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.

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 Taylor’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.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Joseph B. Thomas House -- No. 135 East 19th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Joseph B. Thomas, Sr. was born in Boston in 1848 and accumulated a fortune in the sugar business.  The energetic mogul moved his family to New York where his athletic interests were reflected in his memberships in the New York Yacht Club, the Sewanhaka-Corinthian Yacht Club and his presidency of the St. Andrew’s Golf Club.  Thomas would pass his love of outdoor sports to his son, Joseph B. Thomas, Jr.

The younger Thomas would also inherit his parents’ sense of humor.  In 1901, during the flurry of December debutante balls and teas, the society pages were filled with events in honor of young girls being introduced to society.  And then there was the one mention of a man.

“Mr. and Mrs. Joseph B. Thomas (Miss Annie Hill) gave a small dance last evening at Delmonico’s for their son, Joseph B. Thomas Jr.” said The New York Times.  In an apparent tongue-in-cheek jab at the tradition, the Thomases gave a coming out for their son that mirrored the others.  “There was a cotillion and some pretty favors.  It was a small dance.  Only fifty or sixty in all were invited, and they were of the younger set.”

Young Thomas would graduate in 1903, but before then he already was noticed as an expert polo player, champion hurdler and a breeder of Borzoi dogs – known as the “royal dog of Russia.”    Because he was convinced that the best of the species had never left Russia, one of the first things on his agenda upon graduation was a trip to Russia.

There he visited all the famous kennels, finally spending some time as a guest of the Grand Duke Nicholas at Perchina.  The duke owned superior dogs and Thomas purchased Bristri, who would go on to become champion in the United States.

He returned in 1906 to purchase more dogs and his success led Country Life to note a year later “But the Borzoi’s vogue in the Eastern states may be truthfully said to have only fairly begun.  Joseph B. Thomas, Jr., more than any other one man, is responsible for this.”

Thomas’s parents were living in the exclusive Hotel Savoy when, in July 1909, Joseph B. Thomas, Sr. became ill with sarcoma.  Three weeks later in August, he died.

The younger Thomas began looking for an appropriate home for himself and his widowed mother.

In the meantime, the innovative English-born architect Frederick Junius Sterner had come to New York from Colorado in 1906.  He purchased a home on East 19th Street where nearly identical Greek Revival residences lined the block.   Built half a century earlier, they were decidedly out of style.

Sterner remodeled his home by slathering it with colored stucco, adding a Mediterranean-style red tile roof that extended beyond the fa├žade, colorful tiles and decorative ironwork.  The outmoded house was suddenly up-to-date and eye-catching.

Sterner’s transformation of the interiors were even more startling.  Architecture would note that “Mr. Sterner believes that the interior of a living place should be primarily the thing to be considered, the exterior coming about because of the interior requirements, and it is in this manner than he has treated this house for his own use.”

Among the features was an indoor garden.  The magazine said “This is a great characteristic of Mr. Sterner’s work, as in practically every example he incorporates a garden feature.”

His work caught the eye of Joseph B. Thomas.

By the end of 1910 Sterner had reworked a rowhouse for Thomas, just down the street from his own, at No. 135 East 19th Street.  For this project the architect transformed the mid-19th century house into a Gothic fantasy.  The stone first floor, actually entered below street level, supported four stories of multi-colored brick, laid in a modified Flemish bond pattern.   Diamond-paned windows topped by flat-headed Gothic eyebrows, a stepped gable that harbored crouching gargoyles and a carved coat of arms carried out the Gothic motif.  An elaborate row of stained glass windows behind carved tracery marked the dining room.

In 1910 Brickbuilder published a photo of the newly-renovated home (copyright expired)
Inside, no trace of the former Victorian house remained.  The living room, called “the Italian Room,” featured a barrel-vaulted ceiling with delicate plasterwork and an imposing stone fireplace.  Carved paneling was used throughout to maintain the period illusion.   The dining room was built as a balcony to the living room, opening onto it through a series of wooden arches.  Below it all was an immense brick-and-tile wine cellar.

The dining room, to the rear, overlooked the double-height "Italian Room" -- Bricklayer 1910 (copyright expired)
Thomas’s love for fun and entertaining was evident in the many social functions in the house.  On St. Patrick’s Day 1914 he hosted a dance and supper for which all the decorations and even the ices were green.  The Balalaika Orchestra played Russian music (straying a bit from the Irish theme) and Miss Clara Fargo did several exhibition dances.

