Thursday, December 14, 2017

Home to a Compassionate Doctor and an Activist Lawyer -- 323 West 22nd St.


The Chelsea area was undergoing the first signs of real development in 1835 when Nicholas and Sarah Ludlam purchased a substantial stretch of property on West 22nd Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, from Clement C. Moore.  Moore had a grand vision for the newly-forming residential neighborhood on what had been his family's summer estate.  The deed for the land included the provision that before May 1, 1836 the Ludlams erect at least one substantial residence measuring 37-1/2 feet wide.  In other words, a mansion.

The couple complied by building their own residence at No. 333 West 22nd Street.  It was most likely identical to the house next door, erected almost simultaneously for Joseph Tucker with the same deed requirements.   The remaining plots sat undeveloped for several years.  Finally, in 1843, Moore relented and allowed the Ludlams to divide the property into five 22-1/2 foot wide building lots; while still insisting the homes be upscale.

The first to be built was No. 323, completed in 1843.   Faced in red brick above a brownstone English basement, the residence was three bays wide.  Handsome floor-to-ceiling parlor windows and a brownstone Greek Revival entrance distinguished the first floor.  The Greek motif was carried on in the Greek key designs incorporated in the stoop railings.  A prim, dentiled cornice completed the design.

Clement Moore's grand vision of an exclusive neighborhood never panned out.  By the mid-1850s No. 323 was being operated as a respectable boarding house.  An advertisement on November 13, 1859 offered "A pleasant suit of rooms, front, to let, with board; also a handsome back parlor for one or two gentlemen.  Dinner at six o'clock if desired."

The "suit of rooms" reflected the upright and relatively well-do-to status of the boarders.  Another advertisement that year offered an unfurnished suite of rooms that included a "reception room."

Susan M. Cassidy took out a $3,000 mortgage on No. 323 in 1876.  She continued to accept boarders, like George Endicott's family.  George was enrolled in the Introductory Class of New York City College in 1877 and '78.

Following Susan's death her estate sold the house at auction in June 1895.   James W. Elgar paid $16,500, or about $487,000 by today's terms.  Despite the steep price tag, Elgar's boarders were not as financially well-off as those in the house a few decades earlier.

An exception was Dr. James Arthur Campbell.  He moved in with his wife, Marie, and their only son, James, Jr., around this time.  Campbell had been a well-known physician in the neighborhood for years.  He operated his medical practice from the house as well.  The family owned a summer estate in Morristown, New Jersey.

Campbell was born in County Derry, Ireland, one of nine children.  He studied medicine in London, Paris and Dublin and received his medical degree in 1889 at the Royal University of Ireland.  Shortly after arriving in the United States he opened his medical office in Chelsea.  The erudite physician spoke five languages, including a South African dialect.

More typical of the boarders at the time was Maggie A. Bennett.  She remained in the house into the new century, receiving $300 a year from the city for her deceased husband's police pension (about $8,850 today).   Another widow, Elsie Unger, died in her room on November 3, 1912.  The funeral for the 76-year old widow of Henry Unger was held in house the following Monday.

James Arthur Campbell, Jr., suffered financial embarrassment when he filed for bankruptcy in August 1919.  A few years later his father moved his office to the Hotel Chelsea.  On June 25, 1927 Dr. Campbell died in the New York Hospital at the age of 65.

Campbell's earlier decision to live and work in the 22nd Street boarding house was, perhaps, explained by the The New York Times which wrote "He was greatly beloved in the neighborhood, where it was said of him yesterday that he never aspired to have wealthy clientele, preferring to help the poor."

The year before Dr. Campbell's death a studio was added to the rooftop of No. 323.   While many studio additions of the 1910s and '20s were clumsy encroachments; this was rather elegant and sat back from the roof line, avoiding upsetting the proportions of the 19th century architecture.

The studio concept reflected a change in the tenants in No. 323, who were increasingly more artistic and politically liberal.  By 1920 Julius Wolf was living here.  That year he was the Social-Labor Party's candidate for President.

On August 22, 1927 thousands of New Yorkers protested the executions of anarchists Nichola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.   In reporting on several of the many arrests, The New York Times reported "The men were represented in court by Miss Carol King, attorney for the Sacco-Vanzetti Emergency Committee."

The activist lawyer lived at No. 323 West 22nd Street.  The Times would later note "She was active in the founding of the United States divisions of the International Labor Defense and the International Juridical Association, and later of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Commission, the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, and the Civil Rights Congress."

Similar-minded residents in the 22nd Street house were Sylvia and Sol H. Cohn.  They lived here in the 1930s and '40s, listed as members of the Communist Party.  Interestingly, Carol King was never a member of the Communist Party; but she fervently defended the right of free speech and the oppressed, most notably "cases involving what she considered improper interpretation or oppressive application of the immigration and naturalization laws."  She routinely represented labor unions in court.

The Times vividly portrayed her saying "A short, stocky woman of great energy, Mrs. King cared little for fashionable appearance, and was easily identifiable for her heavy, horn-rimmed glasses and her short, unruly dark hair.  She earned professional respect for her brilliant mind and her last-ditch fighting spirit."


The feisty 56-year old still lived at No. 323 when she died in Beth Israel Hospital following an extended illness on January 22, 1952.


In the last quarter of the 20th century the Chelsea neighborhood was rediscovered.  The Eighth and Ninth Avenue district which had recently become seedy and crime-ridden, now saw the influx of young professionals.  In 2009 No. 323 was reconverted to a single family home; one of the best preserved of Nicholas and Sarah Ludlum's handsome row.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The 1860 Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly Bldg - 390 Broadway



Although the architect's name has been lost, the corbel table and cornice of No. 390 are remarkably similar to those of No. 388 to the left, designed by King & Kellum the same year

By the 1830s the residential nature of Broadway just below Canal Street was eroding.  James Stone and his son, Henry, ran their business from No. 390 Broadway, between White and Walker Streets, at least by 1837 and into the 1840s.   James listed himself as "plumber and engineer," but his advertisements better reveal his advanced skills.

Three separate ads in the Morning Herald on April 17, 1839 displayed the variety of items he devised and manufactured.  "Force pumps for deep wells," "Pumps, water closets and baths," and "garden engines & syringes."

The old building became the property of  Dr. Alexander McWhorter Bruen and his wife, Sarah Louisa, before 1859.  Sarah (who went by her middle name) was the daughter of Judge William Jay and granddaughter of Chief Justice John Jay.

That year they demolished it to be replaced by a modern commercial structure.   While the name of the architect has been lost, the original appearance of the building's Italianate design fell in line with the other buildings on the block, all constructed within a few years of one another.

Completed in 1860, four stories of stone sat above a cast iron storefront base. While other Italianate buildings featured tall arches, the architect inserted three sets of arched window frames into square headed openings at the second through fourth floors.  It was an ingenious and attractive way of preserving the arch motif while stepping away from the norm.

An 1864 print reveals the unusual window treatment of No. 390 (center) as compared to its neighbors.  print by Thomas Bonar from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The large dry goods establishment of Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly had operated from No. 388 Broadway.   Upon completion of No. 390 the firm merely moved next door.  The move came during trouble times, when tensions between the North and South were worsening.  Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly did a large trade in the South and the anti-slavery stance of its management caught the attention of the Atlanta newspaper, the Southern Confederacy.

On February 16, 1860 the newspaper's editor and owner, James Pinokney Hambleton, listed the firm on its Black List, saying in part "From the best and most reliable information, we present to the Southern people the names of wholesale mercantile firms of New-York, which are...enemies to our institutions.  We do this for the reason that we know no Southern merchant will expend the money that he has obtained from Southern slaveholders in building up and enriching a class of men who are stabbing at the vitals of this section."

Despite the boycott by some Southern clients, Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly continued to thrive.  On April 26, 1861, for instance, the California newspaper the Sacramento Daily Union reported that the firm had purchased at auction "the entire stock of the dry goods house of De Forest, Armstrong & Co.," which had failed.  "It was sold in one lump for $460,000 and paid for on the spot," said the article.  The massive bid, equaling about $12.9 million today, and outdid that of massive department store owner Alexander T. Stewart.

Exactly one week earlier the staff of Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly had been diminished by one when long-time employee George Tyler Burroughs was sworn into the Union Army.  The 28-year old, who had worked in the woolen department, marched off with the 71st Regiment, New York State Militia; but was almost immediately hospitalized with a case of dysentery.

According to the website erbzine.com, when he learned that his company was marching to the front, he "climbed out the window and caught up with his company--he was reprimanded but was allowed to remain."  Burroughs saw action in Manassas, Virginia in June, and at Sudley Springs and the Battle of Bull Run.

Only three months after he enlisted, he Burroughs was mustered out of service on July 31 and resumed his duties at Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly.  It would be a short-lived return.  On November 17 The New York Times reported that he had accepted the appointment of Quartermaster of the 43rd Regiment New-York Volunteers and on the previous afternoon he had been "presented with a beautiful sword, in testimony of the regard and esteem he is held in by his fellow clerks" at Bliss, Wheelock & Kelly.

Following the war No. 390 filled with dry goods and apparel-related firms, like furrier Leopold Haas who was here by 1869, and Isaac T. Myers, "importers of pearl buttons and fancy goods," at around the same time.

Myers lured potential customers by placing a glass showcase filled with examples of his "fancy goods" on the sidewalk in front of his store.  It was a tempting target for a gang of four teens on January 24, 1871.  According to The New York Times the following day, they smashed the glass "with evident intent to steal the fans, albums, pocket-books, and other articles, valued at $100, there exposed for show."

But Myers was quick to react.  "Scarcely had Mr. Myers made his appearance than the gang ran off."  All, that is, except for 19-year old Peter Maxwell who was nabbed by the angry proprietor.  The delinquent, who lived on Mulberry Street in the infamously impoverished and crime-ridden Five Points district, was arrested and held for trial.

While the gang did not make off with any goods that day, Myers was no as lucky on Saturday, August 28, 1875.   That afternoon a messenger was given a package to deliver just to Adriance, Robbins & Co., at No. 341 Broadway, only a little over two blocks to the south.  In it were "pearl buttons and combs valued at $75" (nearly $1,700 in today's dollars), according to the firm.

The following week The New York Times reported "While on his way there he met a stranger who claimed to be in the employ of [Adriance, Robbins & Co.], and the too confiding porter handed him the package.  Of course, nothing has since been seen of the stranger of the goods."

Interestingly, Adriance, Robbins & Co. soon moved to No. 390 Broadway.  Unfortunately it would not be a long-term stay.  In January 1878 the dry goods jobbers went under.  The auction of its entire stock later that month, including Irish linens, woolen goods and laces, was attended by "mostly peddlers and City retail merchants, doing business in a very small way," according to The Times.  The newspaper was shocked at the petty prices the goods brought, totaling $5,000.

Briggs, Entz & Co., described by Illustrated Boston in 1889 as "the famous English cloth manufacturers" (they were, in fact, importers), had been in the building at least since 1876.  It was headed by Benjamin L. Briggs, John F. Briggs and J. William Entz.  The firm's high-end fabrics were "standards with leading jobbers and high-class clothiers," according to the periodical.

The dry goods store of Cornell & Amerman was on the ground floor of the building in 1882 when enterprising thieves devised a clever plan.  The firm stored stock in the basement, the windows of which faced Cortlandt Alley to the rear.  Those windows were protected by heavy iron bars.  But the bars were spaced widely enough to allow bolts of fabric to pass through.

Somehow one crook managed to hide in the basement on September 4.  Under cover of night, his confederates broke two of the window panes and, using a "stout wire" hoisted bundles of cambric fabric out.   But in the middle of the heist a policeman entered the alley on his nightly rounds.  When he reached the rear of No. 390, he found one bolt of fabric on the pavement.  The Times reported "The thieves must have been surprised at their work by the approach of the policeman, and in their flight dropped one of the pieces in the street."  The inside man apparently escaped out the Broadway entrance.

Within months, after having been in business since 1849, Cornell & Amerman would dissolve.  Following George V. Amerman's death in 1883, Albert Cornell retired.

Dr. Alexander Bruen died in 1886 at the age of 78.  It seems that a question of ownership arose and in April 1888  Louisa was pressed to prove her rights to the title to No. 390.  Luckily she possessed a declaration dated April 22, 1867 which asserted that the "premises are the joint property of said Louisa J. and Alexander M. Bruen."

In February 1889 the Fire Department ordered the building temporarily vacated, saying "the premises 390 Broadway [are] not to be used for habitation or business" until fire escapes were installed.  Simon Bernstein, a principal with Caroline Adler and Morris Perlstein in the cloak and suit manufacturers, Bernstein, Adler & Co., was not impressed.

But, however, he discovered that the New York City Fire Department was a force to be reckoned with.  When investigators realized the firm was still operating within the building, Bernstein was arrested in August that year for contempt of court.

Somewhat ironically, seven months later the factory Bernstein, Adler & Co. suffered damage by fire--but it was in the building next door.  The fire broke out in No. 392 Broadway around 7:00 on the evening of March 4, 1890.  Like all the buildings in the neighborhood, it was filled with flammable materials.  As one newspaper put it the following day, "'Fire in the dry goods district' is an alarm that puts the Fire Department on its mettle."

Before long the entire building was engulfed.  According to The New York Times, "Its double walls prevented the fire from extending to the adjoining buildings," but nevertheless Bernstein, Adler & Co. "suffered severely by water."

At the time the game and toy manufacturer Selchow & Righter operated its wholesale store from the building.  Founded in 1867 as E. G. Shelchow & Co., its factory was in Bay Shore, Long Island.  Among the firm's best selling games was Parcheesi, which they had trademarked in 1874. 

Parcheesi was a top money-maker for Selchow & Righter.  (copyright expired)

Along with board games, Selchow & Righter manufactured cast iron toys and banks--items which would make any child-safety-minded mother cringe today.  As Christmas approached in 1898 the Home Furnishing Review pictured a cast iron toy safe, a miniature iron stove and a toy grocer's scales as examples of the firm's offerings.  "Selchow & Righter are American manufacturers, and make goods that cannot be equaled for their prices, either at home or abroad," said the article.  "Some of their games are most interesting and novel, and will appeal immediately to Young America, which is the judge and jury, as well as the court of final resort."

