Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Mansion House" -- No. 337 Riverside Drive


photo by Alice Lum
By the turn of the last century Riverside Drive was firmly established as the West Side’s counterpart to Fifth and Madison Avenues.  Lavish mansions and rowhouses rose along the thoroughfare, housing some of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.

While the Upper East Side tended to shun the newly rich who made their fortunes in the theater or in other socially unacceptable ventures; they found open arms on the West Side.

In 1900 developers Perez M. Stewart and H. Ives Smith commissioned esteemed architect Robert D. Kohn to design two harmonious mansions at the corner of Riverside Drive and 106th Street.   Kohn’s resulting houses would be similar but undeniable individual—one clad in buff colored brick, the other in deep red.

The two mansions were designed to compliment one another -- photo by Alice Lum
It was the red brick house on the corner that would steal the spotlight.  It stretched 100 feet along 106th Street—the width of four commodious lots.  Although the entrance was squarely on 106th Street, the mansion took the more impressive address of No. 337 Riverside Drive.

Completed two years later, in 1902, the mansion was stately in its bearing.  Kohn used deep red brick, laid in Flemish bond, with charred ends to provide contrast and an appearance of age.  Heavy limestone enframements and quoins rose two stories, engulfing second and third story openings and providing rich contrast to the brick as well as dimensional relief.

Intricately carved and banded limestone columns upheld the entrance portico at street level and a handsome cast iron fence ran around the property.

On September 16, 1903 The Sun reported that H. Ives Smith had sold the “new five-story American basement stone dwelling” at No. 337 Riverside Drive and three days later announced the name of the buyer: actress Julia Marlowe.

Julia Marlowe poses in a scene from The Cavalier -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The 38-year old Miss Marlowe had recently (in 1900) divorced her husband, actor Robert Taber.   Her tremendous success on the Broadway stage gave her the financial independence to purchase the $60,000 house—a price tag that would translate to about $1.2 million today.

While Julia Marlowe’s staff was moving her into the new mansion, she was appearing in Ingomar.  The New York Sun praised her performance saying “There is not a woman player in America or in England that is—attractively considered—fit to unlace her shoe.”

In 1904, a year after Julia Marlowe moved into No. 337 Riverside Drive, poster hangers are busy advertising her play -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Although the actress played a variety of roles—like the lead in Jeanne d’Arc and Salome in John the Baptist--she became best known for her interpretations of Shakespeare.   Adoring fans were concerned when, in May 1906, she was forced to leave Ottawa and come home to her Riverside Drive home due to illness.  The Sun, on May 16, assured readers that she “is now at her home, 337 Riverside Drive, under the care of her physician, Dr. J. E. Stillwell and will resume playing on Monday next at the Broadway Theatre, Brooklyn, where she and E. H. Sothern will open in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

In reporting on her illness, The Times mentioned that “Following the engagement in Brooklyn, Mr. Sothern and Miss Marlowe will begin a Shakespearean season at the Academy of Music…which will continue for four weeks.”

By the end of the 1909 season, Marlowe and Sothern were more than merely acting partners and in 1911 they would be married.  The actress was also gone from the house on Riverside Drive.

The house was now home to Lothar W. Faber and his family.  Faber was President of the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company and Director of the Barnston Tea Company.   He and his wife, the former Anna Prieth, had three children—Theodora, Margaret and Lothar.

photo by Alice Lum
The Fabers would stay in the house only about two years and in 1911 it became home to the John Wallace McKinnon family.   The Scottish-born investor was self-made.  Educated in public schools in Scotland and Boston he formed a Chicago partnership with Ira M. Cobe in 1891 to handle investments.   Only eight years later, with capitalization of $10 million, the partners organized Assets Realization Co. which specialized in reorganization and consolidation of corporations and their securities.

The year before buying No. 337 Riverside Drive, the firm opened a New York office and McKinnon moved his family to Manhattan.  By now he had amassed a personal fortune and along with his partnerships was President of the Hudson Navigation Co., the Wall Street Exchange Building Association, the Knickerbocker Ice Co., and director of the North America Safe Deposit Company.

