Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Barrett, Nephews & Co. Bldg - 334 Canal Street



In 1879 attorney William Mitchell conceived of a project to replace the old brick commercial building at No. 334 Canal Street and the wooden structure on Lispendard Street directly behind it with a modern store and loft building.   Doing so would be a relatively long process.

In February the following year architect William E. Bloodgood filed plans calling for a "five-story brick store" with galvanized iron cornice.  The cost of the structure was projected at the equivalent of about $792,000 today.

Bloodgood came from a long line of builders and, in fact, had been listed in directories as a mason before opening his architectural office.  Not surprisingly, the contract for erecting No. 334 Canal Street went to Freeman Bloodgood, most likely a close relative.

In 1883, four years after Mitchell had first laid plans, the building was completed.  Bloodgood had turned to the trendy neo-Grec style, using contrasting white stone and red brick above the cast iron storefront to produce a striking effect.  The inherent geometry of the architecture was carried on in the cornice where pressed rectangles were separated by pairs of circles between the brackets.  The rear facade, at No. 37 Lispenard Street, was a slightly less enthusiastic version of the front.

The upper floors were leased to Carl L. Rose & Cohen, manufacturers of "cloaks and jerseys."   Shortly after moving in, in July 1884, Carl Rose took on a partner, Meyer G. Cohen, who had just moved to New York from Athens, Georgia, where he had been in business for 15 years.  Things went along smoothly for the partners--for a while.

Newspapers diplomatically said the two men "quarreled."  The situation became unworkable and they agreed to part ways.  Carl Rose, however, made the better deal.   Cohen agreed to pay him $25,000 (a satisfying $665,000 today) for his share and to take over all the firm's debts.

Things went downhill for Meyer Cohen.  Optimistic, he "bought heavily" in the spring of 1889, but subsequent sales were mediocre.  He was left with a large amount of unsold stock and in order to pay his overhead he "endeavored to tide over by borrowing largely from two banks," according to The New York Times.

On September 5, 1899 100 girls showed up for work at No. 334, only to find the doors locked.  They waited around confused on the sidewalk several hours.   The Times summed up the situation saying "The big five-story manufactory of Meyer G. Cohen...was closed all day yesterday and Mr. Cohen could not be seen."  Cohen's attorney painted a grim picture.  "Mr. Cohen had failed and had gone to pieces."

Several smaller firms took the place of Meyer G. Cohen.  Among them was wholesale apparel firm Herman Schuman & Co.  In the summer of 1891 the company found a new bookkeeper in Henry M. Barnes.  He had recently relocated from Chicago where he had worked for Marks Bros., another wholesale clothier.  It would appear that Herman Schuman & Co. narrowly dodged a bullet.

On Friday, October 2, Detective Foley arrived at the office and arrested Barnes.   A few days earlier Police Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes had received a letter from R. W. McClaughry, Chief of Chicago Police.  It told a tale that could have been plucked from a melodrama.

The Sun began its flowery report on October 4 saying "On the desk before Justice O'Reilly at the Tombs yesterday was a small photograph of two faces.  One was that of a man 32 years old with black moustache and clear-cut features.  On his shoulder a beautiful girl with dark hair and bright eyes reclined her head."

The man, of course, was Henry M. Barnes, and the girl was Emma Stern, "who is said to have been a belle in Chicago."  The two had fallen in love.  But rather than marrying and being content with the lives of a bookkeeper and his wife, they had grander ideas.  On June 5 Barnes stole $2,500 from his employers and he and his sweetheart fled to New York with the intentions of going to England to live.

Instead the money ran out.  Barnes found his job at Herman Schuman & Co. and Emma was hired in the chorus of a stage troupe, "Castles in the Air."  Barnes's impulsive felony for love garnered him nothing more than a prison sentence.   At the time of his arrest Emma was on stage "in the West."

Other manufacturers in the building were David M. Geber, "dry goods and hosiery;" L. Reiss, makers of "knee pants;" and Morgenstein & Robinson, cloak makers.  The grueling schedule of garment factory workers before the turn of the century was evidenced in the State's factory inspection report in 1896.  Morgenstein & Robinson employed 50 men, 25 women, and 10 girls under 21 years old.  They all worked 56 hours during the week and 8.5 hours on Saturdays.

The sparse decoration is limited almost solely to the deeply-incised medallions at each floor.
A small fire that broke out in the building on May 31, 1895 did not cause damage to it nor to the tenants' factories or stock; but it ruined a police officer's career and reputation.   Officer Francis J. Clarke had been on the force 18 years.  The day before, Memorial Day, he had gone to Calvary Cemetery with his Grand Army Post to lay flowers on the graves of soldiers.  The day was very hot and Clarke suffered heat exhaustion.

Nevertheless, he showed up for work at 8:00 the following morning, although he complained of not feeling well.  When the call of fire at No. 334 arrive around 10:00, he answered it.  After helping search for the cause of the alarm, he went outside and sat down on the sidewalk.  Another officer, Michael F. McLaughlin, asked what was wrong.  "I ain't very well, Mac; I am very sick," he reportedly answered.

After McLaughlin brought him a glass of water, Clarke felt he was well enough to resume duty.  He walked through No. 334 and out onto Lispenard Street, where he again had to sit on the pavement.  By now fire fighters had arrived and somehow Clarke's brother had heard that there was a sick policeman in the store.  Knowing his brother had been ill the day before, he rushed to the scene.

Court transcripts documented that "his brother recognized him, ran out, and brought him a glass of whiskey."  He said "Here, Frank, take this and it will bring you around all right."   Clarke returned to the station house, too sick to go home.

His brother's good intentions landed him in police court, faced with multiple charges including intoxication on the job.  On August 10, 1895 The Sun reported "Patrolman Francis J. Clark [sic] of the Leonard street station was found guilty of being under the influence of liquor and dismissed from the force."

By 1901 Barrett, Nephews & Co. had taken over the entire building.  The Staten Island dyeing establishment had been founded in 1819 and still operated its large dying plant there.  The Canal Street location was used for "pressing and finishing."

The Sun, March 14, 1909 (copyright expired)
One of Barrett, Nephews & Co.'s youngest employees earned unexpected press coverage in 1906.  Charles Levy, who was 15 years old, lived with his family on Clinton Street.  On Sunday morning, June 17 he went out to meet friends.  Before long a boy told Charles's young sister, Rachel, that Charles "had been lured away by a big, tall man and taken to Philadelphia."

Rachel rushed home, pulling the boy along.  He repeated the story--without many details--to the Levy family.  The Sun reported "They rushed over to Police Headquarters and a description of the missing Charles was wired to Philadelphia straightaway."  An hour later police picked up Charles as he got off the train.  "But no report came of the capture of anybody answering to the description of the kidnapper," wrote The Sun.

As police investigated closer to home, the mystery began to unravel.  Charles's friend, Theodore Arkin, did not recall seeing a kidnapper; but he did admit "that Charles had been talking with the boys about Philadelphia for a week past, saying what a splendid town that was for any bright, wideawake young fellow to get a start in."

As it turned out, Charles was avoiding corporal punishment at home.  At the Philadelphia police station he confessed "I wasn't kidnapped.  I was only hiding.  You see I lost $10 belonging to my father and I was afraid he might lick me, so I framed it up with another boy to go tell father that a strange man had carried me off and then I ran away."

