Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Twin Irvington & Rockland Apts. Nos. 136-142 West 16th Street




In 1892 the block of West 16th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues had its share of interesting architecture, including the former Catholic Apostolic Church at No. 126 and the charming House of Industry at No. 120.  The neighborhood was about to receive another structure that would vie for architectural attention.

Actually two buildings, the Irvington Apartments replaced two old houses at Nos. 136 and 138; and its identical twin the Rockland Apartments was erected at Nos. 140 and 142.  Completed in 1893 they exuberantly reflected elements of the Queen Anne style—terra cotta decorations including tiled panels and floral tympanums, fanciful cast iron railings on brownstone balconies, and contrasting cream-colored tiles laid in a checkerboard pattern below a corbelled cornice.


The strict symmetry of the buildings, the formal porticoes with their polished granite columns, and the proper, classically-inspired pilasters of the upper stories stepped away from the Queen Anne style.

The apartments contained seven rooms with bath and rented for between $45 and $65 per month—a significant $1,780 for the most expensive apartment in 2015 dollars.  Advertisements in 1893 boasted steam heat and “hall boys.”   The boys’ “hall service” included carrying packages, assisting visitors and providing a sort of security.

Attention to details resulted in slightly varying decorations--like the side-by-side window carvings of ferns and fronds, and oak leaves and acorns.

Among the first residents of the Irvington was the family of Robert H. Malloy.   Lillie Kern worked in their apartment as a domestic.  On July 4, 1894 the 14-year old took a liking to a pin that was on a cushion in one of the bedroom.  She pinned it on her dress before leaving the apartment for the night.

Lillie stopped by the home of Mrs. Minnie Doyle at No. 138 Sixth Avenue.  The Evening World later reported “Mrs. Doyle took the pin away from Lillie and pawned it.”  In the meantime, the missing pin—valued at $150--was noticed and Malloy set police on the hunt.

The girl and Minnie Doyle were arrested on the night of July 17.  “Lillie told Detective Kash that she had no idea of the value of the pin, but took it to stick in her dress because it was pretty.”  Robert H. Malloy got the pin back and refused to press charges.  Lillie, however, was sent to the Gerry Society for examination “on a charge of waywardness.”

At the same time a bizarre incident was playing out in the building.  Fifty-two year old Rudolph Osterhoff had married his wife, Anna, on September 19, 1874 in Hoboken.  It was a rapid-fire romance.  He met Anna, she took him to a Plate Deutsche picnic, and the next day he proposed.

Oddly enough, he admitted to her that he already had a wife who was living in South America.  He had married her in May 1867.  But, he insisted, “she had a husband in Germany.”  (Osterhoff later testified “that he was married when he met wife No. 2, but he says he was easily led,” according to The Evening World.)

Rather than running from the situation as quickly as she could, Anna married Rudolph, and when the Irvington Apartment opened, the couple moved in.  Trouble came later when on May 3, 1894 the first wife arrived in New York.   Osterhoff told Anna she would have to leave so the first wife could move into the Irvington apartment.  She moved to No 25 West 25th Street.

The new arrangement did not last long.  Both women were dejected when Rudolph moved out of the Irvington altogether on Memorial Day.   He then visited Anna in June and according to her, “said he wanted to marry a younger and better looking woman, and asked me to refrain from proceeding against him, and if I would consent he would marry again.”

When Anna balked, he sued her for absolute divorce in September.  The 53-year old Anna Osterhoff countered, charging him with “gross cruelty.”  She sued for alimony and counsel fees.

The attorney of the wandering-eyed Osterhoff scoffed at the charges.  He told the judge that Anna “left Osterhoff, and that the latter had since paid her money each week.”

Both buildings continued to be home to professional tenants.  In 1902 Wall Street speculator George B. Mead lived in the Rockland, as did the family of broker John Holder, and Frank W. McCabe who worked in the City Court system.

