Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Stubborn Survivor at No. 890 Park Avenue


The somewhat battered house stands knee-high to the soaring apartment buildings around it -- photo by Alice Lum
Despite the soot-belching locomotives that ran down its center on their way to Grand Central Depot, Park Avenue saw the construction of relatively fashionable homes on the still only marginally fashionable thoroughfare in the 1880s.  A mish-mash of small stores and houses crammed some blocks while others were developed as harmonious strings of rowhouses.

In 1884 construction began on Nos. 882 to 890 between 78th and 79th Streets, five quaint Queen Anne style residences designed by James E. Ware.   The picturesque houses would be among Ware’s first forays into the newly-popular style that he would come to embrace.    The architect turned away from the expected brownstone, using that material only as a contrasting trim to the red brick he selected for the façade.
photo by Alice Lum
The trendy homes were completed in 1886—a refreshing and architecturally entertaining pageant of peaks and gables, angles and arches, and tall paneled chimneys and quirky dormers.  

Stock broker Harry A. Groesbeck moved his family into No. 890, just south of 79th Street.   Groesbeck suffered public embarrassment in 1891 when he was found guilty of “conduct prejudicial to the welfare of the Exchange.”   Groesbeck had sold 200 share of Chicago, Rock Island and pacific stock to another broker, then slyly sent a boy to trail the broker’s messenger to discover where the delivery was made.

Although he was found guilty, The New York Times reported that “as there was no other case of the kind on record, no penalty on this one was imposed.”

In February 1910, The Times reported that “Frederick Keppel of Keppel & Co., engineers, is the purchaser of the dwelling, 890 Park Avenue.”  Indeed, F. K. Keppel & Co. was a building firm and the year previously had exhibited in the Cleveland Architectural Club; however Frederick Keppel was much more widely known for his Frederick Keppel & Co., a fine arts shop at No. 4 East 39th Street.

By now the trains to and from Grand Central were traveling below ground and the boulevard that had previously been train tracks was now landscaped.   The wide sun-drenched Park Avenue was luring Manhattan’s millionaires.   It was slightly too late for No. 890 Park Avenue, which had already been semi-altered for commercial purposes.   Mrs. Groesbeck’s parlor floor was now an office, with a expansive windows across the front, and a commercial space took over the basement level below the stoop.  Above were two apartments.
A wall of side-by-side windows provided sunlight to the new office space on the parlor floor -- photo by Alice Lum
Keppel, who would die two years later, retained his 39th Street address for his own store and leased out the lower level of the Park Avenue house.  He commissioned architects Hewitt & Bottomley to update and reconvert the upper floors to a single-family house.  Keppel’s brother, David, moved in and would remain here into the 1920s.

 


Hewitt & Bottomley converted the upper floors to a still-commodious residence -- photo by Alice Lum

When socially-prominent Rosina Hoyt bought the house in 1923 she hired Henry C. Pelton to do yet another make-over.  As with the previous renovation, the architect focused on the interiors and left Ware’s façade essentially intact.  

The house was leased to the family of Waldron Kintzing Post.  It quickly was the scene of a social event when the reception of the wedding of daughter Elizabeth to Kiliaen M. van Rensselaer was held here on April 14, 1923.

The Post family had impressive New York social roots as well as European noble connections.   Waldron Kintzing Post’s grandfather was General Count Philippe Regis de Trobriand and his grandmother was Mary Mason Jones.  Post’s brother, Regis Henri Post, was Governor of Puerto Rico; and his daughter Mary Lawrence Post had become the Vicountess Lymington of London in 1920.

The Posts used the Park Avenue residence as their Manhattan base, entertaining most often from their Bayport, Long Island estate, Strandhome.
On December 22, 1925 The New York Times reported on the impending demolition of most of the row of Victorian houses for a 14-story apartment building.  “The plot has been assembled from various owners,” said the newspaper, “and includes 878, 880, 884, and 886 Park Avenue and 63, 65, 67 and 69 East Seventy-eighth Street.”

