Saturday, December 31, 2011

The 1886 Immanuel Lutheran Church -- 122 East 88th Street

Crooks' austere design reflected the Germanic heritage of the congregants.
By 1860 the German population in New York City had topped 100,000.  There were 20 German churches, two German-language newspapers, and fully 50 schools were taught in German.   Already the Lower East Side neighborhood around Third Avenue and the Bowery was becoming predominately German.

But a few of the immigrants struck out for the Yorkville area sixty blocks north where development was just beginning; away from the crowded conditions downtown.  In 1863 a congregation of Lutherans established  Die Evangelisch Lutheraner Immanuelsgemeinde Ungeaenderter Augsburger Konfession zu Yorkville.  It was a name that did not easily roll off the tongue and would be known as Immanuel Lutheran Church.

The group erected its first church on East 87th Street, but within two decades was ready for a substantial new church.   English-born architect Arthur Crooks was commissioned to design the building.  Crooks had established his reputation in designing many ecclesiastical structures in New York and Connecticut, mostly for Roman Catholic parishes.  Immanuel Lutheran Church would be one of Crooks’ last works.  He unexpectedly died in December of 1888.

Land was purchased at the southwest corner of East 88th Street and Lexington Avenue.   For inspiration the architect looked to contemporary German and Northern European churches—severe Gothic structures with dignity and strength.   

At 1:30 on October 31, 1885 an imposing ceremony marked the cornerstone laying.  After a short service in the 87th Street church, about 700 congregants marched to the construction site where the basement and a small portion of the exterior walls had been completed.

Despite the cold, nearly 1000 people shivered through the three hour service.  Inside the polished granite stone were placed an English and a German Bible, a collection of German hymns and other documents relating to the history and current members of the church.

The New York Times promised that the $90,000 building would “be in the Gothic style of Maine granite, with limestone trimmings and with massive buttresses.”

The article got everything right except the buttresses.  The completed Immanuel Lutheran Church was both austere and powerful.  A 200-foot bell tower anchored the corner of the building and provided its main focal point.   The “massive buttresses,” owing to the restrictions of the plot, were scaled down.

In celebration of the building’s dedication, Empress Auguste Victoria of Germany donated three bells for the tower.  The empress, wife of Emperor Wilhelm II, would be the last of the German Empresses.  The large bronze bells were cast in 1886 by G. E. Gollen von C. Dob & Son in Stettin, Germany.  Referring to verse 13:13 in 1 Corinthians—“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”—the bells were inscribed “Glaube, Hoffnung, and Liebe;” Faith, Hope, Love.

Inside, the church stretched 100 feet to the back wall and soared 75 feet to the vaulted plaster ceiling.  The large space could seat 1,200 worshipers.

Around 1900 an elaborately carved reredos from the Black Forest area of Germany was installed.  The magnificent work became the focal point of the apse with nearly life-sized wooden sculptures of Christ, Moses and John the Baptist standing within complex Gothic canopies.

The magnificent reredos, from about 1900, was carved in the Black Forest -- photo
The 20th century brought difficulties for German congregations.   The General Slocum disaster in 1904 that decimated the congregation of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 6th Street drove most of the Germans from that neighborhood to Yorkville.  World War I and II brought with them a bias and suspicion against things German, and churches like Immanuel Lutheran struggled through years of uncomfortable tension.

The church underwent a renovation in 1953; but there would be a much greater rebuilding project in store.

In late Spring of 1969 Gimbels Department Store began construction of its new Gimbels East branch on Lexington Avenue between 86th and 87th Streets.     As crews dynamited bedrock for the foundation, the church trembled.  Ann Siemer, church secretary, notified the general contractor, Conforti & Eisele, and then the sub-contractor, the LeMura Contracting Company, telling them that plaster was falling from the church ceiling.

“Every time I heard a blast,” Siemer told reporters, “I felt a slight tremor in the church.”

The blasting continued and then, on the morning of June 20, the tremors became a disaster.   The vaulted plaster ceiling collapsed.  The entire east side of the interior was buried in plaster and wooden laths, destroying the pews and damaging the stained glass windows beyond repair.  Neither the altar nor the irreplaceable reredos was harmed.

The exposed beams were kept as architectural design in the restoration -- photo Immanuel Lutheran Church
In the restoration, the vaulted ceiling was not replaced; instead the open beams and truss work were left exposed.  In 1973 replacement windows were installed; the work of Belgian-born New York City artist, Benoit Gilsoul.    Gilsoul used faceted glass that gives the windows dimension and diffuses the sunlight.

The Yorkville neighborhood is no longer primarily German.  Amid the trendy, upscale atmosphere of the area, however, the sober Immanuel Lutheran Church still stands, anchoring the corner as it has for nearly a century and a half.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Friday, December 30, 2011

Social Tragedy and Cinematic History -- No. 169 East 71st Street

photo by Alice Lum
Much has been made of the exterior of the rowhouse at No. 169 East 71st Street as the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” home of Holly Golightly.  Since the Victorian house came on the market in December 2011 for $5.85 million, it has garnered renewed attention.

New Yorkers have forgotten, however, that the house made famous in the 1961 motion picture played an important role in an unnerving footnote of Manhattan history.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Upper East Side filled with comfortable homes built for upper- and upper-middle class families. Developers built blocks of near carbon-copy homes, many in the extremely popular Anglo-Italianate style.

Joseph Wallace Cremin purchased one such house, at No. 169 East 71st Street. Cremin was a educator who began his career prior to 1844 teaching in the western part of New York State.  In 1858 he came to New York City, teaching in Grammar School No. 1. Afterwards he moved on to Grammar School No. 18 and, when the new Grammar School No. 27 was opened, he was made principal.

Cremim and his wife reared their sizable family in the house. Life in the Cremin home was mostly uneventful, although on August 25, 1883, John E. Moore, along with Mart Allen and Michael Thomas, broke into and burglarized the house. The thieves received a five-year sentence in the State Prison.

In 1895, at the age of 73, Joseph Cremin submitted his request to the Trustees of the Nineteenth Ward asking to be granted retirement.  The school principal cited his “declining years and length of service” as reasons to be allowed to retire. The Trustees honored his request, noting that “There are few younger men than Dr. Cremin for his years, but he has earned his honors and now desires to give way for younger men.”

Seven years later, on August 5, 1902, the 80-year old Joseph Cremin died in the family home at No. 169 East 71st.

Close inspection reveals a rusted hole in the cast-metal pediment over the doorway.  Such metal ornamentation was quickly manufactured and lowered construction costs while closely imitating carved stone.  -- photo by Alice Lum
The year following his father’s death, Stephen E. Cremin’s wife left him and he moved back into the 71st Street house where his brothers and sisters still lived. Stephen was a traveling salesman whose territory was in the South.

Stephen’s 18-year old son, Thomas, lived away at a military boarding school and Adeline, his 14-year old daughter, lived with her mother in Larchmont, New York.   Stephen Cremin had many friends and was a member of the Larchmont Yacht Club, New York Athletic Club, the Lambs and, according to Dr. O. M. Leiser who had known Cremin for years, “of practically all the leading clubs and social organizations in the South.”