The Library -- Brickbuilder 1910 (copyright expired)
Miss Fargo showed up in the society pages two weeks later when The Sun reported that “Owing to the increased membership of Miss Fargo’s dancing class the meetings of Tuesday nights, March 31, April 7 and April 14 will be held in the Della Robbia room of the Vanderbilt instead of at 135 East Nineteenth Street.”

Clara Fargo, who was spending so much time at the Thomas house, was not a mere entertainer.  She was the socially-prominent daughter of James F. Fargo, the Secretary of the National, American and Wescott Express Companies and a Director of the Hanover National Bank.  The New York Times called her “one of society’s cleverest dancers.”  The attraction between the Clara and Joseph was therefore natural—the same article noted that Thomas “has entertained society frequently at musical and costume affairs.”

Stained glass windows illuminated the carved-paneled Dining Room -- Brickbuilder 1910 (copyright expired)

Later in 1914 the committee of the British War Relief Fund, supported by society dames like Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Arthur Burden, decided to give a fund-raising dance.  They turned to Joseph B. Thomas and the event was held at No. 135 East 19th Street on December 16.

The Conservatory, or "indoor garden," so important to Sterner's designs -- Brickbuilder 1910 (copyright expired)
A month later the announcement was made that surprised no one in New York society:  Joseph Thomas was to marry Clara Fargo.   The wedding took place on February 15, 1915 but was an understated affair due to the recent deaths of Clara’s grandfather and Joseph’s brother, Ralph H. Thomas.

On July 28, 1916 Annie M. Thomas died at age 69.   But joy was back in the house a year later in October when Clara and Joseph’s son, the new Joseph B. Thomas, Jr., was born.

The Wine Cellar -- Brickbuilder 1910 (copyright expired)
With the end of World War I Europe struggled to get back on its feet.  Farms were destroyed by bombings and the population of farm animals had been decimated.  Joseph Thomas became the New York State contracting agent for a program to ship American cows to Europe.  It seemed like a nice thing to do.

But not everyone thought so.

John T. Dooling, assistant District Attorney, protested the program, warning it “menaces the milk situation here.”    Dooling felt that the several thousand cows being exported to France, Belgium and the Netherlands could result in American children having no milk to drink.

“Should the milk situation be menaced by this exportation,” he told The New York Tribune on August 15, 1919, he threatened to “notify Federal officials and ask for action.”

photo by Alice Lum
The Thomases, however, continued with the fun-loving ways.   On February 2, 1920 The Times reported on Clara’s participation in a fund-raising performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest,” in which society women played the female roles.

“Mrs. Joseph B. Thomas, the former Clara Fargo, who was noted for her dancing, was Cecily Cardew and quite slim enough to be 17,” said the newspaper.

The couple became close friends with artists Robert Chandler and George Bellows (who also lived in a Frederick Sterner-remodeled house on East 19th Street).  Many of the homes along the 19th Street block had now been remodeled by Sterner and Joseph Thomas was passionate about the neighborhood.  He planted plane and maple trees along the block and introduced the gingko tree here.   For years he was president of the Gramercy Park Association.
photo by Alice Lum
He also became an avid and accomplished fox hunter, establishing kennels and stables in Middleburg, Virginia called Huntlands.  His love for dog breeding led him to search throughout Virginia to find red hounds descended from those presented to George Washington by the Marquis Lafayette, and he wrote the book “Hounds and Hunting Through the Ages.”

Finally, at 75 years old, Joseph B. Thomas died after a prolonged illness on July 14, 1955.  The house at No. 135 was sold to advertising executive Robert B. Grady and his wife, Erma.   After fifteen years the house, called by The Times as “one of the most ornate in the area,” was sold to E. J. Smith with all the Grady furnishings intact.

As the 20th century came to a close, designer Oleg Cassini owned the remarkable house.  Today it remains unchanged—a once unremarkable house that was made truly remarkable in a 1910 make-over.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Endearing 1827 Houses at Nos. 18 and 20 Christopher Street



photo by Alice Lum

In 1825 the streets of New York were overcrowded and unsanitary.  Two years earlier the city had endured a yellow fever epidemic and now doctors noticed an outbreak of another terrifying disease: cholera.

Within two years there was a full-scale epidemic and by July 1832 thousands were dying.

Following a trend begun with the first crisis, panicked citizens with the means to do so fled northward.  The New York Evening Post wrote “The roads, in all directions, were lined with well-filled stagecoaches, livery coaches, private vehicles and equestrians, all panic-struck, fleeing the city, as we may suppose the inhabitants of Pompeii fled when the red lava showered down upon their houses.”

