Friday, March 4, 2016

Blum & Blum's Jazzy No. 210 East 68th Street

Three-dimensional brickwork staggers up the facade between bands of brightly-colored terra cotta.  The building never had a cornice.
In November 1928 construction began on the 16-story apartment house at No. 210 East 68th Street, at the southeast corner of Third Avenue.  The New York Times reported that the 22,000-square foot structure would contain “from one to six rooms of large size with wood-burning fireplaces and mechanical refrigeration.”

New York City was riding high that year.  Even those of modest incomes played the stock market, shiny new automobiles parked along the curbs, and despite Prohibition, nighttime revelers danced to the "Charleston" and the "Black Bottom" in the city’s estimated 100,000 speakeasies.

Brothers George and Edward Blum designed an Art Deco apartment building that reflected the times.  No. 210 East 68th Street was the Jazz Age depicted in brick and terra cotta.  The beige brick Third Avenue façade was relieved by three-dimensional brick bands that stair-stepped from right to left.   Just above the shop level was a vivid band of green and black terra cotta on a field of sandy brown.  Playful geometric shapes danced above alternating black and green dots.  Another jazzy terra cotta band, two stories below the cornice-less roof, undulated around the building.

But it was at the main entrance, down the 68th Street block, that stole the show.  The lower terra cotta band turned the corner, continuing above two stories of smooth tiles.  It disappeared into a robust snail shell scroll from which delicate green terra cotta strips, like the fluting of a pilaster, fell.  The band resumed its course, a floor lower, to the end of the building.  At the same level, a mirror-image scroll counterpoised the first, creating a stunning off-balance balance.

The Blum brothers designed the building for the 210 East Sixty-Eighth Street Corporation; formed when Charles and Albert Mayer joined with William Korn to create the project.   At the time of ground-breaking, the men predicted the apartments would be ready for occupancy by the fall of 1929.

Well before then apartments were being snatched up.  On April 4, 1929 Allen J. Haggerty signed the lease for the penthouse; and on a single day in July five apartments were rented.  Potential residents thumbed through an Art Deco-style brochure, the cover of which used the building’s scrolls and bands as borders.  It marketed a Roof Garden (“for the use of tenants”), cross ventilation, electrical refrigeration, package service, maid service and an in-house resident manager.

The 1920 brochure made use of the terra cotta elements as borders -- from the collection of Columbia University Libraries

Noting “the prestige given by a smart address,” the brochure emphasized “Modern appointments which please the most fastidious…service which satisfies the most demanding make this sixteen story building a popular and comfortable place to live.”

Life at No. 210 East 68th Street, as depicted in the brochure -- from the collection of Columbia University Libraries

Because of the interesting mix of apartment layouts—from one room to six—a variety of tenants moved in.  Many were well-known or well-connected.  Mary E. Smith was one of the first.    Her wealthy husband was the president of the Royal Typewriter Company.  But she would be moving in alone.

A typical floorplan -- from the collection of Columbia University Libraries
In January that year George E. Smith had sued Mary for divorce, “alleging misconduct with an unknown man.”   Things got uglier when Mary counter-sued, saying her husband had maintained an apartment for Helen C. Meade at No. 27 West 55th Street.  And when Mary appeared in court on August 22 she asserted, according to The New York Times the following day, that he had “lavished money and gifts of Miss Meade who, she said, was now with Mr. Smith at his estate in Convent, N.J.”

By the time Mary settled into her new apartment she was receiving a $500 monthly allowance from Smith.  Her appearance before the judge was to increase that amount.  She told the judge she needed $15,000 “for her expenses” and that she would like $25,000 to cover her attorney fees related to the divorce.

Among the other initial residents was James Donald Thomson, a 27-year old executive with Chase National Bank; well-to-do widow Helen Hawley McCallum, and equally well-off Mrs. Helen Schaper.  All three of the new tenants would make the headlines within the year.

But first, the lives of everyone were changed—some more than others—when the Stock Market crashed on October 24, 1929, just months after No. 210 East 68th Street opened its doors.   The carefree times reflected in the playful terra cotta decorations were over.  And perhaps no one in the apartment building was more affected than James Donald Thomson.

Thomson, who was the head of purchasing and sales with Chase National's bond branch, had been playing the stock market.  He earned $3,500 a year at his job (about $50,000 in 2016); but seeing the fortunes being made on Wall Street, he set out in December 1928 to make his own.  The problem was that he used the bank’s money for his stock trades.

