Thursday, June 20, 2024

Sylvan Bien's 1940 737 Park Avenue


photo by Godsfriendchuck

Born in Austria, architect Sylvan Bien emigrated to San Francisco to work on the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.  He relocated to New York City in 1919.  By the 1930s he was designing mostly apartment buildings and hotels.

In 1939, the 737 Park Avenue Corp. demolished seven rowhouses at the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 71st Street.  Bien was commissioned to design an apartment building on the site.  He blended traditional French neo-Classical motifs into his Art Moderne design.  Completed in 1940, the building's five-story limestone base upheld 14 stories of red brick.  At the upper floors, Greek key bands and classical pediments harkened to French Empire prototypes.

This rendering graced the cover of the 1940 brochure which touted the "architectural standards of the general Empire style."  from the Avery Library collection of Columbia University

The lobby was designed to impress.  The real estate brochure said, "The floor is terrazzo with matched marble wainscot.  Several large wall paintings by a well known mural artist are used to bring warmth and interest to the entire entrance and elevator lobby."

Two views of the lobby in 1941.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Potential tenants could select apartments ranging from three to eight rooms.  "Some suites have terraces, and there are several 3 and 6 room duplex arrangements," said the brochure, which noted, "All have large galleries, with powder and dressing rooms in most, while many have maids' rooms.  Additional maids' rooms are available on the first floor."

The "special apartments" were on the 18th and 19th floors.  The "C" model included seven rooms, four baths, a dressing room, powder room, library and dining room, plus three terraces.  The brochure promised the apartments would "satisfy the most rigorous demands for prestige and distinction."

The three "special" apartments on the 18th and 19th floors all had terraces.  from the Avery Library collection of Columbia University

As the building neared completion in September 1940, S. R. Firestone, vice president of Pease & Elliman, told a reporter from The New York Times that 737 Park Avenue reflected a change in Manhattan lifestyle.  He said that builders were "providing discriminating Manhattan apartment residents with the same type of accommodations they enjoyed in earlier years but with fewer rooms and on a substantially lower rental basis."  He was quick to add, "There has been, however, no sacrifice of comfort or convenience."  The article continued, "Mr. Firestone states that many of these smaller suites in the 737 Park Avenue house have been taken by tenants who are vacating twelve-room suites."

photo by "Eden, Janine and Jim"

Among the first was Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews, who signed a lease on April 19, 1940, months before construction would be completed.  He would move in with his second wife, Wilhelmina Christmas.  Born in 1884, Andrews was described by The New York Times as "naturalist, explorer and director of the American Museum of Natural History."  He traveled the globe on various expeditions, cataloging wildlife and discovering fossils.  (The Andrewsarchus was named for him.)  When he and Wilhelmina moved into 737 Park Avenue he had written ten books, including the 1921 Across Mongolian Plains and the 1929 Ends of the Earth, and would go on to write 13 more.

Andrews made the cover of Time magazine on October 29, 1923.  (copyright expired)

Most residents of 737 Park Avenue had country homes, while a few kept apartments here as their city pied-à-terre.  That was the case with Irving and Renee Weisner.  The couple was married on June 3, 1958 and moved into a 27-room, 10-bath house in Woodmere, Long Island.  They rented an apartment here for those evenings when they came into the city.  Testimony in their divorce case said the apartment, "was used...only occasionally, not exceeding approximately 20 nights during the three years of their marriage, and was used by [Renee] mainly for the purpose of changing her clothes when the parties had a social engagement."

The apartment of S. Beutsch included this clever bar with acrylic feet and Erté type decorations.  It was photographed by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. in a closed position...

...and opened position on March 21, 1941.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

The family of William Olden lived here by the early 1960s.  Born in Berlin, Germany in 1909, Olden arrived in America in 1938.  He and his wife, the former Margot Cohnreich, had two children, Barbara Evelyn (known in society as Bambi), and Robert.  Olden started out with a small camera business, and by the time the family moved in to 737 Park Avenue it was "one of the most successful retail and mail-order camera concerns in the country," according to The New York Times. 

Like the daughters of other well-heeled families, Bambi Olden received an enviable education.  She attended the Calhoun School, the Russell Sage College, Le Grand Verger (a finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland), and the Sarah Lawrence College summer session in Florence, Italy.  When her engagement to Roger H. Felberbaum was announced in April 1964, she was a senior at New York University.

A fascinating resident was Barbara Gabard, who moved in around 1968.  Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Poland in 1912, her first husband was Nathan Padowicz.  Following his suicide, she married Leon Waisbrem, an industrialist.  They lived in Warsaw where their son Julian was born in 1933.  At the outbreak of World War II, she and Julian escaped to Brazil, while Leon remained behind to fight in the Polish Army.

Her escape from Europe resulted in a book, Flight to Freedom, which was published in 1941.  Barbara's husband did not survive the war, and in 1945 she married Pierre Gabard in London.  He became Consul for France in Philadelphia where Barbara was a celebrated hostess and socialite.  Gabard died in 1967 and shortly afterward Barbara moved to New York City and 737 Park Avenue.

