Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Little House at No. 124 East 19th Street


photo by Alice Lum
In 1866 James C. Clinch lived in a brownstone home at No. 124 East 19th Street.  The block was lined with similar houses, all home to respectable merchant-class families.   But only a few decades later the house would be gone, replaced by a quaint, one-story carriage house.

The last quarter of the 19th century saw a revival of interest in the city’s Dutch roots and the little stable reflected that with a brick, stepped gable.   Although the builder was financially comfortable enough to afford his own carriage house, he did not waste money on unnecessary architectural embellishment.  The shallow, dentil molded cornice—the sole decoration other than the amusing gable—was created in brick.

With the turn of the century came the automobile and car dealer R. Bertelli & Co. took over the little building as its headquarters.   On New Years Eve 1905 the firm announced a coup—it would be the sole agent for the Italian automobile known as the Zust, named after its maker Robert Zust.  Bertelli would introduce the high-end car at the 69th Regiment Armory automobile show in the spring.

The New York Times noted that the car “has many points to commend it,” and “has won many contests in Europe, probably its most remarkable performance this year being in the hill-climbing contest from Milan to Florence, when Robert Zust, driving a forty-fifty horse power car, was the only one to finish.”

In 1906 the Zust could be purchased at No. 124 E. 19th Street -- photo The Horseless Age (copyright expired)

By 1911 a strange thing had happened on the block.  Architect Frederick Junius Sterner had purchased one of the outdated Greek Revival houses and transformed it into a stucco-covered Mediterranean-style residence with a red tile roof, decorative ironwork an colorful tiles embedded in the façade.    Artistic (and moneyed) New Yorkers took note and before long Sterner’s renovations lined East 19th Street, earning the block the nickname “The Block Beautiful.”

On April 30, 1911 a headline in The New York Times read “Sheriff Bob” Chanler Will Join the Colony at Gramercy Park” and the sub-headline added “With Mrs. William Astor Chanler He Will Move to the Nineteenth Street Section, Which Has Been Charmingly Reconstructed.”  

“Sheriff Bob” was Robert Chanler, whom Current Opinion called “America’s most imaginative decorator.”   (The nickname was a reminder of his one term as Sheriff of Duchess County.)  The artist’s mural panels decorated residences like that of William K. Vanderbilt; but they were in no way traditional. 

The catalog for a later exhibition would explain “Chanler’s career represents a series of reactions against conventions social and aesthetic.”  It said that despite his ancestors being “an imposing sequence of colonial governors, generals, jurists, and clergymen,” he looked forward, not back.  “Surmounting in turn the inherited handicaps of family tradition and material affluence, he has won his way to a virile autonomy of thought and action which is to-day his most cherished possession.”

In 1912 the little carriage house (far right) was dwarfed by the surrounding buildings.  One of Sterner's renovations stands prominently at mid-block -- photo NYPL Collection
The Chanlers bought three lots at Nos. 141, 143 and 145 East 19th Street.     Chanler also purchased the little building where Italian automobiles had recently been displayed.   To the rear the artist established a glass-roofed studio and it would appear he renovated the front portion into a residence.  In 1915 Fred J. Fox, a member of the New York Pathological Society, listed the address as his home.

The artist’s exotic works often included lush jungle themes or Asian-based motifs.  Animals played a large part in his art.  The Edison Monthly noted in 1915 “Some time since, when the artist, Robert W. Chanler, took up the principles of Japanese design, the question of models and idea-promotors [sic] at once presented itself.  Leaf and bird forms, alive and flourishing, were soon imported and housed in a cosy [sic] garden at the rear of the hallway” at No. 124 East 19th Street.

To provide live models for “the sinuous fish forms that glide in and out of most well-regulated Nipponese conceptions,” Chanler constructed a large fish tank.  But there was the problem of heating in an age before hobbyists made fish tank maintenance commonplace.

Chanler's fish tank sat below the glass ceiling of the "conservatory" at 124 E 19th -- Edison Monthly (copyright expired)
“Then came cold weather with cold water, and a melancholy company of goldfish found themselves far from home with the mercury falling,” said The Edison Monthly.    Chanler turned to the Edison firm which contrived a fish tank heater and a tank cover with electric light bulbs—it was the prototype for generations of fish tanks in living rooms and dens to come.

The tiny house became home to Charles Shepard Bryan, his wife Annie and their three children in 1920.  Bryan was a broker and manufacturer, the son of Civil War soldier Major Augustus Bryan and had himself served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Officers’ Reserve Corps.

Perhaps the house was too confining for a family of four and a year later the newlyweds Mark Coats Cadwell and his bride, the former Marion Virginia Brown, moved in after their honeymoon.    They would soon leave their love nest for New Jersey, however, and Dwight F. Norton would take up residency with his wife, Jessie and their son, Henry.  Norton  was an engineer with the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.

Today the little carriage house-turned automobile showroom-turned studio-turned residence is painted black.    A delightful surprise, it adds further charm to the street once known as “The Block Beautiful.”

3 comments:

  1. Another one I'd been curious about. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This has always been my favorite building in the city. Thank you so much for exploring the history for us!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed the post and hopefully found out some new information on these great little building.

      Delete