his wife, Julia, died on December 6.  Unlike those of his grandparents, the baby's funeral was strictly private.

Of Pierre and Marguerite's six children, only three were still living--Louis, Charles and Emma.  They inherited equal shares in house.  Louis and Charles reorganized the business as Ouvrier Brothers.  They would continue manufacturing high class pianos through the turn of the century.

Around 1901 Emma married and in April the following year she and Louis sold their portions of the 13th Street house to Charles.  On April 12 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Charles had paid "Emma A. Ouvrier, now Duprez" $3,806 and paid Louis $4,000 (no explanation of the $200 difference was offered).   The combined payments would equal about $115,000 today.

By 1907 Charles had moved out and leased No. 247 to Victor Rettich, the president of the Knickerbocker Light and Heat Company.   His newly-widowed father, Albert Rettich, moved in with the family in April 1908.

The Sun described Albert as "a well to do broker of Berlin."  Three weeks earlier his wife had died and immediately following the funeral he came to New York.  The Sun explained that after being married nearly fifty years, the 72-year-old "found himself unable to endure the loneliness and grief after Mrs. Rettich's death."  The newspaper noted "To members of the family the old man had said several times that he didn't see any use in living longer."

On the morning of April 24 Albert went downtown to Victor's office on the fifth floor of No. 25 West Broadway.  Along with his son, Thomas Harris and H. P. Brayton were in the office and Albert took a seat near a window.  The Sun reported "They did not observe Mr. Rettich's actions until one of them happened to glance up and see that he was climbing out of the window.  They were too late to catch him."

West Broadway was crowded with hundreds of pedestrians who witnessed Rettich smash onto the pavement.  His body was taken to the West 13th Street house where his funeral was held later that week.

Charles was the last surviving Ouvrier brother by now.  He continued to run Ouvrier Brothers on his own.  The Rettich family would have to find a new home soon after his niece, Marie, Louis's daughter, became engaged to William Henry McKiever in March 1910.  The New-York Tribune noted "The wedding will probably take place early in June."

Marie K. Ouvrier at the time of her engagement.  New-York Tribune, May 15, 1910 (copyright expired)
William H. McKiever was a consulting and contracting engineer and the head of Wm. H. McKiever, Inc.  Shortly after the engagement was announced, on March the New York Daily Tribune reported "William H. McKiever, one of the officers of the Catholic Club and a leading mechanical engineer, gave a dinner last night at the Manhattan Hotel.  The dinner was in honor of Miss Marie K. Ouvrier, who is to become Mrs. McKiever next June."  The guest list included notable names, like Joseph James Ryan, the son of millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan; former Police Commissioner Frank C. York and his wife; and Assemblyman James A. Foley.

Following the June 11 wedding in the Church of St. Saviour, the couple moved into No. 247 West 13th Street.  McKiever's active involvement in the Catholic Church was no doubt a factor in his winning the attentions of Marie.  She had been educated in the St. Joseph's Convent in Flushing, and according to the New-York Tribune "since the organization of the St Mary's Junior Auxiliary has been one of its most popular members."

The couple would continue their involvement with Catholic organizations.  Marie was vice-president of the St. Joseph's Alumnae and active in its charitable programs, and a member of the Ladies' Auxiliary of St. Joseph's Day Nursery.  By 1920 William was a trustee of the latter group.

McKiever's name appeared in newspapers for a less commendable reason in January 1922.  The Lockwood Committee had been formed in 1919 to probe renting and building conditions in the City of New York.  Its broad investigation included the suppliers of heating and ventilating appliances.  On January 31, 1922 The New York Herald announced that the committee had indicted 20 corporations and 28 individuals "all of them alleged to have been identified with the system of price fixing."  Included in the list was William McKiever.

McKiever seems to have cleared his name, for two months later the New York Building Congress named him to a committee "to revive the apprenticeship system in the building trades."