He started by buying 100 shares of Packard stock.  And by the time the bottom fell out of the Stock Market, he had embezzled nearly $100,000.  Now all hopes of sneaking the “borrowed” funds back were lost.  On Monday, May 26, 1930 Thomson and his lawyer appeared in the bank office where he confessed.  No. 210 East 68th Street suddenly had a vacancy.

The playful band resume, a story lower, on the east side of the doorway, while the fluting-like strips continue down.
Helene Schaper was the sister of the internationally-known opera singer Frieda Hempel.  The diva had been a favorite of Kaiser Wilhelm II and she headlined performances at Covent Garden, Berlin, and the Metropolitan Opera.   In 1926 Helene apparently needed some extra cash, and she pawned a gold mesh handbag and a $10,000 diamond cross on a platinum chain at the Provident Loan Society.  She handed the pawn tickets to her sister, asking if she would pay the interest until she could retrieve them.

By the time of the stock market crash, it appears that Mme. Hempel’s finances were suffering as well.  Rather than pay the interest, she retrieved the items and sold them.  Infuriated, Helene demanded their return.  But soon after Frieda bought them back and handed them over, Helene realized that the diamonds in the cross had been replaced with imitation stones.

The opera star skillfully evaded the process servers until February 1930.  Her lawyer told the courts “Mme. Hempel regrets that Mrs. Schaper has instituted such an action for which there is absolutely no foundation.”  Frieda felt that her sister was a victim of “outside influence” and her attorney pointed out that Helene’s lawyer also represented Frieda’s former Berlin voice teacher “who has brought a $50,000 suit against the singer.”

The legal back-and-forth dragged on until August 7, when Frieda Hempel’s motion to dismiss the case was refused.  On August 29 the court case began.   Those following the case in the newspapers may have been surprised, on June 3, 1934, when Helene Schaper lost the case and her sister was awarded $3,550.

Far less salacious was Helen Hawley McCalum's appearance in the headlines.   The moneyed widow quietly sailed for London in the spring of 1930.  Her return trip would be more noteworthy.  Reports appeared nationwide on July 21 when the Associated Press announced that “Bishop James Cannon, jr., of the Methodist Episcopal church, was married at Christ Church, Mayfair, last Tuesday afternoon to Mrs. McCallum, it was made known today.”

The relatively secret wedding was newsworthy because of the 65-year old groom, an outspoken Prohibitionist.  The following day the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reminded readers that he “was noted for his work against Alfred E. Smith, Democratic presidential candidate, in 1928.  Bishop Cannon recently gained considerable notoriety by persistent refusal to explain to a Senate committee the expenditures of campaign funds.”

In fact Cannon’s political influence was at one time so strong that journalist H. L. Mencken said he was “the undisputed boss of the United States.  Congress was his troop of Boy Scouts, and Presidents trembled whenever his name was mentioned.”  A Senate committee investigating Cannon’s unethical funding methods had threatened to ruin the career of New York financier Edwin C. Jameson when his involvement came to light a month earlier.

Seemingly unaffected by the dismal economy were Mr. and Mrs. William McDaniels, who lived on the 13th floor.  On the night of February 8, 1931 they gave a party for about a dozen guests.  Among them were Martin A. O’Mara and his 37-year old wife, Catherine.  O’Mara, unlike his hosts, had indeed been hit hard by the Depression.

He lost his job as president of the Brockway Motor Truck Corporation in November, 1930; as well as his directorships in several other corporations.   He had also been president and director of the Indiana Truck Corporation and Indiana Trucks, Inc.   Catherine, accustomed to luxuries as the wife of a wealthy businessman, was embarrassed and troubled by what her husband called his “financial reverses.”

Catherine was chatting with Mrs. McDaniels and another woman that evening, when she suddenly excused herself and went into another room, locking the door behind her.  The New York Times reported “A moment later the superintendent of the apartment house, a man named Snyder, heard the thud as her body hit the courtyard.”

Martin O’Mara told investigators that their financial condition had been “preying on his wife’s mind” and that “Her fear that their 17-year-old daughter might have to leave the private school she is attending probably led to her act.”

Catherine’s suicide was the low point of No. 210 East 68th Street during the Depression years.  Following his marriage to Janet Huntington Brewster on March 12, 1935, broadcaster Edward R. Murrow moved into the building.   According to his biographer, A. M. Sperber, ten weeks after the wedding Murrow wrote to a friend “We are living, or rather Janet is living at 210 East 68th Street.  I seem to be living at the office most of the time.”

