Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lost Anson R. Flower Mansion -- No. 601 5th Avenue

The elegant renovations to No. 603 (left) and the Flower mansion were completed in 1902 -- photo "Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue"  1910 (copyright expired)

Around 9:00 on the evening of October 5, 1891 Governor Roswell Pettibone Flower and his wife left the brownstone mansion at No. 601 Fifth Avenue.  They walked, unescorted, a block north to the Democratic Club where Flower was guest of honor at a glittering reception.   The house where the Flowers were staying was the home of Emma A. Schley, wife of millionaire lawyer William Schley and the sister of the Governor’s wife.

Perhaps less powerful but no less wealthy were Flower’s brothers, partners in the banking firm of Flower & Co.  Frederick Flower lived near Emma Schley at No. 615 Fifth Avenue, while Anson Ranney Flower’s mansion was at No. 500 Madison Avenue. 

Like most wealthy New Yorkers at the time, Anson Flower was involved in more than his banking firm.  He was a Director in the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Railroad Co.; Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad Co.; the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Co.; the Colonial Trust Co.; Federal Steel Co. and at least at dozen other corporations.

photograph by Alwan & Co, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/%5bAnson-R.-Flower.%5d-24UAKVA9H8F.html 

The Successful American said in 1899 “The firm of Flower & Co. is well known to the banking houses of the world as one of the most solid financial institutions in America, and also as one of the most daring and successful in speculation.”    The entire Flower family was well-respected and The Successful American said of Anson, “The family traits are faithfully preserved in Mr. Flower and he represents the best qualities of the stock.”

When Emma Schley died in 1900 she left an estate of “several millions of dollars.”   Her generosity extended even to her favorite clerks at B. Altman’s Department Store.  Mrs. Nagle, a clerk in “the white underwear department” there received $5,000 as did another clerk, Mrs. Flanagan.   The handsome inheritances would equal nearly $145,000 today.

The New York Times reported on July 1, 1900 that Emma’s daughter, Emma G. Halsey, received the largest bequest.  “To her Mrs. Schley leaves her home at 601 Fifth Avenue, with all it contains.”  Emma Schley had earlier purchased the house next door, No. 603; and Roswell P. Flower by now owned the two flanking houses at Nos. 599 and 605.

On January 6, 1901 the New-York Tribune reported that Anson R. Flower had purchased Nos. 601 and 603 from Emma Schley’s estate.    According to the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide, Flower paid $150,000 for No. 601 and $110,000 for No. 603.  The newspaper described them as “two four story and basement brownstone dwelling houses” and proposed that “Mr. Flower may unite the two houses into one for his own use.”
Both No. 603 (left) and No. 601 were about to get remarkable make-overs -- New-York Tribune, January 6, 1901 (copyright expired)

The Tribune’s supposition was not far off the mark.  At the turn of the century Manhattan’s millionaires were quickly razing or remodeling outdated brownstones into modern American basement showplaces (American basement homes were entered at street level, eliminating the high stoops).

But instead of joining the two houses, Flower quickly sold No. 603 to real estate operator Jeremiah C. Lyons, making a quick $20,000 profit.  Both Flower and Lyons remodeled the two residences and within the year they were unrecognizable.   Similar in style, they rose five stories to steep copper-clad mansard roofs.   While the Flower mansion was clad in red brick in contrast to the limestone front of No. 603; it made up for it in opulence.  Near matching six-foot iron fencing protected the areaways of both mansions.  The architect carried the material up to the entrance of the Flower mansion, having the elaborate door grills in cast iron rather than bronze.

The Record & Guide used the entrance doors as an example of fine cast iron work  August 8, 1908 (copyright expired)

Both houses were completed in 1902 and Lyons sold No. 603 to James B. Clemens for $200,000.   

The Times remarked on the Flower mansion. “The house is handsomely furnished, the tapestries and furniture having been imported for Mrs. Flower.”

While construction on the Flower residence was continuing, Anson Flower had added one more item to his resume.  In June 1901 he was elected President of the Amalgamated Copper Company, filling the position vacated by Standard Oil Company executive H. H. Rogers’s resignation.  Rogers appears to have gotten out of the copper business just in time.

It was a time when multimillionaires with names like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt were feeling attacked by the government, which was seeking to break the monopolistic empires the moguls had worked so hard to build.  Summonses to appear were often met with cold defiance.

Five months later, on November 24, 1901, the New-York Tribune reported that “Several of New-York’s wealthy and well known men have been summoned to appear before Judge Lacome, in the United States Circuit Court, on November 29, to show cause why the judge should not commit them to jail or fine them, or otherwise punish them at his discretion, for contempt of court.”  Anson R. Flower was among those “wealthy and well known men.”

Six days later The New York Times ran the headline “Anson R. Flower in Custody.”  Judge Lacome found the stubborn tycoon “guilty of contempt of court” after he refused to testify.  The judge committed him “to the custody of United States Marshall Henkel until he shall consent to appear and testify in an action brought against the company in the Montana courts.”

While the tempest played out, Ida Flower continued her charitable works and entertaining.  Eventually the scandal passed and life at No. 601 Fifth Avenue returned to normal.   Anson and Ida, who had no children, maintained a country estate in Watertown, New York.  When the summer season of 1908 drew to a close, the Flowers remained upstate after Anson’s heart condition took a serious turn.

On November 17 a Watertown newspaper reported “Anson R. Flower of the banking firm of Flower & Co., New York, was so ill at his home in this city yesterday that prayers were offered for his recovery in the Episcopal Church.”   But family members assured the reporter that the millionaire was resting “more comfortably and was apparently upon the road to recovery.”

As it turned out, there would be no road to recovery.   Anson Ranney Flower died in the Watertown house less than two months later, on January 3, 1909.   The ugly court case of 1901 was forgotten in his obituary.  Instead his vast charities, including the co-founding of Flower Hospital with his brothers, and his magnanimous contributions to the Stonywold Sanitarium in the Adirondacks; along with his vestryman position with St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church were remembered.