This portrait of Barbara Gabard was created by Francois Gilot in 1955.  private collection 

On December 9, 1973, the "Suzy Says" column of the Daily News said, 

Mrs. Pierre Gabard, author of "Flight to Freedom," and widow of the French resistance her0-diplomat, put a big dinner party together to honor Alain Chailloux, chief of press for the French Embassy.  About 60 crowded into Barbara Gabard's Auntie Mame-ish Park Ave. apartment where the Louis XV furniture, the Legers, Mary Cassatt, Pissaros and Picassos combine raffishly with the Alexander Libermans.  It's one way of doing it.

Despite the glittering parties, the antique French furniture and the museum-quality art collection, Barbara Gabard suffered from what was described as "a history of depression."  Two weeks after the party, on the night of December 30, a friend, Seward Kennedy, visited her.  Around 2:50 a.m., according to Kennedy, Barbara left the living room.  The New York Times reported, "When she didn't return, he said, he went to investigate and found she jumped from the 12th-floor window."  She was declared dead upon arrival at Metropolitan Hospital.

image via

In 2011 the CIM Group acquired 737 Park Avenue and began a conversion to condominiums.  The 104 rental apartments became 56 resident-owned units.  The full-floor penthouse sold in June 2015 for $32.6 million.  The New York Times noted, "The apartment was sold as a 'white box,' without interior walls or finishes, though it does include a wood-burning fireplace."

many thanks to reader Lowell Cochrane for suggesting this post
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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Congregation Ezrath Israel -- The Actors' Temple -- 339 West 47th Street


In September 1922, architect Sidney P. Oppenheim filed plans to dramatically remodel a "four story brick tenement" for the West Side Hebrew Relief Association, Inc.  The old structure (it was built around 1869) was, in fact, a high-stooped brownstone which had been converted to a rooming house.  Oppenheim's far-reaching plans called for new floors, new interior walls, "new exterior, new front."

The house was transformed into a synagogue faced in sandy-colored brick.  It was home to Congregation Ezrath Israel (Help of Israel), founded in 1917.  Vaguely neo-Georgian in style, the building's focal point was the large, centered arch that embraced the stained glass rose window.

In the post-World War I years, the most conservative of churches and synagogues still considered the theater to be sinful.  People involved in the theater were not welcomed by those institutions.  This synagogue was conveniently near the entertainment district, however, and when actor-comedian Red Baxter began worshiping at Ezrath Israel, Rabbi Bernard Birstein welcomed him.

Birstein was born in 1892 in Poland and had come to America in 1912.  Word of his warm reception to actors and entertainers spread.  Before long, the congregation was a mix of long-time neighborhood residents and stage celebrities.  

Rabbi Birstein discovered that having well-known members in his congregation had its advantages.  He instituted what would become an annual benefit.  According to Birstein's daughter, Ann, in her 1982 book The Rabbi on 47th Street, the events featured performances by the likes of Sophie Tucker; Jimmy Durante and his vaudeville team Clayton, Jackson and Durante; Red Buttons; Eddie Cantor; Jack Benny; Edward G. Robinson; and Milton Berle.  Within a few years, Congregation Ezrath Israel had earned the nickname, The Actors' Temple.  

The benefit would be staged every February for years.  On January 28, 1933, the Greenpoint Daily Star reported, 

With Eddie Cantor and George Jessel as honorary chairmen, Broadway stage stars are rallying to the support of the charity show to be given in aid of Temple Ezrath Israel at the Casino Theater on Sunday evening, February 5.  This annual theatrical affair helps considerably to maintain the synagogue, located at 339 West Forty-seventh street, where the actors come to pray and mourn for the dead.

More somber, of course, were those many funerals and memorial services which were routinely held here.  On April 16, 1927, for instance, The Vaudeville News reported, "N.V.A. [National Vaudeville Artists] members are respectfully invited to attend a Memorial Service on Sunday, April 24, 1927, at 11 A. M. at the Ezrath Israel Synagogue, 339 West 47th St., New York City."

On July 12, 1941, The New York Times reported on the memorial service for theatrical producer Sam H. Harris.  The article said 200 friends and former associates were present.  "George M. Cohan, former partner of Mr. Harris, had been asked to speak...but had declined, saying, 'I was too close to Sam Harris.  I couldn't go through with it.'"

Rabbi Bernard Birstein died in 1959 at the age of 67.  On November 15, The New York Times reported that "Congregation Ezrath Israel, more familiarly known as the Actors Temple," had hired Rabbi Moshay P. Mann.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Things were changing in the neighborhood and within the congregation.  Following World War II the motion picture industry drew celebrities to the West Coast.  And the neighborhood generally declined.  The 16th Precinct police stationhouse, just steps away, was demolished in 1972 and the station moved to a new building on West 54th Street.  Within weeks, on October 9, the shul was broken into and $500 worth of silver breastplates, used to adorn the Torah, were stolen.  (The items were later discovered in a pawnshop.)

On November 18, 1978, Leslie Maitland, writing in The New York Times, began an article saying,

Edward G. Robinson conducted services.  Toots Shor, Tony Martin and Red Buttons came to pray.  And when the rabbi had trouble gathering a minyan of 10 Jewish men at the Actors' Temple, the old 16th Precinct station a few doors down on 47th Street could be counted on to provide it.

But times have changed.

Edward G. Robinson is dead.  Red Buttons lives in California.  The police station has been torn down.  The police officers who visit now do not come to pray.

