Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Rev. Richard W. Dickinson House - 19 West 16th Street


In 1644, freed slave Simon Congo received about 45 acres of land far north of New Amsterdam from William Kieft, the Director of New Netherland.  Two centuries later, the northward expansion of New York City was encroaching on his former farm.  

John Cowman acquired much of the former Congo property in 1825.  He died in 1832, leaving a stipulation in his will that his heirs must wait 10 years before inheriting the land.  In 1842 Cowman's son, Augustus T., and son-in-law, Edward Sebring Mesier, divided up the building plots along West 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Mesier took what would become Nos. 1 through 21 West 16th Street and in 1845 began selling the plots while maintaining careful control over what would be erected.

Restrictions were written into the deeds stipulating that no "stable, meat shop, slaughter house...or any base commercial establishment" could be built.   Instead, only "first-class" residences which sat back from the street six feet or more were allowed.

The restrictions resulted in a matching row of upscale Greek Revival homes.  Although individually owned, they were almost undoubtedly designed by the same architect.  Like its neighbors, No. 47 (renumbered 19 in 1868) was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  A wide stoop rose above the brownstone English basement to a double-doored entrance within an earred surround with entablature and cornice.  Two pairs of French doors opened onto an elegant cast iron balcony.   

The newly completed house was sold to Rev. Richard W. Dickinson in 1847.  Born on November 21, 1804, he had graduated Yale College in 1823 and entered the Theological Seminary at Princeton, New Jersey, graduating in 1826.  But frail health would be a constant obstacle to Dickinson's career throughout his life.

Forced to end a pastorship in Philadelphia in 1833, he relocated to New York around 1835, where he acted as a substitute pastor, preaching in various churches whose ministers were sick or traveling.  The minutes of the Presbytery of New York of 1874 would recall, "But failing health caused him again to relinquish his charge."

When Dickinson purchased the West 16th Street house he was without a church, living "for the most part, on his own abundant means," according to the minutes.  He occupied his time by writing and in 1848 published Religion Teaching By Example, and in 1851 Responses from the Sacred Oracles.

His health was restored enough by 1861 that he was made pastor of the Mt. Washington Church far north in the Inwood section of Manhattan.

It was no doubt the ponderous commute to Inwood that prompted Dickinson to leave West 16th Street in 1864.  He leased the house to the family of merchant William Turnbull in 1864.  The following year Dickinson's daughter Annie and her husband Granville Byam Smith moved in.  Reverend Dickinson had officiated at their wedding in 1863.  The couple would remain here through 1870.

In 1871 John D. Prince, a broker, moved his family into 19 West 16th Street.  The 27-year-old was married to Anna Maria Morris (known familiarly as Mary).  The couple's son, John, Jr., was three years old.  In 1874 the Prince's second child, Mary, was born.

The family had just settled in when an unnerving event took place.  At around 5:00 on the morning of June 7, 1871, a foot patrolman discovered burglars in the house of John H. Gurley, across the street.  "As the officer entered the house, these men rapidly left the rear," reported The Evening Telegram.  One of them, William Demorest had been discharged from the State Prison just two months earlier.  He fled across the street and broke into the basement door of 19 West 16th Street.  Officer Mead was close on his heels.

At some point the Princes and their servants were doubtlessly awakened to the noises of the men struggling below.  The Evening Telegram reported, "Officer Mead captured him in the hallway and conveyed him to the station house in West Thirteenth Street."

Living with the family was Prince's unmarried sister, Ellen L.  The house was the scene of her marriage to John A. Lowrie on October 22, 1873.  The Evening Telegram commented that Lowrie was "well known in fashionable society and at the clubs."

The following year the Prince family moved to 41 East 34th Street.  John D. Prince, Jr. would go on to an impressive career.  He would become a professor at New York University and Columbia University, serve as the minister to Denmark and Yugoslavia, and as the leader of both houses of the New Jersey Legislature.

Rev. Richard W. Dickinson died on August 16, 1874.  He left 19 West 16th Street to Annie and Granville Smith.  At the time the renter was operating the residence as a boarding house.  It appears he vanished, leaving the Smiths with his boarders and furniture.  Their advertisement in the New York Herald on April 15, 1875 read: "To Let--19 West Sixteenth Street--Owner wishes to let the House and sell the Furniture; house full of boarders."

It was leased by Mary Timpson, the widow of John Timpson.  And while she was listed as running a boarding house, her own family filled much of the home.  Living with her were her sons, John H., Arthur T., and Thomas S. Timpson.  Arthur and Thomas were both real estate agents.  Boarding with the family in 1876 were attorney Frederick M. Littlefield and Henry Higbee, another agent.

The residence became a private home again in 1884 when the Smiths and their three children (two sons, and a daughter) moved back in.  Born on Bond Street on October 24, 1827, Granville Byam Smith had been "placed in charge of the factional currency bureau" in 1861, according to the New-York Tribune.  He continued working in the Treasury Department until 1866, after which he was secretary and treasurer of the American Savings Bank.  Son Augustus Coleman Smith was a student at Columbia University's School of Political Science when the family in 1884.

The Smiths' prominence in society was reflected in an entertainment given by Annie and her daughter, Anne Caroline, on April 19, 1887.  The New York Herald reported, "A small german was given last night by Mrs. Byam Smith [sic] and Miss Smith at No. 19 West Sixteenth street.  The leader was Mr. Alexander Hadden, who danced with Miss Smith."  A "german" was the popular name for a small cotillion.  The article noted that a supper followed the dance.  Some of the most elite surnames in Manhattan society were present, including Webb, Howland, Beekman, Delafield, Van Rensselaer and Lorillard.

