Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Leo Koenig House -- No. 80 West 12th Street

Nos. 78 and 80 (right) were part of a long row of identical houses -- photo by Alice Lum
A successful attorney with offices at No. 74 Nassau Street, Daniel A. Baldwin put aside legal matters in 1843 to delve into speculative real estate.  He constructed a long row of 16 Greek Revival homes on West 12th Street, stretching from No. 54 through No. 84.  Intended for merchant-class families, the brick-faced houses wore only the simple, dignified elements expected of the style.  Tall floor-to-ceiling windows at parlor level nearly matched the height of the sturdy stone entranceways.  The brownstone stoops with their simple ironwork gently expanded at sidewalk level to allow for the pretty cast newel posts capped by urns.

The handsome stoop railings curve down to meet urn-capped newels.  photo by Alice Lum

Identical to its neighbors was No. 80, which became home to the Samuel C. Clark family by the 1860s.  The atmosphere of the house was cheerless in the middle of the decade.  On March 16, 1865 the Clark’s son was drafted into service in the Civil War.  Almost as dangerous as the battlefields at the time was typhoid fever, called “camp fever”—a significant killer of Confederate and Union soldiers.

Ironically, however, it was not the younger Clark who was struck down by typhoid fever.  A year later, on Tuesday morning, May 14, 1866 45-year old Samuel C. Clark died of the disease.  His funeral was held in the parlor here two days later at 2:00 p.m.  It is doubtful that his soldier son was present.

In 1882 No. 80 West 12th Street was purchased by Leo Koenig.  A Lutheran minister, he was born in 1844 in Frankfort-on-Oder, Germany.  He studied at Halle and Erlangen before arriving in America at the age of 22.  Since around 1879 he had been pastor of the nearby St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church on Sixth Avenue at 15th Street.  With Rev. Koenig and his wife in the house were sons Leo and Nicholas, and daughter Adelaide.  It was most likely the Koenigs who slightly updated the house with handsome Italianate arched entrance doors and a neo-Grec cornice.

The house number was incorporated into the handsome Italianate doors.  A swinging brass plate kept drafts from entering through the keyhole -- photo by Alice Lum
Koenig was a force within the German church and St. Paul’s prospered.  As the turn of the century neared, the minister pushed for a new church building slightly to the north in Chelsea—a neighborhood of mixed cultures and nationalities.  On the afternoon of July 4, 1897 Rev. Koenig personally placed the mortar below the cornerstone of the new church at No. 226 West 22nd Street.

Before long son Nicholas would be making a name for himself as well.  An expert in Oriental languages, in 1906 he began the arduous task of translating Al-Kindi’s 9th century The History of the Governors of Egypt.  Nicholas August Koenig poured over the manuscript in the British Museum that had lain untouched for three centuries.  His highly-important book was published in 1908.

The following year Nicholas, who was also a lecturer in Oriental languages at Columbia University, left for Jerusalem as a Thayer Fellow in the American School of Oriental Research, and returned in 1910.  He was incensed the following year when word came of archeologists removing relics from the Mosque of Omar.  Among the reputed artifacts held there was said to be the Ark of the Covenant.

Nicholas Koenig recognized the affront to both the Jews and the Muslims. “The profanation of the Mosque of Omar, or the Mosque Al-Apea, its proper name, does not lie any more in the carrying away of relics than in the entering upon the digging in the sanctuary without permission from the authorities,” he complained.  

“The place is sacred to Mohammedans because it was here that Mohammed ascended to heaven after his night ride from Mecca, according to the teaching of their religion,” he told The Advocate: America’s Jewish Journal in May 1911.  He also addressed the issue of the Ark.  “This is a remarkable discovery if it has been made for the Jews upon their return from the Babylonian exile seem not to have know[n] the whereabouts of the Ark.”

While Nicholas was off in exotic places, the rest of the family was content with the seaside.  On August 8, 1909 The New York Times reported that the rest of the Koenig family had checked into one of the “leading hotels” in fashionable Cape May, New Jersey.

The outbreak of the First World War brought on troubling times for German Americans.  Tensions increased as German-speaking citizens were viewed with suspicion.  But like many other Americans with German names, in 1916 young Leo Keonig packed his things and left for the Federal Military Training Camp.

A year later he was back home and on October 20, 1917 his father assisted in his marriage ceremony to Dorothy Wilson Gaston in St. Agnes Chapel.  Adelaide Koenig served as the only attendant for the bride.

As he grew older, Rev. Leo Koenig was afflicted with arteriosclerosis.  Nevertheless, as The New York Times later noted, “he kept up his pastoral work.”  The end would come gently for the elderly pastor.  On October 13, 1919 he took a midday nap, during which he quietly passed away “presumably of heart disease,” according to The Times.

The 75-year old minister had been pastor of St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church for four decades.  His remarkable management sense left the church financially well-off.

Within the year the Koenig family was hoping for additional income.  On May 12, 1920 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune offering “3 rooms and bath; 2 business people; private house; permanent.”

Fifteen years later, on January 7, 1935, Lillian Mendlowitz would knock on the door seeking a room.  The 27-year old student at the New School for Social Research had been living with her brother, Leonard, at No. 161 West 16th Street.  Tragically, the troubled young woman was not looking for a place to live—rather she wanted a place to die.  That afternoon she ended her life by inhaling gas in the room she had just rented.

After owning the house for 68 years, the Koenigs sold it in October 1950 to Arthur Gardner Rankin.  The house was assessed at the time at $29,000—about $265,000 today.  Rankin was art director for the American Broadcasting Company.  In 1955 he and Jules Bass would form the production company Videocraft International, producing television commercials.  But it was their stop motion animated features, under the company name Rankin/Bass Productions, that would become household favorites.  The firm produced television classics like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and The Year Without a Santa Claus.

The insertion of wooden panels omitted the need for custom replacement windows.  The iron shutter hinges still survive.  photo by Alice Lum
After more than 170 years, No. 80 West 12th Street remains a single-family home.  The windows have been replaced and those on the parlor floor have been shortened by the insertion of wooden panels.  Someone thought it would be a good idea to paint the stone and brick.  It wasn’t.  But despite these changes, the house is admirably intact. 

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