The doorway at No. 20 retains its original 8-paneled door, handsome carved framing and overlight -- photo by Alice Lum
The wealthiest of these frightened refugees headed to the Bloomingdale area at the northern end of the island. Most went as far as the Village of Greenwich where the country air was clean and safe.

A flurry of building resulted in Federal-style homes ranging from modest working-class dwellings to refined brick mansions like Samuel Whittemore’s imposing residence.

The 19th century renovations resulted in charming, country store-like storefronts -- photo by Alice Lum
In the earliest days of the development, builder Daniel Simonson constructed two frame houses at Nos. 18 and 20 Christopher Street.  Completed in 1827, the little two-story buildings were faced with brick. Entrance doors, set to the side, were ornamented with unpretentious Federal details – fanlights and delicate side columns.

Unlike the prim, formal dormers of their neighboring houses, these boasted ambitious grouped dormers.  The AIA Guide to New York City would later describe them as “superdormers;” giant, arched structures that encompassed several windows each and offered nearly a full-floor of usable space in otherwise cramped garrets.

After taking this shot in June 1933, photographer P. L. Sperr wrote on the reverse "18-20 are especially prized for their quaintness."  -- photo NYPL Collection
Before the turn of the century both houses were converted to accommodate commercial space on the first floor. The front walls were knocked out and in their place wood-and-glass storefronts were installed; what the authors of “One Thousand New York Buildings” describe as “perhaps the most charming to be found anywhere in New York…Their show windows and doorways are sheltered under unusual hoods.”
In 1934 shutters adorned the second floors and the large dormers had just begun to sag -- Photo NYPL Collection
Sleepy Greenwich Village changed slowly, but the old-fashioned houses at Nos. 18 and 20 Christopher barely changed at all.  In 1924 the Department of Buildings described both as having a store and “non-housekeeping apartments” above.

Fantastic details include the sunburst in the "superdormer," delicate paneled pilasters framing the dormer windows, and carved brownstone lintels, now painted -- photo by Alice Lum
Nearly two centuries after being built, these two picturesque remnants of a nearly-forgotten period in Greenwich Village remain. The weary-looking over-sized dormers sag backwards with age, perhaps adding to their charm.

Throughout the past few years the Department of Buildings has fought the owners’ attempts to alter the buildings. Somehow, however, the two little houses remain, if not untouched, much-loved.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Murder in The Collegian Flats -- No. 345 West 21st Street



The Collegian Flats was the the latest in multi-family residential design in 1884.
By 1884 the quiet and respectable block of West 21st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues was undergoing change.  The brick and brownstone one-family homes were slowly being converted to boarding houses.   And before the end of the century many of them would be razed to make way for modern apartment buildings.

Among the very first of these would be built by the Evans Estate at No. 345 and would be, as The New York Times put it, “dignified by the title of the Collegian Flats.”    Built for middle-class families, the five-story building offered two roomy apartments per floor, with tall double-hung windows for ample ventilation.

The red brick building was trimmed in stone with up-to-the-minute Eastlake touches—a sawtooth cornice between the first and second floors, for instance, and incised lintel carvings.   The rows of windows at each level were connected by a stone course at the sills and at the lintels, and by a decorative floral tile band –a nice added touch.  Two semi-attached polished granite columns supported a solid stone hood over the entrance, proclaiming that this was not another tenement building.


Bands of decorative floral tiles at each floor were a colorful added touch.
The Collegian Flats would quickly become the center of a scandalous murder trial that started far away in a Cleveland, Ohio.

In May 1884 24-year old George W. Evans stopped at the American Hotel in Cleveland.  Across the street was the Johnson House where Annie Belts, “a very attractive young woman,” according to newspapers, was a guest.  Annie was the daughter of a Steubenville livery stable owner and had argued with her parents and run away from home.

Evans flirted with Annie through the hotel windows, finally becoming acquainted with her.  What Annie did not know was that he was also the son of Alexander Evans, a notorious pickpocket and sneak thief also known as “Nevins,” and “the milkman.”  Nor did she know he was cruel and abusive.