Augustus Coleman Smith would be the first of the children to leave.  On February 6, 1894 the New York Herald reported on his engagement to May Irvin.  An orphan, the article noted that she "is now living with her brothers, Mssrs, John and James Irvin, on their ranch in California."  Augustus and his bride moved into the West 16th Street house.

Anne Caroline was the the next to wed.  She married Horace Green Grannis at the family's summer home on May 17, 1896.  The World reported, "A special train yesterday conveyed a number of society people from this city to Scarborough, N.Y." for the wedding.

And, finally, on June 5, 1898 The New York Times reported that Edgar M. Smith was engaged to "Miss Ingram of Nashville, Tenn."  Without giving her first name, the article noted, "Miss Ingram, who is now residing in Washington, is connected with the Ingram family of Pennsylvania on her father's side."

In the meantime, Anne Caroline and Horace Green Grannis had also moved into the family home.  Grannis was a partner in the real estate firm of W. de Lancey Grannis & Co., founded by his brother.  The Finance and Commerce of New York and United States called the firm "one of the most exclusively high-class real estate concerns in the metropolis."  At the turn of the century W. de Lancey Grannis & Co. "acquired interests in large tracts of timber lands in the Southern and Western States of the Union," said the article, "and these are under the special personal management of H. G. Grannis."

In 1903 the Smiths leased 19 West 16th Street to Mrs. Antha Minerva Virgil for five years.  The author of The Virgil Method, she was a composer, lecturer and the inventor of the Virgil Clavier, or Techniphone, a soundless keyboard.  

Minerva Virgil established the Vigil Piano School in the house.  Students who came from distant parts of the country could board here.  When The Musical Courier announced a recital of the school to be held in the Carnegie Lyceum on June 1, 1908, the article noted that performers came from towns as far away as Marietta, Ohio; Rutland, Vermont; Homesdale, Pennsylvania; and Bristol, Connecticut.

Granville B. Smith died in 1907, and Annie Dickinson Smith in 1913.  The Smith estate sold the 25-foot-wide house to William Lustgarten & Co. in November 1914.  The Sun noted that the property "has been owned by the selling family for about seventy-five years."

No. 19 West 16th Street once again became a boarding house, now operated by Jennie C. Wright.  Among her first boarders was the Bjorhland family.  Bjorhland lost his job in January 1915, resulting in desperate circumstances that prompted him and his wife to do an unthinkable act.

On February 15, 1915 The Sun reported, "A woman stepped from a limousine at the Cafe Boulevard, Broadway and Forty-first street, in the rain last evening and found Elizabeth Bjorhland, 3 years old, with a bundle of unsold newspapers under her arm and her eyes full of tears."  

The woman, Mrs. Archibald White, who lived in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, took the little girl into the grill room of the Cafe, and, after announcing the situation to the patrons, "auctioned the papers for $50."  She then bought the little girl a meal and took her home to 19 West 16th Street in her limo.  The Sun said, "Her father has been out of work for some weeks and the family was reduced to the verge of starvation."  Mrs. White gave the Bjorhlands the proceeds from the auction--nearly $1,400 in 2023 money.

Among Jennie Wright's other boarders that summer was Lou Cook.  The unmarried young woman was a probation officer for the Bedford Hill Reformatory.  Also living here was Charles W. Underhill, who, despite his English surname, had a decided German accent.  

On July 16, Lou Cook gave Underhill the check for a valise being held at Pennsylvania Station and asked if he would retrieve if for her.  The Evening World reported, "Neither he nor the valise showed up at the house."  Four days later the feisty Jennie C. Wright spotted her missing boarder in Times Square.  The Sun said, "He ran into the subway station, but Mrs. Wright caught him in a telephone booth."  She had him arrested for petty larceny.

The story turned bizarre when Underhill appeared before Judges Russell, Herman and Herbert in court and refused to give his real name.  On July 27, 1915, The Sun reported, "He said he was a secret agent and that the disclosure would interfere with an international business of great importance between this country and Germany."  

He told the judges he had come into the country by way of Canada under the alias Wolff Ulrich.  The Evening World added that he told his court-appointed attorney "that he was a graduate of a German university and a member of a high German family."  He was held on $500 bail--nearly $14,000 in 2023.  Lou Cook apparently never got her suitcase.  Underhill "denied taking the valise, saying he had given it to a messenger for delivery," said The Evening World.

In 1921 the house was converted to two- and four-room apartments.  Then, in 1972, the basement through second floor were remodeled as the offices of the American Foundation for the Blind.  There were still two apartments on the top floor.

The American Foundation for the Blind was replaced by Yeshe Nying Po, a Tibetan Buddhist group, around 1977.  The following year a one-apartment "attic" level was added.  The group remains in the house four decades later.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The 1899 Samuel McMillan House - 247 Central Park West


In 1887 architect Edward Angell designed a row of nine upscale homes along Central Park from 84th to 85th Street for developer William Noble.  Ground was broken in 1888 and construction was completed the following year.  Nobel had spared no expense.  Each cost him $37,000 to construct, or just over $1 million by 2023 terms.

While several of the Queen Anne style homes featured romantic gables and turrets, 247 Central Park West was noticeably formal.  Its basement and parlor levels were clad in stone, the second and third in beige brick, while the fourth floor took the form of a dormer-punctured slate mansard.  Angell designed the house to be perfectly symmetrical.  Above the dog-leg box stoop, the arched entrance was balanced by a parlor window with an exquisite stained glass fanlight.  Between them was a smaller arched opening.  A rounded oriel at the second floor provided a balcony to the third, where the arched windows were arranged in a Palladio inspired configuration.

