Monday, March 20, 2023

The Lost William W. Scrugham House - 308 West 103rd Street


When this photograph was taken in 1941, a Gothic synagogue entrance had been erected at street level.   image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

John H. Steinmetz arrived in New York City from Germany at the age of 16 in 1841.  In 1868 he opened a woodworking shop on East 39th Street and soon turned his attention to building and development.  Decades later, on February 17, 1917, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide would recall, "He became one of the pioneer builders in the Murray Hill, Upper West Side and Harlem sections of Manhattan, where he built hundreds of private dwellings."

Steinmetz increased his profits by cutting out the middlemen.  He purchased the vacant tracts directly, sometimes putting the titles in the name of his wife, Elizabeth, and he acted as his own architect.  The Record & Guide said "on account of his unusual activity in the building lines for so many years, [he] was one of the best known men in the construction field."

The couple initiated an ambitious project in May 1890 when Steinmetz filed plans for nine upscale homes that wrapped the southwest corner of West End Avenue and 103rd Street.  He gave each an individual personality, with little attempt to blend their architecture.  Among them was 308 West 103rd Street, which vied for attention.

Costing $12,500 to construct (about $385,000 in 2023 terms), it rose three floors above a high English basement.  Faced in undressed stone, its Romanesque Revival design featured a three-sided bay that terminated in a Corinthian arcade upholding a witches cap roof.  Clinging to the side was a turret with lancet windows, atop which was a romantic, Rapunzel-ready widow's watch.  For the stoop, Steinmetz stepped away from the fortress-like style by giving it sinuous, flowing wing walls.

As the row neared completion in 1891, Elizabeth Steinmetz transferred title to the homes to the couple's son, Welcome (who was also an architect).  On September 15 he sold the 103rd Street houses to real estate operator Wilbur F. Washburn, who paid $25,000 for each of them, or about $768,000 today.

No. 308 became home to the family of attorney William W. Scrugham.  Like their neighbors, the Scrughams maintained a domestic staff, as reflected in a position-wanted ad placed by a young servant in April 1896:

Second Man or Valet--By young Englishman; under a butler; age 23; good references.  Williams.

Judging by his age, Williams was most likely the Scrughams' second man--the servant who assisted the butler and stepped into that position on the butler's days off.  A valet was essentially the male equivalent of a lady's maid, a highly responsible and trusted position.  The valet maintained his employer's wardrobe, drew his bath and performed personal duties like shaving him.

Because the Scrughams had a second man, their staff would necessarily have at least included a butler, cook, chambermaid, and waitress (a polished servant who served in the dining and drawing rooms).

In 1899 William W. Scrugham relocated his family to Yonkers, selling 308 West 103rd Street to Henry Steers, president of a contracting firm, the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers Company.

Steers was described by the New-York Tribune as being a "large dock contractor" and "closely affiliated with Tammany Hall."  He proposed what the newspaper termed a "subway scheme" early in 1909.  On March 19 the it reported that the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers Company offered "to build a new subway under Lexington avenue from The Bronx to a junction with the bridge loop subway."  (The "loop" connected the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges.)  Steers's proposition, as viewed by the editors, was "a radical one in subway development."

He proposed to build the subway extension at his company's expense.  While the equipment and railway would belong to the city, "the possession and the right to operate remain with the contracting company...until the cost, plus 15 per cent as an engineering profit and 5 per cent interest a year on the money invested, has been repair to the company."  

The New-York Tribune was not the only newspaper to view the proposal with suspicion.  An editorial in The Wall Street Journal on July 20, 1909 insisted, "The more the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers combination is looked into the less it will stand the light of day."

In July 1910, before construction of the subway project began, Steers sold 308 West 103rd Street to another contractor, Archibald Charles Heaphy.  The Heaphys immediately hired architect J. Juch to install an elevator in the house.  

Born in Chipping Norton, England in 1866, Heaphy had come to the United States in 1880, settling as a farmer in Sioux Falls (then in the Territory of Dakota).  There, in 1895 he married Florence May Wise.  When they moved into the 103rd Street house they had three children, 12-year-old Arthur, nine-year-old Dorothy, and six-year-old Mary.

Archibald became active in his newly-adopted neighborhood, as evidenced when Dr. Friedrich Franz Friedmann opened the nearby Friedmann Institute.  On May 16, 1913 The New York Times reported, "A meeting of householders having property near West End Avenue and 103d Street, where the Friedmann Institute is located, held a meeting last night at the home of A. C. Heaphy, 308 West 103d Street."

Friedmann treated victims of tuberculosis with what he promoted as the "turtle cure."  Among those speaking at the meeting was Dr. H. C. Frauenthal, who said, "what promised to be a great discovery was assuming the aspects of a joke."  A committee was formed "to observe what takes place at the institute when it begins receiving tuberculosis patients, and if conditions prove to be a nuisance the householders will complain to the proper authorities."

When Archibald Heaphy attempted to vote in 1915, he received disturbing news.  The Government listed him as an alien and, as such, he was not eligible.  The confusion stemmed from Heaphy's citizenship papers issued in 1886 when Sioux Falls was under territorial law.  Happily for Heaphy, a previous suit had set a precedent and on October 29, 1915 a judge ordered the Naturalization Bureau to issue him citizenship papers.   

The Heaphy summer home was in Dutchess County, where Archibald was an active sportsman.  On February 15, 1916 the Poughkeepsie newspaper The Evening Enterprise reported, "many enthusiastic sportsmen gathered last evening in the Union League Club, New York city, for the annual meeting of the Clove Valley Road and Gun Club."  At the meeting, Archibald C. Heaphy was elected a director.  (The success of the 12-year-old club was touted in the "club bag" of the previous season--1,336 wild ducks, 2,133 pheasants, "more than 200 partridges and woodcock, in addition to many hares and rabbits.")

