Friday, May 4, 2012

The Fanciful Queen Anne Row at West 78th Street and West End Avenue


In 1885 Frederick B. White was making a name for himself.  The young architect was graduated from Princeton University only two years earlier yet his designs were already drawing praise and attention.  Although his offices were on Broadway, the bulk of his commissions was for “cottages” and suburban residences in the Queen Anne or Shingle Style.  White’s seemingly intuitive use of arches and angles, dormers and nooks, made his creations picturesque and charming.

That year Henry H. Hewett bought up the property that wrapped from the northwest corner of West 78th Street, along West End Avenue towards 79th Street.   The neighborhood was a hive of development with new homes for middle to upper-middle class families rapidly being erected.  Hewett turned to 23-year old Frederick White to design a row of picturesque homes.

The architect introduced his suburban cottage-style flair to Manhattan.  Completed in 1886 the marvelous collection of residences flowed together as a cohesive whole.  Some adjoining pairs of homes shared a single great spanning arch over the porches.  Terra cotta panels, stained glass, an intricate stepped Flemish gable and irregular heights and lines of the roof joined in a visual celebration.

The Real Estate Record and Guide was impressed, noting its “freedom from all meretricious tricks of ornament.”  Over a century later the AIA Guide to New York City would call the row “powerful stuff” and add “The brickwork (and supporting terra cotta) is a work of virtuoso masonry, the great arches monumental.  Extraordinary.”


Tragically, shortly after the row was completed, Frederick B. White died at the age of 24.  One can only imagine the masterful designs that might have been born on his drafting table.

As well as the decorative stained glass the homes boasted high-end extras like imported hardwoods.  Hewett originally leased the houses, but lost them in foreclosure in 1893.  The entire lot, with the exception of No. 389 West End Avenue, was purchased in the foreclosure sale by the plaintiff, Bradley & Currier Company Ltd.


No. 389 West End was purchased by Hubert and Helen Howson for $27,000.  Howson was Assistant Superintendent of the main school of the ungainly-named Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York.  Within the year the Howsons moved a block away to the newly-completed No. 489 West End Avenue; leaving Helen’s medical student brother, Truman Abbe, to live on here.

Bradley & Currier offered the rest of the homes for sale at between $18,000 and $20,000 to financially comfortable professionals like Dr. Walter Bensel who moved into No. 305 West 78th Street.  The sale of No. 385 West End Avenue did not go so smoothly, however.


Isaac Frank bought the house for $18,000 plus costs which brought the total price up to $23,000.   Frank mentioned to a representative of Bradley & Currier that he had discovered that there was a natural spring that ran beneath the house and he noticed moisture in the cellar.  He was assured there was no problem with the spring and that the basement had been fully waterproofed.

It wasn’t.   

A sticky lawsuit ended in the New York Supreme Court. Isaac Frank got out of his sales contract and attorney William J. Gibson purchased the home.  It was Gibson who had persuaded Grover Cleveland to accept the nomination for president a year earlier.

Later Madame Torriani, a singing teacher affiliated with the Institute of Musical Art, lived here with her daughter Aimee Hutchinson, a teacher in the Catholic school associated with the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.   The 21-year old teacher’s life changed dramatically in 1912 when she marched in the Woman Suffrage Parade.

Deep porches beneach monumental arches, lusty terra cotta panels and intricate brickwork reflect White's picturesque cottage style modified for townhouses.
A few days later Father Matthew A. Taylor called her into his study.  “I am very fond of you,” he told Hutchinson.  “You know how much I like you and your work, but since you have marched in the parade of suffragists I cannot have you any longer in the school.  The woman suffrage movement is the next thing to socialism, and I cannot countenance it.” 

Aimee Hutchinson lost her job and, doing so, found a new vocation.

The New York Times reported that “Miss Hutchinson, who formerly was only a lukewarm suffragist, has become an ardent one.”  Suffragist leader Harriot Stanton Blatch called Hutchinson “our first martyr,” and Mrs. James L. Laidlaw began an investigation into the matter.

“Persecution and tyranny will not be permitted in this country,” Mrs. Frederick Nathan added.  “It will awaken man to the injustice women have to bear.”

Aimee Huchinson became treasurer of the Suffrage Pure Food Stores Company and opened a grocery at 2540 Broadway named “Votes for Women Grocery Store.”  Part of the profits of the store went towards women’s suffrage.

The home became the center of Fritz Podzius’s matrimonial brokerage business next.  Known familiarly as “Cupid” Podzius, he reportedly arranged about 20,000 marriages although he himself never married.  Podzius wrote his Matrimonial News from the house and, while apparently financially well-off, refused to have any female servants in his home and lived mainly off apples and tea.

According to Podzius’ advertisements there were many women “with millions” who desired to meet and marry “young men of genial nature and good character.”

In 1912 William Waldorf Astor attempted to buy Podzius’s house, but the marriage broker refused.  Four years later Astor got his way when he bought the house at foreclosure and ousted Podzius.   Astor had previously purchased the house next door at No. 383.  Speculation was that by buying up the row of houses one-by-one the millionaire was protecting the sunlight to his massive Althorpe Apartments across the avenue.

Around the same time The International Photoplay Studio and Dramatic School installed its new studio at No. 307 West 78th Street.  In 1915 it announced that the personal supervision of Madame Olga Luise Wernbruck “gives you the guarantee of refinement and culture.”  The school advertised its classes with the headline “How You Can Become a Motion Picture Star.”

No. 307 West 78th Street (left) was home to The International Photoplay Studio and Dramatic School in 1915 -- photo NYPL Collection
Perhaps the most notable resident of the charismatic group of houses was the Reverend Isaac Massey Haldeman, pastor of the First Baptist Church at West 79th Street and Broadway.  The energetic and opinionated minister had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, written several religious books, and forbid his congregants to attend the theater.


Haldeman would live on at No. 385 West End Avenue until he died in the house on September 28, 1933 at the age of 88.  The indefatigable pastor had served as pastor of the church for sixty-three years.  Mrs. Haldeman would stay on until her death on January 22, 1947.

As the First World War came to an end, the row of houses were architecturally out of fashion and Harry H. Lang, who owned No. 303 West 78th Street, decided to update the house.   He commissioned the architectural firm Sterner & Wolfe to remodel the structure in a currently-popular neo-Tudor style.   The result was a delightful brick-and-stucco fa├žade with a storybook feeling to it.  Unfortunately the well-intentioned make-over ruined the flow of Frederick White’s Queen Anne group.

No. 303 West 78th was given a neo-Tudor make-over, interrupting the continuity of the grouping.
Over a century after their completion, the wonderful group of houses is as charming as ever.   While most have been divided into apartments, some are returning to their lives as single-family dwellings.  The smorgasbord of brickwork patterns, terra cotta embellishments and other decorative elements are a delight to the passerby who pauses to take notice.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post about a little known group of townhouses and their equally little known architect

    ReplyDelete