Saturday, June 30, 2012

The 1855 No. 111 East 19th Street

Like its matching neighbor No. 111 lost its exterior detailing during 20th century updating.  Yet both homes retain their dignified proportions.

In 1831 James Duane’s Gramercy Farm on the east side of Manhattan included both fields and swampy marshland.  With the city inching ever northward, Samuel B. Ruggles recognized the potential of the area and purchased land from Duane to develop into a fashionable neighborhood of mansions ringing a central, private park.

A year later he had drained the marsh and enclosed what would be Gramercy Park with a heavy cast iron fence.  In 1844 he began the landscaping of the park and one by one grand residences began rising along the 60 plots that surrounded it.

Among those mansions was the home of Judge Thomas J. Oakley at No. 12 Gramercy Park.  Oakley had served two terms in Congress, concurrently with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun.   John Sergeant of Philadelphia who served in Congress at the same time, spoke of Oakley as “the ablest debater then to be found in that body.”

Upon leaving Congress he succeeded Martin Van Buren as Attorney General of New York.  But by now the wealthy and highly respected lawyer was Chief Justice of the Superior Court of New York City; a position he held for many years.

As Gramercy Park developed into the fashionable neighborhood Ruggles had envisioned, so did the surrounding area.  Directly behind Oakley’s home were two undeveloped lots at No. 111 and 113 East 19th Street.  Around 1855 the Justice purchased the properties and had two refined, matching row houses constructed in the up-to-the-minute Anglo-Italianate style.

While the city was filling with Greek Revival houses with steep brownstone stoops, Oakley’s new houses were entered nearly at sidewalk level.  A shallow set of four steps accessed the parlor level over an American basement.   The formal, dignified facades, perhaps, reflected the Judge’s own conservative nature.  The New York Daily Tribune said of him, “He had a great abhorrence of innovations, and may have erred in excess of conservatism.”
Robust pre-Civil War iron fencing protects the American basement.
Rigidly symmetrical, the homes rose four stories to an overhanging, bracketed wooden cornice.  Inside, rich architectural details were intended not only to add to the luxurious surroundings of the Judge’s tenants; but to reflect their financial and social status.  These included lavishly-carved white marble mantles, ornate ceiling plasterwork and stained glass skylights above the winding staircase.

A graceful floral motif in a white marble mantel upstairs is carried through in the cast iron surround.

Judge Thomas J. Oakley died at the age of 74 on May 13, 1857.  The family retained possession of No. 111 until 1864.  Before long it became the home of hotel proprietor Lyman Fisk.

Fisk had been involved in the hotel business since the age of 18.  Upon arriving in New York City in 1856 he was connected with the Girard House and later became proprietor of the Stevens House.  Although he attempted to retire in 1869, the siren song of the hotel industry proved too strong and in 1869 he purchased the Taylor Hotel in Jersey City, New Jersey.   The 12-story hotel was a favorite among “sporting men” and had a nation-wide reputation.

Light poured into the sharply-winding staircase through an oval stained glass skylight above.

The health of the aging hotelier began failing in 1880 and he was forced, finally, to retire for good.  In December 1888 he died in the house at No. 111 East 19th Street.   His simple funeral was conducted in the parlor on the morning of December 14.    The New York Times noted that “The service was simple and brief, in accordance with the wishes of Mr. Fisk.  There were no pall bearers.  Miss Fanny Davenport sent a handsome basket of pink roses and lilies of the valley; a while shield of immortelles was the gift of the Actors’ Fund.”

The home was purchased by another hotel proprietor, C. S. Wehrle who ran the Belvedere Hotel at 18th Street and 4th Avenue.

In the meantime, Judge Oakley’s daughter, Matilda, had married William Rhinelander of the staggeringly-wealthy and socially prestigious Rhinelander family.   The family had amassed its fortune in colonial days through sugar refining and the retail trade.   But in the first half of the 19th century the Rhinelanders realized the greatest investment in New York City lay in real estate.

Matilda and her husband had already purchased No. 113 when, in 1898, they bought No. 111 from Wehrle.  Both of Judge Oakley’s speculative houses were now back in the family.

The Rhinelanders leased No. 111 as a boarding house where well-heeled, single men found respectable lodging.    In 1900 the bachelor banker Nathaniel Foote lived here.  He worked for the firm of Moore & Schley, members of the New York Stock Exchange.   Howard W. Bartle was here at the same time; a graphic artist who designed book covers.

In 1905 Matilda Rhinelander leased the house to Miss Kate A. Little who would continue running the boarding house; although no longer exclusively for male tenants.

One female tenant, Maria T. Ayling, unfortunately died here in 1911 of natural causes.  Author R. R. Whiting who was graduated from Harvard in 1900 was living in No. 111 in 1913.  Three years later he would publish his “The Judgment of Jane,” which he wrote here.

Roses and lilies twine from matching ribbon-tied bouquets on either side of a spectacularly-carved keystone.
John M. Monfort lived here in 1922.   The businessman was general manager of the architectural firm of Buchman & Kahn.  Monfort found himself in the midst of an uproar on September 15 of that year.

An outraged New York Times reported that “Gangs of young hoodlums ran riot in various parts of the city last night, smashing unseasonable straw hats and trampling them in the street.  In some cases, mobs of hundreds of boys and young men terrorized whole blocks.”

Swarms of youths, having decided that smashing straw boaters would be great fun, attacked pedestrians and motorists alike.   The groups snatched the men’s hats and trampled them on the pavement, then ran full speed to elude police.

All the while John Monfort was driving his automobile down 7th Avenue, unaware of what The Times would the following day call “The Straw Hat Riot.”   10-year old John Sweeney, who lived at No. 363 West 16th Street, was among a gang of boys running rampant along the avenue between 16th and 18th Streets.  He ran directly into Monfort’s car, breaking his right leg.

As World War II drew to a close, No. 111 East 19th Street became a private home again.  Having been used for nearly half a century as a boarding house, it had never been broken up into apartments nor been seriously maltreated.  On February 2, 1946 Mrs. Ann Kennedy bought the house “for occupancy.”

Few people prefer to live in a museum and succeeding owners made renovations.  The exterior lost its Anglo-Italian detailing around the windows--a common effort at updating.  A remarkably-surviving mid-20th century bathroom upstairs gleams in yellow and black; and late in the century a dentist office was installed in the American basement where Lyman Fisk's cook once toiled and the intimate informal family dining room would have been.

Today the house that Chief Justic Thomas Oakley commissioned over a century and a half ago survives as a reminder of a time when East 19th Street was developing as a fashionable residential neighborhood and the dark clouds of Civil War were still years away.

many thanks to Leslie Lalehzar for requesting this post.  photographs taken by the author.

1 comment:

  1. This pair is very similar to our little cooperative at 220-222 east 17th.