Builder developer Samuel McMillan paid $60,000 for the 22-foot-wide house in July 1890.  The owner of the construction firm Samuel McMillan & Co., he focused on the upgrading of the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, buying ramshackle structures and replacing them with modern flats.  

Born in County Down, Ireland, McMillan was also a director in the Mutual Bank and the West Side Bank.  The New York Times reported, "Mr. Samuel McMillen expended about $10,000 in the interior decorations, which include such unusual features as tufted silk wall coverings.  The building is one of a row known as the Noble Houses, from the name of the builder."

His residency at 247 Central Park West would be cut tragically short.  On October 11, 1891 his wife, Elizabeth S. Short, died here after a brief illness.  Her funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.  The following September McMillan advertised the house for sale, describing it as "splendidly constructed and interior decorations unsurpassed."

Instead, McMillan leased it briefly to the James W. Quintard family.  A member of the Quintard Iron Works and a director in the Pacific Steamship Company, he and his wife Hedwig had four children, Frances Adele, Florence Estelle, Maude Louisa and George W.  (Hedwig, somewhat scandalously, was James's fourth wife and had previously been the children's governess.)

The family lived here long enough to see Frances Adele married to Louis Lanier Safford in the Church of All Angels on West End Avenue on April 12, 1893.  The New-York Tribune noted, "A small wedding breakfast followed at the home of the bride's parents, No. 247 Central Park West."

Five months later, on September 13, 1893, The New York Times reported that former Mayor Frederick Edson had traded his three-acre country home at Morris Heights to Samuel McMillan for the Central Park West residence.

Franklin Edson, from Notable New Yorkers of 1896-1899 (copyright expired)

Like McMillan, Edson may have been changing his residence because of grief.  His wife, Frances "Fannie" Wood, had died less then three months earlier, on June 18, at the age of 53.  The couple had had seven children, two of whom were still in their teens when he purchased the house.  Robert S. was 19 and Ethel Townsend Edson was 16 years old.

Born in Chester, Vermont in 1832, Edson had left his father's farm at the age of 20 to work in his brother's distillery in Albany.  In 1866 he relocated to New York City where he became a wealthy and successful produce merchant.  He was appointed president of the New York Produce Exchange in 1873, a highly important and respected position.

Edson was elected mayor in 1883.  During his term in office the Brooklyn Bridge was dedicated, the Croton Aqueduct was fully completed, and the Manhattan Municipal Building was erected.  He retired from politics at the end of his term and returned to his grain business.

Franklin Edson remained in the Central Park West house only six years.  On October 7, 1899 an advertisement in The Evening Post offered the house for sale, noting "A house [the] same size as 247 Central Park West on the other side of [Central] Park would cost from $170,000 to $200,000."  While the ad did not give the asking price, it suggested it would be a relative bargain.

The for-sale advertisement featured a glimpse of the interior.  The Evening Post, October 7, 1899 (copyright expired)

The property was sold and resold twice before being purchased by George Frederick Brooks his wife, the former Eva Leverich.  A well-known physician, Brooks was also a director in the Casualty Company of America.  He was the son of another prominent doctor, George Washington Brooks who, according to The Globe and Commercial Advertiser "had among his patients some of the most noted residents of New York," following the Civil War.

Shortly after moving in, Brooks hired contractor Joseph Martin to clean the facade.  The Sun noted that Martin "employs members of two [labor] organizations."  That proved to be a problem.  On April 15, 1903 the newspaper reported, "They began to fight among themselves and finally one union declared a strike."

The striking faction was composed of Italian immigrants.  The article said, "There has been a reign of terror about Dr. Brooks's house since.  The physician and family have scarcely dared to leave the house.  Stones have been thrown at the house and the workers accuse the strikers of throwing acids upon the ropes holding up the scaffolds."

At one point, Dr. Brooks appeared at the door pretending to be armed "to prevent the strikers invading his home," said The Sun.  Despite repeated police calls, a month later the siege was still underway.  On May 14, The Evening Telegram reported that Joseph Martin "said that a crowd of about fifty strikers surrounded his workmen while they were eating their noonday meal.  Various threats were made against the workmen by the strikers, and finally some were struck by stones."  Eventually the cleaning was completed and the drama came to an end.  

In 1909 the couple made the bold decision to change from their carriages to an automobile.  Eva placed an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 27 that read, "Coachman--A lady, giving up horses, desires to place her exceptionally competent coachman.  E. B. 247 Central Park West."

The World War brought upheaval to Dr. Brooks's office in the basement of the house.  The fifty regional draft boards within the city were tasked with giving medical examinations to each of the draftees.  Brooks was appointed the medical supervisor of Draft Board 130, and on August 3, 1917 the New-York Tribune reported, "This board has for its headquarters the home of Dr. G. Frederick Brooks."  The article explained Brooks's highly organized process:

In issuing the call Dr. Brooks specified not only the day for the registrant to appear, but also the house.  With three other physicians assisting, he was able to maintain his schedule of fifteen examinations to the hour, and for the registrants there were only a few minutes of dead time each.

Only eight months after that article, on April 26, 1918, George Frederick Brooks died in the Central Park West house.  His funeral was held in St. Matthew's Church on West 84th Street three days later.

Eva sold the house to William Gedney Beatty in July the following year for $40,000 (about $627,000 today).   Born in New York City on June 27, 1869, Beatty was somewhat of a Renaissance man.  The son of stockbroker John Cuming Beatty and Hetty Bull Beatty, he was a trained architect, an early aviator (he flew the Wright Brothers' plane in 1911), an accomplished artist, and an important collector of rare architectural books and antique building hardware such as hinges, locks, knockers and door handles.  (His collection of manuscripts would become an important part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Print Room collection.)

