Thursday, January 29, 2015

The 1907 Fleischmann Mansion -- No. 18 West 86th Street

By the turn of the century Julius Fleischmann had amassed a sizable fortune as a real estate operator and builder.  He and his wife, the former Julia Bauxbaum, had two sons, Gustav and Leon, who joined their father in the business, the Fleischmann Realty and Construction Company.  In 1906, as Julius Fleischmann inched towards retirement, his sons embarked on a lofty project.

The property at No. 18 West 86th Street, near Central Park, was acquired and the young men commissioned the architectural firm of Buchman & Fox to design a high-end residence for their parents and the family.  Completed in 1907, the 25-foot wide mansion could easily have fit in with those on the opposite side of the park off Fifth Avenue.

Faced in rusticated granite, the five-story Beaux Arts home was accessed by a centered doorway above four shallow steps.  Directly above, a magnificent iron-railed balcony stretched the width of the façade, which bowed slightly at the second and third floors.  A handsome copper-clad mansard featured three high dormers slightly hidden behind a carved stone balustrade.

Soon after moving in, Julius Fleischmann basked in the spotlight of his long-anticipated project that would be, perhaps, his last before full retirement.  The Fleischmann Turkish Baths, at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, was opened on February 7, 1908.  Fleischmann had been contemplating the half-million dollar project for several years.

The New-York Tribune said “The most valuable feature of the baths, it is considered, is a solarium, or sun parlor.  It covers a surface of 20,000 square feet, surrounded by glass, and is fitted up to represent a tropical forest.  There are marble fountains and statuary in the baths.”  Fleischmann told reporters that the water in the 60,000-gallon pool “is purer than the water New Yorkers use for drinking.”

The Fleischmann brothers may have been motivated to build the house in part by their mother’s depression.  In 1905 she underwent an appendectomy, and then in 1907 was thrown from her carriage when the horse spooked and ran.  Since then she was “subject to despondency at times,” as was later reported in the New-York Tribune.  The sons explain that the two incidents “left her nervous” and “she had recently been troubled with insomnia.”

Julia was born in Frankfort, Germany and arrived in New York in 1870 when she was 19 years old.  Now, while her husband increased his fortune, Julia was active in charities.  The 60-year old woman seemed to have her depression under control and none of the household noticed anything alarming.  After moving to West 86th Street, the aging woman took afternoon walks either on the scenic Riverside Drive or around the Central Park Reservoir. 

In October 1908 Julia returned home from the family summer estate.  “She seemed then in excellent health,” recalled Gustav a few weeks later.  Then, on Thursday November 5 she went for a walk in Central Park, followed by some shopping downtown.  At 4:00 she was back home in time for tea and an hour later told Gustav’s wife that she was going to her bedroom to rest until dinner time.

At 5:30 Julius Fleischmann went to his wife’s room.  The door was unlocked and she was not inside.  No one had seen her leave the bedroom or the house; yet Julia was nowhere to be found.  Later Gustav told reporters “On the dresser was a money belt containing $246 in bills, which she always carried.  She had taken nothing of value except her wedding ring.  We believe she got down unperceived from her room on the fourth floor to the basement by means of the automatic elevator.  She then slipped out into the street through the basement door.”

Hospitals were searched and friends were notified.  But the wealthy Julia Fleischman had disappeared.  After a description was given to police (“A short, gray-haired woman, age 60, height 5 feet 4 inches, weight 115 pounds, complexion sallow, dressed in a black tailor-made suit”) and newspapers ran articles about the mystery, tips and leads flowed in.  One woman was certain she had seen Julia on a street car late Sunday night, three days later.  The family was heartened by the woman’s description, which included a collar of four necklaces of black beads—a detail not included in the details the family had released.

The witness said “She then wanted a transfer, which the conductor could not give her.  As she got off the car at Fifth Avenue she made the following remark: ‘What will I do now?  It is so far to walk, and I did not bring any money with me.’”  The compassionate conductor gave her five cents to get on the correct street car.

A friend said she saw Julia at Lenox Avenue and 113th Street and “expressed surprise at seeing her so far from home alone,” said The Times.  Another man said he saw her at Broadway and 113th Street when she asked him how to get to Eighth Avenue and Central Park.  None of the many leads panned out.

It appears that Julius Fleischmann blamed the new house.  On the Monday following Julia’s disappearance The New York Times reported that Gustav “was told of a rumor that his father, Julius, was so prostrated over his wife’s disappearance that he had determined to sell the house, in which he and all his family lived.”

Almost two weeks after the disappearance, the family underwent a mixture of hope and fear when a body was discovered in a vault under a Second Avenue sidewalk.  “From the description sent out by the police it was at first thought that the dead woman was Mrs. Julius Fleischmann, who disappeared recently from her home, No. 18 West 68th [sic] street.”  It was not Julia.  “A son of Mrs. Fleischmann viewed the body and said it was not that of his mother.”

Julius Fleischmann would spend nearly $10,000 in efforts to find his wife.  On November 9 the New-York Tribune reported “On Saturday dynamite was exploded in the North River, but without result.”  The New York Times expanded on the account, saying “Eleven rowboats were sent out from various points of the North River early in the morning, and until nightfall continued to move about and explode heavy charges of dynamite on the chance that the missing woman had thrown herself into the river in a moment of despondency and that the concussion would cause the body to rise.”

Simultaneously grappling hooks were used to drag the Central Park Reservoir where the woman was fond of strolling, just a few blocks away from the Fleischmann mansion.  No trace of Julia Fleischmann was found.