Ida remained in Watertown, leasing the mansion on Fifth Avenue to Washington B. Thomas, President of the American Sugar Refining Company.   On September 20, 1909 the New-York Daily Tribune noted “it is rented, fully furnished, as a temporary home for Mr. Thomas.”  The following year it was leased to Mrs. C. H. Mellon “of Morristown, New York,” according to The Times.

By now commerce had engulfed the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around the Flower mansion.  Although its handsome renovations were only 10 years old, The New York Times called the house “the old Anson R. Flower residence” when Ida leased it in June 1911 “on a long term for business.”

The “long term” lease lasted less than a year.   On March 24, 1912 The New York Times reported “Within the next month one of the fine old residences on Fifth Avenue above Forty-eighth Street will be torn down, giving way to a five-story business structure…The old residence has been the town home of Mrs. Anson Flower for about twelve years.”  An auction of the artwork, tapestries, and imported furniture was held inside the house on April 10.  Within five months the new building, designed by Albert Joseph Bodker, was completed.

The upper floors of the Clemmons mansion, next door, survive nearly intact.  photo by the author

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Federal Survivor at No. 37 East 7th. Street




By the 1830s attorney and banker Thomas E. Davis had become perhaps more interested in real estate development than his primary professions.  He would become a major player in the East Side north of the exclusive Bond Street neighborhood; as it transformed from farmland to residences.  Beginning around 1831, he erected rows of speculative brick homes in the area.

Partnering with Louis Wilcox in 1832, he began construction of one such row on East 7th Street, which included No. 37.  The handsome Federal style residence was completed the following year and was valued at $6,000—about $165,000 today.

Clad in warm orange brick laid in Flemish bond, it rose three stories high above an English basement.  Diminutive carved brackets supported the stone window sills and a prim denticulated cornice capped the facade.  The major hint that the home was intended for a financially-comfortable family lay in the intricate doorway.  Here the round arched door surround with its faceted keystone featured delicate carving and suggested upscale interiors behind its double doors.


The interior of the entrance was paneled and a delicate egg-and-dart molding runs below the fanlight.
As the decades passed, the neighborhood changed.  The Lower East Side saw the influx of immigrant families following the end of the Civil War and tenements soon outnumbered private homes.  Nevertheless No. 37 hung on and in the 1890s was the home of Dr. Milo M. Duncan (sometimes spelled Mylo) and his wife Rebecca.

While Dr. Duncan may have led the respectable life of a neighborhood physician, Rebecca was somewhat of a bad girl.  On February 13, 1896 she found herself on the wrong side of the law.

According to a nameless young man, he was leaving the Star Theatre when he saw Mrs. Duncan.  “She was there with a crowd around her when I came along and I asked her what was the matter.  Then she caught hold of me and accused me of stealing a diamond ring,”

The Sun reported on the incident the following day saying “A fashionable dressed woman, who appeared to be intoxicated, collected a crowd about her in Thirteenth street, near Broadway, a 11 o’clock last night.  She had caught hold of a good-looking young man and clung to his arm, shouting: ‘You stole my ring!’”

Rebecca’s version of events was quite different.  According to the newspaper, she told police “that she had visited friends up town, and had started to go home at 8 o’clock...she rode down on an elevated train to Ninth street.  Then she had met the young man, and had a few drinks with him.  He afterward took her ring and refused to give it up, she said.”

The policeman on duty outside the theater corroborated the young man's story.  He was released.  And when Rebecca was questioned at the police station, her story fell apart.  “She could not remember where she had been drinking, nor could she say how many drinks she had.  Her forehead was cut, and she did not know how she had been injured,” said The Sun.

Worse, when the station house matron searched Rebecca’s pockets, she found a $20 pawn ticket for her diamond ring.  "She was locked up."

A year later Dr. Duncan had apparently had enough.  In May 1897 he sued Rebecca for “absolute divorce,” claiming she was intimate with Henry White on April 15.  Rebecca Duncan vehemently denied the charge and blamed their differences on the doctor.

“She says her husband preferred the society of his servants to that of his wife, and played cards with them; furthermore, that he continued to be on friendly terms with a doctor who, as she had told her husband, had made improper proposals to her,” reported The Sun on May 22, 1897.

Justice Andrews of the Supreme Court put an end to the couple’s differences by granting the doctor his divorce.  He was directed to pay Rebecca $150 in legal fees and $20 a week alimony.

As the turn of the century came, most of the houses along the block had all been altered or demolished—but not No. 37.  By 1904 the Independent Order B’rith Abraham of the United States of America was using the basement and parlor floor as its headquarters.  Max Schwartz, First Deputy Grand Master of the Order, owned the building.  The upper floors were apparently leased to The Baker & Taylor Co., booksellers.

Baker & Taylor ran its wholesale book company here in 1906--The School Journal March 17, 1906 (copyright expired)

Organized in 1887, the “fraternal beneficiary order” was composed mainly of Russian, Polish and German Jewish members.  The group maintained a cemetery fund, administered donations for charitable causes, and provided relief to indigent families. 

While the Independent Order B’rith Abraham focused on Jewish tradition; it also stressed the importance of learning English and becoming Americanized.  Within a very few years this stance would be vital.

On March 7, 1912 the New-York Tribune noted that Max Schwartz had renewed the lease for the “parlor floor, etc.” to the Independent Order B’rith Abraham of the United States of America.  The lodge would pay Schwartz $2,600 for the 15-year lease.  Quickly, however, the Order rethought the arrangement.

A report dated March 24, 1913 said “Upon recommendation of the grand master, the last convention authorized the executive committee to purchase the property at 37 East 7th street, New York City, for the sum of $19,000, plus the cost of alterations.  This building has been used by the Grand Lodge as its headquarters for a number of years.”

The total sum paid by the Order to Max Schwartz was $29,373.39.  The immediate alterations included returning the upper floors to a single residence for the Grand Secretary, and the replacement of the stoop which was described as “worn out.”