Evans was attracted to the young girl not only for her good looks, but for the $40,000 of Steubenville property of which she would become the sole heiress.  He convinced Annie to come back to New York with him and in the Fall they were married.   On November 1 he was hired as janitor of the new Collegian Flats.  The couple was given the four-room apartment in the basement.   Things seemed to be going well for the newly-weds.
Trouble soon surfaced.   The jealous husband felt that Augustus White, a partner in the management company of the building, W. A. White & Sons, was taking too great an interest in his wife and that she appeared to reciprocate.  Quarrels ensued.

Tenants began complaining that Evans would lock himself in the apartment with his wife and beat her.  According to The New York Times “sounds of blows and shrieks indicated that he was chastising her, and she afterward complained that he not only beat her, but tried to strangle her.”  The residents were, said The Times, “shocked by Evans’s brutality to his wife.”

The Sun was less sympathetic.  It reported that the tenants “suggested to the agents that he should be removed from the flats, as the woman’s cries were annoying.”

By January Annie Evans was fearful for her life.  When White called one morning and Evans was not at home, she implored the man to help her.

“She said she had discovered that her husband, whom she married hastily, was a villain,” White later recounted.  “He had a bad temper and had beaten her and threatened to kill her.  She told me she was afraid of her life and begged me to help her to get back to her home and friends in Ohio.  Unless I did so she would be driven to killer herself.”

A plan was hatched whereby Annie would have enough time to pack and escape.  On Wednesday, January 28, Evans was summoned to the White offices at 1:00 to discuss maintenance of the water pipes in the building.  When he arrived, White told him he had to take care of something, but not to leave until he returned.

White finally came back at 6:00 in the evening, apologized and asked Evans to return the next day.  When the janitor arrived at the basement apartment, he found that his wife had packed and left.   In the morning he was fired and told to leave.

George Evans, however, did not take losing his wife nor losing his job easily.  He spent 24 hours searching for Annie and at one point was informed she had been seen “walking with Mr. White.”  Evans was enraged.

When he returned to the apartment on Friday night at 11:30, he encountered the new janitor, a black man named Thomas Currie.  The two got into a violent argument which was heard on the upper-most floor.  The apartment of Edmund Coon was on the top floor and in the rear room was top of a shaft that connected to the cellar by the coalbins.  Thomas Coon, a nephew, was awakened by the angry voices below.

“I want you to understand I’m janitor here until tomorrow; then my time’s up.  I have orders not to let anyone in the house at night.  So you get.”

The 36-year old Currie argued that he was obeying the orders of White to stay.

Edmund Coon, who was in the front room of the apartment at the time, was startled by a gunshot.  His nephew told him what he had heard and the pair listened at the shaft, first hearing groaning, then “What did you expect—that I’d let you ‘boss’ me?  I had to defend myself.  Do you want a doctor?”

The men rushed to the basement to find a dazed Currie at the foot of the cellar stairs, bleeding  from the head.  He was able to say that Evans had shot him.   He was taken to New York Hospital where he died four days later.

The manhunt was on for Evans whom police described as “5 feet 9 inches in height, small side whiskers, small black mustache, black hair and eyes, ruddy complexion, medium build, dark clothes and a derby hat.”

Assuming that Annie fled to Ohio, Evans headed there.  Authorities tracked him to Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis; and then lost the trail.  Nearly a year would pass before Evans was caught.  Detectives rented a room across the street from Evans’s aunt who lived at No. 312 East 105th Street on a hunch that he might return to New York.  Finally, in December, they spotted him at the window of his aunt’s apartment.

He was arrested later on the street.  In the waistband of his trousers was a pearl-handled double-edged dagger 7 inches long.   Evans confessed to the killing.

But it would not be the end of the story.

On January 21, 1886 George W. Evans appeared in court to face his first-degree murder charge.   The Times sized him up for its readers.  “As he sat in the Court of Oyer and Terminer yesterday, on trial for murder in the first degree, he looked very different from the typical criminal.  He had a clean-cut face, a clear complexion, and a bright, intelligent expression.  By his attire he showed himself possessed of good taste.  But there was a flippancy about him that was not pleasant to see in the manner of a man on trial for murder.”

When Evans’s attorney, William f. Howe, stood before the jury, the account of the killing was drastically changed.  According to Howe's version, Evans had acted solely in self defense.  The counsel told that when Currie was told to leave he refused and drew a revolver.  Evans then pulled out his own gun and Currie relented, putting his in the pocket of his overcoat.   When Evans turned to leave to summon a policeman to oust the intruder, Currie said “Now I’ll kill you.”

But Evans was faster than Currie, recounted Howe, and his bullet stopped the would-be murderer.   When Evans realized that the new janitor was shot, he fled because he did not have enough money to hire an attorney to defend him.