In February 1923 the Heaphys announced Mary's engagement to Lieutenant Paschal Neilson Strong, Jr.   The groom-to-be was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers.  Dorothy, unmarried, still lived with her parents.  Ten months later, on December 19, 1923, The Sun and The Globe reported that Heaphy had sold 308 West 103rd Street for the equivalent of $603,000 in today's money.

It was the end of the line for 308 West 103rd Street as a private home.  A renovation completed in 1924 resulted in apartments.  It was just the beginning of rapid-fire remodeling.  Two years later the former mansion was converted to furnished rooms, and in 1928 it became an Orthodox synagogue.  A Gothic-style entrance was erected at street level and the parlor windows were given pointed Gothic arches filled with stained glass.

The picturesque building survived until 1963 when Rabbi Bernard Bergman, head of Congregation Kehilath Israel, purchased the building and demolished it, erecting a 13-story apartment building on the site with a synagogue on the ground floor.

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
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Saturday, March 18, 2023

The George Hall Baker house - 294 Manhattan Avenue


In July 1886 architect Charles T. Mott filed plans for five three-story brick and stone residences on the east side of Manhattan Avenue, between 112th and 113th Street.  Each of the 20-foot-wide homes would cost their developer, Edward Roemer, $13,000 to construct, or about $386,000 by 2023 conversions.   

Mott's red brick, Queen Anne style homes were typical of his style, with bowed bays and dormers.   He designed the four facing Manhattan Avenue as two mirror-image pairs, while the corner house at 329 West 112th Street, was the show-stopper.  

Construction dragged on because of financial problems.  Surprisingly, when the row was completed in July 1890 all five homes were purchased by Smith Newell Penfield, a renowned organist.  He moved into the corner house with his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Hoyt.

Penfield sold 294 Manhattan Avenue to George Hall Baker on March 18, 1891 for $20,000 (around $615,000 today).  Baker and his wife, the former Ellen Eliza Atkins, had four children: George Friederich, Charles Atkins, Helen Julia, and Raymond Hall.

Baker was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts on April 23, 1850 to George and Mary Hall.  Upon his adoption by Charles and Wealthy Wells Baker, he received his new surname.  He and Ellen, who was known familiarly as Nellie, had married in 1875.  He graduated from Amherst College in 1874 and earned earn his post-graduate degree from Berlin University in 1878.  Upon his return to the United States, he helped compile The Century Dictionary.

The Manhattan Avenue house was convenient to his work.  In 1883 he was hired as assistant librarian at Columbia University and two years before buying the house was appointed Librarian-in-Chief.  Several years later, in 1913, the Annual Report of Chicago Historical Society mentioned: 

Under his administration the library made its greatest progress and acquired some of its most valuable collections.  He also instituted a new and very complete cataloguing system by means of which these treasures became thoroughly available to scholars.

George retired in 1899, earning the title Librarian Emeritus.  He now focused on "the study of art and art history and political science and literary work," according to The New York Times.

Not surprisingly, the Baker sons attended attended Columbia University.  Both Charles and Raymond became attorneys.  Following Charles's marriage to Marie Louise Johnston in 1908, the newlyweds moved into the Manhattan Avenue house where they would have three children.  Charles was, by now, a director and corporate counsel for the Harlem Contracting Company, vice president and counsel for the Pacific City Terminal and Contracting Company, and counsel of the Candelaria Gold and Silver Mining Company.  

George Hall Baker died in the Manhattan Avenue house at the age of 61 on March 27, 1911.  Ellen remained with Helen (who was still unmarried), and Charles's family.  At some point Ellen's brother, John Bangs Atkins moved in.  John's country home was in West Brattleboro, Vermont, where he and Ellen had been born.

Nearly four decades after moving into 294 Manhattan Avenue, Ellen died there on December 28, 1930 at the age of 79.  Her funeral was held in the house on the following day.  

Charles Atkins Baker was, by now, the head of the corporate law firm of Parker & Arron at 55 Liberty Street.  He was also a director of at least six corporations.  Still living his family in the Manhattan Avenue house were Helen, who was still single, and John Bangs Atkins.  John died at West Brattleboro on May 17, 1932.  Before the end of the decade the house was sold.  (Charles died in New Jersey on December 7, 1945.)

294 Manhattan Avenue is second from right.

The Baker house was converted to eight apartments in 1941.  After decades of decline, the neighborhood experienced a renaissance in the early 21st century.  No. 294 Manhattan Avenue was put on the market in 2009 at $2.4 million.  It was finally sold in the summer of 2011 for about half that amount.  It and its architectural siblings create a handsome presence facing Morningside Park.  Its well-preserved facade--albeit with painted brick and replaced stoop railings--begs to be restored.

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Friday, March 17, 2023

Henry Fernbach's 1883 121-123 Greene Street


The Greene Street neighborhood developed a sordid reputation following the Civil War.  Brothels occupied many of the former homes and 121 Greene Street was not an exception.  At around midnight on January 17, 1862, for instance, a patron was removed after "during the act of coition, he was attacked with palsy," according to Dr. Edward C. Sequin.  (He most likely suffered a minor stroke.)   And the New York Dispatch reported on January 12, 1879, "When Justice Otterbourg ordered a complaint to be made against No. 121 Greene street, he no doubt hoped the police would get the evidence to convict.  Possibly the thing was impossible.  The surrounding neighbors could not very well go into court to complain, being in the same business."