Yet the separation deeply affected him. He was subject to periods of deep depression that were noticed by his friends and fellow club members. On February 11, 1915 Cremin walked into the Lambs Club around 5:00, seemly in good spirits, and chatted with several members.

After a while he requested a room, saying he wanted to rest. Hallboys, around 8:00 in the evening, heard groans coming from the room and called for help.

Cremin was found laying across the bed when the door was forced open. He had taken a razor to his throat and to his wrists. Despite a doctor’s attempts to save him, he died at 9:30 from loss of blood.

A letter left on the bureau read in part “I am tired and have decided to go. I prefer to be cremated. After the ashes are swept up it is my desire that they be thrown to the winds from the roof of the Lambs Club.”

Regarding his funeral, he requested that Father Lavelle and Dr. Houghton of the Little Church Around the Corner officiate. With a posthumous sense of humor, he said “I would like my dear friend Wilton Lackaye, if he wishes, to say a few words. He tells the truth, but I hope we won’t tell it about me.”

He asked that his sister, Nell, take care of his daughter and that his friend George Loft see to having his son appointed to West Point. He ended his suicide letter, “Forgive me, fellow Lambs.”

The emotional and moving letter was published in The Sun and New Yorkers remembered the incident for years.

One of Stephen’s brothers, Joseph Daniel Cremin who was Deputy Tax Commissioner under the Tammany administration, died in the house four years later on July 1919.

The block was once lined with almost identical homes.  Next door a near-twin is slightly narrower than No. 169, only two bays wide, and happily its brownstone facade has not been painted. -- photo by Alice Lum
The extensive Cremin family was gone from No. 169 East 71st Street in 1947 when it was converted to a two-family home—one duplex apartment in the basement and parlor floor, another taking up the 2nd and 3rd floors. The handsome building has remained a two-family house since then, not quite the multi-apartment configuration in which Holly Golightly sang “Moon River.”

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard before No. 169 East 71st Street in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" -- photo from
The house was purchased in 2008 for $1.88 million by Peter E. Bacanovic, the then-Merrill Lynch broker who later found himself in hot water over the Martha Stewart insider-trading case. Some interior renovations were executed by architect David Gauld, then in December 2011 Bacanovic put the Victorian townhouse on the market again.

Much of the detailing familiar to the Cremin family is now gone. -- photo corcoran group
While the prim rowhouse will perhaps always be remembered as the home of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, Edwardian New Yorkers thought of it for many years as the home of Stephen Cremin; the house which the emotionally devastated salesman left for his last drink at the Lambs Club.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Richard Morris Hunt's 1874 Nos. 478-482 Broadway

photo by Alice Lum
In the middle of the 19th century a must-have for any respectable Victorian household was a piano-forte. In the 1860s piano merchants clustered in the Broadway area, providing ease of shopping for potential buyers. Among these, Chickering & Sons was located at 295 Broadway; Lighte, Newton & Bradbury was a 423 Broadway and Decker & Company had showrooms at 419 Broome Street, a block east of Broadway.

In 1862 J. P. Halle & Co. “removed to their new ware rooms” at 478 Broadway. Here they sold 7-octave rosewood pianos which, according to their ads, were “destined to revolutionize the whole piano business. For durability, beauty of tone and touch, as well as in style of finish, they are unequaled; and nothing of the kind has ever before been offered in this country that will compare with them in prices $225, $250 and $275.”

The land on which J. P. Halle & Company’s building stood was owned by the Roosevelt family. The family had a long tradition in the real estate business. Rising from a distinguished line of Dutch settlers, the Roosevelts made their fortunes as successful merchants, and later erecting numerous speculative buildings.

Within a decade the neighborhood was changing as high-end apparel merchants crept in. Lawyer James Henry Roosevelt, who founded the Roosevelt Hospital, bequeathed the land at Nos. 478, 480 and 482 to the institution. In 1873 the hospital commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design a commercial and loft building on the site. J. P. Halle & Co. and its pianos were about to go.

Hunt had already designed several substantial structures including the Stuyvesant Apartments (New York’s first apartment building) and the Presbyterian Hospital. Before the end of the century he would be renowned for such buildings as the Tribune Building, the vast Vanderbilt Newport cottages of The Breakers and Marble House, and the base of the Statue of Liberty.

For No. 478-482 Broadway, which would be known for a short time as the Roosevelt Building, he turned to the currently-popular cast iron façade. But while other architects were using the material to mimic stone; Hunt broke away in a radical departure, using the versatility of the iron to enhance the function of the structure.

Completed in 1874, the wide, five-story building was ground-breaking. Architectural Record praised it as “the most serious attempt to utilize the almost unlimited strength of the material.” The reference was to Hunt’s use of slender colonettes between the windows of the second through fourth floors which allowed for great expanses of glass; impossible in a masonry building.

Hunt provided sumptuous amounts of light inside by his expanses of glass -- photo by Alice Lum
Hunt used a Neo-Grec base of four chunky pilasters to support the airy mass above. Two enormous three-story columns, flanked by matching pilasters, rose to lacy, openwork screens that created pseudo-arches below the fifth floor. Stubby pilasters supported the flat cornice where delicate, openwork brackets branched out to be “relished,” as suggested by the AIA Guide to New York City over a century later.

Delicate, lacy iron screens pretend to be spandrels, giving the illusion of arched windows -- photo by Alice Lum
The building, shaped like a chubby L, extended to No. 40 Crosby Street where the triple-arched design carried over in a baby-brother size.

Three stores made up the street level.
The ground floor was divided into three distinct shops, while full floors were available above. As the neighborhood filled with textile and apparel companies, so did the Roosevelt Building. One of the first tenants, in 1874, was Collins, Downing & Co., importers and jobbers of woolens. At the time it was the oldest established firm in the business, having begun in 1842.  It opened its store at No. 478.

New York’s Great Industries announced that the new space rendered the firm “one of the finest stores on the main thoroughfare of the metropolis and located in the most central section of the wholesale trade.”

“The immense salesrooms are handsomely fitted up and are well lit, while for variety, freshness and completeness of assortment, the stock of woolens here displayed has few equals, and no superiors in America,” said the article.

Collins, Downing & Co. kept a team of twelve to fifteen buyers traveling globally to purchase woolen goods. “The firm makes a prominent specialty of importing the finest lines of foreign goods and handle the output of many of our leading domestic manufacturers,” the writer said.

Not all the publicity for Collins, Downing & Co. was as positive, however. Ten years after moving in, on April 8, 1884, a “handsomely dressed woman, with pale, clear-cut features and light golden” stormed into the store with a friend and demanded of Silas Downing to see his son, Forest.

Although she was told he was not in, she spotted him in the back of the store. “A moment afterward a sharp slap was heard,” reported The New York Times the following day.

Then things got worse. Forest Downing pushed the screaming women through the store and thrust her onto the street. She came back. Downing tossed her out again.

