Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Scene of the Perfect Crime -- No. 235 E. 22nd St.



Extraordinary Art Deco designs ornament the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
As the Great Depression darkened the country, American movie-goers escaped into the glamorous Manhattan penthouses and Park Avenue apartments via the silver screen.   As Ginger Rogers and Ruby Keeler, in clinging satin evening dresses, entered sunken living rooms with sleek Art Deco furnishings the worries of rent payments and bread lines in the reality outside were briefly forgotten.

Just months after the Stock Market crash architect brothers Edward and George Blum started work on a massive Art Deco apartment building at the northwest corner of 22nd Street and Second Avenue.  Completed in 1931 it may not have sat on Park Avenue, but it was definitely Fred Astaire-ready.

The building was marketed to the financially-comfortable, and potential residents were shown apartments surrounding an interior garden courtyard, hand-painted bathroom tiles, parquet floors and stylish tray ceilings. 

As the 16-story building was nearing completion on February 1, 1931, The New York Times commented on its features.  “The fa├žade of the new house will be of polychrome terra cotta and marble and brown brick.  Apartments will range from one to four rooms and many will have terraces.  There will also be five and seven room penthouse suites.  Special features include wood-burning fireplaces, tile showers, dressing rooms, incinerators and mail chute.”

The Blums tossed aside the gloom and doom of the Depression and wrapped the new building with a colorful band of terra cotta.  Here pointy zig-zags like mountain ranges sat above a gentle wave pattern like a river.  The southwestern color scheme—turquoise, green, ochre and navy—prompted one architectural historian to call it “Pueblo Deco.”  The Art Deco design culminated in the two-story entrance and its three stylized terra cotta waterfalls.

photo by Alice Lum

Depression or not, the building filled with tenants.  Robert E. Hill took one of the terraced suites immediately upon the building’s opening.  Agnes C. Tufverson, a  professional woman whom The New York Times called “a brilliant corporation lawyer,” moved in.  The unmarried attorney’s maid did not live in the building, but arrived in the mornings.

Ludwig Schopp moved in on September 1, 1933.  He hung paintings and etchings on the walls valued at $10,000.  Although the 38-year old held a PhD from the University of Bonn; the economy, perhaps, forced him to earn a living as an insurance salesman.

The economy also forced Schopp to skim money from his premium collections—a lot of money.  To make up the shortage, he devised a plan to collect the insurance on his art collection:  He would set his apartment on fire.

Schopp promised Dorothy L. Tipping that he would pay her $1,000 of the insurance if she would set the fire.  On Monday night, November 29 he made himself conspicuously not at home.  In the meantime, Dorothy Tipping entered the apartment, piled the etchings and paintings in the middle of the living room floor, and then set fire to the couch and the bed.

Fire investigators, understandably, found the fire to be suspicious.  The investigation of Assistant Fire Marshal Isidore Srebnick quickly tracked down Schopp who was hiding out in the apartment of Otto Stemman at No. 37-549 81st Street in Jackson Heights, Queens.  When the marshal arrived at the apartment with a team of detectives, “Schopp ran into another room.  As the detectives followed Schopp pushed himself through a window and was captured as he attempted to jump to the street nearly forty feet below,” reported The Times.

Both Schopp and his female accomplice confessed.

Smart automobiles line East 22nd Street in front of the apartment building on December 1, 1939 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the meantime, Agnes Tulfverson was doing well for herself.  She was working in the law firm of Myron C. Herrick and was making an enviable income.   Two months before the soon-to-be arsonist Schopp moved into her building, the 43-year old Tulfverson was in Europe on vacation.   In July, on a “boat-train” between London and Southampton, a handsome Yugoslavian Army captain struck up a conversation.

The middle-aged spinster was soon hooked.  Ivan Poderjay was at least ten years younger than Agnes.  The New York Times said he was “handsome and described as ‘a very charming personality.’”  He told Agnes that he was on his way to the United States to sell a patent to an American company for a door lock that should reap him a million dollars.

What Agnes C. Tulfverson did not know was that just a month earlier, on May 12, 1933, the British magazine John Bull had published an article about the smooth-talker sitting next to her.  It told how he had conned two older women out of their life savings. 

As fate would have it, the pair traveled to New York on the same steamer from Southampton and Agnes was swept off her feet.  Before the ship docked they had decided to marry.  After Poderjay returned to England for a short visit, the couple was married in the Little Church Around the Corner—the wedding church—on December 4.

The newlyweds moved into Agnes’ apartment on East 22nd Street and booked passage on the S.S. Hamburg, leaving on December 20, for their extended European honeymoon.   Agnes went shopping with a friend and purchased over $1,000 worth of lingerie and gowns for her trousseau.  On the day of the voyage, Agnes’ maid, Eva, helped the couple pack.  Agnes made a telephone call to her sisters in Detroit, saying good-bye and telling them she would return by April.

