Saturday, September 22, 2012

The 1892 Graham House -- 22 East 89th Street





The eye-catching entrance welcomed wealthy residents in 1892 -- photo by Alice Lum
When Scottish-born Charles Graham arrived in New York in 1851 he did what he knew best:  stair building.  Fourteen years later he organized the firm of Charles Graham & Co., which not only continued building stairs, but entire buildings.  Later the Evening World would say that “he was identified with the building of the metropolis, and “was largely instrumental in the building up of Upper Madison Avenue.”

Graham was a staunch opponent of slavery and during the Civil War he was in charge of “a New York station of the ‘underground railway,’” according to The Sun.  He was a close friend of Horace Greeley and abolitionist Wendell Phillips and wrote several anti-slavery articles for The Tribune.

Graham had four sons and his heart was broken when son Samuel disappeared in 1869.   Two of the other boys learned the building and real estate trade with Thomas becoming an accomplished architect as well.   In the 1880s Graham took sons John and Thomas into the firm with him, renaming it C. Graham & Sons.

From their office at 305 East 43rd Street the Grahams feverishly designed and built homes in the developing Upper East Side, ranging in price from $20,000 to $100,000.   The successful builders even operated their own sash and blind factory.  Then in September 1890 Thomas struck out on his own.

Starting out with $15,000 in cash, Thomas Graham aggressively built homes; but he had a grander idea as well.  By now the concept of exclusive residential hotels had taken hold in New York.  Wealthy residents who would rather not be inconvenienced by the upkeep of a private home and maintaining a staff of servants could permanently enjoy independence and luxury of a hotel.

Thomas Graham noticed that there were no residence hotels on the east side of Central Park.

He purchased land on the corner of Madison Avenue and 89th Street for $38,500 and set about designing the Graham Hotel and Apartment House.  The structure was projected to cost $165,000.  It was a lot of money considering his $15,000 start-up fund.  In addition, he was building several homes in the neighborhood.

By September 6, 1891 he was in trouble.  The Sun noted that “his affairs have been placed in the hands of his creditors.”

Thomas Graham’s experiment in building on his own came to an end.  He rejoined the firm of C. Graham & Sons and the hotel project went forward.  Completed a year later, the large ironspot brick-clad hotel sat on a limestone Romanesque Revival base.  Rough-cut stone piers supported planar expanses accented by projecting carved stone eyebrows over the arched openings.  Exuberant stone carvings made appearances along the façade, which happily hosted Moorish, Renaissance and Romanesque styles.  But Thomas Graham lavished his architectural enthusiasm on the entranceway.


Graham freely borrowed from a variety of architectural periods in designing the window openings -- photo by Alice Lum
Over a century later The AIA Guide to New York City would praise “The serendipitous entry portal combines Romanesque columns with urban fantasies: a portal worthy of entering a Wonderland.”
The two-story stone arch swelled with motion as wave-like buttresses crested at its sides.  Tightly-twisted rope-carved columns culminated in superbly-crafted foliate capitals.  It was architectural energy in carved stone.

Swirling columns abut exquisite carvings of berried branches tied with ribbon and a latticework medallion within a shield -- photo by Alice Lum
The Graham House filled with moneyed residents whose names regularly appeared in the social columns.  In 1893 Mrs. Hamilton M. Robinson hosted “at home receptions” and on January 6 and 13 of that same year another socialite named Robinson, the newly-married Mrs. N. Macrae-Robinson, gave wedding receptions in her apartments, assisted by her bridesmaids.  

But 1893 was not all tea parties and receptions at the Graham House.

In May, a month after Charles Graham’s wife died and years after his son Samuel had disappeared, the builder received a photograph of a little girl.  On it was written “Your granddaughter, Alice Graham.”  There was no postmark to tell from where it had been mailed.  The 82-year old man, in feeble health, placed advertisements in all the major newspapers throughout the country searching for information.  Before long Samuel, “broken, ill, dying,” according to The Evening World, returned to his father’s home with his daughter, Alice.   Only days after his return, Samuel died.

“It broke the old man’s heart,” reported The Evening World, “and two weeks later he died also, the newly found granddaughter soothing him and smoothing his pathway to the grave.”

A stonecarver's sense of humor is reflected in the grimacing face trapped within the sinuous foliate carvings -- photo by Alice Lum
Misfortune continued at No. 22 East 89th Street when wealthy Englishman Louis A. Morganthal and his wife, Minnie, “rented a suit of rooms in the swell Graham House” in November that year, as reported in The Evening World.  The 29-year old Morganthal was a Wall Street speculator and wine merchant.  His wife was the daughter of Louis Rientzen, a London diamond merchant who had made a fortune from the African Kimberley diamond mines.   The newspaper felt that “The two seemed to live happily together.”

On December 18 Mrs. Morganthal celebrated her 22nd birthday by attending the theater.  Her plans did not include her husband, however, and instead another Englishman, Mr. Noeltz, arrived to escort her.

Louis Morganthal, a bit tipsy, arrived at the Graham House around 9:30 and invited Thomas Graham’s son to his apartment along with several others for a drink.  He “was in a talkative mood,” and “said his wife was the best woman in the world.”  At 11:00 he retired.

Minnie Morganthal returned home around 1:00 am and went upstairs in the elevator.  Seconds later “a piercing scream rang through the halls of the hotel,” according to The Evening World.   Louis Moganthal sat in a chair just inside the room with a 22-calibre bullet hole in his skull.

It would not be the last suicide of a wealthy resident here.

Less than five months later Max Meyer arrived at the Graham House with his male nurse and his married daughter from Selma, Alabama.   He came to New York to seek help from a specialist in nervous disorders and had suffered from insomnia for several years.   Meyer’s daughter telegramed her mother not to bother coming north, since her father was rapidly improving.  The truth was, though, that his health “extremely delicate,” according to The New York Times. 

His two sons, one of whom lived in the city at No. 110 East 92nd Street, decided to place their father into an asylum.  When Max Meyer discovered the plans, he decided to take matters into his own hands.  “Before the nurse could detain him he sprang for the window and jumped out,” said The Times.

“Shouts came from the Graham early yesterday morning,” the newspaper reported on May 7, “and a policeman hurried across the street just in time to see the body of a man shoot from a window and fall to the sidewalk in Eighty-ninth Street.”  Max Meyer struck the bronze railing that surrounded the hotel and died.

Thomas Graham continued his father’s legacy of concern for the poor and downtrodden.  That year The Times noted that “There is no slackening in the efforts both of individuals and of organizations to furnish aid for the poor.”  The newspaper reported “A meeting of the charitably-disposed residents of the east side” had been called at the Graham House “to extend the work of a diet kitchen in a neighborhood near the river front, where much suffering and want exists.  Mr. Graham has offered the use of his dining hall for this meeting.”

In 1895 Thomas Graham sold the Graham House; although he continued to live and run his architectural and building business from here through the turn of the century.

The widow of L. K. Goldsmith, Clara Goldsmith, was living here in 1906 when she received surprising news.  Clara’s nephew, Lazarus K. Goldsmith, had left home 42 years earlier and traveled the world.  The family had lost track of him until she stumbled upon him in Paris in 1904.  Clara and Lazarus renewed a friendship and then she returned home to the Graham House.

On April 17, 1906 Clara received word that her nephew had died.  He left his entire estate of about $1.5 million including $750,000 in United States Steel Corporation and American Tobacco Company stocks and bonds and 400 acres of land in Oregon to Clara.  His will said that she “assisted me when I was in need and by reason of our long friendship.”

Throughout the first half of the 20th century wealthy New Yorkers continued to live in the spacious apartments.  In 1920 Mr. and Mrs. H. Ogden Nelson were here when their two daughters married.    Beatrice Berrien Nelson married John Butler Rosenquest of Cleveland; and her sister became Mrs. Charles Robert Potter.  Two years later Mrs. Florence A. James lived here when she was swindled out of $1,450 and a diamond ring by Alfred E. Lindsay and Dr. Knut Karl Enlind.  The pair convinced Florence that she would make “a killing” on inside information they had on certain stocks.  When cornered in court, Lindsay testified that “Enlind was in the habit of steering wealthy women to him in order that he might swindle them by posing as a sure-tip financier,” said the New York Tribune on November 16.

Graham used pressed metal as deftly as he did stone and brick in designing the ornamental details -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1951 St. David's School, a private Roman Catholic boy’s school, was founded with one teacher and four students.  Its purpose was “to provide a sound substantial education for the growing boy, equal to the best to be derived from institutions of a similar level.”   By 1963 the school had grown to the point that it purchased the building next door to the Graham House, at 16 East 89th Street.  Here well-heeled young men like John F. Kennedy, Jr. wore ties and jackets and prepared themselves for higher education.

In 1972 St. David’s School purchased the Graham House and a year later it converted part of the ground floor as “a school for 20 pupils,” as described in Building Department documents.   By 2003 the growing school had edged itself upward in the Graham, sharing space on five floors with still-surviving apartments.   By 2011 there were 400 students whose parents spent $36,300 on tuition annually.  The last of the apartments had to go.

Although the last of the residents did not necessarily go quietly, the building was finally completely converted to classrooms.  Thomas Graham’s Ladies' Parlor, the Men's Lounge, and the elegant communal dining room, where millionaires and their wives once supped, were all gone.

But outside, the robust façade with its eccentric and wonderful entryway, remain exactly as they were.

4 comments:

  1. "the newly found granddaughter soothing him and smooching his pathway to the grave.”

    Smooching? Hmm!

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  2. I lived in this building for a number of years in the 1980's. The dinning room and other hotel luxuries had been converted long before. The ground floor had a store on the corner that the school turned into a gym some point in the 1970's. The apartments still had non-functional gas lighting fixture hardware in the ceilings. My apartment had a beautiful fireplace with unusual tiles that had been ruined by years of sloppy paint. The conversion from hotel to apartments was not performed with the best planning as kitchens were sort of crammed in wherever they could. My apartment was connected to the rest of the building, as were all of the apartments in that section, by corridor bridges. These hallways had gaps between the roof and the floor above that while enclosed indoors, were open outside providing ample nesting space for pigeons. That was a continuous racket all year long.

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  3. I was glad to see the article as I am descended from Thomas Graham's through his daughter Helen. My family research shows that Charles Graham had a son that died before they moved to America and a son that died not long after they arrived in New York, so the story that he was upset about his son, Samuel seems reasonable. Again, I enjoyed the article from the perspective of a descendant, so thanks for sharing it.

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  4. My family lived in Graham House for over fifty years, beginning during WW2. My father's dental office was part of our apartment. I can honestly say that there was no semblance of the early grandeur in the crowded apartment we occupied. Whoever thought of facing both kitchen and bathroom into an air shaft did a real disservice to the original plans, as one example.

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