Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The 1883 St. George Residence -- Nos. 223-225 East 17th Street

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

In 1882 the notion of high-toned families living in an apartment building rather than private homes was still too radical for most society people to handle.  It was Caroline Astor who reportedly once scoffed at those who “live on shelves.”

Developers who took the risk in erecting upscale apartment houses not only laid out the floorplans to resemble private homes; with costly mantels, floorings and woodwork; they did careful marketing.  Because apartments were associated with the dingy tenement buildings crowded with impoverished immigrants, innovative terms like “French flats” made the distinction. 

Thomas Osborne purchased and demolished two residences at Nos. 223 and 225 East 17th Street for his project.  His risk was lessened by the location, in the fashionable Stuyvesant Square neighborhood.  Sitting at the edge of the square was St. George’s Episcopal Church where J. P. Morgan was senior warden.  Osborne would piggy-back on the church’s high-end reputation, calling his proposed building the St. George Residences.

The widely-talented Osborne not only served as developer, builder, and architect; he owned the stoneworks company that would supply the material for the decorative elements.  On November 11, 1882 The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced “Thomas Osborne will soon commence the erection of an eight-story and basement apartment house…The front will be of English red stone elaborately carved and trimmed, while the interior will be fitted with the latest modern conveniences.”  Osborne projected that the cost, including the lots, would be “at least $165,000.”

Plans were officially submitted with the Inspector of Buildings on December 20, 1882 and construction began soon afterward.  By now the estimated cost had risen to $195,000—over $4 million today.  Ten months later the handsome structure was completed.  Osborne treated it almost as two buildings.  On either side of the central hall with its passenger elevator was one spacious apartment.  To the rear of the building, where it rose to eight stories as opposed to the seven floors at the front, were two freight elevators (called at the time “dumbwaiters”)—one for each side. 

The New York Times described the “handsome structure” as “of blue stone, with Nova Scotia stone trimmings and terra cotta ornamental panels” and made special note of the “pair of polished marble columns” that ornamented the front entrance.  Osborne’s French Renaissance design was encrusted with carved panels of flowers, faces, animals and shells and the modified Corinthian capitals of the entrance columns featured an unexpected coexistence of beasts and cherubs.
Close inspection reveals cherubs, winged beasts, and tridents -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

According to The Times, residents would enjoy steam heat throughout and was “furnished with electric bells, speaking-tubes, &c.”  There were eight rooms to each apartment and rents ranged from $1,300 to $1,800 a year; about $3,300 per month today.

At other floors the elaborate carving was less fanciful.  Here floral forms and shells embellish the facade -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

Thomas Osborne quickly turned over his nearly-completed St. George.  On October 6, 1883, barely before the paint was dry, he sold the building to real estate investor and wealthy clothing merchant William R. Martin for $200,000.  Before the end of the month Martin had resold it for $215,000 to John G. Taylor.

The new, luxurious apartments were marketed to moneyed families with a focus not just on the high-end amenities; but on its fire-proof qualities.  Fire was among the greatest fears of the period and Taylor touted the St. George as “absolutely fire-proof.”  The claim would be put to the test before very long.

By the spring of 1884 the entire building had been rented, except for the west apartment on the third floor.  The tenant list was varied with one common denominator—money.  On the first floor were Dr. J. R. Hobbie of the Health Department in the east apartment, and Dr. M. G. Raefle, former Deputy Coroner in the west.  S. H. Gray of Hecker Brothers, flour millers, was in the second floor east flat; and William M. McPherson was in the western apartment.  He was a salesman with H. B. Claflin & Co.

On the third floor was the organist of the Church of the Holy Trinity, A. R. Parsons.  Above him lived Edward Sandford, a laywer and son-in-law of former Governor John T. Hoffman.  He shared the fourth floor with Kate Forsythe, an actress.  Walton Burgess lived in the eastern apartment on the fifth floor and across the hall was United States Commissioner Timothy Griffiths.  Griffiths had been secretary to former Senator Roscoe Conkling.

