Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Edith A. Logan Mansion -- No. 17 West 56th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1903 the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around 56th Street was no longer the sparsely-developed land it had been before the Civil War.  In the 1870s a building boom resulted in developers lining the side streets with cookie-cutter brownstone rowhouses; their identical high stoops marching in military-like precision down the blocks.

One such developer was John G. Prague who acted as his own architect.  In 1870 the inexhaustible Prague erected a row of four-story brownstones stretching along the northern side of West 56th Street.  Included in the row was No. 17.

The house was home to another real estate developer, Louis Ranger, by the mid 1880s.  No small-time operator, in 1886 he was busy constructing a “new building for stores” on 125th Street and Third Avenue at a cost of $130,000—about $3 million today. 

When the butler of neighbor Matthew C. D. Borden was murdered on a stormy Monday afternoon in May 1895 detectives scoured the area and focused on the shrubbery outside the Ranger house.  Borden lived at No. 25 West 56th.  When his black under-butler, Ferdinand Harris, answered a knock on the servant’s entry door that afternoon, he was confronted by two white men who shot him twice and ran away down Fifth Avenue.   Harris died of a bullet through the heart.  A neighbor, Georgie Wheat, attributed the motive to “revenge through race trouble.”

Detectives combed the neighborhood and temporarily believed they had found an important clue at the Ranger house.  Their hopes were soon dashed, however.  “Still some other underbrush of embarrassment and doubt was cleared away during the morning by the setting aside of the ‘cartridge’ or ‘pistol’ box clue as worthless.  The box was found in the area of 17 West Fifty-sixth Street, and was supposed to have contained a pistol or cartridges, according to the range of imagination which penciled on it the address of Mr. Borden,” said The New York Times.  Instead, “What it had contained was a spokeshave, and its packing was a coarse, soft, thick, gray paper, used in packing such hardware.”

Ranger soon leased the house to the wealthy widower, Amedee de Pau Moran.   The social obligations normally in the bailiwick of female socialites fell on the shoulders of Moran.    In 1899 he began the whirlwind of teas, receptions and dinners for his daughter, Maria, associated with her debut.    On December 12 he hosted her “coming-out tea” in the house.  The tea was followed a few days later by a dinner dance and, on January 9, another was given—this one for both daughters, Marie and Rosalie.

By the end of the following year Louis Ranger was ready to divest himself of the 56th Street property.  On December 14 The New York Times reported that it had been sold.  “The purchaser will make extensive alterations to the house,” said the newspaper.  The purchaser was German-born millionaire August Heckscher who had made his fortune in zinc and iron mining.

If Heckscher intended to make “extensive alterations,” he changed his mind.  In January 1903 he sold the house, still described as a “high-stoop brownstone with dining room extension,” to the President of the Columbia Bank, Joseph Fox.    Fox would hold the property for an even shorter time than Heckscher.

Four years earlier Major John A. Logan, Jr. had been killed while leading his men into action near San Fabian in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.  Logan was the son of General John A. Logan who had distinguished himself in the Civil War and served as a U.S. Senator.

The dashing Major John A. Logan, Jr. left a sizable fortune to his widow in 1899 -- photo A. P. Webb, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Logan’s widow, Edith Andrews Logan, left their Youngstown, Ohio home with her children—two daughters and a son—and traveled abroad for during her period of mourning.   Now, in 1903, she was in New York City with a substantial estate from her husband and two daughters who would soon be coming of age.

Two months after he had purchased No. 17 West 56th Street, Joseph Fox sold it to Edith Logan.   The 1870 house sat in the most exclusive residential district of the city; but it was dated and out of fashion.  Edith addressed the problem by hiring architect Augustus N. Allen to give the residence a make-over.

For a few years there had been an increased interest in colonial history.  Across the city neo-Federal and neo-Georgian residences were increasingly appearing.  Allen’s transformation of No. 17 resulted in a dignified brick-and-limestone Colonial Revival mansion.  The new Logan house bore noticeable similarities to the Henry B. Hollins house almost directly across the street, designed by Stanford White.
Delicate leading of the dormer windows and exquisite carvings reflected the high-end craftsmanship -- photo by Alice Lum

The first of the debutante entertainments was held in the house on December 14, 1907.  The Times reported that “Miss Marion Louise Logan…was presented to society yesterday at a reception held by her mother at 17 West Fifty-sixty Street.”  The guest list for an “informal dinner dance” that Edith hosted for Marie Louise two years later in February included sons and daughters of the most illustrious families in New York.