Beatty's mother had died in 1906.  His father moved into the Central Park West house with him.  The 85-year-old died here on March 10, 1922.  

In 1930, as the private mansions of Central Park West were being rapidly razed to make way for modern Art Deco apartment buildings, developers Earle & Calhoun began buying up the mansions along William Noble's row.  They hit a snag when they approached W. Gedney Beatty.  He refused to sell.  Faced with the stubborn holdout, their 251 Central Park West, completed in 1931, fell short of engulfing the entire blockfront.

Beatty died on July 1, 1941 at the age of 72.  His estate sold 247 Central Park West in October 1943.  Three years later a renovation resulted in one apartment on each floor.  It was purchased in 1947 by Beatrice and Cost Vendramis, who were soon sued by a tenant because of the constant piano playing of another resident, Lydia Frankfurt, who taught in her apartment.  In court, Cost Vendramis dismissed the complaint, saying "I no give attention to it that somebody was playing the piano."  He had noise complaints of his own.  He testified in part:

July and August [1948] the place is quiet.  After September it started to get crazy--not the noise from the piano, but this stamping nine hours of a day, sometimes eight or nine hours a day.  they do it with the foot on the floor with no covering.  You hear this, and it makes anybody crazy.  I get nervous and crazy.  If it stay longer, I have to go in the crazy house.  I fight with my wife every day.

The problem of noisy tenants was apparently solved.  

Half a century later, in 2000, Abigail Disney initiated a two-year renovation which restored 247 Central Park West to a single-family home.  She lived here for five years, selling the home in 2006 to then-President and COO of Coach, Keith Monda for $15.5 million.

photo via

Monda did a renovation of his own, one that prompted journalist Aisha Carter to write in 6sqft on September 19, 2014, "William Noble would roll over in his grave if he knew the fate of his beloved private residence."  Monda's gut renovation left no hint of the interiors that Samuel McMillan had spent a fortune to enhance.  The carved wooden staircases were replaced by glass and steel.  The basement level where World War I Army inductees were examined by Dr. Brooks now held a workout space and a 60-foot lap pool.  

But the exterior, happily, remained untouched--one of the three surviving houses of William Noble's 1899 row.

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Monday, March 20, 2023

The Lost William W. Scrugham House - 308 West 103rd Street


When this photograph was taken in 1941, a Gothic synagogue entrance had been erected at street level.   image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

John H. Steinmetz arrived in New York City from Germany at the age of 16 in 1841.  In 1868 he opened a woodworking shop on East 39th Street and soon turned his attention to building and development.  Decades later, on February 17, 1917, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide would recall, "He became one of the pioneer builders in the Murray Hill, Upper West Side and Harlem sections of Manhattan, where he built hundreds of private dwellings."

Steinmetz increased his profits by cutting out the middlemen.  He purchased the vacant tracts directly, sometimes putting the titles in the name of his wife, Elizabeth, and he acted as his own architect.  The Record & Guide said "on account of his unusual activity in the building lines for so many years, [he] was one of the best known men in the construction field."

The couple initiated an ambitious project in May 1890 when Steinmetz filed plans for nine upscale homes that wrapped the southwest corner of West End Avenue and 103rd Street.  He gave each an individual personality, with little attempt to blend their architecture.  Among them was 308 West 103rd Street, which vied for attention.

Costing $12,500 to construct (about $385,000 in 2023 terms), it rose three floors above a high English basement.  Faced in undressed stone, its Romanesque Revival design featured a three-sided bay that terminated in a Corinthian arcade upholding a witches cap roof.  Clinging to the side was a turret with lancet windows, atop which was a romantic, Rapunzel-ready widow's watch.  For the stoop, Steinmetz stepped away from the fortress-like style by giving it sinuous, flowing wing walls.

As the row neared completion in 1891, Elizabeth Steinmetz transferred title to the homes to the couple's son, Welcome (who was also an architect).  On September 15 he sold the 103rd Street houses to real estate operator Wilbur F. Washburn, who paid $25,000 for each of them, or about $768,000 today.

No. 308 became home to the family of attorney William W. Scrugham.  Like their neighbors, the Scrughams maintained a domestic staff, as reflected in a position-wanted ad placed by a young servant in April 1896:

Second Man or Valet--By young Englishman; under a butler; age 23; good references.  Williams.

Judging by his age, Williams was most likely the Scrughams' second man--the servant who assisted the butler and stepped into that position on the butler's days off.  A valet was essentially the male equivalent of a lady's maid, a highly responsible and trusted position.  The valet maintained his employer's wardrobe, drew his bath and performed personal duties like shaving him.

Because the Scrughams had a second man, their staff would necessarily have at least included a butler, cook, chambermaid, and waitress (a polished servant who served in the dining and drawing rooms).

In 1899 William W. Scrugham relocated his family to Yonkers, selling 308 West 103rd Street to Henry Steers, president of a contracting firm, the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers Company.

Steers was described by the New-York Tribune as being a "large dock contractor" and "closely affiliated with Tammany Hall."  He proposed what the newspaper termed a "subway scheme" early in 1909.  On March 19 the it reported that the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers Company offered "to build a new subway under Lexington avenue from The Bronx to a junction with the bridge loop subway."  (The "loop" connected the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges.)  Steers's proposition, as viewed by the editors, was "a radical one in subway development."

