Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 1882 Ontiora Apartments -- No. 200 W. 55th Street

Although it was inventor and actor Isaac Merritt Singer who founded the Singer Sewing Machine Company; it was Edward Clark who made it a success.  The sewing machine was not a new idea when Singer began tinkering with the contraption around 1850; several variations had already been patented.

Singer’s improvements, however, patented on August 12, 1851, resulted in the first practical machine.  His prototype could sew 900 stitches per minute—more than 40 professional seamstresses.   Clark had been Singer’s attorney since 1848 and the two became business partners.  

A marketing genius, Clark sold the domestic versions of the machine to wives of clergymen at a 50-percent discount.  When the preachers’ wives received their sewing machines, Clark knew that women in the congregations would follow suit.  He also came up with the idea of an installment plan, so a housewife could make small payments on the $10 machine until it was hers.  As improvements made the older machines obsolete, Clark accepted trade-ins—an unheard of concept that caused sales to skyrocket.

Edward Clark amassed a personal fortune and began looking towards real estate development.  In the 1870’s he teamed with architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh and erected rental cottages for summer visitors to Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York.  It would be the beginning of a long and mutually-prosperous relationship.

It would still be years before Hardenbergh’s name would be nationally recognized for buildings like the Waldorf and Astoria Hotels, the Western Union Building on 23rd Street, and the Plaza Hotel.   Toward the end of 1877, Clark bought up several building plots on Seventh Avenue.   Outspoken in his elitist attitudes towards the impoverished; he intended to make the West Side as affluent as the East.  To do so he would simply push the poor out by constructing high-end apartment buildings and he urged other property owners to do the same.

He encouraged landowners to work together, mutually investing in property, and issuing restrictive covenants on construction.  He told a meeting of the West Side Association in 1879 that only their cooperation could establish the West Side’s “exclusive character” and lure well-to-do residents. 

According to the authors of “The Park and the People," he asserted “There is the highest authority for believing that the poor will always be with us; but it does not follow that the poor will necessarily occupy any part of the West Side plateau.  The poor would be sufficiently with us if they lived in New Jersey or Long Island.”

The previous year Clark had put his money where his mouth was.   He owned three of the corner lots at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 55th Street.  In 1878 he began erecting what today would be termed “luxury apartments.”  Henry J. Hardenbergh designed all three—the Wyoming, the Van Corlear, and the Ontiora.

The Ontiora was completed in 1882 at the southwest corner.    The red brick building with white stone trim stretched along West 55th Street with its entrance centered at No. 200.   Unlike the Dakota Apartments he had designed for Clark two years earlier, there were no turrets or pyramids or balconies.  Instead Hardenbergh turned to the sharp angles and clean lines of the Queen Anne and Eastlake Movements currently taking hold.  The entrance portico morphed into the slightly-projecting wall of the central staircase hall within; which then edged back to the façade much like an exterior chimney wall.  Here the architect focused his embellishments—including stained glass windows with “jewels,” and the date of completion in a carved cartouche.

The date of construction is carved in a cartouche resembling a frightening, gap-mouthed creature.

Still hoping to push the poor to New Jersey, Clark’s Ontiora offered one enormous apartment per floor—about 2,000 square feet or the dimensions of a reasonably-sized private home.   The ceilings rose over 10 feet from the floor and the interior doors and cabinetry were of handsome woods.

Just as the first residents moved into the new Ontiora, Edward C. Clark died on October 14, 1882.   The new tenants were of the social class Clark had hoped for.  Lawrence Miller and his wife lived here by 1892.  She was a member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Committee of the Post Graduate Hospital and a force behind the building fund for the new babies’ ward of that facility.

Mrs. Miller and the other committee members worked to raise $20,000 to build and equip the new Post Graduate Hospital wards.  The New York Times said “These wards not only serve to relieve the misery among the children of the destitute, who are treated free of charge and without distinction of race, color, or creed, but also serve as a school for the physicians from every part of the country who come to study the diseases of children.”

It was not all charity work for the socialite, however.  A year later, on January 26, 1893, the society gossip newspaper, Town Topics, noted that “Mrs. Lawrence Miller, of West Fifty-fifth street, who has been visiting her mother, Mrs. Joseph Sawyer, in Boston, the past fortnight, has had no end of agreeable attention offered her.”   No doubt other wealthy ladies poured over the list of affairs held for her.  “She had a dinner at the Somerset Club, among other smart entertainments, given by Mr. and Mrs. David Nevins.  Mrs. Miller gave a luncheon just before leaving for New York to a party of twelve of her old school friends at her mother’s house on Commonwealth avenue.”

White stone trim contrasts with the robust red brick.
In the Ontiora at the same time were Dr. Bernard E. Vaughan and his wife.  The medical prodigy had moved to New York two years after the apartment building was completed to study at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  Following his graduation in 1887, he was accepted as a member of St. Luke’s Hospital, later to be made house physician.

The year after he left the hospital, in 1889, he married Maud Phillips Kniffen.  His career continued to skyrocket.  By 1895 he was the assistant attendant physician at the New York Cancer Hospital, physician at the New York Dispensary, instructor at the Post-Graduate Hospital (Mrs. Miller’s pet charity), and was on the medical staff of the New York Life Insurance Company.