While Eva and Agnes packed, Poderjay walked to a local pharmacy and purchased ten dollars worth of razor blades—enough at Depression Era prices to shave an entire Army base.  He also asked the elevator operator where he could purchase “a large trunk” in the neighborhood.

The couple took a cab to the pier at 46th Street and the Hudson River with their luggage; then returned without the trunks to the apartment between 10 and 11:00 pm.  Eva was still there cleaning up.  She later reported that Agnes was “agitated” and the Poderjay was surly.  He sent her home and told her not to return the following day, but to come as usual the day after.

The elevator operators never saw Agnes leave the building after that.  When Eva returned on December 22 she found Poderjay going through Agnes’ personal papers.  He told the maid “She found it necessary to go to Philadelphia;” but he told the building staff that she had gone on to Europe ahead of him.

Eva was told to burn all of Agnes’ personal papers and Poderjay left the apartment.  He set sail on the White Star steamer Olympic with four trunks—including the new, exceptionally large one he had purchased—and six smaller bags.  It was the last Eva or the staff at No. 235 East 22nd Street would see of Agnes Tufverson or Ivan Poderjay.

When Agnes’ sisters had not heard from her four months later, their concerns launched an investigation.  It was found that Agnes’ had withdrawn $17,000 in cash from several banks, that she had given her husband $5,000 in the form of a draft on London, and that all her stocks and securities were missing.  It was also discovered that the army captain was an imposter, in no way affiliated with the military.

Also missing was the extra-large trunk that Poderjay had taken aboard the Olympic.   He was tracked down in Vienna and questioned by Viennese police.  He told them he had no idea where his wife was and that “she is probably on a world tour.”   On June 29, 1934 The New York Times reported “While bewildered authorities here sought feverishly yesterday for some tangible clue to the whereabouts of Agnes C. Tufverson, dead or alive, chemists in Vienna tried to analyze reddish stains found on one of her wardrobe trunks in the apartment of Ivan Poderjay, her Yugoslav husband.”

In the days before advanced forensic techniques the stains, although reported by the Viennese newspaper The Telegraf to be bloodstains, were frustratingly vague.  “Preliminary microscopic examination failed to reveal the exact nature of the stains,” said The Times.

Further raising eyebrows of authorities was the discovery that Poderjay had married Marguerite Suzanne Ferrand in London on March 22, 1934; just four months after his marriage to Agnes.  When his newest bride was questioned, her attorney claimed she was “just another victim of another clever swindler.”  Authorities were concerned that in her possession were “certain garments that were at one time the property of Miss Tufverson.”

Assistant Chief Inspection John J. Sullivan of the New York Police Department told reporters that, according to Cunard stewards, Poderjay had spent most of the time on the voyage to Southampton in his stateroom.  “It was an outside stateroom,” Sullivan explained…It might even be possible that if he took the trunk with him that he might have disposed of it on his way across.”

Agnes’ sisters were alarmed by more evidence.   The Times said they were “discouraged by the news that among the articles found in Poderjay’s Vienna apartment was a brief case that Agnes Tufverson had prized as a good-luck symbol.  She had carried it with her everywhere and would not have yielded it to anyone if she were alive.”

In the meantime, Poderjay’s new wife told investigators that Agnes “often threatened suicide, but I am sure she is alive and will come forward to clear him.”

To the extreme frustration of Viennese and New York police, despite the highly-incriminating circumstantial evidence there was no body and not enough to charge Poderjay with murder.  He was extradited to New York in January 1935 on charges of bigamy and spent five years in Auburn Prison.

After his sentence (during which he lost an eye in a fight with another inmate) he was deported to Yugoslavia.  Authorities shook their heads, fully believing that the con man had dismembered his wife and dropped her body parts overboard during his voyage to Southampton.  He had committed the perfect crime.

The Blums laid bricks diagonally to create interesting,visually-tactile corners -- photo by the author
The Art Deco beauty on East 22nd Street attracted little more scandal or drama in the succeeding years.  As World War II erupted in Europe, esteemed artist Marjorie Schiele fled Europe and moved to New York.  On November 1, 1940 she leased “a furnished suite” here.  While living here she became friends with other expatriate artists in New York including Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Lyonel Feininger, Max Ernst and Fernand Leger.

The striking apartment building that shrugged off the gloom of the Depression remains nearly unchanged after more than 80 years.  The windows have been replaced as have the entrance doors; yet it is a striking example of Art Deco residential architecture in a somewhat surprising location.


photo by the author

1 comment:

  1. Such a sad story, and what a beautiful building. Another site just featured this building, 300 West 38th Street, do you now anything about it?

    ReplyDelete