Monday, February 15, 2016

The Lost Hoffman Arms -- 59th Street and Madison Avenue

American Architect & Building News, January 24, 1885 (copyright expired)

In 1884 Edward Clark’s lavish apartment building, The Dakota, was opened on the west side of Central Park.  Designed by Henry Janeway Hardenberg, it was one of the gutsy gambles being taken by operators that wealthy New Yorkers would accept multi-family buildings.  Developers like Clark outfitted the rambling  apartments like horizontal, private homes.  The venture worked.

That same year wealthy merchant Samuel Verplanck Hoffman’s Hoffman Arms was completed at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 59th Street.  Designed by Charles W. Romeyn & Co., its brick bulk sat on a rough-cut brownstone base.  Ten floors tall, it was banded by wide terra cotta and stone courses.  Bulging cast iron bays provided dimension and captured breezes for the sprawling apartments within.  Queen Anne elements—dormers and spandrels filled with terra cotta tiles; tall, flat chimneys and an assortment; of peaks and angles—gave the upper floors interest.

The completed structure cost Hoffman a staggering $450,000—in the neighborhood of $11.25 million in 2016.  There were 32 apartments--four each on the upper floors.  They included the necessities of high-end Victorian living—library, parlor, dining room, servant’s bedroom, and reception room.  Servants had their own elevators, one on either end of the building which brought them unobtrusively to the service areas of each apartment. 
A typical plan of the upper floors. American Architect & Building News, January 24, 1885 (copyright expired)
The Hoffman Arms was completed by the end of January 1884 and the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide was quick to denounce its architectural quality.  In fact, the publication was so scathing in its assessment it would not mention the architects by name.  On January 26 an article noted that the building “bears on a placard the names of its architects, to show that they think it a creditable work.  Being of a different opinion, and, we trust, of a benevolent disposition, we suppress the names.”

The Record & Guide protested mostly about the array of materials used.  Its critic was greatly offended, for instance, by the cast iron bays.  The journal was unrelenting, saying “he has bestrewn the frames of the windows with promiscuous boltheads, big and little, which look like so many blisters, and this eruption of metallic pustules, which would have a meaning on a boiler, is continued to the top, forming a sort of varioloid decoration, which is not at all attractive in itself, but which serves to bring out much more strongly the absurdity of the imitation of masonry in the lower part.”

Despite the blistering attack, the Hoffman Arms filled with wealthy residents who could afford the $2,100 annual rent; a little over $5,000 per month today.  They also enjoyed the amenities of the first floor, like the restaurant run by Rebecca Spooner, the barber shop, and the Hoffman Arms Pharmacy, operated by Dr. A. P. Dudley.

A stereopticon slide shows an open carriage waiting at the front entrance.
Like those living in the Dakota, most residents of the Hoffman Arms used the building’s name rather than its address.  And so when Frances N. Schurig died on July 30, 1890 The Evening World noted simply that “Mrs. Schurig was a woman of fashion and refinement, and for the past two years has lived at the Hoffman Arms.”

Her death was mysterious.  Her husband, Dr. Edmund Schurig, lived in Dresden, Germany.  She had met him there several years earlier and they married.  It was her second marriage.  She was the widow of George Cammann and had two children.  Oddly enough, she returned to America and he remained abroad.  “Dr. Schurig never lived with his wife at the Hoffman Arms, and this fact has given rise to the rumor that there had been an estrangement between them,” said The World on August 1, 1890.

By now Frances’s son, George Cammann, was grown and a partner in a brokerage firm.  Her daughter, 18 years old, shared the Hoffman Arms apartment, and the two of them regularly rode horses in Central Park.  The World said she “was noted for her wonderful abilities as an equestrienne.”

Frances Schurig and her daughter enjoyed the lifestyles of extremely wealthy New Yorkers.  They summered at fashionable resorts and Frances had sizable Manhattan real estate holdings.  The manager of the Hoffman Arms described her as “the gentlest of gentlewomen, beautiful and educated, and, despite her haughtiness, amiable, and of an exceedingly cheerful demeanor.”

