Wednesday, August 5, 2015

C. T. Mott's Nos. 246 and 248 West 73rd Street

James Van Dyck Card and his wife, Margaretta, had long and impressive New York pedigrees.  Margaretta’s family, the Van Wagenens, had arrived in New Amsterdam from Wageningen, Holland between 1637 and 1650.

In 1889 James V. D. Card was 50 years old. A graduate of the Poughkeepsie Military Academy, he had gone into real estate.  The rapid development of the Upper West Side offered seemingly unlimited opportunities for building projects that added to his fortune.  Card had been one of the founders of the West Side Association, a group of real estate men who balked in 1868 against the extension of the grid plan of roads and avenues into the growing neighborhood.   By now Card was President of the association and would remain so for decades.

Somewhat surprisingly, Margaretta Card was equally involved in the estate business.  Margaretta’s name appeared in the real estate columns as often as her husband’s as she developed rocky plots of the Upper West Side into rows of upscale residences. 

On January 26, 1889 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that George Crawford had sold two lots “with old stable on the south side of 73d Street, between West End avenue and Boulevard” to Margaretta Card.  (It would be some years before the “Boulevard” was changed to Broadway.)

Five months later, on June 29, the Record and Guide informed its readers that work was underway on two 24.9-foot wide residences designed by architect Charles T. Mott.  Situated at Nos. 246 and 248 West 73rd Street, the four-story houses would cost Margaretta Card $50,000 each—in the neighborhood of $1.3 million today.

The large outlay, at least for No. 248, is partly explained by the fact that James and Margaretta intended that house to be their family home.   The houses were completed in 1890 and eventually Margaretta would have Mott design 14 more houses along the block. 

Romanesque Revival, along with other historical styles, was highly popular in the Upper West Side.  But while most architects treated it somewhat playfully or romantically, with turrets and gargoyles and lancet windows; C. T. Mott created two austere structures which were more foreboding that good-humored.  The mirror-image designs created the appearance of a single fortress-like structure, capable of fending off attack from any enemy army daring to enter West 73rd.

The rough-cut stone English basements contrasted with the planar stone parlor levels.  Here two wide side-by-side stone stoops spilled down to the street.  Mott stepped away from the Romanesque by separating the orange brick upper floors from the stone base by a brownstone frieze carved with urns and flowers—more neo-Classical than medieval.

The castle-like appearance of the houses was augmented by the slightly-projecting fourth floor, sitting on brownstone brackets.  The side towers were topped by conical caps—giving the homes a purely fairy-tale appearance.

Despite the look, it was not Rapunzel who gazed out the tower window of No. 248, but Margaretta Card’s servants.  Also in the house were the Card children, two sons and a daughter, and Mary Salisbury Van Wagenen, Magaretta’s widowed mother.  

Sadly, Mary Van Wagenen would not enjoy the new home long.  The 76-year old died in the house on Saturday, October 15, 1892 of pneumonia.  As was customary, the funeral was held in the home three days later.

Of course, both James and Margaretta were involved in activities other than real estate.   James Van Dyck Card was an officer and trustee of the Franklin Saving Bank, for instance, and Margaretta served for years as treasurer of the New York Dorcas Society.   The purpose of the Dorcas Society was “To make up articles of clothing for the sick poor of the city.”

The Cards suffered a blow following their purchase of the Hotel Gladys on Columbus Avenue and 75th Street in April 1895.  They renovated and converted the building to the Hartford Apartment house.  Only a month after the purchase, on March 28 at around 8:00 p.m., fire broke out. 

While most of the well-to-do residents rushed out (The Sun reported that elevator boy Harry Holmes remained to run the elevator up and down to evacuate the residents) others like the C. M. Moore family tarried, trying to rescue valuables. 

The New York Times reported “The Mones [sic], with their jewelry and a few relics, made their way from their rooms on the top floor over the roof, and through the scuttle into the next house.  Mr. Hensley-Davis groped his way through the thick smoke, which filled the hallways and staircase down to the Seventy-fifth Street entrance.  He fell three times, and arrived there half suffocated, but otherwise unharmed.”

But Mrs. Moore’s cook, Helen Brady, was too petrified to flee.  The Times said she was “stupefied with fright.”   The firemen on the street were informed by the crowd that they saw a woman at a top floor window.   Fireman George W Faeckner was ordered by Captain Cowie to rescue the woman.

A fireman carrying a female servant down six-floors of fire escape would normally be considered an act of heroism.  But George Faeckner’s duty that night would have the crowd on the street holding their breath.

When the 145-pound fire fighter found Helen, she was cowered in the apartment paralyzed with fright.  “Faeckner took her to the window, lifted her, and seated her on his right shoulder, and with as much of himself as was at liberty began to clamber down the six flights of fire escapes, while the crowd watched and wondered if he could do it.”  The extraordinary circumstances had to do with the ratio of cook to fireman.  The New York Times reported that Helen “weighs fully 250 pounds.”

George Feackner succeeded in rescuing Helen Brady “and then he went back to his work in the dirt and wet of the charred rooms,” said The Sun. 

The damages to the Cards’ new apartment building was about $9,000.

In the meantime, the house next door at No, 246 was home to the James W. Phyfe family.  Phyfe was the Assistant Superintendent of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.   The Phyfe children were growing up by the time the family took possession.  William D. Phyfe had married Lizzie K. Lawson on October 18, 1887, leaving his two sisters Mary and Julia, to move into the new house with their parents.

The Cards summered at their four-acre estate, Buena Vista near Montclair, New Jersey.  The New-York Tribune described the mansion as “of Gothic design and was built many years ago by the late William Torrey.  It contains twenty-two rooms and is finished in black walnut.” The newspaper said the grounds “are laid out in gardens and lawns.”  The Phyfes, on the other hand, preferred to lease cottages in resorts such as Newport and Block Island for the summer.

The Phyfe residence would be the scene of a heart-wrenching funeral at 4:00 on May 3, 1898.  The tiny coffin of 2-year old Frances Catlin, daughter of friends W. C. and M. Frdricka Catlin, sat in the parlors that afternoon.   Much happier times were evinced when, on April 28, 1903, Julia Floyd Phyfe was married to the Rev. Norman Hulick Parke in the nearby West End Collegiate Dutch Church.

On April 6, 1904 Margaretta Card transferred the title to No. 248 to her daughter, Helen.  The change in ownership did not affect the living arrangements, however, and Helen’s parents continued to live on in the house. 

James Van Dyck Card remained the voice of the Upper West Side real estate men. At a meeting of the West End Association on January 9, 1905—the aim of which was the “bettering of municipal conditions”—Card lashed out at the police.  According to The Times the following day he “said that too many policemen were assigned to details without work attached, and he thought that the Commissioner might spare some of them to do some police work.”

 James W. Phyfe, too, was actively involved in the Upper West Side.  On February 26, 1911 a neighbor, Warren Cady Crane, was walking along West 72nd Street and noticed that demolition teams had begun taking down the two large brownstone houses at Nos. 164 and 166 West 72nd.   Cady realized it was another domino to fall in the invasion of apartment buildings and determined to fight the trend.

He formed Ye Olde Settlers’ Association of Ye West Side.  Its membership was restricted to “settlers” of the Upper West Side—those who had lived in the neighborhood for at least 15 years.  Among the first to enroll was James W. Phyfe.  The new group was formed not merely as an attempt to stop the destruction of fine private residences, but “to keep alive all matters of historical interest relating to our district which will be of great interest to our families and future residents.”

On January 5, 1912 James Van Dyck Card fell ill.  Ten days later he died in the house.   The door of the house next door would be hung with crepe two years later.  On Christmas day 1914 James William Phyfe died in his bed at No. 246.

Margaretta Card, her daughter, Helen, and sons Harry Chester Card and Hubert Van Wagenen Card, lived on in No. 248.  But the Phyfes moved on by 1918 when the new owner announced that No. 246 would be converted to “bachelor apartments.”

If indeed No.246 was intended to house only bachelors, that plan soon changed.  In 1919 “Miss Ellen O’Brien” took an apartment and in 1921 Mrs. Charles E. Rector, widow of the famed restaurateur, was living here.

The same year that Ellen O’Brien moved in another resident, Joseph Bennett, brought unwanted publicity to the address.  He was arrested and charged “with restraining a woman in an illegal resort.”  His trial on April 9, 1919, had to be adjourned when the woman involved, Mollie Lewis, became hysterical in the courtroom.  The New-York Tribune reported she screamed “It’s all a lie!  I am the only one to blame.  I want to go home to mother.  Please let me go!”

The Assistant District Attorney explained to the court that “the witness was afraid to testify because she had been threatened with death.”

A much more respectable tenant at the same time was French-born artist Marcel Duchamp.  Routinely credited, along with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, with revolutionizing 20th century art, he lived in the house for about a year, leaving in 1920.

L. Camilieri not only lived at No 246, but operated his voice coaching studio here.  He had founded The People’s Chorus of New York in 1916, which routinely performed for important civic events.

Camilieri advertised his services in the New-York Tribune on December 1, 1922 (copyright expired)

In 1931 the young composer, Roy Ellsworth Harris, visited friends at No. 246.  His compositions at the time were marked by what has been called “rugged American patriotism.”  When he returned to his automobile that evening, which he had left parked and locked outside the house, his brief case was missing.  In it were the manuscript of a new symphony and a new toccata.

A panicked and angry Harris notified the police of the mysterious theft—there was no evidence that the car had been broken into.  Then the following day he was contacted by two bellboys from the Whitehall Hotel West 100th Street, Vincent Durgin and his brother Joseph.  The young men said they have found the briefcase the night before at the West 103rd Street subway station.   The Times said “They finally located Mr. Harris after calling numerous addresses found with the manuscripts.”

When Russian Countess Valentine Ptashevskaya leased No. 246 in 1933, it was described as a “five story apartment house.”  In the meantime, the Card residence was still home to Margaretta and the unmarried Helen.  It was there on May 11, 1936 that the 88-year old Margaretta died.  At the time of her death, Harry Chester Card was President of the West End Association, the position held by his father for decades, and a member of Ye Olde Settlers’ Association of Ye West Side.”

The rather dashing Harry Chester Card followed in his father's footsteps -- Ye Olde Settlers' Association of Ye West Side, 1921 (copyright expired)

Margaretta’s would be the last funeral to be held in the family home.  Helen quickly sold it, and it was resold in 1938 to “an investor.”  Like No. 246 the once-grand home would be rented out as apartments.

The former Phyfe home continued to house news-worthy residents.  In 1940 the 48-year old Evelyn Nesbit lived here.  On January 9 that year she was taken to the hospital with “an abdominal disorder for which she will undergo an operation,” said The New York Times.  In reporting on her illness, the newspaper described her only as the “former wife of Harry K. Thaw.”  It omitted her messy sexual involvement with Stanford White that ended in his murder in Madison Square Garden by Thaw.

It was also home to Wladyslaw Korsak, the former Under-Secretary of the Interior of Poland from 1926 to 1939.  An ardent foe of Nazism and Communism, he had organized refugee committees in Rumania and Portugal following Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  His actions resulted in thousands of Polish nationals surviving until they could escape overseas. Korsak arrived in New York in 1941 and was instrumental in organizing the Society for the Promotion of Poland’s Independence.

C. T. Mott’s fortress-like houses have suffered greatly since the middle of the last century.  The Phyfe house lost its stoop, and the tower windows, once curved, have flat replacements.  But the overall brooding design remains; and as dusk falls on West 73rd Street, the words "Surrender Dorothy" might occur to the casual passerby.

photographs by the author


  1. The mention of Evelyn Nesbitt Thaw puts me in mind of the zany Albert Langford murder at the Hotel Margurey in 1945. Evelyn Nesbitt, by then an alcoholic, impoverished has been, was a friend of Langford's curiously odd wife, heiress and third rate "socialite",Marion Mayer Langford. I mention this as a suggestion for a future post on the Hotel Margurey, an enormous hotel-apartment building that occupied the entire block between 47th and 48th Street, from Park to Madison Avenue. The site is today the JPMorgan Chase headquarter's building.

    I remember reading somewhere that in poor Evelyn Nesbitt's descent into show business Hell, she appeared in a vaudeville review singing a specially composed ditty, "I'm a Broad Minded Broad From Broadway".

    Sorry to stray off topic. Great post, as always. For me, a day without Daytonian is no day at all.

    1. Never apologize for your wonderful side stories. I always look forward to them. And thanks for the nudge regarding the Hotel Margurey!