The Home Furnishing Review, December 1898 (copyright expired)

At the time of the article D. W. Shoyer & Co., knit goods commission house; musical instrument dealer M. E. Schoening; and W. Schwensen, cords and tassels, occupied the upper floors.  (William Schwenen, incidentally, had been arrested three years earlier for receiving $20,000 worth of stolen silks from William Steinborn, alias "Billy Balls," and John Lyons.)

Just after midnight on October 22, 1899 fire broke out in the basement.  The Times reported "The extreme depth of the structure and the fact that the fire was in the centre made the work of the firemen difficult and hazardous."  Not long after a third alarm was turned in the first floor collapsed.  Fire Chief Croker called the blaze "a most stubborn one" which took about two hours to control.   When it was finally extinguished, the building was deemed "destroyed" and the damages were estimated at, at least, $125,000, more than $3.75 million today.

While the newspapers may have thought the building was a total loss, Louisa Bruen disagreed.  She hired the respected architectural firm of Jardine, Kent & Jardine to refurbish the burned out shell.  The stone facade had survived the blaze and the architects' renovations did little to alter it.

The new tenants were nearly all involved in clothing manufacturing.  Friedman Bros. & Bisco made shirtwaists; Manheim & Schwartz manufactured shirts, for instance.  But two, Frederick A. Van Dyke and Gross Brothers, were far different.  The Evening World described Van Dyke as "a millionaire real estate dealer."  Gross Brothers were wholesale grocers.

The sons of those two firms brought humiliation to their families in the summer of 1903.  Van Dyke's 21-year old son, also named Frederick, and Henry A, Gross, Jr., were in Central Park on June 4 when wealthy socialite Mrs. Edward Hagaman Hall strolled in with her eight-year old daughter, Ethel, and her nurse, Rebecca Meloney.

Mrs. Hall, whom The Evening World described as "a tall, fine-looking woman," left Ethel and the nurse sitting on a park bench and headed off on a stroll.  She had gone only a short distance before Ethel ran up saying "Oh, Mamma, two men are hugging Rebecca, and she is awfully frightened."

The newspaper reported "Mrs. Hall said that she hurried back to the bench and found the two young men embracing Rebecca with great fervor despite her struggles and protestations."  Telling a court later that she was "justly indignant," Mrs. Hall kept her cool and pretended to engage Van Dyke and Gross in conversation until she could flag down a passing policeman.

Policeman Quin arrested the young men, whose wealthy fathers quickly posted bail.  But they were brought back before Magistrate Crane that same afternoon.  "They were represented by a lawyer," said the article, "who spoke for them and denied the charges.  They were both so nervous that they could not utter a syllable."

The judge listened to the testimonies of the nurse, the little girl and Mrs. Hall.  Shockingly today, while Rebecca Meloney "was positive in her identification," Crane scoffed at their complaint.

"It take no stock in women's identifications, and will have to discharge these young men.  Many an innocent man has been sent to State prison upon rash identification of women, and I don't propose that anything of the kind shall happen in my court."

Mrs. Hall stormed out with her daughter and the nurse claiming there was no justice to be had.  "The way things are conducted every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes along can hug or insult a woman with impunity.  It's a perfect outrage."

Louisa Bruen died on November 5, 1905.  She was interred in the burial ground on the Jay Estate in Rye, New York, where her husband had also been buried.  The Broadway building remained in the family.

Following World War I No. 390 saw a variety of tenants, including the National Dress Suit Case Co. and office furniture dealers Quick & McKenna. 

New-York Tribune, November 19, 1919 (copyright expired)
Quick & McKenna remained in the building well into the 1920s, as did Gross Brothers.  They shared the address with a wide variety of tenants including A. Irizzarry Co. and Jacinto Sala, Inc., both importers of chemicals and drugs; leather merchants Sala Guillo & Co. and Raper & Pleasso; and International Imports and Export Co., "general merchandise."

Adrian L. Quick, president of Quick & McKenna, and his wife Aline, lived comfortably in their White Plains, New York, estate named Gedney Farm.  But domestic tranquility crumbled in the early years of the 1920s.  By 1926 Aline had had enough.  She won a decree of separation and $125 a month alimony after charging Quick with "cruelty and excessive drinking."  Her husband explained away his heavy use of alcohol, saying "all of the marital trouble was caused by his wife's extreme extravagance."

As the 20th century progressed, the Broadway building continued to house textile and garment firms, including Wolf, Ain & Co. which took a floor in 1931, textile dealer Jacob A. Fortunoff, Inc. which moved in in 1939, and Supertex, manufacturers of mattress covers, which leased a floor the following year.

Textile firms still filled the building in July 1962 when fire swept through on the night of the 12th.  It had broken out around 8:00 in the third floor offices of Fursyn, Inc., dealers of synthetic furs and fibers.  The blaze burned out of control for three and a half hours, causing the fifth floor to collapse and destroying the roof.  When the fire was finally extinguished 16 fire fighters had been injured and one was still missing.

Tragically, the body of 38-year old Fireman John C. Farragher was discovered in the ruins the following morning.  Eighty firefighters had joined in the search for the father of three.

It was around this time that the Bruen family's ownership finally ended.  Alexander and Louisa Bruen's daughter, Alexandra Louisa, had married Rear Admiral George E. Ide.  It was their son, architect and aviation pioneer John Jay Ide, who sold the property.

As was the case in 1899, No. 390 was reconstructed and filled again with textile companies.  And through it all the wonderful triple arched windows within the square openings have survived.


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

H. J. Hardenbergh's 280-284 Columbus Avenue



Although it was inventor and actor Isaac Merritt Singer who founded the Singer Sewing Machine Company; it was Edward C. Clark who made it a success.  The sewing machine was not a new idea when Singer began tinkering with the contraption around 1850; several variations had already been patented.  But his improvements in 1851 resulted in the first practical machine.

Clark had been Singer's attorney since 1848 and the two became business partners.  A marketing genius, Clark's innovative ideas--like accepting trade-ins for newer models--made the Singer Company an enormous success and the partners millionaires.

Edward Clark diversified into real estate development.  In the 1870’s he teamed with fledgling architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh and erected rental cottages for summer visitors to Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York.  It would be the beginning of a long and mutually-prosperous relationship, and one which would help set Hardenbergh on the road to becoming a leading architect.

Very quickly Clark turned his attention to the rocky, mostly undeveloped Upper West Side. 
He was outspoken in his intentions to make the West Side as affluent as the East.  He encouraged landowners to work together, mutually investing in property, and issuing restrictive covenants on construction. 
In 1879 Clark began construction on an extensive project--25 rowhouses on West 73rd Street anchored by a matching four-story apartment and store building at the corner, at Nos. 280-284 Columbus Avenue.
Clark's speculation was both aggressive and risky. Years later The New York Times would remind its readers the area "was in the heart of a squatter's shanty district, where goats and pigs were more frequently encountered than carriages in the muddy streets."
Hardenbergh deftly morphed the residential row into his apartment (or "flat") building on the corner.  The brick-faced Renaissance Revival style structure was touched with modern neo-Grec elements, notably the architrave upper window enframements, and Queen Anne details like the terra cotta rosettes within the cornice frieze and the nearly whimsical rooftop pediments.  And, as if that mixture was not enough, he added delicate French balconies here and there.

The entrance to the apartments, at No. 101 West 73rd Street, mimicked the private houses along the row.  The commercial tenants used the Columbus Avenue address.
Two years after the building (middle right) was completed, the Ninth Avenue elevated was extended as far as 81st Street.  The block between 72nd and 73rd, behind Clark and Hardenbergh's Dakota Flats, was being excavated when this shot was taken.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Interestingly, the ground floor commercial spaces were leased mostly by firms involved in the real estate and development industry.   Among the first were Slawson & Hobbs, real estate agents, here in 1890; builder G. J. Harlow, and prolific developers W. W. & T. M. Hall.  By 1893 builders Egan & Hallecy was here as well and would remain for years.
By 1896 those firms were joined by builder William E. Diller; Frederick H. Birch, real estate; Thomas J. Brady's commercial plumbing business; and Moquin & Offerman, coal dealers.

 
Hardenbergh deftly transitioned from commercial to residential by matching the facade of the apartments with the private house next door, once the first in the long row of residences.

Slawson & Hobbs, run by partners Frederick G. Hobbs and George L. Slawson, was a highly-visible real estate firm on the Upper West Side.  They were highly responsible for filling the rising rowhouses and apartment buildings with tenants.  At the turn of the century, for instance, they were the sole agents for the sprawling Ansonia and Victoria apartment buildings.  In 1902 they published a booklet entitled "West Side Apartments."
That same year, on January 4, the Record & Guide commented on the firm's full-service business, calling their offices "a plant."  "Slawson & Hobbs have made up a very complete plant, embracing sales, mortgages, building plans and other items of interest that facilitates very much their extensive and constantly growing business.  The firm's offices, at No. 284 Columbus av., near 73d st., are thoroughly equipped for the quick and satisfactory dispatch of business."
Hardenbergh's eclectic mix of styles resulted in a stylish Victorian design.
Like many of the other commercial tenants, Thomas Brady's plumbing business remained in the building for years.   In 1903 The Plumbers Trade Journal gave a hint of the activity within his office.  "Still as busy as ever is the condition which Thos. Brady, of 284 Columbus avenue, Manhattan, is to be found.  His trade at this time of the year is first-class and calls for a good deal of his personal attention, besides keeping three or four men very much on the go."

After being in the building for 20 years, Slawson & Hobbs moved to No. 162 West 72nd Street in September 1910.  Five months later the Clark estate hired architect George H. Griebel to design a new storefront.  

By now Thomas Brady's plumbing business had been replaced by that of John Boyd.   Like Brady, he handled large projects, like the conversion of a five-story private residence on East 46th Street to a commercial building in July 1912.  Interestingly, when Frederick A. Clark did renovations to the apartment building directly across Columbus Avenue in 1914, John Boyd not only did the plumbing, but was the architect of record.

In the meantime, the upper floors had been initially leased to well-to-do families, followed by more middle class tenants.  When war broke out in Europe, young J. B. Johnstone sailed off to fight with Company F. 112th Infantry.   

Although peace was declared in November 1918, the soldiers were still deployed for months.  In order to provide them with a touch of home for Christmas, The Sun initiated The Sun Tobacco Fund, which provided soldiers with 17 packs of cigarettes and 23 "sacks of tobacco" each.

Now a lieutenant, Johnstone sent his written thanks to the newspaper and gave a detailed account of his much improved conditions since peace was declared.  His letter, published on January 28, 1919, said in part:

We are in a captured salient which the Americans took from the Heinies, and living in their quarters on a beautifully wooded hill.  I with another 'shavetail' have a stone cottage, with real beds, a stove which the orderly lights before reveille, a desk, chairs, wardrobe and all the comforts of a human being's home.  The mess is wonderful; pancakes with syrup galore, steak, fritters and doughnuts.
It was most likely the advent of the Great Depression that dealt a severe blow to the apartments.  On September 10, 1934 The New York Times reported that the owners, Cappa Realty Company, had leased the three upper floors "to Bertha Stegun for a rooming house.  The floors contain thirty-three rooms."

The accommodations in the "rooming house" were basic at best.  It could more adequately have been termed a flophouse.  In 1943 there were five stores at ground level, with ten SRO rooms on the second floor with one "community kitchen," and eleven SRO rooms on each of the two uppermost floors.   


Overall the building in 1941 looked little different than today.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Things seem to have improved somewhat by mid-century, however.  By 1950 Alice Margaret Chilton called the building home.  Formerly the wife of Boston architect Howland Jones, she was for many years a social worker for All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church on Henry Street.

The Columbus Avenue neighborhood experienced a renaissance in the last quarter of the 20th century as trendy restaurants and boutiques appeared.  In 1974 a renovation resulted in six apartments per floor above the storefronts.  Where builders and plumbers had once operated, The Cultured Seed opened its florist shop by 1976.

In 1982 a unique clothing shop opened here, Vermont Classics.  Owners Pauls Neustate and Sheila Silverman offered "classic clothing handmade by people who live in villages and on farms throughout New England," as described in New York Magazine on September 20.  "There are hand-knitted sweaters, quilted pillows and bed coverings.  And there are raw-silk dresses made in small workshops, as well as factory-made classic New England clothing."



At the same time Robbyn Yoffee and Jane Bloom ran Tianguis Folk Art here.  No less unique, The New York Times on February 9, 1985 described its self-made summer line as "1950's inspired fashions for women who weren't yet born in the 50's."
The store spaces continued to house popular businesses like Exotiqa, which sold imported home furnishings and "trinkets" until 2000; and the seafood restaurant Ocean Grill.  Today fashion boutiques fill the Columbus Avenue storefronts.

In the meantime, the upper floors of Hardenbergh's stylish flat building have suffered little change.  It survives as a remarkable example of early multi-family housing in the then just-developing neighborhood.

photographs by the author

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Lost New York Club - 20 West 40th Street



The newly-completed clubhouse sat among brownstone residences of a generation earlier.  photograph by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Organized in 1845, the New York Club was the oldest men's social club in Manhattan.  After having already relocated several times, it moved into the renovated the former Philip Caswell mansion at No. 370 Fifth Avenue in 1888 after a fire destroyed its clubhouse in 1888.

The New York Club occupied the former Caswell mansion for nearly two decades.  -- photographer unknown; from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York -- http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHZECLN&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=603#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHZECLN&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=603&PN=3

But the exclusive residential neighborhood around the clubhouse quickly changed.  Just two years later William Astor demolished his childhood home a block to the south and replaced it with his Waldorf Hotel.   And in 1894 his aunt, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, followed suit, razing her brownstone mansion next door and erecting her own hotel, the Astor, joined with the Waldorf by both an apostrophe and the famous Peacock Alley.

Perhaps the last straw for the club's dignified members was the demolition in 1901 of its only neighbor on the block, the white marble palace of Alexander T. Stewart.  Commerce was overtaking the neighborhood.  After lengthy (and heated) discussions, members decided on a new site overlooking the rising New York Public Library and Bryant Park behind.  The block was transforming into a "club block," with the new Engineers' Club and  Republican Club buildings recently constructed.

On April 11, 1905 The New York Times quietly mentioned that "W. Clarence Martin has sold to E. Clifford Potter 18 and 20 West Fortieth Street, two four-story brownstone dwellings."  The site would soon be added to with the purchase of No. 22 as well.   Later that year, in December, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide revealed that the New York Club had commissioned Henry J. Hardenbergh to design a nine-story clubhouse.

Describing the proposed structure as being clad in brick and trimmed in terra cotta, the journal placed the cost of construction at $300,000--nearly $8.5 million today. "The first story will contain the club offices and cafe, and the second and third stories the library and card, billiard and committee rooms."  The entire eighth floor was consumed by the "dining hall," and the seventh held private dining rooms.  The fourth, fifth and ninth floors were filled with "sleeping rooms," necessary for wealthy club members whose mansions were shuttered during the summer months yet who needed to return to the city for business.

Hardenbergh's rendering was published in the Architectural Record on June 8. 1906 (copyright expired)

When the New York Club moved into its completed home in March 1907 The New York Times called it "a bachelor's heaven."   Hardenbergh had created a confection of deep red brick, white limestone, and terra cotta.  The first three floors were highly influenced by the Beaux Arts movement.  The centered entrance at sidewalk level was overshadowed by the three two-story arches, fronted by bowed and balustraded balconies directly above.  French gave way to Dutch on the upper floors, where Flemish Renaissance Revival referenced the city's early history.  It all culminated in a two-story, tile covered mansard with stepped gables, a prominent pediment, spiky finials and a massive terra cotta roundel.

The sleeping apartments were also used by "non-resident" members--the small group of wealthy out-of-towners who visited Manhattan regularly.  Among these was the former mayor of Toledo, Ohio, Guy G. Major.  He arrived in New York on January 6, 1912, expecting to spend a few days in the city.  His stay was prolonged when he soon developed pneumonia.  Three weeks later, on January 30, Major died in his room in the Club.


The New York Club was still one of the most prestigious of men's social clubs in 1914.  The high social standings of its 675 members high were rarely soiled by scandal.   That was sometimes simply because nearly unlimited wealth could buy one's way out of public ignominy.  Such was the case with one member that spring.

Benjamin Odio was 71 years old; a respected, retired merchant and a member of the New York Produce Exchange.  He was startled by detectives who broke into a West 47th Street apartment house in the early morning hours of May 9.  Four women were arrested, one charged with keeping and maintaining a disorderly house, or brothel, and the others for "being inmates."   Odio was taken in as well for soliciting the services of the women.

But when he was brought before the judge, it was not the wealthy clubman who was in trouble, it was Detective Lydig of the Central Office Squad who had arrested him.  Magistrate Corrigan found the officer's testimony "was insufficient to support the charge," according to The New York Times the following day.  The newspaper added "The Magistrate became indignant, and calling Lydig to the bar, censured him.  He then discharged the prisoner.  The women were held for trial."

By the time of the Great Depression the New York Club was seeing its neighborhood, once again, succumbing to commerce.  On January 25, 1931 The New York Times commented on the migration of social clubs from the area.  "In years gone by, when Fifth Avenue below Fifty-ninth Street was the fashionable residential thoroughfare of the city, it was perfectly natural that many of the best known clubs should make their headquarters there."

But now, noted the article, of the more than 20 clubs that had been located on the avenue only three remained.  And the New York Club was one of the few to hang on along the blocks just off the avenue.  But that was about to change, as well.

Once one of the most financially stable clubs in the city, in 1933 its members had to decide whether to completely disband, or to sell its clubhouse and share the Lotos Club's clubhouse at No. 110 West 57th Street.  In February the board of directors made the choice to sell.   President Clarence G. Meeks put the best possible spin on the announcement.  "In taking this step, it is to be understood that the New York Club will not be disbanded, but will really be a 'club within a club.'"

With the repeal of Prohibition in sight, the building was purchased by Schenley Distributors.  On the night of December 5, 1933, the official end of Prohibition, the New York Club's members were spending their last few days in the clubhouse.  Despite the repeal, The Times noted that the club "did not serve last night."

With alcohol once again flowing freely, Schenley soon became Schenley Affiliated Corporations, described by The Times as "formed largely of wine and liquor companies."  The various distilleries and plants were situated in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. 

The general offices filled the entire building.  In January 1934, the same month the firm moved in, it announced further expansion.  The Times reported "It was learned that in addition to manufacturing and marketing the present Schenley products, the company contemplates manufacturing certain food products as a by-product of its present industry."

The rapid and massive growth required more office space and in 1937 Schenley took more than four full floors in the Empire State Building.  By September that year the firm had leased No. 20 as the headquarters of the American Legion.  The Boy Scouts of America also maintained a first aid station in the building.  It was a coexistence that caused hearsay and uproar.

On September 23 B. B. Galasi, District Scout Commissioner of Manhattan Council squelched unsavory rumors.  He admitted the Scouts "have given aid to the Legion officials in many ways" and said "A few of their tasks consisted of escorting visitors around the city, bearing colors for State delegations [and] acting as messengers."

But, according to The New York Times, he "denied reports that the youngsters had been detailed to attend intoxicated Legionnaires."  He was backed up by Major F. J. Swentzel of the American Legion.  "We don't allow those boys to go anywhere where there are liable to be drunks...That detail is taken care of by our service committee composed of Legionnaires."

In 1945 Schenley Affiliated Corporations sold No. 20 to supporters of Freedom House, a not-for-profit group "devoted to strengthening free societies."  NAACP members and supporters had contributed towards the $150,000 purchase price.  The renovations cost another $65,000.

Now called the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building, it was dedicated on October 8, the first anniversary of Willkie's death.  Among the speakers were actress Helen Hayes, former Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, president of Brooklyn College Dr. Harry D. Gideonse, and NAACP secretary Walter White.

Approximately 2,000 persons filled West 40th Street for the ceremony as the building was promised to be a "living center" for agencies which supported his ideals.

The headquarters of the NAACP originally took two full floors.  Here the association's official journal, The Crisis, was published.  The publication continues to cover issues of civil rights, history, and politics.   The NAACP was one of seven agencies in the building, the others being the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the Citizens Housing Council of New York, the Common Council for American Unity, the Public Education Association, the World Student Service Fund, and Freedom House, itself.

Crowds gather before the flag-draped building during the dedication.  photo New York Times October 9, 1945

The Freedom House was founded in October 1941 and its charter described it as "a symbol and center" for the fight for freedom.  It was a time of international tension and threats to religious and political liberties.  According to historian David P. Forsythe in his 2008 Encyclopedia of Human Rights, "Its Wendell Willkie Memorial Building was the reply to Adolf Hitler's Braunhaus in Munich, Germany, the center for Nazi propaganda."

Beginning in 1943 the Freedom House Award was presented to an individual for "outstanding contribution to freedom" the previous year.  That year it was awarded to Walter Lippmann, and in 1944 to Sumner Welles.  The first awardee in the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who personally received the award here on April 2, 1946.   A comment in his acceptance speech noted "It is my conviction that the United States entered the war in the belief that it represented the forces of good against evil"

In 1967 the limited space in No. 20 forced the National Office of the NAACP to move uptown to No. 1790 Broadway.  It opened its new space on October 16.

photograph by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By 1983 another agency had moved into the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building.  The American Movement for World Government, Inc. was incorporated in 1954 "to promote he establishment of federal world government as a necessary condition for world peace and security."  Its founder, former commercial airline pilot William H. D. Cox, was influenced by Albert Einstein's believe that "mankind's desire for peace can be realized only by the creation of a world government."

Among the focuses of the Movement in the 1980s was nuclear disarmament.  It published a pamphlet in 1983 entitled "How to Achieve a Nuclear Freeze and Disarmament," free with a $20 membership.  An advertisement in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in December that year began "If extinction is to be avoided as the fate of the earth and all of us who inhabit it, a multilateral nuclear freeze will be an excellent beginning."

Two years later the Willkie Memorial Building was sold to the Republic National Bank.  The structure had been "mentioned as a prime candidate for landmark status," according to Joseph Berger in The New York Times on February 16, 1985.  It had been identified as early as 1979 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission "as having architectural significance."

Republic National Bank set a demolition team to work under cover of night.  Berger reported "A crew this week began ripping the carved stone and other ornaments from the Willkie Memorial Building on West 40th Street."  Buildings Commissioner Charles M. Smith, Jr. ordered the work suspended and asked the police to monitor it.  But significant amage had already been done.  The stone balustrades and carved stonework had been jack-hammered off and the chances of landmark designation were now successfully aborted.

Before long an empty lot occupied the site of Henry J. Hardenberg's fanciful New York Club.  In January 2014 plans were filed for the 33-story mixed used building designed by David Chipperfield, known as The Bryant.

The Bryant is the light-colored structure just to the left of the Empire State Building in this rendering.  via the Bryant website

Saturday, December 9, 2017

James Swan's 1854 "Steam Factory" - 159-161 Mercer Street


The aggressive lintels, cast iron storefront and ambitious cornice were added following a devastating fire in 1874.

James Swan was a pioneer in the commercializing the Mercer Street block between West Houston and Prince Streets.  In 1854 he erected a factory building on the site of the two houses at Nos. 131 and 133; the same year that construction was completed on the new Firemen's Hall next door at Nos, 127-129.

Simultaneously the firm of McNab, Carr & Co. was formed.  The fledgling brassworks that moved into Swan's building would eventually become a substantial manufacturer of "all kinds of brass cocks, plumbers' brass work, globe valves, gauge cocks, steam whistles and water gauges also wrought iron pipe and fittings and plumbers' and gas fitters's tool," according to Illustrated New York in 1888.

McNab, Carr & Co. advertised in Debow's Review in 1857.  (copyright expired)
McNab, Carr & Co. was fully operating in the building in 1855 and the following year was advertising for additional help.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune sought "A good brass cock maker."  The high quality of the firm's products was reflected in its submissions to the 1857 exhibition of the American Institute.  McNab, Carr & Co., received awards for the "second best gauge cocks," the "best stop valves," and "the best panel of brass ware."

McNab, Carr & Co. shared the building with two other tenants.  The machine shop of M. Baragwanath was not so successful, however.  On October 4, 1857 an auction was held in the building of "a large quantity of machinery, tools, &c."  The equipment from the failed business, consisting in part of cutting engines, fly wheels, belting, and drills was deemed by the auctioneer "worthy of the attention" of machinists.

Also in the building was the surgical and dental instrument factory of H. Hernstein, and the "steam-fitting and plumbing factory" of E. V. Haughwout & Co.  The three plants were able to operate because of a steam plant to the rear of the building which was highly-touted.

An 1858 advertisement in the American Medical Gazette and Journal of Health placed by H. Hernstein boasted that his "extensive stock of Surgical, Dental and other instruments...is constantly being replenished and added to from his Steam Factory, Nos. 131 and 133 Mercer Street."


Working in one of the factories that same year was William Booker, a knife grinder.  On the morning of November 4, 1859 he stopped in Meschutt's coffee saloon--apparently the pre-Civil War version of a Starbucks--only to be involved in what The New York Herald called "a desperate affray."

Booker had no sooner entered the place when George F. Finnegan and George W. Hill "began jeering him."  The pair was described by the newspaper as "reputed gamblers."  The New-York Daily Tribune added more information on Finnegan, calling him a "professional gambler" who had recently "committed a rape upon a ballet dancer."

According to Booker, before he knew what was happening, Finnegan "proceeded to blows, threw him upon the floor, pounded him with his fists, and also with a pistol."  While Booker lay on the floor, Finnegan shot his gun, the bullet lodging into the floor by Booker's head.

Hearing "the row" a passing police officer rushed into the saloon and arrested the two attackers.   News of their arrest quickly spread reached the gamblers' cronies.  The Herald reported "There was quite a representation of the fancy and gambling fraternity in court to hear the result of the examination."

William Booker was understandably late for work.

In 1859 McNab, Carr & Co. moved out when it opened its expansive factory in New Jersey.   By now E. V. Haughwout & Co. had either purchased the building or had leased it.  On November 13 that year it advertised available space in the building, noting as always, "with steam power."

A new tenant in the spring of 1860 was F. Ashley, whose factory produced his patented "screw egg beaters and churns."  By 1862 Krantz & Schnmidt, makers of "instruments," and George H. Pages gas fixtures foundry were here; and by March 1865 Howe & Bouvier, scale makers had moved in.


The Financial Panic of 1869--sparked when Jay Gould and James Fisk attempted to corner the gold market--may have been the reason that "several shops" were available in the building in April 1870.  As had been the case for nearly two decades, the advertisement touted "with steam power."

One worker in the building that year was German immigrant Jacob Schaffer.  On the same block, at No. 141 Mercer Street, was a boarding house run by Barbara Ordner.  He apparently offended the feisty proprietor on August 13, for she was taken to the Jefferson Market Courthouse "for breaking a lager beer glass over the head of Jacob Schaffer...and injuring him severely."

Nos. 131-133 Mercer Street was owned and managed by Strouse Brothers by now.  On October 20, 1870 Seligman Strouse was cited for an "unsafe rear wall."  Three years later Strouse Brothers received citations for not having fire escapes.

In the meantime the empty factory spaces had filled.  In 1871 Otto Loehr's photographic apparatus and camera box business was in the building.  Around the same time the woodworking shop of Kern, Werle & Barth moved in.

Herman Barth worked for Kern, Werle & Barth in 1873.  The 19-year old was involved in a devastating accident on July 7.  The New York Herald reported that "while at work in the sawmill" he "had two fingers and the thumb of the left hand cut off."

The Fire Department's citation of no fire escapes in 1873 was of little consequence on September 23 the following year.  There was no one in the building at 1:45 in the morning when fire broke out.

Kern, Werle & Barth's saw mill had been taken over by Otto Schlee.  The second floor was occupied by picture frame and looking glass manufacturers Sigler Brothers, the third by Otto Loehr.  A rear building was occupied by Jacob Sauter's "French millinery box factory" and David Glein's wood turning business.

The fire started in the boiler room below Schlee's saw mill.  The New York Times remarked "Owing to the inflammable nature of the contents of the building the flames spread rapidly and soon enveloped the building in the rear, which was almost completely gutted."

The fact that Firemen's Hall was next door no doubt saved the building from complete destruction.  Strouse Brothers estimated the damage at $12,000, more than a quarter of a million by today's terms.

The 20-year old factory received a modern make-over as part of the repairs.  A new cast iron storefront by Ayers & McCandless Iron Works, was installed, which featured thin, paneled pilasters with Corinthian capitals.  The foundry was most likely responsible for the bold cast iron lintels and the ambitious new cornice, as well.

The new, modern cornice would have been equally at home atop a Broadway retail store.

 Undeterred, Otto Loehr was still in the building in 1881 when he received two awards from the American Institute--one honorable mention for his photographic dark tent, and another for his "stereoscopic camera box."

Sharp's Publishing Co. moved into the renovated building.  The firm produced periodicals like the 34-page monthly, the American Milliner and Dressmaker.  Fashion-minded ladies could subscribe for $1.50 a year.  Pettengill's Newspaper Directory described the magazine in 1878, saying in part "It is one of the neatest publications of this kind.  It is thorough in the execution of its illustrations, in its descriptions of styles, and in its literary department."

The presence of the fashion magazine was evidence of the arrival of garment and millinery manufacturers in the Mercer Street area.  By 1880 a major tenant in Nos. 131-133 was A Reves & Son, apparel makers.  The firm was doing well that year, advertising in June for "operators on gingham suits and ulsters; none but good hands;" and again in November for a "first-class operator on fine dolmans; high price paid; none but good hand need apply."  The latter advertisement hinted at the no-nonsense environment of the shop:  "Come ready to work."

Sharing the building that year was Bernstein & Co., "chenille makers," and Robert Cunningham, a dealer in feathers.  Feathers, along with ribbons and artificial flowers, were an important element in ladies' hats.

Cunningham was the focus of a possible insurance fraud investigation in 1883.  On the morning of Friday, June 8, according to his wife, "he put on his best clothes before leaving home for business."  After spending a few hours at his Mercer Street office, he headed home.  Around 11:30 a man jumped from the rear of the Hamilton Ferry boat which was headed to Brooklyn where Cunningham lived.

The Sun reported that one witness "saw him go overboard, and with several others saw the man struggle for a time in the swift current and finally go down."  A boat was dispatched, but only a man's hat was recovered.  In the lining was a piece of paper that read "Robert Cunningham.  148 Fourteenth street.  South Brooklyn."

There seemed to be no reason why Cunningham would have killed himself.  The Sun noted "His business was prosperous, he had a comfortable income, and his domestic relations were happy."  He did, however, have a $25,000 life insurance policy; motive enough in 1883.

The insurance company put private detective Robert Pinkerton on the case. While a sign on the door of Cunningham's Mercer Street business read "Closed on account of the death of Robert Cunningham," Pinkerton began to suspect that the feather merchant was far from dead.

He told reporters that, for one thing, there was only one eye witness.  And, as reported by The Sun, "His struggle in the water was so short and he sank so quickly that many who ran to look when the cry of 'Man overboard!' was raised did not see him."   And his son admitted that he "frequently heard his father speak in condemnation of suicide."

Pinkerton suspected the suicide was a hoax.  He suggested to the press that "a hat had been thrown overboard and that then a false cry of 'Man overboard!' had been raised."

But Cunningham had, indeed, died.  His body was carried by the currents and found later in the East River.  That did not end the legal drama, however.  The insurance companies argued with the family's attorneys as to whether it was suicide or accident.  And the Union Ferry Company was censured by a jury for its life saving procedures (it had taken over 20 minutes to launch a life boat).  In the end, the family received none of the insurance benefits.  Because it was proved that Cunningham had paid the premiums with company money, the funds went its creditors.

In the spring of 1886 Mercer Street was renumbered.  Nos. 131-133 received its new address of Nos. 159-161.


At the turn of the century the J. S. Plummer & Co., dealers in "importers of straw goods," was leasing the entire building from Stouse Brothers; while subleasing to other firms.  The company was headed by brothers Charles and Walter Burr.

The firm was founded in 1861 by Jerome S. Plummer.  A family operation, Charles entered the firm when he married Plummer's daughter, Carrie.  Walter followed suit by marrying Carrie's sister, Florence.  When Jerome Plummer died in 1895, the Burr brothers took over the business.

Walter (top) and Charles Burr were young, handsome and wealthy in 1902 when these photos were taken.  from New York the Metropolis, 1902, copyright expired.

In the summer of 1905 Charles's family, like all moneyed New Yorkers, had left the city.  And like most wealthy businessmen who remained to conduct buiness, he was staying at his club, the exclusive Union League Club.  The cost and bother of keeping a city house staffed and maintained for a single occupant made little sense.

Charles attended an outing of the Mystic Shriners at College Point in the middle of June.  The New York Times reported "He ate heartily of clams and fish."  The following day he fell ill.  The clams which Burr heartily ate were tainted and he died at the Union League Club the following Monday night.

Walter Burr continued on with the business, renewing the lease "for a long term" on the Mercer Street building the following year.

J. S. Plummer & Co. was gone by 1921 when Jacob Kaufman manufactured leather bags in the building.  It continued to house a variety of manufacturers past mid-century, while the Mercer Street block was experiencing a decided decline.  Nos. 159-161 Mercer Street was, like most of its neighbors, bedraggled and abused by the early 1960s when the first signs of renaissance appeared.

Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor Gene Vass and his wife, apparel designer Joan, moved into the vacant top floor factory loft in the building at that time.  They, like other pioneering Soho artists, actors and intellectuals, were in fact violating building department laws.

It was here that Joan Vass held her first fashion shows.  They were not glamorous accommodations.  Buyers could reach the space only by a freight elevator. 

The upper floors would not be legalized until 1995 when they were deemed by the Department of Buildings as joint living and working quarters for artists.  Before then the Cast Iron Gallery had opened at street level.  The gallery not only showcased contemporary art, but provided events.  On November 23, 1991, for instance, it hosted a "Storybook Hour, with the Japanese children's book illustrator and author Shomei Yoh."  The gallery tempted participants by noting "Japanese rice cookies and Japanese yogurt will be served."

In 2006 the Cast Iron Gallery was replaced by the boutique, Nave.  That retailer was replaced in 2010 by Marni, still in the space today.

photographs by the author

Friday, December 8, 2017

Dorothy Caruso's Skinny Studio - 143 east 62nd Street



The line of brick along the side elevation the depth of the 1929 forward extension of the facade.
In 1868 the 62nd Street block between Lexington and Third Avenues saw a flurry of construction.  Formerly open and rural, the plots were sold to builders and contractors that year and rows of brownstone-fronted rowhouses soon followed.  One house, No. 143, stood out--not because of any architectural significance, but because of its unusual proportions.  At just 12.5 feet wide, it was a nearly half as wide as the common townhouse.