On the top two floors lived Cornelius Dubois, an insurance man; H. W. Humphrey; John L. Lockwood, who dealt in mineral waters; and W. J. Simonton whose father had been an agent for the Associated Press.  The New York Times remarked on April 8, 1884 that “The occupants of the house are all well-to-do people” and that they filled their apartments “with costly furniture, valuable paintings, and drawings, and bric-a-brac.”  But they slept securely, with the knowledge that their new home was “absolutely fire-proof.”

The building’s maintenance man, Frederick Kimmelberg was not so sure.  He had noticed that the steam pipes which ran from the boiler in the basement to the top floor were not fully insulated.  According to him, they “were only encased in packing in the basement, and that all the way from the first floor they rested right against the plaster and flooring without any covering whatever.”

One cold night in January 1884, just a few months after the building opened, a nervous John L. Lockwood called Kimmelberg to his 7th floor apartment.  According to Kimmelberg the walls had become so hot that “In one place the lathing had begun to smolder.”  He rushed to the basement and turned off the steam, preventing any further damage or fire.

Three months later, on April 7, the building’s luck would run out.  Around 11:00 that morning the elevator boy, Louis Castaigan, took a potential tenant to the empty third floor suite.  As he returned to the elevator he noticed smoke wafting up the shaft.  He joked to the visitor that “the house must be on fire.”  But as the elevator descended, the smoke became denser with each floor.

The boy notified Kimmelberg and rushed onto the street to the nearest fire box at 17th Street and 2nd Avenue, then ran back.  Residents of the lower floors were already rushing out “although they were compelled to make their exit without putting on their outer clothing or wraps,” said The New York Times the following day.

Castaigan, worried that Mrs. Lockwood and her invalid son, Louis, and Jennie Wilson, a servant, were still on the seventh floor, took the elevator back up.  As it turned out, they had already made a dramatic escape.  “Adjoining the building on the east side is the mission house and school of the Protestant Sisterhood of St. John the Baptist, the roof of which is several stories lower than the flat-house,” reported The Times.  “The sisters ascended to the roof of their house.  They saw Mrs. Lockwood with her son, 9 years old, whom she had snatched from his bed, and her servant at one of the side windows.  The fire and smoke had full possession of the rear of their apartment, cutting them off from the fire-escape in the rear of the building.”

The sisters “bestirred themselves to procure help.”  They had their janitor bring a ladder to the roof and Mrs. Lockwood, the boy and the servant were able to climb down with the assistance of a fireman and policeman.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Timothy Griffiths, wife of the US Commissioner, had been entertaining a guest in her parlor.  When she heard the commotion and opened her door to the hallway, a thick cloud of smoke billowed in.  She and her friend were able to clamber down the fire escape into the back yard.  The ladies who were one-by-one assembling in the yard were helped over the fence when neighbors dropped a ladder over it.

The women in the other apartments, some quite elderly, were rescued by the fire fighters.  But the elevator boy, Louis Castaigan, who had gone to the top floor to rescue Mrs. Lockwood, was now trapped.  He tried to find an escape route through both apartments, but the thick smoke pushed him back.  “He retreated into the library of Mr. Lockwood’s apartments, shut the door behind him, and, thrusting his head out of the open window, called for help.  Smoke was belching forth from the windows on each side of him,” recounted The Times.

The crowd on the street below hollered at him to be calm.  The seven story St. George was too high for the fire department’s extension ladders so the new “scaling ladders” were brought out.  “It was the first opportunity of putting the life-saving ladders to a practical test,” said the newspaper.  The ingenious scaling ladder was hooked to the window sill of the second story.  Fireman John Binns climbed up, drew the ladder up behind him, then hooked it to the third floor.  The process was repeated until Binns reached Castaigan at the top floor. 

“Seeing help so near, Louis stepped out of the window and sat down on the sill.  When the top of the scaling ladder was within his reach he leaned over, caught it with one hand, and fastened it securely on the window-frame.  Binns then ascended, and, throwing one arm over the shoulders of the youth, spoke a few encouraging words.  Then he descended the scaling ladder with him and down the extension ladder to the ground.”

The crowd of spectators on the ground broke out into applause “and cheered lustily.”