That year the Holder family took in another broker, Thomas B. Mead, as a favor.  The New York Times reported that Mead was “said to have been once a prominent broker in Philadelphia, but who since business reverses came has been a small operator in the Wall Street district.”  Apparently John Holder was trying to help Mead get back on his feet.

Thomas Mead was facing other problems, as well.   He was diagnosed with heart disease, alcoholism, and Bright’s disease.  But the cause of his death on April 9, 1902 would be far more mysterious than any of these conditions,

At around 2:00 that morning Policeman Croker found Mead unconscious on the steps of the Irvington Apartments.  He was taken to New York Hospital where he died four hours later.   Newspapers said that the 50-year old “was evidently on his way home when he was stricken.”

Coroners’ Physician O’Hanlon (who, incidentally wrote the famous “Yes, Virginia” Santa Claus letter to his daughter) conducted an autopsy.  Mead had died from a fractured skull and hemorrhage of the brain.  How he sustained the injury was a mystery.   The Times reported “A handsome gold watch and chain and a considerable sum of money which he carried on his person were found intact upon him.”

Dr. O’Hanlon was “satisfied” that there was no foul play involved.

Henry Clark lived in the Rockland in 1904.  He operated a “small real estate business in the neighborhood,” according to The Sun.   But the Financial Panic of 1903 brought property sales to a near standstill.    Friends would tell investigators that the 35-year old “had worried a great deal over business and financial troubles.”   The young businessman’s trouble ended with The Sun reporting on May 4, 1904 “Henry Clark shot himself dead yesterday afternoon at 140 West Sixteenth street.”

Fire broke out in the basement of the Irvington two months later on July 5, 1904; but before the fire department could arrived attorney Robert M. Moore, who lived on the third floor, had taken care of the problem.   When a resident informed Moore, a partner in the law firm of Cantwell & Moore, he did not evacuate the building; but instead headed to the basement to fight the fire.   By the time the firemen arrived, he had nearly extinguished the blaze.

Only Mrs. Harriet Downs, who lived on the first floor, was the only injury.  According to The Times, she “was overcome by smoke, but was revived.”

Other residents in the Rockland in the next few years included Matthew J. Hansen, who incorporated Matthew J. Hansen, Inc. in 1910 to “manufacture wagons, vehicles, etc.;” and Edward L. Larken and Thomas A. Larken, both officers in the McKeon Realty Company.

Between the Irvington and the Rockland Apartment houses was an airshaft.   It provided snoopy neighbors the opportunity to peer into the lives of those in opposite apartments—a situation that brought scandal to both buildings in 1912.

Frank B. Dodd and his wife, Adele Sturges Dodd lived in the Arlington.   Each was well-to-do in their own rights.  Adele had inherited about $1 million from her grandfather, Benjamin H. Trask, who died in 1897, the year prior to her marriage to Dodd.  And Frank was Secretary of the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company, which owned the Metropolitan Opera House.  His salary would be equivalent to over $200,000 today.

At the same time the family of contractor Daniel Cary, including unmarried daughter Genevieve, lived in the Irvington.  Coincidentally, the Dodd and Cary apartments directly faced one another across the airshaft.

When Frank Dodd began fooling around with Genevieve, it did not escape the notice of residents in the Rockland Apartments.  One of them was civil engineer S. Percy Clark.  He testified before a judge on March 26, 1912 that he had seen Dodd in the Cary apartment “eight times by watching from the window across the airshaft.”  He did not watch alone.

“He was in the room we called his,” he said.  “I saw him there in his pajamas.”

The testimony was part of Adele’s divorce suit against her husband.  Her attorney asked Clark “Who else did you see there?”

“Miss Genevieve Cary.  I saw her on one occasion come in clad in her nightgown with a kimono over it.  Another time I saw her sitting on the edge of the bed.  Before the windowshade was pulled down she leaned over and kissed Mr. Dodd several times.  Then on another occasion I saw her standing at the window with him.  Her hair was hanging down.  It was black and reached below her waist.”