In 1916 additional interior changes were made when the Order commissioned architects Sommerfeld & Steckler & Samuel Cohen to “erect walls and rearrange rooms” according to the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide on March 11.

By the time the United States entered World War I, the German population of Manhattan had greatly abandoned the Lower East Side for the Yorkville area.  Nevertheless the neighborhood around the Order B’rith Abraham still had a noticeable German-born population.  Now with Germany the nation’s enemy, German-speaking New Yorkers were eyed with suspicion and fear.

In February 1918 every German in Manhattan was required to register as an “enemy alien.”  The New-York Tribune reported on February 6, “The Eighty-eighth Street station, in the most populous Teutonic district in the city, had registered exactly 501 out of its estimated total of 3,000 aliens by 5 o’clock last night.”  Each registrant was fingerprinted and his personal data recorded.

“Next Sunday, after the close of the registration period, each policeman will start out to investigate and verify the information given by the registrants on his beat.  If everything is found correct, registration cards will be issued within a fortnight,” said the Tribune.  “Wrong addresses or misinformation, will result in turning the case over to the Department of Justice.”

Those Lower East Side residents with Germanic surnames lined up outside No. 37 East 7th Street.  Somewhat ironically the majority of the lodge members were of Germanic descent.  From its inception, however, the order had been outspokenly patriotic. 

Later that year, on October 1, The New York Times reported that “The New York branch of the Independent Order of B’rith Abraham subscribed $50,000 yesterday to the Fourth Liberty Loan, the announcement being made in connection with the raising of the order’s service flag, containing 8,460 stars, in front of its headquarters at 37 East Seventh Street.”  The generous subscription to the Liberty Loan would translate to about $725,000 today.  Before the war’s end the order would sell $5 million in Liberty Bonds.

It was around this time that the organization added a masonry parapet above the building's cornice.  But as other houses on the block continued to be drastically altered, little else was changed to the Federal style building.

Somewhat surprisingly, the end of the war did not bring an end to alien registration.  On December 19, 1922 the Executive Board of the Grand Lodge of the Independent Order, B’rith Abraham, held a meeting in the 7th Street headquarters.  Wartime registration was one thing, felt the members; but registering aliens in peacetime was not what the United States was all about.  A resolution was passed ‘denouncing” the alien registry bill.

“The resolution declared that any law requiring aliens to be photographed and registered annually was un-American,” reported The New York Times.

Living in the house at the time was Max L. Hollander.  He had been Grand Secretary since 1909.  Born in Czechoslovakia in 1870, he arrived in New York as a child.  After a 23-year career as a tailor on the Lower East Side, he devoted himself to B’rith Abraham.

The socially and politically involved Hollander went to the White House to appeal to President Theodore Roosevelt for financial aid for survivors following the massacre of Jews during the Kishinev pogroms.  A founder of the American Jewish Congress he twice served as grand secretary at its World Conventions in Geneva and Washington, DC.

The 73-year old Max Hollander died in the house on the afternoon of February 20, 1943 after being ill about five months.  Three days later The New York Times said “The synagogues of Manhattan’s lower East Side went into a week’s period of mourning yesterday, and 1,500 persons attended a funeral service in the afternoon for Max L. Hollander.”  Following the service the cortege was escorted by 40 automobiles to the cemetery.

The Independent Order B’rith Abraham remained in the house for decades.  Sometime around mid-century the parapet was removed, making the building appear even more frozen in time. 

In 1981 Princeton architectural student Kevin Lippert and his classmates struggled with the large French drawing books from the turn of the century.  Lippert’s idea was to create more easily handled, reduced-format editions.  The Princeton Architectural Press was born of his idea.


Lippert was graduated in 1983 and two years later moved his publishing firm into the East 7th Street house where it remains today.  Because of its good fortune of being the home of a fraternal organization for many decades, then to an architectural publishing firm; No. 37 East 7th Street has survived as a nearly-intact 1832 example of Federal domestic architecture. 

photographs by the author

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Afred Rossin House -- No. 15 East 62nd Street



In 1871 brothers David and John Jardine worked both as real estate developers and architects.  Before the century was up, they would line blocks of the newly-developing Upper East Side with long rows of brownstone homes.  But this year they worked on a project as architects only; designing six neo-Grec style homes for contractors William H. and Charles Gedney.

Like Charles T. Wills, W. H. Gedney & Son, would play a major part in building and construction in the second half of the 19th century.  Their speculative homes at Nos. 11 through 21 East 62nd Street would be completed in 1872—handsome Victorian residences with broad stoops and carved stone railings sure to lure merchant class homeowners.

By at least 1891 respected dermatologist Dr. Sigmund Lustgarten was living in No. 15.  That year he had written “The Primary Cause of Death Following Burns to the Skin, with Therapeutic Observations” published in the Medical Record.  Born in Vienna, he came to New York in 1889 and became the visiting dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.  He instructed “many of the leading dermatologists of this city,” said The New York Times later; and was a consultant for the Montefiore Home and other institutions.

Dr. Lustgarten and his wife sold the 62nd Street house in March 1899.  Shortly thereafter The New York Times revealed the buyer as Frank C. Hollins.  But as was often the case, Hollins was apparently acting as an agent to keep the actual purchaser’s name temporarily unknown.

A month later the same newspaper reported on the society wedding of Alfred Rossin and Clara Lewisohn.  The couple was married in the “the newly completed residence of the bride’s father, 9 West Fifty-seventh Street, one of the most beautiful of New York’s newer houses.”  Among the guests that day were some of Manhattan’s wealthiest and best known Jewish citizens, with names like Rothschild, Untermeyer, Stern and Guggenheimer.

The newlyweds would move into the former Lustgarten house—but not before updating the old Victorian.  Rossin commissioned C. P. H. Gilbert, who had recently completed massive mansions for Isaac D. Fletcher and Franklin Winfield Woolworth, to transform the old brownstone into an up-to-date mansion.