At the time of Justice Otterbourg's frustration, things were changing in the Greene Street neighborhood.  Millinery and drygoods firms were inching northward and the old two- and three-story houses were being replaced by commercial structures.  

Julius and Adolph Lewisohn operated the millinery supply firm Lewisohn Bros., which imported and manufactured ostrich feathers, artificial flowers, "bristles, hair, vegetable fibre, &c."  In 1882 they purchased and demolished the buildings at 121 and 123 Greene Street and hired architect Henry Fernbach to design a replacement loft and store building.  Fernbach was busy in the Soho area at the time.  As a matter of fact, he was simultaneously designing the two abutting buildings as 125 and 127 Greene Street.

Construction began on June 28, 1882 and was completed nine months later--the use of a cast iron facade enabling the rapid rise of the six-story structure.  Ferbach's ornate design, a commercial blend of French Renaissance and Second Empire, featured columns with elaborate capitals (a close inspection reveals a melding of Corinthian and Ionic orders), and fluted pilasters at the ends with stylized acanthus motifs.  Each floor was defined by an intermediate cornice.  The entablature of the terminal cornice was distinguished by acanthus leaves alternating with brackets.  Prominent antefixes sprouted above the cornice.

Sharing the building with Lewisohn Bros. were the offices and showroom of the hat manufacturing firm Ferry & Napier.  It was founded by George J. Ferry in 1856 and became Ferry & Napier in 1879 when he partnered with Ernest Napier.  The factory in Newark, New Jersey employed 250 workers.  

In 1883, according to The Evening Post, Ferry became suspicious of the Newark bookkeeper James F. Bull, "because the profits of the factory fell behind what they would naturally be."  He sent Bull on vacation and then brought in the head bookkeeper, who worked in the Greene Street office, to examine the books.  He immediately discovered embezzlement.  The clever Bull had meticulously recorded the weekly payroll, and the individual figures were checked by the factory supervisor John W. Green.  What Green did not double-check, however, were the totals.  Each week Bull padded the total payroll amount by $10 to $50.  The Evening Post reported, "Ferry thinks the total sum taken will amount to between $3,000 and $4,000." (The higher amount would equal approximately $112,000 in 2023.)

Both men were fired, the supervisor "for negligence" for not discovering the scheme.   Somewhat surprisingly, after the 52-year-old Bull admitted his guilt and paid back what he could, Ferry did not press charges.

In the early 1890s Levi Bros. & Blum, which dealt in "notions and dressmaking supplies" was in the building.  For years it had been "the largest importers of high-class Notions in the country," according to The Evening World on January 19, 1894.

Also in the building at the time were two furriers, Albert Herzig, Sons & Co., and Isaac Levi.  The former employed 75 men, 60 women, and 22 girls under 21 years of age in their shop.  The staff worked 53 hours a week.

Fur Trade Review, August, 1893 (copyright expired)

In 1893 Isaac Levi took an extended buying trip to Europe, leaving brothers Adolph and Montague Berhard in charge of the New York operation.  He shipped $100,000 worth of furs from London, a significant three-and-a-quarter million in today's dollars.  A year later he told a reporter, "They did not remit any money last year, and explained that the crisis in America had prevented sales."  (That crisis was the Financial Panic of 1893.)  The excuse made sense, and Levi was unsuspecting.

He arrived back in New York at the beginning of 1894 to discover that Adolph had gone to Europe in December.  "Montague told me that my goods were all in bond, and a short time after my arrival he also left for Europe," said Levi.  "My suspicions were not even then aroused."

But in March, he visited the custom house brokers where he discovered that only half of the goods were in the warehouse.  An investigation showed that the brothers had sold much of the inventory before leaving the country.  But if the Berhards thought they could live the high life on their ill-gotten fortunes abroad, they underestimated their employer.  On May 1, 1894, The Press reported, "Isaac Levi of 123 Greene street, said yesterday: 'I caused the arrest of Adolph and Montague Bernhard in London."  The Evening World noted, "At the prisoners' lodgings a large quantity of valuable property, said to belong to Mr. Levi, was seized."  And Isaac Levi was much less forgiving than George J. Ferry had been.  "They were remanded for a week this morning in London, and will be brought back here for trial."

In 1905 Harry L. Block leased the building "for a long term of years."  His firm manufactured "ladies' and misses' skirts."  He subleased space to apparel maker Natkin & Laitin; cotton goods merchant Siegbert & Co.; and silk dealer Max Kempfer.

from Forest Leaves, 1910 (copyright expired)

Siegbert & Co. was headed by Samuel Siegbert who, according to The New York Press, "made a fortune in Prairie du Chien, Wis., and lived lavishly in a fourteen-room apartment."  That apartment, where Siegberg lived with his wife and daughter, was on the sixth floor of the Ardsley Court on Central Park West.  But his otherwise idyllic life was tortured by back pain.

On February 25, 1905, the family had breakfast together, after which Siegbert went into his study.  A few minutes later the telephone rang.  The New York Press reported, "Asked over the building telephone if any one had fallen from her apartment, Mrs. Siegbert ran to her husband's study and, finding the door locked, called for help.  The door was forced, a window was found open, and, looking down into the court behind the house, Mrs. Siegbert saw her husband's body and fell back unconscious."

Explaining that Siegbert had been "crazed by lumbago pains," the article said his gruesome plunge from the sixth floor window landed him head first on an iron fence where "one of the sharp points pierced his skull, holding him transfixed.  His neck was broken and one of his legs was fractured in two places."