Among the nearly 70 young people dancing in the Logan ballroom were Marjorie Gould, Dorothy Bigelow, Katherine Lawrence, Eleanor Alexander, William Rhinelander Stewart, Jr., Harry Oelrichs, Frank Roche, Jay Gould, Anthony Drexel, Jr., Stephen Van Rensselear, Cecil St. George, and Count Antonelli.

A year later, on February 4, 1910, The New York Times reported on the preparations for Marie Louise’s wedding to Henri de Sincay of Belgium.   Sincay had already arrived in New York on the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse with his best man, Count Henri de Baillett Latour and was staying at the St. Regis nearby on Fifth Avenue.  The wedding was scheduled for 4:00 on Saturday February 26 in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.   Newspapers listed Marie Louise’s wedding party which included a friend from back home.  “Miss Majorie Gould, Miss Marjorie Curtis, Miss Frances Alexander, Miss Elsie Nicoll, and Miss Elizabeth Lattimer, a Southern girl, and Miss Constance Parmely of Cleveland, Ohio, are to be the bridesmaids.”

Outshining those socially-esteemed names were the male members.  “The ushers were Prince Henri de Vigne of Washington, who married a near relative of the bridegroom; Count de Balliet-Latour, the Duke of Vallombrosa, Baron de Morogues, John A. Logan, 3d, a brother of the bride; Anthony J. Drexel, Jr., who is to marry Miss Marjorie Gould; Gurnee Munn, Moncure Robinson, W. W. Rhinelander Stewart, Jr., and Maurice Roach.”

The ceremony was performed by Archbishop Farley and The Times said the chapel was filled “with a fashionable crowd.”  The newspaper also noted that “In addition to the guests, who filled the chapel to overflowing, many curious worshipers in the Cathedral found their way into the chapel unhindered and lined up to watch the procession.”

Following the ceremony no-doubt beaming Edith hosted a reception and breakfast in the 56th Street house.

It appears that Edith considered selling the 56th Street house following the marriages of her eldest daughter and her son John.  On July 4, 1912 The New York Times reported that “The St. Anthony Association, which has occupied for its quarters the four-story house at 29 East Twenty-eighth Street…for over a quarter of a century, has sold the building and purchased for its new clubhouse the five-story American basement residence at 17 West Fifty-sixth Street.”  The newspaper said “It was bought from the estate of Edith S. Logan.”

If indeed the sale of the property, valued at about $135,000, went through; the very-much-alive Edith arranged to stay on in the house for awhile.  That same year marked young Edith’s turn to come out in society and in December her mother opened her doors for receptions and teas.   John had moved to Europe; but he would return for Edith’s wedding before the year was out.

Along with the 56th Street mansion Edith retained her home in Youngstown.   It was there, on May 12, 1913, that she announced Edith’s engagement to neighbor Dewees W. Dilworth who lived at No. 22 West 55th Street.    In reporting the engagement, The Times described young Edith as “prominent in the younger set and at the opera, where Mrs. Logan had a parterre box.”

Although her marriage to Dilworth on November 25, 1913 was not sprinkled with titled Europeans, it was nonetheless an important society wedding in the very fashionable St. Thomas’ Church on Fifth Avenue.  As expected, Edith threw a reception following the ceremony.

As an interesting side note, a decade later the Logan girls’ imperious and wealthy grandmother, Sarah H. Logan, died in Washington.  While she left the family mansion to John and bequeathed important heirlooms to Edith Logan, she pointedly ignored her granddaughters.    The will said that they “have treated me with such unpardonable indifference that I cannot forgive them or allow them to share with their brother, John A. Logan 3d, in my affections or benefactions.”

In the meantime, Edith Logan’s sale of the 56th Street house to the St. Anthony Association was completed in February 1914.  A social and charitable organization, it made renovations to the house to accommodate its use as a clubhouse.  Upstairs rooms were rented to single military or former-military men.  In 1920 U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Columbus Delano Ames was living here; and three years later retired Colonel Charles F. Height was here when he married Miss Sidney Hood.

In 1929 the Association purchased the Junior League’s five-story clubhouse at Nos. 133-35 61st Street.  After altering it, they left No. 17 which they sold in July 1931 to the Home Capitol Corporation.  The firm happily reported that it leased the building in October that year for a term of 21 years for $350,000.  But its president, Charles C. Wagner, quickly sold the lease to the Royal Box, Inc.  It was the beginning of a shady period for Edith Logan’s former mansion.

Depression and Prohibition Era New Yorkers were starved for excitement and the Royal Box Club would offer just that.    In January 1932 The New York Times said “The Royal Box, which was opened only a few weeks ago, with lavish furnishings estimated to have cost $250,000, and catering to the most expensive trade, is known popularly throughout the city as 'Zelli’s place.'”

Joe Zelli was what the newspaper deemed “the urbane and dapper restaurateur.”  He had served as a sergeant in the army in France and opened a café in Montmartre that became well known to thousands of American tourists.   The Times described the converted house.  “The restaurant occupies an entire five-story building; an imposing structure without as well as within, with a white stone façade and flower boxes decorating trim wrought-iron balconies.  Awnings of blue and gold are fixed over the big entrance door and the upper windows.”
In 1932 the iron balconies were decorated with colorful flower boxes -- photo by Alice Lum

The Royal Box not only served food; it served alcohol, and it drew not only wealthy New Yorkers but crime figures such as the flashy Al Capone.   Although other high-end speak-easies operated in the upscale neighborhood, like the Mona Lisa Club in the former Morton Mansion just down the block, federal agents seemed especially intent on closing down the Royal Box.

On New Year’s Eve 1931 the “Dry Police” smashed the front door, ousted about 100 patrons, and confiscated liquor.  “The agents drove up in taxicabs and rang the doorbell,” reported The Times.  “Admittance was refused them.  With an axe they smashed in the ornate front door.”

“When the agents had made their way in they found themselves in a setting which they admitted was the richest they had ever invaded.  The entire furnishings of the place were in modernistic style, but executed in exceptional taste in soft pastel shades.”

Despite their mission, the agents admired a life-sized statue of “Ease,” a nude female figure holding a bunch of grapes.  The great circular bar was inlaid with exotic woods, its top black-lacquered and rimmed in nickel.  “The third floor was no less beautiful.  Another bar stood in the corner at the head of the stairs.  It was of mahogany, with ornamentations of chrome steel.  The walls were of soft silver gilt and opulent hangings of rose hue were at the windows.  At one side stood a baby grand piano, decorated in keeping with the rest of the room…There were a half dozen smaller rooms as magnificent as the others.  There was a woman’s lounging room, with a costly fireplace, and on the fourth floor private dining rooms were being fitted up,” said the newspaper.

The patrons were allowed to leave, with the women going first.  Outside the cameras of press photographers flashed as well-dressed women rushed to taxicabs.  Back inside the agents found destruction.  “About 150 bottles of liquors of all sorts, from aperitifs to champagnes and cordials had been smashed by the club employes while the agents were battering their way in.  About 200 bottles of liquor were found in other places in the building.  On the top floor was an ingenious hideaway for drinkables.  One panel of the wall was found to be false.  What appeared to be an electric fixture was found to conceal a lock.”

Federal agents decided that the best way to stop the Royal Box from re-establishing its illegal business was to annihilate it.   Deputy Prohibition Administrator H. C. Bradford supervised a “gang of laborers” who were told to demolish the lavish interiors.  The two bars were dismantled and hauled away on a truck before Federal Judge Robert Patterson issued a stop order.  The Times reported on January 3, 1932 that “Demolition of the elaborate furnishings of the Royal Box, Joe Zelli’s night club at 17 West Fifty-sixth Street…was halted yesterday by an injunction restraining Federal agents from removing anything but the two bars and liquors.”

But the injunction was soon overturned and on January 22 a truck pulled up on front of the building as workers stripped the club of its furnishings and fixtures.   Zelli’s troubles were compounded when, in March, his creditors filed an involuntary petition for bankruptcy against the Royal Box, Inc.

The government agents got their way and the doors of the Royal Box Club would never open again.  Later that year the former mansion became the offices of Warren & Arthur Smadbeck, Inc. called by The Times “large holders of realty in this city and developers of country real estate.”  The firm would stay in No. 17 until December 1940 when they purchased the six-story office building at No. 125 East 23rd Street.
The end of the modern marquee cleverly echoes the neo-Georgian fanlight over the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

In the 1943 the first two floors of the house were converted to a restaurant, with the upper floors remaining vacant.   Three years later the restaurant space became a beauty parlor and apartments, two per floor, were installed upstairs.  Then in 1976 Takara Belmont, a Japanese manufacturer of furnishings and equipment for beauty salons, spas and barbershops converted the building to offices, a first floor showroom, and a single apartment on the top floor.

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