Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Chas. H. Fowler House -- No. 338 W 72nd Street

The brick and brownstone rowhouse is squeezed in between tall apartment buildings.

By May 1888 West 72nd Street had already seen significant development.  The owners of the nearly 60 residences and more than 100 vacant building plots along the street estimated their combined property value at nearly $8 million.   The massive Dakota apartment building facing Central Park and completed four years earlier anchored the wide street.  It culminated at Riverside Drive, where elaborate mansions were rising.

That spring the Park Department made plans to pave the dusty, pothole filled street.  But then it changed its mind.  On May 26, 1888 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide noted “The Park Department showed a disposition to disband the improvement of West 72d street, as outlined several months ago, urging want of funds.”  The property owners were not pleased.

The Guide said “The urgent need for the called-for improvement is generally acknowledged, 72d street being the principal thoroughfare on the west side and the main artery between the Central Park and Riverside and West end avenues.  Its present condition is notoriously bad.”

The Park Department’s postponement of paving “stirred up the property-owners on that handsome street that they got up a petition which…was signed by the owners of three-quarters of the entire frontage from Central Park West to Riverside Drive.”  Among the signors was J. Rufus Smith.

The letter from the angry (and wealthy) property owners changed the Department’s again.  The Commissioners voted unanimously to pave 72nd Street “with macadamized pavement,” and extended the curbs seven feet on each side to allow space for tree and grass planting.

J. Rufus Smith had much at stake in the paving of 72nd Street.  The improvement would naturally increase property values and Smith had been busy within the past few years erecting speculative homes in the area.  (In a single deal in November 1890 he would sweep up 36 lots on the block bounded by 76th and 77th Streets, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.)

As the paving issue played out, Smith was working with architect Ralph S. Townsend on an upscale rowhouse at No. 338 West 72nd Street.   The site’s exceptional views looked northward over Riverside Park and enjoyed unparalleled sunlight and cooling river breezes in the humid summers.

Completed in 1890, Townsend’s Romanesque Revival residence stood four stories over the English basement.  Clad in Roman brick, it forewent the abundance of medieval-style carvings, stocky columns, gargoyles and other creatures that the style invited.  Instead Townsend’s ornamentation was reserved and dignified. 

Townsend used color to break up the visual weight of the structure.  The brownstone base supported a floor of lighter-colored brown brick, which was followed by two stories clad in a subtly lighter shade.  Between the arched openings of the top floor and the cornice, the architect used beige bricks.  The progressively lighter-colored materials gave the visual impression that the weight of the structure lessened with each floor.

The problem of an adequately-wide staircase hall inside resulted in a slightly asymmetrical design.  Townsend separated the hallway windows from the two-bay wide rooms with a hefty pilaster; while the remaining two openings flanked a trim, engaged column of rounded brick.

As the house was being completed, George Oakes was suffering from an eye disease, erysipelas.  He had married Jane Austin, daughter of a millionaire broker William Austin.   In 1884 Jane was sued by her three brothers in an ugly court battle over their father’s estate.

 For years George Oakes had been the managing clerk of the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel; but around 1887 his diseased forced him to quit working.  On November 8, 1890 he died in his home at No. 248 West 23rd Street.

Within months Jane Oakes moved into the new house at No. 338 West 72nd Street, along with son William and his wife, and daughter Jennie.   Following the prescribed period of morning, Jane Oakes threw herself headlong into entertaining in her new home. 

Among the prestigious caterers to New York society during the Gilded Age was Clark.  Social columns were filled with reports of wedding breakfasts, suppers and collations supplied and “served by Clark.”  On January 24, 1893 The New York Times reported that Jane “gave a dinner party last night” and gave the names of those on the impressive guest list.  The newspaper ended by saying succinctly “Clark served.”

A far more important entertainment would be held here later that year.  At 8:00 on the evening of October 4, 1893 Jennie was married to George Wilmert Swain, president of the Endicott Democratic Club.  The New-York Tribune noted “A large reception followed at the home of the bride’s mother, No. 388 West Seventy-second-st.”

Jane Austin Oakes was still here for at least another year, hosting glittering affairs.  But by the turn of the new century No. 338 was home to Rastus S. Ransom.   An attorney with offices at No. 128 Broadway, Ransom was highly involved in politics.  A former judge of the Surrogate Courts, he was considered as Police Commissioner in 1901 by Mayor-elect Seth Low.

Among the influential attorney’s clients was Ella S. Conkling.   Late at night on March 14 his peaceful evening was interrupted by an unexpected visit from her and two men.

Ella had married well-to-do woolen manufacturer Theodore Conkling in 1894, but his heavy drinking caused them to soon separate.  They reconciled; but Theodore’s intemperance led to a second separation and, finally, a divorce in November 1899.

Ella Conkling was now making her living by speculating in real estate.  Early in March 1901 she moved into No. 62 West 70th Street.   On the evening of March 14 she was expecting her real estate lawyers, Mark Schlessinger and his brother Edward, to discuss business.