Two days later a verdict was reached.   Evans was guilty of manslaughter in the first degree, punishable by 15 years in prison.  “He took the verdict of the jury and his sentence coolly,” said The Times, “and without evident emotion, nor did he break down or show either the quivering of the lip or the moistening of an eyelid when his father, mother, and grandmother gave vent to their feelings in great sobs of grief.”

Evans’s attorney had more tricks up his sleeve, however.

When Thomas Currie had identified Evans as the shooter, detectives were required to ask the question “Have you any hope or recovering from the effects of the injury you have received?”  The question was necessary to establish an “ante-mortem statement;” one which was made by a person believing he was about to die. 

Currie replied “It is hard for me to say.”

William F. Howe appealed to the Supreme Court.  If Currie was not certain that he was going to die, his statement could not be “ante-mortem.”  Evans was granted a new trial.

In a plot twist that is inconceivable today, the General Term of the Supreme Court set aside the verdict on June 1, 1886 on the grounds that the dying man’s statement was not “a legal ante-mortem statement.”    There was no retrial because, as reported in The New York Times, “the only evidence against him beyond the excluded statement of Currie is circumstantial and not strong.”

George Evans, the cruel and malicious physical abuser of his young wife and the cold-blooded murder of Thomas Currie was a free man.


The Collegian Flats never again was the subject of such dark publicity.   Reputable tenants continued to live here like Susanne Pallet who was here in 1911.  A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she was descended from John Hart who served under Captain John Prout Sloan on the Marine sloop Enterprise in 1775.

There was, however, a bit of embarrassment when truck driver William P. Jones was arrested for his involvement in a band of pier thieves.  John Quinn was employed as a checker by the Lehigh Valley Railroad at Pier 30.  Quinn would steal valuable freight, like silverware, that was transported by Jones to others who would sell the goods.

But for the most part, the lives of residents at No. 345 West 21st Street like Lt. Francis E. Liszanckie of Fire Engine Company 8 who lived here in 1951, was quiet and unexceptional.

In 1974 the building was converted from two to four apartments per floor.  Otherwise, the prim and attractive Victorian apartment building is unchanged.   Its Chelsea residents come and go unaware that its basement was the scene of one of the most publicized murders in New York in the 1880s.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Dignified Survivor at No. 638 West End Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
In the last quarter of the 19th century the Upper West Side exploded with development as paved streets and public transportation made the neighborhoods west of the newly-created Central Park attractive to middle and upper class families.  While the New York’s aristocratic old guard remained on the east side of the park, those who had made their fortunes in fields like entertainment, for instance, mainly settled on the west.

Such was the case with Charles L. Lawrence.  Born in Scarborough, Scotland, he made his name in the theatrical and musical circles.  For years he was treasurer of the Academy of Music—the forerunner of the Metropolitan Opera House where owning a box was a reflection one’s social status.  Lawrence was also instrumental in organizing several theatrical companies.

Lawrence’s home at No. 638 West End Avenue stood apart from many of the mansions that rose along the avenue.  In a stark contrast to the gargoyles and towers of the eccentric West End architecture embraced by many of the builders, Lawrence’s mansion was prim and distinguished.  Smacking of London’s Georgian Mayfair District, it sat on a white stone base behind a proper cast iron fence.  The Ionic portico at street level supported a stone balcony.  Ruddy-colored brick contrasted with the white stone window frames and trim.  At the fourth floor, bands of stone alternated with brick to create a variegated striped effect.  Above, dormers with a broken, scrolled pediments crowned the roofline.

Only two bays wide on West End Avenue, the house stretched far back along West 91st Street.  Here a wide balcony with an elegant stone balustrade served as the focal point.  Far from the corner was the servants’ entrance.
photo by Alice Lum
Perhaps the most illustrious time in Lawrence’s career (and most profitable) was his management of the first two American tours of Adelaide Ristori .   The Italian tragedienne was a European sensation and, like Jenny Lind upon her first arrival in the U.S., she attracted huge crowds to her performances. 

The Italian actress Adelaide Ristori during her first New York appearance (the photographer artificially inserted the mirror "reflection") -- photo NYPL Collection

The New York Times would later report that “During [her first tour] she gave 349 performances, earning a fortune both for herself and her manager.”

On July 16, 1890, Lawrence died in the house at 57 years of age.