He proposed to build the subway extension at his company's expense.  While the equipment and railway would belong to the city, "the possession and the right to operate remain with the contracting company...until the cost, plus 15 per cent as an engineering profit and 5 per cent interest a year on the money invested, has been repair to the company."  

The New-York Tribune was not the only newspaper to view the proposal with suspicion.  An editorial in The Wall Street Journal on July 20, 1909 insisted, "The more the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers combination is looked into the less it will stand the light of day."

In July 1910, before construction of the subway project began, Steers sold 308 West 103rd Street to another contractor, Archibald Charles Heaphy.  The Heaphys immediately hired architect J. Juch to install an elevator in the house.  

Born in Chipping Norton, England in 1866, Heaphy had come to the United States in 1880, settling as a farmer in Sioux Falls (then in the Territory of Dakota).  There, in 1895 he married Florence May Wise.  When they moved into the 103rd Street house they had three children, 12-year-old Arthur, nine-year-old Dorothy, and six-year-old Mary.

Archibald became active in his newly-adopted neighborhood, as evidenced when Dr. Friedrich Franz Friedmann opened the nearby Friedmann Institute.  On May 16, 1913 The New York Times reported, "A meeting of householders having property near West End Avenue and 103d Street, where the Friedmann Institute is located, held a meeting last night at the home of A. C. Heaphy, 308 West 103d Street."

Friedmann treated victims of tuberculosis with what he promoted as the "turtle cure."  Among those speaking at the meeting was Dr. H. C. Frauenthal, who said, "what promised to be a great discovery was assuming the aspects of a joke."  A committee was formed "to observe what takes place at the institute when it begins receiving tuberculosis patients, and if conditions prove to be a nuisance the householders will complain to the proper authorities."

When Archibald Heaphy attempted to vote in 1915, he received disturbing news.  The Government listed him as an alien and, as such, he was not eligible.  The confusion stemmed from Heaphy's citizenship papers issued in 1886 when Sioux Falls was under territorial law.  Happily for Heaphy, a previous suit had set a precedent and on October 29, 1915 a judge ordered the Naturalization Bureau to issue him citizenship papers.   

The Heaphy summer home was in Dutchess County, where Archibald was an active sportsman.  On February 15, 1916 the Poughkeepsie newspaper The Evening Enterprise reported, "many enthusiastic sportsmen gathered last evening in the Union League Club, New York city, for the annual meeting of the Clove Valley Road and Gun Club."  At the meeting, Archibald C. Heaphy was elected a director.  (The success of the 12-year-old club was touted in the "club bag" of the previous season--1,336 wild ducks, 2,133 pheasants, "more than 200 partridges and woodcock, in addition to many hares and rabbits.")

In February 1923 the Heaphys announced Mary's engagement to Lieutenant Paschal Neilson Strong, Jr.   The groom-to-be was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers.  Dorothy, unmarried, still lived with her parents.  Ten months later, on December 19, 1923, The Sun and The Globe reported that Heaphy had sold 308 West 103rd Street for the equivalent of $603,000 in today's money.

It was the end of the line for 308 West 103rd Street as a private home.  A renovation completed in 1924 resulted in apartments.  It was just the beginning of rapid-fire remodeling.  Two years later the former mansion was converted to furnished rooms, and in 1928 it became an Orthodox synagogue.  A Gothic-style entrance was erected at street level and the parlor windows were given pointed Gothic arches filled with stained glass.

The picturesque building survived until 1963 when Rabbi Bernard Bergman, head of Congregation Kehilath Israel, purchased the building and demolished it, erecting a 13-story apartment building on the site with a synagogue on the ground floor.

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
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Saturday, March 18, 2023

The George Hall Baker house - 294 Manhattan Avenue


In July 1886 architect Charles T. Mott filed plans for five three-story brick and stone residences on the east side of Manhattan Avenue, between 112th and 113th Street.  Each of the 20-foot-wide homes would cost their developer, Edward Roemer, $13,000 to construct, or about $386,000 by 2023 conversions.   

Mott's red brick, Queen Anne style homes were typical of his style, with bowed bays and dormers.   He designed the four facing Manhattan Avenue as two mirror-image pairs, while the corner house at 329 West 112th Street, was the show-stopper.  

Construction dragged on because of financial problems.  Surprisingly, when the row was completed in July 1890 all five homes were purchased by Smith Newell Penfield, a renowned organist.  He moved into the corner house with his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Hoyt.

Penfield sold 294 Manhattan Avenue to George Hall Baker on March 18, 1891 for $20,000 (around $615,000 today).  Baker and his wife, the former Ellen Eliza Atkins, had four children: George Friederich, Charles Atkins, Helen Julia, and Raymond Hall.

Baker was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts on April 23, 1850 to George and Mary Hall.  Upon his adoption by Charles and Wealthy Wells Baker, he received his new surname.  He and Ellen, who was known familiarly as Nellie, had married in 1875.  He graduated from Amherst College in 1874 and earned earn his post-graduate degree from Berlin University in 1878.  Upon his return to the United States, he helped compile The Century Dictionary.

The Manhattan Avenue house was convenient to his work.  In 1883 he was hired as assistant librarian at Columbia University and two years before buying the house was appointed Librarian-in-Chief.  Several years later, in 1913, the Annual Report of Chicago Historical Society mentioned: 

Under his administration the library made its greatest progress and acquired some of its most valuable collections.  He also instituted a new and very complete cataloguing system by means of which these treasures became thoroughly available to scholars.

George retired in 1899, earning the title Librarian Emeritus.  He now focused on "the study of art and art history and political science and literary work," according to The New York Times.

