Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Merwin, Hulbert Building - 26 West 23rd Street

The 27-foot wide residence erected by William P. Earle at No. 26 East 23rd Street in 1853 was intended for a wealthy family.   It would sit among the mansions of millionaires like Benjamin Nathan, William Schermerhorn, James Constable and Charles A. Baudouine.  It is unclear if Earle, who was both an architect and a builder, lived in the new house.  It was one of many properties his family would own for decades.

Whoever moved in, they came to an amicable parting of ways with one servant soon after.  She placed an advertisement in The New York Herald on April 3, 1854 that read: "Wanted--By a respectable young woman, a situation as a seamstress, in a private family.  She understands perfectly all kinds of plain sewing and is very handy with her needle.  Can be seen for two days at her present employer's, No. 26 West Twenty-third street."

The decade following the end of the Civil War saw significant change along West 23rd Street.  One-by-one the ground floors of once lavish homes were being converted to commercial spaces.  In 1875 the upper floors of No. 26 were being operated as a boarding house.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on September 10 that year offered "A suit of elegant rooms.  Also single rooms to let, at No. 26 West Twenty third street, with first class Board, to families and gentlemen."

The following year W. H. Lee was running his furniture store from the English basement level.  Before the decade ended a cast iron facade would replace the brownstone, completely disguising the fact that the property had once been an upscale home.

In January 1887 William P. Earle modernized the structure by hiring N. Le Brun & Son to do interior renovations, including installing a shaft for a new elevator.  Three months later, on April 1, Merwin, Hulbert & Co. signed a lease for "the entire store, building and premises known and distinguished as No. 26 West Twenty-third Street."  The annual rent reflected the bustling commercial thoroughfare that West 23rd Street had become.  The $11,500 per year rent would top $300,000 today.

The firm was formed in 1876 by Joseph Merwin and William and Milan Hulbert.  It designed and manufactured firearms as well as importing firearms and related goods.  By the time the company moved into the 23rd Street building, it had diversified into sporting goods--like the rabidly-popular bicycle.

The firm not only marketed guns, but sporting goods like Indian Clubs and Boxing Gloves.

Joseph Merwin died in 1888, only months after signing the lease.  On January 1, 1892 the company name was changed to Hulbert Brothers & Company.  

The bicycling craze, known as wheeling, swept the nation.  Club of "wheelmen" were organized and wheelers of both sexes filled the paths and drives of city parks.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

On August 3, 1888 Merwin, Hulbert & Co. took out a full-page ad in The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review announcing that a representative of Gormully & Jeffrey Mfg. Co. of Chicago, "the largest Cycle Manufacturers in this Country" would be in its showrooms for the next two weeks.  The purpose of his visit was "to illustrate practically to all wheelmen who will call, the Great Superiority of the 'American Cycles' over all others."  The announcement urged "Wheelmen, give us a call while Mr. Schaaf is here"

Bicycling was not an inexpensive hobby.  This "Roadster" cost the equivalent of nearly $2,400 today.  Good Roads magazine, July 1893, (copyright expired)
By the spring of 1896 Hulbert Brothers & Co. had branched out into sports apparel as well.  An advertisement in the Corland Evening Standard on March 7 that year not only marketed the Mesinger Rattan Saddle ("correct for stead riding resting or scorching") and the Hulbert Pneumatic Brake, but the Hulbert Bicycle Skirt.  The ad promised that the innovative apparel could "change from riding to walking length in a second."

The diversification may have had to do with shaky business.  The Financial Panic of 1893 had caused the failure of banks and businesses nationwide.  In 1894 Hulbert Brothers had declared bankruptcy and in 1896 closed its doors.

The store now became home to society stationers Dempsey & Carroll.  The company provided high-end calling cards, menus, dinner cards (the beautifully-inscribed table tents or cards which announced which guests sat where), invitations and other indispensable paper goods to Manhattan socialites.  On May 8, 1900 the New-York Tribune commented "For the rush of June weddings which New-Yorkers will witness this year Dempsey & Carroll, the well known artistic stationers have prepared several new forms of fashionable invitation cards."

The Evening Telegram, October 13, 1900 (copyright expired)

In fact, the following year, on October 13, 1901, the newspaper said "to many readers of The Tribune 'marriage' has come to be associated with the firm of Dempsey & Carroll...Few persons have any idea of the scope and magnitude of this business or of the many stage through which, for instance, a simple order for a visiting card goes, and the care given at every point to its artistic execution."

That year Dempsey & Carroll published an illustrated booklet that guided the novice through the intricacies of social etiquette related to cards and stationery.  It included "the correct forms for marriage invitations, card and announcements, [with] examples beautifully engraved being given from the immense number prepared every season."

A rather unusual tenant upstairs at the time was Woodbury, who seems to have cautiously avoided the title "doctor."  His advertisement in The Evening Telegram on October 13, 1900 assured the reader that he had "studied the skin for 30 years."  His expertise was not only the curing "pimples, blackheads and eruptions" (which were "a sure sign of wrong living"), but the patient's inherit personality flaws.  

"A pug nose means a pert, saucy nature--one quick to take offence; suppose Woodbury changes the pug to a prepossessing aquiline?  A mole on the right foot indicates wisdom.  If Woodbury removes the mole will you know less?"

In August 1902 the estate of William P. Earle leased the building "for a long term of years" at annual rent of $25,000--or around $735,000 today.   The tenant was the Hyde Exploring Expedition company, marketers of Native American crafts.

The buying agents for the Hyde Exploring Expedition Indian Goods store negotiated with Native Americans, like the Louisana Chitimacha tribe, which produced baskets sold in the 23rd Street store.   The firm also published The Papoose here, a magazine that not only advertised its products, but ran articles about Native American life, culture and arts.

