Thursday, September 12, 2013

The 1840 Robt Kelly House -- No. 9 West 16th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1834 Henry Brevoort completed his dignified brownstone mansion on the still-unpaved Fifth Avenue at the corner of 9th Street.  It was the first house above Washington Square and its presence, along with Brevoort’s wealth and social prestige, would set the tone of Fifth Avenue to come.  Six years later City Chamberlain Robert Kelly would join the trend.  Kelly was one of the founders of the Free Academy, which became the College of the City of New York.

No. 9 West 16th Street was one of a row of identical brick-clad Greek Revival-style homes completed around 1840.  Its ample 33-foot width along with the high-end interior details earned it mansion status.  Three bays wide, the house was accessed by the expected high brownstone stoop.   Less expected was the three-story, two-bay bowed front.  The feature provided not only a pleasing, undulating rhythm to the row; but captured the slightest breezes in the sultry summer months.  A graceful cast iron balcony embraced the parlor level.

As Kelly planned his new home, he consulted with 38-year old Richard Upjohn on its interiors.   The architect had just arrived in New York City the year before to work on alterations to Trinity Church.  Upjohn would be credited with launching the popular Gothic Revival style in the United States.    While Kelly’s mansion outwardly reflected Greek Revival, Upjohn would introduce Gothic inside.


The family furniture still remained in the early 20th century.  A graceful curved staircase ends in a Gothic newel.  The chair is attributed to Richard Upjohn - photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHWRJCD&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894
Much of the interior appointments, especially the furniture, have been attributed to Upjohn.   A magnificent curved, flying staircase ended in carved Gothic newels.   The library furniture, including built-in bookcases and a unique over-mantel hood; an extensive parlor suite of furniture; and other details like marble mantels, reflected the newly-emerging Gothic style.

Upjohn is believed to have designed the library cabinetry, including the paneled Gothic doors beneath the elaborate hoods --photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHWRJCD&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894
No doubt Mrs. Kelly was mortified seven years after moving in when her husband’s name was publicized as owing $53.00 in unpaid personal taxes in 1847—amounting to approximately $1,000 today.

Following Kelly’s death, his widow stayed on in the house with daughter Florence.   On January 29, 1863 Florence married attorney William Packer Prentice.    The groom had returned to the States in 1860 from five years studying abroad, mainly in Germany.   Charles E. Fitch, decades later, said “he returned to America an accomplished linguist, not alone in classic tongues, but also in the prevailing languages of continental Europe, and versed in philosophy as well.”

Prentice had begun his law practice in 1861 but, as Fitch wrote “at the breaking out of the Civil War, obeyed the call of the country.”   Upon resigning in 1862 he had attained the rank of Chief of Staff of Major-General Ormsby M. Mitchell.


Gothic Revival mantels were often severely-plain.  This beautifully-veined marble example boasted foliate capitals and intrically-carved sprandrels.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHWRJCD&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894
The newly-weds stayed on in the West 16th Street house with Mrs. Kelly.   The marriage would product seven children—Robert Kelly, Florence, Philena, William Kelly, Ezra Parmelee, Paul Cheney and Arietta Hope.  One can imagine that the Victorian interiors of the Kelly House were not always peaceful.  Yet, as Charles Fitch pointed out later, Prentice “was particularly blessed in his domestic relations—his wife a woman of rare refinement and gracious hospitalities, a helpmate in his lettered tastes and social amenities.”

As the children grew to well-respected adults, their aging grandmother Mrs. Robert Kelly remained active.  In 1890 she was a manager of the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children.   Although grown, the unmarried Prentice children remained in the house. 

The same year that Mrs. Kelly was managing the Society, Robert Kelley Prentice went into partnership with his father’s law firm at 52 Broadway.  William Prentice had, by now, established a sterling reputation for himself.  He held the post of Counsel of the Board of Health and of the State Board of Health and was described as “a lawyer of the old school who was in close personal touch with his clients, preferring to do his work himself rather than to delegate it to subordinates.”

Early that year Robert found himself a victim of a scam artist.  Andrew Brennan devised a clever plan that came to an end on January 10.  “A sneak thief who has visited over thirty houses of well-to-do citizens recently is now secured in the Thirtieth street police station,” reported The New York Times.

The newspaper explained his scam.  “Armed with letters of recommendation from parties alleged to live in London or Montreal, he would go to a house and tell the servant that he wa a coachman in search of employment and take out the letters.  While the servant was taking the letters to the lady of the house he would help himself to the clothing on the hat rack and hurry away.”

When Robert Prentice prepared to go to his law office one cold morning that January, he found that his overcoat was gone.

As the debutante season of 1902 neared the Prentice women busied themselves with plans for Arietta’s coming out.   On November 27 Florence sent out cards for an afternoon reception to be held on Saturday December 6.  Throughout the month of December socialites and debutantes would come and go through the Prentice hallways.

Interestingly, as Victorian tastes gave way to Edwardian styles, the Prentice d├ęcor was little changed.  The parlor received a few updated pieces of French furniture; however it coexisted with Civil War period tufted settees and spoon-back armchairs.  Throughout the residence the original furnishings chosen by Robert Kelly more than half a century before remained.

At the turn of the century furniture from the 1890s mingles with parlor pieces decades older.  The marble mantel is an artistic showpiece -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHWRJCD&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894
Ezra Prentice, like his father and brother, Robert, practiced law.  He specialized in “insurance, railroads and rules.”  In 1903, still living at home, he was the managing clerk in the law office of John E. Parsons.  He ran for office that year, launching a campaign for assemblyman against James Mack, whom The World called “the silver-tongued young Tammany candidate.”