Those police officers were, instead, were coming to investigate vandalism.  Teens threw rocks through the windows, spray painted swastikas on the walls, and "shout[ed] obscenities at its leaders," according to Maitland.

Label Malamud had been cantor here for three decades.  Pointing to the school next door to the synagogue, he asked Maitland, "You think they go to school with pencils?  These days they carry knives.  They could make me a head shorter than I already am.  Frankly, I am afraid."  A month before the article, the synagogue's outdoor Succoth decorations had been destroyed.

In response, the congregation had installed a $2,000 burglar alarm system and covered the stained glass windows with plywood--among them memorial windows to Joe E. Lewis, Sophie Tucker and theatrical agent Joe Glaser.

On November 29, 2006, Campbell Robertson of The New York Times wrote, "Recently--say, oh, during the last half-century--this temple, with a declining membership and a vanishing budget, has not been doing so well."  In a desperate attempt to buoy its finances, the members of Congregation Ezrath Israel had decided to offer its auditorium as an Off Broadway venue.  The first play, The Big Voice: God or Merman?, opened on November 30, 2006.

It had not been an easy decision.  Congregation members discussed--and fought--it for more than a year.  Member Rich Schussel explained, "There was, first of all, the fundamental question of whether it was appropriate to open an active temple to show business.  And then the practical matters: if a show has a big, immovable set, what do you do for Friday and Saturday services?"

Vice president of the board, Mike Libien, said, "Not everyone was happy about it."  But, given the financial situation, "we really had no choice."

Nearly two decades later, the unlikely bedfellows continue to coexist as Congregation Ezrath Israel and the Actors' Temple Theater.

photograph by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The 1907 Rhineland Court - 244 Riverside Drive

photograph by Deansfa

The last quarter of the 19th century saw magnificent mansions rise along Riverside Drive.  Mary Alicia Vanderbilt La Bau lived at 244 Riverside Drive at the southeast corner of 97th Street.  Born in 1834, she was one of five daughters of Cornelius Vanderbilt I.  She died in her mansion on August 16, 1902.

In 1906, Robert T. Lyons purchased the plot.  The well-established architect now added real estate developer to his resume.  On January 19 he announced he would erect a "six-story, high-class apartment house" on the site.

The Rhineland Court cost Lyons $200,000 to construct, or about $6.69 million in 2024.  The six-story, Renaissance Revival style structure was faced in yellow brick above a rusticated stone base.  The entrance was recessed far back within the deep court that divided the two wings and provided light and ventilation to interior rooms.  Apartment Houses of the Metropolis said:

Apartments are laid out three on a floor, in suites of five, seven and nine rooms.  The nine-room apartments have two baths, the five and seven-room suites one bath and extra servants' toilet.  They are equipped with all the latest conveniences.  Laundry and drying room in basement, garbage closets in kitchens, long distance telephone in each apartment.

Rents ranged from $1,000 to $2,300 per year--about $6,500 a month for the most expensive by 2024 conversion.

Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, 1907 (copyright expired)

Among the initial residents was its architect and builder, Robert T. Lyons, and his bride, Annabel Koepfel.  Annabel had worked in Lyons's office and the couple's marriage did not sit well with Lyons's wealthy mother.  The New York Press explained that the architect married Annabel, "in December 1906, without his mother's consent.  Simultaneously he quitted his mother's home."  Immediately, the son and mother began a years-long series of court battles over property.  Lyons claimed ownership of fifty percent of the real estate his father had left in 1897, and Mary Lyons claimed her son had misappropriated the funds she had entrusted to him to maintain those buildings.  The New York Press, on April 26, 1910, attributed the ugly dispute to "his marriage to a poor girl against his mother's wishes."

In the meantime, Rhineland Court was home to Lew Dockstader and his wife, the former Lucin Brown.  A vaudeville star especially well-known for his minstrel troupe, Dockstader was born George Alfred Clapp in 1856.  He legally changed his name in 1887.

Lew Dockstader, from the collection of the New York Public Library

The vaudevillian received a scare on  June 23, 1910.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Lew Dockstader, the minstrel, who lives at No. 244 Riverside Drive, was knocked down by a delivery wagon on Broadway, near 46th street, about 7 o'clock last evening."  A policeman helped Dockstader to his feet.  He was not seriously injured and refused to make a complaint against the wagon driver.

More typical of the residents were Charles W. H. Kirchhoff and his wife Virginia.  Born in San Francisco in 1853, Kirchhoff had graduated from the Royal School of Mines in Clausthal, Germany with a degree in mining engineering and metallurgy.  In addition to editing professional journals like The Iron Age and The Engineering and Mining Journal, he was general manager of the David Williams Co., and was a special agent for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1883 to 1906.  

Charles W. H. Kirchhoff, Engineering News, July 27, 1916 (copyright expired)

The Kirchhoffs' summer home was in Asbury Park, New Jersey.  In 1911, the couple were among the 12 families living in Rhineland Court who were listed in Dau's New York Social Bluebook.  Virginia Kirchhoff died in the couple's apartment  that year on December 21, at the age of 83.  Charles Kirchhoff survived her by nearly five years, dying at the Asbury Park residence on July 23, 1916.