The developers bought No. 890 and 888 as well.  “The buyers have also purchased the private home of Mrs. G. Beekman Hoppin [the middle aged Rosina Hoyt had married the equally-middle aged G. Beekman Hoppin in 1924] at 890 Park Avenue, and have resold it to Charles E. Curtis, cashier of the Bank of Manhattan,” The Times said.  The article added that the move would “assure permanent north light for a distance of 44 feet on Park Avenue.” 

The new owner apparently lived in the house for a few years; but before long rented the house to high-end tenants, as Rosina Hoyt Hoppin had done.  On October 27, 1928 The Times noted that “Mr. and Mrs. Hendrick Suydam have come in from Highwood House, their country place in Mount Kisco, to the Charles E. Curtis house, at 890 Park Avenue, which they have taken for the Winter.”

About the time that the Suydams left, Curtis was required to remove the stoop as Park Avenue was widened in 1929.   The entrance dropped slightly below sidewalk level and the parlor floor entrance, now hovering uncomfortably above, became a window of sorts.

Little, if anything, was done to disguise the fact that the new "window" was actually a former doorway -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1930 the banker leased the house furnished to Emil Alexander Carl Keppler, the senior member of Keppler Co. of the New York Stock Exchange.  Two years later, in June, Mrs. L. J. Hightman signed a one-year lease.  She would stay in the furnished home which The Times noted was “27 feet wide and contains an elevator” for several years.

Also in the house was Jeane R. Hightman whose parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Clay Hightman lived in Washington.   Jeane was courted by shipping executive Arthur M. Maris who lived at the enviable address of No. 2 East 74th Street.  Maris proposed marriage to the young woman several times starting in February 1934, until finally in April she accepted.

But once they were engaged he found reasons to postpone the marriage and on May 25 flatly refused to marry her.  Jeane discovered why her betrothed had had a change of heart when he married Frances Johnson.

Jeane Hightman’s vengeance was swift.   A month later, in June 1934, she sued Maris for $100,000 for breach of promise.

No. 890 Park Avenue nestles among swanky apartment buildings in 1930 -- photo NYPL Collection

In the meantime the Great Depression had taken its toll on Charles Curtis and he lost the Park Avenue house in foreclosure in 1933.  Taken over by the Greenwich Savings Bank, the it was renovated in 1940 by architects Cross & Cross into apartments.   On September 29 that year the bank sold off all the remaining furnishings at auction.

In 1945 the house was renovated yet again with the basement and former parlor level each getting a doctor’s office and the upper floors converted to two apartments each.    The Park Avenue neighborhood was, by now, lined with soaring apartment houses catering to Manhattan’s wealthy, interrupted by the sole Victorian holdout.
photo by Alice Lum

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s the Academy of American Poets found its home here.   Established by Marie Bullock, its mission was to “support American poets at all stages of their careers” and to “foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry.”

Among the tenants to occupy the unlikely 8-unit apartment house above was Elliot Spencer Turgen who took apartment 4R in 1967.  He signed the lease for $121 a month.  Turgen would later remark that the tenants were like family in those early years.  But a series of owners changed life in No. 890 Park Avenue.

Eventually as tenants left, the apartments were purposely left vacant.  In 1993, when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development found itself the unenthusiastic owner of the house, Turgen was nearly alone in the building. 

Around 1997 Walter Schick purchased the house with his single tenant hanging on.    Fifteen years later in 2012 Schick was still waiting for Turgen to leave—one way or the other.  But his 84-year old sole tenant had no intentions of doing so.

Despite its somewhat careworn appearance, the fantastic Victorian holdout among Park Avenue’s swanky apartment buildings is a refreshing surprise.
 


photo by Alice Lum

2 comments:

  1. I noticed this beautiful and mysterious building on a recent trip to New York. I’m glad I’m not the only one. Thank you for doing the work of tracing its history.

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  2. Me too. It appears as if no one is living here, at least when I walked by today.

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