Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Isaac Hicks House -- 126 East 36th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Even as the Civil War intensified around 1863, Murray Hill was developing as one of Manhattan’s most exclusive residential neighborhoods.  It was around that year that developers George J. Hamilton and Thomas Kilpatrick built three upscale row houses stretching from No. 124 to 128 East 36th Street.

For their project they chose the newly-popular French Second Empire style.    For almost a decade the style had taken over Paris in buildings like the Palais du Louvre, the Elysee Palace and the Hotel du Palais.  The three houses on East 36th Street would be among the first in New York City built in the fashionable, cutting-edge style.    Perhaps owing to the novelty of the style, the houses were not strictly Second Empire; the architect mixed elements of French-Renaissance and Italianate motifs into the blend.
The dramatic copper-clad bowed bay at the second story was added around 1896 -- photo by Alice Lum

Upon completion No. 126 was purchased by Isaac Hicks.   A railroad executive, Hicks was associated with the Royal Main Line Steamer Company and the Grand Trunk Railway.   The Hicks family lived in the house through the 1870s.  They retained ownership after moving out, leasing it to John H. Draper.

In 1862 Draper had married Victorine Wetmore in St. Bartholomew’s Church.  He had operated a highly successful tea business during the war, but after disagreements with a partner he “became embarrassed in business,” according to The New York Times.    He joined his brother-in-law’s auction business and was put in charge as auctioneer.   Later he was appointed auctioneer of the Custom House.

The socially-active Drapers had two daughters.  John was a prominent member of the American Jockey Club, the Union Club and the Metropolitan Club of Washington.    Although as The New York Times said of him “few men in the city had a wider acquintanceship or were more popular socially,” he had a problem.   Draper’s obesity affected his work.  The Times said his “adiposity…troubled him greatly in the discharge of his professional duties.”

The auctioneer determined to lose weight.  He began following the Schweninger System of weight control which stressed no fluids during meals, little bread and exercise.   The system required, for instance, an hour of moderate exercise before breakfast, a walk afterwards and a cold bath “with friction.”

Draper followed the method so dutifully that within a few months he had lost seventy pounds.  His friends were concerned that his severe dieting had weakened him; however he insisted he had never been healthier in his life.  The New York Times said, “Nevertheless, his face bore a haggard and jaded look, and the ruddy, jolly, rotund auctioneer was transformed into a slender and grave man.”

The rapid weight loss, indeed, may have weakened Draper.  On July 12, 1890 he caught cold while auctioning property at Far Rockaway, New York.  Within a few days he caught another severe chill and his condition worsened over the next few days.   By the time he finally sent for his doctor, he had contracted pleurisy and was in the beginning stages of pneumonia.  He died around 6:00 on the evening of August 2 at the age of 52.

Victorine and her still-unmarried daughter Edith remained in the house.    On April 12, 1893 Edith’s engagement to L. Vaughn Clark was announced.  It was a socially prominent match; Clark, who was the son of wealthy mine owner Charles Clark, lived at No. 264 Fifth Avenue and was a member of the Union, New York Yacht and the Racquet Club.   The New York Times remarked “Both Miss Draper and Mr. Clark are familiar figures in fashionable drawing rooms, although Miss Draper has not been active in society recently by reason of the death of her father, John H. Draper.”

The wedding took place in the chantry of Grace Church on October 25 of that year.   With only 100 guests, The Times called it “a small but fashionable wedding.”  Afterward the reception was held in the 36th Street house.

Society was unprepared for the next Draper wedding.

On October 31 The New York Times reported “The guests at the marriage of Miss Edith Draper to L. Vaughan Clark on Thursday had no idea that two days later the bride’s mother would herself be a bride.”  The newspaper said “The marriage of Mrs. Victorine N. Draper, widow of John H. Draper, to Billings P. Learned on Saturday, was a great surprise to society.”

No one, it seems, was aware that Victorine, whom the newspaper called “an exceedingly handsome lady,” was seeing the Wall Street broker.   The newlyweds “went at once to the home of Mrs. Draper, 126 East Thirty-sixth Street, where they will live,” said the newspaper.

Victorine and Billings Learned summered in the Learned cottage in Pequot, Connecticut.  They continued to lease the 36th Street house until 1896 when the Hicks family sold it to Ella Sophie Wilkins for $40,000 (about $950,000 today).  Ella hired architects Parish & Schroeder to design an imposing copper-clad oriel above the parlor level.   The addition gave the house an individuality and special character.

