Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Queen Anne Meets Colonial -- The Lancaster, Nos. 39-41 East 10th St.

In January 1877 Dr. George Thompson held the position of Surgeon of the Ninth Regiment and, according to a newspaper “He was in prosperous circumstances, and his domestic relations were eminently happy.”  Thompson and his wife apparently leased their comfortable home at No. 41 East 10th Street from the Renwick family.  The Renwicks, relatives of the great land-owning Brevoort family, held title to the property.

Dr. Thompson’s life would end somewhat mysteriously and with great agony on Monday January 15, 1877.  Although his family pressured officials for a “secret” investigation, The New York Times gleaned “through trustworthy sources” information that was “reluctantly corroborated…by Dr. Miller.”

The Coroner deduced that five days earlier Thompson “while suffering from a nervous attack” removed a bottle from his medicine cabinet which he supposed to be diluted hydrochloric acid.  Instead it was acid nitrate of mercury, “a powerful drug.”  He swallowed some of the contents and immediately collapsed in agony.

“He lingered, however, until Monday, when, surrounded by his grief stricken friends, he succumbed to the deleterious effects of the drug.”  Despite the family’s unusual secrecy, the Coroner insisted that there was nothing to suggest “that Dr. Thompson meditated self destruction.”

Ten years later, the East 10th Street block between University Place and Broadway was still upscale.  The Renwick family decided to update its income-producing properties by demolishing the former Thompson house and its next door neighbor at No. 39 and, in their places, erecting an apartment building.  The concept of apartment living for the well-to-do was relatively new and The Lancaster would be among the first in the area.

The choice of architects was not surprising.  On May 28, 1887 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell had “drawn up sketches for a five-story first-class apartment home…with all modern improvements at Nos. 39 and 41 East 10th street to be built of croton brick and terra cotta with stone trimmings, for E. S. Renwick.”  James Renwick, Jr., although never formally trained, was by now one of the nation’s leading architects—responsible for such iconic structures as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Church in Manhattan, and the Smithsonian building in Washington.  William Hamilton Russell was a relative as well, the grand nephew of James Renwick.

The firm married two arising stars in residential architecture—Queen Anne and Colonial Revival.  The architects modernized traditional Federal elements—like splayed lintels—with a Queen Anne interpretation of the design.  The Federal-style doorway received an overblown fanlight and a decorative terra cotta frame.  A striking terra cotta shell burst from each tympanum above the fifth floor windows.   The numbers 39 and 41 were crisply incised into the brick on either side of the entrance, as was The Lancaster overhead.  While other architects would produce near reproduction 18th century homes within the next decade, Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell created a unique modern take on the period.

There were just two apartments per floor and the moneyed residents tended to list their addresses accordingly—either No. 39 or 41—depending on which side of the hallway they lived.   As was often the case with high-end apartments at the time, the original tenants had their input in the design. 

Apparently Stanley B. Tyler did.  On April 5, 1891, in an article about the new trend of stained glass in homes, The New York Times mentioned “Two of the latest and most striking designs in the city are in the house of Stanley B. Tyler, at 39 East Tenth Street.  They are companion windows for the dining room, each 2 feet by 3, and show female heads typifying Spring and Autumn.  The heads are executed in subdued tints, and the general tone is soft and harmonious.”

Among Tyler’s neighbors was attorney Girard Irving Whitehead whose offices were in the Evening Post Building at No. 206 Broadway.   Whitehead was drawn into unwanted publicity in 1893.  His sister was married to inventor and civil engineer Francis J. Palmer and the couple had a daughter.  But the marriage had fallen apart and by now they had been separated for several years.

On September 8, 1893 Whitehead was called to Smith & McNell’s Hotel at No. 199 Washington Street where Palmer had committed suicide.  Palmer, who went to elaborate lengths to ensure that his death by inhaling lighting gas did not fail, left two sealed letters for his brother-in-law. Whitehead refused to reveal the contents; but said only that “rapid-transit schemes had ruined him financially and had turned his brain.”

By 1901 wealthy collector John Karst lived in the building.  The collection in his apartment was described in the Anglo-American Pottery’s “Directory of Collectors” as “mainly English and American china and glassware, including 3000 plates, 250 teapots, etc.”

