Thursday, August 22, 2013

The 1902 W. C. Story Mansion -- No. 322 West 106th St




photo by Alice Lum
At the turn of the last century Riverside Drive tried hard to overtake Fifth Avenue as the thoroughfare  of mansions.  Lavish structures, many free-standing, went up in the space of only a few years.  In addition to those residences designed to the specifications of the owners, rows of speculative high-end dwellings were erected.  In 1900 developers Perez M. Stewart and H. Ives Smith hired respected architect Robert D. Kohn to design two harmonious, but individual, mansions at the corner of Riverside Drive and 106th Street.

Kohn met the challenge, producing two upscale residences that coexisted agreeably next door to one another; but each exuded its own character.  One was clad in buff-colored brick, the other in red.  Although the larger, corner mansion would steal the spotlight, the grand home at No. 322 West 106th Street held its own.

The two mansions complimented one another, yet retained their individual characters -- photo by Alice Lum

Construction on the mansions took two years to complete.  No. 322 was purchased by real estate operator Joseph Hamershlag whose office was far downtown at No. 35 Nassau Street.  On April 9, 1905 he sold it to Ward Brower, an attorney who was currently living nearby at Riverside Drive and 109th Street.  Brower’s purchase may have been prompted by his recent marriage to Gladys Bacon.

Although Brower was highly involved with the neighborhood—he was a member of the Riverside & Morningside Heights Association—he would stay at No. 322 only seven years.  In 1912 he sold the house to Charles B. Barkley “For investment.”

Before long the mansion was home to William Cumming Story.  It was Mrs. Story who would bring attention to the family.  Opinionated and involved, Mrs. William Cumming Story was the President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution, President of the Republican Women’s Club and President of the City Federation of Women’s Clubs.  And she was not one to keep her opinions to herself.

The New-York Tribune described her on August 22, 1915 as “A small, cameo sort of person, she is distinctly what we call a ‘gentlewoman,’ and even in her strong opinions she is gentle, never condemning the other person, but always upholding her own beliefs.”  And Mrs. Story was ready to give her opinion of the Women’s Peace Party which was lobbying against the increase of military defense.

“You now,” she told Sarah Addington of the New-York Tribune, “women have had this sentimentality about preparedness too long, I believe.  They have mistaken sentimentality, for sentimentality about guns and soldiers is not practical…Disarmament presupposes universal peace, and universal peace is so far off that we don’t need to consider it at all.” 

She deftly called her opponents unpatriotic without saying so directly.  “Also, it seems to me the loyal thing, the patriotic thing, to stand by our government in its effort toward preparedness.  We have too long tied their hands, after giving them power; we have to long allowed the public sentimentality to stand in their way.  To me it is almost a crime to oppose our officers of government in this.”

Mrs. William Cumming Story --photo Library of Congress
While Mrs. Story was opining on preparedness for war, Florence G. Finch was living at No. 36 Gramercy Park.   Pittsburgh’s The Gazette Times referred to the extremely wealthy young woman as “an orphan” who “holds the controlling interest in the Finch Iron Works in Scranton, Pa., which is an old concern…and which was first owned by Miss Finch’s grandfather, and handed down from her father to her.”

The unmarried Florence was also active in the Daughters of the American Revolution, holding the position of Corresponding Secretary of the Manhattan chapter in 1911.  It was no doubt this connection which resulted in her moving into the house at No. 322 West 106th Street with the Storys in 1916.  Financially, the 38-year old Florence Finch did not need to lease rooms in someone else’s home; but in the first years of the 20th century an unmarried woman’s reputation was more easily preserved in a house with other respectable people.

The swirling carved decorations hinted at the new Art Nouveau movement -- photo by Alice Lum

Mrs. Story was back in the newspapers on August 30, 1917.  With the United States now engaged in World War I, she was irritated by the large women’s pacifist movement spreading across the nation.  She told Marguerite Mooers Marshall of The Evening World “The pacifists of America are a terrible menance.  Whether she knows it or not, the woman who preaches pacifism while her country is at war is a coward and a traitor.  She is playing into the hands of our worst enemies.  Other women should be quick to repudiate and disown her.  She is lost to all decency.”

By now Mrs. Story was on the Executive Board of the National Committee of Patriotic and Defense Societies—its only female—and she personally operated a free club for soldiers and sailors at No. 248 East 34th Street on behalf of the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense. 

Calling the Women’s Peace Party propagandists, she said “How can these women walk about the streets and hold up their heads when all around them are our splendid boys pledged to go out and fight for justice, freedom and our safety?”  She turned her disdain to socialites, too, who supported the cause.  “It seems to me especially deplorable that women of wealth and culture, women who have all the advantages of environment and tradition, should lend their names and their pocketbooks to the pacifist movement, should finance ignorant hotheads without the restraint of inherited devotion and service to country.”

The reporter paused to describe Mrs. Story’s “charming reception room at No. 322 West One Hundred and Sixth Street.”  She said it “is itself like an early page of American history, with its inlaid Chippendale, Revolutionary portraits and Colonial china and fans.”

The Storys were followed in the house by Frank Hammond Hardin and his wife, the former Jessie Frances Mason.  The couple had been married on September 14, 1915.  Hardin had been with the New York Central Railroad since 1909 and was by now the Chief Engineer of Motive Power and Rolling Stock. 

Like Mrs. Story, Jessie Hardin was unafraid to express herself.  When The Evening World asked women readers to answer the question “Will New York women follow the French styles and wear dresses to the knees?” she was prompt to respond.  “Not until men wear blinders will New York women adopt the French short skirt styles,” she wrote.

A month after Mrs. Hardin’s opinion was printed, Agnes DeBelaine purchased the house on June 27, 1920.  She held it only a year, selling it on May 7, 1921 to William K. Tubman.    Tubman’s wife carried on the tradition of women in the mansion by supporting soldiers.  On February 1, 1940 The New York Times noted that “Yesterday members of America’s Good Will Union gathered in the home of Mrs. William K. Tubman and sewed chamois windbreaker shirts for Finnish soldiers and volunteers.”  The newspaper would later remind readers that “During World War II she made hundreds of chamois cloth coats for Army and Navy personnel serving in cold climates.”

The mansard and dormers were clad in copper. -- photo by Alice Lum

Like Mrs. Story and Florence Finch, Roberta Tubman was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  She was also a member of the United States Daughters of 1812, the Colonial Dames of the Seventeenth Century, and the National Society of Magna Charta Dames.

Following her husband’s death Roberta Keene Tubman married Reverend Edward Lawrence Hunt.   The Presbyterian minister had founded America’s Good Will Union in 1920 and was renowned for his stance against racism and for understanding among all people.  The Times would later say “He was a foe of bigotry and had denounced anti-Semitic excesses in Rumania in the Nineteen Twenties, and the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany.  He helped to organize the National Conference of Christians and Jews.”

The newlyweds stayed on in the 106th Street house.  On October 9, 1952 the 92-year old minister died following a three-week illness.  “Hattie” Roberta Keene Tubman Hunt, remained in the house for one more year, until her death on March 23, 1953.  She was 77 years old.

Roberta’s death signaled the end of the line for the mansion as a private home.  In 1955 it was converted to apartments, one spacious residence each on the first four floors, two on the fifth.  Like its contemporary next door, the mansion at No. 322 West 106th Street is little changed.  Inside its walls some of New York City’s strongest-minded women lived their lives and left their marks.

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