While, arguably, The Hyde Exploring Expedition exploited the Native American craftsmen, most notably the women who wove the textiles and baskets; The Papoose lobbied for their better treatment.  And yet the inherent racism of the early 20th century seeped into even those laudable efforts.  In the April 1903 issue, for instance, and article entitled "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" said in part:

The negro was here of our own bringing.  What of the Indian?  His was the broad land by right of ownership, and the coming of the white man wrested the land from his grasp by right or might.  Our great and good government takes care of the negro, appoints him to office, places him in high positions, gives to him authority over his onetime masters.  What of the Indian?  What return is given his for the rights wrested from him?...He is subjected to the humiliation of receiving alms at the hands of his captors.

Prices for authentic Native American goods were not cheap.  Navajo blankets in 1903 were priced at as much as $50; more than $1,400 today.  Baskets were more affordable, going for about $5.

Moccasins were marketed as "The Ideal House Slipper."  The Papoose, May 1903 (copyright expired)

The Hyde Exploring Expedition would remain in the building until 1907 when the Earle estate leased it to Ferrin & Co.  Run by Louis V. Ferrin and Louis A. Doullet, they sublet spaces to several tenants, such as the Van Orden Corset Co. and the Perrin Glove Store.

New-York Tribune, October 13 1907 (copyright expired)
The Perrin Glove Store provided ladies with the various types of gloves necessary for different social events.  In the summer of 1908 a pair of "20-button silk gloves" were priced at $2.25 (nearly $62 today); while 16-button gloves were slightly less expensive at $1.75.   The store also offered stockings: "Women's fine thread Silk black, tan and colors, double sole, heel and toe" for $2.25.

Both women's and men's winter wardrobes required furs and in 1910 the Hudson Bay Importing Co. moved in.   Founded in 1890, the company proclaimed "We sell furs and furs only."  

Because of that, the selling season for Hudson Bay Importing Company ran from about September through January.  As the selling season drew to an end in its new home, the firm announced its "clearance sale" on January 15, 1911.  "Everything must go and will go, and is sure to go.  We carry no furs over; $500,000 of the finest furs at clearance sale prices."

Included in the sale were "minks, sables, fishers, raccoon, ermine, fox, silver fox, &c., &c."  Still left in stock to be liquidated were a few Caracul Coats, "52-inch garments--the latest Parisian models--lined with heavy brocade; jewelled buttons" and Black Fox Sets, described as the "most magnificent shawl or animal scarf and beautiful pillow muff."  The coats had been priced earlier at $150 (about $4,000 today) and were now half price.

The store was restocked for the coming season by the end of summer.  A Hudson Bay Company ad in The Evening Telegram on September 24 announced "An Exhibition of Furs (new models) at their New Building 26 West 23d Street."

The firm remained here until December 1918 when it, like so many high-end retailers, moved northward along Fifth Avenue.  Its advertisement in The Evening Telegram that month announced its entire $650,000 stock would be sold for $325,000 in a three-day sale.

The building's owners, now Daby & Co., Inc., hired architect Harry Hurwitz to completely remodel the architecturally dated structure.  His plans called for "addition of one story, mezzanine balcony and general alterations."  The "general alterations" included an entire new front.

Completed in 1920, the $20,000 in renovations resulted in a clean, white terra cotta facade, now six stories tall.  Vast expanses of glass flooded the interior spaces.  Hurwitz gave the building a neo-Tudor touch with a crenellated parapet and heraldic terra cotta shield.

New tenants included the French Merchandise Company, which took the third floor in May 1920, and James M. Shaw, pottery, glass and china dealer.  Shaw's was typical of the stores along the block which had become the center of the china and glass district.  Next door, at No. 18, for instance, Charles Hall, Inc. took over the entire building the same year for his "china, glassware and general household goods," store.

Among the best known of these firms was Theodore Haviland & Co.  Founded by American importer David Haviland in the 1830's, it expanded into manufacturing when David moved to France in 1842.  The American set up his factory in Limoges, turning out high-end porcelain products which he shipped back to American to be sold by his brothers.

In 1891 Charles Edward Haviland and his brother, Theodore, had parted ways.  Two years later Theodore Haviland began his own firm, known as Theodore Haviland, Limoges.  The siblings and their respective companies were bitter rivals until Charles's death in 1921.

Theodore Haviland & Co. was in No. 26 at least by 1926 and would remain here for decades catering to the carriage trade, even while other china stores moved up Fifth Avenue.  Finally, in 1951, it too relocated.

The "H" in the shield was most likely added after Haviland moved into the building.
The 23rd street block was no longer a fashionable shopping area, as reflected in the new tenant at No. 26.  On February 23, 1952 Billboard magazine announced "Mills Sales Company, after 26 years, has decided to move uptown to the heart of the novelty and toy district.  Their new home will be located at 26 West 23d Street (fourth floor) where they will occupy larger quarters."  

Mills Sales Company dealt in cheap "novelties, gifts, sundries, toys and housewares."  It would remain here for several years, advertising in Billboard on June 23, 1956 as "Cut Rate Wholesalers since 1916."  That ad touted "magic rain bonnets in plastic pouch."  A dozen would cost the buyer $1.50.

A renovation completed in 1986 resulted in offices above the ground floor store.  Whatever Harry Hurwitz's store front was in his 1920 re-do, there is nothing left of it today.  Nevertheless, the surprising and romantic terra cotta commercial building survives essentially intact since then.

photographs by the author

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Levi Onderdonk House - 90 Charles Street

Although city directories listed Levi Onderdonk as "carpenter," he was in fact an established builder, or contractor, and well-respected citizen.  By 1843 he was a manager of the New-York City Tract Society, a position he would hold for at least a decade; and was repeatedly re-elected as Assessor of the 9th Ward.