She came back.

By now a small crowd had gathered outside, attracted by the commotion. Silas Downing ordered the woman out, accusing her of coming merely to make a disturbance.

“Your son,” shouted the woman, “has insulted me. He said I was his mistress, and he must take it back or I won’t go out.”

Eventually police were called and the woman, who claimed to be Mrs. Savvillar Downing, was taken away.

The firm appeared in the press gain four years later when Frederick Davis, a 20-year old clerk, slit his right wrist in a suicide attempt at his home at 159 West 23rd Street on a Saturday night. The young man was arrested and held for trial, charged with “suicidal intent.”

But it was not only Collins, Downing & Co. that ran into problems here. Hammerslough & Brothers was a wholesale dealer in men’s and youth’s clothing. The firm hired Bernard Russell as its head salesman with the handsome salary of $5,000 a year. But in 1883 “he was found to be a gambler, a dabbler in stocks, and infatuated with women,” according to The Times, so he was fired.

Russell was one step ahead of the company, however.  Prior to his dismissal, he made copies of the store keys. On Sundays and holidays he would enter No. 478 and help himself to the stock. Police arrested him on the evening of January 7, 1885 at Koster & Bial’s music hall “while he was in the company of a woman.”

Russell confessed to stealing 200 coats, worth from $2,000 to $2,500, and 700 yards of silk.

At No. 478 in 1897 was Rieser & Company, sellers of lace curtains “of every known make.” The company advertised that “special attention is called to our large line of Real Renaissance All Lace Sash Curtains at extremely low prices.”

As the turn of the century arrived, other tenants included Cole & Williams, manufacturers of plush and celluloid cases and novelties; Voss & Stern (Philip Voss sold laces and embroideries while Isaac Stern handled curtains and veilings); and Garner Sons & Co., jobbers of ribbons. While Louis Gartner and his sons dealt primarily in the very feminine product of silk ribbons, J. Gartner used the address as well for his business of breeding Great Danes.

The pencil-thin colonettes along the fifth floor were attached to the facade by delicate iron openwork -- photo by Alice Lum
The building continued to attract the apparel trade into the 20th century. In 1919 The American Hatter announced that Max Kreienbuhl opened his office here on August 1.  Kreienbuhl represented foreign manufacturers including Italian “Milan, five-end and fancy braids;” Fratelli Ballerini’s line of “Leghorns, pedal and fancy bodies for the men’s and women’s hat trade;” and was hoping at the time to take on a Japanese line of hats and braids.

In 1989, as the Cast Iron District experienced a renaissance and trendy shops and boutiques moved in, the Upper East Side florist Madderlake took over the 5,000 square foot ground floor—now opened up as a single retail space. Called Pure Madderlake the upscale store also sold antique furniture and, according to New York Magazine, “lots of everything, old and new, for the table top.”

Today, appropriately, No. 478 Broadway is home to an apparel store – the British megastore Topshop that fills four full levels.

Although the Architectural Record praised Hunt’s design and at least one modern critic has called it “one of the most significant iron-front buildings in the world;” No. 478-482 Broadway receives mixed reviews.

In 1988 New York Times writer Michal Kimmelman said of it, “It is inventive, if only partly successful,” and authors Edmund Vincent Gillon and Henry Hope Reed in their “Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York,” said “all in all, it is more a curiosity than an historical building.”

The building is, however, a crowd-pleaser.  Its clean, well-preserved façade demands attention, if not critical acclaim, and it represents one of the few extant Richard Morris Hunt buildings in Manhattan.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The 1906 John Peirce Mansion -- No. 11 East 51st Street

In 1904, whether John Peirce knew it or not, the exclusive mansion-filled Fifth Avenue neighborhood around St. Patrick’s Cathedral was doomed.

Four years earlier the large site of the former Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, across 51st Street from the Cathedral and diagonally across the avenue from the mansion of George W. Vanderbilt, became available for development.  In an attempt to protect their homes from unwanted neighbors, the Vanderbilts rushed in to seize the property.  Already a syndicate represented by J. Stewart Chisholm had expressed interest in building an apartment hotel on the site.

But John Jacob Astor had already sent shock waves throughout the neighborhood when he purchased and destroyed the great brownstone mansions at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street in 1901 to construct the 19-story St. Regis hotel.  The hotel signaled the beginning of the end.

Grand residences continued to be constructed for awhile, though.  Morton Plant erected his stone mansion on Orphanage land purchased from Vanderbilt and on the opposite corner, at 51st and Fifth Avenue the exclusive Union Club was built.  Between them George Vanderbilt erected two matching marble palazzi.  But it would not be enough to stop encroachment of commerce and the eventual abandonment of the area as a fashionable residential one.

While all of this was going on, John Peirce had made himself a name both in the construction industry and in New York society.  Although the key to exclusive clubs and the inner circle of society was traditionally an established family name and “old money;” the truth was that any money would do as long as one had enough of it.

Peirce’s father operated a granite quarry in Frankfort, Maine.  By the mid 1870s the younger Peirce ran the business and controlled much of the Maine granite industry.  After moving to New York in the early 1880s, he branched out into general contracting, was instrumental in the founding and construction of the subway system and supplied the granite for many of the most monumental buildings not only in New York, such as Grand Central Terminal, but along the East Coast and in Washington D.C.

By the turn of the century he was President of the John Peirce Co.; a director in the firms of William Bradley & Son., Inc.; Empire City Marble Co.; Mount Waldo Granite Works; Stoney Creek Reed Granite Co. the Interborough Rapid Transit Co.; the Interborough Construction Co. New York & Long Island Railroad Co.; and the Metropolitan Bank.   The son of a quarryman now owned a steam yacht and was a member of the Harvard Law School Association, Maine Society, New York Yacht Club, Larchmont Yacht Club, Columbia Yacht Club and the exclusive Manhattan and Metropolitan Clubs.  John Peirce had done well for himself.

Peirce purchased the lot at No. 11 East 51st Street in 1904 from Vanderbilt and commissioned architect John H. Duncan to design an imposing residence.  While other mansions in the area were being constructed of limestone or marble, Duncan was instructed to use granite.  After all, Peirce owned granite quarries.

Completed in 1906 it was an Italian Renaissance palazzo five stories tall with a modern, American basement.  The entrance, up a few steps from the sidewalk, was centered below a graceful cast iron balcony.   Sumptuous stone-wreathed keystones capped the arched windows of the second floor, echoed by two stone wreaths flanking the fifth story windows.  

Elegant carved keystones surmount the windows above the second story balcony.
While Duncan’s design was prim and elegant; his proportions were questionable. Rather than relying on a single-story rusticated base, as with most of the other mansions lining the block, the architect continued the rustication for three floors before adding a cornice to support the top two smooth ashlar stories.  The result looks something like Grandpa wearing his britches too high.

Peirce and his second wife, Abby, moved in with their five grown children:  John Royden, Louise, Mary, Reginald and Alice.   Their home was flanked by the mansions of Ogden Codman and Mrs. Mary C. Kling.  The future could not have looked better.

