Friday, September 22, 2023

The 1836 Henry D. Thayer House - 317 West Fourth Street


In the spring of 1835 merchant Charles W. Hawkins lived at 98 Greenwich Street.  That year he purchased ten vacant lots on Fourth Street between Bank and West 12th Street from Samuel Bayard.  Within the next four months he resold the 20-foot-wide parcels to six men, all of whom were builders or otherwise involved in that trade.  Solomon Banta and Abraham Frazee made up the construction company Frazee & Banta, James Vandenberg and Aaron Marsh were also builders, while Henry M. Perine was a mason, and Richard Taylor was a dealer in lime.  A year later, ten houses were nearly completed on the sites, presumably constructed by their several owners.

Each of the nearly identical, brick-faced homes was two-and-a-half stories tall above an English basement.  Like its neighbors, 45 Fourth Street (renumbered 315 West 4th Street in 1863) was Greek Revival in style.  A short stoop led to the entrance where Doric pilasters flanked the single door.  The attic windows pierced a wide fascia board below the dentiled cornice.

By 1840 Joseph Fennimore, a carter, lived in the house.  It is unclear how long he remained, but in 1851 it was home to two families, the Finches and the Tallmans.  Whether the family were related is uncertain, but they would live together for years.

George Finch was a builder.  In his spare time, he volunteered at the Harry Howard Hose Company No. 55 on Christopher Street.  Living with him and his wife was his mother-in-law, Lavina Allen.  The parlor was the scene of 87-year-old widow's funeral on December 26, 1854.  

Tunis Tallman was a cabinet maker, whose shop was at 609 Hudson Street.  His son, Abraham S. Tallman, would go into the drygoods business around 1856.

The two families left Fourth Street in 1863.  They were followed in the house by Thomas Forbes, a clerk, and his family.  Joseph Forbes, possibly Thomas's father, listed no profession in city directories, suggesting he may have been elderly and retired.

The Forbes family sold 315 West Fourth Street in 1868 to Nelson D. Thayer, a collector for the city.  Thayer was born in Schenectady on November 6, 1818 and moved to New York City in 1829.  He married Margaret Eliza Brown in 1840 and the couple had six children, Joanna, Lovina Ann, Margaret Jane, Irene, Seth Nelson, and Ella.  Highly involved in civic affairs, he had been elected to the City Assembly in 1857 and held the position through 1866.  In 1859 was elected Fire Commissioner, as well.  

It was most likely Thayer who updated the home's appearance by raising the attic to a full third floor, and installing beefy, cast iron Italianate railings and newels to the stoop.

The muscular cast iron stoop ironwork survived in 1941.  The approximate appearance of the original third floor can be seen at right.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Middle-class households like the Thayer's would have had one or two servants, such as a cook and chamber maid.  In August 1869 Margaret advertised for "A German girl, to do general housework."

Like most of their neighbors, the Thayers took in a boarder.  In 1871 it was policeman William H. Christie, and the following year Harriet Habermehl lived with the family.  Harriet died on August 27, 1873 "at the residence of N. D. Thayer," according to her death notice in the New York Herald.  It described the 73-year-old as "the relic [i.e., widow] of Henry."  Her funeral was held in the house the following day.

Over the next few years the Thayers' boarders were Irene Pierce, a teacher, here from 1874 through 1876; and attorney Henry Winans the following year.

The Thayer family left 315 West Fourth Street in 1878, and the house continued to be home to middle-class families for decades.  Then, in 1926 architect George Provst was hired to convert the building to bachelor apartments--meaning that for the most part, they did not have kitchens.  The Department of Buildings warned, "not more than two families cooking independently on the premises," and "not more than 15 sleeping rooms in building."  

An advertisement for one of the two apartments within the "remodeled dwelling" that did have a kitchen was advertised for rent in 1933.  Rent for the two-room apartment was $35 per month, or about $750 in 2023.

Among the tenants here in the mid-1940s was inventor Shepard J. Goldin.  Goldin did not attempt to change the world with ground-breaking inventions, but focused on improvements to everyday objects.  While living here in 1946, he received patents for an "ornamental design for chess pieces," and an "illuminated watch clip and mirror."  The latter was an "attachment for watches in form of a flashlight mount for casting light on face of watch, having mirror over center of crystal."  Earlier he had patented an improved eyeglass case.

A renovation completed in 1963 resulted in a duplex apartment in the basement and parlor floors, and two apartments each on the upper floors.  Then, in 1996, the house was returned to a single-family home.  New stoop ironwork based on the surviving areaway fencing replaces the Italianate examples.

photograph by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Ill-Treated Houses at 228 to 232 West 21st Street


Only the cornice and fourth floor windows hint at the homes' aristocratic beginnings.  Two of the unusual overhanging window cornices survive.

In 1845 William Jay Haskett and his family lived at 34 Cottage Place in Greenwich Village.  (The street, lined with refined homes at the time, would be erased by the extension of Sixth Avenue in the 1920s.)  Within five years he would move the family to the rapidly developing neighborhood of Chelsea.

Haskett purchased 228 West 21st Street, one of three recently completed homes between Seventh and Eighth Avenue.  Their up-to-the-minute Anglo-Italianate style forewent the ubiquitous high stoops seen throughout the city in favor of short, three-step porches.  The most unusual elements were the bold, projecting cornices of the second and third floor windows.  A single cast metal cornice with paired backets connected the trio.