Not surprisingly, the Baker sons attended attended Columbia University.  Both Charles and Raymond became attorneys.  Following Charles's marriage to Marie Louise Johnston in 1908, the newlyweds moved into the Manhattan Avenue house where they would have three children.  Charles was, by now, a director and corporate counsel for the Harlem Contracting Company, vice president and counsel for the Pacific City Terminal and Contracting Company, and counsel of the Candelaria Gold and Silver Mining Company.  

George Hall Baker died in the Manhattan Avenue house at the age of 61 on March 27, 1911.  Ellen remained with Helen (who was still unmarried), and Charles's family.  At some point Ellen's brother, John Bangs Atkins moved in.  John's country home was in West Brattleboro, Vermont, where he and Ellen had been born.

Nearly four decades after moving into 294 Manhattan Avenue, Ellen died there on December 28, 1930 at the age of 79.  Her funeral was held in the house on the following day.  

Charles Atkins Baker was, by now, the head of the corporate law firm of Parker & Arron at 55 Liberty Street.  He was also a director of at least six corporations.  Still living his family in the Manhattan Avenue house were Helen, who was still single, and John Bangs Atkins.  John died at West Brattleboro on May 17, 1932.  Before the end of the decade the house was sold.  (Charles died in New Jersey on December 7, 1945.)

294 Manhattan Avenue is second from right.

The Baker house was converted to eight apartments in 1941.  After decades of decline, the neighborhood experienced a renaissance in the early 21st century.  No. 294 Manhattan Avenue was put on the market in 2009 at $2.4 million.  It was finally sold in the summer of 2011 for about half that amount.  It and its architectural siblings create a handsome presence facing Morningside Park.  Its well-preserved facade--albeit with painted brick and replaced stoop railings--begs to be restored.

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Friday, March 17, 2023

Henry Fernbach's 1883 121-123 Greene Street


The Greene Street neighborhood developed a sordid reputation following the Civil War.  Brothels occupied many of the former homes and 121 Greene Street was not an exception.  At around midnight on January 17, 1862, for instance, a patron was removed after "during the act of coition, he was attacked with palsy," according to Dr. Edward C. Sequin.  (He most likely suffered a minor stroke.)   And the New York Dispatch reported on January 12, 1879, "When Justice Otterbourg ordered a complaint to be made against No. 121 Greene street, he no doubt hoped the police would get the evidence to convict.  Possibly the thing was impossible.  The surrounding neighbors could not very well go into court to complain, being in the same business."

At the time of Justice Otterbourg's frustration, things were changing in the Greene Street neighborhood.  Millinery and drygoods firms were inching northward and the old two- and three-story houses were being replaced by commercial structures.  

Julius and Adolph Lewisohn operated the millinery supply firm Lewisohn Bros., which imported and manufactured ostrich feathers, artificial flowers, "bristles, hair, vegetable fibre, &c."  In 1882 they purchased and demolished the buildings at 121 and 123 Greene Street and hired architect Henry Fernbach to design a replacement loft and store building.  Fernbach was busy in the Soho area at the time.  As a matter of fact, he was simultaneously designing the two abutting buildings as 125 and 127 Greene Street.

Construction began on June 28, 1882 and was completed nine months later--the use of a cast iron facade enabling the rapid rise of the six-story structure.  Ferbach's ornate design, a commercial blend of French Renaissance and Second Empire, featured columns with elaborate capitals (a close inspection reveals a melding of Corinthian and Ionic orders), and fluted pilasters at the ends with stylized acanthus motifs.  Each floor was defined by an intermediate cornice.  The entablature of the terminal cornice was distinguished by acanthus leaves alternating with brackets.  Prominent antefixes sprouted above the cornice.

Sharing the building with Lewisohn Bros. were the offices and showroom of the hat manufacturing firm Ferry & Napier.  It was founded by George J. Ferry in 1856 and became Ferry & Napier in 1879 when he partnered with Ernest Napier.  The factory in Newark, New Jersey employed 250 workers.  

In 1883, according to The Evening Post, Ferry became suspicious of the Newark bookkeeper James F. Bull, "because the profits of the factory fell behind what they would naturally be."  He sent Bull on vacation and then brought in the head bookkeeper, who worked in the Greene Street office, to examine the books.  He immediately discovered embezzlement.  The clever Bull had meticulously recorded the weekly payroll, and the individual figures were checked by the factory supervisor John W. Green.  What Green did not double-check, however, were the totals.  Each week Bull padded the total payroll amount by $10 to $50.  The Evening Post reported, "Ferry thinks the total sum taken will amount to between $3,000 and $4,000." (The higher amount would equal approximately $112,000 in 2023.)

Both men were fired, the supervisor "for negligence" for not discovering the scheme.   Somewhat surprisingly, after the 52-year-old Bull admitted his guilt and paid back what he could, Ferry did not press charges.

In the early 1890s Levi Bros. & Blum, which dealt in "notions and dressmaking supplies" was in the building.  For years it had been "the largest importers of high-class Notions in the country," according to The Evening World on January 19, 1894.

Also in the building at the time were two furriers, Albert Herzig, Sons & Co., and Isaac Levi.  The former employed 75 men, 60 women, and 22 girls under 21 years of age in their shop.  The staff worked 53 hours a week.

Fur Trade Review, August, 1893 (copyright expired)

In 1893 Isaac Levi took an extended buying trip to Europe, leaving brothers Adolph and Montague Berhard in charge of the New York operation.  He shipped $100,000 worth of furs from London, a significant three-and-a-quarter million in today's dollars.  A year later he told a reporter, "They did not remit any money last year, and explained that the crisis in America had prevented sales."  (That crisis was the Financial Panic of 1893.)  The excuse made sense, and Levi was unsuspecting.

He arrived back in New York at the beginning of 1894 to discover that Adolph had gone to Europe in December.  "Montague told me that my goods were all in bond, and a short time after my arrival he also left for Europe," said Levi.  "My suspicions were not even then aroused."

But in March, he visited the custom house brokers where he discovered that only half of the goods were in the warehouse.  An investigation showed that the brothers had sold much of the inventory before leaving the country.  But if the Berhards thought they could live the high life on their ill-gotten fortunes abroad, they underestimated their employer.  On May 1, 1894, The Press reported, "Isaac Levi of 123 Greene street, said yesterday: 'I caused the arrest of Adolph and Montague Bernhard in London."  The Evening World noted, "At the prisoners' lodgings a large quantity of valuable property, said to belong to Mr. Levi, was seized."  And Isaac Levi was much less forgiving than George J. Ferry had been.  "They were remanded for a week this morning in London, and will be brought back here for trial."

In 1905 Harry L. Block leased the building "for a long term of years."  His firm manufactured "ladies' and misses' skirts."  He subleased space to apparel maker Natkin & Laitin; cotton goods merchant Siegbert & Co.; and silk dealer Max Kempfer.

from Forest Leaves, 1910 (copyright expired)

Siegbert & Co. was headed by Samuel Siegbert who, according to The New York Press, "made a fortune in Prairie du Chien, Wis., and lived lavishly in a fourteen-room apartment."  That apartment, where Siegberg lived with his wife and daughter, was on the sixth floor of the Ardsley Court on Central Park West.  But his otherwise idyllic life was tortured by back pain.

On February 25, 1905, the family had breakfast together, after which Siegbert went into his study.  A few minutes later the telephone rang.  The New York Press reported, "Asked over the building telephone if any one had fallen from her apartment, Mrs. Siegbert ran to her husband's study and, finding the door locked, called for help.  The door was forced, a window was found open, and, looking down into the court behind the house, Mrs. Siegbert saw her husband's body and fell back unconscious."

Explaining that Siegbert had been "crazed by lumbago pains," the article said his gruesome plunge from the sixth floor window landed him head first on an iron fence where "one of the sharp points pierced his skull, holding him transfixed.  His neck was broken and one of his legs was fractured in two places."

Max Kempfer was the victim of an all-too-familiar crime in the Greene Street building over the decades.  In January 1908 he had 16-year-old employee Moses Neufeld arrested on grand larceny charges for stealing a large quantity of silk.  The teen still had the goods when he was apprehended.  In court on January 7, the boy's attorney asked Magistrate Kernochan permission to request that Kempfer devalue the silk from $47 to $25, "and thus reduce the charge to petit larceny," according to The Sun.  The magistrate said he was willing to allow it, but Kempfer was less sympathetic.  The Sun reported, "Mr. Kemper said he couldn't conscientiously swear to a different valuation on the silk."  Neufelt was held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.

A new type of tenant arrived following the end of World War I.  The Peerless Doll Company operated from the building in 1918, and the following year doll maker Reisman Barron & Co., Inc, took three floors.  A notice dated December 29, 1919 called the new location "one of the largest and most complete doll factories in the city."

An advertisement in Toys and Novelties in April 1920 noted, "One entire floor is used for our head factory, which has an output of over sixty thousand head[s] per week, another is used for the manufacture of the complete doll, our third floor is used for storing all raw materials."

Dry Goods Economist, August 5, 1922 (copyright expired)

Also in the building in 1921 were the Victory Box Company, Inc., makers of cardboard boxes; and Samuel Hymes & Sons, cotton converters.  The latter firm  however, was about to cease business.

On July 16, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported that brothers Philip and Irwin Hymes had been arrested on grand larceny charges.  In a desperate attempt to keep afloat the company which their father had founded, they had defrauded two banks by providing false financial statements.  They obtained large credit lines as well as $25,000 in cash.  The two institutions filed charges after Samuel Hymes & Sons filed bankruptcy on February 5, 1921.

The Soho neighborhood was industrial and gritty in the 1950s and '60s.  The I. H. Manufacturing Co. occupied space in 121 Green Street, where it made "TV picture tube boosters and accessories, sockets for tubes, transistors and crystals."  But change was on the horizon.  The third quarter of the century saw Soho discovered by artists, who used the vast industrial lofts for studio and living space.  The store fronts became galleries and cafes.

Two views of the building in the 1980s.  Despite the abuse, the historic elements of the architecture, including the original doors, survived.  images via

In March 1978 the Pincar Gallery opened in 121 Greene Street.  The upper floors were converted to cooperative housing in 1988 by the architectural restoration firm of Joseph Pell Lombardi.  On June 12 that year, The New York Times mentioned, "When a building at 123 Greene Street became a residential co-op recently, the unrenovated 4,000-square-foot floors sold briskly for about $800,000 apiece."

Galleries came and went.  In the early 1990s the Sperone Westwater Gallery was here and would remain at least through 2000.  Modern Age Gallery exhibited from 1992 to about 1995, and Douglas Blau had space in 1993.  By 2014 the ground floor was shared by the Proenza Schouler boutique and Warby Parker eyeglasses, the latter opening in April 2013.

Sadly, Greene Street is too narrow for the observer to get an optimum perspective of Henry Fernbach's striking cast iron building.  It is wonderfully intact, including the delicate capitals, often the first elements to rust and fall away.