Resident Maurice E. Shearer returned to 244 Riverside Drive following his service with the United States Marine Corps in World War I.  He received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1919 for "extraordinary heroism in action in the Bois de Belieau, France, June 25, 1918."  The Congressional paperwork recalled, 

He displayed conspicuous courage, going forward at the head of his command during the attack.  Personally going along the front line after the objective had been reached, he encouraged his men and directed the repulse of a counterattack by the enemy.  During the encounter his battalion took over 200 prisoners and 19 machine guns.

Moving into the building around the time of Shearer's award were Joseph Charles Rowan and his wife Cora Cook.  An attorney, Rowan graduated from Columbia Law School in 1891.  He was also a director and trustee in banks and other businesses, including the West Side Savings Bank.  Shortly after moving into Rhineland Court, Rowan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from March 4, 1919 to March 4, 1921.  Following his term in office he returned to his private law practice.

Congressman Joseph Rowan and his wife retained their apartment here during his term in Washington DC.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

A tragic incident touched the lives of Robert and Annabel Lyons in 1921.  Their chauffeur's wife, Emma Torshio, underwent an operation to remove a cancerous tumor that year but, unfortunately, her doctors said "she had not long to live," according to the Dobbs Ferry New York Register.  Emma was admitted to the private sanitarium of Dr. Alice Bugbee in White Plains.  There, on September 6, she committed suicide by jumping from her window.  The Register mentioned that her husband, "S. Torshio [is the] Japanese chauffeur for a family named Lyons, of 244 Riverside drive, New York."

The following month, two other residents, John Bayard Pruyn and his wife Edith, were touched by tragedy.  Pruyn was a classmate, close friend and law partner of Charles White Whittlesey.  In 1917, Whittlesey took a leave from their law practice to join the U.S. Army.  He was promoted to major in September 1917 and put in command of the 77th Division (composed largely of soldiers from New York City).  The division was involved in the massive American attack on the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region on October 2, 1918.  Whittlesey and his men were cut off from their supply lines and pinned down for days.  War correspondents tagged the unit the "Lost Battalion."

In the end, of Whittlesey's 554 troops, 107 were killed, 63 were missing and 190 were wounded.  Only 194 could climb out of the ravine on their own.  Although Whittlesey was highly decorated, was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and returned to New York a hero, the weight of the experience was too much.  

On November 24, 1921, Whittlesey boarded to S. S. Toloa headed for Cuba.  Two nights later, after writing several letters, he walked to the railing of the ship and plunged overboard to his death.  One of the letters was to John Bayard Pruyn.  It said in part:

Dear Bayard,
    Just a note to say goodby.  I'm a misfit by nature and by training and there's an end of it...I won't try to say anything personal, Bayard, because you and I understand each other.  Give my love to Edith.
                                As ever, Charles Whittlesey

Whittlesey made Pruyn his executor and the letter detailed practical matters like his bank balances, outstanding bills, life insurance policies and where to find them, and such.  It was left to Pruyn to notify Whittlesey's parents and other relatives of his death.

The original floorplans reveal sprawling apartments.  Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, 1907 (copyright expired)

A colorful resident was Harriet Gill Rowley, who lived in the apartment of her daughter, Lillian B. Crowell, and son-in-law.  On September 1, 1919, The New York Times called her, "probably the oldest woman voter in New York City."  Born in 1832, Harriet's first foray into politics, according to the article, was in 1840 when she helped decorate a float on which she rode in a parade for the Presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison.  She was eight years old at the time.    

Because her father was active in politics, she listened in on discussions in their parlor among men like Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bayard Taylor.  Later, she became close friends with pioneer suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  In the aftermath of World War I, she recalled that even though President Andrew Johnson, "was not equal to the responsibility," things returned to normal.  "It will not be so now, unless President Wilson handles his problems better than he has been doing," she told The New York Times reporter.

Three years after the article, on November 24, 1922, Harriet Gill Rowley died at the age of 91.   In her obituary, The New York Times recalled her admonitions to women voters, one of which was, "vote on election day, no matter what you must neglect in order to do it."

Resident Joseph L. Lyons was one of the leading real estate operators in Manhattan.  On March 6, 1930, The New York Sun reported that he and mezzo-soprano Carmela Ponselle had announced their engagement.  Born Carmela Anna Ponzillo on June 7, 1887, Lyons's future bride had started her career with her sister, Rosa Ponselle, as The Ponzillo Sisters.  Both would later join the Metropolitan Opera, Carmela debuting in Aida in 1925.

James Johnson's residency here ended on October 30, 1935 when he was sent to Sing Sing prison.  The 24-year-old "had winning ways with women and profited by them," according to The New York Sun.  He was found guilty of marrying Fae Fennamore in Brooklyn on September 30, 1928, and then marrying Rae Green in Manhattan on June 20, 1935.  The article said, "the first wife heard about the second marriage and had Johnson arrested."

photograph by the author

No longer called Rhineland Court, in 1951 244 Riverside Drive was renovated.  There were now between seven and eleven apartments per floor, a configuration that remains.

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Monday, June 17, 2024

The Lost Lyceum Theatre - Fourth Avenue near 23rd Street


photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

William Y. Mortimer leased a 50-foot-wide parcel on the west side of Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue South) between 23rd and 24th Streets in January 1884 to Philip G. Hubert, Charles W. Clinton, and Michael Brennan for 21 years at a yearly rental of $4,000.  The trio hired the architectural firm of Hubert & Pirsson to design a theater on the site for the American Theatre Company.  Theatrical managers and producers Steele Mackaye, Gustave Frohman, and Franklin Sergeant were the main forces behind the newly formed group.