 But things were not only changing on Fifth Avenue; they were changing in John Peirce’s world as well.

Granite was little-by-little becoming less popular as a structural material.  Steel framing and concrete were replacing stone and were less expensive.   Three years after the house was completed, on Friday June 11, 1909, the New York Tribute ran a front page headline that read “Peirce Co. Receiver.  Bradley Contracting Firm in Trouble Too.” 

“This abrupt change in the affairs of the Peirce and Bradley companies was unexpected,” said the Tribune, “and created a sensation in contracting circles…It was not known that either the Pierce or the Bradley concern was in financial difficulties, and surprise was expressed on all sides.”

The article noted that in 1906 the firm “had the contract for the new library, at Fifth avenue and 42d street; the Senate office building, at Washington, and the federal building at Salt Lake City.”  It mentioned that “Some of the larger contracts that had been handled by Mr. Peirce were the supplying of granite for the Brooklyn Bridge and the Washington post office and the construction of the Hall of Records, the new Custom House, the piers and anchorages of the Manhattan Bridge, and the Broad Exchange, Johnstone Empire, American Surety, Mutual Life and Bank of Commerce buildings.”

If the news “created a sensation in contracting circles,” it created an equally significant sensation in social circles.   On October 21 the following year the Tribune reported that Eugene Meyer, Jr., “a Wall Street banker” had leased the East 51st Street house from Peirce for two years at $15,000 a year.

Meyer’s lease was up in the summer of 1911.  On December 11, 1912 William Ziegler, Jr. married Gladys Virginia Watson in the St. Regis Hotel.    Zeigler was the adopted son of the now-deceased and extremely wealthy William Ziegler, a baking powder manufacturer.  He had purchased a lot from Otto H. Kahn on East 71st Street on which to build a new mansion.

In the meantime, The New York Times reported that “He has leased John Peirce’s house, at 11 East Fifty-first Street, where the couple will reside for the Winter.”

In 1914 the Peirce family used the house one last time for an understated wedding.
On January 14, 1914 the house was used for the last time by the Peirces.  In the presence “of the families and a few friends” Helen Peirce was married to Edward Irvine McDowell in the elegant mansion.  Four weeks later the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company instituted suit against John Peirce and his wife to foreclose the mortgage of $200,000.

On February 18, 1915 Peirce lost the property for good when The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company purchased it at foreclosure.  John Peirce’s time in the spotlight of New York society was over.

Finding a buyer for a mansion in the Cathedral neighborhood was an significant task for the insurance company.  In 1916 Morton Plant left his Fifth Avenue mansion, soon to become the home of Cartier jewelers, and William Vanderbilt’s twin marble houses were leased to art dealers Gimpel & Wildenstein.

John Peirce’s granite palazzo became home to an exclusive girl’s school.  A 1916 notice in Schribner’s Magazine announced “The Gardener School for Girls, formerly at 607 Fifth Avenue, has removed to a larger house at 11 East 51st Street. “  The house was deemed a “fireproof building with every modern equipment” with “advanced education and delightful home life.”  The principals, Miss Louise Eltinge and Miss Mary E. Masland, boasted “special musical courses” and “open air classes and gymnasium” and promised that the building would “be extensively altered.”

World War I was raging in Europe and the United States was on the brink of being thrust into it.  One of the first activities in which the girls were involved after moving into their new quarters was a benefit for the Red Cross.  In May 1916 they gave a performance of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” in the Century Lyceum Theater for the charity.

A mysterious notice appeared in the New York Times on April 16, 1920 saying “The five-story residence opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which John Peirce built for himself at 11 East Fifty-first Street…and later lost through foreclosure to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, has been purchased by a well-known New Yorker for occupancy.  It is assessed at $200,000.”

Readers who wondered who the “well-known New Yorker” was and what would become of the school had to wait until September when The Times announced that the buyers were Louise Eltinge and Mary E. Masland.  The school was secure.
The school continued producing well-educated and well-heeled young ladies.  In 1927 the girls produced a musical comedy called “May Flowers” in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel to aid the school's College Scholarship Fund.  Unfortunately, with the end of the 1920s also came the Great Depression.

Even a school that catered to the daughters of the wealthiest families could not sustain the blow issued by the economic collapse and in 1933 the house was lost, again, to foreclosure.

Around 1940, while the Pagano Studio was in the Peirce House, the mansions of East 51st Street were still intact -- photo New York City Dept. of Taxes
In 1937 Pagano Studio bought the property.  Advertising & Selling Magazine remarked that the purchase was “to coordinate the services of its several studios” and there would be “extensive alterations.”  Those alterations were executed by architect Frank S. Parker who renovated the house to accommodate photography studios, dressing rooms and offices.

A splashy charity event was held in the studios a year later when a society “smorgasbord party” was hosted by socialites for the benefit of the Riverside Day Nursery.  The evening-long affair included dinner, tables for bridge and backgammon, dancing, music and “other diverse activities.”

The neighboring house to the west, much altered, survives next to the Peirce mansion.
The mansion was converted again in 1948; this time to offices for a single tenant.  Throughout it all the façade, on a block where mansions were either destroyed or severely altered, was never touched. 

Today John Peirce’s last grab for social acceptance—his grand residence on East 51st Street—is home to Banco Mercanil Venezuela.  As the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission noted in 2009, the residence “remains nearly perfectly intact and is a significant reminder of the area’s history as the city’s most prestigious residential neighborhood.”

non-credited photographs taken by the author.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The American Express Stables -- No. 157 Hudson Street

The restored Hubert Street facade.  Built as two stories, it was the original structure in 1866 -- photo by Alice Lum
Prior to the Civil War St. John’s Park was one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods of Manhattan. Along with the fine brick Federal-style residences that lined the square was the majestic 1807 Georgian-style St. John’s Chapel.

But in 1867 Trinity Church sold the park to the Hudson River Railroad for $1 million. The railroad built a freight depot and the elegant neighborhood was no more. Rapidly the homes were replaced with warehouses and small factories that took advantage of the proximity to the railroad.

At the same time, private express mail companies like Adams Express, Wells Fargo and American Express were rapidly growing. Founded in 1850 in Albany, American Express established its headquarters in Manhattan at Jay and Hudson Streets and essentially enjoyed a monopoly on the shipment of express goods in the state for two decades.

Even before the freight depot was built, American Express erected at two-story stable at Nos. 4 to 8 Hubert Street in 1866, designed by architects Ritch & Griffiths. The stark brick building did not pretend to be anything other than a utilitarian building with little ornamentation.

The newly-completed Hudson River Railway depot sat approximately one block away, directly across from the house at No. 157 Hudson Street. The owner of the house was quick to react, along with other wealthy residents. The commodious residence—25 feet wide—sat on a lot that extended 109 feet back, in the middle of the block between Hubert and Laight Streets. The homeowner sold the property on April 20, 1870 for $24,750 in cash, which The New York Times deemed “very cheap at the price.”