Max Kempfer was the victim of an all-too-familiar crime in the Greene Street building over the decades.  In January 1908 he had 16-year-old employee Moses Neufeld arrested on grand larceny charges for stealing a large quantity of silk.  The teen still had the goods when he was apprehended.  In court on January 7, the boy's attorney asked Magistrate Kernochan permission to request that Kempfer devalue the silk from $47 to $25, "and thus reduce the charge to petit larceny," according to The Sun.  The magistrate said he was willing to allow it, but Kempfer was less sympathetic.  The Sun reported, "Mr. Kemper said he couldn't conscientiously swear to a different valuation on the silk."  Neufelt was held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.

A new type of tenant arrived following the end of World War I.  The Peerless Doll Company operated from the building in 1918, and the following year doll maker Reisman Barron & Co., Inc, took three floors.  A notice dated December 29, 1919 called the new location "one of the largest and most complete doll factories in the city."

An advertisement in Toys and Novelties in April 1920 noted, "One entire floor is used for our head factory, which has an output of over sixty thousand head[s] per week, another is used for the manufacture of the complete doll, our third floor is used for storing all raw materials."

Dry Goods Economist, August 5, 1922 (copyright expired)

Also in the building in 1921 were the Victory Box Company, Inc., makers of cardboard boxes; and Samuel Hymes & Sons, cotton converters.  The latter firm  however, was about to cease business.

On July 16, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported that brothers Philip and Irwin Hymes had been arrested on grand larceny charges.  In a desperate attempt to keep afloat the company which their father had founded, they had defrauded two banks by providing false financial statements.  They obtained large credit lines as well as $25,000 in cash.  The two institutions filed charges after Samuel Hymes & Sons filed bankruptcy on February 5, 1921.

The Soho neighborhood was industrial and gritty in the 1950s and '60s.  The I. H. Manufacturing Co. occupied space in 121 Green Street, where it made "TV picture tube boosters and accessories, sockets for tubes, transistors and crystals."  But change was on the horizon.  The third quarter of the century saw Soho discovered by artists, who used the vast industrial lofts for studio and living space.  The store fronts became galleries and cafes.

Two views of the building in the 1980s.  Despite the abuse, the historic elements of the architecture, including the original doors, survived.  images via

In March 1978 the Pincar Gallery opened in 121 Greene Street.  The upper floors were converted to cooperative housing in 1988 by the architectural restoration firm of Joseph Pell Lombardi.  On June 12 that year, The New York Times mentioned, "When a building at 123 Greene Street became a residential co-op recently, the unrenovated 4,000-square-foot floors sold briskly for about $800,000 apiece."

Galleries came and went.  In the early 1990s the Sperone Westwater Gallery was here and would remain at least through 2000.  Modern Age Gallery exhibited from 1992 to about 1995, and Douglas Blau had space in 1993.  By 2014 the ground floor was shared by the Proenza Schouler boutique and Warby Parker eyeglasses, the latter opening in April 2013.

Sadly, Greene Street is too narrow for the observer to get an optimum perspective of Henry Fernbach's striking cast iron building.  It is wonderfully intact, including the delicate capitals, often the first elements to rust and fall away.

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

The 1918 Warren and Helen Thorpe Mansion - 15 East 64th Street


On June 24, 1916, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Helen C. Thorpe had purchased the double-wide house at 13 and 15 East 64th Street from Edith Shepard Fabbri.  Their husbands' names--Warren Parsons Thorpe and Ernesto Fabbri--were not mentioned simply because the titles to real property were most often held in the name of the women within society families.  The Fabbris apparently had owned the 64th Street house merely as an investment.  They were currently erecting an opulent mansion for their use at 7 East 95th Street.

Only a week later, The New York Press reported that the Thorpes had demolished the old house and "commissioned John G. Greenleaf to prepare plans for a five-story American basement brick and stone residence on the site."  The cost of the new mansion was placed at $100,000--more than $2.5 million in 2023.

Warren Thorpe was a stockbroker, and had recently moved his family to New York from Philadelphia.  Helen Prentiss Converse Thorpe, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, was the daughter of Philadelphia millionaire John H. Converse.  He was in ill health and a widower when the couple became engaged in 1905.  While they initially planned to live in New York, Converse bribed them with a high-paying job for Thorpe and a sumptuous mansion to stay in Philadelphia.  Now, following Converse's death in 1910, they had revived their original plans and brought their two children, Theodora and Warren Jr. to live in New York City.

The Thorpes' mansion was not completed until 1918.  Greenleaf produced a dignified limestone-faced house in the neo-French Classic style.  His design drew the eye to the second floor where a shallow balcony was crowned with a deep, arched pediment.  The sedate facade rose to a steep mansard above a stone cornice where copper-pedimented dormers sat behind iron railings.

Born in 1878, Thorpe had graduated from Yale in 1900.  He was a partner in the Wall Street brokerage house of Henderson & Co.  Like all moneyed families, the Thorpes spent the warm months away from the city.  Somewhat surprisingly, however, they chose to lease estates (almost always in Lawrenceville, Long Island) rather than purchase a summer home.

In March 1917, for instance, The Sun reported that the Thorpes had leased the "furnished dwelling" of Marshall C. Lefferts in Lawrenceville, and in 1920 the New-York Tribune announced they had taken Windward, the estate of Mrs. Frederick Tilden Brown for the 1921 summer season.  The article noted it contained "about fifteen acres, with a large modern dwelling and a number of outbuildings overlooking the Atlantic Ocean."  (The family's attachment to Lawrenceville was so strong that Thorpe would later become mayor of the town.)

