Friday, August 29, 2014

The 1891 Chas. E. Campbell House -- No. 212 Lenox Avenue

No. 212 was one of a row of four dwellings designed as a whole.  photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
By the time developers John M. Woods & Co., of Boston, completed the four speculative mansions at No. 206 to 212 Lenox Avenue in 1892, Dr. Charles E. Campbell was well-established and highly regarded in the medical community.  Four years earlier when rumors of foul play surrounded the untimely death of actress Lilian Olcott, it was Campbell’s testimony regarding her demise that put reporters’ suspicions to rest.

Born in Canada, Campbell had come to New York in 1857 and studied medicine in the New York Homoeopathic Medical College.  During the Civil War he was stationed in Washington, serving as a surgeon.  Then in 1888, the same year that Lilian Olcott died, the physician purchased an idle factory in Dexter, New York.  As a drastically different second occupation, he established the Dexter Sulphite Pulp and Paper Company.

By now the Lenox Avenue neighborhood had developed a respectable reputation as well.   Grand residences replaced the farm houses and country estates that had populated the area only a few decades earlier.  Although the New York subway would not be extended into Harlem until 1900; the owners of these properties did not need it--they rode in carriages.  In 1886 The New York Times described the area as “particularly desirable and all the houses that have been put up in this neighborhood are handsome, well-built, elegant structures, and the locality is free from many objectionable features.”

The four homes erected by John M. Woods & Co. were designed to form a visual unit.  Nos. 206 and 212 at the ends were nearly matching, and with the two identical homes in between, the group resembled a single, grand estate.

No. 212 Lenox Avenue did not sit vacant for long.  In May 1892 Dr. Campbell purchased the house from John M. Woods & Co. for $35,250, according to the Record and Guide on May 28.  For the hefty price (about $871,000 today) Campbell received a stately brick and brownstone mansion that couldn't quite make up its mind architecturally.

The rough-cut parlor and basement floors smacked, mostly, of Renaissance Revival.  An especially quirky dog-leg stoop made several turns before depositing visitors onto the sidewalk.  Two walls of different heights at the property line protected the stoop and the English basement.  Somewhat unexpectedly, the architect installed a classical two-part window like a little Greek temple next to the arched doorway with its oversized, scrolled keystone.  Stained glass transoms flanked the centered Ionic pilaster, and the whole was capped by a formal closed pediment.

The formal window treatment contrasted with the rough-cut facade -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The architect switched gears for the second and third floor; although the rough-cut brownstone continued as quoins up the sides of the red brick façade.  Two-story Romanesque arches connected two of the three bays and handsome terra cotta panels embellished the brick.  Above what was most likely an ambitious cornice was an exuberant Second Empire pyramidal mansard with fish scale tiles boasting a triple-bay dormer with a broken pediment, a hooded bullseye window, and elaborate iron cresting.

The Campbells had two sons.  The year after moving in James E. Campbell graduated from Yale University, publishing his “future address: 212 Lenox Avenue.”  Both James and his brother Clarence would follow their father and become physicians; although James would also serve as Secretary of the Dexter paper mill.

Dr. Campbell strikes a rather jaunty pose.  The Paper Mill and  Wood Pulp News, February 15, 1902 (copyright expired)
Campbell was instrumental in establishing the high-end community on Block Island and the family maintained a summer residence there.  In 1898 Charles had the house enlarged--the same year that he found himself behind bars.  Campbell was not far from his home on August 7, driving a light wagon near along Lenox Avenue at 120th Street.  He suddenly collided with Japanese bicyclist Meta Sago.  The 21-year old was “knocked from his wheel and sustained a severe scalp wound,” reported The New York Times.  He was taken to Harlem Hospital.  Campbell was arrested and “later was bailed out.”

By 1894 the Campbells were renting a room in the house.  That year E. A. Maher was boarding here when he two other investors formed The Electric Illuminating and Power Company of Long Island City. 

Close inspection reveals delicate carving on either side of the scrolled keystone -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

For at least four years, from  1902 through 1906, Dr. Frank Clerk Yeomans practiced medicine from the house.  Somewhat of a prodigy, Yeomans had graduated from Cornell University Medical School in 1900 with “highest honors” and received the Harriet Crocker Alexander Prize of $150 for general proficiency.  He became a member of the surgical staff of New York Hospital.  “He completed his service there January, 1902, and since then has been practicing medicine at 212 Lenox Avenue,” reported Yale University’s Sexennial Record in 1905.   By the following year he had been made Clinical Assistant in Surgery in the Cornell University Hospital’s Genito-Urinary Diseases Department.

Dr. Yeoman was gone in October 1908 when the Campbells placed a new advertisement in the New-York Tribune.  “Large front room in private family; gentlemen only; reference.”

Dr. Chester Rutter Brown answered the ad and would be in the house for at least two years.  He advertised his office hours “Until 10 A.M., 12 to 1 P.M., excepting Sundays and Wednesdays 6 to 8 P.M.  telephone Harlem 276.”

It appears that the Campbells leased the room because of tenuous financial circumstances.  Despite his medical practice and the seemingly successful paper mill, Charles Campbell nearly lost the mansion in 1909.  A Sheriff’s Sale was scheduled for Tuesday, December 20 “of all rights, title, etc., which C. E. Campbell had on Oct 23, 1906 or since.”

Somehow Charles E. Campbell held on to the Lenox Avenue house; and his funeral would be held in the parlor four years later.  In September 1913 the 72-year old died in the Block Island house following an operation.  In reporting his death The New York Times called him “one of the oldest practicing physicians in the city.”

Campbell’s widow continued to live on in the Lenox Avenue house and was highly active in charitable causes.  In April 1917, for instance, she hosted the monthly meeting of the New York Fresh Air Fund for Adults and Elderly People.

She continued to lease a room and on Friday, July 16, 1920 Jane E. Sinakoss died in the house.  The woman known as “Poddie,” was given a requiem mass at the beautiful Church of St. Thomas the Apostle on West 118th Street.

Only three years later another roomer would die here.  Virginia W. Gillespie Baldwin, widow of Colonel W. E. Baldwin of Columbia, Mississippi, died on February 28, 1923.  The funeral services were held in the house on March 2.

Four months later, after occupying the mansion for three decades, the Campbell family sold No. 212 Lenox Avenue.  In reporting the sale, The Times noted “The property was held at $32,000 and the sale carries with it possession.  Alterations will be made for business purposes.”

It was the end of the line for the 20-foot wide home as a private family residence.  It was divided into apartments and became home to a variety of tenants, like Ralph Moragne and his wife who lived here during the 1940s.  Moragne was at the time a military policeman stationed at No. 31 West 110th Street.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
Despite the indignation suffered by many of the once-grand homes in Harlem during the 20th century, No. 212 Lenox Avenue escaped relatively intact on the outside.  The cornice and the detailing of the windows above the entrance most likely became victims of a legally-required fire escape.  Yet despite this (and unsympathetic replacement windows) the house with its charming mish-mash of styles manages to retain its 19th century dignity.

No comments:

Post a Comment