The McKievers were concerned when they lost two valued items were lost on their way home from church on April 13, 1924.  The following day an advertisement appeared in The New York Telegram and Evening Mail:  "Pocket Pray Books, two, lost Sunday afternoon, West 8th street or Greenwich avenue.  Please return.  247 West 13th."  (Interesting, no reward was offered.)

By 1933 the McKievers had moved on.  Their former home was operated as a rooming house at the time.

In 1933 a Room for Rent sign hangs from the doorway.  To the far left is the Jackson Square Libraryphoto from the collection of the New York Public Library.
In 1942 a renovation was completed which resulted in an apartment in the basement and one of the parlor floor, three furnished rooms on the second, and one apartment and a furnished room on the third.   

One of the tenants in 1946 was author and playwright Herbert Oswald Nicholas Kubly.  While living here he was the music critic for Time magazine and his play Men to the Sea was running on Broadway.  In his 1994 Knowing When to Stop: A Memoir, Ned Rorem recalled meeting him that year, adding he "lived on a floor-through at 247 West Thirteenth, got up late and worked all afternoon with the kind of zeal he felt necessary to The Artist."

By the mid-1950's esteemed photographer Lisette Model lived had an apartment here.  In 1952 the New School for Social Research staged an exhibition of her and Bernice Abbot's photographs.  On September 23, 1956 Jacob Deschin, writing in The New York Times, reported "Lisette Model offers a course in 'The Function of the Small Camera' to be given in twelve weekly sessions at 8 o'clock at 247 West Thirteenth Street.  The course fee is $60."  

In 2016 the Ouvrier house was reconverted to a single family home.  A careful restoration of the facade closely returned it to its 1854 appearance.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The 1892 Zeimer & Co. Dry Goods Bldg - 547-549 Sixth Avenue

The West Side Hotel opened at the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street around the end of the Civil War.   Owned by the Kelly family, it was leased to hotel-keepers Davis & Soule by 1874.  A serious parting of the ways soon happened and Joseph A. Davis had Warren Soule arrested.  He testified in March 1877 that, while he leased the hotel proper, he owned the "stock and fixtures of the bar and furniture at hotel known as 'West Side Hotel, No. 225 and 227 Sixth avenue, New York, valued at $25,000."  

Despite the somewhat pricey furnishings of the hotel (Davis's assessment would equal nearly $620,000 today), there were shady dealings going on at the West Side Hotel at the time.  After Thomas E. Crimmins suspected that his wife, Jennie, was carrying on an affair with C. P. Gurney, he and his millionaire brother, John C. Crimmins, hired private investigators to track her.  On December 31, 1878 they testified in court.  James M. Dixon said in part "I saw them enter the West Side Hotel, corner of Sixth avenue and Fifteenth street, on the evening of November 19, 1878, by the private entrance on Fifteenth street; they went in twenty minutes of eight, and came out about twenty minutes past eleven."

In 1889 the Kelly Estate leased the hotel to "Messrs. Coogan Bros. for twenty-one years, at $12,000 per annum and taxes," as reported in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide on May 4.  Obtaining the lease was not a problem for James J. Coogan.  He was the administrator of the Kelly Estate and handled its substantial real estate holdings.   Operating a hotel would be a new venture for him and his brother Edward, who ran a retail furniture business.

James J. Coogan purchased the property in 1891.  By now the reputation of the West Side Hotel had continued to decline.  Just two months earlier the Brooklyn newspaper the Daily Eagle called it "a resort of questionable character."  On the other hand, the Sixth Avenue neighborhood was seeing the rise of opulent department stores, quickly turning it into one of the city's premier shopping thoroughfares.  

Coogan saw an opportunity.  On April 2, 1892 the Record & Guide reported that they had leased the old hotel property for 11 years at an astounding annual rental of $30,000--around $845,000 today.  "The property will be improved for business purposes."

One month later the Record & Guide announced "Leinau & Nash are the architects for the five-story and basement brick and stone store building, to be built on the southwest corner of 6th avenue and 15th street...The first two floors will have hardwood trim...The work of tearing down is now going on."