The three-story structure was completed in 1884 at a cost of $50,000 (about $1.6 million in 2024).  In his 1903 A History of the New York Stage, T. Allston Brown mentioned that it was faced in "finished brick, with freestone trimmings."  Hubert & Pirsson's somber Romanesque Revival stood in stark contrast with Peter Ponnet Wight's exuberant, Venetian Gothic style Academy of Design next door.  The New York Times flatly described the architecture of the Lyceum Theatre as, "nondescript."  

But the reserved facade belied the wondrous interiors.  Calling the Lyceum "richly appointed," The Sun's Guide of New York noted, "the interior decorations were made by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company," and the Memorial History of the City of New-York said the theater "is quite unique in its decorations, which are mainly of artistic colored and jeweled glass."  Tiffany Glass & Decorating worked closely with Thomas Alva Edison, a close friend of Steel Mackaye, in the design.  It would be the first New York theater to be lit entirely by electricity.  "No other theatre in New York resembles the Lyceum," said The Sun's Guide of New York.

There were other innovations, as well.  "It is the only theater in the city without a family circle," noted The Memorial History of the City of New-York.  Of note was the orchestra "frame or box."  When the overture began, the stage curtains opened to reveal the orchestra.  At its completion, "the musicians were hoisted on the automatic elevator clear into the flies, where the bottom of the car made the top part of the proscenium frame," explained the article.  

Steele Mackaye had always intended that the building would also house an acting school.  It was a brilliant scheme, affording him first pick of talented newcomers.  On August 3, 1884, The New York Times noted, "Mr. Mackaye's ability in the line of promoting undeveloped dramatic taste is already well understood."  On the same day (while the building was still under construction), the Morning Journal reported, "Within a fortnight, the new Lyceum Conservatory will begin operations with its first class of one hundred pupils."

Reporters were given a tour of the theater in March 1885, a month before opening night.  The critic from The New York Times was far from pleased.  He said that that upon entering, "the stairs right and left are so quiet, with their wood finished in old English style, that one is unprepared for the coming orgy of Oriental decoration."

Admitting that the design of "Mr. Louis C. Tiffany, the decorator, is in the main a pretty one," the critic went on to pan the sumptuous, colorful auditorium, saying in part:

It takes time to adjust one's faculties to the variety of decoration offered...and you hardly know whether you are in Ceylon or Connecticut.  One has but to raise the eyes to the great cluster of colored globes lit by electricity, and feel one's self once more in the Mosque of Teef-haneh at Afrasiab, so beautifully iridescent are the soft hues that stream therefrom.  They hang like the suspended ostrich eggs in the Tomb of the Prophet.  But one is not safely landed in Mecca before the abstracted eye glides unwarily upon a strictly Hindu bit of decoration, and thus in a moment one is carried 1,000 miles from Araby into furthest India.  Looking back about the front of the gallery, however, one is quickly restored to our own New-York, for who but Mr. Louis C. Tiffany could have dribbled melted lead so frantically over pieces of parti-colored glass like those blue bull's eyes with electric lights behind them, plastered against the brown satin background?  Let us confess, it is a jumble.

The Lyceum Theatre opened on April 6, 1885 with Mackaye's new play Dakolar.  (Admission to the 661-seat venue ranged from 75 cents to 2 dollars.)  The New York Times critic was as uncomplimentary to the play as he had been to the auditorium's décor.  He said it fell far short of what "this public had the right to expect in the first production of the much-trumpeted Lyceum Theatre."

Less than a month later, on May 1, The New York Times reported, "the lines of the Lyceum Theatre do not appear to have been cast in pleasant places, and the creditors of the house are now engaged in looking upon it with rather anxious eyes."  Among those creditors was Louis C. Tiffany.  "His contract for decorations amounted to $50,000, of which $42,000 is still unpaid," said the article.  (The outstanding balance would equal $1.37 million today.)  The article said, "It was expected that Mr. Steele Mackaye's play 'Dakolar' would crowd the house nightly.  The public, however, has not responded."

Louis C. Tiffany & Co. sued the American Theatre Company in July, quickly followed by a suit by Franklin H. Sargent, one of the founders and the instructor of the Lyceum Theatre School.  He claimed $10,000 in unpaid wages.

Actress Helen Dauvray took over management of the theater for two seasons, during which she starred in One of Our Girls, which ran for 200 performances.

Helen Dauvray (seated) and the cast of One of Our Girls in the Lyceum Theatre. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On May 3, 1887, Daniel Frohman, brother of Gustav Frohman, one of the original founders, took over.  Under Frohman, the Lyceum Theatre became one of New York's foremost venues.  In 1892, The Sun's Guide to New York described it as "a richly appointed, carefully arranged house, and a fashionable place of amusement," adding, "The theatre is noted for the rich and tasteful scenic settings, the handsome dresses of the actresses, and the refined character of the plays."