The Haskett house with its doorway intact, is at  left.  The row retained its window cornices in 1941 (note the Victorian garden urn in front of 230).  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

William Jay Haskett was a well-respected citizen.  An attorney with offices at 15 Centre Street, he was also an alderman, a trustee with the Board of Education, and in 1862 would be appointed Excise Commissioner.  The Hasketts had two children, Carrie Matilda and William Jr.

The Enrollment Act of 1863, otherwise known as the Civil War Draft, was passed to augment the Union Army's fighting force in the South.  On August 22, 1863, The New York Times reported on the previous day's lottery, saying "Messrs. Wm. Jay Haskett, Alderman, Lewis R. Ryers and Councilman Munson were appointed to count the ballots."  Presumably to ensure impartiality in drawing the names, "Mr. Benson, the blind man, took out the ballots."  One can imagine the emotions William Haskett felt when among the 1,181 names pulled that day was that of his son, William Jay Haskett Jr.

William Jr. marched off to war.  At the battlefront he, like thousands of soldiers, was afflicted with disease.  He was sent home on the riverboat St. Patrick in early summer 1864.  But the 18 year old would not survive the trip.  He died on the boat at Louisville, Kentucky on June 11.  His body was brought home to the West 21st Street house where his funeral was held on June 17.

By 1866 the Haskett family had moved to 340 West 21st Street, a block to the west.  William Jay Haskett would die there in December 1876, The New York Times saying, "he lost a son in the late civil war, and grief on account of the death of his daughter, his only remaining child, is thought to have so depressed his spirits as to hasten his death."

No. 228 West 21st Street was now the home of the Henry Leo family.  Henry was in the fur business on Canal Street, and his son Simeon was a physician.  Henry's wife was the president of the B'Nai Jeshurun Ladies' Benevolent Society for the Relief of Indigent Females.

On September 21, 1867, The Medical and Surgical Reporter announced, "New York has a Medico-Legal Society."  The article said the organization was formed "on Tuesday evening of last week at Dr. Leo's dwelling, No. 228 West Twenty-first Street," where "subjects of interest to the medical and legal professions were discussed."

It appears that his mother had recruited Simeon Leo to her cause.  In 1870, The Jewish Messenger reported, "An excellent project is to be shortly set in operation by the Directresses of the 'B'nai Jeshurun Ladies' Benevolent Society.'  They intend to open in a central location an Industrial Home where indigent Jewesses, married or single, will receive different kinds of work, or be taught sewing."  The article noted that additional information "will be readily furnished by the Secretary, Dr. S. N. Leo, 228 West 21st Street."

In the meantime, the house next door at 230 had been operated as a high-end boarding house by widow Elizabeth Herbert for years.  That changed around 1881 when attorney Christopher Fine purchased the property.

Born in New Jersey in 1825, Fine was described by The New York Times as "a large man, with a leonine countenance"
whose success in the courtroom was a result of his "fervid style of oratory, which was very effective with juries."  Among Fine's private clients was millionaire Edward S. Stokes.  

He and his wife had seven daughters, the eldest of whom was approaching her debutante years.  The ability to dance was a must for young people, and mothers often involved themselves in that training.  On November 29, 1882, The New York Times reported, "The Hawthorne, a new dancing club, gave its first reception last evening at the residence of Mrs. Christopher Fine, No. 230 West Twenty-first street."

By 1896 there were just three daughters still unmarried and living in with their parents, and there was about to be one fewer.  On February 23, 1896, the New York Herald reported, "One of the prettiest home weddings last week was that of Miss Christine Fine to Mr. Robert Besson McCague...which took place at half-past eight o'clock on Tuesday evening at the residence of the bride's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Fine, No. 230 West Twenty-first street."  The families' affluence was evidenced in the article's noting, "The bride, who was given away by her father, wore a gown of white satin, elaborately trimmed with pearls.  Her veil of tulle was fastened with a cluster of orange blossoms and a diamond sunburst, a gift from the groom."

Four years later, on December 20, 1899, Christopher Fine died at the age of 74 in the West 21st Street house.  In reporting his death, The New York Times described him as "one of the last survivors of a famous school of lawyers."

The house at 232 West 21st Street was originally home to Charles Sands, an educator, and his family.  Son Henry F. Sands was an official in the Customhouse downtown.  Living with the family was Charles's mother, Elithear, the widow of James Sands.  The Sands family remained here through the Civil War.

By the early 1890s, 232 West 21st Street was operated as a boarding house.  Among the residents that year was the medium, Mrs. Carrie M. Sawyer.  Spiritualism, which was rampant at the time, was fertile ground for scammers intent on taking advantage of grieving widows and relatives.  But not everyone was easily convinced.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

On June 1, 1892, Rev. Dr. Robert Collyer spoke to a group about his experiences at Mrs. Sawyer's séance the previous evening.  He said, "I went there open to conviction--in a state of suspended expectation.  I went there eager to know the truth and willing to be convinced.  I left troubled.  The séance seemed absurd." 

He told of apparitions that appeared in the darkened room, and while someone in the dozen or so participants might recognize a loved one, he said, "I think all these forms were represented by one person, and the forms were clothed in calico and not in celestial attire."

Two months earlier the world famous actress Sarah Bernhardt had attended a séance here with members of her company.  Her resultant outrage far surpassed that of Rev. Collyer.  The evening started out quietly, the New York Herald reporting on April 23, "Two carriages drove up to the house of Mrs. Carrie M. Sawyer, a materializing medium at No. 232 West Twenty-first Street at half-past eleven o'clock.  Mme. Bernhardt jumped out of one."  The séance took place in the second story parlor, and Bernhardt made an entrance befitting a star.