In 1847 Onderdonk erected his own residence at No. 78 Charles Street, a handsome 25-foot wide Greek Revival frame home with a brick front.   The iron fencing that protected the areaway in front of the rusticated brownstone basement, and the newels and railings of the stoop were engaging examples of the Greek Revival style.

Stylized Greek key designs decorated the areaway fencing.  Note the boot-scrapers on either side of second step of the stoop--installed to prevent mud being tracked into the house.

Onderdonk embellished the single-doored entrance with sidelights and transom, and paneled pilasters with Greek neo-Classical capitals.  The openings most likely were originally trimmed in brownstone, and a simple, dentiled fascia board ran below the cornice.

Onderdonk included his residential address in his advertisement.  New-York: Past, Present, and Future, 1851 (copyright expired)
Levi Onderdonk's second job as Assessor added significantly to the household income.  His "officer's fee" in 1853 was $575--or about $19,300 today.  He additionally served on the board of the LaFarge Insurance Company.

Onderdonk and his wife, the former Catherine Stevens, had a daughter, Maria.  The family maintained a summer home in Rockland County, New York.  It appears that the Onderdonks decided to move there permanently in 1853.

In March that year Onderdonk placed an advertisement in The New York Herald offering "the three story brick house and lot No. 78 Charles street" for sale.  A buyer seems to have been found by summer's end.  With her position coming to an end, the Onderdonk's servant began job-hunting in October.  "Wanted--By a respectable steady woman, a situation as cook; is a good washer and ironer.  Can produce excellent testimonials as to character.  Please call at 78 Charles street, in the basement, for two days."

The family's decision to relocate to the country may have been prompted by Maria's health.  She died in the Rockland County house only a few months after the move.

By the early 1870's No. 78 was home to William and Jane C. Little.  They too, apparently, had a country house, theirs in New Bedford, New Jersey.  It was there on Saturday, August 31, 1872 that the Littles' youngest child, Mary Maitland Little, died.  Her funeral was held in the Charles Street house on September 3.

It is unclear if was the Littles who were leasing rooms in the house the following year.  In any case, a couple renting here was looking for new accommodations in October 1873.  Their ad read "Wanted--By a gentleman and wife, a second floor, unfurnished, in private house, suitable for housekeeping; location between Fourteenth and Thirty-fourth streets and Sixth and Ninth avenues.  Address, stating terms, G. C. C. No. 78 Charles street."

The roomers in 1878 included Agnes Atkinson, who taught in Primary School No. 11 on Vestry Street.  It was about this time that the house was updated with pressed metal cornices above the windows, and another above the doorway which was upheld by up-to-date neo-Grec brackets.

The cosmetic updates did not extend to the handsome Greek Revival entranceway.  A 20th century veneer of brick covers the original.
On February 20, 1897 The New York Times reported that architect Charles Rentz had purchased the "old frame building" at No. 78 Charles Street.  The same day the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide added that he bought it "for improvement."  The term routinely translated to demolition and replacement; but in this case that did not happen.  Instead the No. 78 continued to be operated as a rooming house.

Among the residents in 1916 was the Saigat family.  Early that summer cases of polio, or infantile paralysis, were diagnosed in Brooklyn.  Within weeks it exploded into an epidemic.  Vacationing employees of the Health Department were ordered back by telephone or telegraph.  The scourge took more than 6,000 lives before the end of the year, and left thousands more paralyzed.  On August 28 The New York Times listed Paul Saigat among the new cases.

John R. Williams and his wife, the former Esther M. Tucker, were living here around the time.  John died here on January 7, 1920 and his funeral was held in the house before the casket was taken to nearby St. Joseph's Church on January 10.

Two unmarried women, Margaret Hollingshead and Peggy Darling, rented rooms in the house in 1928.  Margaret was an aspiring graphic artist and Peggy described herself as a "mind reader and model."

Peggy suffered a terrifying incident early on Saturday March 10 that year.  She entered the Charles Street police Station and reported "that a man had forced his way into her apartment at 78 Charles Street and, after threatening her, taken $8 and escaped," according to The New York Times.  Her report was taken by Detective Joseph Sheldrick.

Later that afternoon Sheldrick purchased a new derby; in fact, the first derby he had ever owned.  He was wearing it two days later at the corner of Charles and West Fourth Street when Peggy Darling spotted him.  "She at once screamed for aid and insisted to Patrolman James Lundbergh that Sheldrick was the man who had forced his way into her apartment," reported The Times.  Her loud shouts and her refusal to stop screaming resulted in her arrest for disorderly conduct.

Later in the Jefferson Market Court she admitted to Magistrate Brodsky that "it was the detective's derby hat that had misled her."  She apologized to Sheldrick and her charges were dropped.

Less embarrassing press was earned by Margaret Hollingshead two months later.  Margaret attended Illustration courses at the Cooper Union and on May 23 she was awarded first prize for "design for a booklet" in the school's annual art exhibition.

Despite the hardships of the Great Depression, the house continued to be home to middle-class residents.  Its owner, "Mrs. Montante," took out a second mortgage in 1931 to keep the property.

In 1941 the house looked little different from today.  photo via NYC Department of Records
In 1936 the Charles Street block was renumbered, giving the house its new address of No. 90.  It was owned in 1945 by real estate operator Conrad Bell, Jr., who also lived here.  Bell owned a significant number of properties in Greenwich Village.

Following his graduation from Princeton University in 1945, John Reeve Bermingham rented an apartment in the house.  Known popularly as "Jack," he remained at least through 1952.  Bermingham would go on to be senior management consultant with Lambda Technology.

In 1954 the house was converted to one apartment per floor, including the basement level.  In 1970 the lower two floors were combined to a duplex apartment.  It was most likely at this time that a veneer of unconvincing fake brick was affixed to the real thing.  The brownstone of the basement and of the stoop were faced with a chocolate colored concrete substance.

photographs by the author

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Wilmerding House - 18 East 77th Street

The regrettable alteration of the fifth floor resulted in a bunker-like appearance. Two stone urns do not help much.

Lucius Kellogg Wilmerding was born in Moscow, New York on March 19, 1848.  The New York Times would later mention that he was a "member of a family long prominent in the social life of New York."  He graduated from Columbia College in 1868.  On December 6, 1876 he married Caroline Maria Murray, daughter of Bronson and Ann Peyton Murray.  By now Lucius was a partner in Wilmerding & Bisset, wholesale dealers in linens.  Three children quickly arrived--Edith in 1879, Lucius Jr. in 1880 and Caroline Murray in 1882.  Tragically, little Edith die in 1881.

The Wilmerdings planned a new home in 1896 and purchased the plot at No. 18 East 77th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  Title to domestic property at the time was most often placed in the name of the wife; so when architects Clinton & Russell filed plans on May 23, it was Caroline who was listed as owner.  The plans called for a five-story dwelling with a mansard slate roof.  The cost of the 25-foot wide house was estimated at just over $600,000 in today's dollars.

The limestone-faced house was completed in 1897.  Generally neo-Renaissance in design, it was liberally splashed with Beaux Arts elements, not the least of which was the dormered mansard roof hiding behind a stone balustrade.  The double-doored entrance within the rusticated base sat below an elaborate fanlight.  Festoons of full-blown roses draped over its ornate keystone.  A glass and iron marquee protected the visitors from the elements.

Architectural Record, July 1897 (copyright expired)

The decoration of the upper floors was reserved.  Blind stone balustrades sat below the second floor openings and branches of oak leaves spilled from behind the keystones at the third.  Between the fourth floor windows was a carved coat-of-arms.

The Wilmerdings were well-known in the upper levels of Manhattan society.  Their country home was at East Islip, Long Island.  Caroline's sister, Olivia, was married to millionaire William Bayard Cutting and the sisters often appeared at weddings and other social functions together.

Katherine Arthur Behenna painted this miniature of Caroline around 1890. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society. 
It was not surprising, therefore, that when daughter Caroline's introduction to society approached, her aunt threw her a lavish dance on December 21, 1900.  The New-York Tribune called it a "notable occurrence" and noted "The dance was preceded by four dinner parties given by Mrs. Wilmerding, Mrs. Robert Fulton Cutting, Mrs. William Douglas Sloane and Mrs. Hamilton McKay Twombly, who brought on their guests."

The Cuttings' and Wilmerdings' social importance was evidenced by the guest list.  Among social royalty attending that evening were John Jacob Astor and his wife, the Edmund Baylies, James J. Van Alen and his daughters, the Stuyvesant Fishes, and Mrs. Ogden Goelet and her daughter.

Caroline's parents hosted another debutante dance in the 77th Street house on January 19.  Three months later, on April 17, she and her parents would sail to London to attend the wedding of her cousin, William Bayard Cutting, Jr., to Lady Sybil Cuffe, daughter of Lord and Lady Desart.

Before long the Wilmerdings would spend much of their time in Europe--enough to prompt them to lease their furnished townhouse for extended periods.  As the family prepared to sail to Paris in November 1904 Lucius rented it to William G. Roelker.

While in France Caroline hired a maid, Marie Mioland.  The arrangement was so successful that Marie agreed to return to New York.  They arrived on the steamship Baltic on March 25, 1905 and the Wilmerding carriage was awaiting them.  The New-York Tribune reported "Not having room for the maid, they called a public cab for her.  With her were piled a lot of the family's personal effects."  The plan resulted in a terrific scare for the Wilmerdings.

As was customary, they did not go directly home--the house would have to be prepared for their arrival.  Instead they were taken to the Hotel Buckingham where they awaited Marie's arrival.  When an hour passed, Lucius began to worry.  Along with the missing maid were "a lot of his personal property, a dress suit case and a box of silverware valued at $2,000."

Two and a half more hours passed before the cab pulled up to the hotel.  The newspaper explained "The woman had been taken by mistake to the Manhattan Hotel, and it was some time before it could be learned where she belonged, as she could not speak English."

Lucius, Caroline and their daughter had arrived back in New York barely in time for Lucius Jr.'s wedding.  The extended Cutting-Wilmerding alliance was furthered by his marriage to Helen Cutting, daughter of Robert Fulton Cutting, in St. George's Church on March 27.   His sister was among the bridesmaids, as was Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Manhattan society was no doubt surprised when The Sun reported on June 14, 1908 that "The wedding of Miss Caroline Murray Wilmerding and John B. Trevor on June 25 will probably not be a large affair."  The article noted that the ceremony would take place in the 77th Street house and that Caroline "has decided to have no bridesmaids."

Of course, even a small affair at the Wilmerdings' social level included prominent guests.  Among those attending the ceremony were the recently married Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Now empty-nesters, Caroline and Lucius left New York for Europe again.  They headed to France that summer, taking with them their recently purchased touring car.  On August 4, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. Lucius K. Wilmerding have arrived at Aix-le-Bains in their automobile."

In their absence the 77th Street house was leased, first to millionaire Edwin Gould, and then to Frances Roche.  

Known in society columns as Mrs. Burke Roche, she was born Frances Ellen Work in 1857.  On September 22, 1880 she had married James Boothby Burke Roche, later the 3rd Baron Fermoy.  Among their descendants was Diana, Princess of Wales, Frances's great-granddaughter.  