While American Express was operating its stable from Hubert Street, the United States Army established a cavalry rendezvous local recruiting office around the corner at No. 157 Hudson Street in the 1880s.

Although funds transfers and long-distance finance had already become an important part of the firm’s operations—the American Express Travelers Cheque was copyrighted in 1891—American Express recognized the need to enlarge the Hubert Street facility in 1898. Architect Edward Hale Kimball was commissioned to extend the stable through the entire block along Collier Street to Laight Street.

The original, Hubert Street entrance in 1937 long after Kimball's renovations--photo NYPL Collection
It was most likely at this time that the entire structure was increased to three stories. Kimball updated the original façade, melding it with the addition by matching the keyed window surrounds and introducing a mixture of Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival styles; both highly popular at the time.

The American Express bulldog appears in terra cotta relief on both the Laight and Hubert Street facades -- photo by Alice Lum
On both the Laight Street and Hubert Street sides, Kimball added a robust terra cotta bulldog logo in a rondel under a shallow stepped parapet. The renovations were completed a year later, in 1899.

Only three years later, in 1902, the building was enlarged again. Architect Charles Romeyn widened the Laight Street side. He also added a long, narrow extension through the middle of the block to No. 157 Hudson Street where the Cavalry had been headquartered, creating a T-shaped structure.

The enlarged stables stretched the length of the Collier Street block -- photo by Alice Lum
The days of horses and drays for the American Express Company were numbered, however. In 1913 the parcel post system was established, wielding a significant blow to the express companies. By 1918 American Express was gone and a railroad freight firm, the American Railway Express Company, was using the building.

The building was renovated again in 1946 when architect Henry G. Harrington remodeled it for use as the factory of the First Machinery Corporation, manufacturers of plastic and rubber products. Harrington also remodeled the Hudson Street façade by adding stone pilasters and arches framing the entrances.

Harrington's addition at No. 157 Hudson forming the base of the T-shaped building (seen far right) stands next to two derelict Federal homes, still remarkably intact in 1922.  Their marble arches and lintels, even their elegant entranceways and iron railings are still in place.
First Machinery Corporation ran its factory here through the 1950s.

The narrow Hudson Street facade shows the 1946 changes, prior to the 2006 renovation -- photo NYPL Collection
As TriBeca experienced a renaissance, the old American Express stables saw change. Where horses and then machinery were once housed, No. 157 Hudson was now a hot night spot. Three different nightclubs—Headley, Vinyl and Area—were here. In 1997, despite more than one shooting at Vinyl, the club’s owner Nick DiTomasso said “…they’re just dancing. It’s all about dancing.”

When Peter Moore purchased the building in 2004, it needed serious reviving -- photo
The sometimes eyebrow-raising activities came to a halt when developer Peter Moore bought the building in 2004 for $18 million. Working with architect Kevin Kennon he brought the deteriorating structure back to life.

The Laight Street side in 2006 as construction begins -- photo by Skye H. McFarlane for Downtown Express
After struggling for awhile with the Landmarks Preservation Commission over a proposed three-story rooftop addition, Moore settled for a compromise of a two-story addition invisible from the street. The resulting multifamily structure had 17 unique loft apartments averaging 3,000 square feet each.

Architect Kevin Kennon's model shows the rooftop addition, engineered to be invisible from the street -- photo
One apartment went a bit further. Called “Marble House,” the 9,200 square foot triplex had an entrance on Collister Street to the rear, four bedrooms, five baths, a kitchen sink “quarried from one 2-ton piece of Carrara marble,” a below-ground swimming pool and a price tag of $24.5 million in 2009. (In 2011 most apartments were going for a more affordable $3 million or so.)

photo by Alice Lum
Nearly a century and a half after the original stable was built, it serves as a fine example of reuse of an historic property.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Lost George Ehret Mansion -- No. 1197 Park Avenue

The Ehret Mansion in 1928, just prior to demolition -- photo NYPL Collection
Often glossed over in history classes is the treatment of German-American citizens by the government and Americans in general during the World Wars.  One wealthy immigrant, George Ehret, endured the intolerable with grace and dignity.

The twenty-two year old George Ehret sailed to America in 1857, five years after his father, Anselm Ehret, had already immigrated. The young German had thoroughly learned the art of beer brewing at home and was hired in the New York brewery of Anton Hupfel. Within three years he had achieved the rank of master brewer. Nine years later, with the assistance of his former employer, Ehret opened his own business in 1866, the Hell Gate Brewery; named after the Hell Gate strait of the East River that it overlooked.

At the time the area was rural, with unbroken views as far as Long Island. The only other structure in the vicinity was the Fanshaw mansion, one of the country estates of the wealthy.

Ehret introduced lager brewing to Manhattan and by the 1870s the brewery was steadily expanding. As the Hell Gate Brewery prospered, so did George Ehret. Within only a decade of opening his business he had amassed a fortune.

Ehret had an imposing brownstone mansion erected in 1878 in the then sparsely-developed area of Park Avenue and 94th Street on land he had purchased four years earlier. The dignified Italianate structure was as strait-laced as its owner’s Teutonic background. Three tall stories high over a very deep English basement, it was graced with classical pediments over the windows, a bowed parlor window to the front, and a sweeping stone entrance staircase that spilled to the sidewalk.

The stone banister of the stairs melded into matching fencing above a stone wall, wrapping the 94th Street side of the property. Here, the most striking feature of the residence was a three-sided bay that rose to a roof-top room with 360-degree views; acting as a sort of widow’s watch.

The expansive house was none too large for Ehret’s family that included his wife, the former Anna Hasslocher, six daughters and three sons.

As improved techniques and brewing equipment were introduced, Ehret was quick to utilize them. In order to supply his huge brewery with fresh, pure water he had an artesian well drilled through 700 feet of solid bedrock and built a pumping station at the East River that supplied one million gallons of salt water daily for condensing purposes. In the two decades between 1871 and 1890 production of the beer industry in general increased by 400 percent in the United States. The output of Ehret’s brewery, on the other hand, increased by over 1,200 per cent.

It seemed that things just could not get better for George Ehret.

As the children grew, the fashionable house on upper Park Avenue became the scene of weddings and social events. On March 21, 1892 the drawing room was “beautifully decorated with a profusion of palms and ferns and thousands of roses in banks and bouquets,” said The Times, as daughter Frances Julia married Ernest Stangen of Berlin. The following year in January Josephine Frances Ehret was married to Edward Martin Burghard here “under a canopy of evergreen, studded with roses.”

George Ehret gave his daughter and new son-in-law a fully-furnished home at 14 East 93rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue.

On January 30, 1897, The New York Tribune praised George Ehret, reflective of the public sentiment towards the brewer. “George Ehret is a typical representative of that large German-American element in the population of New-York who, while preserving and reverencing the traditions of their native land, are yet thoroughly in sympathy with the republican institutions of the land of their adoption. They are loyal to their citizenship, and in all their municipal relationships are entirely devoted to the good of the Commonwealth.”