"Mme. Bernhardt was attired richly...Her thick hair of burnished gold was thrown to the breezes like the flowing locks of Paderewski, and she wore no hat or bonnet when she entered.  Her pose was that of Cleopatra on her throne."  The calm of the room and the regal demeanor of the actress would not last.

After a dozen spirits had manifested themselves from a "spirit cabinet," Bernhardt became suspicious and angry.  Accusing the members of her company of conspiring with Mrs. Sawyer against her, she spat, "You must be in league with the medium...You are all fools or confederates."  The New York Herald reported, "Madame Bernhardt left the house in a towering rage.  The members of her company followed her, greatly chagrined at her conduct and humiliated at the suggestion she had made that they were in a conspiracy to deceive her."

Living at 228 West Twenty-first street at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War was Vincente Hauria-Martens, his son Richard, and daughter Elsie, who was an actress.  Hauria-Martens had arrived in New York from Spain in 1868.  He initially was an agent for a champagne firm, but then went into the insurance business.  Following his wife's death, he had expressed a desire to return to his homeland.

Now, after the U.S.S. Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor and the Spanish were blamed for it, he made up his mind to return and to fight for his country.  The decision caused a major rift in his family.  In his 1899 book Reminiscences and Thrilling Stories of the War, Congressman James Rankin Young quoted Hauria-Martens as saying, "It is my country, and I love it far better than this land."

Richard replied, "Well, this is my native land, and to my thinking the Stars and Stripes float over the best people on the earth."  The New York Herald reported that he added, "I am a New Yorker, and stand ready to fight for my flag."  The article said, "The quarrel terminated by the father taking the first steamer for Madrid after the war was declared."

"I go to fight the Yankees," he vowed.

"I shall enlist to oppose you," declared Richard.  

The next day Richard enlisted in the 71st Regiment.  The New York Herald wrote, "in a letter to his sister, he said he was chafing at the delay in invading Cuba, and hoped to see his father in the ranks of the enemy."

All three houses were operated as rooming houses throughout most of the 20th century, their tenants not always on the right side of the law.  And then, a renovation completed in 1981 combined them internally, resulting in duplex and triplex apartments and a new penthouse level.  The configuration of the doorways was changed, and nearly all of the mid-Victorian details removed.  Only (oddly enough) two of the window cornices, the top floor details, and the cornice were left intact.  A stucco-like substance was applied over the brownstone.  In all, the attempt to modernize the facade fell on its face, leaving the former homes sadly disfigured.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The 1885 127 West 56th Street


In 1885 Wm. Kennelley & Bro. completed construction of three five-story-and-basement flats at 125 through 129 West 56th Street.  The high-stooped Italianate structures melded with the architecture of the private homes along the block.  Faced in brownstone, their first-floor windows wore classic triangular pediments.  Incised floral carvings in the window frames and above the doorway drew from the emerging neo-Grec style.  An elaborate, shared cornice was crowned by a stone balustrade.

Wm. Kennelly & Bro. sold 127 West 56th Street to James F. O'Shaughnessy in November 1886.  It was purchased in June the following year by Lillian Hartje.

There was one apartment per floor in the building, each consisting of six rooms and a bath.  They boasted the latest amenities, like "steam heat, hot and cold water," according to advertisements.  Tenants paid $50 per month for the apartments, or around $1,800 in 2023 terms.

Lillian Hartje owned several properties in Manhattan, and was affluent enough to have two floors of 127 West 56th Street renovated to a single duplex apartment for herself.  Among her tenants in 1890 were the family of D. L. A. Cugnard, who headed the charitable operations of St. Vincent de Paul Church on West 23rd Street.  

Lillian Hartje narrowly escaped tragedy on the afternoon of October 14, 1897.  At around 4:30 she was rummaging through a closet on the third floor when, as reported by The Sun, she "upset a bottle of furniture polish, which rolled from the shelf to the floor."  Not knowing what had fallen, Lillian lighted a match to see better in the dark closet.  "She put the match near the furniture polish and an explosion followed," said the article.

The fire spread rapidly, and Lillian "ran screaming" into the front room and grabbed the cage of her pet parrot.  She leaned out the window, cage in hand, hollering, "Fire! Fire!"  Hearing her shouts, a policeman, Daniel O'Grady, headed up the stairs to her assistance.  "All the other occupants of the house had made a hasty exit to the street in the meantime, and Mrs. Hartje and the parrot were left along on the third floor, " reported The Sun.

When O'Grady reached the third floor, a hysterical Lillian had run back into the burning room, but was repulsed by the flames.  The policeman got her into the hall, when she remembered her parrot.  She implored O'Grady to save her bird, but could not remember where she had placed the cage.  He went back into the smoke-filled apartment and finally located the parrot by tracing its shrieks of "Poor Polly! Poor Polly!"  Once reunited with her pet, Lillian "went willingly downstairs."  

The World was unnecessarily sarcastic in reporting on the fire.  The following day it began an article saying, "When Mrs. Lillian Hartze [sic] writes a book on 'Hints to Housewives,' she will advise readers to keep furniture polish from lighted matches."  The fire caused damages of just under $73,000 in today's money.