Theodora was born in 1906, the year her parents married.  Normally young society daughters were not mentioned in print before their debuts.  But on New Year's Eve, 1920, the 14-year-old appeared in the society columns of the New-York Tribune as the hostess of a dinner for debutante Edyth C. Elliman.  (There was no doubt a great deal of discussion about that for weeks ahead of the event.)

Finally it was Theodora's turn in the spotlight.  The first of her debutante entertainments took place on November 1, 1924.  It was a tea given by her aunt, Mary E. Converse at The Lindens, her home in the upscale Rosemont neighborhood of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Once introduced, young society women often turned their attention to marriage, and Theodora was not an exception.

The following year, on December 17, 1925, The New York Times reported that a telegram from London announced Theodora's engagement to W. Palmer Dixon, "elder son of the Hon. Mrs. Cecil Campbell."  The groom-to-be had attended Eaton before entering Harvard, graduating in 1924.  The article noted, "The wedding will take place in New York in the Spring."  The ceremony was held in St. James Church on Madison Avenue on April 9, 1926.  It was a society affair, followed by a reception in the 64th Street mansion.

It would take Warren Jr., who was six years younger than his sister, longer to find love.  He graduated from Yale University in 1934, and while the Thorpe name repeatedly appeared in society columns for his mother's entertainments and charity involvements, it would not be until June 24, 1941 that The New York Sun reported the 29-year-old's engagement to Elisabeth Searles Greene.  The wedding took place in St. John's Episcopal church in Far Rockaway on September 13 that year.

With their children gone, Warren and Helen Thorpe moved into a suite at 800 Park Avenue and hired architect Louis Weeks to remodel their mansion into apartments and to install an elevator.  An advertisement in 1941 described the "exceptionally fine block," noting the "just completed" apartments featured "huge living rooms," maid and valet service, and optional meals.

Among the initial residents were Monroe Douglas Robinson, a nephew of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had served as an official of the War Finance division of the Treasury Department; and Frances Milne Carleton.  During World War I she had helped organize Red Cross canteens and was in charge of the Red Cross base hospital at Camp Mills, Long Island.  When America entered World War II, she once again helped organize the canteen service.

The affluence of the residents was reflected in a burglary here on November 1, 1954.  Mrs. Ruth Wertheim Lyons Smith returned home that night to find that crooks had stolen $125,000 in jewelry--more than one and a quarter million in today's dollars.  The Long Island Star-Journal noted, "the thieves overlooked another $25,000 worth of gems cached in a valise in a closet."

Living here in the 1970s was George Oppenheimer.  He was drama critic for Newsday, a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a playwright, an author, and an editor.  His first play, Here Today, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1932, starring Ruth Gordon.  His last play, A Mighty Man Is He, was performed at the Cort Theater in 1960.  Also a publisher, in 1925 he and Harold Guinzburg had founded the Viking Press.

The 31-foot-wide Thorpe mansion was purchased by Edgar Bronfman Jr., the president of Seagram's, on June 9, 1994 for $4.375 million.  He reconverted it to a single-family home.  Bronfman remained here until October 2007, when he sold the mansion to financier and chairman of the Warner Music Group, Leonard Blavatnik, for $52 million.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The 1848 Abraham B. Skillman House - 51 Horatio Street

51 Horatio (left) was designed as a mirror-image of its neighbor.  The addition of the fourth floor is evidenced by the change of brick color.  

In 1847 Magdelena Gray, the wife of attorney Farley Gray, purchased land from Jane Gahn on the north side of Horatio Street between Greenwich and Hudson Streets.  The well-to-do Grays lived in an elegant home nearby on Clinton Place (today's West 8th Street).  They erected a row of three-story, brick-faced homes on the plots.  By reducing the width of the houses to just 16 feet, the Grays were able to squeeze five rather than the more expected four homes on the 80-foot parcel.  

Their builder tackled the problem of their narrow proportions by designing four as mirror-images.  Above the side-by-side stoops, each of the entranceways received one sidelight, so that taken together each pair simulates the appearance of a normal Greek Revival double-doored entrance.  His inventive design went further with the parlor floor windows, the sidelights of which echo the entrances, and in the c0ntinuous, hefty brownstone bandcourse that runs between the first and second floors along the row.

No. 51 Horatio Street became home to the Abraham B. Skillman family.  Skillman was born in New York City on January 8, 1806 and was in the hardware business with his brothers.  He and his wife, the former Catharine Heroy had four children, Martha B., Isaac Brower, George Augustus, and James Henry.

By 1855 the Skillmans were taking in a boarder, Madame Buckingham.  The title reflected her profession as a society dressmaker.  Madame Buckingham's shop was at 505 Broadway.  

In April 1856 both 49 and 51 Horatio Street were offered for sale.  The ad touted their "modern improvements," which most likely included running water and gas lighting.  Madame Buckingham was still living at the address in October that year when she advertised for dressmakers and apprentices, noting "none but those fully competent need apply."

The new owners apparently operated 51 Horatio Street as a boarding house.  It became home to professionals like William E. Berrien, a builder, and accountant John Alwaise in 1859.  The following year the Laboyteaux family took rooms.  Joseph and William H. Laboyteaux were both clerks, while Peter was in the shoe business.

The landlady placed an unusual advertisement in the New York Herald on September 11, 1861.  It read, "Board for Children--An American Lady of experience and capability will take the entire care of two or three children on very reasonable terms.  Apply at 51 Horatio street."

In 1868 Alexander Bowden purchased 51 Horatio Street as an investment, leasing it along with other properties he owned in Greenwich Village, including others on Horatio Street.

By 1872 the McCarthy and Mingey families were sharing the address.  (It is possible that one of the families occupied the smaller house in the rear.)  Richard J. McCarthy and Lawrence Mingey were partners in Mingey & McCarthy, wholesale meats at 115 Greenwich Avenue.  Walter Mingey was also involved in the business, as well as in Mingey & Callen, collars, on New Chambers Street.

It was at about this time that the entire row of homes was raised to four floors.  Their short third floor windows were raised to full height and a fourth floor was added.  Because the continuous Greek Revival cornice with its delicate dentils was decidedly out of fashion by then, it is possible that the builder carefully removed the original and reinstalled it.

Boarding here in 1875 was John Maloney.  He was arrested on March 4 that year for running a saloon without an excise, or liquor, license.  

When the house was again offered for rent six months later, it was described as a "four story House, 11 rooms."  The asking rent was $800 per year, or about $1,700 per month by a 2023 conversion.

And when Bowden advertised 51 Horatio Street in April 1877, he reduced the rent from $800 to $700 per year, noting that it had "all improvements."  

Reuben R. Codling answered that ad.  A native of Poughkeepsie, New York, he was a broker with offices at 114 Broadway.  Unfortunately, the young man would not enjoy the house for very long.  He died on February 14, 1879 at the age of 32.  His funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

Somewhat interestingly, Alexander Bowden's son, Robert J. Bowden, moved into the house following the Codlings.  He operated two grocery businesses, one at 627 Hudson Street and the other at 606 Ninth Avenue.  Boarding with his family in 1879 and 1880 was George M. Hitchcock, a clerk.

Bowden and his family had moved out by the mid-1880s when the family of Robert Abbott rented 51 Horatio Street.  He and his wife, the former Eliza Nightingale, had two children, James who was born in 1860, and Renwick Wylie, born in 1876.  Living with the family was Eliza's aged parents, John and Ann Jane Agnew Nightingale.  

Another funeral, that of Jane Nightingale, was held in the house on August 31, 1886.  She had died at the age of 82 two days earlier.

Following their father's death, in April 1891 Robert J. and Samuel C. Bowden sold 51 Horatio Street to Du Bois Smith.  The house was once again operated as a boarding house for years.  Its tenants were no longer professional class by the turn of the century when Charles Schweizer lived here.

A cab driver, Schweizer was involved in a potentially devastating accident on April 27, 1903.  A group of women  including Mrs. David Bayer and her one-year-old son started to cross Fifth Avenue at 13th Street that afternoon.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Believing they saw their opportunity they started over, when Schweizer's cab came bowling along at such a rate as to threaten to run down several of them."

Halfway into the intersection and carrying her toddler, Mrs. Bayer realized she could not escape being run down by the galloping horse and cab.  The newspaper said, "she used all her strength and threw the baby from her so that he, at least, should not be harmed.  The child fell near a woman, who picked him up and scampered to the sidewalk with him."  In the meantime, Schweizer's horse knocked Mrs. Bayer to the ground, where a wheel of his cab ran over her leg.

Patrolman Kenny, who witnessed the incident, arrested Schweizer and used his cab to transport the victim to the New-York Hospital.  There Mrs. Bayer pressed charges of assault and Kenny added a charge of reckless driving.

The Nelson family was living at 51 Horatio Street when the United States entered World War I.  Joseph Nelson joined the army and was deployed to the battlefront.  The family received the terrifying news on January 5, 1919 that he had been listed as Missing in Action.  They endured four months of uncertainty until on May 3 the New-York Tribune reported that Private Nelson was found and had returned to duty.

In the 1920s artist Archibald Bonge rented the rear building as his studio.  Interviewed by the New York Evening Post in May 1928, he explained his so-far colorful young life.  

I was brought up on a ranch and until sixteen practically lived in the saddle.  At the university [of Nebraska] I ran the mile, 220 yards and 440, was in the high and broad jump, was basketball center and would have made the football team if Notre Dame hadn't stopped me by attacking commercialism in college sport.  I quit and attended the Chicago Art Institute for three years, working my way as doorman at the Roosevelt Theatre.

The money he saved as a theater doorman allowed him to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia for a year before moving on to the Art Students' League in New York.  Once again, he supported himself mostly by working as a doorman at the Times Square Paramount Theatre.  He painted in his Horatio Street studio from 8:00 in the morning until time to work.  (The New York Evening Post noted that Bonge's residence "is in violent contrast with the Paramount.  No lobby, no sidewalk canopy.  Indeed the house itself is not visible from the street.")  At the time of the interview, he was preparing a one-man exhibition in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Playhouse.

But the newspaper was less interested in the doorman-painter's artwork than his romantic life.  He found a model for his large canvas Spring in actress Eunice Lyle, who was appearing in The Shanghai Gesture.  But posing was not in her future.  The two became so "interested" in each other "that she never did pose," Bonge said, "but she is going to marry me."

The twist was that the athletic cowboy-turned-artist-turned-doorman was engaged to an heiress.  Off the stage Eunice Lyle was Eunice Swetman, daughter of millionaire O. G. Swetman, president of the People's Bank in Biloxi, Mississippi.  

Living here by 1934 was children's author Iris Vinton and her husband Louis German.  Born in West Point, Mississippi in 1905, this was most likely her first address after upon moving to New York City.  While her first works were short plays, she became known for her children's novels, like the 1957 Flying Ebony (made into the film The Mooncussers), The Black Horse Company, and Longbow Island.  She also contributed to several of the Nancy Drew mystery books.