Frances Work Roche - from the collection of the Library of Congress

Four children notwithstanding, the couple's marriage had not not succeeded.  Frances divorced Roche for desertion in 1891.  By now she was a major figure in Manhattan society and No. 18 East 77th Street was the scene of frequent entertainments.

In addition to luncheons and teas, Frances often hosted talks.  On March 13 1914, for instance, Charles Gibson spoke to her guests about the Empress Dowager of China.

With Frances Burke Roche in their townhouse, the Wilmerdings resided with the Cuttings when they were in town.   During the summer of 1914 they were in the States and on August 11 the New-York Tribune reported that they "arrived in town yesterday from Newport, where they were the guests of Mrs. Vanderbilt.  After a short stay here they will go to Islip, Long Island."

Frances Burke Roche remained in the house at least through 1916; after which Lucius and Caroline returned.  On January 1, 1919 Lucius made a career move, becoming a partner in the Stock Exchange house of Gray & Wilmerding.

The Wilmerdings continued their lifestyle of travel and entertaining.  The winter seasons saw dinner parties on 77th Street; and summers were spent in Islip, Newport, Tuxedo Park or Paris.   On October 18, 1922, one month after the New-York Tribune reported that the couple had arrived at Tuxedo, the New York Herald announced that they "have opened their house at 18 East Seventy-seventh street."

Lucius Kellogg Wilmerding - from the collection of the International Center of Photography

Two months later Lucius was dead.  On December 5 he was sitting at his desk at Gray & Wilmerding when he suffered a heart attack.   He died at home three days later.

Following his funeral on December 11 The New York Herald reported that St. James's Church on Madison Avenue was filled with "men of prominence in New York and elsewhere."  A few of the millionaires and other notable figures there that afternoon were Edward J. Berwind, William Rhinelander Stewart, Ansel Phelps and his wife, Goodhue Livingston, Philip Rhinelander, Stuyvesant Fish, Edmund L. Baylies and Francis Burrall Hoffman.

Caroline remained at No. 18, opening it for the wedding of her niece Alma Virginia Murray to Hamilton Fish Potter on May 10, 1927.  It would be among the last of her notable entertainments in the house.  She died on September 24, 1931 at the age of 78.  

Lucius Jr. and Caroline Trevor retained ownership of their childhood home, leasing it to well-to-do families despite the difficulties of the ongoing Great Depression.  It was home to F. Cliffe Johnston by the mid-1930's.

The former broker was now manager, treasurer and secretary of the Palmer Waterfront Land and Improvement Company and a director of the J. G. White Engineering Company.  He and his wife, the former Grace M. Palmer, had five daughters.

On December 21, 1938 No. 18 was the scene of daughter Constance's debut.  The family's social prominence earned the event its own article in The New York Times, which reported that she "was presented to a reception given by her parents in their home." 

After Caroline and Lucius sold the house in 1947, it was converted to a doctor's office and apartments.  It may have been at this time that the mansard roof was disfigured.

In 1989 the doctor's office became home to Judy Goffman's fine art gallery.  In 2004 the Leo Castelli art gallery was here.  Then, in 2005, another renovation resulted in doctors' offices on the ground floor, one apartment on the second, two apartments each on the third and fourth, and a duplex in the former mansard and new penthouse.

An unsightly garage next door and the rueful treatment of the uppermost floor detract from the Wilmerding house; but thankfully the bulk of its architectural integrity--including the miraculously-surviving marquee--remains.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The 1832 Thomas Barron House - 39 White Street

Astoundingly, the cast iron base was inserted under the masonry house.

By any accounts, the three-story, 25-foot wide brick-faced house Thomas Barron erected at No. 39 White Street was elegant and refined.  Begun in 1831 and completed a year later, it featured the best elements of the Federal and newer Greek Revival styles.  The triangular pediments above the openings were echoed in that above the single-doored entrance, flanked by two fluted columns.  The Greek Revival style forewent the Federal peaked roof; yet two Federal-style arched dormers perched above the bracketed Greek Revival cornice.

Born in Woodbridge, New Jersey on June 10, 1790, Barron began work as a clerk in his father's store at the age of 14.  In 1814 he moved to Manhattan and soon formed a drygoods business with J. I. Coddington, and by the time he erected his White Street house had amassed a significant personal fortune.

In his 1882 History of Union and Middlesex Counties, W. Woodford Clayton wrote "Having amassed a competency he withdrew from active business life, and thereafter devoted his time to unostentatious philanthropy, to study, and his favorite sport of fishing."  He was instrumental in the founding of the New-York Historical Society and upon its incorporation in 1809 donated $10,000--more than $210,000 today.  He was also highly involved in the American Geographical Society and the American Museum of Natural History, and a director in at least two insurance companies.

The Barron family's residency would be short lived.  In 1835 the house was purchased by Seth Grosvenor, principal in Seth Grosvenor & Co. at No. 122 Broadway.  He was, as well, a director in the North Western Insurance Company, the National Bank, and was for years a trustee of the "Common Schools."

Concerned for the underprivileged, Grosvenor was moved during the winter of 1843 by a man who entered his office and introduced himself as Jones.  Explaining that that he was a nephew of Alderman Jones, who was collecting money for the poor, he asked for contributions.

On February 6 The New York Herald entitled an article "Look Out For Swindlers" and exposed Jones as a fraud.  "How much money he has succeeded in procuring in all, is not known, of course, but he did get $10 from Seth Grosvenor, Esq."  It was a generous $350 donation in today's money.

The newspaper was clear in its opinion of the crime.  "We know of no kind of swindling which so richly deserves the state prison as that which takes advantage of the sufferings of poor widows and orphans...Any person who can cause this villain Jones to be arrested, or taken to the police office, will do a service to the public."

Grosvenor died in 1856.  The extent of his massive fortune was revealed in his will.   Among the many bequests were $30,000 to the Board of Education "to be expended in books to form a library for the Free Academy," $100,000 to the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Jews, and $10,000 each the Mercantile Library and the New-York Asylum for Lying-in Women.  Those amounts alone would top $4.5 million today.

At the time of Grovenor's death the once elegant White Street block had changed.  Homes were slowly being converted or demolished to make way for commercial structures.  In 1860 the Grosvenor estate made a remarkable decision regarding No. 39.

In order to accommodate a store, the entire house was raised and a new floor inserted.  (The more expected route would have been to gut the first floor and add a story on the roof.)  The difficult engineering project was remarkable enough to warrant a lithograph of the work as it proceeded.  Completed in 1861, its new ground floor was fronted by a handsome cast iron storefront with fluted Corinthian columns and pier.  A full top floor now took the place of the dormered attic.

The lithograph released by Brown & Adams in 1860 was entitled "Raising of House No. 39 White Street, N. York."

The renovated building became home to dry goods firms, including Henry Attwell & Company.  Henry Attwell and his partner, James R. Whyte, were dealers in "linens, white goods and embroideries."  The firm would remain in the building for decades.

Elias Otis's elevator had been invented only seven years earlier and freight elevators would not become commonplace until after the turn of the century.  Goods were hoisted up and down by means of pulleys through hatchways--in effect open shafts.  It was a dangerous and sometimes fatal process.

Charles F. Bedt worked on the fourth floor of No. 39 White Street in 1864.  The 14-year-old was helping lower goods in January 9 when he lost his footing and fell to his death.

The boy's death was one of a string of tragedies related to the building over the next two decades.  Among the tenants in the early 1870's was Henry Sulzbacher & Co., clothing manufacturers.  Its head, Henry Sulzbacher, was born in Germany and had made a successful life in America.  The New York Herald described the family's home as "an elegant brown stone front and furnished in a very costly style."  Henry Sulzbacher and his wife had three children.

The Financial Panic of 1873 wiped out many firms.  In January 1876 Sulzbacher sold his business "as it did not pay," according to him.  He was still involved, however, going to the White Street building every day as usual.  The change in circumstances apparently weighed more heavily on his 35-year old wife.

Two weeks later, on February 2, Sulzbacher left for work as usual at 7:45.  At 10:00 his wife gave instructions to the cook, Margarette Dingman, about dinner; and then soon afterward came back to the kitchen saying she would help with the pudding by peeling apples.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  About 45 minutes later Mrs. Sulzbacher asked Margarette to go upstairs and light all the fireplaces.  The task took about an hour.

When Margarette returned to the kitchen she found her employer hanging from a piece of clothesline.  The New York Herald said her body "was still warm, but the life extinct."

By the early 1880's Samuel E. Hopkins operated his wholesale hosiery factory in the building.  He and his family lived comfortably on Shore Road in Clifton, Staten Island.

On April 15, 1884 Samuel West arrived in town.  He and Hopkins were acquainted through business.  West's father was a woolen goods merchant in Philadelphia and his brother ran a wholesale hosiery firm in Germantown, Pennsylvania.  Hopkins owned a sailboat and offered to show his friend the the lower harbor and take a "pleasure sail" through the Narrows.  They agreed on Thursday, April 17.

It was a lovely day and Hopkins brought along his 12-year-old son, Stoddard.  Hopkin's brother, B. B. Hopkins, later explained "The boat was cranky, being a pilot's yawl made into a sailboat."  Nevertheless his brother was a good sailor and was familiar with the bay and its various conditions.

Witnesses overheard Hopkins remark that the rudder was "out of gear," and one later said "as the boat left the shore she was seen to veer wildly, while Mr. Hopkins was leaning over the stern trying to fix the rudder."  It was the last anyone would see of the trio alive.

The following day the tugboat General Rosecrans came upon the empty sailboat floating bottom up in the Narrows.  It would not be until three weeks later, on June 9, that the body of Samuel E. Hopkins was found on a beach on Fire Island.  The following week on June 15 West's corpse washed ashore at Long Branch, New Jersey.  The boy's body was never recovered.

The piers have sadly lost their Corinthian capitols (and the surviving examples on the columns have been brutally damaged).  The small-paned transoms are wonderfully intact..
No. 39 White Street continued to house apparel firms.  One of the original tenants, Henry Attwell & Company was still here when it filed for bankruptcy in June 1895.  Deutsch & Co., cloak manufacturers were here at the time, as was L. Fibel & Brother, makers of shirts.  In 1896 that firm employed eight men, four boys, six women, and six girls.  They all worked 58 hours a week.

No doubt by the time The Colonial Real Estate Association purchased the building on May 1, 1903 many of the domestic elements of the upper floors, other than the lintels and cornice, had already been stripped away.  The firm paid $55,000 for the property, just over $1.6 million today.

Among its tenants in the first years of the 20th century were David S. Austin, makers of umbrellas, here by 1903; and Weed & Brother, dealers in "linings, trimmings, cotton flannels, sheetings, etc."

On October 1919 the linen firm of Turtle Brothers, based in Belfast, Ireland, purchased the building.  The New-York Tribune noted it would used the entire building "as a local headquarters."  Turtle Brothers initiated a renovation, completed in 1920, which resulted in "offices and showrooms."

Dry Goods and Apparel, February, 1920 (copyright expired)
Despite its original assertion, Turtle Bros. leased upper floor space.  In 1921 Margaret and Louis Schwagerl took space for their stationery firm, L. A. Schwagerl & Co.  The same year space was leased to The Magnet Trading Corporation.  And by 1922 E. E. Alley Co. was here.  The firm supplied hotels with linens, including "dish toweling, cotton towels, huck towels, turkish towels, waiters' and servants' aprons" and "table padding and cloth table tops."