Lawrence’s widow sold the house to Lyman Horace Weeks, a prolific author of books of a wide-range of topics.  He penned travel books such as his “Along the Azores,” genealogical  works and books on social and economic topics like “The Other Side—A Brief Account of the Development of Industrial Organizations in the U.S.”  Later, as the motor car became increasingly popular, he turned his focus to writing about automobiles, including “The Origin and Development of the Automobile.”

Following Weeks, the former Civil War officer Louis E. Granger lived at No. 638.  Granger had started his military career as a second lieutenant in the 13th Massachusetts Infantry.   As the war progressed, he was made a captain in the 18th U.S. Colored Infantry.

Louis E. Granger -- photo courtesy of Ron Coddingham http://www.flickr.com/photos/8026096@N04/3400801809/
In 1897 he wrote a letter from his desk in the house on West End Avenue in memory of the recently deceased General Henry G. Thomas.  In it he reflected on his time under the general and the extra danger that commanding African American soldiers presented.

“It was my pleasure to serve with the General when it took moral as well as physical courage to command colored troops.  The Confederacy had issued orders not to treat officers of colored troops as prisoners of war if captured, but to shoot them down.”

In May 1903 attorney Orison B. Smith purchased the house.  The wealthy Smith was Vice President and General Counsel of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company; and a partner in J. Lee Smith & Co., importers and manufacturers of paint.  Although the Smiths could easily afford to maintain the mansion as a single-family home (both Orison and his wife, Jennie, were club members and Orison dabbled in real estate); he took in at least one boarder.


Living in the Smith home was prominent attorney William Sherman Jenney and his wife, Nina. Jenney served under Orison Smith as general attorney for the railroad which, no doubt, was no small factor in his living here.

The college-educated Jennie H. Smith was not one to stay at home.   She had accepted the position as a School Inspectress in 1894 (the second female in New York City to hold the position).  She was also an officer of the International Sunshine Society.

The goal of the International Sunshine Society, which had been formed half a century earlier, was “to incite its members to a performance of kind and helpful deeds and thus to bring the sunshine of happiness into the greatest possible number of hearts and homes.”   While it seemed frivolous on the surface, the Society established day nurseries, fresh air homes, lunch rooms and free libraries.

As for dues, the women members were required to donate “sunshine suggestions, kind deeds and good cheer.” 

As the United States entered World War I the Smith household included their two daughters and a son.  Margaret Foster Smith fell in love with the dashing Edwin Norton Moore and there were no doubt many tears from the young girl when he left town for training in 1918 with the artillery at Camp Upton, Long Island.  He then was deployed to France with the 305th Field Artillery.

But happier times were to come when the soldier returned the following year and on May 28, 1919 they were married in St. Andrew’s Church on Fifth Avenue at 127th Street.

Brothers Frank and Edwin Zittel purchased the house the next year, converting it to spacious, high-end apartments.  William F. Heide was a candy manufacturer who lived here at the time; his apartment consisted of ten rooms.
photo by Alice Lum
Throughout the rest of the 20th century the house would see numerous owners or leasers.  In April 1937 Max Berkowitz leased the building; in 1941 the lease and furnishings were sold by John Yezdimer to Louise Schwartz; and four years later the house was purchased by Elizabeth Wolfson.

In 1958 Ms. Wolfson sold the house to F. Morse Brown who converted it to one apartment on the first and second stories; three each on the third and fourth floor, and two apartments on the fifth floor.

The distinguished home at the corner of West End Avenue and West 91st Street is remarkably unchanged today—a dignified reminder of a time on the Upper West Side when capacious mansions sheltered wealthy urban pioneers.

Many thanks to reader Ashman for requesting this post.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Lost 1824 Henry Eckford Estate in Chelsea

Eckford's pastoral grounds would not last long; replaced by the bustling Chelsea neighborhood.--print NYPL Collection from D. T. Valentine's Manual of 1860

At only 16 years of age, Scottish-born Henry Eckford was placed with a naval ship builder in Quebec where he learned the craft.  By the time he came to the United States, ten years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he was 21 years old and was aware of highly-important improvements in ship design and construction.  Almost immediately he took the lead in the New York ship-building industry as his vessels were stronger and speedier than those of his competitors.

During the War of 1812 he rose to national prominence through his contracts for building U.S. Naval vessels for the Great Lakes.  Afterward, in 1822, he built the steamer Robert Fulton—the first steam vessel to make the voyage from New York to New Orleans and Havanna.