Iron fire escapes zig-zag down the facades of the row in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

A renovation completed in 1972 resulted in a duplex in the basement and first floors and a triplex above.  The triplex was leased in the summer of 1973 by musician and producer Todd Rungren and model/singer Bebe Buell.  They paid $600 per month (about $3,660 by 2023 terms).  In her 2001 Rebel Heart: An American Rock 'n' Roll Journey, Buell says that upon seeing it, despite the price, they fell in love with the triplex.

"Well, you know," he rationalized, "I just made all this money for doing Grand funk and I'm going to be getting a big check, and I'm getting ready to produce Hall and Oates next, so, all right, let's go for it."

According to Buell, "That place became our rock 'n' roll palace.  It helped emphasize Todd's success.  And of course it was effortless for him to pay for it."  She described the apartment saying, "There was a spiral staircase connecting the three levels...The first floor consisted of a kitchen, a dining room, and a living room with a fireplace."  She and Rungren's bedroom was on "the mezzanine" where there was a second living area that held Rundren's piano.  On the top floor were two more bedrooms "where everybody would go to have sex" during their "divine parties."

In her book, Beull says the parties reminded her of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  "People were everywhere, hanging off the staircases, strewn throughout the living rooms.  God knows what went on in the bathrooms."

The pair remained together until shortly after Buell gave birth in 1977.  Although the infant, named Liv, was the daughter of Steven Tyler, Rundgren agreed to pose as her father to protect her from Tyler's drug addition.  Liv Tyler did not discover her biological father's identity until she was 11 years old.

They had been gone from 51 Horatio Street for two years when Liv was born.  It was purchased by Robert Hope Fuller, the controller for I.T.T.-Raynonier, Inc. for $200,000 that year.  He moved into the triplex and rented the lower apartment.  Fuller had inherited "a large sum of money," according to Newsday, and furnished his home with Persian rugs and "antique European pieces."

On December 25, 1979 the 43-year-old bachelor made Christmas dinner for three former female neighbors from the East Side.  The following day, a friend became worried when he could not contact Fuller by phone.  He entered the unlocked house around 8:30 p.m. to find the triplex ransacked and Fuller's nude body in the bedroom with a bullet wound to the neck.  One detective told reporters "that police believe robbery was the motive," said Newsday, while a "second detective said he was leaning to the theory that the killing was the result of a homosexual lovers' quarrel."

In 2016 51 Horatio Street was re-converted to a single family house.  It and its architectural siblings create a charming enclave along the block.

photograph by the author
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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Maurice H. Harris House - 254 West 103rd Street


On April 30, 1892, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported on the just-completed group of homes at the southeast corner of West End Avenue and 103rd Street.  Five houses faced the avenue, while two opened onto 103rd Street.  "The houses have been built under the direct supervision of Messrs. Drought & Carew, who are among our most conscientious builders, and will stand the most critical inspection," said the article."  They were designed by architect Martin V. B. Ferdon.  The large corner house was four stories tall--a full floor higher than the others.  And its 15-foot-long, two-story extension to the east left 254 West 103rd Street somewhat estranged from its architectural siblings.

254 West 103rd Street, at the left, was a sort of step-sister to the other houses.  A balustrade ran above its rounded bay.  Real Estate Record & Guide, April 30, 1892 (copyright expired)

The article noted that the floors in rooms where carpets would be used were finished in hard pine, while "those of the halls, dining-rooms and foyer halls [had] oak parquette flooring."  The up-to-date amenities included "the latest scientific sanitary" plumbing, "electric annunciators, burglar alarms and speaking tubes."   (The annunciators were a system of push-buttons in various rooms that lit up a board in the basement level, telling servants the room from which the call had been made.  Speaking tubes allowed the servants and residents to then communicate.)

The wooden fireplaces in each of the major rooms matched the trim work.  The Record & Guide described the finish of the wood throughout as "like satin."  "The hall and dining-room and foyer hall are wainscoted high with paneled oak, and in the arches between the front and foyer halls and the staircases, Moorish fret-work imparts a richness to the finishes which is sure to meet with general admiration."  The "Moorish fret-work" reappeared on the second floor between the bedrooms and dressing rooms (those rooms were further separated by portieres).  The bedroom windows were embellished with "cathedral" or stained glass.  The top floors contained two large bedrooms, front and rear, and "marble lavatories and commodious clothes presses built into the rooms."

The Record & Guide mentioned, "In external appearance the houses are dignified and reposeful.  They are constructed of brown stone of selected quality, with just enough of ornamental sculpture to develop the grace and beauty of the design."

The intricate carvings included ribboned festoons, an urn and a bowl of fruit.

No. 254 West 103rd Street first became home to the John M. Hayward family.  Somewhat surprisingly, upon his death the house was bequeathed to his sons, William T. and Frank E. Hayward.  (The title to primary residences was most often held by the wife within well-to-do families and, if not, was normally inherited by her.)  The sons transferred title to their mother, Caroline A. Hayward, in January 1902.

She did not remain long.  In October 1903 an advertisement in the New York Herald touted the "exceptional three story dwelling."  It pointed out the advantages of the low extension of the house next door, allowing for "permanent side windows," a rare advantage in row houses.  Caroline listed the property at $25,000 (about $795,000 in 2023).

The house changed hands several times.  Caroline Hayward sold it to John Monks, who sold it to Sarah Wohigemuth in 1904.  She resold it to the Rev. Dr. Maurice H. Harris on February 1, 1906.

Born in London on November 9, 1859, Harris came from a rabbinical tradition.  Both his father, Henry L. Harris, and his brother, Isidore, were rabbis in England.  He arrived in the United States at the age of 19, first going into business.  The New York Times later said he was "one of the pioneer telegraph company promoters."  Then, in 1883 at the age of 24 and while attending Columbia University and the Temple Emanu-El Theological Seminary, he took a job as a "student-preacher" in a small Harlem synagogue.  It afforded him the income to pay for his education.