When she opened her door at 9:30, instead of the Schlessingers she was met by her ex-husband.  The New York Times said “He had been drinking, she thought.  She tried to slam the door.  He was too quick for her, and got in.  He finally seized her by the throat.  She struggled.  Then it was, she said, that the revolver was used.”

While Ella struggled with Theodore Conkling on the carpet, Edward and Mark Schlessinger showed up.  While Mark threw himself on Conkling, his brother rushed out the door to find help.  Policeman Owen McKenna was standing at 70th Street and Columbus Avenue when Schlessinger ran up.

“There’s a man in here with a gun, and he’s liable to shoot it!”

When the policeman entered the house, Mark Schlessinger was holding Conkling down.   Ella’s clothing was torn and she had visible bruising on her neck.  “Edward Schlessinger’s lip was twice its normal size.  He said Conkling had hit him.”

All four were taken to the West 68th Street Station where charges and counter charges were made, resulting in Conkling’s arrest.   Conkling declined to talk, other than to say “his call on his ex-wife had been purely social, and that she had knocked him down and assaulted him.  He had not threatened her.”

Not wanting to wait until morning before starting legal procedures, the Schlessingers and Ella Conkling went directly from the police station to Ransom’s house.

Later that year, when President William H. McKinley was shot by 28-year old anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6, Ransom quickly made his thoughts known.  In an address to the West Side Workmen’s League the following evening, he said:

“It is one o the most dastardly acts I ever heard of.  It was the act of a coward, and I am glad to know that it was not the act of an American.  I hope the time will come, when these malcontents, who are and always have been, a source of trouble in their own country, will be excluded from our shores.  Foreigners who are men and not anarchists will ever be welcomed to our shores, but those who merely come here to stir up strife and enmity, who are not in sympathy with our institutions, I hope will be excluded.”

Ransom would not stay especially long in the 72nd Street house.   When the Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church of New York, E. G. Andrews, retired in 1904, his place was taken by Charles Henry Fowler of Buffalo.  In October a “large gathering of Methodist ministers from this city and its vicinity,” according to the New-York Tribune, met to “pay tribute to the character of Bishop Andrews and to extend a cordial welcome to Bishop Fowler.”

Bishop Fowler as he appeared when he moved into the 72nd Street house -- the New-York Tribune, October 1, 1904 (copyright expired)
The 67-year old minister moved in to No. 338 West 72nd Street with his wife, Myra, and son, Carl Hitchcock Fowler.  By now his impressive career included President of Northwestern University for four years; and editor of the Christian Advocate.  He was elected General Missionary Secretary of the Church in 1880, and in 1884 elected a Bishop.

The congregants of wealthy churches in Manhattan abandoned the city in the summer months for resorts and country estates.  With no one to preach to, the churches were closed and the clergy, like their flock, headed out of town.

As Fowler’s first summer in New York approached, he took his wife and son away.  In their absence a “row over a carriage” ensued.  On August 18, 1905 The Evening World noted that Bishop Charles H. Fowler “is out of the city for the summer.  But because his carriage is here, two rival livery-men were to-day in the West Side Court.”

Robert S. King managed the stable at No. 247 West 69th Street, almost directly opposite Charles Grain’s stable at No. 258.  Bishop Fowler had been keeping his carriage in Grain’s stable; but before leaving for the summer gave King written permission to transfer the vehicle to his stable.

Charles Grain refused to relinquish the carriage.  Now, as summer drew to an end, the men argued their cases before a judge.

“King produced the order [from Fowler] in court.  Grain said he was not familiar with the Bishop's signature,” reported The World.

Robert King told the judge, “He’s jealous, that’s all.”

The judge had little patience for the men’s bickering.   “Magistrate Mayo advised Grain to turn the carriage over to King and dismissed the case.”

In November 1906 the 72nd Street house would be the scene of an undercover wedding.   The Rev. D. John Wesley Hill, pastor of the 2,000-member Janes Methodist Episcopal Church in the Stuyvesant Heights section of Brooklyn, had been widowed for about three years.   A romance developed between him and a member of the congregation, Mrs. Theodore Schmidt, who had also lost her spouse.

Everyone was aware that the couple intended to marry—but they were secretive about their exact plans.  One of Dr. Hill’s friends explained:

“Some of Mrs. Schmidt’s friends were determined that there should be slippers and rice and white ribbons and other old fashioned accessories to her wedding, and they have been lying awake nights to find out the day and hour.  Dr. Hill and his bride did not wish to be honored with thrown slippers and rice.”

In order to have a quiet, understated wedding, following Dr. Hill’s sermon on the evening of November 18, 1906, he and his intended bride slipped off to Manhattan.   “Dr. Hill was married to Mrs. Schmidt last night at about 10:30 o’clock at the home of Bishop Charles H. Fower,” reported the New-York Tribune.  “Only the immediate relatives of the bride and Dr. Hill were present.”