The Sun reported that “Miss Frances W. Wheeler…was also a member of the watching party, and testified that she saw Mr. Dodd kiss Miss Cary.”

Apparently the voyeuristic neighbors watched enrapt.  Frances was detailed in her retelling.  “He either kissed her several times or else it was one very long kiss.  The first time I saw them there it was about 12:30 A. M., and Mr. Dodd was lying in bed while Miss Cary was sitting on the edge of the bed reading a theatre programme and smoking a cigarette.”

She was tepidly complimentary about Genevieve’s appearance.  “She was in the thirties, of medium height, rather heavy but had a good figure.  Her eyes were dark and her hair was very black and heavy.  I should call her attractive.”

Well heeled residents would continue to come and go as the war years neared.  In 1915 John Sexton, Secretary and Treasurer of the Carroll Box & Lumber Co. lived in the Irvington; and “Mr. and Mrs. Thompson” were in the Rockland when their Yorkshire terrier, Gatenby St. Wilfred’s King, was named American champion at the dog show of July 1915.

Dr. Cecile Greil lived in the Rockland at the same time.  She was aboard the Italian passenger steamer SS Ancona in November 1915 when the German submarine U-38 torpedoed and sank the ship.  Of the 200 innocent lives lost, nine were Americans.  The incident, which occurred just six months after the sinking of the RMS Lusitantia, added to American outrage.

Dr. Greil was among the survivors of the SS Ancona.  But a year later, in May 1916, she would face other problems.  Cecile Greil was arrested and held at $1,000 bail “on a charge of having performed an illegal operation,” reported The New York Times on May 22.   The assumption is that Dr. Greil had performed an abortion.


When the U.S. entered the war, Rockland resident Charles Shapiro joined the United States 100th Aero Squadron.  Before his detachment left, his mother, Ethel, invited several of the soldiers in his unit to Thanksgiving dinner in the apartment in 1917.

On January 24, 1918 Charles boarded the former Cunard liner Tuscania in Hoboken.  The luxurious steamer had been refitted as a troop transport ship.  Along with Charles were 2,012 other troops and a crew of 384.   On February 5, at around 5:40 p.m., the German U-boat UB-77 spotted the Tuscania.  Lt. Cdr. Wilhelm Meyer fired two torpedoes; one of which made a direct hit on the Tuscania.

On February 10, 1918 the New-York Tribune printed a list of survivors.  Among them was Charles Shapiro.

A few days later he wrote to his mother “I was reclining in a bunk at the time.  There were several boys together in the room, and they had life-preservers that were near them.  We all carried them wherever we went.”  His letter, which was dated February 16, told of his amazing calm in the face of the attack.  All the lifeboats had been deployed so as he waited on deck for help to arrive—it took four hours for the ship to sink—he searched for the ship’s dog.

“I was surely surprised at myself.  In fact, unusually calm, and looked for ‘Cutey,’ our mascot, and led him around and got him off.”  Charles was rescued by a destroyer.  Tragically 230 men, mostly American troops, were lost.  Charles wrote “We haven’t heard from all of our boys, and sad to say some of those that were at the house for dinner on Thanksgiving Day are no more.”

Rather surprisingly, as the century progressed the two apartment buildings (they both lost their names within a few decades when another Irvington and a new Rockland apartment house opened separately uptown) did not suffer substantial decline.  Instead, they continued to be home to professionals—engineers, architects, brokers and such.  In 1956 stage and television actress Elizabeth Dewing died after living in the Irvington Apartments for years.

The striking fa├žade of the two buildings has been lovingly preserved (other than an unfortunate slathering of paint on the base).  Although the original seven-room apartments have been divided, many of them retain their original details like marble mantels and parquet flooring.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Funny, I was walking by these buildings last week and stopped to look up at the tiles. And of course I wondered, have these buildings been covered on DIM yet? And now they have. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete