Monday, September 3, 2012

The Lost 1882 Knickerbocker Apartments -- 5th Avenue at 28th Street

photo NYPL Collection
In the early years of the 1880s 5th Avenue was changing.  Looking north from 33rd Street where the two brownstone mansions of the Astors confidently filled the block, followed by A. T. Stewart’s white marble Second Empire palace across 34th Street, a visitor might assume this wealthy residential neighborhood would last forever.

But if he turned and walked a few blocks south, he would see the approaching tide of change.

On 5th Avenue below 14th Street, by now, nearly all the homes of New York’s wealthiest citizens had been razed or altered for commercial purposes.   Between 14th and 23rd Streets residents were one-by-one abandoning their private homes.

But another trend had taken hold as well—apartment living.  The concept of luxurious flats where well-to-do residents could forego the expense and bother of maintaining a private home and the required full staff appealed to many.  The stretch of 5th Avenue between 23rd Street and 33rd Street, where the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel and exclusive Delmonico’s Restaurant stood, was perfect for such an enterprise.   
On the corner of 5th Avenue and 28th Street sat the imposing mansion of William B. Duncan.   A decade earlier Duncan had moved out, selling the building to the newly-formed Knickerbocker Club.   The club had been formed by old guard members of the exclusive Union Club including August Belmont, John Jacob Astor and Alexander Hamilton, Jr.  They had become disgruntled with the admission of young, nouveau riche members who not only smoked pipes within the clubhouse, but gambled.

Only a decade later, however, the club decided to take over another mansion four blocks to the north.  In 1882 a group of investors, with a reverent nod to the staid clubhouse it was about to demolish, styled themselves as the Knickerbocker Apartment Company and purchased the property.  Fifth Avenue would soon see yet another change with the construction of The Knickerbocker Apartments.

Calling the new venture “apartments” was a daring move.   At the time most upper-class apartment buildings were deemed “French Flats,” to distinguish them from tenements.   Even that term was not convincing enough for many wealthy renters who avoided the stigma of apartment living by moving into residential hotels, instead.

But the Knickerbocker Apartments would be designed more like private houses than "flats"—thereby side-stepping what Mrs. Caroline Astor disdainfully referred to as “living on a shelf.”

The architectural firm of Hubert, Pirrson & Co. was give the commission to design the hulking structure.   Partner Philip K. Hubert took over the project keeping in mind that the residents who moved in would be wealthy enough to afford a 5th Avenue address just five blocks south of the Astors.   And while he sketched out the massive 11-story structure, he turned over the design of the interiors to a fledgling architect still in training—Ernest Flagg.

The Architectural Review was impressed with the ingenious layouts.  “The apartments were planned in two stories.  Each apartment is arranged like a two-story house.  On the lower floors are the living-rooms, the kitchen, pantry, etc., and on the second floor, the bed-rooms, bath-rooms and servants’ rooms.  Each house, or apartment, has its own private hall and staircase from the first to the second floors.  The building its eleven stories high, and eight of the floors are arranged in this way, that is to say, as four series of two-story houses.”

Architectural Forum explained the term “living-rooms” as used in the Architectural Review’s article.  “The living rooms, that is, the parlor, library, dining room, kitchen and pantries, were grouped on one floor, and high ceilings used; on the floor above the chambers and bathrooms were arranged with lower ceilings.”

The venture was a complete success and the building filled with wealthy residents.  During the summer months, like the vast mansions to the north, the Knickerbocker Apartments sat almost entirely unused as its moneyed tenants spent the season in Newport or other fashionable resorts. 

The James H. Wickes family, for instance, “live during the Winter months in apartments in the Knickerbocker apartment-house, 247 Fifth avenue, and in the Summer go to Brant Lake in the Adirondacks, where they have a fine house,” said The Evening World.   Wickes was the head of the Wickes Refrigerator Company, manufacturers of refrigerated railway cars.

And so it was that on September 11, 1887 as the season drew to a close, the building was essentially empty.

Although the entire building was leased, there were only two men in the building other than employees.  High above the street on the 10th floor were the apartments of banker Thomas Maitland.   About 1:00 in the morning an employee smelled smoke and when the bachelor’s rooms were entered, fire was discovered in the bedroom.

A small fire extinguisher was of no help and when firemen arrived, they had to drag fifteen lengths of hose up the 10 flights of stairs.   By the time they made it to Maitland’s apartment flames were shooting from the windows facing east.

“The flames were centred in the bedroom,” reported The Sun, “and had spread from there back to the bath room and forward to the parlor…It was easy to put the fire out, but not so easy to guess how it started.”

Although the only two residents in the building were also on the 10th floor, they were on the opposite side of the building and had slept through the commotion.  The Sun noted that “Mr. Maitland’s bedroom was gutted, but much of his parlor furniture was saved.”

The excitement was barely over when another incident occurred.    John H. Haslam, a stableman employed in the nearby Mason’s livery stable, noticed a suspicious package.  According to The Evening World on November 22, 1887, “The box was placed at dead of night on the sidewalk at Twenty-eighth street and Fifth avenue, in front of the side entrance of the gorgeous Knickerbocker flats.”  It appeared to be a bomb.

Protruding from the cardboard box were copper wire, a tin tube and a cotton fuse.  The stableman took it to the 13th Street police station where Sergeant Schmittberger dismantled it.  He found “A tin tube about 7 inches long, apparently part of a bettered fishhorn, plugged at both ends with sealing wax and resin.  Protruding from the narrow end of the tube was a cotton fuse encased in copper wire, the end of the wire being used to bind a parlor match at the end of the fuse.  A piece of twine was fastened to the end of the fuse and was conducted out fo the box through a hole cut in the side.”

The Sun reported that the perpetrator (whom the newspaper named “the dynamite joker”) “ingeniously arranged the whole so as to present the appearance of an infernal machine.”

In the meantime, the owner of the stables, Mr. Mason, suspected Haslam as being involved.  “His fellow-workers in the stable say that he would not have been so ready to carry the box to the station-house four blocks distant if he had not known its contents were harmless,” noted The Sun.

Reverdy Johnson Travers, Jr. moved into the Knickerbocker from his home at No. 3 West 38th Street.   The wealthy widower owned at least one race horse and came from a distinguished family that traced its roots to colonial times.   After Travers’ death in 1893 a woman suddenly appeared who filed papers as Anna Frances Travers and sought “to recover dower in his estate,” according to The Sun on April 8, 1893.

Travers’ brother, William R. Travers, was shocked and signed an affidavit saying he had never heard of the woman, believed that his brother had never married her, and knew that she had never lived at the Knickerbocker.  William A. Duer, a brother-in-law of Travers told the court that he had known the plaintiff for two months after Travers’ death and at the time she went by the name of Mrs. Arlington.  “He says,” said the newspaper, “she admitted that she was never married, and she did not then claim to be the widow of Travers.”

Supreme Court Justice Barrett directed Anna Frances Travers to advise the time and place of her alleged marriage and if it had been a ceremonial one.   Adding to the mystery was a “secret letter” included with Travers’ will “providing for the disposition of $20,000 to Gillott D. Deckert,” the woman’s attorney.

When the daughter of General and Mrs. Charles A. Whittier, who lived here at the turn of the century, became engaged to the socially prominent Ernest Iselin, among her attendants was May Goelet.   The Goelet mansion a few blocks north was among the showplaces of 5th Avenue and a center of society functions.  In October 1903 as the important wedding day neared, Pauline (Polly) Whittier entertained her bridesmaids at a luncheon at high society's favorite dining spot, Sherry’s.

The president of the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, Leanor Fresnel Loree, and his wife the former Jessie Coles Taber, were living here in 1912.  That year their son Robert Fresnel Loree graduated from Yale to enter a career in banking.

A few months after this photograph was taken in 1925, the building would be gone -- photo NYPL Collection
When Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Sackett announced the engagement of their daughter Beatrice to Alfred Purdy Hodgman in December 1920, they may have been looking for a place to live as well.   Earlier that year, on March 15, Max N. Natanson purchased the building for $1 million in cash.  Although it was fully rented to prominent residents like Mr. and Mrs. Thomas N. James and Mr. and Mrs. John Vernon Bouvier, Jr., The New York Times reported that “all leases expire in October, 1920.”  The newspaper added “Recently it was reported that the property would be converted into a high-grade office building, and it is possible that a resale will be made for an improvement of this character.”

Although the resale did not happen for another five years, Natanson turned the building over to a developer on May 6, 1925.  Before the end of the year it was demolished to make way for the 24-story office building designed by George F. Pelham.

Like the mansion that had stood here before it, the remarkable Knickerbocker Apartments, designed with the feeling of two-story houses, became a victim of the ever-changing 5th Avenue.

George F. Pelham's office building still stands on the site of the old Knickerbocker Apartments -- photo by Alice Lum

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