Other residents included mining engineer Daniel W. Langton, Ph.D.; Captain Tom Miller; and Archibald Pell.   A retired Navy Captain, Miller was described by The Times as a “club man, epicure, and a widely known character in New York.”   The newspaper said that he had “a wide personal acquaintance with men in the higher walks of life than any one being in New York.”

The Manhattan Club was Miller’s favorite and he was noted for his whist and domino playing there.  But all agreed that it was his epicurean side that defined him.  “The Captain was most noted for his knowledge of the fine art of good living.  He was regarded as an authority on what to eat and how to cook, and what to drink with meals and at other times.”

Miller once said “Anybody can give a pretentious breakfast, luncheon, or dinner.  That’s only a question of the fatness of one’s purse. But to be dainty in the ensemble and exact as to detail is the fine art.”  The Times noted “It is said that he never gave a dinner at which some dish was not served the like of which nobody at the table eve before tasted.  When asked what it was the host would remark, ‘Oh, that’s just a new invention of mine.  Now that you have reminded me of it, I must give it a name.”

Captain Miller was 91 years old in February 1903 when he headed home to The Lancaster from the Manhattan Club at 3:00 in the morning.  He wore no gloves. By the time he made it to East 10th Street, the frigid temperature had taken its toll.  The aged man was found on the shallow stone stoop, his hands frozen.  He died in St. Vincent’s Hospital six weeks later.

Like Captain Tom Miller, H. Archibald Pell traveled among high society.  The Evening World, on February 16, 1903, described “Archie” Pell as a “real estate broker and gay society man; lives at No. 39 East Tenth street; one of New York’s best-known gentlemen about town; young, rich, and handsome.”  Being young, rich and handsome did not keep Pell and several other Manhattan millionaires out of the newspapers for scandalous behavior.

Richard Canfield and David Bucklin were indicted by a Grand Jury on January 24, 1903 for “keeping and maintaining a gambling house at 5 East Forty-fourth Street.”  The exclusive address was appropriate for its clientele—including the likes of Reginald C. Vanderbilt, architect Clarence Luce, millionaire ink manufacturer William A. H. Staffford and Archie Pell.

Despite the operation’s elegant décor, the indictment called it “a public nuisance, where certain idle and evil persons congregated and were allowed to play certain games known as faro and roulette for excessive sums, to the discomfort and danger and annoyance of the citizens of the City.”  The millionaire patrons, including Pell, were not charged; but were subpoenaed as witnesses.  The scurrilous publicity would be damaging to the men’s social reputations and several of them fled.

Luce boarded a steamer for Europe; Vanderbilt headed off for Newport where newspapers said “he is out of harm’s way;” and the other three, including Pell, could not be found.  District Attorney Jerome was incensed, telling reporters on February 15 that if they did not appear in the courtroom the following day there would be “no mercy shown them.”

While Archie Pell worked through his legal and social embarrassment, his neighbors in the building included A. Irving Biggs, secretary of the American Stove Board Company, and William B. Anderson a civil engineer.   When Mr. and Mrs. Lippincott moved in around this time with their five children and baby grandchild, the Port Chester Journal described The Lancaster as “a staid and conservative apartment house at 39 East Tenth street, owned by the Renwick estate.”

The newspaper said “All of the members of the family are long on refinements.  In fact, old fashioned respectability is their chief stock in trade.  It was that which caught he agent of the Renwick estate, and the ‘Lippincotts,’ as they were known there, were the only ones who ever got into the house without a string of recommendations a yard long.”

The newspaper added quotation marks around the Lippincott name because it was merely their latest alias.  They lived in high style in the new apartment.  “The best meat that the Sayles-Zahn Company could furnish was delivered at the house—ordered over the telephone—and the grocer and the baker and other tradesmen were liberally patronized.  There had to be flowers—flowers made a home so much more attractive, Mrs. ‘Lippincott’ said—and then the baby had to be taken out for an airing every day, and that required at least a hansom cab.”

The truth was that the Lippincotts made a practice of establishing themselves in high-end apartment houses and hotels, then skipping out without paying either the rent or the other bills.  Before coming to The Lancaster, the Journal said, “They hung up the landlord, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, to say nothing of the florist and the liveryman, the milkman and the iceman.” 