Then, on November 14, Robert Scott and John Nevins were fishing on the North River (later renamed the Hudson) when one of their lines became snagged on something heavy.  It brought a woman’s body to the surface.  But, as reported by the New-York Tribune the following day, “Just as the body reached the surface of the water where the two men could get a good look at it, the fish hook snapped and the body sank out of sight.”

The fishermen gave a description of the body to Leon Fleischmann who said “that he believes the body was that of his mother, and urged a hundred and fifty searchers to recover the body by dredging and dynamiting the river.”

It would more than a week before Julia’s body was recovered, found floating in the river by Captain William Burrows of the city boat Wonderder.  Gustav identified the body of his mother.

The New-York Tribune said “There was nothing about the body to indicate foul play.  Her son believes that she wandered to the East River and jumped overboard while suffering from temporary insanity.”

Julia’s funeral was held in the 86th Street mansion at 10:00 on the morning of November 24.  True to his word, Julius Fleischmann quickly sold the house.

It was purchased by retired merchant and real estate dealer Edward D. Farrell.  Born in Ireland in 1847, he was married to Katherine G. McGowan and the pair had seven children.  The extent of the family's wealth was evidenced a few months before the purchase when thieves broke into the Farrell summer cottage in Belle Haven, Connecticut.

The family went to bed around 12:30 am on July 6, 1908 in the estate which the New-York Tribune said “is on a street that is just outside the limits of the police protection and in a rather lonely place.”  While the family slept, crooks entered a cellar window.  “The burglars took all of the silverware in sight that could easily be packed in dress suit cases.  They were evidently in no particular hurry, for they stopped to rifle the ice box and consumed ten bottles of beer and two bottles of wine.  They left no trace which would lead to their identification.”

The loot included three large silver trays, eight silver vases, 24 salt cellars, 24 asparagus forks, 24 butter spreaders, 21 fish forks, four almond dishes, 24 coffee spoons, an ice cream cutter, a cake knife, two large serving spoons, six silver forks and a loving cup Edward Farrell had won playing golf.  The total value of the heist was $5,000—about $131,000 in today’s dollars.

Farrell was a member of the American Irish Historical Society and the Catholic Club.  The American Catholic Who’s Who called him a “generous contributor to deserving charities.”  Katherine Farrell, like Julia Fleischmann and most other wealthy socialites, was heavily involved in charitable causes.  The house was frequently the scene of teas, luncheons and receptions for groups such as the Eclectic Club, which concerned “itself with grave social problems and broadly directed charities,” according to Club Women of New York in 1905.

On Wednesday, September 1, 1915 the 68-year old Edward D. Farrell died in the house.  Three days later at 9:30 a.m. the funeral was held in the mansion, followed by a solemn requiem mass at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on Columbus Avenue at 59th Street.

Katherine lived on in the house, surrounded by her servants and still-unmarried children.  The house would be the scene of yet another funeral three years later.  Son T. Wallace Farrell had joined the Army as the United States entered World War I.  The young soldier would not see action, dying instead at Camp Humphreys, Virginia, on October 5, 1918.  His funeral was held in the house on Thursday, October 10, followed, as had his father’s been, with a solemn requiem mass at St. Paul the Apostle.

One by one the children married.  Katherine Gertrude was married to James Stacey Sullivan in Greenwich, Connecticut on June 21, 1923; and her sister, Dorothy Gladys, had a most unusual ceremony 11 years later.

Dorothy, like her mother, was involved in charitable works and held the position of a director of the Barat Settlement House on Chrystie Street.  The social worker faced a major operation in May 1934 and her recovery was deemed “uncertain.”  With the operation only a few days away, Dorothy’s hospital room was decorated and her wedding to broker John Lawrence Gormley was performed.

“In an effort to make the room cheerful, the walls were banked with flowers, an altar erected, and all medical equipment removed,” said The New York Times.  Dorothy was unable to stand and she was married “while sitting up in her bed at the French Hospital.”

Daughter Hannah had moved back with her mother in the 86th Street house after the death of her husband, John Lucas.  Hannah and John had three children.  On June 3, 1936 Katherine Farrell suffered the loss of yet another child when Hannah died in the house.  Once again the mansion would be the scene of a funeral, this one on Saturday, June 6.

The following year, on September 10, 1937, the aged Katherine G. McGowan Farrell died in the mansion she and her husband had purchased nearly three decades earlier. 

Within months the house had been converted to apartments and a “penthouse” erected on the roof.  The first floor contained one, sweeping apartment; there were two each on the second through fifth floors; and “six furnished rooms” in the penthouse.

As the 21st century neared, the house had suffered.  Discovered by Susan Weber Soros, the director and founder of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts; she described it to a New York Times reporter as “in a remarkable state of decay, but I could still feel its Old World elegance.”

Although much of Buchman & Fox’s interior detailing had been lost, remaining elements included “interior mahogany paneling, stained-glass floral and trellis-patterned windows, herringbone parquet oak floors, period moldings and a winding central staircase.”  The Center, a graduate school of Bard College, purchased the house for $2.1 million. 

In the summer of 1992 architects Stanley Prowler and Mark Carthew initiated a year-long restoration.  Partitions were removed to bring the rooms back to their original proportions.  The restoration and updating cost the Center more than twice the price of the structure at $4.5 million.

Today the Fleischmann mansion looks almost exactly as it did the day that Julius and Julia Fleischmann first walked in.  The house which has seen so much personal tragedy is a fine reminder of the early days of West 86th Street, when it was populated by the very wealthy.

photographs by the author

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