McKinnon and his wife, Lillian, had four children—John Wallace, Jr., Lillian, Madeleine and Dorothy.  In 1914 the couple simultaneously announced the engagements of Lillian and Madeleine, whom the National Courier described as “charming”  girls.  Lillian Clare McKinnon was to marry Maltby Lockwood Jelliffe of Jersey City, New Jersey; while her sister found romance around the corner.  Madeline Agnes McKinnon’s finance was Kenneth Tackabury Marwin who lived nearby at No. 340 Riverside Drive.
The house was purchased that year by Charles B. Barkley, but quickly sold in August 1915 to Perry J. Warren.  Six years later an investment group, 337 Riverside Drive, Inc., was formed to purchased the house.  Although Department of Buildings records would not reflect a change in its private dwelling status; it is probable that the group operated the mansion as a high-end rooming house.

It was probably around 1921 when the corporation purchased the house that River Mansion was carved over the doorway -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1923 the newly-married Count Carl M. Armfelt and his bride arrived in New York on the Scandinavian-American liner the Frederick VIII.   Times were apparently hard in Scandanavia because The New York Times reported that “There were 200 Swedes and Danes on the liner on their way out to the Northwest to take up farming.”

Count Armfelt was not on his way to the farmlands; but he and his new wife “will make their home at 337 Riverside Drive,” said The Times.  Nevertheless, the Swedish royal was here to make a living.

“I have a family tree which I can trace back for 500 years,” he told a reporter, “but I want to work, and that is the reason I have come to America.”

By the mid 1930s the once grand mansion was described as in city documents as “furnished rooms.”  Dr. and Mrs. Julian Spring were living here when their daughter was born in 1934, as was the artist Michael de Santis.

The Italian-born artist had studied for seven years at the Naples Institute of Fine Arts.  He came to New York in 1906 and in the early 1920s worked in commercial design and coloring, “a trade which seemed profitable,” noted The Times.

In 1928 he painted a posthumous portrait of Dr. Thomas B. Freas of Columbia University.  The Times said “Opinion among members of the faculty…ran thus: ‘A remarkably successful job both artistically and as a record of personality.’”  It would be the first of ten portraits of past and then-present Columbia professors.

By 1936, however, De Santis experienced a change of fortune.  The 43-year old artist died "destitute" in May of that year at Bellevue Hospital.  In his obituary The New York Times mentioned that “Up to the time of his last illness De Santis lived with a friend in an old rooming house at 337 Riverside Drive.”

On May 16 a sale of his works—over 100 oil paintings, water colors and pastels—was held in order to pay for his funeral.  “Among them will be an allegorical canvas painted originally as a gift for President Roosevelt,” said The Times.

photo by Alice Lum
The former mansion continued life as a rooming house and in 1952 it was operated by Louise Dickmann.  The feisty landlady would not be taken advantage of by unscrupulous State Rent Board investigators who tried to shake her down.

That year three investigators, Alfred Caputo, John L. Wilson and Morris Larkin, appeared to audit the rental records of the 22 furnished rooms.   The men told Louise Dickmann that she had been overcharging and was liable to a $10,000 fine and triple damages.  The men then let her know that the violations “could be quashed for $800.”

Rather than pay the extortion Louise Dickmann filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s office, triggering an investigation.    On December 3, 1952 The Times reported that the men were indicted on charges of having extorted $9,100 from rooming house operators.

“The prosecutor paid special tribute to Mrs. Louise Dickmann,” said the newspaper, for having the daring to blow the whistle on the corrupt investigators.

In 1971 the house was reconverted to a private dwelling; then more recently into a two-family home.  It is a grand reminder of a time when Riverside Drive and the Upper West Side invited celebrated thespians--unwelcome in other parts of the city--to settle in.
photo by Alice Lum

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