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

The 1918 Warren and Helen Thorpe Mansion - 15 East 64th Street


On June 24, 1916, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Helen C. Thorpe had purchased the double-wide house at 13 and 15 East 64th Street from Edith Shepard Fabbri.  Their husbands' names--Warren Parsons Thorpe and Ernesto Fabbri--were not mentioned simply because the titles to real property were most often held in the name of the women within society families.  The Fabbris apparently had owned the 64th Street house merely as an investment.  They were currently erecting an opulent mansion for their use at 7 East 95th Street.

Only a week later, The New York Press reported that the Thorpes had demolished the old house and "commissioned John G. Greenleaf to prepare plans for a five-story American basement brick and stone residence on the site."  The cost of the new mansion was placed at $100,000--more than $2.5 million in 2023.

Warren Thorpe was a stockbroker, and had recently moved his family to New York from Philadelphia.  Helen Prentiss Converse Thorpe, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, was the daughter of Philadelphia millionaire John H. Converse.  He was in ill health and a widower when the couple became engaged in 1905.  While they initially planned to live in New York, Converse bribed them with a high-paying job for Thorpe and a sumptuous mansion to stay in Philadelphia.  Now, following Converse's death in 1910, they had revived their original plans and brought their two children, Theodora and Warren Jr. to live in New York City.

The Thorpes' mansion was not completed until 1918.  Greenleaf produced a dignified limestone-faced house in the neo-French Classic style.  His design drew the eye to the second floor where a shallow balcony was crowned with a deep, arched pediment.  The sedate facade rose to a steep mansard above a stone cornice where copper-pedimented dormers sat behind iron railings.

Born in 1878, Thorpe had graduated from Yale in 1900.  He was a partner in the Wall Street brokerage house of Henderson & Co.  Like all moneyed families, the Thorpes spent the warm months away from the city.  Somewhat surprisingly, however, they chose to lease estates (almost always in Lawrenceville, Long Island) rather than purchase a summer home.

In March 1917, for instance, The Sun reported that the Thorpes had leased the "furnished dwelling" of Marshall C. Lefferts in Lawrenceville, and in 1920 the New-York Tribune announced they had taken Windward, the estate of Mrs. Frederick Tilden Brown for the 1921 summer season.  The article noted it contained "about fifteen acres, with a large modern dwelling and a number of outbuildings overlooking the Atlantic Ocean."  (The family's attachment to Lawrenceville was so strong that Thorpe would later become mayor of the town.)

Theodora was born in 1906, the year her parents married.  Normally young society daughters were not mentioned in print before their debuts.  But on New Year's Eve, 1920, the 14-year-old appeared in the society columns of the New-York Tribune as the hostess of a dinner for debutante Edyth C. Elliman.  (There was no doubt a great deal of discussion about that for weeks ahead of the event.)

Finally it was Theodora's turn in the spotlight.  The first of her debutante entertainments took place on November 1, 1924.  It was a tea given by her aunt, Mary E. Converse at The Lindens, her home in the upscale Rosemont neighborhood of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Once introduced, young society women often turned their attention to marriage, and Theodora was not an exception.

The following year, on December 17, 1925, The New York Times reported that a telegram from London announced Theodora's engagement to W. Palmer Dixon, "elder son of the Hon. Mrs. Cecil Campbell."  The groom-to-be had attended Eaton before entering Harvard, graduating in 1924.  The article noted, "The wedding will take place in New York in the Spring."  The ceremony was held in St. James Church on Madison Avenue on April 9, 1926.  It was a society affair, followed by a reception in the 64th Street mansion.

It would take Warren Jr., who was six years younger than his sister, longer to find love.  He graduated from Yale University in 1934, and while the Thorpe name repeatedly appeared in society columns for his mother's entertainments and charity involvements, it would not be until June 24, 1941 that The New York Sun reported the 29-year-old's engagement to Elisabeth Searles Greene.  The wedding took place in St. John's Episcopal church in Far Rockaway on September 13 that year.

With their children gone, Warren and Helen Thorpe moved into a suite at 800 Park Avenue and hired architect Louis Weeks to remodel their mansion into apartments and to install an elevator.  An advertisement in 1941 described the "exceptionally fine block," noting the "just completed" apartments featured "huge living rooms," maid and valet service, and optional meals.

Among the initial residents were Monroe Douglas Robinson, a nephew of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had served as an official of the War Finance division of the Treasury Department; and Frances Milne Carleton.  During World War I she had helped organize Red Cross canteens and was in charge of the Red Cross base hospital at Camp Mills, Long Island.  When America entered World War II, she once again helped organize the canteen service.

The affluence of the residents was reflected in a burglary here on November 1, 1954.  Mrs. Ruth Wertheim Lyons Smith returned home that night to find that crooks had stolen $125,000 in jewelry--more than one and a quarter million in today's dollars.  The Long Island Star-Journal noted, "the thieves overlooked another $25,000 worth of gems cached in a valise in a closet."

Living here in the 1970s was George Oppenheimer.  He was drama critic for Newsday, a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a playwright, an author, and an editor.  His first play, Here Today, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1932, starring Ruth Gordon.  His last play, A Mighty Man Is He, was performed at the Cort Theater in 1960.  Also a publisher, in 1925 he and Harold Guinzburg had founded the Viking Press.

The 31-foot-wide Thorpe mansion was purchased by Edgar Bronfman Jr., the president of Seagram's, on June 9, 1994 for $4.375 million.  He reconverted it to a single-family home.  Bronfman remained here until October 2007, when he sold the mansion to financier and chairman of the Warner Music Group, Leonard Blavatnik, for $52 million.

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