Eckford’s fortune grew and he lived in a fine Federal-style home on Water Street, near the homestead of Henry Bergh, another ship builder.   Not far away were the shipyards on the East River, extending as far as 13th Street.  Valentine’s Manual of Old New York in 1916 would recall that “At the immense fire place (it was so large that a man could easily sit in the chimney) in the Bergh house Henry Eckford was a frequent visitor.  Indeed, Bergh’s principal amusement was in going to see Eckford, and Eckford’s principal amusement in going to see Bergh.”

In 1820 Eckford was appointed naval constructor.  Working at the Brooklyn Naval Yards, he designed warships which were considered, according to “Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography,” “the finest in the world.”

Henry Eckford in a painting reproduced years later by Harper's New Monthly Magazine
A falling-out with the naval commissioners led to Eckford’s resignation and his designing of military vessels for European and South American countries, including Brazil and Venezuela.

Wealthy New Yorkers in the first decades of the 19th century still maintained sprawling country estates north of the city.  Continuing the tradition and asserting his position in society, Henry Eckford purchased 22.6 acres from Clement C. Moore in November 1824.  Eckford paid the astounding sum of $22,000 for the portion of Moore’s ancestral estate of Chelsea,  The property stretched from what now is 7th Avenue to 8th Avenue, from about 21st to 26th Streets. 

Friends of the ship architect were somewhat surprised at the purchase.  The area was low-lying and retained water, “so much so that the location as a residence was unhealthy,” said historian Charles Haynes Haswell in 1896.  His friends teased him about his “cow pasture” and asked if he intended to raise frogs there.

Despite the banter, Eckford built a large home on a raised plot of ground, surrounded by breeze-catching porches.  American Architect and Architecture would later remember that “One reached this ample villa, a building like the old plantation houses down South, by Love Lane, a road that turned toward the Hudson from Broadway.”  The house was never named, but was generally called The Love Lane House.

The residence was entered through a central doorway above a broad flight of steps from the lawn.  The two identical wings on either side of the central portion with their peaked roofs made the house look, from the road, like two identical homes.

Eminent thinkers of the day were guests here, such as inventor Robert Fulton.  But writers and poets, whom Eckford found most interesting, were most often found in the parlor and dining room.  The New York Times said, on November 14, 1920, “During Mr. Eckford’s occupancy of the home it was frequented by some of the best-known literary lights in the city, including the poet, Fitz-Greene Halleck, James Rodman Drake…Charles P. Clinch, the author and early in life private secretary of Mr. Eckford and Dr. James E. DeKay, the eminent Naturalist.”

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine agreed, saying that “Many jovial evenings were spent by these young gentlemen under the roof of the rich Scotch ship-builder, and two of the number became his sons-in-law.”


Inventor Robert Fulton painted a portrait of Henry Eckford--NYPL Collection

Indeed, James Rodman Drake married Eckford’s daughter, Sarah, making the summer house even more of a magnet for the literati of the day.   Dr. DeKay would marry the other daughter, Janet.

Despite the “jovial evenings,” the house on Love Lane would also be a place of tragedy and sorrow.

Joseph Rodman Drake  died of consumption at the age of 25, leaving Sarah a young widow.  One evening while suffering from a fever, she rested before a fireplace at the Love Lane home.  Sleeping in another room was her brother, John, who had just returned from abroad.

A spark from a crackling log erupted from the fireplace.  Sarah awoke to find her clothing in flames.  Panicked, she rushed into her brother’s bedroom.  John agitatedly tried to extinguish the fire with his bare hands, but it was too late.

Sarah died and John’s extensive burns led to serious infections that eventually killed him.

Henry Eckford busied himself with the reorganization of the United States Navy for President Andrew Jackson; then prepared a publication on Naval Architecture.    Around the same time he donated $20,000 to establish a professorship of Naval Architecture at Columbia College.

In 1831 his talents were brought to the attention of Sultan Mahmoud of the Ottoman Empire, who commissioned Eckford to build a sloop-of-war.  Afterwards, he was given the office of Chief Naval Constructor for the Empire.   A year later he traveled to Turkey where he established a navy yard, but then suddenly on November 12 at the age of 57--just as he was about to be made a Bey of the Empire-- he died.

The house on Love Lane became the object of long legal battles.  Eckford’s detailed will had not been updated to remove the several members of his family who had died since it was written.  Finally, on May 30, 1839 an auction was held of the estate—what was now 161 city lots.  Charles Haynes Haswell noted in his diary that day “This sale gave an average of a little in excess of fifty dollars per city lot.” 