An office doorway, on 68th Street, received an artful touch as well.

And the comfortable financial situation of some residents was evidenced in December 1936 when a burglar entered the three-room apartment of Mrs. George Monro on the second floor through the bathroom window.   Mrs. Monro had left around 5:30, and when she returned at midnight she found the apartment “topsy-turvy.”

On leaving through the same window, the crook set off the burglar alarm; but not before he had made off with $4,000 in Mrs. Monro’s jewels—including a pearl necklace, two sapphire rings, two diamond rings, one emerald ring, two bracelets, a jade pendant, and diamond brooch and a cigarette case.

No. 210 welcomed another well-known tenant in January 1942 when actress Fay Wray signed a lease.  Despite her lengthy screen credits, the star would forever be remembered for her 1933 role as Ann Darrow in RKO’s King Kong.  (That film, incidentally, was credited for saving RKO from bankruptcy.)

Later that year, on August 24, Fay married screenwriter and playwright Robert Riskin.  She retired from acting and the couple had two children.  But in the 1950s, when Riskin became ill, she was forced to return to acting, appearing in films and television shows.

Times were again good in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1946.  The economy was booming and the war was over.   When Margaret Jantzen prepared to leave No. 210 that night for a glitzy party at the home of Jack Seiderman at No. 16 East 62nd Street, she went all out.

When she got into the driver’s seat of her automobile, she was wearing a full-length mink coat, a yellow gold snake coil choker valued at $2,600 and other valuable jewelry.  At the party were some of Margaret’s family members—her sister and brother-in-law, motion picture producer Richard Eichberg; and her mother and step-father, Dr. and Mrs. Otto Rohdich.

When the New Year’s party wound down, Margaret offered a ride home in her apparently commodious vehicle.  In the car were the four family members and a friend, Elsie Feineis.  When Margaret pulled up to No. 940 Park Avenue, where Dr. and Mrs. Rohdich lived, Richard Eichberg accompanied them to the entrance.  Unseen by him, a gunman rushed up to the driver’s window and waved a revolver in the face of Margaret Jantzen.  He forced her onto the passenger side and drove off with the three terrified women held prisoner.

When Margaret’s sister began to scream, the thug threatened to shoot her.  As he drove on, he ordered the women to remove their valuables.  The New York Times reported “Mrs. Eichberg was not disposed to honor this request.”

She spat back, “I won’t take it off.  If you want it, take it.”

In the meantime, Elsie Feineis began throwing her jewelry out the window—first a pair of gold earrings, then a gold ring set with two rubies and a topaz.   She took off a diamond ring, half a diamond dress clip and a wristwatch and dropped them into her dress.  (The earrings were later found by police but the valuable ring was never recovered.)

At 82nd Street, near York Avenue, the gunman stopped the car and ordered his hostages out.  When he drove off in Margaret’s car, he took with him her mink and gold choker, her sister’s $5,000 diamond bracelet and ermine cape, and Elsie’s muskrat coat—a haul of about $15,000 in total.

Dressed in evening clothes with no coats at 3:00 in the morning; the new year for the shivering socialites was not starting out well.   They found a tavern on York Avenue still open and called the police—asking them to bring extra overcoats.

By 1964 the elevated train which had run up Third Avenue in front of No. 210 was gone and the jazzy terra cotta and brick designs could, for the first time, be fully appreciated. 

Hortense Gabel, the city’s Rent and Rehabilitation Administrator, lived in the building at the time.  Her staunch insistence that rent control was a necessity enraged small property owners.

On January 11, 1964 East 68th Street in front of the building’s entrance was jammed with picketers carrying signs with angry declarations like “Get Rid of the Rats in Rent Control” and “Mrs. Gabel Must Go!”  The protesters called Hortense a Communist, a Socialist and “Moscow Molly.”

One demonstrator, David Bell, complained to reporters that Hortense Gabel lived “in a five-room duplex apartment with two bathrooms and 14 closets and that her rent was $140 a month.”

Although she refused to discuss the protest in depth, Mrs. Gabel did point out that her apartment was “not a duplex, has four rooms, two bathrooms and eight closets” and “is substantially more than $140.”

George and Edward Blum’s joyful Art Deco building survives almost unchanged since 1929.  The storefronts of the Third Avenue side have been modernized and expanded; but the marvelous terra cotta and brick ornamentation are as crisp and delightful as ever.  And, oh, that entranceway!

photographs by the author

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