The bookkeeper for Barrett, Nephews & Co. in 1908 was William C. Candlish who, sadly for him, had an eye for the ladies.   On Friday July 24 he left the office to deposit $129 in the bank.  But he never came back.  The firm notified the police and he was arrested at his home the following Sunday night.  The New York Times reported on July 28 "the police say he admitted he had spent the money on chorus girls."

In 1913 Barrett, Nephews & Co. cautiously entered the motorized age.  It purchasing a "self-propelled delivery vehicle" to test among its scores of horse-drawn trucks.  The results were heartening.  On April 1, 1914 The Power Wagon reported "For the past year the Barrett, Nephews interests have been using a Chase truck with such success that they are pretty well convinced, according to the expression of Secretary William Chayne, that motor transportation is the only solution of delivery-to-customer problems."

Fame magazine, March 1917 (copyright expired)
For whatever reason, customers saw a marked increase in the price of new garments following the end of World War I.  The trend resulted in increased business for dyers and dry cleaners like Barrett, Nephews & Co.  On July 10, 1919 president Henry B. Palmer explained to a reporter from the New-York Tribune, "High prices for garments are forcing Americans to be more chary about their expenditures for clothing...In my judgment many men, among them clerks and public employes, and even professional men, after looking twice at their outer garments and then measuring the cost of buying a new suit of clothes deem it expedient to have the old suit restored by the cleaners' process."

The cost savings extended to household textiles, as well.  "Housewives of an economical bent of mind who find it now costs as much, if not more, than in war time to buy curtains, blankets and portieres, are invoking the aid of the cleaner in an effort to make the old things last as long as the warp and filling of the fabric hold together."

The increase in business seems to have required additional staff.  On May 19, 1920, for instance, Barrett, Nephews & Co. placed ads for several different positions.  One sought a "Young woman, office work, at the executive offices of large dyeing and cleaning establishment;' splendid opportunity to learn bookkeeping."  The starting salary for that job was $183 per week in today's dollars.

Another ad read "Young woman to learn branch office business of well known dyeing and cleaning establishment; good opportunity for advancement; substantial salary paid while learning."

The firm suffered a tragedy later that year when 67-year old director John David Barrett was struck by a train in Greenwich, Connecticut station.  How he ended up in the path of the train is unclear, but he died the same day without regaining consciousness.

After having occupied No. 334 Canal Street for more than a quarter of a century, Barrett, Nephews & Co. purchased the property from the Mitchell estate in 1927.

The firm remained in the building until about 1964.  Afterwards No. 334 was home to a variety of business, like the United Blower Co., Inc. here in the 1980's.   A transformation came in 2014 when the upper floors were converted to one spacious apartment per floor.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The 1806 John P. Roome House - 70 Bedford Street



At some point before 1799 Bedford Street appeared on the maps.  At the time the extended Roome family was well-known in New York City, to the south.  On December 1, 1798 John Roome was appointed by Mayor David Mathews "to examine the Stoves put up in this City, and the Places allotted by the Inhabitants to keep their Ashes in."

The new inspector may have been the same John P. Roome who built the house at what would be numbered 70 Bedford Street in 1806.  That is difficult to ascertain; for while the Roomes appeared in city directories for decades, they were not inventive in naming their children.  There were no fewer than three John P. Roomes at one point in the early 19th century.

But it is likely that inspector of stoves who erected No. 70, for he was listed among the volunteers with Fire Company 14 in 1808 through 1824.  His wooden Federal-style home was faced in Flemish bond brick.  Handsome touches like the splayed brownstone lintels with projecting keystones placed it a step above the average house.  Its original peaked roof would have featured one or two dormers.  A narrow carriage drive next to the house gave access to the rear year.

Four years after the family moved in, daughter Margaret had a country wedding.  On September 15, 1810 The Lady's Miscellany reported that on Saturday evening, September 2 "Mr. Charles Oakley, merchant," was married "to Miss Margaret Roome, eldest daughter of Mr. John P. Roome, all of this city."  The wedding took place in Tappan, in today's Rockland County.

In the following decade Margaret's husband plunged headlong into real estate development in the neighborhood, erecting frame and brick homes.  Charles Oakley was among the most prolific of Greenwich Village real estate developers in the first decades of the 19th century.

By then Margaret's father had been appointed a "Crier of the Courts of Oyser and Terminer and Gaol Delivery and of the General Session of Peace"--in other words, a constable or policeman.  In the fall of 1820 The New-York City-Hall Reporter recounted his nabbing of counterfeiters.

On the 31st of August last, Jacob Hays, John P. Roome, and other police officers, in consequence of information previously derive from one Dillingham, a carpenter, who worked at No. 10, Pump-street, went there, and hearing some person in a shop opening into a back yard, knocked at the door, which not being opened, they knocked again, and then burst it open.  The found [Guy] Johnson and [William] Price...alone.  The latter had ink on his hands, and one or both h ad their sleeves rolled up, as if recently engaged at work.

Evidence collected included copper plates for engraving $2 bills.  The Reporter said the plates "were done in a masterly manner" and a fake bill printed from one "was also an ingenious imitation."  The crooks were sent to prison for life.

Roome was a member of the Masonic Independent Royal Arch, No. 2 in 1821, along with Nicholas Roome, who may have been his son.  The family worshiped in the nearby Church of St. Luke in the Fields.  Its membership roll in 1836 included E. Roome and M. K. Roome, along with John.

It would appear that when he was not fighting crime Roome puttered in his garden.  The Annual Report of the Inspecting Committee for the New-York Horticultural Society for 1829 included the mention "A seedling nectarine of the free stone kind, and of highly excellent sort, was produced by Mr. John P. Roome, of this city, raised by himself."

John P. Roome died in 1850.  No. 70 was sold to William H. Knapp for $3,800.  It was possibly Knapp who raised the attic to a full third floor in 1858.  A plain wooden cornice fronted the new, slightly inclined roof.

Alexander Hemphill and his wife, Clara, were here by 1860.  The house was scene of his brother's funeral on December 17 that year.  Theodore A. Hemphill had succumbed, according to The New York Times, to "a lingering illness."

Alexander Hemphill died two years later.  Clara moved to Brooklyn and No. 70 was purchased by Philip Frietag who had other plans for the property.  He converted the house to a water softener factory in 1868 and in March 1869 hired builder Julius Poerschel to build a three-story brick factory in the rear yard.

When he took John Helmsky into the business it became known as Frietag & Helmsky.  Frietag sold him one-half of the real estate and they expanded the rear factory in July 1871.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced "Frietag & Helmsky, owners," had filed plans for "one story to be added" to the structure.

It appears the partnership broke up in 1876.  On September 1 that year John Helmsky sold his one-half interest in No. 70 to Frietag for $8,000.  Frietag continued on until the spring of 1892 when he sold the property to Jacob Dieter for $18,750--about $521,000 today.  A truck bay had been broken into the first floor wall to enable the loading and unloading of supplies and finished goods; and the carriage drive had been filled in with a factory extension.

Dieter's furniture making shop, Jacob Dieter & Sons Co., was substantial.  In 1893 he employed 35 men who worked 54 hours during the week and 9 hours on Saturdays.  The firm specialized in high-end reproductions, so popular in late Victorian parlors.   When, for instance, the upscale Hotel Savoy opened in 1892, the furnishings for the Empire Parlor and chairs in the Private Dining Room were custom-made at J. Deiter & Son.

