Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Gershwin House -- No. 316 West 103rd Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1919 The Economist reported on a building permit granted to F. W. Hansen to renovate the house at No. 316 West 103rd Street with a “2-1/4 story brick front and rear addition.”  Until recently, attorney Edward Ash had lived in the Victorian residence.  He had left home in 1916 to attend the Military Training Camp as a private in the U. S. Army as war raged on in Europe.

Architect A. G. Lund was given the task of renovating the outmoded house.  The old brick façade gave way to limestone in a transformation resulting in a somewhat surprising marriage of styles.  The high stoop was retained, albeit dressed up in an up-to-date Beaux Arts fashion.  The rusticated parlor level featured three arched openings, including the entrance.   

Interestingly, the focus of the carved ornamentation was on the underside of the protruding second story bay.  Exquisite festoons of full-blown roses capped the openings on either end; a theme repeated in the sprays of roses filling the spandrels on the underside of the bay.  Intricate carvings filled the brackets and the spaces between them.

Roses in near relief create festoons and extraordinary carvings decorate the underside of the angled bay -- photo by Alice Lum

The angular, two-story bay and the bracketed cornice, however, were little updated from the home’s late-Victorian neighbors.  Behind the roofline, barely visible from street level was an additional story.

The post-war neighborhood was still affluent and the renovated house boasted an elevator.  In 1925 it became home to the extended Gershwin family when 28-year old George Gershwin purchased it.  The family creatively compartmentalized the house to accommodate the living arrangements of the all-adult members.  Rose and Morris Gershwin took the parlor floor; Arthur and Frances were on the third; Ira moved into the fourth floor (and a year later his new wife, Leonore would be there); and George had the top floor.

George Gershwin had recently returned from Paris where he had written Rhapsody in Blue in 1924.  He was just seeing the glint of success in the music world; yet fame and real fortune were still a few years away.  Part of the English basement was turned into a table tennis room and two grand pianos were lugged into the house for George.  Howard Pollack, in his “George Gershwin: His Life and Work,” wrote “Observers painted a picturesque portrait of this residence, with Morris riding the elevator, Rose cooking borscht in the kitchen, Frances on her way to dance lessons, and George making occasional retreats to the nearby Whitehall Hotel to get some work done—a scene that might have sprung from the pages of the play You Can’t Take it with You (1936) by two friends of the Gershwins, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  Years later, Frances remembered with some amazement how she would sometimes return home and find groups of people independently socializing on each floor of the house.”

George used the top floor as living quarters, office and studio.  Shortly after moving in he landed a $35-a-week job as a rehearsal pianist for the Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern musical Miss 1917.  Bored with playing the same tunes over and over, he gradually slipped in his own subtle versions.  The creative variations caught the attention of management and he was soon elevated to accompanist for the Century Sunday Concerts—a popular show featuring the likes of Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, Ann Pennington and Eddie Cantor.

George and his brother Ira would not stayin the 103rd Street house with their family long.  In 1927, flushed with success and with their plays Strike up the Band and Funny Face opening on Broadway, the brothers moved to adjoining penthouses at No. 33 Riverside Drive.

Following George’s death in 1937 the house was sold.  It became an unofficial apartment house filled with German immigrants, many having fled the Nazi regime back home.  The son of the owner later recalled that some of the Gershwin furniture was still in the house.  In the cellar was a trove of phonograph records and sheet music left by the family which, eventually, was discarded for want of space. 

The varied tenant list included businessmen, doctors, educators and conductor Jasha Horenstein who entertained visitors like Artur Rubenstein here.  It was a frightening time for German Americans and, especially, German Jews.  Across the street from the house, at the corner of Riverside Drive, was the Masters Hotel where Congressman Sol Bloom lived.  The Jewish chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations opposed isolationism and on Sunday afternoons for two years—between 1939 and 1941—the sidewalk outside saw pro-Nazi demonstrators.

The house at No. 316 West 103rd was not immune to political intrigue.  One resident, a waiter at the Astor Hotel, was blatant about his pro-Nazi sympathies.  One day in 1940 five FBI agents came to the house and arrested him as a member of an espionage ring centered at the Astor Hotel.  He was soon deported.

Following World War II, in 1947, the house was officially converted to apartments; two per floor.  The stoop was shaved off and the entrance moved to the former English basement.   Today the architecturally-eccentric house shares the block with a hodge-podge of building styles—Victorian rowhouses, mid-century and turn-of-the-century apartment buildings.  

The original doorway at parlor level is now a window and an awkwardly-angled marquee leads to the entrance below street level -- photo by Alice Lum
A plaque affixed to the façade announces that for a few years nearly a century ago some of America’s greatest music was written and played within the walls of this relatively unassuming house.

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