Gilbert stripped off the drab stone façade and replaced it with gleaming limestone.  The resulting Beaux Arts beauty bore no resemblance to its former self.  A rusticated basement and parlor floor base supported a bowed second story façade which, in turn, acted as a spacious balcony at the third floor. 

Prior to its remake, No. 15 matched its next door neighbor (right) -- photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW1J2RFV&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=3#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW1J2RFV&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=3

Rossin was President of the Public National Bank; and while he busied himself with things financial, his wife was involved with the Hebrew Technical School for Girls as its president.  Working along with her was her father, investment banker Adolph Lewisohn, who served as vice-president.  The school came under fire in January 1917 when Felix Warburg laid plans to update the curriculum.

Warburg was a banker and member of the conference board of the Rockefeller Foundation, which planned to revise primary and secondary education nationwide.  Shocking (and unacceptable) to traditional Edwardian minds was his announcement that Latin and Greek would be replaced by French and German in the “modern school.”  He fired back at criticism saying “It is questionable whether a child can be taught what he ought to know under our present system,” and Adolph Lewisohn back him up.  According to the New-York Tribune on January 22, 1917, he “said the community needed more schools like the Hebrew Technical School for Girls.”

Not far away, at No. 40 East 68th Street, was the grand mansion of John Daniel Crimmins.  The wealthy contractor had created the lavish home by combining two older row houses.  On November 9, 1917 the aging widower died with seven of his ten children at his bedside.  Within three months of the funeral, the Crimmins family moved out of the family home.

On March 16, 1918 The Sun reported “The Crimmins family…will occupy the dwelling at 15 East Sixty-second street, a small house, in the future.”  Alfred and Clara Rossin used their house, valued at $97,000, as partial payment for the Crimmins mansion, which they purchased for $350,000.

Apparently the “small house” on 62nd Street was not sufficient for the Crimmins siblings.  Just a year later, on May 5, 1919, The Sun reported that the house was sold to Howard Elliott for $110,000.  “The new owner plans to occupy the house after making extensive alterations,” said the newspaper.

The 59-year old railroad executive and his wife had two married daughters and a son.  He was President of the New York, New Haven & Hartford and the Northern Pacific Railroads.  He was, as well, a director of 17 other railroads, director of the American Railway Association, and sat on the boards of numerous other concerns.

Elliott came from a distinguished family.  His father, Charles Wyllys Elliott was a historian and author of several books.  The Elliott family traced its American roots to John Eliot who settled in Natick, Massachusetts in 1631 and was known as “The Apostle to the Indians.”  On his mother’s side was Samuel Howard, a member of the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

The Elliotts moved into No. 15 in 1919 -- photographs from the Library of Congress
Following his wife’s death in 1925, the semi-retired Elliott lived on in the 62nd Street house with his son, Howard Elliott, Jr.  Three years later he traveled to Cape Cod to spend the summer in the home of his daughter, Mrs. Frederick Wilson.  There, on July 8, 1928 he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 67.

Elliott’s entire estate of about $2.25 million was divided among his family.  On October 29, 1929 the house was sold to real estate operator Charles Brown.   He held the property for only 48 hours.  The New York Times, on November 1, wrote “After an ownership of two days, the five-story limestone residence at 15 East Sixty-second Street was resold yesterday by Charles Brown.”  The newspaper added that the buyer “plans to rebuild the house and occupy it.  The alterations will include the installation of an electric elevator.”


Earlier that year Jennie, the wife of wealthy banker Henry White Cannon, died.  New Yorker socialites were no doubt shocked a year later on September 18 when the 80-year old married Miss Myrta L. Jones.  The Times reported that “After a wedding trip the couple will live at 15 East Sixty-second Street.”

Cannon was a member of the board and a former president of the Chase National Bank.  His illustrious financial career included having been appointed Controller of the Currency by President Chester A. Arthur in 1884 and serving as a delegate to the International Monetary Conference in Brussels in 1892.

Myrta’s family was well respected in Cleveland society; but Henry’s pedigree was impeccable.  On his mother side was Peregrine White, born aboard the Mayflower on November 20, 1620 while the ship was moored in Cape Cod Harbor.  His grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War and died a prisoner of the British in Manhattan.

The millionaire’s age did not prevent him from fathering a son, Harry.  Each winter the family would travel to Daytona Beach where Cannon had owned a house on South Beach Street.  Henry Cannon’s health was been failing for some time in 1934, and it was at the Florida home in April, that he died.

Myrtle and little Harry accompanied the body back to New York and Cannon’s funeral was held early in May in Delhi, New York, where he was born.

No. 15 East 62nd Street became home to Dr. Johan H. W. van Ophuijsen, an eminent psychiatrist and director of the Creedmoor Institute for Psychobiologic Studies.  Born in Sumatra, he was associated early in his career with Dr. Sigmund Freud and Dr. Ivan Pavov—pioneers of psychoanalysis.

He came to New York by invitation of the Psychanalytic Institute to teach in 1935.  He would teach there from 1938 to 1948.  He served on the psychiatric staffs of Mount Sinai and Lenox Hill Hospitals, and beginning in 1946 was attending psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration.

The New York Times would write of him, “Dr. van Ophuijsen stressed the importance of the role of the father in the psychological rearing of children, taking sharp issue with experts who had ‘told but half the story,’ he said, in blaming psychoneurotic symptoms—which in this country made many young men unfit to bear arms during the recent war—on the mother.”

Ophuijsen renovated a lower floor in the house as an office where he personally saw patients.  As well as living in here, he founded the Van Ophuijsen Center in the house.  In May 1950 he was stricken with a heart problem, “but flew to Detroit to read a paper before the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting,” said The Times.

Four weeks later, on Wednesday May 31, the 68-year old psychiatrist said good-night to his last patient of the day.  A few minutes later he suffered a heart attack and died in the house on East 62nd Street.