The furnishings in the Empire Parlor of the Savoy Hotel came from 70 Bedford St.  from The Hotel Savoy Illustrated, 1892 (copyright expired)
In 1899 Jacob Dieter & Sons Co. landed the contract to furnish the new Supreme Court Building on Madison Avenue.  In order to meet the deadline and fill the apparently substantial order, the men were put on a grueling schedule.  But the long hours endured by the craftsman caught the attention of factory inspectors.

On October 27 The New York Times reported inspectors found Dieter & Sons "have worked their men ten hours a day, Sundays, and also underpaid them.  Their men received $10 and $12 a week, it is claimed, when they should have received $18 and $24."  (Even at the highest wage, the skilled craftsmen would have been earning only $732 a week in today's dollars.)

Around the beginning of the Great Depression the house-turned-factory was closed down.  It sat empty for three decades before catching the eye of 25-year old singer-songwriter Noel Paul Stookey.  Stookey was the "Paul" in the renowned folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

A gaping truck bay was cut into the facade and an extension filled the carriage path. from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1962 he brought his fiancée, Elizabeth "Betty" Bannard to the decrepit structure.  He later recalled the visit to New York Times reporter Nan Ickeringill.  When he asked her "What do you think of that!" she replied, "I think someone should tear it down."

Bannard was unaware that he had already purchased it.  The $38,000 he paid would equal about ten times that much today.  Stookey said "I'm a great believer that there is a lot of goodness around that most people don't see."

In 1963, while re-conversion of the factory to a house was underway, Stookey and Elizabeth married.  Their architect, Herbert Lippmann, made no attempt to recreate Federal period interiors.  He removed the second story floor to created a 19-foot high living room.  The crumbling rear wall was replaced with a two-story stained glass window.  The truck doors were bricked in and windows inserted.  A garage for Stookey's Jaguar XKE filled the space of the one-time carriage alley.

The work was completed in time for couple to move in before the birth of daughter Elizabeth in 1964.  Ickeringill reported on October 26, 1966 "The den, the most crowded room in the house, is where Mr. Stookey writes songs and scripts, keeps files of his myriad ideas and inventions, displays his gold records (the five-year-old group has made seven albums and sold more than 5-million copies) and holds family conferences."

Seen near the far left, the Stookey's renovations included a single large window on the ground floor and a garage.  photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A subsequent year-long remodeling that began in 2003 more closely copied the original architecture of the house.   The new stone lintels and keystones of the new ground floor windows matched the originals on the second floor.  A period-appropriate doorway was crafted.  At the same time, Noel Paul Stookey's garage became part of the house.



After 210 years and decades of ignominy, the John P. Roome house once again holds a proud place on the block.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The 1892 Elizabeth S. Miller House - 309 West 76th Street




In 1862 Henry James Miller became the first president of the Cincinnati Gas & Coke Company.  The company served 8,200 customers at the time, and Miller's fortune quickly swelled.  Miller's wife, the former Elizabeth Rice Swasey, traced her American roots to Silas Rice, of Massachusetts, who participated in the Lexington Alarm--the first battle of the Revolutionary War.  The couple had six children, sons Jarvis and Henry, Jr. and daughters Elizabeth Swasey, Leonora Putnam, Florence and Mary Letitia Miller.

Henry James Miller was young and wealthy when he died.  History of Cincinnati Ohio, 1881 (copyright expired)
The family was at Niagara Falls on September 2, 1881 when Miller unexpectedly died.   Before long Elizabeth moved her family to New York City.  The move may have been prompted by her hopes to find the best husbands for her growing daughters.

The family lived temporarily in The Lincoln, on Broadway at 52nd Street.  In the spring of 1891 Elizabeth laid plans for a private home.  And she went to the top of the heap in choosing her architect.  On May 16, 1891 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that C. P. H. Gilbert had filed plans for a four-story brick and stone house at No. 309 West 76th Street.  The construction costs were projected to be $26,250--or $730,000 today.

Simultaneously Gilbert designed the house next door at No. 307 for William G. and Emily McGuckin.  Somewhat surprisingly, the finished products, completed in 1892, had little in common architecturally.

Gilbert's original rendering placed the stoop to the right.  At some point he or his client changed their minds. Real Estate Record & Guide, January 23, 1892 (copyright expired) 

Faced in Roman brick the 22-foot wide house featured a projecting bay at the parlor level that provided a stone-balustraded balcony to the second floor.  The second and third floor openings were surrounded by a terra cotta frame and were separated by a single brick pilaster.  Delicate terra cotta ribbons, bellflowers and swags decorated the sprandrel panels between floors, contrasting with the manly cast iron masonry support between them.  Above the understated fourth floor a deeply-overhanging cast metal cornice sat upon extraordinary wrought iron consoles.

The Miller house and the McGuckin house played well together, visually, but were architecturally distinct. The American Architect and Building News, July 7, 1894 (copyright expired) 

A year after the family moved in the house was the scene of Florence's marriage to James Wilton Brooks.  On November 30, 1893 the New-York Tribune, which deemed the ceremony "a pretty affair," noted that "A wedding breakfast, served at small tables, followed the ceremony."  Three days later the newspaper updated readers that "Dr. Brooks has taken his bride South.  Before returning here for the Christmas holidays Dr. and Mrs. Brooks will visit Cuba and the Bahamas."

Like all moneyed New York families, the Millers closed their home in the summer and spent the season at fashionable resorts.  The Social Register, Summer, placed them in The Mathewson in Narragansett Pier in Rhode Island in 1894. 

The Miller family were in The Mathewson in 1894.
No. 309 was the scene of another wedding on April 29, 1896 when the younger Elizabeth married Dr. Curtis Drayton Carter.  The Sun noted "The bride wore the same gown of white embossed velvet with bertha trimmings, and veil of old point lace, which were worn by her mother on her wedding day."  The New York Times added "An orchestra furnished music at the ceremony and reception."

At the turn of the century Elizabeth S. Miller suffered enormous heartbreak.  May Leticia had married Charles E. M. Gross and was living at No. 312 West 103th Street.  She died there on April 12, 1901.  Florence had been ill for some time, and eleven months later she died on March 21, 1902.

Rather surprisingly, Leonore married May's widowed husband less than three months later, on June 4.   The New-York Tribune reported that the wedding took place "at the house of her sister, Mrs. Curtis Braxton Carter, in West Seventy-first-st., the home of Mrs. Henry James Miller, the mother of the bride, being already closed for the season."

In fact, Elizabeth was preparing to sell the home, and did so on July 12.  The new owner, Virginia A. Bell, bought it for investment only, and sold it three weeks later to attorney Henry Neville, Tifft.

Tifft and his wife, the former Gertrude Havens, had two children, Henry, Jr. and Gertrude.  Born in 1854 Tifft already had had an impressive career when he bought the house.  A graduate of Columbia Law School in 1876, he was appointed Assistant United States District Attorney in 1883.  He held the office through 1886.  In 1897 he was appointed Inspector of Public Schools.


By now he had a private legal practice, was a member of a score of clubs, and was highly involved in charitable organizations.  He was secretary of the New York Juvenile Asylum, a director in the West Side Branch of the Young Men's Christian Association, and trustee of the Sevilla Home for Children, for instance.

Henry Neville Tifft-- Universities and their Sons, 1900 (copyright expired)
Tifft's professional plate would become even fuller when he was elected president of the Board of Education in November 1904.  His law office often dealt with real estate issues, and got in on real estate development as president of the M. L. Improvement Company.

Also living in the house was Gertrude's widowed mother, Susan M. Havens.  Both women were active in the Upper West Side; members, for instance, of the Women's League for the Protection of Riverside Park.  The family maintained a summer home, "La Baleine" in Quogue, Long Island.