In 1911 Arietta was once again the center of social attention in the Prentice house.  At 3:30 on the afternoon of November 15 she was quietly married to Stephen Willets Collins in the parlor.  The Times noted that “Only the two families and a few intimate friends will witness the ceremony, which is to be followed by a reception.”

William Packer Prentice retired from his law firm in 1913.  Recognized not only as an eminent linguist but an “authoritative Grecian,” he was considered among the foremost scholars of the city—a distinction reflected in some of his club memberships.  In addition to social clubs like the Century club, he was a member of the New York Hisotorical Society, American Geographical Society, and American Chemical Society.  On December 22, 1915, he died in his 16th Street house at the age of 81.

Like all the Prentice brothers, Paul Cheney Prentice graduated from Princeton.  Paul, who was living and working in Chicago, contracted an inflammation of the spinal cord in November 1916.   It resulted in a slight attack of paralysis which was treated and seemingly cured.  But the symptoms recurred in the fall of 1917 and he was sent back to New York for treatment.   Shortly after arriving home, he was taken from the Prentice house to the New York Hospital on 16th Street, paralyzed from the waist down.  On Friday, July 5, 1918 he died after months of paralysis and considerable pain.

Florence Prentice was well-known in society and was active in missionary and philanthropic work.   In 1924 the house where she had lived for over 80 years was a sort of time capsule—the furnishings chosen by her father in 1840 still decorated the old home.  On October 1 of that year, while visiting Philena in her Greenwich, Connecticut home, Florence died.  Her funeral was held in the house on 16th Street at 10:30 in the morning two days later.

When Florence Prentice died, the house was little changed since her father furnished it.  Note the highly unusual hood above the fireplace mirror photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GHWRJCD&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894 

When The New York Times reported on the family’s sale of the house on June 12, 1928, it mentioned “This property has been in the Prentice family for more than eighty-five years.”  The buyer was the newly-widowed doctor J. Willard Travell.  

Travell was well-known in the Washington Square area and both his daughters, Virginia and Janet were doctors as well.   He immediately set about renovating the venerable Prentice house to fit their needs.
Travell removed the stoop and created two entrances--one for the office, another for the residence.  The original doorway above was framed in fluted pilasters matching those of the new entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

The brownstone stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the basement level, which was converted to a doctor’s office.  The upper floors remained a single family home.  Both the Travell girls established their practices in their father’s office.

Daughter Janet brought with her an impressive resume.  Having attended the prestigious Brearly School and Wellesley College (where she was tennis champion for three successive years and later competed in the women’s national tennis championship at Forest Hills), she graduated from Cornell Medical College at the head of her class.  A year after moving in to the 16th Street house, her engagement to John W. G. Powell was announced.  The wedding took place in June 1929.

A more headline-making wedding occurred in the family a year later.  On August 15, 1930 The Times reported that the girls’ father had married Edith Talcott Bates.  “The news of the wedding will come as a surprise to their large circle of friends because their engagement had not been announced,” said the newspaper.

 The new Mrs. Travell was wealthy in her own right; the widow of the Rev. H. Roswell Bates and the daughter of commission merchant, banker and philanthropist James Talcott.

In 1939 the Travells converted the upper floors to apartments.  The parlor level became one spacious apartment while the upper floors each housed two.   Families with respected social connections took the apartments, like that of Mrs. Harry C. Bell who lived here in the 1940s.

In the mid-1950s Senator John F. Kennedy suffered crippling back pain.  On May 26, 1955 he secretly left Washington and traveled to New York City.  Accompanied by Dr. Ephraim Shorr he arrived at Dr. Janet Travell’s office at No. 9 West 16th Street.  She later remembered “He was thin, he was ill, his nutrition was poor, he was on crutches.”

Jack Kennedy had enormous difficulty navigating the two steps down from the street to the office.  “He could walk on the level putting his weight on his right leg,” Dr. Travell would later tell reporters, “but he couldn’t step up or down a step with his right foot.  We could hardly get him into the office.”

Unlike any of his previous doctors, Janet Travell was able to devised a protocol to manage Kennedy’s pain.  He would forever trust her abilities.

On January 25, 1961 The New York Times reported on the new presidential physician—Dr. Janet Travell.  “The new White House physician comes from a medical family.  Her father, Dr. Willard Travell, is no longer in active practice but, at 91 years of age, he still is listed as sharing the offices occupied by his daughter at 9 West Sixteenth Street.”

President Kennedy told the press that she was a “genius” and credited her with curing him of the back problems that had trouble him for much of his life.”  Dr. Janet Travell’s practice on 16th Street was about to end.  She told reporters “I have half a dozen fulltime jobs.”  But The Times said “From now on, it appears she will have just one.”

Now living in Washington DC, in May 1961 Janet sold the house that she co-owned with her sister.  The Times noted “it contains a number of apartments and a self-service elevator.”  The old residence was purchased by Milton Schapiro and Nathan C. Brodsky, active in Greenwich Village real estate.
The elegant iron balcony survives after more than 170 years -- photo by Alice Lum

The pair remodeled the interiors, replacing the doctor’s office with four apartments in the basement.  There were still one apartment on the parlor level and two each on the floors above.  The well-maintained house retains the 1962 renovations.  Its tenants come and go, no doubt blissfully unaware of the fascinating family histories that have taken place within its walls.

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