|The turret window panes would have originally been curved to conform to the rounded shape.|
William Earl Dodge Stokes was as colorful as he was wealthy. For decades the multimillionaire would shake society with his marriages, divorces, law suits, an apparent illegitimate child and his being shot by a rebuffed actress. But he is also best remembered for his tireless development of the Upper West Side. Stokes envisioned Broadway (known as The Boulevard at the time) as rivaling the fashionable Champs Elysees in Paris and his residential structures in the neighborhood followed suit.
In 1889 Stokes’s architect of choice was Joseph H. Taft; and he was being kept busy. That year, in March, Taft worked on designs for 20 upscale houses on the west side of West End Avenue, between 86th and 88th Street; and within a few months he designed five more on the opposite of the Avenue, Nos. 560 through 568, between 87th and 88th Street.
That last project, completed in 1890, was anchored by No. 560 on the northeast corner of West End Avenue and 87th Street. The brick and stone mansion rose four stories above a high basement and was decorated with deeply-carved panels, elaborate Flemish Renaissance dormers which nestled into the steep tiled roof and engaged towers which terminated in bell-shaped caps. While the entrance was centered on the 100-foot long 87th Street side; the residence took the more impressive West End Avenue address.
On August 18, 1892 Peter Gilsey, Jr. quietly married Caroline Dreyer in City Hall. It was followed by a one-line announcement published by Gilsey’s wealthy and high profile family. The Evening World, in response, wrote “The above was the dry announcement published this morning of a most romantic marriage.”
The newspaper recounted that six months earlier the 27-year old Gilsey had stopped into Hamper’s candy store at No. 9 Wooster Street. “Caroline Dreyer dealt out the saccharine wares of the establishment. Just turned nineteen, with snow-white complexion, chestnut hair and large brown eyes, tall, graceful, well-developed, moderately educated—such was Caroline Dreyer and Peter Gilsey, jr., fell in love with her.”
The socially-mismatched couple eventually won over the support of Peter’s uncle, John Gilsey; the first step in the family’s acceptance. By 1901 Peter Gilsey was listing his home address as No. 560 West End Avenue. The couple would stay in the mansion until 1905.
That year Bessie Clay took over the house as home to her West End Conservatory of Music. The New-York Tribune reported “The first regular recital of Miss Clay’s conservatory will, it is announced, be given on Wednesday, November 23.”
Well-known and respected in the music world, Bessie Clay’s facility offered musical instruction by some of the nation’s preeminent instructors. Students from out of town boarded in the house as well, the New-York Tribune noting on September 24, 1905 “The Institute also offers special home care and social privileges to resident students.” By the time of its opening, the school’s name was changed to the New York Institute of Music.
|The Sun, October 22, 1905 (copyright expired)|
The Musical Courier described it in 1907 saying it “is one of the most attractive schools of music in Greater New York, and in the country at large, for that matter. Beautifully situated in the Riverside section, surrounded by churches and handsome residences, it appeals at once to persons of refined and artistic tastes. As to the methods of Miss Clay and the faculty, including some of the world’s noted pedagogues, it is enough to say, that nothing is left undone to make students realize that thoroughness is the foundation of their musical equipment.”
Among the esteemed faculty was violin instructor Victor Kuzdo, who had trained internationally-known concert violinists like Efrem Zimbalist. Bessie Clay’s relationship with the violinist changed from professional to romantic and in 1910 she transferred title to the mansion to Kuzdo.
One of the students living here in 1911 was 19-year old Ada Forman. She arrived from South Pasadena in September. The Evening World said “She is said to be the daughter of a wealthy California man who died recently.”
In addition to her musical studies, Ada enrolled in the New York Normal School of Physical Education on West 59th Street. She was there on November 8. While she was sitting on a fourth floor window sill, “chatting and laughing” with an instructor, Miss Carter, tragedy struck. According to the teacher, “she suddenly toppled backward, clutched at the window frame, shrieked wildly and…disappeared through the opening.”
The Evening World reported “She turned completely over in the air and crashed through a skylight over the swimming pool in the basement. The girl was found lying half in the water, on the edge of the pool.” Doctors held out little hope of her survival.
Within two weeks, however, Bessie was restoring a sense of normalcy among the girls. On November 26 The New York Times noted “Miss Bessie B. Clay of 560 West End Avenue gave a dance on Friday evening for a number of Southern girls who are spending the Winter with her.”
In the meantime, Victor Kuzdo was running the Institute. Bessie’s name appeared second in importance in the advertisements; and Victor had other plans in mind. A few days after the dance he purchased the four-story mansion at No. 145 Riverside Drive between 86th and 87th Streets, just a block away from the school. The New York Times reported “Mr. Kuzdo conducts the New York Institute of Music, now at 560 West End Avenue, but it will soon be removed to the Riverside Drive house.”
It seems that Victor smelled profit in the West End Avenue mansion when the Wittnauer Realty Company began buying up the other residences on the block to build a 12-story apartment house. But greed got in the way of his plans. The New York Times explained that the “builders tried to buy the dwelling…to incorporate in the site, but they figured that the price was prohibitive.” Kuzdo’s plans to move the school to Riverside Drive fell through.
The progression of Victor’s and Bessie’s relationship was complete by 1916. Musical America mentioned on May 13 “Mrs. Victor Kuzdo, nee Bessie Clay, was hostess at a studio musicale at the New York Institute of Music, 560 West End Avenue on Friday Evening, May 5.
Victor Kuzdo sold No. 560 West End Avenue to Helen B. Warrington that year. He had priced it at $75,000—in the neighborhood of $1.7 million in 2016. In return he negotiated a four-year lease on the property for the school.
At the termination of the lease, the New York Institute of Music vacated its home of nearly two decades. The mansion was converted to 12 “high class” apartments. An advertisement on September 19, 1920 offered “non-housekeeping 2 and 3 rooms, bath and foyer…brand new.” Rents were placed at between $1,800 and $2,300 per year. The description of “non-housekeeping” notified potential tenants that there were no kitchens. It was a condition that prompted the owner to offer them as “bachelor apartments” by 1922.
Despite the building’s repeatedly being sold and resold—in 1922, 1929, 1939, 1945 and 1946, for instance, little was changed to the exterior other than the stoop being removed and the entrance lowered to street level. The last remnant of W. E. D. Stokes’s grand block of homes happily survives because Victor Kuzdo's attempt to squeeze a developer backfired.
photographs by the author
|The stoop was removed during the 1919 renovation to apartments.|
photographs by the author