On February 27, 1895 the 32-year old doctor was taken from his apartment to St. Luke’s Hospital.   He was operated upon for appendicitis the following day; and within a few days succumbed from “the effects of an operation,” according to The Sun on March 7. 

Rather oddly, the members of the Hospital Graduates’ Club felt it necessary to vote on delivering condolences to his young widow.  The club’s minutes of April 23, 1895 read “Resolved, That the sincere sympathy of the club be tendered to his bereaved family, and that this action be entered upon the club records and published in the professional journals of the city.”

The McLoughlin family was residing here at the time and little William McLoughlin proved that a privileged upbringing did not always dissuade mischief.  He found himself behind bars in November 1896.

According to The New York Times on November 4, “William McLoughlin, eight years old, of 200 West Fifty-fifth Street, was arrested last night for building a bonfire in Fifty-fifth Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues.”   Exacerbating the boy’s crime was his choice of fuel for the fire.  He was also charged with “tearing down fences built around a vacant house in the same block.”

Other residents were the well-to-do W. H. Shields and his wife.  Mrs. Shields was the sister of the Rev. John Spencer Turner, Jr.  On October 9, 1898 The Sun reminded readers that he was “the Episcopalian clergyman whose conversion to the Catholic church created considerable discussion last summer when the fact became known.”

Mrs. Shields and her brother were born in Brooklyn and he was ordained an Episcopalian priest in 1894.  When he converted to Catholicism, things got messy.  “He was rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rochester, N. Y., when he incurred the displeasure of the late Bishop Cox by reason of his ritualistic practices,” said The Sun.  “The Bishop forbade him to preach in his diocese, and in token of this inhibition Mr. Turner caused a black flag to be displayed from his residence.”

The hoop-la seemed to have died down a bit by the following year.  The European comings and goings of Mrs. Shields and her husband were commonly noted in the society pages.  But in October 1898 social eyebrows would be raised after their steamship docked in Manhattan.

The Sun ran the shocking headline that announced “Mrs. Shields Turns Catholic” and reported “Mrs. W. H. Shields of 200 West Fifty-fifth street, this city, has lately returned from Paris, where she was converted to the Roman Catholic faith.”

In 1915 sewer workers toil on 55th Street.  The deep light well with its iron railing is still evident and the commercial space on the ground floor is still years away -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
When Helen Guard lived here in 1915, the ground floor of the Ontiora was still girded by a deep light well and the apartments were still rambling, upscale flats.   That year Italy put aside its policy of neutrality and in May entered World War I on the side of the Allies.  Helen Guard was a friend of Madame Daballa, the wife of the Italian General in Turin.  Through her Helen learned of the sufferings of the Italian troops in the frigid mountains 8,000 to 10,0000 feet up.

She wrote to the Editor of The New York Times on October 8, 1915 offering to collect warm clothing for the soldiers.  Telling readers that the Italian Government had let its female citizens know that 18 million pairs of woolen socks and several million woolen mittens and sweaters were needed, she wrote “Italy has made no appeal of any kind for aid to others than her citizens.  I am quite sure, however, that there are thousands of American women who feel themselves in debt to her, and if any one of them would like to send one pair, a dozen pairs, or a hundred pairs of woolen socks for the Italian soldiers’ use, I shall be happy to forward them.”

Helen closed her letter saying “They should be of large size.”

Throughout the following decade the apartment house retained its respectable tone, although by 1922 a commercial space had been gouged out of the Seventh Avenue facade.  Thomas D. Green and his wife lived here in the 1920’s while daughter, Julie Gibbs Green, attended the Veltin School and the Mount Vernon Seminary in Washington, D. C.  In August 1923 Julie was married in a fashionable ceremony to Princeton graduate and former Navy Junior Lieutenant Perry McKay Sturges.

In 1922 when the Greens were living here a storefront had been installed on the 7th Avenue side.  photograph by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWRMYLJ0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=18#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWRMYLJ0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=18
As the 1940’s approached change was coming to Seventh Avenue.  In 1938 the light well was covered over and each of the gargantuan apartments were divided into three—all except the third floor which remained a single apartment.  That holdout resident remained until 1956 when the third floor apartment, too, became three.

Through the first decade of the 21st century the building was slathered in gray paint -- photo http://www.startsandfits.com/hardenbergh/ontiora.html
Sometime after the mid-20th century Hardenbergh’s robust Ontiora was covered over in a monochromatic coating of gray paint.  The all-important contrast of brick and stone was disguised and the building became supremely overlookable.  Inside things were not faring too well for the once-elegant apartment building either.  In 1997 The Times opined “the Ontiora is now far from what Edward Clark envisioned: dirty and bedraggled, swamped by traffic and noise, the ground floor now turned over to commerce.  The halls have open trash cans—Clark would have had staff whisk any garbage away by dumbwater—and the walls are grimy with age.”

Although the street level, including the wonderful entrance portico, has been obliterated, most of Hardenbergh's hefty design survives.
A restoration of the façade sometime after 2006 resulted in the re-emergence of the wonderful details.  The stained glass panels still survive in the stairwell hall and the three apartments per floor—still roomy by Manhattan standards—with their 10-1/2 foot ceilings still exist.
non-credited photographs taken by the author

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