He was ordained in 1884, received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1887, and his Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in 1889.  Around that time he married Kitty Green.

Harris's ordainment came at a time when a great number of Russian Jews were flooding into Manhattan.  He worked to help the new arrivals, founding the Federation Settlement and the Jewish Protectory.  He would later help found the Jewish Board of Guardians.

The Harrises had three children, Naomi, Ruth, and Adriel.  By the time they moved into the 103rd Street house, Harris was rabbi of Temple Israel of Harlem, on Lenox Avenue and 120th Street.  

The duties of a priest, minister or rabbi often require delicate diplomacy.  Such was the case on the afternoon of November 1, 1906 when Benjamin Grifenhagen, son of Alderman Max Grifenhagen, and Ermentine Kassel knocked on the door of 254 West 103rd Street and requested to be married.  Young Grifenhagen was 21 years old and his fiancĂ©e was 18.  Rev. Harris slyly sent the couple out on an errand, then quickly telephoned the alderman, who was just sitting down to lunch.

As he suspected, Grifenhagen had no idea of his son's plans to marry.  When told who his potential daughter-in-law was, he replied, "Kassel?  Oh yes!  Oh yes!  But good gracious!  Why they've only known one another since last Sunday!"

As it turned out, the Grifenhagen and Kassel families had attended the silver wedding anniversary of a family in Tuxedo, where the young couple met.  Alderman Grifenhagen told Harris he needed to make some calls--one to his wife and another to the Kassels.  

"You'll have to be quick," said Harris.  "I sent them out to look for witnesses.  It was a kind of a ruse.  I felt it my duty to let you know.  they'll be back in a few minutes."

Before long Alderman Grifenhagen was in the Harris study.  The families, who admired one another, had agreed to the match.  Grifenhagen told a reporter, "It was a case of love at first sight with the pair of them, and I suppose there's no way of checking a thing like that."  Nevertheless, he "had a little talk" with his son, during which he said "he should have though it worth while to consult us before he took such a step."

The Rev. Dr. Maurice Henry Harris.  The New York Times, June 24, 1930

Rev. Maurice Harris would officiate over a wedding eight years later that was much more personal.  On October 3, 1914 he and Kitty announced Naomi's engagement to George M. Wolfson.  The Sun reported, "The Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Harris will give a reception for their daughter and her finance at their home next Sunday."

In his study, Harris wrote several books, among them Jewish History and Literature, Hebraic Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala, A Thousand Years of Jewish History, and The People of the Book: From the Creation to the Death of Moses.  He was described by Dr. Alexander Lyons as "one of the most distinguished figures of the American Jewish pulpit for almost half a century."

It may have been the plans to demolish the corner house and two of the West End Avenue houses to make way for a Rosario Candela designed apartment building that prompted the Harrises to sell 254 West 103rd Street to H. P. Bradford in 1921.  On January 4, the New-York Tribune noted, "The new owner will alter it into apartments."

Snarling griffins flank the slightly-eroded face of a man above the doorway.

Instead, Bradford sold it four months later to Dr. M. Muldberg for $35,000 (about $530,000 in today's money).  Muldberg immediate made interior upgrades, including updated plumbing.

Given the home's ownership by a rabbi for decades, its use during the early Depression years is a bit shocking.  On January 8, 1929, The New York Sun reported on two speakeasy raids made by Inspector Day just after midnight.  At 254 West 103rd Street, waiter Frank Martin was arrested and charged with possession of alcohol.  

Two years later, on April 16, 1931, the newspaper reported that William Morrison, 39, a former detective who lived at 501 West 162nd street, had been arrested.  Two rookie cops, Robert Brown and Jesse Taylor, according to the article, "went to work at 8 A. M. in plain clothes and their first tip concerned Morrison.  They went to the speakeasy at 254 West 103rd street Morrison is alleged to own and to disguise themselves dressed in overalls, pretending to be mechanics."

Morrison initially refused them entry, but they convinced him, "It's all right.  We're okay."  Each of the pair dropped a quarter in a slot machine and had no luck.  "The hell with that!" said Brown.  "Let's have a drink."

They ordered drinks, paid for them, and then "laid heavy hands on Morrison's shoulders."  The disgraced former detective was charged with "selling liquor in a speakeasy and operating a slot machine."  

A subsequent renovation in 1944 resulted in unofficial apartments.  Among the tenants was Florence Sharp, who was under the microscope of the Federal Government in 1953 for her position as legislative director of the Eleventh Assembly District Club, accused by a Senate Subcommittee of printing Communist propaganda.

In 1954 the basement, once home to a speakeasy, was converted to a small synagogue.  Living on the third floor in 1993 were television engineer Peter Feldman and Kerstin Hasenpusch.  After spending three months fixing up the apartment before moving in, they received an eviction notice three days later.  The couple fought the owner in court--refusing a $5,000 offer to leave and determined to save the threatened structure.  They triumphed and bought the vintage house.  

Working with architect James Wagman, the couple began the painstaking process of restoration.  The painted woodwork was removed, refinished and reinstalled; the windows were replaced (sadly, with flat instead of curved panes, a budgeting necessity); and the plumbing was updated, among other projects.

The last surviving remnant of Drought & Carew's 1892 project on the block, 254 West 103rd Street looks a bit lonely between the soaring apartment buildings on either side.  Nevertheless, the facade carvings, once deemed "just enough," still impart the "grace and beauty" they did over 130 years ago.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to