Tifft was a life-long member of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church and it was there that Gertrude was married to Philip Le Boutillier on May 19, 1909.  The reception was held in the 76th Street house.

At World War I broke out, Henry Jr. enrolled in the U.S. Army.  By the time peace was declared he had achieved the rank of sergeant.  He remained in the Ordnance Section of the Officers' Reserve Corps and by 1920 was a 2nd lieutenant.

Henry Tifft died of a heart attack in No. 309 on March 11, 1925, at the age of 71.  Along with the wealthy and politically powerful who attended his funeral two days later were 25 boys from the Children's Village in Dobb's Ferry.

Gertrude soon sold the house to Pauline Maier.  When Maier sold it to The Tague Holding Corporation in March 1929, it signaled the end of the line for No. 309 as a private home.  It was operated as furnished rooms and the names of its occupants would no longer appear in society pages.

One roomer was a night club dancer who went by the names Ivy Lada and Harriet Reyes.  The 32-year old woman suffered a brutal rape by John Gallagher on May 1, 1930.  During the horrific incident she suffered a fractured rib and skull.

In court, her attacker's attorney turned the blame on Ivy.  He said his client went to a dance hall "in an intoxicated condition" and told the jury "this dance hall was the type of hall that employs hostesses."  The implication was clear.

"He asks one of the hostesses to go out with him on a party, and promises her twenty dollars to go out with him for the evening."  He took Ivy back to his 64th Street apartment house, but when he made advances, "the girl repulse[d] him and turn[ed] her head away."  Her rejection threw him into a rage and he viciously beat and raped her.

Despite Ivy's being depicted as a loose woman, Gallagher was convicted of second degree assault.

Many of the roomers in the house suffered the miseries of The Great Depression.  Albert Johnston was a stationary engineer who lost his job in February 1932.  With a wife and two children to provide for, he was desperate to find another job.  He went to the Efficiency Employment Bureau on Sixth Avenue in August for help.  Sidney Hirsch, a 27-year old clerk, had a job available for him; but there was $25 fee payable in advance.  That was more money than Johnston had, and he borrowed it from his landlady.

What he and 49 other out-of-work men and women could not have known is that there was no fee and the jobs they had been promised were fictitious.  Hirsch had been working there only about a month, and the $25 from each applicant was going into his pocket.  When Johnston reported to work on August 14, he found out there was not job.

On August 16 The New York Times reported "A group of fifth indignant unemployed men and women stormed the office of the Efficiency Employment Bureau...yesterday morning."  Like Johnston, they were mostly heads of families and had been out of work for months.  "For a while [they] threatened to wreck the office unless their money was refunded or the promises of a job made good," said the article.

Thankfully, the firm was bonded and each of the applicants got his $25 back.  Unfortunately, there were still no jobs.

Louis Foursanc ran the "lodging house" in 1940.  He had 15 roomers that year.  The once-gracious home continued to be operated as rented rooms until 1976 when it was converted to apartments.  The renovations included removing the stoop and moving the entrance to the basement level.   The architects made no attempt to preserve the integrity of the design at this level, and framed the entrance with black polished stone.

The renovations snubbed the design by one of America's greatest architects.
The interiors were even more brutalized than the facade, which remains relatively intact above the basement.  The 1892 Gilbert interiors were ripped out, leaving pitiably uninteresting living spaces.

photo via streeteasy.com
uncredited photographs by the author





Monday, June 18, 2018

The Lost Samuel P. Townsend Mansion - Fifth Avenue at 34th Street


The extension visible to the rear held the conservatory.  To the far right is the "picture gallery."  photo from The Abbott Memorial Book, 1912 (copyright expired)
In 1799 John Thompson purchased 20 acres of farmland in today's Midtown.  It abutted the farm of Caspar Samler, to the south, on land that engulfed the area now including Madison Square Garden.  But farming on the bucolic land would last only a few more decades.

The tide of progress was already on its way.  The 1811 Commissioners' Plan laid Fifth Avenue in a straight path through Thompson's land.   William Astor recognized the potential of the property and in 1827 purchased 10 acres from Thompson for $20,500, more than half a million today.

By 1854, when Astor's son, William, married Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, Fifth Avenue (although still unpaved) extended well past 54th Street and houses were already appearing in the 30's.  Astor gave the newlyweds the plot of land at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, where they began construction of their brick and brownstone mansion.  When ground was broken there was already one massive residence under construction across the street on the northwest corner.

Samuel P. Townsend had purchased much of the land above Astor's.  His brownstone residence would outshine the William Astor mansion (and that of his brother, John Jacob Astor which would share that block) in architectural magnificence, if not in social importance.

Townsend had been a contractor, but in 1839 went into the sarsaparilla making business.  Sarsaparilla was a concoction of sassafras, birch oil and other secret ingredients and was a popular tonic.  A supreme marketer, Townsend slapped "Dr." to his name and touted Dr. S. P. Townsend's Sarsaparilla as a cure for freckles and blotches on the faces of girls; difficult menstruation, barrenness and "incontinency of urine," among women; and rheumatism, nervous debility and piles in men.  A full page advertisement in The Genessee Farmer in 1849 even promised that women "approaching that critical period, 'The turn of life,'" could delay the process by several years simply by using his sarsaparilla.

This ad in The American Advertiser in 1849 ensures "cures disease without vomiting."  (copyright expired)

"Sarsaparilla" Townsend's factory shipped to Canada, the West Indies, South America and Europe.  As his fortune grew, he branched into banking, and in 1852 was president of the Nassau Building and Mutual Loan Association, and vice-president of the Third Mechanics' Building and Mutual Loan,

Construction on his Fifth Avenue home began in 1853 and would take two years to complete.  According to Herman Michael Biggs in his 1897 Preventative Medicine in the City of New York, it "cost about $100,000, and was one of the wonders of the City."  Deemed by some the "costliest residence in the city," the price tag would be in the neighborhood of $3 million today.

The free-standing Italianate-style mansion was, indeed, imposing.  A graceful split staircase led to the entrance.  Stone balconies graced the parlor and second floor openings on the Fifth Avenue elevation, and bay windows clung to the southern side.  A scalloped, hexagonal belvedere on the roof offered panoramic views.

The New-York Tribune described it, saying "The edifice is entirely of brown stone four stories in height; and surrounded by open and handsomely laid out gardens.  A large double stoop and portico, supported by fluted Corinthian columns forms the entrance."

If Caroline Astor's visitors were impressed by her ballroom, they were stunned by Nancy Townsend's entrance hall, which rose all four floors to "an arched ceiling, beautifully ornamented in blue and gold."  Each floor, supported by columns, looked onto the grand central space.

To the left of the entrance hall was the main drawing room, 25 by 80 feet.  The ceiling was frescoed and painted panels adorned the walls.  Behind the drawing room was the dining room.  It led to the conservatory which was "richly ornamented by stained glass."

On the opposite side of the entrance hall from the drawing room was the library and the "small but unique apartment called the 'Pompeii Room,' which is a fac simile in size and frescoes, of a room in the exhumed city," said the Tribune.

The magnificent mansion was a source of city pride and a tourist destination.  Arthur Barlett Maurice recalled more than half a century later in his 1918 Fifth Avenue, "The improvements on Fifth Avenue, north of Thirty-fourth Street, began with the erection of the Townsend house, which was a feature of the city and shown to visitors.  The location was the foot of a high hill."  Maurice deemed it "one of the wonders of the town."