The newspaper said that the pastor “gave his parishioners a mild surprise last night by getting married ahead of the expected time, and starting on his wedding tour without letting any save his intimate friends know anything about it.”

Hill’s friend explained to a reporter “They knew that the plan of some of their friends would be carried out at all hazards, and so they thought it would be best to be quietly married to-night, after the regular church service.  Their strategy was too deep for the women who intended to give them an old-fashioned send-off.”

Not long after the surreptitious wedding ceremony, Bishop Fowler’s health began to deteriorate.   Then, in March 1907 he suffered what The New York Times described as “a slight stroke of paralysis.”  Although he largely recovered, a series of kidney ailments followed.  On March 20, 1908 he died in the 72nd Street house of “heart disease complicated with kidney trouble.”

Four days later the Missouri newspaper, the Sedalia Weekly, reported “At one o’clock on Monday, March 23, a brief service of prayer for the family and a few intimate friends was held  at the bishop’s late residence, 338 West Seventy-second Street.”

Fowler’s casket was then removed to the Madison Avenue Church which, according to the newspaper, “was thronged.”   “The casket was covered with black cloth, with heavy mountings of silver, and upon it were a massive cross of violets and a great wreath of callas.”

The wreath had been sent by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Mrya Fowler continued to live on in the house, along with her attorney son Carl.   About two months following his father’s death, Carl began gathering material for his biography.  The Christian Advocate, on May 14, 1908 noted “He would like to hear from persons possessing especially interesting letters from Bishop Fowler, from any who have been especially helped by his acts or influence, and from persons who can communicate incidents illustrative of his character and work.”

Almost exactly a decade later, at 11:00 on the morning of Saturday, March 9, 1918, Myra Hitchcock Fowler’s funeral was held in No. 338 West 72nd Street.   Carl inherited his mother’s entire estate, valued at a little over $104,000—about $1.6 million today.

In addition to his legal profession, Carl served the Methodist church.  For over two decades he was president of the board of trustees of Christ Methodist Church (formerly the Madison Avenue Methodist Church); was secretary of the board of the John Street Methodist Church; and president of the Laymen’s Association of the New York Conference.

Carl Hitchcock Fowler would live in the 72nd Street house with his wife, Henrietta, until his death on March 30, 1942 at the age of 68.  He died following a leg amputation necessitated by arteriosclerosis.

Fowler’s death signaled the end of the line for No. 338 West 72nd Street as a private home.   But the family’s many years here had saved it—now the last remaining rowhouse on the block.   It was sold to Clara Stark, who resold it in 1945 to Mrs. Lola Fink Berger “in a cash transaction.”  The new owner converted it to apartments—one on each floor except the fourth, which had two.

Among the tenants here was Paola Novikova, a Russian-born soprano, and her husband Werner Singer, a concert accompanist.  Born outside of Moscow in 1896, she studied music in Germany and Italy.  When she debuted in New York in April 1943, she was critically acclaimed.  “Mme. Novikova sings with elegance, taste and subtlety,” opined one critic.

But Novikova was best known as a voice teacher.  On May 6, 1950 The New York Times reported “A three-year scholarship is offered by Paola Novikova for American singers.  Initial auditions will be held at her studio, 338 West Seventy-second Street, May 20.”

The Russian diva taught her students that singing came from knowing how to breathe.  “My idea of singing is that we are a wind instrument.  To know how to sing, one must know where the resonators are and when they have to be used.”

Dedicated to her pupil’s development, the small red-haired instructor made it a point to attend every performance.  She confessed that while she may appear serene in the audience, “she breathed along” with each performing student.

Baritone George London later recalled studying for the bass-baritone title role in Boris Godunov.”  Paola Novikova would not allow him to sing a single note before he had learned the meaning and pronunciation of every Russian word in the Pushkin drama on which the opera was based.

In August 1967, the nationally-recognized opera coach died in the West 72nd Street house.

Also in the house was artist, author and art teacher Raphael Ellender.  His works had been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, and National Academy of Deisgn, the Pennsylvania Academy, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Chicago Art Institute among other esteemed venues.  Ellender was also an instructor in drawing and painting at New York University, the Art Students League and New York Community College.  He died in August 1972, while still living here.

Some details, like this oak mantel and the fold-in shutters, survive -- photo blocksy.com

The fa├žade of the distinguished residence received some well-deserved attention in 2014.  Squeezed in by the 20th century apartment buildings that replaced its Victorian neighbors, No. 338 is the last sliver of the 19th century on the block. 

photographs by the author


  1. Being English I would like to know why the basement of the house was referred to as an English basement. Thank you. Very interesting article.

    1. The term is strictly an Americanism and appeared first in the 1850s. It refers to the lower level of the house below street level; whereas an "American basement" was entered directly from the sidewalk. English basement houses had stoops that led to the parlor floor; American basement homes did not. The origin of the term "English" basement has been lost.