Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Roerich Museum House -- No. 319 W. 107th Street



photo by Alice Lum

Builder and developer Charles Buek was a busy man in the Upper West Side at the turn of the last century.  The principal of the Charles Buek Construction Company, The New York Times noted that he “has erected many fine residences and apartment houses in different parts of the city.”  But in 1900 he was focused on West 107th Street.

In 1901 he completed three homes at Nos. 312 through 316.  And just a year earlier he had advertised the newly-completed rowhouses directly across the street.  Construction of that group had begun in 1898 and Buek called each “A city house with country surroundings…Right in the best part of Manhattan.”  Indeed, the residences were steps away from elegant Riverside Drive and Riverside Park with its breathtaking views of the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades.

Buek’s advertisement marketed the setting as much as the homes themselves.  “Superb location; magnificent views; purest air; quietest and most genteel neighborhood; close to Broadway trolley and Rapid Transit.”  He called the four-story American basement houses “bright, new, clean, perfect.”

While similar, the houses claimed their own architectural identity.  No. 319 boasted side windows--a rare luxury.  photo by Alice Lum
The residences, like many of the speculatively developed rowhouses rising on the Upper West Side, were harmonious but individual.   And they were definitely upscale, dictated by their proximity to the mansion-lined Drive.   The western-most townhouse, No. 319, was the most desirable.  An easement between it and the vacant lot at the corner—where nine years later the magnificent Morris Schinasi mansion would rise—provided light to three sides.  It was a particularly rare and attractive feature.

Buek took full advantage of the exposed elevation by piercing it with a jumble of windows of different sizes and shapes.  Included were an eye-catching oriel at the third floor and a bowed, two-story bay near the rear; both clearly visible from the street.

photo by Alice Lum
The architect blended styles and materials to create the handsome dwelling.  A base of both rough cut and planar stone supported a two story, bowed bay of buff colored brick trimmed in limestone.  The bay provided a fourth story balcony protected by a carved stone balustrade. Above it all a bit of old Dutch was introduced with Flemish Revival stepped gables at the ends.  An elaborate three-bay dormer was capped by an ambitious curved, broken pediment and a carved shell.

Buek quickly sold No. 319 in 1900.  It would seem that the buyers, Edith L. Hoge “and others,” purchased the building as a rental investment.  But before long it was owned by Professor F. R. Hutton of Columbia University.  Hutton was dean of the faculty of applied sciences and professor of mechanical engineering.  He also served as Secretary of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Hutton sold the house in 1909.  The sometimes controversial engineer would raise eyebrows nationwide a few years later, in 1912.  Heated controversy about auto racing was fueled when, during the Vanderbilt Cup Race in Milwaukee, 73-year old race car driver Ralph De Palma crashed into a cornfield.  He was confined to a hospital bed for eleven days.  Just a few hours before the start of that race, David Bruce-Brown, a New York racer driver, and his mechanic were killed on a practice run.  The Michigan grand prix brought automobile racing squarely into the spotlight.

Rabbi Samuel Hirschberg called automobile racing “legalized murder.”  But Professor Hutton somewhat coldly countered, saying “The races are a splendid example of what such events can do for the automotive industry.”

In the meantime, Austin and Mary Vickers were living in No. 319 West 107th Street.  The same year that Professor Hutton extolled the thrill of possibly-fatal racing; the couple went into business as Vickers Et Cie.  The new enterprise dealt in gowns and established itself at No. 546 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan’s most fashionable shopping area. 

On April 1, 1916 the company was incorporated with Mary as President.  Everything seemed to be going swimmingly--until ten months later when, on January 31, 1917, the corporation filed for bankruptcy.  Among its creditors, the company listed Austin Vickers at $1,280.

Twenty-one days later Austin Vickers filed for personal bankruptcy, listing as liabilities $1,655.  The following day Mary filed for her own bankruptcy, listing, interestingly liabilities of $1,655.  It was an inglorious end to Vickers Et. Cie as a provider of gowns to New York’s carriage trade, and the end of life for the Vickers on 107th Street.

Manhattan’s Upper West Side was often the refuge of those in the entertainment industry not always welcomed in other fashionable neighborhoods.  The house at No. 319 next became home to Harry Bache Smith and his wife Irene Bentley who were married in 1906. 

A lyricist, composer and writer, Smith was said to be the most prolific of any American stage writer; generating over 6000 lyrics and 300 librettos.  He wrote many of the librettos for Victor Herbert and Reginald De Koven, and revues for the Ziegfeld Follies.

photograph from The Magazine of Poetry -- copyright expired

Irene Bentley was a popular stage actress, singer and musical comedy star.  She was well-known both on the New York and London stages.  The titles of her many theatrical successes like “The Rounders,” “The Strollers,” and “The Wild Rose” are largely forgotten today.

Although Bentley retired in 1910, her husband worked on.  But work did not preclude relaxation and, as usual, in 1923 the couple summered in Allenhurst, New Jersey.  This year for the first time, rather than leave the house on 107th Street vacant for the season, Smith decided to lease it.

Thirty-one year old Jessie Jacobson signed the lease and moved in on April 15.  She paid Smith four months’ rent up-front, at $300 per month.   Mrs. Jacobson, who lived on Staten Island, said she was the widow of a former President of a bank in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.

Early in September, Irene fell ill at the summer home and was taken to the Hotel Savoy in the city; since the 107th Street house was occupied.  Almost simultaneously, Smith received a letter from Mrs. Jacobson enclosing the key to the house and informing him that she had left.

Harry Smith hurried back to ready the house for Irene’s return.  It was not ready.

Along with her own luggage, Jessie Jacobson had taken along with her some of the Smith property—including “the kitchen stove, gas range, baby carriages, fur coats, rugs and other articles worth $2000,” reported The New York Times.  Smith told the police that “Photographs had been taken from their frames and the valuable frames were missing.”

Detectives, obviously, had little problem in tracking down the thief.  All of the Smith property was recovered from a Richmond Hill warehouse.  Harry B. Smith decided that going forward he would simply leave the city house vacant during the summer.  “But I’ll never do it again,” he told reporters, “This has been a lesson to me.”

On New Year’s Day 1936 Harry Bache Smith died at the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City at the age of 75.  The will of the famous writer bequeathed to Irene all income from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; all lyrics, plays, motion pictures, books, copyrights, magazine articles and scenarios and sixty-per cent of the proceeds from the sale of a collection of books, relics, autographs, engravings and playbills.

Irene lived on alone in the house.  In January 1940 she left for the Allenhurst house never to return to her city home.  She died there on June 4 at the age of 70. 

Twenty years earlier Russian-born Nicholas Roerich had arrived in New York City.  An artist and mystic, he mesmerized wealthy Americans who formed a near-cult.  Reportedly the spiritualist urged follower Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture under Franklin Roosevelt, so persuade the Treasury Department to add the mystic pyramid of the Great Seal to the dollar bill—a changed that was enacted in 1935.

Roerich had built a twenty-four-story Art Deco building on Riverside Drive at 103rd Street to serve as a combination school, cultural enterprises offices and museum.   But the Great Depression hit the facility hard and it was evicted in 1938.

By mid-century Dudley Fosdick owned the house at No. 319 West 107th Street.   Fosdick graduated from Columbia University in 1928 and went on to play with several popular dance bands nationwide.  For thirteen years he played with Guy Lombardo.

A devoted follower of Roerich, by 1950 Fosdick had converted the house to legally include “teaching of music and art to individual persons by members of the family.” 

In 1953 the family was still living on the first and fourth floors; but in between were a “reception and music room” on the second floor, and “library and painting rooms” on the third.”  The Department of Buildings made a stiff note that “the number of art and music instructors not living on the premises shall not exceed two and the number of pupils engaged in art and music courses shall not exceed ten.”

By the time the 55-year old Fosdick died of heart disease in the house on June 18, 1957, both he and the building were devoted to the Roerich interests.  His obituary named him “director of the Roerich Museum and Roerich Academy of Arts…He was also chairman of the Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace Committee and vice president of the Agni Yoga Society of New York.”  The article added “All the organizations had headquarters at his home, 319 West 107th Street.”

Today the Nicholas Roerich Museum continues as a “cultural center, presenting a broad program of concerts and poetry readings.”  The interiors are little altered and the house displays approximately 200 of Roerich’s artworks.  The Museum’s website explains that “Roerich’s paintings are a kind of teaching—about spiritual development, about culture and its role in human life, and about opportunities for the achievement of peace in a factious world.”

photo by Alice Lum

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