Friday, May 31, 2013

The 1912 Adlon Apartments -- No. 200 West 54th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Brothers George and Edward Blum were 9 and 12 years old, respectively, when they arrived in New York from France in 1888.  They would both return to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before opening the New York architectural firm, Blum & Blum in 1909.  It was a partnership that would change the face of speculative apartment buildings in New York.

Within the next two decades the Blum brothers would be responsible for at least 120 apartment houses.  Their grasp of French architectural trends that transcended their Beaux-Arts training—like Art Nouveau—would impact their designs in New York.  While other architects stuck to the mainstream to insure affordability and acceptance for the developers; the Blums used an unexpected variety of materials and ornamentation that made their buildings stand out.

Among these was the Adlon at 200 West 54th Street  at the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue.  In 1912 the neighborhood was experiencing rapid development as old ramshackle structures made way for office and apartment buildings.  The New York Times noted in October of that year “The immediate vicinity has been highly developed recently with fine apartment houses.”

The Adlon would be no exception.   Hired by the Adlon Construction Company, the Blums designed a 12-story structure with Italian Renaissance bones; but distinguished by colorful cast stone, inset tiles, and creative brickwork.  Inset Arts and Crafts-style tiles and plaques decorated the piers; the two-story pressed copper fluted pilasters of the 11th and 12th floors appear, at first glance from the street, to be ordinary Ionic designs—yet a closer inspection reveals exuberant Arts and Crafts designs in the capitals and in the spandrels above.

photo by Alice Lu
As the building neared completion, The Times reported on October 27, 1912 “It will be ready for occupancy about Dec. 1.  The house contains ninety-five suites of three, four, and five rooms.  One of the novel features is a sun parlor and reception room on the fourteenth floor, for the use of tenants and their friends.”  The newspaper then insulted Edward Blum by reporting his name as “Edwin.”

The new building borrowed its name from the fashionable Hotel Adlon that opened in Berlin five years earlier.  The World’s New York Apartment House Album deemed The Adlon “of the highest class,” and assured potential tenants that “Apartments contain every modern equipment for housekeeping.”  Among the up-to-date conveniences were a safe in every bedroom, telephones in “kitchen and also in apartment,” and “laundry and dryers in basement for every apartment.”

The Aljomor can be seen directly behind the Adlon in 1912 -- The World's New York Apartment House Album (copyright expired)
To cater to its anticipated high-end residents, the management hired 24-hour uniformed staff, offered valet service and additional servants’ rooms in the building.

Simultaneously the investors (Joseph Graf, Morris Goldstone, and Alexander Pincus), built an adjoining 13-story apartment, the Aljomor.  The exotic-sounding name was created by using the first letters of each man's first name.

Third floor windows were entirely framed in colorful cast stone -- photo by Alice Lum
The Adlon’s location drew theatrical types, including Zeigfeld Follies girl Vera Maxwell (and her mother), actor DeWolf Hopper, and sister actresses Jean and Helen Raymond.
But nearly from its opening The Adlon seemed destined for scandalous press.  Among the first tenants was Mrs. Jane Hathaway.  She became friendly with the Russian Prince Nicholas Vladaovich Engalitcheff whom The Evening Sun called “erstwhile pet of the Czar.”  According to Princess Evelyn Partridge Engalitcheff, however, the pair became too friendly.

By Christmas Eve 1915 everyone was in court and the newspapers reported the juicy scandal in detail.  The princess sued her husband for divorce, seeking custody of their 14-year old son, on the grounds that he was philandering with Mrs. Hathaway. The Times printed verbatim questions and answers between counsel and witnesses.

“Did Mrs. Harathaway ever kiss you,” the prince was asked.

“’That’s a vulgar lie,’” he replied with some emphasis, said The Times.

The Evening World reported the exchange more floridly.  “'Umph!' the Prince growled when he was asked if he had ever kissed the co-respondent, Mrs. Jane Hathaway of No. 200 West Fifty-fourth Street.  ‘Do you think WE of royal blood kiss in public?  Why, sir, I never do my kissing in public.  The idea!’”

Elizabeth Hammett, “a colored servant,” however, was less sure about that.  “She said that the Prince was in the habit of calling on Mrs. Hathaway in the afternoon,” newspapers reported.  “He never remained to dinner.

“He was a congenial gentleman, and would sit on the lounge with Mrs. Hathaway and make love to her,” she testified.

The prince apparently found the entire procedure beneath him and when his wife’s attorney, Almuth C. Vandivetr, asked his age “the Prince growled again and said: ‘Why, the idea!  I decline to answer that question, sir, and I defy you to force me to answer it.  It is insulting,” reported The Evening World.

While the Russian prince and Mrs. Hathaway were dallying away the afternoons in her apartment, wealthy broker Max Blumenthal was courting the actress Louise Meyers.  Ms. Meyers had most recently been seen on Broadway in the Follies of 1914.  If the age difference between the financier and the entertainer raised some eyebrows, they were further raised when the couple obtained their marriage license on June 25, 1915.

The New-York Tribune noted “He gave his age as forty-eight and his residence as 200 West Fifty-fourth Street.  She confessed to twenty-six.”

The ecstatic groom threw himself an $80 a plate bachelor dinner which the New-York Tribune said “recently caused considerable comment.”  Unaffected by wagging tongues and newspaper gossip, the newlyweds sailed off to honeymoon at the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

A less sensational marriage that year was that of tenant Dr. Henry S. Pascal to Irene C. Toumey.  Pascal was on the surgical staffs of the Harlem and St. Elizabeth hospitals.

Mrs. Estelle Allison lived in the building at the time.  As the country became embroiled in World War I, Mrs. Allison devised a clever fund-raising scheme for the benefit of the War Camp Community Service.  She sent little boys in Boy Scout uniforms onto the city buses and elevated train platforms to sell paper dolls dressed in Allied uniforms.  It was a commendable effort—or would have been if the Boy Scouts were really Boy Scouts and Estelle Allison was not pocketing the money.

The plan fell apart when one of the boys approached District Attorney Swann on a Fifth Avenue bus in the summer of 1918.  The prosecutor watched the boy work the crowd, selling the “Fannie Dolls” for 15 cents each.  Swann became suspicious and initiated an investigation that included at least two visits to Mrs. Allison’s apartment.

“I found that the boy on the bus, while he said he was a Boy Scout, is not a member of the organization,” he told reporters.  “I also found that..Mrs. Allison has not furnished a satisfactory statement of her activities.”

An indignant Mrs. Allison defended herself before the prosecutor.  “She thought, she said, that there was no way in which she could help make the world quite as safe for democracy as by boosting the ‘Fannie Doll’ market,” reported The Sun on August 2, 1918.

The war affected another tenant a few months later.  50-year old Josephine Phillips had moved into The Adlon in 1914.  The lonely, well-to-do widow had formed a close friendship with a young army officer.  When he was deployed to France in 1918, she described him to neighbors as her “last friend gone.”

On the morning of October 2 Adlon employees smelled gas in the hallway and summoned Patrolman Matthews of the West 47th Street Station.  Six of the lighting jets in her apartment were turned on and the despondent widow was found dead of asphyxiation.

At the same time actor Eugene Howard lived in the building.  He and brother, William, were playing at the Winter Garden that fall; a time when detectives were trying to clean up the Theater District of illegal race betting.  Inspector Dominic Henry told reporters on September 21, 1918 that he had “been receiving complaints recently concerning persons who congregate on Broadway corners in the theatrical district and who are said to be on the races in handbooks circulated among them.”

With unfortunate timing, the Howard brothers decided to try their luck just as undercover detectives “did a little mingling,” as reported in The Sun.  The men were both arrested and held “on a charge of disorderly conduct in obstructing traffic while placing bets on horse races,” the newspaper reported on September 22.

The following year was a good one for real estate investors and on July 6, 1919 The New York Times said “That the realty market is on the boom was shown conclusively by the volume and importance of last week’s transactions.”  Included in the sales were The Adlon and the Aljomor directly behind it, now joined to become what the newspaper called “The Adlons.”  Purchased from the Adlon Construction Company by developers Bing & Bing for $1.5 million, the combined buildings now contained ten retail stores and 142 apartments.

A year earlier William and Eva Sheer had been married and moved in.  Both quickly realized that the marriage was an unhappy one and Mrs. Sheer moved to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  But divorces in 1919 were not so easy to come by.  William and Eva schemed to produce evidence of infidelity.  Eva produced witnesses “to prove that her husband and another woman had at 11 o’clock one night last August engaged a room in a hotel on Columbus Circle,” reported The Sun on March 22, 1919.  The judge was not buying it.

The newspaper said “The possibility of collusion between Mrs. Sheer and her husband to concoct evidence justifying the decree was broadly hinted by the Justice.”  The court denied Eva’s decree of divorce.

Motion pictures provided a boost in actor Conway Tearle’s income.  The stage and film actor was living in The Adlon with his second wife when he signed a contract with Lewis J. Selznick for $1,750 a week “with an optional arrangement under which Mr. Selznick may retain the motion picture star next year at $2,000 a week,” reported the New-York Tribune on May 4, 1921.  The salary would translate to about $20,000 a week in today’s dollars.

Word of Tearle’s auspicious deal reached his first wife, Josephine Park Tearle, who was receiving $25 a week alimony.   She took the actor to court, demanding a raise in alimony to $65 a week.  Conway Tearle’s attorney complained to the judge that the actor’s former wife was trying to ruin him.

The Adlon’s proximity to the Theater District continued to attract entertainers.  Married stage actors Joseph Hart and Carrie De Mar lived here at the same time as Conway Tearle.  Hart had been a child actor, appearing in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ten Nights in a Barroom.  Now the middle-aged actor was best known on the vaudeville stage and as a producer.