In 1890 Frances and her daughter closed their apartments and were summering in the Catskills.  Frances surprised the Hoffman Arms staff when she suddenly appeared, alone, the last week of July.  She did not stay long, leaving on Monday morning July 28 for Bridgehampton, Long Island and John Hull’s Hotel.  Before leaving she mentioned to one of the staff that she was planning a trip to Europe in March or April.

But the Evening World reported on August 1, “Early Wednesday morning she appeared on the veranda of the hotel, a perfect picture, as usual.  She was arrayed in a correct fitting costume selected with rare taste.”

Frances Schurig walked to the beach and after strolling for some distance, she was seen by several men “too far off to interfere,” placing her hat and cloak on the sand.  She then walked into the roaring surf.  The Evening World described her suicide in florid Victorian prose.

“Then when out of reach and earshot this regal woman, fully and richly appareled, walked boldly and even defiantly into the ocean’s trough where the breakers roared their loudest.  Thus she went to her death, facing the creamy-crested surf with a calm deliberation that bespoke courage uncanny and weird.”

The New York Times reported “Twelve hours afterward the waves tossed her body back onto the beach within a few rods of the spot where she entered the water.”  The Evening World was gruesomely poetic in writing “Beautiful, haughty and queenly Mrs. Francs N. Schurig calmly walked to her death in the seething breakers at Bridgehampton, L. I., and to-day her rigid body lies in a receiving vault awaiting burial.”

The suicide was indeed a mystery.  The Times noted “Those who might explain her act will not speak.  From all outward appearances she enjoyed all that makes life enjoyable.  She had beauty, health, riches, and two children.”

Also living in the building around the time of Frances Schurig’s death was nationally-known spiritualist Dr. Eugene Crowell.  The author of books like The Spirit World: Its Inhabitants, Nature and Philosophy, he had been the leader of the political Know Nothing Party.

Like certain present-day politicians, the party was concerned over the influx of immigrants, especially Irish Catholics.  The party feared that the nation was being overtaken by the German and Irish who were controlled by the Vatican.  Its membership was limited to Protestant males; but when differences over the issue of slavery fragmented the group, it disintegrated.

Crowell’s prominence was such that when his health failed, The Rock Island [Illinois] Argus reported on October 14, 1894 “Dr. Eugene Crowell is critically ill at his residence in the Hoffman Arms…and his death is expected at any hour.”  The newspaper noted that “Dr. Crowell has been for years the mainstay of the believers in Spiritualism in this country” but it hastened to add “He was, during the earlier period of his life, a materialist.”  Just over a week later, on October 29, 1894, Crowell died in his apartment at the age of 78.

Within a month the family of David Tweedie moved from 50th Street into the Hoffman Arms.  Once their apartment was in order, newspapers noted that Mrs. Tweedie and her daughter “are at home on Wednesdays December 5 and 12.”   Elizabeth Ann Walker Tweedie was well-to-do in her own right.  She was the granddaughter of Phlip Thomas, the first President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and her father was Treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad.  The family would stay here for many years.

“At homes,” teas, dinners and receptions were the norm in the Hoffman Arms.  On February 14, 1896, for instance, The New York Times reported that “Mrs. Orlando B. Johnson, who has a handsome suite of apartments in the Hoffman Arms…received informally last evening…There were a large number of callers and some very delightful music.”

Perhaps the apartment building’s most notable resident at the turn of the century was General Rafael Uribe, the Colombian revolutionary leader.  His secretary, Raoul Perez, and Dr. A. J. Restrepo, “ardent Liberal,” as described by The Times, also had apartments in the Hoffman Arms.

Rumors began circulating in July 1901 when General Uribe suddenly disappeared from New York.  On July 23 The Times ran the suggestive headline “Gen. Uribe Preparing to Seize Panama?” and furthered rumors by printing “it is said that he slipped away from New York about three weeks ago, and is now actively engaged in preparing a filibustering expedition for the purpose of taking Panama.”