A complex cornice and balustrade still crowned the buildings in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

A ladies tailor named Weinert and his wife, Annie, lived here in 1898, and rented an unused bedroom to actress Alexandria Viarda.  The arrangement did not go well, and by the beginning of 1899 Annie Weinert claimed Viarda owe back rent and locked her costumes up as security.  The upheaval that ensued was reported nationwide.

On January 17, 1899 The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Viarda valued her costumes at $1,000 and had sued in the Supreme Court "to compel Mrs. Weinert to return the hamper and costumes."  The Sun explained,

The actress declared that she was unable to perform without the articles, which include two pairs of tights, a gold-embroidered suit, with trousers, coat and jacket, a white silk silver costume for Mary Stuart, a black and red costume for Medea, a blue woollen mantle for Sappho, a dark blue mantle for Deborah, and several other costumes which are not identified with the parts to be played in them.

The Chicago Tribune reported, "Alexandria Viarda vows she does not owe one penny, at least for board."  The Justice ordered that Annie Weinert release the costumes to the actress.  One assumes that Viarda found another room to rent.

The apartments were filled with artistic types at the turn of the century.  Alexandria Viarda could have used the services of costume designer Maud Dixon Salvini, who operated her studio from the address in 1901.  Contralto Helen Neibuhr gave vocal instructions from her studio-apartment, and concert pianist Mabel Phipps lived here by 1907.

On December 7, 1907, The New York Dramatic Mirror reported on a reception Mabel Phipps held at her studio.  "A number of persons were especially invited to meet Signor Fanco Fano, proprietor and editor of Il Mondo Artistico, of Milan, Italy, who is paying a brief visit to this country," said the article, adding, "Arnold Földsey, the remarkable Hungarian 'cellist who recently arrived in this country, played a number of interesting selections."

Lillian Hartje sold 127 West 56th Street in 1909.  Among the residents by 1912 were consulting engineer Walter M. Kidder and his family.  Kidder was a pioneer in "industrial and commercial efficiencies."  His advertisements promised firms increased profits through efficiency development.  The Kidders would remain at least through 1923.

The architectural details are a pleasing mix of Italianate and neo-Grec styles.

In January 1912, well-to-do stockbroker Harry Lattimer Bloodgood moved into the apartment of his widowed mother, Mrs. John Bloodgood, after leaving his wife Helen Hamler Bloodgood and filing for divorce.  The separation and looming divorce had unexpected psychological effects on Helen.  On March 10, 1912 The Sun reported that since the separation, "Mrs. Bloodgood has been in Broadway restaurants nearly every night and until early in the morning."  

"It was also learned that a piano player was kept on duty for twenty-four hours," said the article.  Helen admitted that within a three week period she had spent "$3,000 in entertaining her friends."  (The amount would equal about $93,400 today.)  Additionally, The Sun said that according to Harry Bloodgood, "some time since his wife left him certain of her associated had robbed her of jewelry and clothing."

When doctors were called to Helen's apartment on March 3, they "found the apartment wrecked."  Helen was taken to the psychopathic ward of Bellevue Hospital and three days later Harry Bloodgood was summoned to an examination of her mental faculties.  He dropped his suit for divorce when Helen was deemed insane and committed to the Rivercrest Sanitarium.

The neighborhood had greatly changed by the Depression years, as the Midtown business district expanded east and west.  The basement and first floors of 127 West 56th Street were converted to commercial spaces.  In September 1935 William Chaltis signed a ten-year lease on the basement as the site of his luncheonette.  By 1939 the second floor held the offices of the Association of Theatrical Agents and Managers.

Designers and decorators John Kelly and Robert Vaugh operated their showroom from 127 West 56th Street in the early 1950s.  In the meantime, apartments in the building continued to attract creative types.  Living here by the late 1960s were Palmer Hayden and his wife Miriam.  Hayden was described by The New York Times as "a painter of Afro-American life and culture."  Today, his works hang today in prestigious museums like the Smithsonian Institution.  The couple was still living here when Hayden died at the age of 83 on February 19, 1973.

By 1991 the building was owned by architect Edward F. Knowles, who ran his office from the address.  Knowles had worked for the esteemed architects Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Abraham Geller, and Edward Larrabee Barnes before opening his own practice in 1961.  He renovated the upper floors to four 1,300-square-foot apartments.  The basement level has been home to Topaz Restaurant since 1993.

non-credited photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The 1896 August Goldsmith House - 36 West 69th Street


Gilbert A Schellenger designed almost every house on the south side of the West 69th Street block between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue in the 1890s.  Interestingly, however, they were not the project of a single developer, but three unrelated operators.  Two of the Schellenger designs stood in stark contrast to his other high-stooped brownstones.

Nos. 34 and 36 were faced in gray brick above limestone bases.   Shallow porches led to the entrances nestled behind fluted Ionic columns that upheld striking, two-story bowed bays.  Designed for George C. Edgar's Sons in 1895, the dignified, 22-foot-wide residences rose five stories.

The entrance to 36 West 69th Street (right) was originally centered, like its neighbor next door.

As construction neared completion on December 21, 1895, the New York Herald reported that George C. Edgar's Sons had sold No. 36 to William Moore for $55,000.  The newspaper had gotten the name more than a little wrong--the buyer was J. F. William Mohr.  The price he paid would translate to just under $2 million in 2023.

Born in Germany in 1848, Mohr was a partner in the cotton firm of Mohr, Hanneman & Co.  He and his wife Clothilde had a daughter, Helene Sophie.  (Another daughter, Clothilde Marie, had died in 1888 at the age of 4.)