Kimmelberg was found in the basement, nearly unconscious where he had been fighting the fire with a hose until the water gave out.  He was dragged out by fireman and taken to Bellevue Hospital.

When the blaze was finally extinguished, the St. George was a ruin.  The residents’ fine furniture, silver and artwork were gone.  “What was not destroyed by fire is ruined by water,” said The Times.  The newspaper was scathing in its criticism.

“The St. George, a pretentious apartment house at Nos. 223 and 225 East Seventeenth-street, which had been vaunted by the owner and agent as absolutely fire-proof, was nearly destroyed by fire yesterday morning…Those members of the families who were in when the fire broke out were in extreme peril, but all succeeded in making their escape.”

The foolish failure to insulate the steam pipes resulted in only the 17th Street façade and parts of the side walls still remaining.  “It will cost $100,000 to rebuild it and place it in as good a condition as before the fire,” said The Times.  Tenants had lost a total of $61,000 worth of goods—about $1.5 million today.

Within the week the humor and satire magazine, Life, caustically lampooned the “fire-proof” claims of the building’s owner.  On April 17 it wrote “There seems to have been something envious about the burning of the St. George Flats.  They were strictly fire-proof, being built after the approved principles upon which ninety-five percent of the other fireproof apartment houses in this city are constructed.  In these the walls are at least four inches thick and made of celluloid rendered incombustible by being dipped in kerosene; the partitions are of the most indestructible variety of tinder and matchwood, sheathed in punk and lined with shavings, asphalt, guncotton, nitro glycerine and turpentine; the chimneys are made of the most obstinate variety of pitch-pine well saturated with saltpeter, and to make the thing still better protected, a safety fuse radiates from the office to each rooms, so that in case of fire no one apartment can get in its fine work ahead of another.”

The magazine went on, criticizing the builders and the agents through sarcasm.  The article ended “Considering all these precautions are taken, it is somewhat surprising to hear that the St. George Flats not only burned up effectively and burned down with promptness, but that its meager populace barely escaped with its lives in broad daylight.  The populace, by the way, lost everything but its several salvations; but with those intact, it is to be supposed it is ready to remove into another fire-proof flat.”

The St. George was rebuilt with its fine façade intact.  Among the new tenants were General Charles H. Tompkins, President of the Diamond Rock Boring Company, and the elderly General Thomas Ewing.  Ewing had had an illustrious career.  The son of Ohio Senator Thomas Ewing who was Secretary of the Treasury under William Henry Harrison and Secretary of the Interior under President Tyler; the general had been active in admitting Kansas into the Union.  In 1861 he became the Chief Justice of that state.  His sister married his law partner, General William Tecumseh Sherman.

After Ewing served valiantly in the Civil War, he opened his law practice in New York City.  While living in the St. George in January 1896 the 67-year old was struck by a cable car nearby at Third Avenue and East 18th Street.  Hurled nearly halfway across the street, he struck his head on the pavement.  Ewing was brought to his apartment but never regained consciousness.  Around 10:30 on the morning of January 21, he “died without recognizing the members of his family who were about him.”

Also in the building about that time was attorney Winslow E. Buzby.  A member of the Automobile Club, he drove “a handsome Victoria-phaeton which is driven by electricity,” as described by The New York Times on October 28, 1899.  Buzby was annoyed by the city’s prohibition of motorcars in Central Park; a law sparked by the fear that horses would be spooked and cause damage or injury to their owners or vehicles.

Buzby argued that cars were allowed in Prospect Park and Riverside Park, not to mention the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.  Comparing horses in Brooklyn with those in Manhattan he said “Besides, are horses in Manhattan more susceptible of taking fright than those in Brooklyn?  And, anyhow, a horse that is so wild that it will bolt at sight of an automobile ought not to be allowed on a public road.  It would just as easily be scared, and with equal danger to the public, by the sight of a piece of paper blown along by the wind or at a child’s sudden yell.”

Park Commissioners remained steadfast.  So to publicize his protest, Winslow Buzby audaciously drove his electric pleasure car into Central Park on October 27, 1899.  When a policeman tried to stop him, he continued on before being arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting the police.  He paid his $300 and left, explaining his case in length to reporters outside the station house.