Built by Anna and Warren P. Crandall, who owned several other properties in the neighborhood, the skinny house seems to have been a dollhouse version of its neighbors.  They described it in an advertisement on April 16, 1871.  "A nice little brown stone house, 143 East Sixty-second street, near Lexington avenue...Modern improvements; rent $1,400."  The rent would be equal to about $2,400 a month today.

Later that year, in October, the Crandalls sold several parcels to real estate operator John Murphy , including No. 143.  By the 1890s it was home to Charles H. Liebert and his wife, Charlotte.  The German-born attorney was active in the German community, taking a box at the annual German Charity Ball in the Waldorf-Astoria, for example; and was highly involved in the New York Athletic Club.

The Lieberts moved down the block to No. 234 East 62nd Street at around the turn of the century.  Their former house became the home and office of Dr. John Slocum.   He was a fixture on the 62nd Street block for more than two decades, finally selling the house around 1928 to another physician and neighbor, Dr. Robert H. Fowler.

Fowler, whose summer estate was in Syosset, Long Island, lived and operated his "private hospital" steps away at No. 153.  His purchase was purely an investment and he remodeled the old house by removing the stoop and extending the front forward to the property line.  His architect gave the old house a Mediterranean make-over with a diapered brick facade and slate mansard.

On May 25, 1929 The New York Times noted that "Romeyn Park Benjamin leased from Dr. Robert H. Fowler the four-story American basement dwelling."  Benjamin's sister, Dorothy, was the widow of famed operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso.  He was the general manager of her newly-formed business endeavor, the Dorothy Caruso Reproducing Studio.

The following week the newspaper reported "Without the fanfare of a formal opening or any activity which would distinguish her studio from a normal place of business, Mrs. Enrico Caruso...made her debut yesterday as a business woman."

Although busy "arranging the rooms, fretting over workmen's delay in making installations" and other preparations, Dorothy paused to answer the reporter's questions.  She flatly admitted she "was not in the business for fun, but for money."  Hers was a remarkable venture--making personal recordings.

"Mrs. Caruso's business is the making of individual phonograph records, which instantly reproduce and perpetuate on aluminum anything from a greeting to a sales letter, as she explained it," said the article.  Dorothy was careful to distinguish her services from those which had made her husband's music available in families' living rooms.


"This is the first time my name has ever been connected with any business.  Our business will not compete with the phonograph record companies.  We shall make only personal records for customers."

The ground floor contained a reception area and the two recording studios.  The Times said "The walls of the studios are hung with heavy stuffs which serve the double purpose of decoration and sound absorption."  On the second floor were individual rooms where customers could hear the finished products on phonographs before approving them.

Dorothy seemed determined to make it on her own.  The only reminder of her famous husband was a life-size bronze bust of the tenor just inside the entrance.

Later that year The American Exporter explained the process saying "A blank Speak-O-Phone record is placed on the metal disk of specially processed aluminum, on which a personal record can be made in a few minutes."  The magazine promised that it was "possible for anyone to make personal phonograph records...for no more than the cost of an ordinary record."

Dorothy Caruso's ambitious venture did not last especially long; at least not on East 62nd Street.  It was soon the studio of artist and photographer George M. Kessler.   Kessler's photography had been well-received over the years, being exhibited as early as 1921.  But it was possibly the Great Depression that ruined his business.  On August 15, 1934 he filed for bankruptcy.

The next change to No. 143 came in May 1950 when it was purchased by real estate operator Michael Charles Berg, who went professionally by his initials, for his offices.  Berg commissioned Samuel A. Hertz to update the building.  While the architect renovated the interior spaces for Berg's offices, he did little to the striking exterior other than replacing a doorway with a wide shop window.

On June 13, 1950, one month after Berg purchased the building and before alterations were begun, Wurts Bros. snapped this photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In reporting on the renovations on December 10, 1950, The New York Times remarked on the building's extreme narrowness.  "In these days of tall buildings which take up whole blocks, the four-story brick town house at 143 East Sixty-second Street offers a striking contrast because of the tiny plot it occupies."  Reminding readers that it "was occupied for more than a quarter of a century by Dr. John Slocum as his residence and office," the newspaper said "It stands as one of the narrowest structures in the borough." 

Berg's $35,000 in renovations (more in the neighborhood of $350,000 today), resulted in a store at ground level, Berg's offices on the second floor, and apartments above.

Berg was well-known for his remodeling and reconditioning of vintage houses, starting around 1925; but he had a much more colorful past.  He was celebrated world-wide as a trick cyclist.

While growing up on the Lower East Side, he loved his bicycle.  In 1900, at the age of 14, he joined a circus and, according to The New York Times decades later, "soon developed sufficient skill to establish his own act, which toured the world and gave command performances before royalty."

His nephew, Leo Feinberg explained "With his partner on his shoulders, he would race down a ladder on a unicycle, straight toward the audience.  As a rule, the spectators, certain that the pair would crash onto them, would attempt to scatter."  But at the very last second, Berg would turn sharply away.  Berg and his partner, Al Berman, took the cycling act all over the globe with the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville group.

Berg's business dealings at No. 143 would be far less thrilling, but most likely more financially rewarding.

M. C. Berg sold the building to Mildred Bernstein in February 1959 "for investment."  She leased the store to Ted and Nancy Price, who had run their custom furniture store, the Barn at Ben Robyn, in Huntington, Long Island.  But the winter of 1958 had been severe and prompted the couple to reconsider their remote location.   They opened in the 62nd Street location in September.

The Prices marketed their "furniture, furnishings and gifts" as "Jamaican Originals;" but it was a misleading description.  While the reproduction furniture was crafted in the Caribbean using Jamaican mahogany, it was in fact detailed reproductions of American and European 18th century designs.

On September 26, 1959 The New York Times remarked on several of the pieces displayed, including a $1,200 highboy and a $450 lowboy copied originals in museums.  "An end table with a bombe front, just high enough to nestle under the arm of a sofa is $350.  A miniature chest, copied from an old Chippendale spice cabinet, is eight inches high and ten inches long.  It is lined in gay printed wallpaper and has four little drawers."

The Barn at Ben Robyn remained in the space until 1965 when it became home to Tender Buttons.  The unique shop had begun the year before when Diana Epstein, an editor for Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia, purchased a defunct button store.   An antique restorer, Millicent Saffro, dropped in to buy a button and was fascinated by the still disorganized hoard.  The two women became partners.

Epstein and Safro massed an inventory of millions of vintage buttons.  Together they wrote Buttons, published in 1991, and Epstein published A Collector's Guide to Buttons and The Button Book.

Diana Epstein died in 1998, but more than half a century after opening the shop here, Millicent Saffro continues selling buttons--some rare, some not, but all mesmerizing for the button crowd.


After nearly a century and a half of colorful history, the skinny little house is a charming presence steps away from the clamor of Lexington Avenue.

photographs by the author