Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Remarkable 1866 House at No. 64 Perry Street

Although No. 64 has sadly lost its cornice, it still holds its own against its showier neighbor, No. 66 -- photo sothebyhomes.com
Following the cholera and yellow fever epidemics of the 1820s and 30s downtown, quiet Greenwich Village exploded both in population and in buildings.  Many of the moneyed New Yorkers who had fled to the north remained on, establishing respectable neighborhoods in the formerly rural area.

Elegant Italianate homes built on speculation appeared during the Civil War era, lining upscale blocks like St. Luke’s Place.   In 1866 a similar row of brownstone residences were built on Perry Street between Bleecker and West 4th Streets; most, like No. 64, designed by architect Robert Mook.

Unlike the homes on St. Luke’s Place which were carbon copies of one another, Mook chose to subtly distinguish his houses.  The arched entrance of No. 64, for instance, was an understated, carved frame for the double doors and overlight.  Next door, at No. 66, a robust Italianate hooded entrance was a bit more showy.

The homes were built for successful merchant class buyers.  Costly carved marble mantles, inlaid parquet floors and elaborate ceiling plasterwork announced to the visitor that the home owner could afford the extras.
A gilded pier mirror, inlaid patterns along the edges of the floor and carved marble mantles were elegant touches -- photo sothebyhomes.com
Expert chemist Albert G. C. Hahn lived in No. 64 in the 1880s.   Hahn had graduated from Cornell University and the University of Freiburg, Germany.    In 1885, the Nepera Chemical Company, makers of photographic papers, sought out him.   At the time photography had come into its own as an important technology.  Hahn was brought on as an officer of the company, co-heading the chemical department.

At the time the extended Mohlmann family were respected wholesale grocers in the area.  It would appear that the husband of Louise C. Mohlmann died around 1894, because Albert Hahn became the guardians of infants George A., Jessie T. and Albert J. Mohlmann.  On September 29, 1894 Hahn transferred the deed to No. 64 Perry to Herman G. Mohlmann.

Five years later Henry E. Schwitters purchased the house.    Schwitters and his son, Edo, were fruit and produce commission merchants, owners of H. E. Schwitters & Son with offices at 867 Washington Street.   Henry’s wife, Margaret, lived on in the house after his death, renting out a room for added income.

In 1910 80-year old Jacques Lowe was renting here.  The German-born photographer was still active, a member of the staff of Jubilee Magazine and freelance photographer for periodicals like Red Book, Fortune, Life, Coronet, Argosy and Sign magazines.

Members of the Schwitter family would continue to own the property until 1955, continuing to lease at least one room.  Policeman Emilio Antonelli of the 16th Precinct lived here in 1948 when he experienced an unusually embarrassing accident on the Fourth of July.

That year the city banned fireworks of any kind.  It was a move that many youngsters disapproved of.   One boy thought an excellent expression of protest would be to toss a lit firecracker into the station house window.  Patrolman Antonelli was working the switchboard there and momentarily got up from his seat.  Just as he sat down again, the firecracker landed on his chair and exploded.
 
Antonelli was treated at Polyclinic Hospital and a spokesperson for the police told reporters that the  injured cop “would spend the Fourth of July face down in bed and would be on the sick list for several days.”

The tosser of the firecracker was not caught.

Beyond the entrance hall, a door features a beautiful stained glass panel -- photo sothebyhomes.com

On December 17, 1955 Eleanora Schwitters sold the house to Alva L. Harrington.   Harrington resold the house to Harold Eliot Leeds and his partner Wheaton Galentine.  Leeds was an architect and interior design instructor at Pratt Institute.  Galentine was a documentary filmmaker and theirs was a particularly touching love story.

The men had already been together for nearly a decade.  Since prior to World War I Greenwich Village had been a haven for artists, street philosophers, writers and others who varied from the mainstream and by now was the center of New York’s gay life.   They fell in love with the house at No. 64 which was still amazingly intact after a century of use.

The couple lovingly restored the architectural details without creating a house museum atmosphere.   Their hospitality and love of entertaining was famous among their friends.  Across the street lived poet and short story writer Elizabeth Bishop.  She wrote to poet Robert Lowell on January 22, 1962, in part mentioning the couple and the house:

“I gave your plays—with a hurriedly written and illegible note—to Harold Leeds across the street at 64 Perry Street…Perhaps you have met by now.  I’d like to have you, and E, see his house.  It’s the prettiest one I know in New York.  He is a very good architect—a bit chi-chi and difficult at first, but improves rapidly, and his friend Wheaton Galentine makes, also, very good movies—really.  Ask to see his Singer Sewing Machine movie sometime!  They are hard-working and quiet and ultra-ultra-refined.  I like them both.”

Taking a page from the Schwitters, Leeds and Wheaton rented an apartment to fashion executive Tim Gunn for 16 years. 

In 1990 Woody Allen filmed scenes from “Alice” here, then in 1998 the house was used by HBO as the exterior of Carrie Bradshaw’s home in its series “Sex and the City.”   Three years later the network quietly moved the shots to the house next door, at No. 66; but for years tourists and New Yorkers alike posed in front of both houses for photographs.

In 2002 Harold Leeds, who had designed structures like the Paris Theater, died in the Village Nursing Home.  Wheaton Galentine, stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease, lived on in the lower part of the house attended by an aide.   A real estate agent told Diane Cardwell of the New York Times that after more than a half century of being together, the confused man would sometimes ask his aide, “Are we going to the nursing home to see Harold?”

In June 2011 Wheaton Galentine died.  The remarkable house sold later that year for $9 million, with much of the proceeds earmarked for the Village Center for Care.

1 comment:

  1. Edo and Eleanora Schwitters were my grandparents and 64 Perry St. was their city home because it was close to their wholesale procuce business - they also had a home on Long Island. My mother spent much time at the fabulous 64 Perry St. home. There is a intriguing tale of a very eccentric family and a forbidden romance. If there are any ligitimate producers out there that may have an interest in making a movie about the true real-life story of this famous address - email me at itkudhappin@hotmail.com

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