The architects were tasked with designing another impressive dry goods store along the Ladies' Mile, Zeimer & Co.   The newly formed firm opened its doors in the newly-completed building in September 1892.

Leinau & Nash had created a handsome brick and limestone emporium that could hold its own among the sprawling retail palaces further north on the avenue.   Above the store front, now sadly lost, the second floor boasted expansive show windows that caught the eye of women passing along on the Sixth Avenue elevated.  Only slightly smaller were the show windows of the third and fourth floor, set within two-story arches.  The especially attractive fifth floor was faced in limestone.  Pilasters were decorated with effusive carvings of ribbons and wreaths.  They framed pairs of windows which were separated by engaged columns.  The frieze below the bracketed cornice was embellished with swags and wreaths, held in the beaks of spread-winged eagles.

The sale price for a boy's wool double-breasted suit was about $100 in today's money.  October 14 1892 (copyright expired)
The fledgling store was composed of Israel Zeimer, Albert C. Westheimer, Jacob H. Flashner, and Noel Feldstein.  To help them get started Israel's father, Samuel Zeimer fronted the money for the rent, signing the lease personally.  A partner in the highly successful millinery firm of Zeimer & Feldstein, he also promised to provide the new store the bulk of its millinery.

The feminine shoppers of Sixth Avenue responded to the new store.  The Evening World reported "Their prospects were excellent, and the establishment was soon classed with the largest on the avenue."  But Zeimer & Co.'s neighbors--the grand stores like Seigel-Cooper, B. Altman and Hugh O'Neill--made for formidable competition.  And then the Financial Panic of 1893 dealt the firm a coup de grâce.

On August 7, 1894 The World reported "Considerable surprise was manifested in the dry-goods circles to-day when it became known that the big retail firm of Zeimer & Co., at 225 and 227 Sixth avenue, had failed."  The article explained "Zeimer & Co. apparently prospered until about six months ago, when on account of the business depression they began to lose money...Recently it was decided that the best thing to do for the benefit of their creditors was to make an assignment."  No doubt the fact that the firm owed Samuel Zeimer $37,000 in the rent he had paid and in merchandise (over a million in today's dollars) was a deciding factor in shutting down the store.

In the meantime, James J. Coogan was having his own problems.  Lienau & Nash had projected the cost of the building at $80,000.  But in fact, the final bills amounted to $103,000--about $2.93 million today.  Coogan claimed fraud and refused to pay the difference.  On July 25, 1893 the contractors placed a lien on the property.  A court ruled against Coogan.  And then, in December 1897 Edward Coogan sued his brother and for defrauding him out of the third interest in the building, "amounting to many thousands of dollars."  Edward claimed that when Zeimer & Co. failed, James had sold the fixtures and furniture and kept the money for himself.

The building became home to the John H. Little & Co. furniture and carpeting store.  The firm signed a petition in January 1900 along with stores like Siegel-Cooper Company; Adams & Co.; Simpson, Crawford & Simpson and R. H. Macy & Co.,  It demanded that the Manhattan Railway Company do something about its clanking, rattling elevated trains.  The document insisted "that the noise can be stopped at a trifling cost by partly submerging the rail in a non-resonant substance."

John H. Little & Co. was far more successful in the corner building than Zeimer & Co. had been.  It remained here until early in 1914 when it moved to West 14th Street.  

The building was quickly leased to another furniture store, Fishfield Furniture Co., which had operated for years on West 14th Street.  The store opened on St. Patrick's Day 1914 and, like John H. Little & Co., engulfed all five floors.

A ten-piece oak dining room suite cost the equivalent of $5,150 in today's money.  The Evening World, March 16, 1914 (copyright expired)
"Fishfield" was a melding of the owners' names--Jacob Fischlowitz, Abraham Fischlowitz, and Louis Newfield.   Although it had been in business for years, like the ill-fated Zeimer & Co., a global economic downturn--the Financial Panic of 1914--caused its downfall.   On July 23, 1916 the New York Press announced that the firm had declared bankruptcy.

