Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Victor Hugo Jackson House -- No. 240 Lenox Avenue

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
Since the land was acquired by New York City in 1839 until the 1870s, Mount Morris Square was a destination spot for New Yorkers.  Weekend excursions to the park far to the north were spent in picnicking and strolling in the country air.  The remoteness of the park changed in 1872 when the elevated train service was extended into Harlem.

Now, in addition to the developing Upper East and West Sides, there was another potential suburb.  Wealthy speculators rushed to grab up blocks of property and erect rows of handsome dwellings.  Among them was the row of five homes stretching from No. 240 Lenox Avenue, at the corner of 122nd street to No. 248. 

By the time the row was constructed, a fashionable neighborhood had already begun sprouting along the broad avenue.  Holy Trinity Church, later renamed St. Martin’s, sat on the opposite corner of 122nd Street; a magnificent Romanesque Revival structure designed by William A. Potter and completed in 1888.  Across Lenox Avenue was a row of identical brownstone-clad neo-Grec homes with handsome porticos.

But this new row would draw from a grab bag of styles, resulting in especially eye-catching and up-to-date residences.  Four stories tall including a high mansard roof, they sat on limestone English basements.  No. 240 anchored the row and was the most desirable because of its windows on three sides.  The Second Empire-style mansard was covered in fish scale tiles and pierced by cast metal dormers.  The cornice, too, with its twining vines and applied rosettes, was of pressed metal.  The three floors of red brick borrowed elements of Queen Anne in its bands of terra cotta tiles and multi-paned windows.  Paneled Queen Anne-style chimneys were topped by clustered terra cotta chimney pots.  Wonderfully quirky ironwork down the stoop and around the areaway featured twisted, wrought iron posts, wavy balusters, and decorative curlicues. 

The elegant row combined a variety of architectural styles -- photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

An unusual touch was the hefty, carved limestone entrance way.  A lion’s head peers out from floral decoration within the classical pediment and elaborate Corinthian capitals sit on scrolled pilasters.  Totally out of place, it would be more expected in a late 19th century apartment building.

When William S. Hollingsworth purchased the house from Harriet H. Holder on October 27, 1890, his mortgage was $28,000 (almost $700,000 today).  Hollingsworth would not hold on to the property for long and by the turn of the century it was owned by Dr. Victor Hugo Jackson.

The bachelor dentist was a pioneer in the field of orthodontics.  In 1893 he attended the World’s Columbia Dental Congress where much attention was given to his advances in straightening teeth. Dr. Jackson was blunt in his opinion on the subject of what materials were best suited for constructing the appliances.  As reported by The Dental Cosmos, “He had found nothing so good as piano-wire, having tried gold wire and iridium and gold.  These are good, but as soon as you apply heat to hard solder then you destroy all the spring and spoil the virtue of the wire.”

Perhaps No. 240 was too much house for the dentist, for it appears he took in boarders.  In 1903 sisters Anna and Elizabeth B. Craig lived here.  Both taught at Public School No. 7.  And in 1907 the 69-year old George B. Brown and his wife were living here.  George died in the house on Thursday, October 1 that year.

None of Jackson’s boarders would be as colorful as the local politician William B. Stambaugh.  In 1913 when John Purroy Mitchel received the backing of the Fusion committees (a cooperation of the Republican and Independent parties) in his run for mayor, Stambaugh launched into action.

Mitchel had already made a name for himself as a reformer and was popular among the anti-Tammany groups.  In an effort to get Charles S. Whitman elected over Mitchel, Stambaugh called a meeting in the Lenox Avenue house on August 2, 1913.  The following day The New York Times reported “The Whitman Independence League was organized at 240 Lenox Avenue yesterday afternoon.  William B. Stambaugh is the moving spirit of the new organization, which has for its purpose not only to obtain the nomination of District Attorney Whitman for Mayor, but also to put a full ticket in the field.”