Garment Manufacturers' Index, 1920 (copyright expired)

Turtle Brothers remained in the building for decades.  In the 1960's it was purchased in the 1960's by the Taylor Linen Company.  The firm leased space to another fabrics concern, the Anderson Textile Refolding Company.

Other than a coat of white paint, the building looks the same in this 1940 tax photo.  from the NYC Department of Records & Information Services.
The rediscovery of Tribeca arrived at No. 39 around 1987 when the Alum Dance Foundation, operated by Samuel Alum, moved in.  The space was home to the Samuel Alum Dance Company until 1989 when a conversion of the building was begun.  The renovation, completed a year later, resulted in one apartment per floor above the store.  A penthouse was added in 2014 to accommodate a top floor duplex.

Few passersby could imagine the the four upper floors are, in actuality, an 1832 house miraculously raised above the store in 1860.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Church of St. Gregory the Great - 144 West 90th Street

In 1908 the expansive Philip Wagner & Sons livery stable had operated at Nos. 138-144 West 90th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, for years.  Collier's magazine, on October 1 that year, called Wagner "the well-known undertaker and livery stable man."

But before the end of the year horses and vehicles were replaced in the stable by worshipers.   To serve the burgeoning Roman Catholic population in the developing neighborhood, Cardinal John Murphy Farley had created the parish of St. Gregory the Great in 1906.  Now in 1908 Fr. James Fitzsimmons was appointed its pastor.  After worshiping in another stable on West 89th Street, the parish moved into the John Wagner & Son stables in time for Christmas services.

On May 10, 1912 architect Elliott Lynch filed plans for a four-story brick school on the site.  The cost of construction was projected at about $2.67 million in today's money.  The popular history is that the parish intended to use the basement and ground floor chapel only until a proper church building could be erected.  It would seem that, if that were so, those plans changed rather early on.

Lynch was responsible for several church and school buildings.  One in particular, St. Stephen's Parish School, designed in 1904, anticipated the St. Gregory the Great school.
St. Stephen's Parish School, The American Architect, April 9, 1904 (copyright expired)
As the building took shape, cornerstone-laying ceremonies took place on October 27, 1912.  The Sun reported "Half an hour before the cornerstone laying took place a procession formed at the rectory at 156 West Eighty-eighth street."  The procession was leg by three cassock-wearing acolytes, two carrying candles alongside the boy carrying the cross.

"Behind them marched the band of St. Vincent's Home in Brooklyn," said the article.  "Then followed the autos and carriages containing the monsignors and priests, flanked by the uniformed fourth degree Knights of Columbus, who acted as escort to Mgr. Mooney."  A temporary platform had been erected for the occasion.  The contractor, Thomas J. Waters, provided the sterling silver trowel used by the monsignor in the ceremony.

The report hinted that the parish had altered its intentions to erect a separate church building by now.  The construction costs had increased by fifty percent and the article noted "The basement and ground floor of the new building will be used as a church and the three upper floors for school purposes."

One year later, on October 19, 1913, Cardinal Farley dedicated the structure.  Lynch's four-story structure sat on a rusticated stone base.  The paired openings were capped by splayed lintels.  The east and west doorways, one for the rectory and the other for the school, sat below prominent bracketed cornices.  The central doorway, to the church, was distinguished by a Renaissance arched pediment.  

The upper two stories made an about-face style-wise.  Stone gave way to red brick and Renaissance turned to Romanesque.  The arches-within-arches motif smacked of the Rundbogenstil style, or German neo-Romanesque, popular decades earlier.  A bracketed stone cornice finished the design.

The Church of St. Gregory the Great would, of course, be the scene of scores of weddings and funerals.  One early funeral here, however, stood out.  

Known popularly as the "Caudillo de la RevoluciĆ³n," or "Leader of the Revolution," Francisco I. Madero became President of Mexico in October 1911.  But before long the leader was opposed by even more radical revolutionaries.  He was arrested and then assassinated on February 22, 1913.  Members of his family, including his father, escaped to New York.

Francisco Madero, Sr. lived in an apartment at No 302 Central Park West.  He died there of a heart attack on September 3, 1916.

Two days later The Sun reported "Prominent Mexicans, who were active in affairs across the border prior to the murder of Francisco I. Madero, were seen yesterday morning at the funeral of Francisco Madero, father of the ex-President, which was held in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Gregory."  Former Mexican military leaders and government officials were present for the ceremony.  The newspaper wrote "Heaped high on the massive bronze casket were many flowers sent from all parts of Mexico and the United States."

As with all parishes, young members left to fight in World War I, and Catholic priests sailed off to serve as Army chaplains on the front.  Twenty-eight of St. Gregory the Great's parishioners never returned from Europe.  As one-by-one the priests were discharged from military service, they were reassigned to parishes.  On February 17, 1919 The Sun reported that one of them, Rev. Thomas H. Dean had been appointed by Monsignor Mooney as assistant to Rev. Dr. William F. Hughes at St. Gregory the Great.

At the time the church's congregation was heavily Irish.  In 1919 the Irish American Advocate announced "On Monday and Tuesday evenings, November 22 and 23, the Edward Daly Branch, F. O. I. F. [Friends of Irish Freedom], gave an entertainment and dance in St. Gregory's School Hall, 144 West 90th Street, for the benefit of the victims of British brutality in Ireland."