The Beaux Arts mansion continues to be home to the Center, a philanthropic, non-profit institution that carries on its founder’s work.  Outwardly, it remains relatively unchanged since mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert transformed an outdated Victorian to an modern Edwardian for wealthy newlyweds.

non-credited photographs by the author

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Suydam House -- No. 362 W 19th Street


In the 1820s and ‘30s, the farmland north of 14th Street on the west side of Manhattan changed as streets were laid out and avenues extended.  Eighth Avenue was extended northward in 1816 and in May of 1825 the George Rapelje farm—stretching from 16th Street to 18th Street and from Seventh to Tenth Avenues—was dissected into building lots.

In the 1830s brick homes were rising along West 19th Street, at the northern rim of the Rapelje farm.  One of these was No. 362 West 19th Street.  The Greek Revival style was just beginning to nudge out the Federal style and the three-story brick home would reflect many of its elements.  Bold carved stone lintels sat above the openings and a corresponding limestone entrance surround sheltered the recessed doorway.  The rusticated brownstone basement was protected by an iron fence with a Greek key lower border and handsome palmettes along the top.  The sumptuous stoop railing terminated at street level with intricate basket newels perched on brownstone drums.


During the first years following the end of the Civil War No. 362 was home to Susan M. Suydam.  The unmarried woman apparently became concerned when she lost contact with her brother, Charles, who had gone to California.  On June 9, 1871 an advertisement appeared in the Daily Alta California newspaper:  “Information Wanted—By Miss Susan M. Suydam, No. 362 West Nineteenth st., New York, of the residence of CHARLES W. SUYDAM.  Address as above or care of Wells, Fargo & Co., San Francisco.”

Sadly, Susan was too late.  The 41-year old Charles’s death had been reported in the San Francisco Call on February 10 the year before.  Susan would live in the 19th Street house at least through 1872.

By 1885 the house was home to the Meserole family.  Cornelius Meserole was the head of Cornelius Meserole & Co and, according to The Sun on in 1887, “was the man who invented the paper collars.”

Meserole’s children opted for show business rather than take up the paper collar trade.  Daughter Fannie was, according to the newspaper, “a song-and-dance artist.”  On March 25, 1885 she married Samuel Lynch who styled himself as a speculator.  “The ceremony was performed by the Rev. T. G. Veitch,” said The Sun, “and the couple went to live at 362 West Nineteenth street, the home of the Meserole brothers, who are acrobats.”

The couple would soon encounter problems.  “Lynch and his new wife separated, and Lynch put up at the Coleman House.  This summer he has followed horse racing,” advised The Sun on July 4, 1887.  But more serious issues would soon take up Lynch’s time.

It seems that Samuel Lynch had neglected to mention to Fannie L. Meserole that he already had a wife, Sadie W. Smith Lynch, who lived at No. 120 East 26th Street.  In July 1887 Fannie’s brother, Charles, did some investigating and “called on Mrs. Sadie Lynch, who informed him that she was married to Lynch on Sept. 4, 1882, by the Rev. George H. Houghton in the Little Church Around the Corner, and that Lynch had deserted her."

Fannie’s infuriated brother swore out a warrant at Jefferson Market Courthouse charging Samuel Lynch with bigamy.  Court Officer Nixon went to the Coleman House and arrested the 27-year old Lothario.  When he appeared in court, despite being confronted by Sadie and Charles, he pleaded not guilty.

The Meserole family seems to have left West 19th Street within the year.  Miss Adelia O’Rorke lived here at least for four years, from 1888 through 1892, while teaching at Grammar School No. 24.  It then became home to Dr. Euphemia Jane Myers Sturtevant, who moved here from No. 302 West 12th Street.

In the 19th century the mere idea of a female doctor was nearly preposterous; yet Dr. Sturtevant was associated with the New York Medical College and Hospital for Woman; and had been Assistant to the Chair of Surgery there since 1883.  In 1888 she became a member of the International Hahnemannian Association.

Founded in 1880, the association had splintered off from the mainstream homeopathic doctors who followed the teachings of Samuel Hahnemann.  He had revolutionized the focus of 18th and 19th century medicine by stressing the importance of proper diet, exercise, improved hygiene and reduced stress.

Although the conventional Hahnemannian doctors forcefully decried the new Association; Dr. Sturtevant and her comrades were convinced of their lofty ideals.  In an editorial in The Hahnemannian Advocate the group said “The work is radically different from that presented in any other National Association, being a consideration of Homoeopathy pure and simple.”

Around the time the Meserole Family lived here, skinny updated double doors were installed.

Dr. Euphemia Sturtevant lived in the house at least four years—from 1893 through 1897.  By the turn of the century 18-year old William J. Rogers was here.  The boy was employed as a clerk by Theodore Leneburg, who owned Rennenberg’s Drug Store at No. 103 Ninth Avenue, just two blocks away.  His boss would tell reporters that “Rogers was employed to assist the registered clerk.”  He was authorized to wait on customers and dispense drugs that did not need mixing.

At No. 408 West 16th Street lived the family of street sweeper Louis Caputa.  Mrs. Caputa’s mother, 60-year old Joua Vinca, lived with the family to help with the housework and childcare.  On November 20, 1902 the Caputa’s six-month old son, Joseph, was ill.  Mrs. Caputa sent her 8-year old daughter Jenny to the drug store to get “ten cents’ worth of castor oil  and almond oil mixed,” according to The Evening World the following day.

When Mary returned, her mother smelled the bottle and could detect no odor of almonds, and sent the girl back with her older sister, Mary.  According to The Evening World, William Rogers was on duty and “when told that the oil of almonds had not been mixed with the castor oil said he would fix it.  He did.”

The youthful Rogers made a horrific mistake.  Instead of filling the bottle with castor oil and almond oil, he gave the little girls a bottle of Cyanide of Potassium—a deadly poison.

The following morning the grandmother “poured some of it into a teaspoon and gave it to little Joseph Caputa, after which she took a tablespoonful herself,” reported The New York Times.  “In five minutes both the child and the aged woman fell into convulsions.”  The Evening World described them as being in “frightful agony.”

By the time Dr. James Shea arrived, the grandmother was dead.  The baby was taken to the New York Hospital where he died a few minutes later.