At the time Charles A. Gerlach had been manager of the Hoffman Arms for years.  A few months after Uribe’s disappearance, Gerlach noticed things were missing from his apartment.  Soon other residences complained of stolen items, the total value amounting to several thousand dollars.  Gerland called in the police and the mystery was solved when the janitor’s rooms were searched.

The janitor and his wife were arrested when “In the rooms of the woman they found many of the stolen articles, and then traced a large packing case of booty to a house in Second-ave.”  The New-York Tribune reported on February 27, the day after the arrest, that “The things stolen consisted of gowns, silverware and jewelry.  One of the sufferers was Mrs. Eastman, a sister of Mrs. Carter Harrison, of Chicago.”

Scandal visited the Hoffman Arms the following year.  Mrs. E. Spencer Hall and her daughter “had their own carriage and an apparently unlimited income,” according to The Evening World on March 17, 1903.  “The daughter is a pupil at an exclusive school for your girls.”

In the meantime, millionaire James Heman Snow, an executive with Standard Oil Company, lived at No. 324 West 77th Street with his wife.  And so his death in the apartment of Mrs. E. Spencer Hall on the night of March 26, 1903, raised questions.  And it ignited a flurry of attempts to head off gossip.  That didn’t work.

At first no one was allowed up to the Hall apartment, “the clerk even refusing such permission to a policeman,” reported The Times the following morning.  Reporters were given a misleading name for the deceased, the middle initial being substituted as “L” to throw off their investigation. 

Reporters camped out in the lobby and at around 1:30 in the morning a man named Cole arrived in a cab.  “He hurried into the house and through the corridors and up the elevator, asking to be taken to the rooms where Mr. Snow had died.  He alone was permitted to go.”

It was later discovered that the mysterious man was Edward F. Cole, a nephew of the dead millionaire, who lived on Riverside Drive.   The story, of course, finally leaked out and newspapers excitedly reported on the scandalous death.  Charles Gerlach did not help the family’s nor Mrs. Hall’s attempts to explain away the circumstances.

“Mr. Gerlach says that Mr. Snow was a frequent caller and that he was known to Lucile Spencer Hall, the daughter of Mrs. Hall, as ‘uncle,’” reported The Evening World on March 27.

Mrs. Snow, described by The World as “a devout Catholic” who “has a private chapel in her magnificent home,” pretended outrage at the assumptions of the press.  She insisted that she and her husband had gone to the Hall apartment for dinner and were playing cards when he collapsed from a heart condition.  It was she, she said, who had called a doctor.

But The World noted “So far as Mr. Gerlach knows, Mrs. Snow was never in the Hoffman Arms and he says she certainly was not there last night with her husband.”   Dr. Di Zerega, who responded to the apartment and found Snow already dead did not help the cover-up either.  “Dr. Di Zerega said that he had not heard that Mrs. Snow was in the apartments of Mrs. Hall with her husband.”

Such attempts to avoid scandal and negative publicity among society were, as now, commonplace.  It was the case three years later when the night clerk telephoned the Presbyterian Hospital on March 29, 1906 saying “I want you to come here and get Mrs. Emily Bloodgood.  We can’t handle her.”

When the ambulance arrived, two men carried the 56-year old socialite out, wrapped in blankets.  The Evening World said she “was connected with some of the most prominent families in New York.”  It added “Mrs. Bloodgood is an enthusiastic patron of the arts, and her collection of old masters is valued at thousands of dollars.”

Her elevated social status did not prevent the newspaper from running the scurrilous headline “Mrs. Bloodgood Found Drugged—Removed from Fashionable Hoffman Arms, Hysterical; Morphine is Blamed.”

Emily Bloodgood had become hysterical and Hoffman Arms staff said “It was next to impossible to control her.”  Before family members could do damage control, The World reported “At the hospital it was said that Mrs. Bloodgood was not only suffering from hysteria and alcoholism, but that she was possibly poisoned by an overdose of morphine.”

On March 29 her son pooh-poohed the notion that his mother was an abuser.  “It came out yesterday that Mrs. Emily Bloodgood, who was taken from the Hoffman Arms to Bellevue Hospital on Wednesday night after dining with her son, H. L. Bloodgood of the Racquet and Tennis Club, was hysterical from the pain an ulcerated tooth gave her.”

The toothache explanation closed the discussion.

More than a dozen years after moving into the Hoffman Arms, Elizabeth Tweedie died in her apartment on Saturday, July 7, 1906 at the age of 70.  She had been ill for some time.  Davie Tweedie and their unmarried daughter would remain in the apartment for years to come.

In January 1907 the Hoffman family sold the building to Charles Gerlach.  An advertisement the following year offered “Apartments from 5 to 20 rooms, with Kitchen or Restaurant Service.”  The ad hinted that not just anyone off the street was welcome.  “Select Patronage.”  Gerlach listed the most expensive apartment available at $4,000 a year—more than $8,800 per month in today’s dollars.

The lifestyle of the moneyed women in the Hoffman Arms was evidenced in 1914 when Club Women of New York listed members’ interests.  Resident Mrs. Nathalie McClean listed suffrage and study; Miss Tweedie was interested in “women’s chess;” Mrs George P. Ludlum noted her clubs, Continental Chap and Daughters of the American Revolution; while Mrs. Anna G. Du Bois, apparently upset with the conditions in Europe, simple listed “Peace.”

Other residents in the first years of the decade included Louis Herman August Zerega di Zerega, one of the founders of the New York Cotton Exchange.  He lived here with his wife, daughter and son-in-law and at least two maids.  An sufferer of acute asthma, he accidentally fell from his rear window on July 26, 1910 while attempting to get air.  The New-York Tribune, with an unusual lack of tact wrote “He was still in his pajamas yesterday morning at 10:45 o’clock when his body hurled through the air to the pavement of the little yard, splitting his skull.”

Colonel G. Creighton Webb was the brother of Dr. William Seward Webb; who was married to Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt, daughter of William H. Vanderbilt.  And Colonel John Bogart was a nationally-renowned civil engineer who not only helped Olmsted and Vaux in the construction and landscape development of Central Park; but had constructed bridges, railroad terminals and harbors in South America, Buffalo, and Toronto.   One of their longest-term neighbors, David Tweedie, died in his apartment on Thursday, March 2, 1916 at the age of 82. 

The jazzy 1920s brought a change to Manhattan apartment life.  Sleek-lined Art Deco buildings with the most modern of conveniences rose along Park Avenue and across from Central Park.  On the day after Christmas in 1928 builders and operators Klein & Jackson announced they had purchased the entire Madison Avenue blockfront between 59th and 60th Streets.  The Times noted “The fifty-ninth Street corner is occupied by Hoffman Arms…one of the oldest housing landmarks of its type in New York.”

Klein & Jackson laid plans for a “commercial structure of forty or more stories.”  But the following year, after the buildings were vacated and demolition was scheduled, the Stock Market crashed.   On February 16, 1930 The New York Times explained “It has now been decided to postpone work for a year…The Hoffman Arms, therefore, is now divested of tenants, many of whom had been there for years and has three of four vacant stores.”

The Great Depression, of course, lasted well over a year.  Finally in 1933 Klein & Jackson announced its greatly scaled-down plans.  Anticipating the repeal of Prohibition, according to The New York Times on March 23, Klein & Jackson’s “structure of artistic design adaptable in part for a high-class restaurant and beer garden, is about to replace a well-known landmark.” 

The ambitious 40-story project of 1928 was dramatically reduced.  “The building destined to replace these structures will be two stories in height and occupy the entire plot.”

photo by Samuel Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The sleek Art Moderne building was completed in 1934.  The entire block-long ground floor was a restaurant, and offices took up the second story.   It survived only 13 years, replaced by an 8-story office building designed by Harrison & Abramovitz in 1957.  Exactly three decades later Fox & Fowle designed a 19-story tower to sit atop it.  And the Hoffman Arms slipped from memory.

photo by Beyond My Ken


  1. Never heard of this beautiful building why was it hated so much? That 2-story replacement was so amazing and beautiful

    1. I love the little two-story building. If you look closely, the very dark portions of the floor plan are light courts. So there were windows, just hard to see in the plans.