The proximity of Central Park to 36 West 69th Street made a ride either on horse or by carriage convenient for the Mohrs.  On Sunday afternoon, April 25, 1897, William took a buggy into the park, but the airing did not end well.  The New York Herald reported that around 5:00 "he was run into by a hansom cab driven by Martin Garrity.  The hind wheel of Mr. Mohr's vehicle was broken off, but he escaped any injury."

Helen Sophie Mohr Zinsser in a theatrical costume later in life.  (original source unknown)

The following year, on October 22, 1898, Helen Sophie was married in All Angels' Church to August Zinsser, Jr.  Following the ceremony, a reception was held in the 69th Street house.

In July 1904, Mohr sold 36 West 69th Street to August Goldsmith.  A wealthy jeweler, he was the principal of Goldsmith, Stern & Co. on Gold Street.  Born in Germany in 1860 as Adolph Goldschmidt, he had anglicized his name upon arriving in America.  He and his wife Devorah had three sons, Arthur J., Richard, and Lawrence Lyon.

The Goldsmiths experienced a terrifying incident the year after they moved in.  On September 28, 1905, the family was at dinner, "when Mr. Goldsmith sent one of the maids, Katherine Gordon, to a bedroom on the second floor to get a letter," according to The Morning Telegraph.  She entered the bedroom, clicked on the light and "was confronted by a man, 6 feet in height, wearing black clothes and a derby hat," reported The New York Times.

The intruder pointed a revolver at Katherine and growled, "Keep still, and I won't hurt you.  Move or scream, and I'll kill you."

The clever chambermaid did not lose her wits, but carefully felt the wall behind her, searching for the light switch.  When her fingers found it, she plunged the room into darkness and bolted out and down the stairs.  She alerted the house that there was a burglar upstairs.  As August Goldsmith headed up the stairs, she warned, "Look out, he has a revolver and may kill you."

While her husband went upstairs, Devorah rushed into the street to find a policeman.  In the meantime, according to The Morning Telegraph, the household was "thrown into an uproar" and the servants "fled in terror."  Four policeman searched the house, and found no one.  They did discover a scuttle to the roof had been pried loose.  The well-dressed thief had gotten away with $55 in cash, a set of gold cuff links and a gold ring.

The Goldsmiths were highly active in charitable and social causes.  By 1909 August was a director of the Educational Alliance, which educated immigrants "to render them desirable citizens," according to The Sun.  On March 8, 1915, the newspaper said, "Some idea of the activities of the Alliance may be gained from the fact that over 3,000,000 persons go through the building every year."  Goldsmith was also involved with the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies.

Devorah worked with the Federation Settlement, along with other socialites with impressive surnames like Lowenstein, Dreyfoos, and Rothschild.

In 1917, the Goldsmiths had a houseguest for the winter season.  Devorah's niece, Mildred Sommerfield, lived in Chicago.   Devorah, who had only boys, suddenly found herself planning a wedding for a young woman.  On May 11, 1917, The American Jewish Chronical reported that Mildred had been married to Robert Goldman at the fashionable Sherry's restaurant on May 1.  The article explained, "They were to have a large wedding some time in June, but the fact that Mr. Goldman has been called to Plattsburg [a military training camp] hastened their plans."

Arthur was the first of the Goldsmith boys to become engaged.  His plans to marry Stella Ruth Metzger were announced in April 1918.

With war raging, August became chairman of the Jewelry Committee of the Liberty Loan Committee in 1918, which pushed for the sale of Liberty Bonds.  He was still working hard for the cause in 1919, when his focus was necessarily redirected to labor problems.

In September, his 200 jewelers, polishers, toolmakers and other staff walked off the job.  Goldsmith was not sympathetic.  "These union men are mad with Bolshevism," he told The Sun.  And so, he felt, if his workers favored the communist way of doing things, he would appease them.  He offered to sell the strikers his entire operation for $300,000.  They could then divide it equally among themselves and run it as they wished.  

The workers had another proposal.  They demanded that Goldsmith turn over the company to them cost-free and that he and his partners "clear out immediately."  Not surprisingly, neither party accepted the other's proposal.

Lawrence Lyon Goldsmith was married to Gertrude T. Winter in January 1926.  The American Hebrew reported on January 8 that the couple "have sailed for France, where they will spend their wedding trip.  They will travel in Spain, Portugal and Germany during January and return to the States later to make their home in New York."  The article mentioned that Lawrence "graduated from Princeton in 1920 and studied at the University of Paris."

Still unmarried, Richard remained in the house with his parents.  Following Devorah's death, August Goldsmith sold 36 West 69th Street to B'nai B'rith in 1930.  On November 10, The New York Evening Post reported, "The club...will move to the Sixty-ninth Street address in a couple of weeks."  (August Goldsmith moved to the Hotel Dorset on West 54th Street, where he died at the age of 73 on May 24, 1933.)

B'nai B'rith operated from the former Goldsmith residence for just over a decade.  In 1937, the Menorah School of Adult Education shared the building.  Then, in 1945, a renovation resulted in two apartments per floor.  The entrance, which was moved to the side, was replaced by a large window. 

Living here in 1950 was actress Joyce Henry.  A 1948 graduate of the University of Michigan, she had spent her summer in Ivoryton, Connecticut playing in a summer stock production of Yes, My Darling Daughter starring Ann Harding, and in Blithe Spirit starring Arthur Treacher.  Back in New York, she studied drama at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.