Surprisingly, only four years after the house was completed, the Townsends left.  The news reached as far away as Ohio, where on July 21, 1859 the Holmes Country Republican reported "The Palace of Dr. Townsend, on Fifth avenue and Twenty-fourth [sic] street has been sold.  The Rev. Gorham D. Abbott, of the Spingler Institute, has purchased it, with all its elegant furniture, for $290,000."

The article explained "Dr. Townsend is a large land owner, and will soon erect another splendid house farther up town.  So the world moves along."  The writer was not pleased with the prospect of a school moving into the "palace."  "The wholesale stores are driving the retail up town.  The schools are driving the dwellings farther and farther up.  Soon the vicinity of Central Park will alone be the fashionable quarter of the city."

The reporter's figure was slightly exaggerated.  Abbott had spent $250,000 for the house and furnishings--nonetheless a significant $7.6 million by today's standards.

Born in Maine in 1807, Abbott was educated at Bowdoin College and Andover Theological Seminary.  In 1838 he turned his focus from preaching to educating and organized The American Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; and then in 1843, with his brother, established the Abbott Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies in fashionable Colonnade Row on Lafayette Place.

His purpose, according to The American Journal of Education, was "the hope of calling attention to a higher order of education for daughters in our country, and of elevating its general character."  Daughters of wealthy businessmen, plantation owners and industrial tycoons came from across the country to receive the education necessary for a refined wife and socialite.

So successful was the venture that in 1848 Abbott erected the Spingler Institute on Union Square.  At the cornerstone laying, Abbott expressed the difficulties women faced in obtaining quality education.  "We have between one and two hundred colleges in our country, but where is the Yale, or Harvard, or Princeton for the education of females."

Rev. Gorham D. Abbott The American Journal of Education, 1866 (copyright expired)
Now, eleven years later, Abbott and his wife prepared to move the school into the Townsend house. The Ohio newspaper Western Reserve Chronicle predicted on July 20, 1859, "It will be one of the most sumptuous schools in the land, if not in the world."

The New York Evening Post chimed in "Our readers will remember the excitement that marked the completion of the Townsend Mansion, and its public exhibition...We think it a more important announcement that the Abbot Collegiate Institute...has come into the possession of this remarkable private palace.  No building on the island is more easily susceptible of metamorphosis from a dwelling to a College."

The academy had taken back its original name, the Abbott Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies.  It was no vacuous finishing school.  The young women who attended the school received a proper college level education.  In addition to learning Italian and French (required courses), the students received art education, science classes and labs, music--both voice and instrumental--and of course, moral and religious studies and deportment.

Upon opening the Fifth Avenue location, Abbott announced "It is believed there is not in the world at this day, an Institution for the education of daughters with a library of ten thousand volumes, a telescope worth five thousand dollars, and corresponding appointments in apparatus, cabinets, and works of art, that would be deemed indispensable in a college for sons."

The New-York Tribune, in August 1860, pointed out that "the gallery of paintings [is] filled with some of the choicest works of art to be found in this city."  The students who boarded here were housed on the third and fourth floors which the newspaper said "are assigned to the ordinary purposes of domestic apartments."

At the time of the Tribune's article, the editor of The New York Times was less interested in the appointments of the school than in one potential visitor.  On August 21 an article reported on the many preparations for the upcoming visit of the Prince of Wales to the city.  There was the issue of accommodations for the 19-year old heir to the throne.

"Several private citizens of New-York have pressed 'His Excellency the Mayor' to offer the Prince of Wales the use of their respective houses during his stay in New-York, and among them one gentleman who is the fortunate propriety of a 'Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies.'"   Abbott had offered to turn over suites within the sumptuous mansion to the royal entourage.  The editor did not hold back in his opinion.

He warned "they should consider the frailty of human nature, and remember that scriptural injunction which warns us to avoid even the appearance of things evil."  He called the idea of the youthful prince residing within a female college "essentially ludicrous."  And he suspected the Rev. Abbott's true motivation was publicity.  "It lends itself, too, to the most unfeeling criticisms on the uses to which such a proposition may be turned in the way of an 'advertisement for the Fall term."

The newspaper's concerns were laid to rest when his High Royal Highness was given nearly an entire floor in the newly-opened Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Abbott's offering of the school for the royal visit may also have had to do with repairing some devastating publicity two months earlier.   Wealthy families expected that their daughters would be strictly supervised and protected against the evils of the world outside the Institute's brownstone walls.  The serious breach of trust that occurred in June 1860 hit newspapers nationwide.

from the collection of the CUNY Graduate Center Collection, Murray Hill
On June 2 the Mississippi newspaper The Yazzo Democrat ran a headline "Abduction of a Young Southern Lady from a Fashionable School," and recounted the scandalous details.  A student, Miss Phipps of Tennessee, received a visiting relative from home, General Bynum, in the parlor.  On subsequent visits the two went out once in public "with others," and once separately.

The attentions of the relative caused Rev. Abbott and his wife to be suspicious that, as The Evening World worded it, "Gen. Bynum's visit was not in the character of a relative."  On Saturday May 19 inquiries were made at the St. Nicholas Hotel where General Bynum was staying, "and good reasons were found for not permitting any other visits."  When Bynum arrived at the school that day, he was told to leave and he promised "upon his word of honor, as a man and a gentleman," that not only would he not return, but would leave the city "forthwith."

That same evening, however, he was back.  He sent his calling card to Mrs. Abbott who appeared, just about the time Miss Phipps descended the stairs.  While the general and Mrs. Abbott argued, the girl interrupted, "very affectionately" telling Mrs. Abbott "I must bid you good bye."

Mrs. Abbott grabbed the girl and screamed for assistance.  The Evening World reported Bynum "threw" Mrs. Abbott "from him with such a violent and insulting manner as almost to prostrate her upon the floor."  The young woman rushed out the door to Bynum's waiting carriage.  As Mrs. Abbott pleaded with her to return, the staff and students "then rushed out, joining in the remonstrance, and crying out 'shame, shame, shame!"

The young Southern woman may have briefly considered the irreparable decision she was about to make.  The Evening World noted "As she stood at the carriage step, the spectators say, she paused a moment, clasped her hands, looked upward, and in a deadly pallor seemed to hesitate about the fatal step."

But, as reported in the Maryland paper The Daily Exchange, "Gen. Bynum then put his arms around her, urged her into the carriage, and they rolled away.  Mrs. Abbott followed into the street, and with loud calls, begged of spectators to interfere, and arrest the deed of violence."  That article concluded "Gen. Bynum and Miss Phipps are now at the St. Nicholas, probably a married couple--the result, doubtless, of previous arrangement in Tennessee."

That newspaper's and others' suggesting that the couple had married was purely to protect the woman's reputation.  There was no proof of a marriage.  Across the country Bynum was painted as a violent abductor and Miss Phipps as a duped victim.

The Abbott Collegiate Institute weathered the damaging publicity of the incident.  On August 23, 1862 The Chicago Daily Tribune called it "one of the best if not the very best institutions in the country...Parents and guardians who wish their daughters and wards to enjoy the highest social and religious advantages, and an intellectual training equal to that which our best colleges can afford, will be sure to have them at the Abbot [sic] Collegiate Institute."

The Institute maintained a staff of 25 instructors.  The girls' tuition, including board, went as high at $500 a year--more than $12,500 today.  The same year as the Chicago Daily Tribune's endorsement, The Home Journal said "Its library, its chemical, philosophical, and astronomical apparatus, its mineralogical cabinet, and its gallery of paintings, are of the highest and best character.  Among the privileges which the students of the institution possess, are being able to enjoy lectures, pronounced by the most distinguished minds in this country, on various subjects, chiefly relating, however, to the sciences, natural, mental and moral, to history, literature and art."

Like the free-spirited Miss Phipps, many of the Institute's students came from aristocratic Southern families.  And so when Civil War broke out, those girls packed their things and left for home.  In 1866 The American Journal of Education noted "But the disturbances of the war, and other attending circumstances, disappointed Mr. Abbott's plans, and swept away the principal fruits of his five and twenty years of effect to establish an institution for daughters worthy of the metropolis of our country."

Earlier that year Abbott leased a smaller mansion on Park Avenue.  The New York Evangelist reported "It will be gratifying news to many friends that this excellent Institution has re-opened in a very advantageous location and with the best prospects.  Dr. Abbot [sic] has taken the large house of Mr. James Suydam, at the corner of Thirty-eighth Street and Park Avenue."

The disappointment was too much for Abbott.  He announced "Circumstances make it desirable for me to have a year of respite."  But he never returned to his beloved school.  Historian Nehemiah Cleaveland wrote in 1882 "The gradual wasting away of physical powers, attended by frequent attacks of severe pain and prolonged suffering, at last terminated in paralysis and death in 1874."

In the meantime, merchant prince Alexander Tunny Stewart purchased the former Townsend mansion.  As Arthur Bartlett Maurice eloquently wrote in his 1918 Fifth Avenue, "He found brown-stone and left marble."

The 1918 book Fifth Avenue illustrated the two mansions side-by-side.  (copyright expired)
"Townsend's pride and folly was tumbled to the ground, carted away, and in its place there went up the Italian palace" of Stewart.  The French Second Empire-style mansion, clad in Italian marble, cost $2 million and would set the bar for Fifth Avenue mansions to come.  It survived until 1901.

The corner as it appears today.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The 1840 Samuel Winant House - 14 Grove Street



In 1820 23-year old Samuel Winant opened his carpentry shop at No. 17 Jacob Street.  Seven years later John Degraw did the same--his was at No. 11 Watts Street.  It appears the two men were already good friends.  Both of their families were originally from Long Island, and for a period they volunteered together with the Hook & Ladder Company No. 3 on Vandam Street, just steps away from Winant's home.  (Interestingly Peter Winant, Jr., no doubt a relative of Samuel, was also a firefighter with that company in 1821.)  Winant and Degraw both resigned from the fire house in 1830.

In 1828 the two merged their businesses as Winant & Degraw.  Their close personal relationship is reflected in the fact that Degraw began using No. 50 Vandam Street--the home of Samuel Winant--as his address.  He may have leased a room, or was simply taken in by the family.

Winant & Degraw was successful and in 1839 the partners purchased the plots on the eastern third of the block bounded by Hudson, Grove, Bedford and Barrow Streets.  In 1840 they began construction of four identical houses at Nos. 12 through 18 Grove Street.

The 21-foot wide Greek Revival-style houses were completed within the year.  Three stories of orange brick sat upon brownstone English basements.  Handsome but unassuming, the homes were modestly trimmed with stone lintels and sills.  The entrances were framed by the expected heavy stone pilasters and entabulatures of the style.

The good friends took the middle homes for themselves--Winant moving into No. 14 and Degraw into No. 16.  It is unclear how long the Winant family remained on Grove Street, but when Samuel died at the age of 71 on September 21, 1868, he was living in Rossville,Staten Island.

As early as 1857 the family of William H. Demarest was living at No. 14.  That year his 12-year old son, George Francis, attended Public School 38.  While some teen boys at the time cut their education short to find employment, George continued on, graduating in 1864 having "completed the full course, with modern languages."

It is not surprising that the boy's father placed importance on education.  William Demarest was a highly-valued employee of Harper & Brothers publishers.  Having started with the firm around 1832, he was now "chief cashier," a much more executive job than the term implies today.  He was not only in charge of the financial books, but kept strict records of the sales of titles and reported those numbers to their authors, like Herman Melville.

Demarest's exact accounting was evidenced in an incident in 1857 recalled by The Publishers Weekly decades later, on March 23, 1912.  Demarest "used to relate with a great deal of gusto that one morning, after John Harper had opened his mail and passed out the cash from the letters for record, the money was found twenty-five cents short.  He reported the matter to John Harper, who, in a laughing way, turned to his brothers and said: 'Demarest is making a great ado because I took twenty-five cents from the mail and gave it to a beggar.'"

Demarest's daughter, Sophia, was named after his mother, who apparently lived with the family.  The younger Sophia was married Edward W. Rachau in fashionable Grace Church on January 29, 1862.

The following year the bride's grandmother died in the Grove Street house.  Three days after Sophia Demarest's death at the age of 69 on January 11, 1863, her funeral was held in the home.

By the end of the decade William Demarest's health was failing.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on May 27, 1871 suggests that Sophia and her husband had moved into the house, possibly because of William's condition.  "Wanted--A girl to take care of a baby; must come well recommended."

The health of their employee of four decades did not go unnoticed by the Harper brothers. The following year, on April 25, 1872, The Publishers' and Stationer's Weekly reported:

A few mornings since Mr. Demarest was requested to step into the private office of the firm.  Here, without formal palaver, it was intimated that he might possibly have been a trifle overworked of late, and that a brief holiday would not be unacceptable.  For that purpose he was accorded six months' leave of absence to go abroad, his salary meanwhile to be continued, and to enable him to enjoy the trip comfortably, and as an indication of their friendship, they handed him a check for five thousand dollars.  Truly a pleasant thing nicely done.

Demarest never returned to Harper & Brothers.  The family moved to Jersey City where his wife, Eliza, died in November 1876.

In the meantime, No. 14 became home to developer Thomas Ball and his wife.   In March 1873 they looked for household help.  "Wanted -- A girl to cook, wash, iron and make herself generally useful; reference required; German preferred."  It would seem that the only responsibility not included in that broad job description was caring for the Balls' toddler.  Three months later they were seeking "a young girl as nurse, one who will make herself generally useful."

The Financial Panic of 1873 resulted in soup kitchens and bread lines similar to those that would become familiar to New Yorkers in 1929.  On March 18, 1874 The East Broadway Soup House listed recent donations from more fortunate citizens.  Included was Thomas Ball's $10 "for the purpose of buying 100 loaves of bread."  Interestingly, the notation listed his profession as "property owner."

Ball was responsible for substantial building projects, like the five-story store and tenement designed by John B. Snook on Madison Street in 1878.   The family remained at No. 14 until November 1891 when they sold it "on private terms" to Philip Sammet.  He quickly flipped the house, selling it to Margaret Johnson a month later.

Margaret ran it as a boarding house.  Among her tenants in 1894 was a draftsman, who was temporarily out of work.  His ad in the Engineering Record in September called him a "first-class map and engineering draghtsman."  His resume included 20 years experience "including six on railroad and nine on municipal work."  Giving his address as "Draughtsman, 14 Grove Street," he added that he was a "good letterer."

It was possibly Margaret Johnson who leased the basement level to a small commercial laundry.  The 4-man staff attempted to unionize in 1898 with unhappy results.   The Documents of the Senate of the State of New York in 1899 noted "On December 15th, 4 laundry workers employed at 14 Grove street, New York city, went on strike against the employment of a nonunion workman.  The men on strike had not been members of the union themselves until a few days previous to the strike, and their employer refused to force the man objected to to join their union.  the strike was not successful, and the strikers not only lost the strike but their positions as well."

