A decade after speculative builders had lined the blocks branching off Central Park with identical and monotonous brownstone rowhouses, the 78th Street block between Fifth and Madison Avenues was still mostly undeveloped. In 1871 Silas M. Styles had erected three such homes; but nothing further would happen on the block until the 1880s.
When architect Edward Kilpatrick purchased the 23-foot wide plot at No. 4 East 78th Street, he intended that this home would stand out. The Queen Anne style was on the cutting edge of residential design and No. 4 would embrace it with passion. Kilpatrick began construction of the home in 1887 and when completed in 1889, it had all the architectural bells and whistles expected in the fanciful style.
A dramatic, sweeping stone stoop rose to the asymmetrical entrance floor. Three levels of rough-cut brownstone, including the basement, were surmounted by a story of red brick with brownstone trim. A steep mansard with a copper-clad dormer capped it all. As attention-grabbing as the off-set porch was; it was trumped by the broad arch of the second floor. A mid-century photograph shows the arch filled with glass panes—if these were original, this area may have been intended as a conservatory of sorts.
|The sweeping stoop emphasized the offset porch. Note that the stone fence to the right terminates in a wonderful carved lion's head. photo by Berenice Abbott from the collection of the New York Public Library|
As construction neared completion, on January 5, 1889, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Kilpatrick had sold the house to “Fannie wife of Arnold Falk.” The Falks took out a mortgage of $24,000 on their new home, about $590,000 today.
Falk, with his brother Gustav, was a partner in G. Falk & Bro. Born in Germany, Falk had started out in business in America as a cigar-manufacturer. In 1859 he and his brother partnered to import leaf tobacco from Holland and Hamburg, and export American tobacco to Europe. America’s Successful Men of Affairs said of him in 1895, “Success came to this house through their enterprise, industry and good character.”
The Falks would not enjoy their upscale new home for long. Arnold died in Heidelberg, Germany on June 18, 1891. The house passed rather quickly through new owners. In 1895 it was purchased by Mary A. McLaughlin, whose husband was a police captain. He was placed under harsh scrutiny by the New York State Senate’s Lexow Committee that same year. The committee was formed specifically to weed out corruption and graft within the New York City Police Department.
Frederick A. Burnham, President of the Mutual Reserve Fund Life Association, purchased the home from the disgraced couple. He was as well known for his chess-playing abilities as for his business acumen. Burnham regularly appeared in newspapers reporting the results of chess tournaments. In April 1897 he sold the house for about $75,000. At the time the family of Jacob Dreicer was living at No. 118 East 64th Street. But before long they would move into the fashionable home off Central Park.
Dreicer had come to New York from Russia in 1866. Two years later he established his jewelry business at No. 1128 Broadway. At a time when American socialites were interested mainly in pearls, Dreicer brought with him an appreciation for brightly-colored gems like emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. Decades later The New York Times would remember that “colored stones were valued by many persons as little more than colored glass.”
The Dreicer name became synonymous with exquisite jewelry. In 1885 Jacob took his son, Michael, into the firm as a partner, changing the firm’s name to J. Dreicer & Son. Unpleasant publicity came to the family towards the end of 1897 when daughter Mary (known as Mamie) filed for divorce from her husband, Max Lasar. To make matters even messier, Max, a diamond dealer, was arrested for smuggling, and $100,000 worth of unset diamonds seized on December 3.
In reporting the arrest, The Sun mentioned “Mrs. Lasar, was a Miss Dreicer, a daughter of Jacob Dreicer…who, with his son Michael, keeps a swell jewelry store at 292 Fifth avenue. The marital troubles of Mr. and Mrs. Max Lasar have attracted considerable notice.”
By 1911 Jacob and his wife Gitel were living in the East 78th Street house. The area had been plagued by burglaries that year. On February 22 The Times said “Residents of the block have been agitated because three weeks ago thieves entered the home of Jacob H. Schiff and stole clothing of two servants from their rooms…Also about the same time, it was learned last night, thieves attempted to pry off one of the iron bars guarding the Clark art gallery.”
Then on February 21, Mary Ryan, a servant in the Colfax house at No. 9 East 78th Street, was startled by two men on the roof of a three-story extension behind the mansion. She threw open the window and demanded to know what they wanted.
“We’re private watchmen,” one snapped. “Shut the window and forget it. We are looking for burglars.”
So Mary did. But later, when she happened upon Thomas Smith, a watchman for the gargantuan mansion of William A. Clark, she mentioned the encounter to him. Suspicious, Smith rushed back to the Clark house and up to the fourth floor where the art gallery bar had been tampered with earlier. He saw the beams of flashlights on the gallery roof and telephoned police.
While police rushed to the mansion, the thieves were apparently scared off by Smith. In the meantime the Dreicers were entertaining in their home. The Dreicer’s butler, Henry Whitehead, who lived on the top floor, was busy with the reception. The burglars jimmied open a fourth floor window and made off with some of Whitehead’s clothing and a box of cigars. Police surmised they heard the voices of the people below and were frightened away before they could take anything of value.
Following her divorce, Mamie and her son, Walter Lasar, had come to live with her parents. In 1916 the somewhat pudgy young man graduated from Yale, where his classmates had referred to him as “Dubie.” Later that year a college publication said “Lasar is undecided about his future occupation.”
That year the Dreicers did renovations to the house. On September 30 the Record & Guide reported that they had commissioned architect Henry O. Chapman to add an apartment and one-story addition to the house at a cost of $2,500.
The Dreicers, like all wealthy families, were acutely aware that their mansion was a tempting target for burglars during the summer months when the family was away. It was possibly the 1911 burglary that prompted them to install a burglar alarm. But on Monday, May 27, 1918 when the Dreicers closed the house and headed for their summer estate at Lawrence, Long Island, they forgot one thing. The Sun, on May 31, said “The burglar alarm protecting the big stone residence of Jacob Dreicer of the Fifth avenue jewelry firm of Dreicer & Co. at 4 East Seventy-eight street was left unconnected for the first time in many years.”
As luck would have it, Walter Lasar went back to the house around dusk on May 30. When he reached the front door, he saw that the glass doorknob had been broken. Rather than enter, he rushed to Fifth Avenue and hailed a policeman.
Officer Joseph Healy went inside, stationing Walter on the stoop. Floor by floor the policeman checked the house; finally hearing the sound of labored breathing and footsteps “of persons who obviously were struggling under a heavy burden,” reported The Sun.
Healy pulled his nightstick and handgun and crouched on the staircase. When the burglars appeared, he pounced, ready for a fight. But “the two were so frightened at the figure that jumped from the dark that Healy had little trouble in catching both before they knew what was happening.”
The two “husky boys” were school-aged. William Kelly was 13 years old and his accomplice, Thomas Cody was just 12. The boys had crammed everything they could carry into suit cases. At the 67th Street station police said “the contents of the suit cases were worth several thousand dollars. Especially valuable appeared the glittering contents of several small boxes filled with stones of various sizes, shapes and coloring, many of them diamonds.”
The young criminals were turned over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Walter Lasar soon became less undecided about his future and in 1920 had risen to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the Quartermaster Section of the U.S. Army Reserves. That year Gitel Dreicer was looking for a new girl to serve in her dining room. An advertisement in both The Sun and the New York Herald on May 15 read “Wanted: A competent waitress with best of reference.”
The following year would be devastating for the Dreicer family. On July 26, 1921, Michael Dreicer was at his summer estate, Deepdale, formerly owned by William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. The 54-year old jeweler died unexpectedly that day. His father was deeply affected. Less than a month later, on August 14, the 82-year old Jacob Dreicer died suddenly in his Lawrence, Long Island summer house. The Evening World attributed his death to a broken heart.
“There was a strong tie of respect and affection between them and it is said the son’s death was a mortal blow to the father.”
Living in the East 78th Street house with Gitel Dreicer were two of her three daughters and two grandsons. Mamie had retaken her maiden name of Mary Dreicer and interestingly enough, Walter also renounced name Lasar name, becoming Walter Dreicer. Frances was widowed. The population of the mansion was reduced by one in April 1922 when Frances’s son, Louis S. Davidson, married Alice Virginia Ansbacher in the Ritz-Carlton.
The women lived together on East 78th until December 6, 1933 when Gitel Dreicer, 89-years old, died. The estate was divided equally among Mary, Frances, and their married sister Regina who lived at No. 270 Park Avenue.
Walter Dreicer never married, living on in the in the house until his death at the age of 44 in October 1938. His funeral was held in the mansion on Thursday morning October 6.
A decade later the house was divided into large apartments, one each on the parlor and second floor; and two on each floor above. A doctor’s office was established in the basement. It was most likely at this time that the wonderful brownstone stoop was removed and a more commercial entrance installed at sidewalk level.
Perhaps the most noteworthy resident in the renovated house would be the young Woody Allen. Eric Lax, in his Woody Allen: A Biography, mentions “As part of his continuing education, every afternoon at four o’clock Woody walked the four blocks from his apartment at 4 East Seventy-eighth Street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent half an hour studying a different exhibit. His choice for viewing was sequential rather than random and so eventually, by doing his thirty minutes each day, he studied the whole museum.”
Despite the tragic loss of the dramatic stoop; Kilpatrick’s robust design still makes a bold statement on the block among the more expected limestone-fronted mansions of the period.
photographs by the author
photographs by the author