On the morning of October 3, 1921 the 59-year old died “after a stroke of apoplexy,” according to the Tribune, in the Adlon apartment.  Carrie De Mar, his wife since 1905, was with him at his death.

On September 11, 1930 the buildings were sold to the United Cigar Stores Company.  The firm announced it would expend “about $100,000 remodeling and modernizing it,” according to The New York Times.  It was perhaps at this time that the lobbies were joined as one

Perhaps the Adlon’s most colorful tenant was Dr. Emerson Gilbert, a faith healer and spiritualist who lived here in the 1930s.  Gilbert promised quick healing after operations by summoning spirits which would lay hands on the patient.  When detectives got word of his actions, Policewoman Hannah Dolan sought his services for the after effects of a ficticious “appendicitis operation.”

On February 22, 1935 the doctor plunged the 10th floor apartment into darkness and summoned spirits to lay hands on Officer Dolan’s exposed back.  Detective Frank O’Neill waited silently in the hallway outside.

Into the darkened room a glowing spirit appeared.  It was, in fact, Dr. Gilbert naked underneath a phosphorus-impregnated cheesecloth shroud.  When Detective O’Neill burst into the apartment “he caught Dr. Gilbert climbing out of the shroud into an undershirt,” said The Times.

The Adlon was thrown into turmoil when a crowd of thirty reporters and photographers, police investigators, spiritualist debunkers and supporters, lawyers and Judge Jonah J. Goldstein tried to crush into the Gilbert apartment on March 3, 1935.  Gilbert was pressed to produce ghosts, supernatural voices, or any other evidence that he was not a quack.

The Times reported that “shortly after 6 o’clock last night the building was thrown into bedlam.”

The number of onlookers was quickly thinned by the Adlon’s management.  “The hall there was not wide enough to accommodate the crowd,” reported The Times.  “It was then that the antagonistic vibrations and upsetting comments of the skeptics must have influenced the spirits.  They angered the building agent, too.  He tried to eject the ghost-hunting expedition single-handed.”

The demonstration finally continued in the “dark-paneled séance room, where about twelve women members and a few male members of Dr. Gilbert’s cult were nervously aflutter.”  After twenty minutes, Dr. Gilbert emerged pleading “nervous nausea,” and blamed the newspaper men for the failure of the spirits to present themselves.

Dr. Gilbert was charged with practicing medicine without a license.

The Adlon would be in the embarrassing spotlight one more time in the first half of the century.  In 1936 36-year old John Cook and 33-year old Leon Furman transformed a four room apartment on the 12th Floor into a casino.  The living room was set up with a dice table and another room served players of roulette.  When plainclothes detectives raided the make-shift gaming hall on January 14, 1937, they found chips in denominations from $25 to $500, liquor and champagne, and three telephones with headsets for relaying horse race bets to New Jersey.

The Adlon settled into a more quiet existence afterward.  Entertainers continued to live here—actress Gigi Gilpin was here in the 1940s.  She appeared with Burgess Meredith and Ingrid Bergman in Molnar’s Liliom and composer Kurt Weill often stayed at her apartment when in New York.

Other notables living here at the time were Nannine Joseph, the literary agent who included among her clients Eleanor Roosevelt; Russian-born dancer and instructor Louis H. Chalif; and comedy writer Paula Smith. 

In the 1950s composer and voice teacher Renato Bellini lived here, as did actor Julian Noa and theatrical agent Jack Davies.

Around 1989 the combined Adlon and Aljomor were been converted to cooperative apartments.  The magnificent façade had been sorely abused by now.  Pieces of the copper and cast stone ornamentation were falling away, the street level was slathered in paint and the iron balconies were gone. 

photo by Alice Lum
In 1999 the owners recognized the importance of the fading façade and initiated a reclamation project.  Along with cleaning and repointing, the co-op repaired the cornice and replaced lost detailing, resulting in a resurrected gem of early 20th century apartment architecture.


  1. Thank you for this. Just found this blog. In 1999 I almost bought a 2 bedroom in this building. It was being offered by the sponsors at half the price of a comparable apartment uptown, and the fact that I didn't buy I can only attribute to stupidity. The apartment wasn't huge but it was a nice size with high ceilings and detailing.

  2. Don't feel too bad. There are so many New Yorkers who look back on opportunities they had to buy and passed up...only to kick themselves later! I'm one of them!

  3. Thank you for putting together such a history of our beloved building. The only inaccuracy being that there is no terracotta, and there never was on the building. Our colorful detail is actually cast stone. We meticulously copied what was there and replaced in in like material. We have bits of the original as a remembrance and a reference for color.

    1. Thank you very much for the clarification. There was apparently discussion of using terra cotta originally (since I didn't pull that out of the air!). That is intriguing and I will correct that immediately. Thanks again!

  4. Yes. You are right. We all though there was terra cotta on the building. Your article was excellent. The colorful exterior is a good match for all the colorful characters who have inhabited these walls. There is a real geek-like obsessive love for this building by all the people who live here.