While rooms continued to be rented throughout the ensuing decades, the house remained unchanged.  In the 1930's playwright Howard McLellan lived here.  He wrote his three-act play The Unknown Man here in 1931.

In 1966 a conversion was begun to convert the house to a duplex in the basement and parlor floor, and one apartment each on the upper stories.   In 1968 the Landmarks Preservation Commission lamented in its Greenwich Village Historic District designation "Until 1966, No. 14 was perhaps the last completely unaltered Greek Revival building in the City."

Apparently Dr. Gary Lazachek both lived and ran his medical office from the duplex in the 1970's.  He drew the attention of  the Congressional Subcommittee on Long-Term Care of the Special Senate Committee on Aging.  The subcommittee, which investigated Medicaid fraud, questioned the $131,956 in Medicaid funds he received in 1975.  That amount would be more in the neighborhood of $601,000 today.

Edward F. L. Bruen and his wife, the former Marian S. Gray, appeared in print for loftier reasons.  They were listed in the Social Register of New York while living here in 1985.

Samuel Winant's partner, John Degraw, lived next door, in the house with the shutters.
Despite the LPC's sorrow over the 1966 interior renovations, No. 14 Grove Street greatly maintains its 1840 outward appearance and integrity; an important presence on one of the city's most charming blocks.

photographs by the author

Friday, June 15, 2018

The George Bliss Agnew House - 121 East 69th Street




In the decade following the end of the Civil War the Upper East Side experienced rapid development.  Among the most prolific architects in the area was John Sexton, who designed scores of brownstone-fronted rowhouses.  In 1872 he embarked on an ambitious project for developer Christopher Keyes on East 69th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.

Completed the following year, the eleven identical high-stoop residences were 20-feet side and intended for financially-comfortable buyers.  Keyes priced them at $30,000 each, or about $635,000 today.

The family of well-to-do lawyer Gilbert Sutphen Van Pelt would call No. 121 home.  Van Pelt had married Annie Powell on June 17, 1863.   Gilbert was a member of the Holland Society, composed of descendants of New Amsterdam, and Annie was a Daughter of the American Revolution.  The couple would have two sons, Frederick Gilbert and William Robinson.

By the first years of the 1890's Frederick had moved to California with his wife and daughter, named Annie, after her grandmother.  Frederick's life was not a happy one.  Early in June 1893 he came east to visit the family for a week.  His mother described him during the visit as "very cheerful then and in good health, except for a severe cold that made him very nervous."

His nervousness, however, most likely did not come from a cold but from addiction.  Two weeks after he returned to San Francisco the 27-year old was dead.  On June 28, 1893 The Evening Post reported "Frederick G. Van Pelt, son of G. S. Van Pelt, a prominent jurist of New York, died yesterday from having taken thirty ounces of chloroform.  He had been addicted to the use of chloroform as an intoxicant."

The Van Pelts had received a telegram on the night of his death.  Annie hinted to a reporter from The Evening World that her daughter-in-law was responsible for Frederick's problems.  When asked if she had accompanied him on his recent trip, Annie replied "No; his wife was not with him here.  I do not know her.  My son's life has been a very sad one.  He made a great mistake, as many young men have done."

Gilbert Sutphen Van Pelt died on November 11, 1906 at the age of 69.  Annie remained in the 69th Street house and it was around this time that Frederick's teen-aged daughter moved in with her.

The entrance doors of the Van Pelt house were graced with bronze doorknobs executed by famous French sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme They had been brought from Paris as a gift from Annie's father.   On the morning of February 15, 1907 Annie was horrified to find them missing.

The New York Times reported "Mrs. Van Pelt believes the thieves do not know the real value of the doorknobs and will sell them for junk."  The article added "Mrs. Van Pelt, however, will give a great deal for the return of the bronzes, because, aside from their value as specimens of the work of the great French painter and sculptor, they have the especial value of association, having been brought from Europe by her father."  It is unclear if Annie ever recovered her doorknobs.

Annie died on May 16, 1909 at the age of 68.  She left an estate of more than $3.3 million in today's dollars. She left $500 to each of her servants, a generous $14,000 today.   The New York Times reported that the bulk of the estate was died equally between her son, William, and her granddaughter, Annie.  The teen's portion was held in trust.

The following April Annie's estate placed the house on the market.  Described as a "handsome four story, basement, and cellar brownstone (high stoop) dwelling," it was purchased by Catherine S. Auchincloss on May 6 for $59,500.  Rather bizarrely, she signed the paperwork exactly two days after her husband, Edgar S. Auchincloss, died.

Auchincloss had been a wealthy importer.  The couple had a son, Edgar, Jr., and three unmarried daughters, Mary Bliss, Elizabeth Ellen and Katrina.   His detailed will left explicit directions on how his estate was to be invested and included an unusual bequest.  The New York Times reported "In a codicil Mr. Auchincloss left $500 each to his surviving brothers to buy some personal token in his memory."

Catherine did not let grief get in the way of remodeling.  In September that year she hired the architectural firm of R. H. Robertson & Sons to make "extensive alterations and additions" to the home.   The brownstone front and stoop were removed, replaced by a fashionable neo-Georgian brick and stone facade.  The entrance was now firmly on the sidewalk.  A stone balcony with iron railings fronted French doors at the second floor, or piano nobile, where the dining room and drawing rooms were situated.  Paneled lintels at the third floor and splayed lintels at the fourth contributed to the 18th century design.  A dormered mansard was slightly disguised by a stone balustrade above the bracketed cornice.

photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Interestingly, upon completion of the massive remodeling in 1911, she sold the house to George Bliss Agnew and purchased No. 123 next door--another of the original 1873 row. 

The next door neighbors must have been close, for on the same day, September 17, 1915, architect W. I. Morris filed plans for renovations to both houses.  They were identical in scope, "extend stairs and bedrooms," at a cost of $3,000 each.  (In 1930 Catherine would hire architect William F. Dominick to completely remodel No. 123.)

Agnew's family on his father's side first arrived in Philadelphia in 1786.  His mother, Mary Hervey Bliss, traced her American roots to Thomas Bliss who settled in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1635.  Born in 1868, George graduated from Princeton College in 1891.  He entered the Wall Street firm of Cuyler, Morgan & Co.   Rather floridly, in 1902 The Successful American said "Soon after his graduation he surrendered the allurements of a professional life for the desk of the counting-room, and his life, so far, has been devoted mainly to financial and commercial pursuits, in which he has displayed remarkable vigor, together with integrity of character, perseverance and shrewd business tact."

But by the time Agnew moved his family into No. 121 his devotion to commerce had given way to political pursuits.  He was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1903 through 1906 and a member of the New York State Senate from 1907 to 1910.

Agnew and his wife, the former Emily D. Gruban, were married in 1908.  They had four sons, George, Jr., A. Gifford, Charles D., and David P., and a daughter, Madelaine.  George's wide-spread business interests included directorships in the Mexican Northern Railway, Robbins Conveying Belt Company, Intertype Corporation, and the Erie & Kalamazzo Railroad.  He was heavily involved in mining and was president of the North Star Mines of California, and a director of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, the Empire Star Mines and Compania Metalurgica Mexicana, and the president of the Gauley Mountain Coal Company of West Virginia.