Daniel Frohman's company included stars like E. H. Sothern, Maude Adams and Richard Mansfield.  Upon taking over the Lyceum Theatre, he made a change that elated many theater-goers.  The Record & Guide reported, "Manager Frohman has made quite a hit in trying to induce the lady patrons of the Lyceum Theatre to remove their bonnets before taking seats that would obstruct the view of those sitting behind them.  A good many ladies have complied with the request, and the matter has excited so much discussion in social circles as to make it a very good advertisement for the theatre."

Like One of Our Girls, the play Lord Chumley was a hit.  Written by David Belasco (who worked for years with Frohman here) and Henry Churchill de Mille, it starred Maude Adams and E. H. Sothern.  On August 21, 1888, the drama critic of The New York Times began his review saying,

It is so nice and refreshing to find a play which can be spoken of in an ecstasy of adjectival gushfulness that I feel inclined to toy with it and gloat over it, like a cat does over a newly caught mouse, before I begin to discuss its merits.  Strict consideration for the feelings of others, however, prompts me to restrain myself.

A scene from Lord Chumley  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The play suffered a tragedy a few weeks later.  Charles B. Bishop played the role of Adam Butterworth in Lord Chumley.  Although he was not feeling well on October 8, 1889, he went to the theater as normal.  The New York Times reported, "He was in good humor and pleasantly greeted his associates...He was prominent in the first scene of the play, and was ready at the wings waiting for his cue.  When it came, he went on gayly, and acted the scene through as brightly and spiritedly as he had ever done."

After exiting the stage, he staggered down the stairs to the stage manager's office and fell to the floor.  In less than ten minutes he was dead.  The curtain closed mid-act, and a few seconds later E. H. Sothern notified the audience that Bishop was dead and that the play would not continue.

On December 31, 1901, the New-York Tribune reported that Richard Mortimer, son of William Mortimer, had sold the property to William E. Hebberd.  Although the Tribune's reporter was assured, "It merely means a new ownership, that's all," the journalist noted, "There have been rumors recently that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, of New-York, intended to get the property in order to enlarge its holdings in the block bounded by Madison Square, Fourth-ave., Twenty-third, and Twenty-fourth sts."

 from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Indeed, less than two months later, on February 6, 1902, the newspaper reported, "Title to the Lyceum Theatre property, in Fourth-ave...was recently obtained by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company...It was then announced that this was the Lyceum's last season, at the end of which the building would be torn down."

Demolition of the building began on March 20, 1902.  The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's new building engulfed the 23rd Street blockfront from Madison Avenue to Fourth Avenue, eradicating a score of structures including Wight's magnificent Academy of Design.

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building, seen from Madison Avenue.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Two years later, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company expanded again, filling the rest of the Madison Avenue block with a soaring tower and, in the process, razing another masterful building (one which also had Tiffany interiors), Stanford White's Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Incredible History of 220 West Houston Street


Charles S. Holt incurred the wrath of his neighbors in 1842.  The enterprising "tallow chandler" manufactured soap in the rear yard of his home at 58 Downing Street.  On October 22, 1842, the Mourning Courier reported that he "was tried for a public nuisance, in boiling stinking and rotten meats on the premises occupied by him, No. 58 Downing street, for the purpose of extracting the grease therefrom."  Holt moved his family into the house and store nearly directly behind, at 53 Hamersley Street and established his soap factory next door at 51 Hamersley Street.

Holt remained here at least through 1847.  By 1851, the house and factory were occupied by the Nichol & Merklee iron foundry, run by George F. Merklee and John Nichol.  The upper floors of 53 Hamersley were rented out.  Among the working class tenants in 1853 was James Riley, a seaman.

In 1854, John Nichol partnered with George B. Billerwell and the business was reorganized as Nichol & Billerwell.  The foundry moved east to 33 Hamersley Street, while the firm's offices remained on the ground floor of 53 Hamersley (renamed and numbered 220 West Houston Street in 1861) at least through 1868.  (Interestingly, for one year, in 1863, John Nichol occupied a room upstairs.)

In the rear yard was a secondary house.  In 1855, it was home to Mary Carniaux, a widow; Dennis Farrell and William Nelson, both tailors; and jockey Patrick Tenney.  Ellen and James Tenney, who lived in the main house, were most likely Patrick's parents.  James was a carman and Ellen was a dressmaker.  Also living in the main house were Catherine, the widow of Thomas G. Smith; and carpenter John A. Jones.

Despite what must have been tight conditions, when a respected policeman died in January 1870, his funeral was held in his rooms.  On January 15, the New-York Tribune reported, "The funeral of Se'rgt. O'Connor took place from his late residence No. 220 West Houston-st., at 10 a.m. yesterday, and was largely attended.  The coffin was borne upon the shoulder of the deceased's immediate friends, members of the force, and a platoon of the Twenty-eighth Precinct followed the remains to St. Patrick's Cathedral."

James M. Clark opened his wheelwright (wagon and carriage repair) shop on the ground floor in 1879.  He remained for a decade, after which it became the headquarters of D. I. Christie & Co.  David I. Christie owned the stables next door, as well as livery stables throughout the city and even in Paterson, New Jersey.

At the turn of the century, the neighborhood around 220 West Houston Street was part of what newspapers called the "Italian colony."  Living here in 1904 was Francesco Bagnasco, a waiter.  Early on the morning of October 12, he was found by police on the sidewalk at Macdougal Street and Minetta Lane "almost unconscious from the loss of blood," according to the New-York Tribune.  A long cut had been slashed on both cheeks with a cross carved under them.  One of the policeman thought they "were the work of some Italian secret society."