Before long Ella married banker William C. Bergh and the couple had three children, Alfred, Henry and Roland.   Bergh was the brother of Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.   The family eventually moved to No. 32 West 71st Street and leased the 36th Street house.

In 1908 Morris Newmark and his wife were living here.  Newmark’s father-in-law, Herman Vanderwall, was the barber and chiropodist at the Plaza hotel.  The two men got themselves in trouble in March that year after Vanderwall took the lease on an old resort hotel, the Del Monte, at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks.   The hotel stood just outside of the entrance of another, grander hotel, the Ampersand Park.

Whether the men acted to eliminate competition, or whether, as they confessed, they were paid for their actions is unclear.  Either way both Newmark and Vanderwall were arrested for arson when they burned the Ampersand Park Hotel to the ground.
An especially-generous window floors the parlor floor with light -- photo by Alice Lum
Following the Newmarks in the house was the family of Edward Coleman Delafield.  The Princeton graduate was married to Margaretta Stockton Beasley.  He had been connected with the New Jersey
Zinc Company, but resigned to become secretary and manager of the Delafield Estate.   An striking figure at six feet, three inches in height, he was a member of the most prestigious clubs, including the Society of Colonial Wars, the Society of the War of 1812, and the Sons of the Revolution.

In the meantime things were not going well for William and Ella Bergh.   Ella told the court that she was in fear for her life.  “Immediately after our marriage my husband began to treat me with great discourtesy.  He talked only in monosyllables.  For eight years he never addressed me by name and never used a term of endearment except on two occasions when in the presence of third persons, he called me ‘My dear.’”

In 1915, while the Delafields were still leasing the 36th Street house, Ella left her husband with her children and moved to No. 25 West 49th Street.   William sued her for desertion, and Ella in turn sued him for cruelty.  Not surprisingly, on October 6, 1915 The New York Times reported that Ella had sold the house at No. 126 East 36th Street.  A week later the newspaper reported that Mrs. Marion T. Lyman was the buyer.

Marion married newspaper reporter Seth H. Moseley and the couple apparently rented out at least one room in the house while they lived here.   One roomer was Frank J. Dorl, a German-born journalist and the editor of the Vital Issue.   He had been living in the United States for fifteen years in 1917 when the United States entered World War I.   His pro-Germany writings caught the attention of Federal officials.

On November 22 he was arrested on suspicion of “being disloyal to this country,” according to The Sun.  The newspaper said “Dorl said without hesitation that he never applied for citizenship for the reason that he preferred to remain loyal to the land of his birth.  He said he is a warm friend of Count von Bernstorff and did not deny that he had taken an active part in the plan to prevent the entrance of the United States into the war.  He made many speeches on this topic and wrote many editorials along the same line.”

Perhaps the Moseleys chose their roomers more carefully after that incident.  In 1920 their boarder was Captain Joseph Parsons Comegys of the United States Army Reserves.

On March 27, 1931 The Times noted that Marion Moseley had leased the house to Allan E. Aird, the manager of the Forbes Publishing Company.

By 1940 Marion Moseley had divided the house into what The New York Times called
“small apartments;” although the conversion was not documented by the Department of Buildings.    Thirty-nine year old William Gerald Bishop was living here that year.  He would succeed in bringing bad press coverage to the house again.

Bishop’s real name was William Arneck but he also went by the aliases William Bishopstone and William Brown.  Detective Thomas Define told reporters on January 16, 1940 that “Arneck is a Nazi propagandist who admits entering the country illegally…[he] is a member of the American National Socialist League and a Nazi lecturer.”

A month later Bishop was arrested as the ringleader of seventeen men charged with “conspiring to overthrow, put down and destroy by force the Government of the United States.  A second count alleged they conspired “to commit an offense against the United States by stealing munitions and other personal property belonging to the United States.”
Exquisite iron railings lead to the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1961, according to the Department of Buildings, the house was converted to two apartments—a three-story residence on the basement, first and second floors; and a duplex on the third and fourth floors.  Unlike the flanking homes built at the same time, No. 126 has only minor exterior alterations.  Ella Bergh’s distinctive copper oriel makes the house a stand-out, just as it did in 1896.

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