George B. Agnew cut a rather dashing figure.  The Successful American, November 1902 (copyright expired)
The Agnews' country home was in Westchester County, in South Salem.  It was in the Presbyterian Church there that Madelaine's wedding to Hastings Foot 2nd took place on September 17, 1938.  The bride had enjoyed a privileged youth, attending the exclusive Spencer School and then Sarah Lawrence College.  Her marriage ceremony did not fall short.  There were 22 people in the wedding party.  A reception in the Agnew summer home followed.

After an illness of only a few days, the 73-year old George B. Agnew died in the East 69th Street house on June 21, 1941.   The former senator's funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church where he had worshiped for for nearly six decades.

Agnew's will left generous amounts to charitable, educational and religious institutions.  Princeton, for example, received $25,000 (more than $410,000 today).  Emily inherited the house and its furnishings.  George had put aside $5,000 to be distributed among the servants by Emily.

Emily's period of mourning was interrupted just three months later when George, Jr. married Mary Althea Eldredge in a surprisingly elaborate ceremony in Glen Cove, Long Island.

Emily died on July 9, 1947.  No. 121 became home to the Lebanese Consulate General that year.   Four years later it was converted to a doctor's office and two duplex apartments.

The Agnew house continues to have just two apartments inside.  And from the street little has changed since a new widow gave it a major face lift in 1910.

photograph by the author

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Corsets and Bolts - 81 White Street



Acting as trustee for the estate of Mary W. Hopkins, Stephen L. Hopkins acquired the old, two-story wooden house at No. 81 White Street in 1881.   Like all the brick and wooden dwellings in the neighborhood, it was soon to go.

The Hopkins estate contracted architect Charles C. Haight to design a modern loft building in its place.  Romanesque Revival had gained a sturdy foothold in architectural taste by now, greatly empowered by Henry Hobson Richardson's works, like his masterful Trinity Church in Boston.  The medieval-inspired style often relied on heavy carvings, massive arches, and muscular stonework.

So it is perhaps a bit surprising that Haight chose the style for the 25-foot wide plot.  His solution was a pleasing toned-down version of Romanesque Revival with no carvings nor chunky medieval columns.  Instead the asymmetrical red brick facade was relieved by brownstone bandcourses.  Above the ground floor where a cast iron storefront nestled within the brick, three stories of wide and narrow openings culminated in rounded windows capped with a continuous brownstone archivolt (or "eyebrow").  Haight successfully created the illusion of two three-story arches.  Carved brownstone bosses dripped from the points of the archivolts, the architect's historic nod to the middle ages.

Although an arcade might have been expected for the top floor--certainly in keeping with the style--Haight opted for side-by-side rectangular windows topped with a common brownstone lintel.  At either side were brick corbels which originally upheld an architecturally appropriate cornice, perhaps lost in the devastating fire seven years later.

Among the first tenants was Caxton Bookbinding Co.  In July 1883 the firm was looking for a "good book cutter."   Another early firm was Ferris Bros., manufacturers of corsets.  The company offered corsets for all ages of users, including (hard to believe today) infants.

Terra Haute Weekly Gazette, August 12, 1886 (copyright expired)
Caxton Bookbinding was still in the building in 1888.   It shared the upper floors with three dry goods commission merchants--Posner Brothers, Mahler & Myer, and S. Lepousky.  At street level was Simon & Strelitzer, cloth commission merchants.

A fire broke out in the building at around 7:30 on the night of January 2.  It traveled up the elevator shaft, spreading throughout the structure.   An inferno resulted when it reached the bookbinding shop, with its highly flammable contents.  The Sun reported "The cloths, book bindings, paste, paints, and chemicals in the Caxton book concern's rooms burned fiercely.  The fire burst through the iron shutters at the rear and shot toward the houses on Franklin street."

The thick smoke made White Street "absolutely dark," said the newspaper.  So intense was the heat that windows of factories facing Walker Street, a block to the north, blew out.  Despite the frigid winter temperatures, "the sidewalk below these buildings were so hot that dripping water turned to steam."

The New York Times reported "At 10 o'clock the extent of the disaster was the gutting of 81, the seriously damaging of 79 and 83 and 85, and the gutting of the sixth floor of 82 and 84 White-street."  Caxton alone suffered $35,000 in lost stock and machinery--more than $900,000 in today's dollars.

Charles C. Haight was brought back to make repairs.  He filed plans on March 9 with a projected cost of more than a third of a million dollars today.

The renovated building was leased to J. H. Bishop "the well-known manufacturer of skin rugs and sleigh robes," as described by the Fur Trade Review on July 1, 1890.   The product were a necessity for winter passengers in open sleighs.  The magazine said the Wyandotte, Michigan-based firm "has fitted it up for a warehouse and salesrooms for the display of his very popular productions."

J. H. Bishop's enormous stock of fur robes and rugs came from their plant in Michigan. Fur Trade Review, July 1, 1890 (copyright expired)
An advertisement that year warned retailers "Do NOT buy your Sleigh Robes or Skin Rugs until you see our line.  We are showing the largest line of 'Fur Rugs,' Sheepskin Mats and Goatskin Sleigh Robes we have ever shown."

The early 1890's saw an array of factories on the upper floors.  L. Livingston & Co. was here by 1893 making pocketbooks.  Its large workforce included 50 men, 30 boys under 21 years of age, 15 boys under 16, 3 women, and one girl under 21 years old.  Their workweek was 60 hours, not including weekends.

Smaller shops at the time were Jacob Gray, makers of suspenders; and Max Ludwig who employed just 6 men and a boy making "corset steels."

The Hopkins family still owned No. 81 in 1906 when Louise D. Hopkins leased it to the Raven Gloss Manufacturing Company.  The firm manufactured shoe polish and introduced its Cadet White that year--reflecting a new fashion trend in footwear.

On August 29, 1906 Boot and Shoe Recorder published an article entitled "Are White Shoes Being Worn by Everyone?" which began "One would think every man, woman and child in this country were wearing white canvas shoes from the enormous daily shipments of Cadet White from the factory of the Raven Gloss Company at 81 White street, New York City."

The firm had long produced its Button's Raven Gloss, which the magazine described as "a shoe dressing that has become famous, and is known to every buyer of shoes, that is whose who use shoe polish, and there are very few who do not use it."

In January 1919 the U. T. Hungerford Brass and Copper Co. purchased the building.   Despite its name, the firm dealt in a broad array of metals, including "German silver," bronze and aluminum.  Its headquarters, the 17-story Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building facing Lafayette Street, was just 50 feet to the east.

The Hungerford Building, which survives, was pictured on the firm's letterhead.

The new owners hired architect William E. Austin to improve the aging building and convert it for warehousing.  His plans, filed the following month, called for replacing the stairs with new "fireproof" versions, added an elevator, and replacing doors.  The renovations joined No. 81 internally with No. 79 and it was most likely at this time that the storefront was replaced with truck doors.

No. 81 and its next door neighbor were joined internally in 1919.

In 1927 Case Brass and Copper Company acquired the firm, including the White Street warehouse.  The firm remained in the building for decades.

In 1960 the combined buildings were purchased by William Abramowitz, head of the Concord Radio Corporation.  The New York Times reported he intended to use the building "for his other electronic enterprises."

Major change came to Nos. 79-81 in 2006 when a conversion resulted in two apartments per floor above street level.   By 2012 No. 81 was home to Space on White, a performance space for emerging artists.  It has since closed.

photographs by the author