Collier's magazine said Bagnasco "refused to say where the assault occurred or who were his assailants."  Detectives followed a blood trail "for more than a mile through downtown streets, to the Italian colony east of Broadway, and finally to the door of a tenement house at No. 159 Elizabeth-st.," reported the Tribune.  "They learned nothing there, however."

D. I. Christie remained here at least through 1915.  In 1930 the ground floor was converted to a restaurant, the second floor to a social club, and the third to an office.  In 1963, the Lodge Restaurant, run by Vincent H. Petti, occupied the ground floor and the Knickerbocker Council of the Knights of Columbus was on the second floor.  It remained through 1969, after which a much different tenant moved in.

 A luncheonette occupied the ground floor in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The space became the 220 Club, run by Sal "Sally" Maggio and Jesse Torres.  In his 2014 The Life & Music of Lou Reed, Jeremy Reed describes the 220 Club as, "one of the most famous of the transgender/gay nightclubs of the early seventies," noting,

The 220 Club...was the principal venue for the transgender crowd, a distinction later shared by its upgrades, the Greenwich Pub, Sally's Hideaway and later Sally's II.  Sally's partner, Jesse Torres, a femme queen also, was a significant glam attraction at the 220 Club, dragging it up as hostess manager.

A regular at the 220 Club was musician and songwriter Lou Reed of the The Velvet Underground.  According to Will Hermes in his Lou Reed - The King of New York, the songs Sally Can't Dance and Ride, Sally, Ride were, "likely a wink to Sal 'Sally' Maggio."

A trip to the 220 Club had its risks.  Patrons were routinely mugged or worse.  On December 6, 1977, The Villager reported, "At 3:30 am on November 27, a male resident of Long Island was standing in front of 220 West Houston Street when seven men jumped him, assaulted him, taking $300 in cash, credit cards, and wallet."  Three months later, on January 12, 1978, the newspaper reported, "a Queens resident was reportedly robbed of $3,050 by a couple in the bathroom of the 220 Club, an after hours club at 220 West Houston Street."  The article said, "the victim was apparently confronted by the woman who propositioned him and then was joined by her male accomplice.  Both escaped."  Numerous, similar crimes were reported throughout the 1980s.

The Ganymede Gallery opened here in 1992.  That year in April, it presented "Men by Women," which The New York Times described as "art about men by eight women."  Three months later, an exhibition of photographs by "fifty people living with HIV/Aids," according to New York Magazine, was staged.

In the summer of 1994, Toukie Smith, sister of designer Willi Smith, opened the restaurant Toukie's here.  Jane Freiman of Newsday said, "If her cooking is as tasty as Willi Wear's clothes were timeless, I'll be a fan."  Smith was also known as "a model, an actress and a significant other of the actor Robert De Niro," mentioned Florence Fabricant of The New York Times on September 14.  Smith donated a portion of the profits to the Smith Family Foundation, which benefited people with AIDS, "and honors her brother Willi Smith, the designer, who died of the disease in 1987," said Fabricant.

Toukie's was replaced by Bar Cichetti in 1998, which made way for Brooklyneer in 2011.  Ironically, by 2013 the second floor-- once infamous for after-hours drug and alcohol use--became home to the Midnite Group, an Alcoholics Anonymous organization.

many thanks to reader Jason Kessler for suggesting this post
photographs by the author
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Friday, June 14, 2024

Lafayette A. Goldstone's 1930 19 Rector Street (88 Greenwich Street)


photo by ZeligJr

In 1929, months before the Stock Market crash that would usher in the Great Depression, the Gening Realty Corporation broke ground for what was intended to be a 40-story office building at the southwest corner of Rector and Greenwich Streets.  Gening Realty Corporation was described as a "syndicate representing the General Realty & Utilities Company and A. M. Bing & Son."  On March 11, 1930, the New York Sun reported that General Realty & Utilities had financed a $3.35 million building loan for the project--a significant $61 million in 2024.

The article noted, "The forty-story building under construction at 19 Rector street [is] from plans by Lafayette A. Goldstone."  Goldstone had dissolved his partnership with William L. Rouse in 1926.  The highly successful firm of Rouse & Goldstone had designed dozens of substantial Manhattan buildings, most of them apartment houses.

By the time construction was completed later that year, the plans had been scaled back to 35 floors of offices and a penthouse apartment.  (In 1936, the penthouse was converted to offices, as well.)  Goldstone's Art Deco skyscraper was clad in beige brick above a two-story limestone base.  Numerous asymmetrical setbacks at the upper levels provided several terraces.

The two-story base, see here in 1939, is only moderately changed today.  photo from the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection of the Library of Congress

Despite the ongoing Depression, the offices filled with tenants.  Louis W. Abrons, the president of General Realty & Utilities Corporation, told the New York Sun in May 1933, "It is interesting to note that the leading applicants for space comprise, in addition to members of the Stock Exchange and Curb Exchange, accountants and firms associated with railroads and steamship lines."  