The problem for Stambaugh and his followers was that Whitman was not eager to run.  He told reporters at a conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire on August 4 that he was “unalterably opposed” to the use of his name as a third candidate.

“I have fought Tammany Hall all my life and shall continue to do so.  You can be sure that no amount of pressure or argument will induce me to do anything that will give aid or succor to Tammany Hall,” he said.

Stambaugh was unmoved.  The New York Times reported the following day “The Whitman Independence League, at a meeting at 240 Lenox Avenue last night, passed resolutions empowering a committee of five to meet Mr. Whitman to-day to urge him to agree to have his name submitted to the people on the primary ballot…William B. Stambaugh, Chairman of the league, said he thought the plan was a solution of the present difficulty in that the voters themselves could determine just whom they wanted for Mayor.”

Despite Stambaugh's efforts, Michel was elected Mayor of New York the following year.  But, undeterred by the setback, William B. Stambaugh threw his hat into the Congressional race that year.  On June 29, 1914 the New-York Tribune reported that he “announced his candidacy for Congress on the Republican ticket in the 19th district.”  In reporting his run, the newspaper noted he was a member “of several clubs and fraternal orders, including the Harlem Republican Club, Citizens Union, Collegiate Club of New York, and Bunting Lodge 665, F. and A. M.”

Queen Anne chimneys coexist with a French Second Empire roof.  The cast metal of the dormers and cornice is evident in the current rusting condition -- photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
In the meantime, Dr. Jackson quietly went ahead with his dentistry in his office at No. 57 West 57th Street, and worked on perfecting the science of braces.  The same year that Stambaugh ran for Congress, Jackson introduced the Jackson System of Orthodontia for straightening teeth.  He also founded the Victor Hugo Jackson Clinic of Oral Surgery and amassed a collection of dental models and library of manuscripts.

On March 1, 1924 the wealthy dentist sat down to write his will.  Although he named eight relatives, giving them a total of $52,000 from his extensive fortune, he wrote flatly that “no other relative has taken any interest in my lifework and I am not including them.”

Instead, he lavished large amounts on charities.  To the University of Michigan he bequeathed more than $150,000; $94,000 to the Dental School of the University of Buffalo; and $10,000 each to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Jackson was adamant regarding the use of his money going to the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Rather than for the care of animals, it was to “be used for the prosecution of all persons in any way connected with taking away the eyesight of animals, such as is practiced on some of our noble-spirited horses.”

Jackson’s careful and detailed will was, as it turned out, all for nothing.  He died on January 26, 1929 leaving an estate of what would amount to about $4.5 million today.  A week later his relatives filed an application to have the will pronounced void.  Jackson had inadvertently failed to have his will witnessed.

Surrogate O’Brien, on February 9, 1929, invalidated the will.  The more than $270,000 in charitable bequests were lost and Jackson’s family, whom he had purposely left out of the will, divided his fortune.

The house at No. 240 Lenox Avenue was assessed at $20,000—a fraction of its value at the turn of the century.  The Harlem neighborhood had suffered and things only got worse when later that year the country was crippled by the Great Depression.

In June 1938 the Jacob Goodman Company sold the house “to a buyer for altering,” according to The New York Times.  The “altering,” completed on December 8 that year, resulted 25 “furnished rooms” in Dr. Jackson’s cultured home.  It was now what was brutally termed a flop house.

But change came to the Mount Morris Park area towards the end of the century.  Residents realized the historic and architectural value of the century-old buildings.  A movement was initiated to preserve the heritage of the neighborhood.

The scar between the second and third floor as well as the gruesome platform below the oriel are no doubt the result of a former fire escape -- photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
In 2013 another conversion was completed on No. 240 Lenox Avenue—resulting in one spacious apartment per floor.  Dr. Victor Hugo Jackson’s handsome home still shows the scars of abuse; yet it radiates the essence of an elegant turn-of-the-century Harlem.

1 comment:

  1. Just splendid. Working on a 3d model of this building. Your information is so helpful. Thank you for this and other outstanding posts.