The Caputa sisters took police to the drug store where they identified Rogers as the man who had given them the poison.  “Rogers himself said he had not sold the mixture to the children and had never seen them before,” said The New York Times.  Despite his protests, he was arrested and held at $2,000 bail—more than $50,000 in today’s dollars.

Throughout the first half of the century No. 362 remained a single family house, bought and sold as would be expected.  In 1906 John A. Addison sold it to Louis Schramm; and in 1939 Rose F. McKenna sold it to Anna Taylor.

Then, in 1952, plans were submitted to the Department of Buildings “for altering the three-story and basement brick…into two duplex apartments.”  Those plans were apparently never executed; for in 1959 the house was converted to a triplex dwelling on the basement through second floors; with a separate apartment on the third.


In 2007 the house was re-converted to a single family home.  One real estate critic said “the house underwent a significant renovation…but it was hardly what might qualify as a restoration.”  Perhaps years of neglect forced the owners to do what was essentially a gut renovation; but few traces of the interior details remained.  It was sold not long after for $1.5 million; then was relisted in 2011 for $6.5 million. 


An exquisite, yet period-inappropriate Civil War period mantel attempts to regain a sense of history.  Otherwise, little remains to suggest a vintage home.  http://streeteasy.com/building/362-west-19-street-new_york

Despite the unfortunate treatment of the interiors, the façade of the dignified townhouse is lovingly maintained.  The replacement windows are quaint, if incorrect; but the wonderful ironwork of the railings and fence happily survive.


non-credited photographs taken by the author

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The 1928 Birns Building -- 111 Second Avenue




In 1915 Saul Birnzweig was in trouble.  

The somewhat shady entrepreneur had gotten in on the wildly popular phonograph or “talking machine” craze.  Starting out selling the machines at No. 117 Second Avenue, he later had moved down the block to No. 111.  Somewhat suspiciously, he changed the name of his business several times—operating as the Atlantic Talking Machine Company, the Metropolitan Talking Machine Company, and as Saul Birns.

While his business was successful, he cooked up a scheme to make more money.  He ran newspaper advertisements in foreign languages targeting immigrants. They promised a high-quality phonograph plus records of songs in their native tongues on a 30-day free trial.  If the recipient liked the machine, it could be purchased on an easy installment plan.

But Assistant District Attorney Content protested “Birnzweig never sent any of the advertised machines or records on free trial…but when intended purchasers communicated with him, demanded a deposit of $5 to $8 in advance.”  After he received the deposits, “Birnzweig sent a cheap phonograph C.O.D. for about 70 percent of the purchase price and stated that the remainder of the purchase money could be paid in installments.”

Birnzweig, who soon went by the name Saul Birn,shipped phonographs that “were of foreign make and inferior to the standard ones made here,” said the Assistant D.A.  Birn was arrested on July 13, 1915.  The charges alleged “that foreigners living in all parts of the country were being swindled by means of a mail order scheme,” reported The New York Times.

Although caught, Birns profited hugely from his plan.  Later that year the Annual Report of the Industrial Commission stated that Birn was making about $125,000 per year on the ads, “and that he had provided an emergency deposit of $30,000 to be used for legal services should he be arrested.”

Birns was indicted and convicted but the Report was less than pleased with the results.  “He was fined $750, an absurdly inadequate punishment for a man whose swindling operations extended from ocean to ocean, and who for years had unscrupulously robbed ignorant and hardworking foreigners to the amount of over $100,000 per year.”  Birns’s profits from the scheme would amount to about $2.25 million a year today.

A year later Birns was still running the offers; but presumably was backing them up. The Evening World, October 23, 1916 (copyright expired)  

In the years after World War I Birns was investing in real estate, constructing modern apartment houses in the Lower East Side.  He told reporters he wanted to improve housing for the mostly Jewish families living there.  Given his record, his purely altruistic motives might be questioned.

Then, on May 19, 1923 The Music Trade Review announced that Birns intended to demolish his Second Avenue building and erect a skyscraper.  “What is without question one of the most ambitious building projects undertaken recently by any music merchant is the plan of Saul Birns, well known throughout the metropolitan talking machine trade as a live wire, to construct a twelve to fifteen-story building on the site of the property, which houses his headquarters at 111 Second avenue.”  The trade journal said “Mr. Birns stated that provision will be made for the display of his line of talking machines, musical instruments and pianos on an elaborate scale.  There will also be a large auditorium where musical events will be staged, and in addition, if present plans go through, there will be a radio broadcasting station.”

As it turned out, plans did not go through.  Instead, the ambitious project was scaled back to a five-story store and office building.  Begun in 1928 it was completed the following year.  Birns’s plan for an auditorium did materialize, however, on the fifth floor.  It featured extra-high ceilings and a row of arched windows on the avenue.  The multi-purpose space would be leased out for meetings, weddings and bar mitzvahs, dances and other social events.


Designed by architect Ralph Segal, the terra-cotta clad structure cost Birn $300,000; nearly $4 million in today’s dollars.  The handsome Art Deco palazzo design would have been equally appropriate for a department store.  Pseudo-balconies and Art Deco motifs smacked of the lavish movie palace architecture of the time.  The phonograph dealer-real estate developer emblazoned the parapet with his name: Saul Birns Building.

As the building neared completion, The Bank of the United States was granted authorization to open a branch here.  It would share the ground floor retail space with Saul Birns’s phonograph store, taking the southern end at Nos. 107 through 109.  The rather hefty rent, starting on November 1, 1928, was $15,000 per year, increasing to $22,000 by the expiration of the 21-year lease.

Unfortunately, it was a bad time to open a new bank branch.  In October 1929 the stock market crashed, sending the nation into the Great Depression.  The Bank of the United States did not survive and closed its doors the following year.  Twenty-three banks of the New York Clearing House Association arranged that depositors could receive loans up to 50 percent of their balances.  On December 22, 1930 those depositors thronged the sidewalks outside the Birns Building.

