Monday, May 23, 2011

Poetry and Art -- No. 441 West 21st Street

Clement Moore’s family estate, Chelsea, was the largest private property on Manhattan’s west side above Houston Street. Although he vehemently fought against the City’s Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 that would segment his farmland into streets and avenues, he eventually conceded defeat and began parceling off plots in the 1820s.

Clark donated 66 plots for the site of the General Theological Seminary, construction for which began in 1827. As the bucolic campus of the seminary with its Gothic brownstone buildings slowly developed, fine homes cropped up on the streets surrounding it.

By the end of the Civil War West 21st Street, directly across from the north side of the Seminary, was lined with fashionable brick and brownstone residences. One such home was No. 441 where, in 1865, G. W. Loines was living.

The impressive four-story brownstone home sat above a deep English basement. A wide brownstone stoop with heavy, ornate cast iron handrails rose to the parlor floor where, inside, whale oil chandeliers and marble mantles glistened with Victorian elegance.

By the 1890s the wealthy widow of Charles A. Du Vivier was living here with her family. Along with daughter Alice and sons Charles and Ernest (a chemist), was the family’s nurse, Catherine Bretty, who had been with the family since coming to America in 1851.

The house was the scene of glittering social events during the Du Vivier’s ownership. In 1901 Mrs. Du Vivier gave a musical reception with artists Betty Booker and Bruno Huhn performing.  And the parlor was the scene of Alice’s wedding reception in 1906.

That same year tragedy struck when Catherine Bretty, now nearly 70 years old, lost her balance while climbing the staircase. The nurse, who had served the family for 55 years, fell backwards down the stairs, dying instantly.

Not long afterwards, the respected sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman purchased No. 441 and refurbished the upper floors into apartments. In the meantime, poet Wallace Stevens was living in the bachelor hotel, the Benedick, on Washington Square. As his wedding day to his fiancé, Elsie, approached, Stevens searched for a suitable apartment for the two of them.

A sensitive restoration of the facade replaced the lost fanlight over the door and the brownstone window sills and lentils.
The first week of August, 1909, Stevens visited No. 441 West 21st Street to see the empty apartment Weinman had advertised. On August 9 he wrote to Elsie:

“Well, I think I have found the befitting home…There are two very large rooms with abundant light (they occupy almost an entire floor.) The front room looks out over the General Theological Seminary—a group of beautiful buildings occupying an entire block. It is all freshly painted and papered—has hardwood floors—open fire-places—electricity etc. There is also a corking kitchenette—clean as a whistle—white paint etc. And a corking bath-room with a porcelain tub, a large window etc. Then I saw at least three large closets for clothes. There can be no question about it—fine-looking house with perfectly-kept hall, and all that sort of thing. “

Stevens and his new bride moved into the top floor. There was no elevator, of course, so the pair used the dumbwaiter to haul up their mail, packages and ice.

Poet Wallace Stevens and his wife Elsie lived on the top floor of No. 411 from 1909 to 1916.
A frequent guest, Frances Butler, said that the apartment “was rather sparsely furnished, and that the evening she was there Wallace sat in a corner reading, while she talked with Elsie,” as documented in J. Donald Blount’s book “The Contemplated Spouse.”

The house was partly the inspiration for Stevens’ 1915 poem “Sunday Morning” in which he writes of “late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, and the green freedom of a cockatoo upon a rug.”

In 1916 the U.S. Treasury Department sponsored a competition for the new design of the half-dollar and dime coins. Adolph Weinman convinced Elsie Stevens to pose for his bas-relief sculpture that won the competition. Mrs. Stevens’ face was memorialized as the “Winged Liberty Dime,” which is often misrepresented as the “Winged Mercury Dime.”

Elsie Stevens posed for Weinman's design for the Winged Liberty dime in 1916

Elsie intensely disliked living in the city, often spending long periods away from the little apartment at No. 441. Finally in 1916 the couple moved to Hartford, leaving New York for good.

During the 20th century the handsome Victorian façade was stripped of most of its architectural details – the sills and lentils, the framing around the entrance and the original windows. The magnificent iron stoop railings, luckily, remained. In the 1980s the house was converted to three apartments; two duplexes and one floor-through.

No. 441 grandly rises above its lower, older neighbors
The much altered house where poetry and sculpture were created sold in 2006 for $6 million. Architects Beyhan Karahan & Associates renovated it into a single-family home again, restoring the existing exterior and interior details while creating a sleek, contemporary residence quite different from the interiors that Mrs. Du Vivier knew.


  1. Wow, I just found your blog. It is wonderful. I live in the tall apartment building next door to 441 W. 21st. In fact, I look out the window at the top floor of 441 -- you can see my window in the photo you have at the top of this post. I was amazed to learn that Wallace Stevens lived next door.

    1. You live on an amazing block. Glad you're enjoying the blog and that I could give you some historical insight into your block!

  2. Ah, I'm so enjoying your blog. I'm now studying all the details you have on the dry goods sellers of Ladies' Mile. I walk through that section of town each day on the way to work and have an entirely new/informed appreciation for it.

    I would be most appreciative if you have any insights to share -- or could point me to a source -- for the history of the apartment building I live in: 433 West 21st as seen here

    Building legend is that it was built for woman - possibly librarians. The corner stone reads, '1930.'

    1. Your building is MUCH more interesting than a librarians' home. Keep watching. It takes me a little while to get the post out there. But your building is quite interesting.

  3. Ok then! Can't wait for your post.

  4. just came across your interesting blog. I have lived on this block since the 1980s and can guarantee that the stoop and iron railings at 441 are NOT original, they were put in around 1986-1987 at the time the building was converted, as you note, to three apartments.

    1. Thanks for the information. They did an amazing job of replication during that conversion. Appreciate the clarification.