Typical was the brokerage firm John L. Morgenthau & Co.  It was headed by millionaire John L. Morgenthau, the nephew of former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau.  The firm had its offices in the building as early as 1932.  Among the few tenants not involved with brokerage or shipping were the Reynolds Metals Company and Dobbins-Trinity Coal, Inc.  In 1938 the Waterman Steamship Agency, Ltd. leased the entire 19th floor.  

Engineers with The H. K. Ferguson Company work at drafting tables in 1947 (top), while clerical workers occupy the mid-century equivalent of work cubicles.  The firm, which had branch offices in Cleveland and Houston, was industrial engineers and builders.  photo from the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection of the Library of Congress

The tenant list became more diverse after mid-century.  The 1950s continued to see shipping related firms like the American Railway Institute and the Pearl Assurance Company here.  But the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company occupied offices by 1951, and in 1959 Wood & Selick Coconut Co., Inc. and the Camp Fire Club of America were tenants.

By 1960, a major tenant was the New York Telephone Company.  Among its employees was chief telephone investigator Harold A. McElroy.  Among his responsibilities was performing court ordered wiretaps on suspected criminals.  

Late in 1961, McElroy was visited by Police Captain Anthony Obremski, who, according to McElroy, "identified himself as the new commander of the Third Division (Midtown)" and asked for his cooperation.  He told McElroy, "the third Division had a fund to compensate those who gave the police valuable information and that Mr. McElroy would get $100 a month," as reported by The New York Times.

Obremski telephoned McElroy "from time to time," who then supplied him with confidential information obtained through wiretaps.  Once a month a plainclothes officer would meet McElroy in the hallways of 19 Rector Street to slip him his $100.  He told investigators later, as reported by The New York Times, "he had not regarded the payoffs as bribes.  He said he had not reported them on his income tax forms because he looked upon them as gratuities, for helping the police cut corners."

In fact, Obremski was misusing the information being collected for legitimate NYPD investigations.  He was later arrested and charged with using "information about wiretaps to protect bookmakers who were paying graft and to shake down others," said The New York Times on August 11, 1964.  McElroy was suspended from his job but avoided prosecution by testifying.

In 1972 the West Side Highway Project moved into offices on the sixth floor here.  On April 23, The New York Times said, "An unusual amalgam of city, state and private talent is quietly at work here, drawing up plans for a new West Side Highway."  The planners were "quiet," said the article, "because opposition to some earlier proposals has been fierce."

Two years later, on March 26, 1974, The New York Times reported, "Despite protests from community planners, key state and city officials appeared ready yesterday to press for Federal designation of the entire Hudson shore corridor from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge as an interstate expressway route."  The project included replacing the "dilapidated elevated highway," and was the first step in the massive redevelopment of the Hudson riverfront.

In 1997, 19 Rector Street was purchased by Greystone Management.  On the evening of December 23, it "brought its own nonunion workers to the building," reported The New York Times.  "When the regular maintenance crew showed up a few hours later, they found that their jobs had been eliminated."  The 25 workers, some who had worked in the building for more than two decades, found themselves unemployed two days before Christmas.  The article continued, "The displaced workers said Greystone offered them applications for jobs with no sick time, virtually no benefits and lower wages--$8 an hour, compared with $15."

Importantly, the article mentioned, "The 37-story [sic] Art Deco building, built in the 1920's [sic], reportedly will be gutted and turned into condominiums."  Two years later, on November 21, 1999, the newspaper began an article saying, "Just when it seemed there couldn't be another conversion from office to residential in the Financial District, developers announced that a former office tower, an Art Deco skyscraper at 88 Greenwich Street, is being turned into rental apartments."  For some reason, the developers, The World-Wide Group, had decided to change the address.

The article said they, "are gutting the 38-story [sic] building at Rector Street, making 461 apartments."  Costing $100 million, the reconstruction actually resulted in 452 units.

A year after the building's opening, the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.  Residents were faced with health hazards, difficulty in access to the building, and curtailed services.  On October 1, the tenants voted to go on a rent strike, "demanding break [sic] leases and to get reduced rents," reported The New York Times.  A class-action suit was proposed, based not only on the health and services concerns, but "on emotional issues."  A lawyer for tenant David Frazer told the reporter, "I want that mother who called with kids whose window looks out over the disaster site.  I want to put her before the judge."

In 2006 the building was converted to condominiums, called Greenwich Club.  Its residents would face another disaster in October 2012--Hurricane Sandy.  According to The New York Times, the storm's floodwaters, "dislodged an oil tank, which hit a ceiling beam and cracked open, necessitating a major cleanup."  In reporting on the downtown damages on December 5, MetroNews said the building "may not be habitable for months."

At least one resident, Jonathan Stark, went to court, filing a $35 million lawsuit in November.  The New York Times reported he accused "the board and managers of failing to safeguard the building against floods they knew were coming, then blocked residents' attempts to file insurance claims.  Managers have told residents they could not return for four months."  Repairs were eventually completed and the building reopened in January 2013.

In June 2016, the 9/11 Tribute Center moved into the ground floor of 88 Greenwich Street.  It had been located at 120 Liberty Street since 2006.

photograph by Tdorante10

Having survived a three devastating events--a depression, a terrorist attack, and a natural disaster--Lafayette A. Goldstone's Art Deco skyscraper survives nearly unchanged externally.

many thanks to author and reader Laurie Gwen Shapiro for requesting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog