Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Fanciful "French Flats" at No. 21 East 21st Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1878 Miers Coryell, an expert in marine engines, and his wife Marie commissioned architect Bruce Price -- who would be remembered for buildings like Quebec City’s Chateau Frontenac -- to design an apartment building at 21 East 21st Street in the latest American Queen Anne style. Working with builder David H. King, Jr., who would become famous for more memorable structures like the Cornelius Vanderbuilt mansion, The Knickerbocker Club and the original Madison Square Garden, Price produced a Victorian delight.

At a time when apartment living was a novel idea among the financially comfortable, the apartments – one to a floor -- offered a parlor and master bedroom to the front, three additional bedrooms, dining room and, to the rear, a servant’s room and kitchen.

photo by Alice Lum
A circular staircase at the front of the building was intended for guests and residents; a smaller one at the rear was for deliveries and servants’ use.

The architect (whose daughter, Emily Post, would go on to fame as the American dictator of etiquette) used red brick trimmed with carved limestone and white terra cotta to create visual interest and touches of tongue-in-cheek humor.

The AIA Guide to New York City called the little free-standing column "marvelous whimsy" -- photo by Alice Lum

The three-story bowed oriel bay with its many-paned windows is supported by fanciful corbeled medieval pillar; what the AIA Guide to New York City called “a marvelous example of late Victorian structural whimsy.”  Above the oriel, a semi-circular balcony is protected by a simply iron railing. The sixth floor has a steeply slanted roof with two charming and decorative dormers.

Robust terra cotta fronds embellish the oriel window -- photo by Alice Lum
Carved into a stone over the doorway Price put “MC,” for Miers Coryell. He also included both his own name and that of the builder flanking the date stone.

When the building, marketed as “French Flats” to distinguish it from lowly tenements, was completed the Coryells moved in along with a lawyer and doctor. Two years later in 1880 The New York Times reported that Fletcher Harper, the eldest son of J. Henry Harper of the publishing family, had taken an apartment there “before returning from his Summer residence in the country.”

A grotesque creature emerges from the terra cotta trim -- photo by Alice Lum
A year later a resident placed an ad for “an excellent cook, who will also wash bed and table linen.” Within the decade, in 1890, the first floor apartment was renting for $1,400 a year.

Trouble came in 1901 when one of Price’s architects, Count Jules Henry De Siborn, accused a new “hallboy," Ulysses Oppenheim, of stealing $84. The New York Times reported that the Count “lives in the fashionable apartment house at 21 East Twenty-first Street.” The hallboy disappeared.

A menacing monster peers from above the balcony, another of Price's delightful touches -- photo by Alice Lum
On September 3, 1908 Elmer A. Darling purchased the building, which by now had a store in the lower level. Darling, who owned the ten-story loft building next door to the east, was concerned that the apartment house would be razed and a larger structure erected. The Times said he “makes this purchase to protect his side light.”

photo by Alice Lum
The “fashionable” spirit of the apartment house quickly faded and by 1911 Dr. Wickes Washburne had established his office of psychiatry here. Little by little the apartments gave way to other uses and in 1919 it was the headquarters of the Pressmen’s Union and later the home of the American Institute of Phrenology.

In 1953 the once-fashionable apartment building was renovated into a “Class B Hotel.” The floor-long apartments were cut up into seven rooms to a floor, the sixth floor carved into ten rooms. In 1977 the hotel was closed and the interiors gutted for a conversion to an apartment house. Opened a year later, it now houses 26 apartments.

Today No. 21 East 21st Street looks remarkably unchanged on the outside; although there are severe alterations to the stoop and basement level and a truly unfortunate choice of entrance doors. Overall, however, Bruce Price’s eccentric design lives on and the fantastic little column still catches the eyes of passersby.

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