Despite the economic conditions, the building was once again immediately leased; this time to the Franco-American Ferment Co.   The firm manufactured supplements touted as providing beneficial bacteria.  Among its products were Lactobaccilline Tablets, "a pure culture of the Bacillus bulgaricus.  These tablets give rise to the production of considerable quantities of lactic acid, which tends to restrain the growth of putrefactive organisms in the intestines," and Lactobaciline Liquide, "A pure culture in tubes of the Bacillus bulgaricus grown in a neutralized sugar bouillon."  It promised the same results as the tablets.  There were also the Lactobacilline Suspension, the Lactobacilline Milk Ferment, the Lactobacilline Glycogene Liquide, and several others.

The Western Druggist, December 1917 (copyright expired)
In 1926 Sixth Avenue was renumbered, giving the building the address of Nos.  547-549.  At the time it was the home of the Sterling, Inc., makers of the Sterling piano.  The factory was located in Jamaica, Queens.  

Shoppers looking for a player piano as Christmas 1929 approached found an attractive deal in the Sterling showroom.  An advertisement proclaimed "Nationally-known player--you'll recognize the name instantly as belonging to one of the top-notchers!"  The $450 instrument was marked down to $219 with three years to pay.  "A wonderful player, with a fine mellow tone and in a stunning mahogany case."  The company went so far as to promise delivery on Christmas day, "if you desire!"

The 1929 Sterling player piano was offered at half price that Christmas season. Long Island Daily Press, November 1, 1929  

When the Sixth Avenue elevated train was demolished in 1938 Sterling Piano still occupied the building and would remain for several more years.  The removal of the el was indicative of the many changes in the immediate district since it was the premier shopping street in the 1890's.   

The building once again became home to a furniture store in 1967 when renovations were done for "furniture display" on every floor.  And then, in 1973, another alteration resulted in 10 apartments per floor above the ground level, now brutally disfigured.

While New Yorkers lavish their attention on the showy retail palaces a few blocks north on Sixth Avenue, Leinau & Nash's 1892 dry goods building is an overlooked step-sister.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The George Schumann House - 29 West 88th Street

Developers Ryan & Rawnsley hired architects Thom & Wilson to design a row of five houses on West 88th Street in 1888.  They intended the speculative residences to catch the attention of financially-comfortable families.  And they would.

Thom & Wilson filed plans on March 23, 1888 for five brownstone-fronted dwellings stretching from No. 25 to 33 West 88th Street, between Eighth Avenue (later renamed Central Park West) and Columbus Avenue.  The plans projected the cost of each house at $20,000--in the neighborhood of $515,000 in 2019.

Completed in the spring of 1889, the row was an over-the-top medley of Renaissance Revival ornamentation.  The facades were a visual overload of textures and shapes--arches, rusticated and fluted pilasters, intricate carvings, angled bays and dog-legged stoops.  Nos. 25, 29 and 33 were identical; while Nos. 27 and 31 were near twins.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide was impressed.  On June 22, 1889 it declared "The passer-by on the north side of 88th street, a few hundred feet west of the Central Park, cannot fail to notice a group of five stately-looking private residences."  The Guide noted the "considerable carved work in floral and figure designs," and then described the interiors.

On the parlor floors were "reception, drawing and dining rooms, flanked by a butler's pantry, with a private stairway leading to the culinary department.  The entrance to each house is barred by three massive mahogany doors--storm, vestibule and hall--with windows of beveled glass."  Built-in furniture on this level included "handsome mirrors and hat stands" in the foyers, and a "handsome bouffe" in the dining rooms.

While the parlor floor was trimmed in mahogany, the second and third floors were in oak.  The two bedrooms on the second floor were "laid out en salon."  The Guide said "The saloons are larger than usual, and one finds oneself surrounded on all sides by mirrors, with a profusion of closets and an attractive toilet-stand."  A bathroom to the rear of this floor "has a cosy and rich appearance, and has a porcelain tub and a French bowl."  The third floor was similar to the second, and every room included a fireplace.

The stair hall was illuminated by a stained glass skylight.  Ryan & Rawnsley provided the latest in appliances in the basement service level.  "The 'Defiance' range, porcelain washtubs and other necessities complete the domestic arrangements on this floor."

On one afternoon, November 15, 1889, Ryan & Rawnsley sold two of the 20-foot wide homes.  Charles W. Schumann, Jr. purchased No. 27 and his brother, George Henry Schumann bought the house next door at No. 29.  The price of each was $32,500; or about $915,000 today.

Charles moved into the middle house, with the columned portico, and George into No. 29 to its left.
Along with a third brother, William, the Schumanns were partners in Charles Schumann's Sons, an upscale jewelry store founded by their father, Charles William Schumann.  It had long been located in the Mortimer Building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street.  In his 1891 book Art and Gems, Schumann described his opulent store.  "Messrs. Schumann's Sons carry at all times a superb stock of diamonds, watches and jewelry...They cater to the very best class of trade and carry none but strictly fine goods.  They number a large proportion of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families of New York among their regular customers."

George and his wife, Emma, had two daughters, Carrie W. and Marguerite Grace Louise, and a son, George H., Jr.  Moving into No. 29 with the family was Charles, Sr.  

The lavish carvings at parlor level include a child's head peering from a half-shell above an elaborate floral arrangement; additional children's faces in the panels below; and a fantastic lion above the doorway.  Close inspection reveals two other children's faces at the base of the door surround, one partly visible to the left.
Emma made a change to the domestic staff in 1894.  Her advertisement in The New York Herald on November 2o sought a "Competent Protestant cook to assist with laundry work.  German preferred."

Charles W. Schumann, Sr., died of heart disease in the 88th Street house on November 4, 1902.  The New York Herald noted "He was seventy-eight years old and had been ill about a week.  He leaves three sons."  The sons took over the operation of the store.  Although William was disabled, needing a wheelchair, he played a role in the business for several years.

The high-end tenor of the store was evidenced following a brazen mid-day burglary on Sunday, November 12, 1905.  Although the interior of the store was in full view of passersby, the crooks had broken in the front door and made off with silverware valued at $10,000, or about $294,000 today.  Luckily they were unable to get into the vault, described by the New-York Tribune as "being the strongest vault in the city."  In it were jewelry and silverware valued at around $14.7 million by today's standards.

At the time of the theft the Schumann girls were in their late teens.  Three months later, on February 25, 1906 The New York Herald reported that Emma "gave a large reception on Friday last to introduce her daughters, the Misses Carrie and Margaret [sic] Schumann."  Later, said the article, "an informal dance was given."

Following the uptown migration of the other jewelry stores, art galleries and similar retailers, the Schumann brothers began construction of an Art Nouveau-style building at No. 716 Fifth Avenue in 1910.  

George and Emma celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary on March 9 that year with a dinner party.  Four days later The New York Herald mentioned "On Thursday they left New York to spend a few days in Washington and Baltimore."

Each of the carved panels between the third floor windows is different.

George died at the age of 56 in the 88th Street house on October 22, 1912.  His funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.  His estate was left entirely to Emma.

The New York Times made special mention of the Schumann artworks, noting "Among the paintings were the 'Russian Wedding Feast' and 'Choosing the Bride,' by Makowsky.  In fact, Emma inherited only half of the "A Boyar Wedding Feast," as it is best known today.  Charles and George had chipped in equally on the painting when it was sold in 1885.  Their $15,000 bid was reportedly higher than Alexander III of Russia cared to spend.

Emma inherited half the value of "The Boyar Wedding Feast."  Whether it hung in No. 27 or in No. 29 is unknown.  image via Google Cultural Institute

The family lived on in the house and at a tea held during the first week of April 1914 Emma announced the engagement Marguerite to Harry Simpson Roberts.

During World War I George, Jr. was part of the American ambulance corps that drove into the heat of battle to remove the injured.  A letter to his mother written from the French front which arrived in June 1918 gave a hint of the horrors of warfare.  In part it said:

Our division with the 131st French division has lost between 70 and 80 percent of the strength and is now going on a much earned rest.  When we found we could not handle all the injured they sent in ten more Fords, but as fast as they came the Germans broke them up with shellfire...Every one in the section is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Four of them had to be sent away to rest...I am pretty fine, although my throat and lungs are still sore from being gassed.

Emma Schumann sold her home of more than three decades in September 1920.  The buyer, John Lucas, resold it in April 1922 to Jane Ferguson.  Whether she lived in the house is unclear; however in 1941 it was converted to three furnished apartments in the basement, two apartments each on the first and second floors, an apartment and a furnished room on the third, and five furnished rooms on the fifth floor.

That configuration lasted until 1968 when the house was returned to a single-family residence with a doctor's office in the basement.

By 2002 the property was owned by Dr. Melanie Katzman and her husband, Russell Edward Makowsky.  (Noticing the coincidence of Makowsky's surname and that of the Russian artist whose works once hung in the house is unavoidable.)  A clinical psychologist, Dr. Katzman's impressive resume includes several books and articles and the founding of Katzman Consulting, an adviser to public and private companies.

Other than replacement windows, there is little exterior change evident in No. 29 since the Schumann family moved in 120 years ago.

photographs by the author

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Lost Oscar Straus Mansion - 5 West 76th Street

The still-vacant plot to the right sat at the corner of Central Park West  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Although he was educated as an architect, William T. Evans made his fortune in the dry goods business.  President of the major firm, Mills and Gibb, the Irish-born merchant was perhaps better known for his knowledge of art and his impressive collection.  In 1890 he possibly surprised many in art circles when he sold off his entire collection and started anew, now focusing on American artworks.

At the same time he set out to provide a new venue for exhibiting his new acquisitions, not to mention a new home for his family.  On November 22 that year the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Evans "will build a semi-detached four-story residence, 40x60" on the corner of 76th Street and Central Park West.  "The dwelling will be first class in every particular, and it will have an art gallery extension which Mr. Evans proposes to place his large private collection of paintings."

Evans appears to have personally designed his new Romanesque Revival-style residence.  The basement and first floor levels were clad in brownstone, while the upper three floors were brick.  The asymmetrical design was splattered with openings of various shapes and sizes, a rounded bay on West 76th Street and a faceted bay on the eastern elevation, a fanciful turret that clung to the corner, gables and dormers.

The 47-year old Evans quickly filled the new house with American works.  In 1891 he loaned pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of art, including Frederick S. Church's Midnight, Edmund Tarbell's Girl with a Violin, George Inness's A Summer Morning, Arthur Parton's Evening, and Homer D. Martin's Madison and Jefferson.  His wife, Mary, was a collector as well, although less passionate about American art.  She loaned the museum French artist  Émile van Marcke's Landscape and Cattle.

A distinct departure from Evans's European collection was Tarbell's Girl with a Violin. (private collection, image via
Evans's memberships reflected his cultural interests.  He was a member of the Lotus Club (where he oversaw its art collection), the American Fine Arts and the Salmagundi Clubs, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the New-York Historical Society, among others.  In 1892 he and Mary sold the plot on 76th Street corner (Nos. 1 and 3) abutting their home to the New York Historical Society.  The museum paid $21,000 for the lot, just under $600,000 today.

No. 5 West 76th Street can be partially glimpsed at the far left, behind the newly erected New-York Historical Society building in 1902.  (original source unknown)

In March 1901 the Evanses sold No. 5 to Oscar Solomon Straus who had recently returned with his family from Turkey.  Straus had resigned his post as Minister to Turkey after having "disputes with the Sublime Porte," as worded by The New York Times.  The newspaper said the Government had supported his resignation "as an act of respect" and that Straus had "left the Sultan to find some way to make good his promises" without him.

Oscar S. Straus - from The American Spirit, but Oscar Straus, 1913 (copyright expired)

Born in Otterberg, Germany, he and his wife, the former Sarah Lavanburg, had three children, Mildred, Aline and Roger Williams Straus.  Sarah had been born into a wealthy Jewish family, the daughter of banker Louis Lavanburg and his wife, Hannah.  She had been educated in private schools.

Sarah Lavanburg Straus.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
The house was the scene of a joyful gathering later that year.  On December 12, 1901 Mildred Caroline Straus was married to Edward Shafer in Temple Emanu-El.  A wedding supper was served in the 76th Street house afterward.  Among the guests were Mildred's uncle, Isidore, part owner of Macy's Department Store, and aunt Ida Straus.

Called by newspapers the "Disraeli of America," Straus's resignation from his post as Minster to Turkey did not diminish his political activities.  In January 1902 he was appointed a permanent member of the Committee of Arbitration at The Hague.  And his connections in government led to highly-visible guests at No. 5.   In 1903, for instance, former President Grover Cleveland was a house guest.  

Both Oscar and Sarah were active in philanthropic causes.  Straus was a director in the Hebrew Orphans Asylum and a member of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society of New York.

Straus sometimes used entertainments as a means of achieving goals.  When a bitter labor strike paralyzed the coal industry in 1902, Straus was made a vice president of the Arbitration Committee of Thirty-six.  After formal meetings in its Fourth Avenue offices provided no results, Straus invited all parties to a dinner in the 76th Street house.  Newspapers widely credited the event--during which the strike was reportedly not discussed--as leading to a relaxation of tensions.

The humor magazine Puck depicted Straus as a nurse tending to a tantrum-throwing baby during the coal arbitration.  May 28, 1902 (copyright expired)
And on December 9, 1905 Straus hosted a dinner for a highly diverse group that included, among others, Andrew Carnegie, Archbishop John Ireland, Congressman Richard Barthold, and Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University.  The purpose of the gathering was the formation of an American International Law Association.  

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Straus to the post of Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1906.  He thus became  the country's first Jewish Cabinet member.

The Straus family received devastating news in April 1912.  Isidore and Ida Straus had been heading home from Europe on the R. M. S. Titanic when the ship struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean.  The elderly couple perished together after Ida gave up her seat in a lifeboat to her maid in order to stay with her husband.  "We have been together a number of years," she was reported to have said, "Where you go I will go."

A letter of condolence from Mayor Jay Gaynor arrived at the 76th Street house.  It said in part:

Your brother met his death by neglecting his own safety in his eagerness to work for and save the lives of others.  And his noble wife refused to leave him on board the sinking ship. And thus two noble souls went down to death together.

Oscar Straus continued on in his live of public work.  On December 24, 1915 the New-York Tribune announced that he had been named the new chairman of the Public Service Commission.  It added "Mr. Straus celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday last night with a family gathering at his home, 5 West Seventy-sixth Street."  He told a reporter "I feel as fit as I did thirty years ago.  I enjoy good health and expect to be good for hard work for some time to come."

Sarah was involved in politics, as well.  On March 26, 1920, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported she would be hosting a meeting "of the Hoover women's campaign committee" that afternoon.

The esteem in which Straus was held among the top-most level of government was exhibited in June 1924 when the 71-year-old underwent surgery.  A telegram to Sarah arrived at the 76th Street house that read:

I have been deeply concerned to learn this morning that Mr. Straus has undergone an operation.  Allow me to express my sympathy to both him and yourself with all hopes for his early and complete recovery.  The nation he has served so well and long will wait eagerly for good news of him.
Calvin Coolidge
June 18, 1924

Sarah sent a return telegram to the President assuring him that the operation was entirely successful and that her husband would be home in two weeks.

The operation may have prompted the elderly couple to consider giving up their large private home.  Title was held in Sarah's name and the following year she sold it to the New-York Historical Society.   The organization announced that it would demolish the mansion for a 12-story annex to its existing museum building.  That project would not come to fruition for several years, however.

Then on February 28, 1937 The New York Times reported that the former Straus mansion was to be demolished.  "The classic architecture of the present building will be carried out in the addition.  Walker & Gillette are the architects," it said.

The nearly seamless addition engulfed the corner plot and the Straus residence.