Within only a few years those words would have a sadly ironic ring to them.

Ehret was a member of several leading German societies. On his 70th birthday in 1905, he was serenaded at the house by the Ehret Band, the Aschenbrodel Band (which had also played at the brewery that day), the Badische Boltsfest Verein, the Braumeister Verein, the Bereinigten Deutschen Gesellschaften, the Yorkville M. C. A. and the Arion singing society. On reporting of the celebration, the New York Tribune remarked that “One of his most celebrated virtues is a modesty almost bordering on shyness.”

The brewer in 1905, on his 70th birthday -- photo New York Tribune (copyright expired)
Family life within the walls of No. 1197 Park Avenue was not always merry-making and celebration. In April 1906 son George, Jr., visited San Francisco. Every day, without fail, George would send a telegram to his father with an update. On April 18 there was no telegram.

With the arriving news of the devastating San Francisco earthquake, the family plunged into despair and worry. Finally, four days later, word was received that George had made it out of the destroyed city on a refugee train to Salt Lake City.

A year later on March 28, 1907, 47-year old Frank Ehret, the eldest of the three sons, died in the house of a long-lasting illness.

In January 1909 the last of the Ehret daughter weddings took place in the Park Avenue mansion when Madeline Louise married William Ottman. By now the aging George Ehret was in failing health. He began an annual pilgrimage to Germany to “take the cure” at the baths there. Normally accompanied by one of his daughters, he would sail in May and return in November.

What had been an innocent pilgrimage turned horribly wrong in 1914.

Ehret sailed to Germany in May, leaving his family and his business doing well and having no reason to suspect this trip would be any different from the others. But in August the /Great War broke out. Ehret attempted to evacuate Germany with the American Ambassador, James W. Gerard; however, because of Ehret’s frail health, the ambassador refused to accept the responsibility of the long voyage.

The Berlin government eventually refused to allow Ehret or his daughter, Anna von Zedlitz, to leave, fearing they would disclose military movements they may have been witness to. The brewer later explained that the German officials considered him and his daughter “enemy aliens” and were forced to report to the police once a month.

George Ehret’s six-month trip to improve his health became a four-year nightmare.

In the meantime, things at home did not look very good for George Ehret. To the American government, a German expatriate who suddenly left the United States for Germany just prior to the outbreak of war and did not return seemed more than suspicious. Ehret’s entire estate, valued at around $40 million, was seized by the Alien Property Custodian.  Rumors circulated that he was purchasing “heavily of German bonds” and subsidized German propaganda newspapers in the U.S.

Finally, despite his ill health and the warnings of doctors that a voyage would kill him, Ehret had had enough. In April 1918, due to his age and medical condition, he was allowed to travel to Switzerland. From here he booked passage to New York and was carried on board on a stretcher. “The excitement of not being able to start for this country for over four years became so intense that I decided to take the risk of dying on the steamship and being buried at sea rather than remain to die in Germany,” Ehret said when the ship docked in New York.

He told the New York Tribune, “First of all, I wish it to be distinctly understood that I have not returned to America to get my estate of $40,000,000 back from the Government or start a legal fight over it in any way. I am perfectly satisfied that Uncle Sam only took over the properties to take care of them, and that they will be returned to me in due course. This is wartime, and the Government must not be hurried over affairs of that kind, and I am not going to hurry it.”

George Ehret, Jr., told the press that while his father had been absent, $2 million of his estate had been invested in Liberty bonds, $120,000 had been given to the American Red Cross and $21,000 to the Knights of Columbus fund.

By the end of the year the war was over. Eventually George Ehret regained his property and fortune, but another hurdle was in store. On June 30, 1919 the Wartime Prohibition Act took effect, followed on October 28 by the Volstead Act which ushered in the Prohibition Era.

Production at the Hellgate Brewery came to an abrupt stop.

Luckily, George Ehret had invested heavily in New York real estate as his fortune accumulated; many of the plots purchased for the liquor business. He held 181 parcels of Manhattan realty including many valuable corner lots.

On April 6, 1925 one of the last great celebrations were held in the Ehret house on Park Avenue. The mansion was filled with “sons, daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, some of whom came from Germany” for George Ehret’s 90th birthday party, reported The New York Times.

The rumors and suspicions of only a few years earlier had been forgotten and George Ehret and his family were again accepted by New York. Two years later, on January 20, 1927, George Ehret died in his home at No. 1197 Park Avenue. A requiem mass was said in St. Patrick’s Cathedral two days later. He left an estate that was still valued at approximately $40 million.

The neighborhood was changing.  In 1926 the brownstones across the avenue are replaced by No. 1192 Park Avenue --photo NYPL Collection.
As George Ehret had lay dying, the brownstone mansions that lined Park Avenue were being demolished to be replaced with modern Art Deco apartment buildings. A year later the Ehret mansion would join them.

On April 28, 1928 The New York Times reported that the “George Ehret mansion, the first fine residence on upper Park Avenue,” was sold for $3 million to be replaced with “what is expected to be the largest housekeeping apartment building in New York.”

In what had become a tradition in New York City, the neighborhood of elegant homes—the oldest of which had stood only 50 years—was leveled and redeveloped. The brownstone mansion that had seen so much joy and so much trouble, like the German brewer who built it, has long been forgotten.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The 1876 David S. Brown Soap Store Building -- No. 8 Thomas Street

photo by Alice Lum
The young Jarvis Morgan Slade learned his trade in the architectural offices of Edward H. Kendall. After opening his own business at 346 Broadway, the highly-talented Slade began making his mark on New York architecture.

In 1875 the 23-year old architect was given the commission by the New York Real Estate Association to design a store and loft building for the successful soap manufacturer, David S. Brown. The Association, organized by textile merchants to insure that the textile district remained intact, had recently purchased the former grounds of the New York Hospital.  The proposed David S. Brown store would stand here on the newly-extended Thomas Street.

The soap company had been doing business since 1808 and, while not a national brand, did extensive business throughout New York and its neighboring states. The firm produced a range of products from “Blizzard Soap,” a laundry flake; “David’s Prize Soap,” a toilet soap; and “Brown’s Barber Soap,” a shaving soap used in the ubiquitous shaving mugs in barber shops and homes.

By the time Slade began designing the new store, David S. Brown had two factories, on First Avenue and on Chrystie Street, a retail space at 299 Broadway and headquarters on Peck Slip.

The design includes diagonally-laid brickwork and a Venetian-inspired arcade--photo by Alice Lum 
Completed in 1876, the young architect’s soap store building is a Victorian delight. The influence of contemporaries such as Jacob Wrey Mould—responsible for much of Central Park’s fanciful architecture—Charles Eastlake and John Ruskin, combined with Slade’s own remarkable flair, resulted in a colorful Victorian Gothic treasure. Polished granite columns, a cast iron base, Venetian arches, carved sandstone and intricate brickwork were combined into the romantic design. A slate-tiled mansard roof was fronted with a steep brick gable with a large, round window framed by radiating stones of alternate shades.

photo by Alice Lum
The romantic and lively building was no doubt influential in Slade’s receiving many subsequent commissions. Tragically, within seven years the promising architect would be dead at the age of 30.