It all came crashing down, however, when Mr. Brown of the Protective Association “happened in on the ‘Lippincotts’ one fine morning, recognized them as the ‘Hills’ of West Thirty-ninth street, the ‘Harrisons’ of East Thirty-first street, the ‘Runyons’ of West Washington Place, the ‘Somebody-elses’ of West Eighth street, and the McVeys of Philadelphia.”  They were arrested on Wednesday April 27, 1904.

Later that year, in September, the Renwick Estate sold the building to Jacob Stein, whose office was directly across the street at No. 44 East 10th Street.

The numbers 39 and 41, as well as the building's name, are precisely cut into the brickwork.  The delightfully-squiggly fence pickets are pure Queen Anne.

More respectable tenants included the widow Mrs. Arthur W. Plimpton and her daughter Melinda.  The young woman was married in a fashionable Church of the Incarnation wedding in October 1906 to James Ditmars Remsen.  After the ceremony, guests assembled in Mrs. Plimpton’s apartments for the reception.

On the evening of March 28, 1907 64-year old Francis Theodore Patton died in his apartment here.  He had been employed by The Sun for 35 years, 26 of them as news editor—this after raising cotton on a 2,400-acre Louisiana plantation until 1872 following the end of the Civil War.  The New York Times outlined his literary successes in its obituary.  The Evening World, however, focused on his high ideals.

“The subject of this notice was not one of New York’s rich men.  He was not one of New York’s powerful men.  He was not famous.  He was not in politics or on the stage or before the public view in any capacity.  The usual claims to post-mortem notice would not in any way include him.”

Instead, said the newspaper, he honed young reporters.  “He told them how to do their work.  Their standards of newspaper honor were of his moulding.”  Called “Father Patton” by the cub reporters, The Evening World said that he “believed that to print and publish the truth was the noblest work man could engage in.  No truth to him was trivial.  The universe was truth from the highest to the lowest happening within human ken.  Humble as was his position, he knew of no millionaire, no lawyer, no railroad magnate, no stock broker, no man with whom he would exchange.”

Living in the building in 1913 were Harry Friedman, a “keeper” in the Blackwell Island Penitentiary, and his wife, Antonia.  The Philadelphia-born woman was the daughter of Dr. Victor Lesser of the German Hospital there.  While other wives in The Lancaster busied themselves with teas and charity events; Antonia held the highly unusual position of Probation Officer in the Children’s Court.  Sharing the apartment with the Friedmans was another social worker, “Mother” Krause.

Antonia’s job would lead to a frightening event in the apartment building hallway.

In July 1913 she recomended that Violet Cooper of No. 69 Gansevoort Street be removed to the care of the Children’s Society.  The girl was first put in a home in New Jersey; but when it was discovered that she was in need of medical attention, she was brought back to Manhattan and admitted to Bellevue Hospital.

Threats immediately began coming from the Cooper family.  On Sunday, August 3, about two weeks after Violet was removed, a note was found pinned to the Friedman’s apartment door.  It said that if Violet was not returned home, Antonia Freidman “would be killed.”

Four days later there came a knock on the door.  When Antonia answered it she “was met by a swarthy, stocky man who seized her by the throat, dragged her into the hallway, and struck her over the head with a blackjack,” as reported by The New York Times the following day.

The noise of the struggle alerted Mother Krause who rushed into the hallway, causing the attacker to flee.  The newspaper reported “Mrs. Friedman is suffering acutely from shock and a slight brain concussion.”

Antonia may have felt a change of jobs would be advisable.  She became superintendent of the Magdalene Home for women early in 1915.  Run by the Episcopal Church, the home was first opened in 1838 to reform prostitutes.  By now the focus was on helping wayward girls.

But that position did not work out well either.  Six weeks after she took the job, she resigned.  She found the discipline at the Home to be excessive.  “These punishments,” she said, “consist of being deprived of many little liberties, going to bed supperless, and being put into cells.”  The New York Times reported “Mrs. Friedman contended that she ruled with love and kindness and that at no time while she was serving as superintendent did she have occasion to make use of the cells.”

Antonia’s “resignation” came after Mrs. H. Scheftel, the second Vice President, “told her to leave the place on Thursday, without giving her time to pack her belongings.”  The ouster enraged the girls at the Home and it “occasioned a mutiny among some of the inmates.”

The girls were taken to the Women’s Night Court.  When a reporter arrived at the Friedman apartment, Antonia stated that she hoped they would be “dealt with considerately…for they made the demonstration as a protest to a return of what they say will be old customs of being punished severely for minor infractions.”  One can assume that the Edwardian teens who committed “mutiny” were not dealt with “considerately.”

The 1920s saw change in the neighborhood.  Private homes were operated as rooming houses or were replaced by tall commercial buildings.  The political and social climate was changing as well. 

The tension between capitalists and socialists was evident when 25-year old Lancaster resident William P. Sim was arrested in 1921.  Sim had misrepresented himself as being connected with Bellevue and Roosevelt Hospitals and was accused of charging Mrs. Anna Waschenko $60 per visit for treating her child.  The excessive fee would translate to about $785 today.

On November 25 he was sentenced to serve 13 months to five years in Elmira Reformatory by Judge Ernest I. Edgcomb.  According to the Federation Bulletin, “Judge Edgcomb denounced him as ‘a maker of anarchists and bolshevists.’”

On September 26, 1925 The Lancaster received a surprising new tenant—the Beta Chapter of New York University’s Delta Phi Epsilon fraternity.  The organization paid $110 per month (in the neighborhood of $1500 today).  Member George Stretch wrote “The boys have a new house.  I think the move a good one…Now we have a real apartment with real sleeping rooms, which afford more private for living and study…We have several fireplaces, and several rooms, open together, are large enough for meetings. Ordinarily such a place would be out of the question at the money.  The only reason for it is that the house is an old one and in a thoroughly business section, one might call it a manufacturing section.  But we cannot have our cake and eat it too, so we have to overlook the surroundings.”

Within three months another fraternity moved it. The Upsilon Chapter of Theta Chi announced on December 5, 1925 in The Rattle of Theta Chi “We are moving into an apartment at 39 East Tenth Street this month and we shall be ‘at home’ after January 1, 1926.”  The Theta Chi boys were here only temporarily while working on their permanent chapter house.

The Lancaster saw a quick turnover in owners in 1927.  That year Samuel H. Potter purchased it as part of a syndicate, the 39 East Tenth Street Realty Corporation.  A year later, on March 39, 1928 the New York Evening Post ran the headline “The Lancaster on East 10th St. Sold.”

Despite the commercialization of the area, the apartment building still retained respectable residents.  One was lyric poet Barbara Young.  In May 1928 she and poetry patron Frances Randolph announced their plans to found the Poetry House in the old Ogden Mills residence at No. 12 East 10th Street.  They told reporters they intended it to become an American institution with a large audience room, music room, and a book room “where guests may sit down in quiet and comfort, in a homelike atmosphere and browse over whatever poetry they will, and on stated occasions listen to poets’ readings.”

Speaking in her apartment in The Lancaster, Barbara Young told reporters “At the present time there isn’t any home for poetry in all of New York.  In spite of the poets and nearpoets and would-b-poets, all around us, we have treated the great art very much like a step-child and it hasn’t a hearth nor roof-tree to call its own”

Tragedy visited The Lancaster in 1936.   Two young women, Phylis Telfort and Ruth Kaman, shared an apartment here.  Phylis was a 27-year old librarian.  She arrived in New York from Rochester, New York in September 1935 and rented a furnished room in Ruth’s apartment on the fourth floor.  The Great Depression years were no time for jobless librarians to try to find work in Manhattan.  But as the holidays neared, she landed a job in a toy store.

But when the Christmas selling season ended, so did Phylis’s employment.  With no job and little money, on January 4, 1936 she plunged to her death from the fourth floor living room window.

The Lancaster survived the Great Depression without its spacious apartments being dissected.  When it sold in 1937 it was still described as a ten-family apartment house.  Nine years later when Henry Payson purchased the building, it was described as “re-modeled;” yet the original ten apartments were still intact.

Nearly unheard of to New York apartment dwellers; The Lancaster’s floor plan was never altered.  In 1981 when it was converted to cooperative apartments, there were still merely two residences to a floor.   Today the 1887 survivor is nearly untouched on the outside  Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell’s delightful Queen Anne take on Colonial architecture is a wonderful surprise and treasure.

photographs by the author

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