“Many of the depositors arrived far in advance of the opening house,” reported The New York Times the following day.  “About 500 were on hand when the branch at 107 Second Avenue opened, some of them having been there, according to the police, since 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Meanwhile, the auditorium upstairs, known as the Central Plaza Hall, was the scene of labor meetings and strike plans of various union organizations through the 1930s.  One especially interesting meeting was that of the National Labor Committee for the Jewish Workers in Palestine, held on April1, 1934.  That night Albert Einstein was the guest of honor and principal speaker.  “The proceeds of the affair, which will also include music and drama, will go to the Arlosoroff Memorial Fund to aid Jewish colonists in Palestine,” reported The Times.

Lieutenant Governor Charles Poletti addressed an all-day meeting of the Hias Council of Organizations here on December 14, 1941, one week to the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Poletti was frank in predicting a long fight and warned that “we must accept our individual responsibilities and sacrifices.”

The attendees that day, 2,900 delegates representing 1,157 national Jewish benevolent and labor organizations, had another enemy in mind:  Adolph Hitler.  Poletti told the audience “It may be a long fight, but we are confident that the forces of barbarism will ultimately be crushed.  Our  burdens will be heavy, but we will bear them courageously and cheerfully.”

The Acting Mayor, Newbold Morris, added his thoughts, saying that all Americans would “rather be dead than slaves of Adolph Hitler.”

The terra cotta facade features a wealth of Art Deco details.

Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, the Central Plaza Dance Hall was famous for its jazz concerts.  The room was alive with the sounds of the nation’s best-known jazz ensembles while patrons danced through the night.

In 1958 the Birns Building took on another role—that of television rehearsal studios.  On November 8 The New York Times said “This squat, five-story building on the lower East Side is normally used for weddings, dances and lodge meetings.”  But now, wrote Richard F. Shepard, “Some of the most able talent in show business rehearsed for some of television’s most expensive and promising productions yesterday in the Central Plaza.”

Frederic March and cast were rehearsing on the second floor for Columbia Broadcasting System’s production of “The Winslow Boy.”  On the two top floors, dozens of dancers were “whipping into shape ‘Kiss Me Kate’ for the National Broadcasting Company on Nov. 20.”  On other floors, daytime soap operas were in rehearsal.  “Although the building housed at the moment the hopes of television programs that cost, altogether, at least half a million dollars, it was just another day at the Central Plaza,” wrote Shepard.

Meanwhile, for decades the former Birns phonograph salesrooms downstairs had been home to Ratner’s kosher restaurant.  Shepard said “On the main floor, oblivious of the artistic endeavors above, waiters rattled their dishes and made the customers feel like equals in Ratner’s a vegetarian restaurant that has become a sort of downtown ‘Sardi’s’ in its own way at 111 Second Avenue.”

The original Ratner’s opened in 1905 on Pitt Street, founded by brothers Jacob and Harry L. Harmatz and their brother-in-law, Alex Ratner.  Austria-Hungarian immigrants, their restaurant specialized in Eastern European Jewish fare cooked by their wives.  Eventually the brothers went their separate ways, opening their own restaurants.

By now the Second Avenue Ratner’s was run by Abraham Harmatz.  The New York Times called it in 1974 “a gastronomic diadem in the crown of what years ago was called the Jewish Rialto.  Its blinzes and onion rolls, its pirogen and fish, its caloric pastries were adrenalin for the emotionally drained audiences issuing from performances of the many Yiddish theaters along Second Avenue.” 

The neighborhood around the Birns Building (still owned by the Birns family and managed by Bernard Birns) had drastically changed by the 1970s.  The New York Times explained on May 30, 1974 “With the disappearance of the once large resident Jewish population, much of Ratner’s business is in its last years came by taxi and automobile.  It was one of the last preserves of the Jewish waiter, a breed that was usually Jewish but could be Puerto Rican or Iranian, too, and was distinguished by frantically efficient service and a democratic air.”

Finally, after decades of doing business here, Ratner’s closed its doors on May 28, 1974.  The following day, Abraham Harmatz died, one day before his 66th birthday.  He had participated in the management of the restaurant for 45 years.

Following Ratner's, a grocery chain leased the store space.  photo by Edmund V. Gillon from the collectino of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/%5b105-107-Second-Avenue.%5d-24UAKVM55NN.html

In place of the famous landmark restaurant, a grocery store moved in.  New York University’s School of the Arts took over the top floor for its arts theater.  Eventually the school purchased the entire Birns Building and in 2012 did a major renovation.



Today Saul Birns’s ambitious building with its colorful past gleams again-a handsome survivor of a time when Second Avenue was lined with Yiddish theaters.

non-credited photographs taken by the author



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Robt. M. Van Arsdale House -- No. 276 W 71st Street


Like a still-proud dowager fallen on hard times, a sadly abused townhouse sits quietly on West 71st Street, overshadowed by a soaring apartment building next door.  Still wearing the few ornaments she has left, it is not hard to imagine her young and beautiful.

No. 276 West 71st Street started life in 1886 when architect Edward L. Angell designed four similar Romanesque Revival homes for speculative developers Fonner & Lowther.  The Upper West Side was emerging as an exciting new residential district and, like Fonner & Lowther, developers were snapping up abutting building plots to erect harmonious residential projects.

Completed in 1887, like its three neighbors No. 276 would stray slightly from pure Romanesque Revival.  A panel below the gable opening of saw-tooth brickwork showed a Queen Anne influence and there were suggestions of neo-Tudor and Gothic Revival thrown in.  The two-story base, including the basement, was clad in rough-cut brownstone that carried on to the dogleg stoop.  A bay window, tucked within a hefty stone arch, featured a stained glass fanlight.    The house stood out with its heavy stone oriel, the thick foliated support of which engulfed the entrance transom.   Here were two charming sculpted portraits of children, looking away from one another and graced by a necklace of carved brownstone.  Above it all a robust gable nearly hid the slate-tiled mansard roof.