David S. Brown & Co. owed its success not merely to a good product, but to masterful marketing. In 1888 when the city of Albany, New York, celebrated its bi-centennial the company took advantage of the potential publicity.  Anthony Bleecker Banks remembered in his “Historical Memoirs,” printed that same year, “David S. Brown & Co., of New York, manufacturers of satin gloss soap, had a very large and costly covered wagon that was a perfect gem.  During the procession samples of the soap were thrown among the crowd and eagerly grabbed by the hoodlums, who, as a member of the Bi-centennial committee suggested, certainly needed a little soaping.”

At just 23 years old, the architect melded various materials into a masterful whole; causing us to wonder what would have come from his drafting board if he had not died so early -- photo by Alice Lum
Current Advertising, in 1897, remarked that the company did no magazine advertising, “Yet, these people have one of the largest and most profitable soap manufacturing businesses in the country.” The secret, according to the magazine, was premiums.

“They were the originators of the plan of giving away premiums for the return of soap wrappers or trademarks, and they give away almost everything you can think of in the line of jewelry, silverware, watches, clocks and the like.”

Especially successful were children’s books offered for free, which were “gaily colored and profusely illustrated.” Along with familiar rhymes and fairy tales, revamped to work the soap products into the stories, were promises of tantalizing toys available for soap wrappers.

“Young folks have a way of getting what they go after and if they have to have soap wrappers in order to get what they want there is not likely to be peace in the household until that particular brand of soap is used exclusively,” noted Current Advertising.

When Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were a main subject of conversation, David S. Brown quickly produced its Rough Rider Soap to capitalize on the craze.

By 1898 David S. Brown was gone from No. 8 Thomas Street and the wholesale woolen merchants W. S. Taylor & Bloodgood was doing business here.  The neighborhood was still primarily home to textile firms. A decade later, in 1908, George R. Gibson Co., manufacturers of “faultless canvas roofing,” moved in, above the Café Renel which was now on the ground floor.

The ground floor, where David S. Brown soap products had been displayed, became a French cafe -- photo by Alice Lum
The day after Christmas in 1910, the Bustanoby brothers—Andre, Jacques, Pierre and Louis—announced their intentions to install a quaint French cafe where bars of soap were once sold. The brothers, who were born in the Basque country of France, already owned three restaurants, including the Café des Beaux Arts on West 40th Street and the Chateau des Beaux Arts in Huntington, Long Island. They had made a mark in the restaurant and entertainment world serving haute cuisine and featuring singers like Lillian Russell.

Having purchased the Café Renel, they intended “to fit it up in the style of the old French taverns of the eighteenth century,” according to The New York Times. Pierre Bustanoby said “The guests will sit at old oaken tables, surrounded by great casks of wine.” Some, he reported, “date back to 1789.” The new café would be called the Cabaret des Beaux Arts.

The venture would be short-lived. The brothers had a severe falling out with Louis leaving the business to run the restaurant in the Flatiron Building. He sued his brothers, accusing them of trying to drive him out of the business.

By the end of 1912, the Cabaret des Beaux Arts was no more.

On March 17, 1948 shock waves hit the New York real estate market when former Manhattan Borough President Samuel Levy and real estate mogul Charles F. Noyes purchased nearly three entire downtown blocks from the Society of the New York Hospital.   Included in the sales was No. 8 Thomas Street.

The hospital had owned the land and any buildings erected upon it since the English Crown granted it in 1772.  The two men paid a total of $3.3 million-- the price of a single high-end apartment today--for the three blocks of buildings.  The New York Times announced that the investors intended to add another $1.7 million, since many of the properties "will be reconstructed or improved with a new building."

Luckily, No. 8 Thomas Street was spared.  In 1984 the building was converted to house two floor-through art studios, each with a separate floor for living space; and a ground floor restaurant.

photo by Alice Lum
When the building was converted again in 2007 to condominium residences, a $1.6 million exterior restoration and full interior renovation was conducted by Ashnu International Corp.  Today the remarkable work of Jarvis Morgan Slade, the architect who died too young, remains what the AIA Guide to New York City called “an elaborate confection.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

The 1906 Fire Patrol #2 -- 84 West Third Street

photo by Alice Lum
The New York Fire Patrol had firehouses, drove fire trucks, fought fires and its firefighters wore uniforms essentially indistinguishable from the FDNY. But it was not part of the New York City Fire Department.

In 1803 a group of volunteers formed the Mutual Assistance and Bag Corporation, the purpose of which was to protect and salvage the contents of structures from fire and water damage. Thirty-six years later the New York Board of Fire Underwriters was established. The group added fire fighting to its methods of preventing losses to insured property. Funded by the insurance companies, the Fire Patrol was established.

In 1905, the National Board of Fire Underwriters reported on the Salvage Corps, or Fire Patrol, listing six companies and 148 employees (including “patrolmen,” superintendents, janitors, a cover mender, a one storekeeper).  Each well-equipped wagon, according to the report, carried a 16-foot extension ladder, chemical extinguishers, hooks, axes, door-openers, brooms, shovels, buckets, ropes, “squilgees,” sprinkler heads and various tools. “Companies hitch on all alarms;” it said, “this has involved calling the men to the main floor as often as 19 times in a single night.”

In its attempts to expand the number of patrol houses (there would eventually be ten at the Patrol’s height), the report was tepid in its assessment of the force. “The fire patrol is a fairly efficient force with a membership and equipment of moderate strength. The proposed additional company will strengthen the corps materially.”

In 1906 Franklin Baylis began work on a new house for Fire Patrol #2 which was operating from 31 Great Jones Street in Greenwich Village. The old boarding house at No. 84 West 3rd Street was razed and in its place rose a handsome four-story structure with Beaux Arts splashes.

Constructed of red brick, the architect made restrained use of limestone and terra cotta to embellish the façade. Stepped limestone over the openings of the street level rested on rusticated brick piers. Above the truck entrance a carved head of Mercury represented the speed of the responders inside.

The Fire Patrol poses outside its new house, below the Third Street elevated train tracks.
Limestone quoins framed the windows and piers and above the cornice a terra cotta panel announced the construction date of 1906 above firemen’s trumpets. The fire patrol company moved into its new space in 1907.

Terra cotta firemen's trumpets frame the construction date -- photo
A tool used by the Patrols to minimize water damage were heavy tarpaulins measuring around 12 by 18 feet. Used both as "stock covers" (to protect goods from fire hose water) and roof covers, they were rapidly spread at the scene of fires. In the new Fire Patrol 2 long, numbered poles extended through the beams of the top floor for drying the canvas tarps.

The public became aware of the value of the Patrol when the Police Headquarters caught fire on the evening of January 8, 1909. Engine Company 33 responded, wielding their fire axes. The Sun reported that “They ripped up boards, beams and everything else but the walls before they found the source of the fire.”

