Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Wilmerding House - 18 East 77th Street

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

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

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

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

Architectural Record, July 1897 (copyright expired)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The 1832 Thomas Barron House - 39 White Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garment Manufacturers' Index, 1920 (copyright expired)

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

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

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

photographs by the author

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photographs by the author

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Lost Produce Exchange - 2 Broadway

A postcard view from the turn of the last century.  Where the statue sits in Bowling Green a fountain now plays.

A small, easily overlooked notice appeared in the Real Estate Record on October 16, 1875:

The Committee on Rooms and Fixtures of the New York Produce Exchange are prepared to receive offers of property suitable for a site for a new Exchange building.  Property offered must be located south of Maiden lane, and should comprise not less than eight lots of ground.

Founded in 1861, the Produce Exchange was growing tremendously, both in the products it handled and its membership.  A newspaper explained "Outside of the legitimate operations in bread-stuffs and provisions, the speculative trading of the Exchange is confined chiefly to the wheat pit" and a pamphlet boasted "It controls the export grain trade of the country, and is in every way a prominent and respected body."

It was not until April 28, 1880 that the State Legislature enacted a bill to "facilitate the erection of a new building by the New York Produce Exchange," and seven months later approved the 150-by-300-foot site at the "southwest corner of Broadway and Beaver street" extending to the northwest corner of Marketfield Street.  It was a well-chosen site, facing Bowling Green park.  The open swatch of green would not only afford unhindered views of the new building, but offer cooling breezes off the harbor.   (One member, Isaac Honig, mentioned to the Real Estate Record in June 1882 that the current building "is open to the serious objections of bad ventilation.")

Architect George Browne Post received the commission to design the structure.  He estimated the cost at $2 million--around $50.7 million today.  Construction began on May 1, 1881 and would take three years to complete.  In order to support the foundations of the massive structure 15,000 New England pine and spruce pilings were driven into the bedrock.  And to create the vast, cavernous trading room, Post used an innovative construction technique--wrought iron framing.  The Produce Exchange would be the first building in the world to combine an iron frame with masonry in its construction.  The cornerstone was laid on June 6, 1882.  It bore the inscription "Equity" in bronze letters.

Construction of the Produce Exchange building was a monumental project.  There were 2,000 windows, 1,000 doors, 15 miles of iron girders, and 12 million bricks.  It would encompass 7.5 acres of floor space. 

As the building neared completion, Post's cost estimate had fallen short.  On October 19, 1883 The New York Times reported that the members of the Produce Exchange would be meeting to discuss "providing funds for the completion of the new Exchange building according to the plans of the architect.  One of the members thinks that about $150,000 will be wanted."  As it turned out, the total cost, including land and furniture, came to $3,178,645, just under $84 million today.

Post's commercial take on Italian Renaissance was clad in red brick and trimmed in terra cotta.  The regimented tripartate design of the main structure featured rows of arched openings, those of the middle section rising four floors.  Above the cornice, almost unnoticed, perched a diminutive arcade.  To the rear of the structure, facing Marketfield Street, was a 225-foot tall campanile, or tower from which stunning view of the harbor and lower Manhattan could be had.

Even before the doors were opened the critic from the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide pounced.  On November 17, 1883 he described the building as a "box" which was "so long that in spite of its being nine or ten stories high, it looks squat, and then another box, very tall and narrow, is set up alongside of it.  Two boxes are no less boxy than one, and the Produce Exchange, though an impressive feature in the view of lower New York by its mass, has no other impressiveness."  The critic then took aim at the campanile.  "With a good outline detail which is only tolerable may pass very well, while no force or grace of detail can redeem a building which has no general form."

Not every critic agreed.  The Metropolitan Holiday Supplement called it a "handsome, solid structure," and said "Of the modern Renaissance in style, the general effect is imposing, and imparts the idea of strength and permanence."  And if that were not praise enough, it continued, "From any standpoint the Produce Exchange is unsurpassed by any structure of its kind in the world."

The still-surviving houses on the right would be razed for the New York Customs House in 1899.  Harper's Weekly, July 1886 (copyright expired)
Post's use of iron framing was not the only example of up-to-date technology.  The Produce Exchange was electrically lit and had hydraulic elevators.  Speaking tubes communicated with each office.  The tower was illuminated at night, an early example of a practice commonplace today.

On April 10, 1884 The New York Times reported on the plans for the opening celebrations on May 6.  Farewell exercises in the old building would be held at 11:00 a.m., followed by a procession to the new which would be headed by "members of the Exchange over 45 years of age."  Two bands had been hired for the occasion.  At 2:30 that afternoon a "steamboat excursion" in the harbor "will be one of the features of the celebration," reported The Times.

Technically, however, the Exchange would open the evening before.  "It has been decided to hold a ladies' reception in the new building on the evening of Monday, May 5, upon which occasion it is expected that there will be dancing in the great board-room."  

Although there were 3,000 members and each was allowed three tickets, there was little concern for overcrowding that night.  The Times said "The great size of the building will undoubtedly prevent an uncomfortable crush upon this festive occasion."  

Called "arena-like" by the Metropolitan Holiday Supplement, the trading room on the second floor was 220 by 144 feet and rose 60 feet to a stained glass ceiling.  The largest trading space in the world, it encompassed 3,000 square feet.  The New York Times described it on May 4, 1884:  

Its smooth, white walls are agreeably relieved by the cherry wainscoting and door casings.  The huge skylight overhead is of bright colored glasses and the 23 well proportioned windows which give light and air to the apartment are in graceful harmony with both the interior and exterior decoration. 

The morning after the event the newspaper wrote "As early as 7:30 o'clock it was impossible to get seats in the elevated road on the west side.  Ladies and gentlemen in evening dress were crowding in at every station, and the brakemen, who were as full of ignorance as usual, were speechless with wonder.  At the same time more carriages were rolling down Broadway than were ever seen on an opera night."

Eventually members settled into their new home.   The trading room was a hub of activity, viewed by visitors from the "massive gallery with ornamental facing" which ran along the northern wall.  Off the trading room were the library and executive offices.  

Membership in the Produce Exchange was not all business with no pleasure.  On the night of the building's opening the 40 members of the New-York Produce Exchange Glee Club had its own celebration with a dinner at Clark's on 23rd Street.  And in July that year the Produce Exchange baseball club was organized.

Trading gave way to merriment every December 31.  On January 1, 1885 The New York Times wrote "Several hundred ladies looked down from the broad gallery in the Produce Exchange upon a merry scene yesterday afternoon.  The floor of the immense board room was well filled with men and boys, all of whom entered into the enjoyment of the New Year's jollification without reserve."  The Seventh Regiment Band was there to play "popular airs" (including the "Produce Exchange March") after trading came to a close at 2:30.  The members were entertained by an exhibition of fancy bicycle riding, "some graceful roller skating," and a tug-of-war and a sack race among the boy messengers.

This turn-of-the-century postcard clearly shows the campanile with its four clocks.  The janitor's apartment was in the tower.
The innate racism of the 19th century was reflected in other activities that afternoon.  "There was a walking match by colored employes of the Exchange," noted the article.  "The remaining features of the entertainment included a wrestling match, negro minstrelsy, the Lorello brothers, and jig dancing."

Members of the Exchange did not always act gentlemanly, as one would expect.   In the spring of 1885 relations between two traders of opposing firms, Alpheus Geer and Archibald Montgomery, had "lately been rather strained," according to The New York Times on April 17.   The newspaper reported that on the previous morning Geer entered the trading room just as Montgomery was about to make a bid.

"Pushing his way through the crowd, he finally got behind Montgomery, and just as he was raising his voice to shout out a price, Geer jammed his hat over his face."  The astonished Montgomery turned to his laughing adversary, and did the same to him.  It ended in a "Sullivan style" battle of fisticuffs on the trading floor.

To gauge the quality of the grain being traded, balls of dough were produced for examination.  Dough balls routinely turned into missiles and repeatedly the governing board of the Produce Exchange chastised members for dough ball fights.  Notices were nailed to the walls of the trading floor prohibiting the practice.  But on June 19, 1885 the targets of the sticky projectiles were not fellow members.

The Times reported the following day that "Some of the members of the Produce Exchange succeeded yesterday in bringing discredit upon that organization and almost succeeded in inciting a small riot."  Members of the 12th, 69th, and 71st Regiments were in Bowling Green park awaiting the arrival of two French ships.  It was a hot day and the uniformed soldiers "began to show signs of impatience."

To get some air, several members of the Exchange were sitting on the second story cornice.  At around 1:00 "intermittent showers of dough balls, grain, and apple cores fell from the Produce Exchange windows upon the heads of the soldiers."  Despite protests from the militiamen, the barrage continued until one of them "pointed his musket up at the windows from which the annoying missiles were thrown and threatened to shoot."

More than an hour later the Exchange members were still engaging in their boyish prank.  Finally the 69th Regiment broke ranks and charged the main entrance.  They were stopped by a platoon of police officers.  Seeing that trouble was imminent, the officer in charge sent between 20 and 30 police officers into the building to convince the brokers to "cease their insulting fusillade."  Almost unbelievably, "Some of the members of the Exchange denounced the entrance of the policemen into their trading room as an unwarrantable intrusion," according to a newspaper.

Upon hearing of the matter Major Duffy of the 69th stormed into the Exchange and met with D. A. Eldridge, Chairman of the Floor Committee.  Getting little satisfaction he left warning "I cannot be responsible for what my men will do if these outrages are continued."

Pressure from outside the Exchange forced the managers to rethink their cavalier response to the incident.  An official apology was given and a search for the perpetrators "engaged in the dough throwing," as worded in The Times on June 23, was begun.  The guilty parties were eventually named and repudiated.

The tradition of New Year's celebrations on the trading room floor continued year after year, as did the occasional fist fight and never-ending dough ball battles.  The schoolboy mentality of some member resulted in a new diversion in the fall of 1889.  On October 26 The Times reported "Dough tossing has reached such a stage of perfection on the Produce Exchange that improvised ball games with umbrellas or canes for bats and past puddings for balls are of hourly occurrence on the floor."  

The trading room was decorated with banners, pennants and a large American flag suspended below the stained glass ceiling when this photo was taken.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society. 

A proposal to enlarge the Produce Exchange had been made as early as 1888; but title to the adjoining property was not acquired until 1900, and construction on the enlargement not begun until 1904.  It resulted in the block of Marketfield Street to the south being built upon.

This plaque, still embedded in Marketfield Street, testifies to a time when the block was still open, but owned by the Exchange.  photograph by, and courtesy of, Rob Clarke

The members' attentions were turned to more serious matters following the Financial Panic of 1907.  The economic depression, of course, affected trading; but it also left thousands of New Yorkers without basic needs.  The Exchange ended its frivolous New Year's Eve celebrations on the floor and replaced them with events for the needy.

On December 30, 1908 The New York Times reported "The Produce Exchange will repeat this year the entertainment which it provided on New Year's Eve last year for the poor children and families of lower Manhattan."  There was a band, a vaudeville show, and vocal music.  But most importantly, "After the entertainment the presents will be distributed, consisting of about 1,000 baskets for boys, 1,000 baskets for girls, and 700 family baskets containing a New Year's dinner."  The tradition continued at least through 1910.

World War I also brought gravity to the Exchange.  Cities like New York prepared for the conceivable invasion by enemy forces.  On March 30, 1917 the members elected to form a unit of the Home Defense League to cooperate with the New York Police Department.  About 100 volunteers were organized and drills were held twice a week on the trading room floor.  The Times noted "One of the members has offered to buy a machine gun for the unit if permission can be obtained from the city authorities."

The men of the Produce Exchange in uniform on the floor.  New-York Tribune, July 8, 1917 (copyright expired)

A scare occurred on June 6, 1929 after a discarded cigarette smoldered in one of the telephone booths on the second floor before finally sparking a fire at around 10 p.m.  It spread along the row of booths.  William C. Riker, one of the seven night clerks who worked after trading hours noticed smoke and turned in the fire alarm.  The blaze took an hour to extinguish and a part of one wall had to be ripped away.  The fire's location along the row of telephones resulted in severe damage to the Exchange's communications.  Squads of repairmen worked the following day to replace 159 pairs of telephone wires and 32 Western Union lines.

In the fall of 1930 talk of demolishing the old building was discussed.  According to The Times on September 23, "A planning board appointed by the Exchange is now working with architects, real estate brokers and financiers to determine the best means for improving the site."  Although the building was still adequate for the purposes of the Exchange, the valuable plot was a tempting inducement.

It may have been the ongoing Great Depression, however, that stalled plans.  It was not until February 13, 1957 that demolition plans were announced.  Uris Brothers told reporters that the razing "will be followed by construction on that site of a 30-story, 1,300,000 square foot, air-conditioned office building."  Emery Roth & Sons had already completed the drawings.

Emory Roth & Sons released this rendering. The New York Times February 14, 1957