Although the entrance has been relocated, the exterior of the Goldsmith house is otherwise little changed since 1896.  There are still two apartments per floor.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Monday, September 18, 2023

The Lost New York Life Insurance Building - 346-348 Broadway


from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1867 the magnificent Greek Revival structure at the southeast corner of Broadway and Leonard Street was destroyed by fire.  It had been built for the New York Society Library in 1838.  A few months later, on June 2, 1868, The Sun reported, "Messrs. [Griffith] Thomas & Son, architects, are now engaged, for the New York Life Insurance Company, on what gives promise of being one of the finest and most costly buildings on Broadway."  New York Life Insurance Company was founded as Nautilus Mutual Life in 1841, but changed its name in 1845.  

In its 27 years in business, the firm had showed remarkable moral growth in its practices.  Among the first 1,000 policies issued in 1845, just 15 were upon the lives of women.  In his 1906 History of the New-York Life Insurance Company, James Monroe Hudnut said, "it treated women applicants very much as all companies treated sub-standard lives--it did not seek them, and when it accepted them it charged an extra premium."

Other "sub-standard lives" that the firm covered were those of slaves.  It originally issued policies to Southern planters on the lives of their slaves--amounting to as much as one-third of the organization's policies.  Despite the significant revenue, the board voted to discontinue the practice in 1848.

The firm exhibited further moral advancement during the Civil War.  Whether the policy holder was from the North or South, the New York Life Insurance Company stood by its guarantee, paying claims "under a flag of truce," according to chairman Sy Sternberg more than a century later.  (That guarantee did not extend to Confederate soldiers, however; but only to private citizens.  An article in the Norfolk Journal on February 24, 1871 regarding a law suit filed by a soldier's wife, said the company believed that paying his premium would have been "giving aid and comfort to the Confederate Government.")

As its new building rose, the company was faced with another moral issue.  John McRea who lived in Brooklyn, had paid premiums on his $1,500 policy "regularly for many years," according to The New York Times.  But then, six weeks before he died early in 1869, "by some oversight or other reason," he failed to pay his last premium.  The police was therefore legally void.

On May 27, the newspaper said, "Mr. McRea left a family of four or five persons, and all but one are too small to earn wages for the current necessities of life."  The widow explained "her touching and truthful story" to New York Life Insurance Company.  After considering all the circumstances and agreeing that legally they did not have to pay, the officials decided "there were good and sufficient moral reasons why the money should be paid."

The new building was completed in 1870.  Griffith Thomas & Son had designed an impressive Second Empire style structure replete with paired Corinthian pilasters and columns, round-arched openings and a stone balustrade that crowned the bracketed cornice.  Carved, spread-winged eagles that perched above paneled pedestals on the balustrade complimented a large sculpture of the New York State emblem.

The front and back sections, which rose four stories above a high basement level, were connected by a long segment one story shorter.  The arrangement relieved what would have been a visually ponderous mass.  

The shorter, middle section on Leonard Street (left) connected to the rear section, which was as tall as the Broadway portion.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The extensive building held far too much space than the insurance company needed for its own use.  A portion of the ground floor was home to the Tenth National Bank for years, and other offices were leased to various firms like textile merchants Whittemore, Peet & Post.  On May 14, 1870, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported, "The Department of Docks has leased the front offices on the second floor of the New-York Life Insurance Co.'s building, Broadway and Leonard st."

The main transaction room, where customers could pay premiums and carry out other business, resembled a banking room.  A stenciled ceiling, marble counters and fine carpeting gave a sense of elegance.  (print dated 1876, original source unknown)

The Bedford Manufacturing Company occupied a second floor office in 1880.  The firm had been organized around 1872 "for the purpose of making a new kind of cloth out of bamboo wood," explained The New York Sun.  It was the scene of a horrific incident on November 24, 1880.  

Among its employees was English-born Richard J. Scrivner, who became a victim of a general layoff.  On November 25, 1880, the newspaper said, "A few months ago the company reorganized, leaving Mr. Scrivner out.  Since then his manners and appearance had changed very much."

The day before the article, the 50-year-old had returned to the firm's offices.  Despite his no longer working there and the fact that he "seemed nervous and restless," no one asked him to leave.  He wrote a letter, then went into a private room and closed the door.  The Sun reported, "A few minutes later the clerk heard a pistol shot, and, opening the door, saw Mr. Scriver sitting bolt upright in the middle of a sofa.  There was a bullet hole in the right side of his head and a revolver in his right hand."  Because the coroner was not able to get to the office until midnight, Scrivers body sat on the sofa "in the same position" for hours.

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Julio Merzbacher and Joaguin Sanchez were somewhat autonomously in charge of the Spanish-American business of the New York Life Insurance Company firm.  On June 12, 1891, The World explained, "they really carried on a separate partnership business.  Their offices were in the New York Life Insurance Building, next to the executives.  They had their own force of clerks and kept separate accounts, settling with the Company every sixty days for the premiums and commissions on policies they received."  The lack of direct oversight by company accountants provided Merzbacher a sterling opportunity.  

In November 1890, Sanchez went to vice-president Henry Tuck to report that he discovered that Merzbacher had been embezzling funds.  When the firm moved to prosecute, Sanchez protested, warning that the publicity would cause a scandal.  He promised that the missing funds--upwards of half a million dollars--would be repaid within six months.  (That amount would translate to more than $16.5 million in 2023.)