The firefighters then “turned on a full flow of water from a 2-1/2 inch hose. Hundreds of gallons of water poured in and roared down into Mr. Bugher’s office.” Mr. Bugher was the Deputy Police Commissioner.

Below Bugher’s office was the “telegraph room,” and dispatch room filled with telephone equipment. “It was then found that the water was putting the entire police telephone system out of business,” said The Sun. Fire Patrol 2 was “hurriedly sent for” and the heavy tarpaulins were stretched across the ceiling of the telegraph room to catch the water.

The work of the fire patrolmen was of extreme value to the insurance companies; but it was highly dangerous work, sometimes resulting in fatal injuries. The New York Tribune reported on April 23, 1920 that the New York Board of Fire Underwriters had decided to increase the patrolmen’s pay. With the raise, patrolmen first grade would receive $1,900 a year; sergeants $2,100 and captains $3,200.

Among the Fire Patrolmen responding on the tragic morning of September 11, 2001 was Keith M. Roma. Roma worked for over an hour evacuating World Trade Center employees. Witnesses estimate that he personally removed more than 200 individuals. He suddenly was missing.

On Christmas Eve 2001 Keith Roma’s body, his helmet at his side, was discovered near the bodies of nine civilians he was trying to save. He was the first fire patrolman to die in the line of duty in more than three decades.

The Fire Patrol 2 building by now had seen the effects of misplaced fire fighter love. The limestone sculpture of Mercury had been painted in flesh-colored paint with bright yellow hair. The limestone at street level was painted white and the entire building above was covered in shiny red enamel; the firefighters’ favorite hue.

Fire patrolmen painted the brick and stone and gave the limestone Mercury a makeover -- photo by Jim Henderson
Then in 2006 the Fire Patrol was disbanded. The last three Fire Patrol houses were abandoned and Fire Patrol 2 was offered for sale by the New York Board of Fire Underwriters. The Greenwich Village Historic Society panicked, quickly requesting the Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the structure.

The Society need not have been alarmed.  Journalist Anderson Cooper purchased the 8,240 square foot building in 2010 for $4.3 million and began restoration. Cooper commissioned architect Cary Tamarkin to renovate the fire patrol house into a private residence.

Workmen removed decades of paint and restored the masonry facade -- photo
“We could not be happier with the gorgeous exterior renovation that highlights and respects the unique history of the building,” the Society said in its blog on September 1, 2011. Tamarkin restored the stone and terra cotta detailing, removed the layers of paint and replaced the windows. The architect promised to retain much of the interior details like the herringbone brick floor, brass fire poles and cast iron spiral staircase. Four bronze plaques dedicated to the patrolmen lost in the line of duty had been removed from the façade; but Cooper planned to reinstall them in their rightful places.

The limestone Mercury, less colorful but more natural, has been restored -- photo by Alice Lum
The handsome utilitarian building has come back to life, its outward appearance looking much as it did in 1906—without the overhead train down the middle of West Third Street.  It is a praiseworthy example of the reuse of vintage structures.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Remarkable Hold Out at No. 249 West End Avenue

No. 249, the last of five rowhouses designed as a unit, now stands vised between two soaring apartment buildings -- photo
Sometimes when owners refuse to sell to developers—becoming “hold outs”—amazing results come about.

Architect Clarence Fagan True was busy on the Upper West Side in the 1890s.  He was responsible for dozens of row houses and commercial buildings; earning acclaim from some critics for creating the architectural personality of the area.

Among his townhouses were five speculative row houses built for Harry Chaffee, including No. 249 West End Avenue.  The five 15-foot wide residences were designed to imitate a single building with a unified rusticated base.  The end homes rose straight up from the property line while the three middle residences had two-story bowed, undulating facades above the first floor that created third floor balconies.
Originally, No. 249 West End Avenue was one of five handsome residences designed as a unit -- print NYPL Collection
Clad in buff-colored ironspot brick, the fifth floor windows were framed by ornate terra cotta panels that created artistic openings--the one spot where True allowed embellishment to flex its muscle.  The narrow, restrained residences were intended for successful, upper-middle class families.  The three relatively unadorned middle homes relied on the end houses to carry off the design.

Joseph Powell and his wife lived in No. 249 for a time.   The pair had an unfortunate incident on December 14, 1894 when they thought that a ride around Central Park would be refreshing.   Cabman John Dermody was driving the Powells and things were going nicely enough until the horse was spooked.  The frightened animal ran away, overturning the carriage and tossing all three occupants to the stone pavement.   Powell and the driver sprained their arms but Mrs. Powell escaped uninjured.

As the Upper West Side developed and gained popularity with financially-comfortable families, property values rose substantially.  In 1898 the five homes were assessed for tax purposes at $16,000 each.  One year later the figure rose to $18,000.

By the turn of the century the respectable house at No. 249 was home to the Cook family.  Ferdinand Huntting Cook was a director of the New York College of Dentistry and, according to The New York Times, “a descendant of one of the earliest American settlers.”   

Mrs. Cook, the former Mary Aldrich, came from an old New York family as well.  The Aldrich family name carried some weight at the time among social circles.  A graduate of Columbia University, Mrs. Cook was a member of the Daughters of the Revolution and active in the YWCA.   Her husband was a member of the Society of Colonial Wars.

In addition to Cook’s duties with the dental college, he was appointed a foreman of the Department of Parks in 1912 due to his “knowledge of trees in City streets.”

Things were going well for the Cooks and their five children until the night of January 3, 1913.  Despite the severe wind storm that was raging in the winter night, Cook left the house to go to a store at 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue.  He never returned home.

The distraught Mary issued “a confidential alarm” the following day asking that the hospitals be searched “in the expectation that Mr. Cook was injured in the wind storm.”  Mary’s fears were well-founded.  Ferdinand Huntting Cook died one month later, on February 1.

Mary Cook remained in the house, sending her children off to college and entertaining for weddings and other social events.  By 1915 the neighborhood was undergoing change, however.

Stretches of brick and brownstone row houses, once the private homes of families like the Cooks, were being demolished by developers to be replaced by modern apartment buildings.   Mary was approached with an offer to sell.  She declined.

Although her home was shaken and her peace broken by the demolition of her neighboring homes to the north, and the building of an apartment building there in 1916; Mary stood pat.

Then, three years after she issued invitations for the marriage of her daughter, Beatrie Valerie Cook to Lester Darling Egbert, the process was repeated in 1924.  The remaining houses on the block to the south were demolished and another gigantic building erected.

Mary Cook had refused to sell and now her narrow, handsome home was an anachronism; a relic from the past sandwiched between the pages of the present.

In May 1932 newspapers announced the death of Mrs. Ferdinand Huntting Cook.   Her remarkably-surviving townhouse became the Uptown Gallery, run by Robert Ulrich Godsoe.  Here for a decade the works of cutting-edge artists like Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko would be shown.

Then in 1941 the building was converted to apartments.  Today the house that Mary Cook refused to sell sits tightly squeezed between its giant neighbors, looking much like an illustration from a children’s story book.