A "Mr. Hone" disagreed with the accounting, saying that the lots “brought very big prices, a total of $224,045, averaging over $1,500 a lot.”

The country mansion held the least interest to the property buyers.  Streets and avenues were advancing northward and the potential land values for development were now more important than rural estates.   Before long Love Lane would be straightened and renamed 21st Street.

When 25th Street was laid out, it cut off the southern portion of the house.  And before long the rest was gone as well.   The attractive house with the wide verandas lasted less than three decades.   Its jovial evenings and tragic events came and went without a trace.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The 1843 Empire Hose Company No. 40 -- No. 70 Barrow Street

Before the end of the Civil War, New York City’s fire fighting relied on a relatively disorganized assortment of volunteer companies.   Young men, most of whom had other, paying, occupations, joined their neighborhood fire companies, becoming “laddies.”  When a fire broke out, the alarm sent the men scrambling to the fire houses and companies would vie with one another to arrive at the blaze first, or become the most skilled at putting fires out.

The fire houses doubled as social clubs for the men who were often boisterous and rowdy.  But the services of the companies were invaluable to the merchants and residents of the neighborhood.

By the 1840s Greenwich Village had burgeoned from a sleepy hamlet north of the city to a thriving community.  Rowhouses in the Federal style of a generation earlier were being upstaged by wide Greek Revival or Anglo-Italianate homes.    The need for a fire house was clear.

At the gentle curve of Barrow Street just west of Bedford Street a new building was constructed around 1843 for Empire Hose Company No. 40.   While many of the fire houses of this period were vernacular, no-nonsense brick structures, this one went a step further.   The red brick building with brownstone trim smacked of the newly-popular Anglo-Italianate style.  The centered, arched carriage entrance beneath a stone cornice was framed in brownstone.  The carved, faceted keystones at street level and at the third floor were an added touch of sophistication to the handsome four-story structure.  Unusually tall windows, deft brickwork and a deeply-overhanging cornice set the fire house apart from the norm.

The brownstone of the cornice and other trim gently contrasted with the red brick structure.
Two of the fire fighters lived full-time in the station.  In 1857 they were John H. Read, a gasfitter by profession, and Alexander Kimburgh, a “cartman” or deliveryman.    The Company had an enviable fire “carriage” built just two years earlier by the respected carriage and fire equipment makers, Pine & Hartshorn.

At the time there were 30 members of Empire Hose Company No. 40.  But an inspection that year by the Board of Aldermen called the house “in bad condition and too small.”  The inspector did note, however, that the company had 1000 feet of hose, “all of which is good.”

Year after year the city sent inspectors and despite the attractive architecture of the fire station, the evaluation was always the same.  In 1862 the inspector wrote down again “House in bad order.”  The fire fighters maintained their fire truck well, however; for just as the station was always found lacking, the carriage was always listed “in good condition.”  Nevertheless that year the company acquired a new carriage “built by Charles E. Hartshorn," according to the inspection papers.

Blind recesses in the brickwork create spandrels and visual interest--an extra touch by the architect.
In 1865 the two volunteers who lived upstairs were T. F. West, a painter, and J. Dealy, another cartman.   The Company was down to 23 men and, happily for them, the inspector rated the house as “in good condition.”  Not that it would long matter.

That year reformers pressed the State Assembly to organize a professional, unified fire department.  A highly-publicized fire destroyed Barnum’s Museum later that year added to the pressure and the Act of 1865 was enacted.  It established the “Metropolitan District” fire department—a paid force that merged Brooklyn’s and New York’s firefighting efforts and eliminated the scattered volunteer groups.


The second half of the 19th century saw a distinct change in Greenwich Village.   Several sections were now lined with squalid tenements filled with desperately impoverished immigrants.   While most streets remained respectable and safe, some harbored “vile dens” where crime and degraded women could be found.

Religious reformers attacked sin with gusto and the fire house at No. 70 Barrow became the Gospel Mission.  It was here on September 29, 1878 that the energetic Dr. D. J. Lyster preached on the subject of “The Angelic Study of the Gospel.”

The building was purchased by brothers Adolph and Aaron Weiss in 1926 and for half a century it would be home to various small manufacturers and businesses.  Then in 1971 it was converted to residential apartments.

The large double carriage doors are long gone and the carriage entrance has been bricked half-way up to create a window; but overall the handsome brick building that was home to fire laddies and missionaries survives handsomely intact.

photographs taken by the author