The staging of the events here was not coincidental nor was the hall merely rented to the group.  Rev. Thomas F. X. Walsh of St. Gregory the Great was "the main feature of the evenings," providing an illustrated lecture.  Walsh had recently traveled throughout Ireland and his talk "related almost entire to the struggle of the Irish against British tyranny."

If the parish truly intended to erect a separate church structure, they had now refocused their financial priorities.  On June 4, 1920 The Kingston Daily Freeman reported that "Rev. Dr. Hughes of St. Gregory the Great, at 144 West 90th street, New York city, has purchased for a recreation farm 100 acres" near New Paltz, New York.  The article noted that "for some time Dr. Hughes and Father Walsh have been in search of a farm of this character."  Recreation farms afforded city children and their parents periods of fresh air and sunshine and the opportunity to work with farm animals.  "Dr. Hughes anticipates erecting a chapel upon the farm, which he has named 'Our Lady of the Wayside,' after an ancient shrine in Rome, where he spent his vacations when a student at college."

The parish and its leaders continued to be pro-active in political and social causes.  In 1925 the parishioners held a "public forum in the school hall" regarding the proposed termination of the emergency rent laws, passed in 1920 to protect tenants from arbitrary rent increases.  The school hall was, incidentally, the location of the meetings of the Irish Speakers' Society at the time.

Decidedly not of Irish extraction was star baseball player Babe Ruth.  And yet early on the morning of April 18, 1929, while a handful of early worshipers said silent prayers having arrived early for the 6:30 mass, he and former actress Mrs. Claire Hodgson strode up the aisle to the altar around 5:45 and were married.

The newlyweds were pictured in the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal on April 17 1929.

The news reached fans throughout the country.  The Ballston Spa Daily Journal in upstate New York wrote "In strange contrast to the boisterous diamond personality of the New York Yankee slugger, the wedding took place in the quiet dignity of the parish neighborhood church, conducted by Father William H Hughes."  The Lockport Union-Sun and Journal added "Two altar boys who served the mass were promised autographed baseballs by Ruth."

The heavily-Irish congregation resulted in at least one native-language mass in 1933.  On March 12 that year an article in the Irish-American newspaper The Advocate noted "Once more I wish to remind you of the Gaelic service which is to be held at St. Gregory's Church, 144 West 90th street."  The service, which was be entirely in Irish, was accompanied by the choir of the Gaelic League.

Similar events continued throughout the years.  On March 7, 1936 The Advocate reported "A class of 200 men from the various New York County divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians received the major degrees of the order Sunday, Feb. 23, in the school hall of the Church of St. Gregory, 144 West 90th street.  And the following year a concert, play and variety show was held in the hall for the benefit of the Irish Election Campaign Fund.

The Advocate, May 1937
The plot of the play, The Unbroken Tradition, took place during the 1916 Irish rebellion.  The Advocate said "It is 100 per cent Irish in its every line and portrays the indomitable courage which kept the spirit of liberty alive for hundreds of years."

The hall was crowded on May 19, 1942 when Father George Maguire, in America from Ireland, sang.  The Advocate called him "one of Ireland's chief exponents of ancient and modern Celtic musical culture" and described his appearance here as a "descriptive song recital."

The 1960's were a time of political and social upheaval in the United States.  Streets filled with protesters against the Vietnam War, and "counter-culture" demonstrators rallied against poverty and social injustice.  Visible among them was St. Gregory the Great's pastor Rev. Henry J. Browne. 

Browne vocally accused the city of not providing enough low-income housing.  "We need to listen to the poor themselves," he urged.  

More activist in his social stance than Brown was Rev. Philip F. Berrigan of Maryland.  At an anti-war protest in Baltimore on October 27, 1967, he poured blood on draft records.  And at a subsequent rally on May 17, 1968 in the same city he burned Selective Service cards.

The priest was found guilty on charges of destroying and mutilating Selective Service records and was ordered to surrender on April 9, 1970 to begin a six-year prison term.  He did not show up.

Instead, he had come to New York City to attend a peace rally.  He was staying with Father Browne and was tracked to the rectory of St. Gregory's on April 21.   F.B.I. agents rang the bell but got no answer.  And so, as reported in The New York Times, they "broke through the door to the church study when they failed to get an answer to their rings  The door was locked."

Rev. Berrigan and a poet, David M. Eberhardt, were arrested.  The Times added "The Rev. Henry Browne, pastor of St. Gregory's, welcomed the Federal agents to the church and told them the hours of Sunday masses, 'should you wish to return.'"

The following year, on March 21, 1971, the hall was the scene of another well-publicized rally.  A group of Roman Catholic priests, a nun, and a Pakistani scholar had been dubbed
"the Harrisburg Six" by newspapers after being charged for plotting to kidnap Henry A. Kissinger and to bomb the heating plants of several Washington D.C. Federal buildings.

The New York Times reported "The nun, Sister Elizabeth McAlister, and the scholar, Dr. Eqbal Ahmen, and two of their alleged co-conspirators, Sister Jogues Egan and Thomas Davidson, addressed more than 200 persons at a rally in the rectory of St. Gregory the Great, a Roman Catholic church, at 144 West 90th Street."  The newspaper reported that Sister McAlister urged the supporters not to be "distracted" by the indictment and instead focus on the main issues, "ending the war in Indochina and what they call repression in the United States."

On December 14, 2014 The New York Times reported that "The sweeping reorganization of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New likely to involve the merger or the closing of significantly more parishes than was originally announced."  The Church of St. Gregory the Great escaped the threat until February 2017 when the Archdiocese of New York announced it had decided to close the school and to end regular masses.  The announcement promised that current students would be provided space at another parochial school.

The announcement signaled the end of a most vibrant chapter in Upper West Side social history.  Today the building is home to the Geneva School, a private Christian faith elementary school founded in 1996.

photographs by the author