Friday, October 19, 2012

The Mittelstaedt House -- No. 86 University Place

The modest middle-class home sheltered a family of seven in the 1870s -- photo by Alice Lum
The wave of German immigrants that began settling in New York City in the 1840s swelled to over 800,000 in the 1850s and by the middle of the decade only Vienna and Berlin boasted a larger German population than New York.  By the end of the Civil War the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan rang with German songs and music; and German newspapers, social halls and restaurants flourished.  The neighborhood earned the nickname Little Germany, or Kleindeutschland.

Among those seeking a new life in America was Bernhard Mittelstaedt.   Unlike so many of his immigrant neighbors who crowded into tenement buildings, Mittelstaedt purchased the former home of a real estate dealer named Searls at No. 86 University Place.  Here in the modest red brick house he would provide a home for his family and begin his rather interesting business:  the importing and wholesaling of human hair.

Nearly a century before synthetic wigs would become commonplace there was a fertile market for clean, quality human hair.  Victorian women commonly wore hairpieces—referred to a “head-dresses”—pre-styled in the latest fashions.  Before long Mittelstaedt’s business was a success.  His American dream was coming true.

Victorian women selected pre-styled hair pieces.
Here in the middle-class house on University Place above an English basement Mittelstaedt and his wife Emma Amelie reared five children; two daughters and three sons.  Bernard honored his wife by naming the business E. Mittelstaedt.  As the boys grew, two entered the family business (son Charles chose, instead, to become a doctor).   Mittelstaedt’s pride in his success was reflected in the handsome and elaborate cornice he affixed to the house around 1880, which announced “E. MITTELSTAEDT – ESTABLISHED 1867.”

The company was named after Emma Mittelstaedt, Bernard's wife -- photo by Alice Lum
As the century progressed, the business diversified as it out-grew the family’s house.   Mittelstaedt moved the operation into newly erected commercial loft building next door at No. 84.  Here he established his own workshops to manufacture hairpieces.  Related products, such as hair nets, were now offered as the company adapted to meet changing styles and growing demand.    The firm shared the new building with apparel firms like Julius Klugman, wholesale furriers; Hirsch & Smith, manufacturers of skirts; and Sol A. Unger & Co., makers of cloaks and suits.

By 1910 the company was selling a variety of items -- Notions & Fancy Goods, August 1910 (copyright expired)

The house was the scene of Emma Mittelstaedt’s funeral on Wednesday evening, April 22, 1908.   Bernhard lived on in the house with his sons Bernard and Charles, and daughters Emma and Harriet.  Son Edward was now living in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Nine years later, on January 16, 1917, Bernard Mittelstaedt died of pneumonia in the house on University Place at the age of 80.   Despite the sizable wealth amassed from the business, the family members continued to live conservatively here.   And while the brothers ran the firm, daughter Harriet turned her attention to music.

To further the training she had already received in the city, she traveled to Europe to study voice at the Fontainbleau School of Music in France and at a conservatory in Leipzig, Germany.  In the 1920s, now a professional soprano, Harriet gave recitals at Steinway Hall.

The Mittelstaedt boys, while upstanding in the community, were perhaps a bit biased in their religious views.  An advertisement placed in the New York Tribune on August 24, 1922 read “Help Wanted Female.  Bookkeeper’s Assistant, knowledge of typewriting; Christian; salary $16.”

An advertisement from The Dry Goods Economist, November 19, 1921 (copyright expired)

Harriet’s brother, Charles, died in July 1941, followed by Bernard in 1945.  The unmarried Harriet was now the last of the family in the house at No. 86 University Place.   As the once-German neighborhood around her changed drastically, the aging woman stayed on in her family home filled with furniture, silver and paintings of another century.

By now the English basement had been converted to the Royalist Restaurant, owned by Barney Gallant.   1945 was not a particularly good year for the restaurateur.    On September 13 he was held for trial on the charge of “simple assault” of patron Agnes Broadland.   Mrs. Broadland conceded that she had been “drinking heavily” before entering the restaurant.  Gallant instructed the waiters not to serve drinks to her “because she had had enough elsewhere.”

Agnes Broadland alleged to police that he went further than that—he had struck her.  The New York Times reported that “Mr. Gallant denied that he had mistreated Mrs. Broadland, asserting that she had slipped on a rubber mat as he escorted her from the place.”

Two weeks later Gallant’s troubles continued when Magistrate Charles E. Ramsgate in the War Emergency Court imposed a fine of $160 for sixteen violations of ceiling prices.  Gallant’s attorney entered a guilty plea of overcharging patrons.

In the meantime, the 63-year old Harriet Mittelstaedt devoted her time to music, charities and her love of Greenwich Village.  She was active in the Little Gardens Club of New York, which gave annual tours of the gardens of the Village.  In 1956 she sponsored a Washington Square concert series at Judson Memorial Church in memory of her parents.

Among her much loved causes was the New York University School of Medicine, where her brother Charles had graduated in 1896.  She gave about $15,000 to the school in the 1950s.  Then, alone and aging, she donated her family home to the University in 1958, with the proviso that she be allowed to live out her life there.

On March 13, 1964, at the age of 82, Harriet died in St. Vincent’s Hospital after a short illness.  The house on University Place was without a Mittelstaedt resident for the first time in nearly a century.

In the 1970s the downstairs restaurant space had become the Dardanelles Armenian Restaurant, which The Times called a “bright, cheerful, attractively decorated place with excellent authentic fare.”

New York University renovated the house in 1991, expanding the restaurant space into the former parlor floor and creating two apartments on the second floor and one each on the third and fourth floor.  El Cantinero Mexican Restaurant moved in.  In 1995 New York Magazine was not impressed.

“…The almost willfully ugly surroundings, the dispirited staff—the strange Twilight Zone karma—brought me down again in short order.  This is not a happy place.”

photo by Alice Lum
Whether the magazine critic had a good experience at El Cantinero or not, University students flock there.  The brick addition that was slapped onto the front of No. 86 University Place is unfortunate; however a look upwards reveals the intact house where Harriet Mittelstaedt lived out her last years and the proud cornice her father had installed to prove that he had made it in America.

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