Sanchez's trust in his partner was not rewarded.  After repaying $60,000 of the stolen money, in January 1891 Merzbacher disappeared.  The man who had kept him out of jail was now responsible for the missing funds.  On June 27, 1891 President Bears told reporters that Merzbacher "has robbed his partner, Sanchez, of a large sum of money, but Sanchez makes the loss good as far as the company is concerned."

In 1892 New Yorkers celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America with a week-long celebration.  There were fireworks, a music festival, and the city's first Columbus Day Parade.  Major buildings were "illuminated," a tradition from colonial days.  On October 10, The Sun said the New York Life Insurance Company's building was "very finely decorated," adding:

...but not half of its beauty can be seen in the day time.  Electric lights play the chief part.  They are set in rows so closely together than each row looks like a single long light.  The globes are of red, white, and blue glass, the colors alternating with the rows.  Over the door is a painting representing Columbus, and on either side the figures 1492, formed by red, white and blue incandescent lamps.

Less than 25 years after it moved into the building, the New York Life Insurance Company decided to replace it.  On April 22, 1894, the New-York Tribune reported, "The New-York Life Insurance Company filed at the Buildings Department in the last week plans for a twelve-story brick office building."  Stephen D. Hatch designed the replacement structure, which survives. 

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The 1876 Lithuanian Alliance of America Building - 307 West 30th Street


In 1876 construction of an upscale apartment building--an early example of what was called a French flat--was completed at 307 West 30th Street, just west of Eighth Avenue.  At the time, the concept of multi-family dwellings for middle and upper middle class families was viewed with suspicion.  The term French flat was an attempt to differentiate such buildings from tenements in the public's mind.

Designed in the neo-Grec style, the four-story structure was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Stylish lintels with incised decorations capped the openings, and an especially attractive pressed metal cornice completed the design.

The apartments, one per floor, became home to financially comfortable tenants.  Among the earliest were Richard Babeuf, who was in the stationery business; tobacconist Leonard Friedman; and produce merchant William H. Barron.  Barron was associated with Austin Nichols & Company, which had large contracts with the city.  In 1877--the year he and his family moved into 307 West 30th Street--for instance, it supplied the Department of Public Charities and Correction  with 25,000 pounds of brown sugar and 250 pounds of corn starch.

Living here in 1889 was physician Edward Walker.  On February 17 that year, he was called to the home of 39-year-old Ella Shinnick, the victim of a failed rape.  She and her husband Richard, who was a laborer, lived relatively nearby at 559 West 29th Street.  That afternoon she had attended a funeral of a neighbor, Mrs. Callahan, on West 28th Street.  After dinner, she returned to the Callahan home to offer the family whatever assistance they might need.  At 10 p.m. she started home.

Directly across from her house, John Moloney jumped from the shadows and attempted to drag her into an alleyway.  Ella fought valiantly.  The Press reported, "For a time she held her own against the man.  He put his hand over her mouth and tried hard to drag her into the alleyway, but could not do so.  Whenever she could tear his hand from her mouth she would scream."

Defeated and frustrated, the would-be rapist told Ella "he would fix her so that no other man could love her."  The Press reported that "he started to kick her to death, and almost succeeded.  The first kick was in the face."  Ella later said, "The brute laughed at my screams, and each time I attempted to get up he would strike me with the heel of his heavy boot."

Ella's screams finally woke up her husband.  Richard ran to the street wearing only his underwear.  Before Moloney ran off, he gave Ella one last kick.  Shinnick and a neighbor carried her to the house and Dr. Walker was summoned.  She suffered a broken nose, blackened eyes, and severe bruising "from head to toe," according to The Press.

Dr. Walker visited Ella daily.  Then, four days after the incident, he recognized a troubling change in her condition and notified the coroner of the crime.  Walker's prognosis was bleak.  The Press wrote on February 22 that the case "will probably prove to be a brutal murder."

John and Margaret Cronin lived in 307 West 30th Street with their six-year-old son Eddie in 1892 when they endured a frightening and publicly humiliating incident.  On the night of November 17, Agents De Long and Denbert of the Gerry Society (other wise known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) arrived at their flat.  According to the agents, the visit was to "warn the father against sending his little son out for beer."  Both John and Margaret denied that such a thing had ever happened.  Unsatisfied, the agents said "they would be compelled to take the boy unless Cronin would promise not to send the child for beer again," reported The World.

Faced with losing his son, Cronin left the room, returned with a hatchet, and drove the men out of the apartment.  The agents found a policeman and had the Cronins arrested for disorderly conduct and took Eddie to the Gerry Society.  At the West 30th Street stationhouse Denberg told the officer in charge that both parents were drunk.  Margaret Cronin responded by slapping him in the face.

The Cronins faced a judge in the Jefferson Market Court the following morning.  The Evening World reported, "Cronin alleged that he was a man of means; that the Gerry agents invaded his home without just cause, and that he only exercised his rights in defending his home and his child.  He denied that he or his wife was intoxicated."  The arresting policeman confirmed that the couple was not drunk.

The World wrote, "The child, a bright, well-dressed, healthy, well-bred lad was in court, and pleaded piteously to be allowed to see his parents."  The article added, "The child was a living refutation of the charge that he had been abused and neglected by his parents."

Among the Cronins' neighbors in 307 West 30th Street were Aimie A. Wollcot, a widow, and her daughter Annie.  At 7:40 on the morning of June 13, 1893, Annie awoke to see a man rifling through her bureau and putting items in his pockets.  Under his arm was her jewelry box, containing "$1,500 worth of diamonds," according to The Evening World.  (The value would equal to more than $50,000 in 2023.)  The article said, "After remaining nearly half a minute dumb with fright, Miss Wollcot recovered the use of her lungs and emitted a series of ear-splitting screams."

Aimie Wollcot was in the dining room at the time and rushed into the hall, just in time to encounter the fleeing burglar.  "Mrs. Wollcot is a courageous woman," reported The World, "and when she saw the jewel-box in the thief's hands she grabbed the robber about the body and screamed at the top of her voice."

As Aimie "hung on for dear life," Annie joined in the screaming.  The thief finally broke away, leaving the jewelry box behind, and headed for Seventh Avenue.  The plucky Aimie Wollcot, "though dressed only in a loose morning wrapper," was on his heels, crying "Stop, thief!" all the way.  The crook ducked into a saloon at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 13th Street, closely followed by a determined Aimie Wollcot.  

"There were several loungers in the place, and, seeing the panting thief hesitate as if to turn at bay, and then the sudden appearance of Mrs. Wollcot, they jumped to their feet and grabbed the man," reported The World.  Policeman Kelly arrived and arrested 22-year-old Frank Gillihan, who was known to the police as a sneak thief, according to the article.

At the stationhouse he denied having been in the Wollcot apartment, but when a pin belonging to Annie Wollcot was found in his pocket, he confessed.  The Evening World noted, "Miss Wollcot is nearly prostrated by the excitement she has gone through."

The building was owned by real estate operators Samuel J. and Edward E. Ashley.  In August 1892, they hired painter and decorator George Stone to work on their properties.  The talented Stone, who did ceiling and wall frescoes, relocated his family from Albany for the job.  He was paid $65 per month,  and given an apartment here for $15 a month (about $500 per month in today's money).  He and his wife had three small children, the eldest of whom was eight years old.

Seven months later, in March 1893, police were puzzled by the mysterious suicide of Alice Leonide Cozzens.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said, "Superintendent Brynes' detectives have worked hard to discover the motive which led her to take her life." George Stone attempted to help, writing a letter to the coroner on March 14, two days after the suicide, telling of seeing Alice Cozzens with a "stylish young man" on the day of her death.  He had overheard snippets of their conversation, in which Annie asked the man (who Stone said "had such a fiendish look about him that I followed him for a block") why he refused to keep his promise.  The man had replied, "Hush, my dear.  I have to hear from St. Louis before I can do anything."  Stone hoped his information would help in the investigation.

The Stone family had concerns of their own at the time.  In April, after just eight months of working for the Ashleys, George had been fired "for lack of work."  Worse yet, his employers owed him $400 back wages at the time.  The New York Herald reported on July 13, "After Stone's discharge Ashley called at his flat and told Mrs. Stone, she says, she could act as janitress, and in payment he promised to give her the flat rent free."

Edward Ashley quickly changed his mind, however, and on July 7, 1893 issued an eviction notice.  When a reporter from the New York Herald visited the apartment building on July 12, the family's furniture was "on the sidewalk and Mrs. Stone and her children were being sheltered by neighbors."   The article said, "The family has not a dollar and cannot move to other rooms."

On April 23, 1910 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Samuel J. and Edward E. Ashley had sold the building to the Lithuanian Alliance of America.  Founded in 1886 by Lithuanian coalminers, the Alliance purchased 307 West 30th Street as a sort of welcoming center for arriving Lithuanian immigrants.

Here services like train transportation for immigrants traveling to other points across the United States could be obtained.  The upper floors were converted to administrative offices, and for the printing facilities of a Lithuanian language newspaper and books.  

Among those working here in 1914 was Andrew M. Martus.  He sailed to Europe in January that year, only to be trapped there when war broke out.  When he finally returned to New York on April 13, 1916, he was a hero.  On April 22, The New York Press began an article saying, "How he assumed the leadership of a band of 7,000 starving, homeless Lithuanian refugees driven into the interior of Russia before the retreat of the Russian army in the summer and fall of 1915 was narrated yesterday, by Andrew M. Martus."

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

He told of the Russians' burning the fields, destroying farm implements, and stealing the livestock.  "Driven by fear," the band of mostly women and children had walked more than 1,000 miles in four months.  Martus said, "they slept in the woods and stole food whenever possible.  Many of the old women and the young children died on the way."

Tragically, he told The New York Press, "What was left in Lithuania after the Russian retreat was taken by the German army.  The conquerors took everything.  The Germans don't care what becomes of the conquered countries."  He told of cases in which desperate Lithuanians "have eaten their dogs and cats."  

From its offices here, the Lithuanian Alliance of America was involved in the establishment of Lithuanian independence in 1918.  And when the world was plunged into world war a second time, the Lithuanian Alliance of America again stepped up.  In 1941 the office of the Lithuanian Relief Committee for the Aid of Lithuanian Victims of Tyranny and War was established in the West 30th Street building.

In 1957 the building was renovated.  There were now two offices on the ground floor, six on the second, and one apartment each on the third and fourth floors.  The Victorian elements were removed from the first floor openings and a metal cladding applied.  The upper facade was given a coat of white paint.

The building as it appeared in 2013.  image via Google Streetview

A restoration completed in 2019 brought the building back to its 1876 appearance.  The lost brownstone elements were recreated in cast stone, and the brickwork repaired.  The Lithuanian Alliance of America continues to operate from the address.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to