Fonner & Lowther targeted upper-middle class families.  No. 276, completed in 1887, became the home of Robert M. Van Arsdale and his wife, the former Eugenie Humphreville.  Wealthy enough to be included in the Social Register, they both had impressive pedigrees.

An old Dutch family, the Van Arsdales were best remembered for John Jacob Van Arsdale, a young sailor during the American Revolution who would later become a captain in the U.S. Navy.   On November 25, 1783 the last longboat filled with British soldiers left New York Harbor, after occupying the city for seven years.   The date would become known as Evacuation Day and was more highly celebrated than Independence Day for decades.

Before leaving, the British attempted to prevent the hoisting of the American flag over Fort George (now known as Battery Park).  They had removed the halyards so the colors could not be hoisted, then greased the pole for good measure.  John Jacob Van Arsdale tried three times to scale the pole, while General George Washington and his staff looked on.  Finally someone ran to an iron maker and returned with heavy nails and cleats.

With these in his pockets, Van Arsdale started up again with a new halyard tied around his waist.  As he climbed, he drove a nail in—one at the left, then one at the right—until he had reached the top where he installed the halyard.  When he reached the ground Washington and the growing crowd erupted in applause.  The American flag with its 13 stars and stripes was hauled up as 13 cannons fired from the fort.

Every year thereafter, until the early 20th century, a Van Arsdale descendent would hoist the American flag at Battery Park on Evacuation Day.  The New York Times would later remember “In later years the Old Guard would parade down to the Battery, with thousands of residents behind and with detachments of troops from other States taking part.  Several Presidents attended the ceremony.  And always some member of the Van Arsdale family would be there to do his part.”

Eugenie’s family history was as impressive.  The daughter of Thomas Liberty Humphreville and Anna Eliza Oliphant, she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.   She was a descendant of Jonathan R. Oliphant, Captain of the 2nd Regiment of the Burlington Co. Militia Company.  Wounded in battle, his private papers showed that he gave most of his fortune for the cause of American independence.

The upper stories have received a coating of plum-colored paint and the stained glass fanlight (lower right) has been blocked up.
Robert Van Arsdale was the owner and publisher of The American Engineering and Railroad Journal.  He had begun his career as a staff journalist of the Railroad Gazette in 1875.  By 1881 when he left to start his own publication, he had amassed a small fortune.  Railway Age and Railway Review said “…his use of the first large sum of money, got by frugality and hard work, was characteristic.  He used it all in buying a city house for his mother.  She had always wanted a city house.  Then he saved for himself and bought the publication with which his name has since been associated.”

Now he turned his attentions to a city house for himself and his wife.  While they participated in the expected activities of well-to-do citizens—Eugenie was a member of the New York Peace Society, for instance—the childless couple led an understated life.   Railway Age said he was a “valuable citizen who quietly does his work, with few public appearances.”

One somewhat public appearance for Van Arsdale came in 1895 when he was summoned to serve on a Grand Jury.  The jurymen had a lot on their plate that December.  Judge Cowing mentioned the increasing crime in the city as he addressed them.  “There seems to be an epidemic of crime by violence, such as assaults, highway robbery, and burglary.” 

On November 23, 1909 the 61-year old publisher arrived home.   “Hardly had he reached his home and taken off his overcoat when he complained of feeling ill,” said Electrical Review and Western Electrician.   He sat in a chair, talking to Eugenie when, according to The Sun the following day, “he became unconscious and sank to the floor.”  Dr. George H. Mallet was called; but before he arrived Robert M. Van Arsdale was dead.

The publisher was the victim of a heart attack.  Electrical Review later explained that he “had been working hard for months past, and it is believe that overwork was indirectly the cause of his sudden death.”

Eugenie was now 75 years old.   By 1913 she shared the house at least for a while with Blanche Ostertag, who either rented a room or was a companion of the elderly widow.  Ostertag was a sculptress and painter who had studied in Paris.  Among her works was the mural decoration for the New Amsterdam Theater. 

As the neighborhood around Eugenie Van Arsdale changed, she lived on in the West 71st Street house.  Many of the 19th century rowhouses were demolished to be replaced by modern apartment buildings while others were converted to apartments.  But the Van Arsdale house remained.

In 1934 a reporter for The New York Times heard of the now-forgotten tradition of a Van Arsdale hoisting the American flag on Evacuation Day—a holiday no longer celebrated.   “Records indicate that up to twenty years ago the lineal descendants of John Jacob Van Arsdale kept the tradition alive,” said the newspaper on November 26 that year.  “Then it died.” 

In his attempt to discover what happened to the patriotic tradition, the reporter searched for members of the Van Arsdale family.   He came across Eugenie’s name and visited the house.

“Up at 276 West Seventy-first Street, in a lonely old house near the river, where she has lived more than half a century, is Mrs. Robert M. Van Arsdale.  But Mrs. Van Arsdale is in her 100th year, hard of hearing and bedridden.”

The journalist spoke to a servant.  “'She does remember little things now and then, about the Revolution,’ confided a white-haired housekeeper, ‘but she never said anything about that flag in all the years I’ve know her and I couldn’t ask her now.'”
Eugenie had been his last hope.  “So, it seems, the tradition is dead, and no one quite knows why,” he concluded.

Almost a year to the day following that article, on November 12, 1935, the newspaper reported “Mrs. Eugenie Van Arsdale, wife of the late Robert M. Van Arsdale, passed on at her home, Saturday, Nov. 9.”  On Thursday her funeral was held in the house where she had lived since 1887.

It was, in effect, the funeral for the house as a private home as well.  It was quickly renovated to furnished rooms—three each in the basement and parlor level; four on the second and third floors; while the new owners took the top floor.

The defacement of paint and linoleum to Eugenie Van Arsdale's interiors is heart-breaking.  photo www.blocksy.com

The Van Arsdale house is still rented as apartments.  Its brick and crumbling brownstone have been painted, the bay window replaced by flat openings more expected in a reformatory; and the striking stained glass fanlight has been removed and plastered over.  But despite the heartless neglect; Edward L. Angell’s fanciful design shines through.

non-credited photographs by the author