In 1900 84-year old Celia Frances Dana lived here.  For four decades she was well known as a teacher of elocution and music and as a public reader.  Also in the building were sisters Anna H. Wilde and Ella P. Bigelow.  In November that year they had the unpleasant task of requesting a examination into the sanity of their brother, 35-year old John Wilde.

Wealthy like his sisters, Wilde had gone to China in 1893 as a missionary.  “While abroad he showed signs of insanity, and was sent home by an American consul,” reported the New-York Tribune.  He was institutionalized at the Rivercrest Sanitarium on Long Island where “he believed he was hypnotized and that his food contained poison.”  Wilde escape and eventually turned up in New York City.  The Tribune reported “It is said that he spends his time in studying the Chinese language.  His sanity will be determined by a sheriff’s jury.”

Among the more well-known residents at the time was Margaret Bottome.  A writer and author, she was also president of the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons.  She had written Crumbs from the King’s Table; A Sunshine Trip to the Orient; Death and Life; Seven Questions After Easter; and was on the editorial staff of The Ladies Home Journal.

Simultaneously society bandleader John M. Lander had an apartment in the building.  He died here on October 9, 1905.  “He was 65 years old,” said The New York Times, “and was perhaps known to more men and women of social prominence in and about New York than any other musical director since the days of Helmsmueller.”

Lander was a close friend of Ward McAllister and played the music at McAllister’s funeral.  “He supplied the music at the balls and parties of many of the members of the older families, including the Astors, Sloanes, and Vanderbilts.”

John Lander’s family continued on in the apartment.  Six years later his daughter Adelaide would bring attention to the St. George.  Archibald N. Campbell was infatuated with Adelaide and wrote her no fewer than 20 endearing letters.  Sadly for Campbell, Adelaide Lander’s feelings for him cooled.  With no happy ending in sight, Campbell wanted his love letters back.

On Wednesday October 4, 1911 the would-be suitor came to Adelaide’s flat and refused to leave.  She called for the police to have him “put out of the house,” said a newspaper.  “The policeman persuaded the man to leave.”

Adelaide quickly packed a bag and headed to her mother’s home in New London, Connecticut.  On the way out she handed Lottie Guyer, the janitress, a satchel to give to Campbell should he return.  Campbell indeed did come back, trying to gain entrance to the apartment through the dumbwaiter.  When that did not work, he went up the servants’ stairway and kicked in a door panel.

The police returned to the St. George to find Campbell still inside Adelaide Lander’s apartment.  Detective Taczkosi took 20 letters from his prisoner.  “The detective would not reveal the contents of the letters, but said all were of an endearing nature,” reported The New York Times.

A long-time resident in 1937 was Philip F. Donohue.  Since the turn of the century he had been a prominent figure within Tammany Hall.  In 1922 he had been appointed by Mayor John Francis Hylan as Commissioner of the Board of Water Supply, earning $12,000 a year—a considerable $156,000 today.  When the well-connected Donohue reached the mandatory retirement age of 74 in 1932, Mayor Jimmy Walker gave him an exemption from the rules.

Philip F. Donuhue died in his apartment in the St. George at the age of 79 on August 16, 1937.  Two days later Tammany Hall paid tribute by sending an official committee to the apartment and accompanying the body past Tammany Hall to St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church on 12th Street near Fourth Avenue.

Within the decade the neighborhood had declined from the fashionable residential area of the 1880s through the early 20th century.  In 1947 the St. George was converted to a Single Room Occupancy hotel.  Where there were once only two sprawling apartments per floor, there were now 22 furnished rooms.  In 1951 stores were installed at the lower level.

Little-noticed from the street, the incredible volume of carving includes fantastic beasts, imaginary beings, and a water-spouting head -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
The St. George enjoyed its moment of cinematic fame when it appeared in Woody Allen’s 1993 film Manhattan Murder Mystery.  Today the former St. George Residence is the 17 Hotel.  Other than replacement windows and a few minor alterations, the exterior of Thomas Osborne’s French Renaissance-inspired experiment in housing is little changed.

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