Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Sevillia Apts -- No. 117 West 58th Street



Philip G. Hubert arrived in Cincinnati from his native France in 1849, at the age of 19.  His profession as a teacher of French—which included writing his own textbooks—hardly foreshadowed the important career he would begin in New York years later.

He moved to New York in 1865 and opened an architectural office, soon partnering with James W. Pirrson to form Hubert & Pirrson.  Forward-thinking, Hubert designed a group of eight 12-story apartment buildings on Seventh Avenue, between 58th and 59th Streets in 1882; at a time when the concept of apartment living was just taking hold.  The ambitious and somewhat risky project cost nearly $5 million.

Hubert continued to improve his designs for apartment houses.  In 1891 he began work on the Sevillia with financial backing from August O. Hoddick.  A residential hotel, it replaced the two old structures at Nos. 117 and 119 West 58th Street.  It would be ground breaking in modern conveniences and in fire-proofing.

Following Hubert’s death on November 1911, The Architectural Record remembered that in the Sevillia “Mr. Hubert did away with wooden floors, using a cement composition throughout.”  His aim, the journal said, “was to devise an apartment house so nearly fire-proof that the entire contents of a single apartment might burn to ashes without endangering, or even disturbing the rest of the building.”

The Sevillia would be marketed as being “intended to meet the wants of people who desire to combine the freedom from care of a hotel life with the comforts and privacy of an individual home.”   To this end Hubert designed ground-breaking innovations.  “This was also the first hotel in which each apartment was provided with a refrigerator cooled from a central plant, and in which the tenants were provided with running water, cooled and filtered for drinking.”

Completed in 1892 at a cost of $76,763 (around $2 million in 2017), the Sevillia was refined, if a bit imperious.  The two-story stone base, the first of four sections, was dominated by a gaping arch over the entrance.  A balcony, four bays wide, introduced a handsome three-story brownstone insert that sat within the second section—four stories of brown brick framed with paneled quoins.  Here free-standing columns and matching pilasters below a deep cornice sat on three story-tall pedestals.  
A cast iron balcony stretching the width of the building defined the third section; and the fourth, a three-story mansard level with stacked French-style dormers, sat above a handsome cornice with wreathed brackets.

Incised lines in the brickwork create the illusion of fluted pilasters.

Among the first residents of the Sevillia were George B. Prescott and his wife (whose country place, Elmside, was in Lakeville, Connecticut); and newlyweds Fairman Warren and his bride, the former Clara Stratton.  Financially comfortable at 32 years old, Warren worked in his father’s wallpaper business, Warren, Fuller & Co. at No. 129 East 42nd Street and was a member of the exclusive Union League Club.

Also moving into the new building was the architect himself.   On December 12, 1894, The Sun complimented Mrs. Hubert for her cleverness in creating invitations to a benefit for St. Mary’s School.  Instead of the expected form, she had composed a poem using quaint Shakespearean spelling.  “A touch of originality often makes a great success of an unassuming benefit sale,” said the newspaper.  “Mrs. Philip G. Hubert of the Sevillia, 117 West Fifty-eighth street realized this principal, and in sending out the following jingle Mrs. Hubert, her friends think, wins the palm for originality.”

In 1905 elaborate electric lamps flanked the entrance and canvas awnings protected the apartments from summer heat.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Huberts had new neighbors at the time in the form of attorney W. Rodman Winslow and his wife.  The couple moved into a seventh floor apartment in the Sevillia in September 1894.  The New York Times described the Winslows as “well-to-do” and their apartment as a “snug and handsomely-appointed flat.”

The 46-year old Winslow had two offices downtown, one for his legal business and the other for the management of his Advance and Discount Company, which provided “loans on chattels.”  He also owned the Mohican House hotel on Lake George.

A month before Mrs. Hubert was composing her invitations, Rodman Winslow complained of being "run down and dyspeptic."  His doctor.  Dr. Alexander Strong prescribed a tonic; but a far more serious problem loomed.

On the morning of December 2 the Winslows were dressing in their bedroom “which was separated from an alcove sitting room by a portiere,” as described by The Times.  Because the steam heat of the Sevillia sometimes caused the apartments to get stuffy, the upper pane of the sitting room window was lowered a crack to let in cool air.  But that morning Winslow felt a draft.

“Rodman, if you are chilly, close the sitting-room window,” his wife offhandedly commented.  They were the last words she would utter to her husband.

A few minutes later she called, “Rodman, have you closed that window?”

The Times reported “No response came, and she followed her husband, calling his name.  In the sitting room she halted, and a great dread came to her.”   Winslow was not in the sitting room and the window which had been closed at the bottom the night before was open.

“Half divining the awful truth, the wife nerved herself to peer into the court.  A moment later there was a piercing cry of horror and moans of anguish, and neighbors came, to find the wife fainting and the husband dead and frightfully mangled on the flags of the court.”

Apparently, in trying to close the top pane, Winslow had opened the bottom and reached out to push up the upper portion.  In doing so he fell out.  “Residents of the fourth and fifth floors of the apartment house, who were in rooms over the court, heart a frightful cry and a crash when Mr. Winslow fell, and saw him dead in the court.”

Fairman and Clara Warren were still in the building.  About three weeks after the Winslow tragedy Fairman, whose left leg had been slightly crippled his entire life, slipped and broke his right leg.  Now a near-invalid, he stopped going to his 42nd Street office.  As a matter of fact, he rarely left the Sevillia at all. 

Clara was pregnant with their first child, and Warren fell into what The New York Times deemed “melancholia” over his disability.  Every morning a masseur would arrive to rub his legs; and each evening around 10:00 he would go down to the building’s office to talk to the watchman for about an hour.  Normally, according to building employees, it was Warren who did most of the talking, grumbling about other tenants.

The baby, James Stratton Warren, arrived in April 1895.  Clara had difficulty recuperating, The Sun reporting that “Since the birth of their child, Mrs. Warren’s health has been very delicate."  Because of his wife's health, Warren temporarily took a room on the floor below their apartment.  "He was most solicitous about his wife’s health, and spent most of his time with her,” said the newspaper.

Despite the happy occasion of a newborn son, Fairman Warren's depression over his physical condition did not improve.  He offhandedly spoke of suicide a few times, but no one took him seriously.  The Sun said “There was no reason, so far as can be learned, why he should have done so.  His domestic life was happy.”

Warren’s crankiness worsened as well--to the point of making frightening threats.  When he made his usual visit to the watchman on the night of June 10, he spent most of the time “complaining of the noise the late stayers among the tenants made when they came in.  He told the watchman that the noise which these persons made disturbed his sleep, and that if they were not more quiet in future some of them might get the contents of a big revolver which, he said, he had in his room.”

As it turned out, it was not the late stayers who got the contents of his big gun.  The following morning Warren’s masseur arrived at his room and found him dead on the bed, with a bullet wound in his right temple.  A note stated that he believed he was becoming paralyzed and, “dreading the consequences,” decided to kill himself.  Clara inherited the estate, valued at over half a million in 2017 dollars.

The Sevillia only a week earlier, had been the subject of yet another piece of disturbing press.  On Saturday night, June 2, Dr. J. Alexander Tonner met James A. Anderson in Bryant Park.  After treating Anderson to several beers, the 51-year old physician invited him to what The Evening World called his “high-class apartment-house” at 117 West Fifty-eighth street.”  Once in the apartment, Dr. Tonner showed Anderson ten photographs “of a very obscene nature.”

If Tonner thought his new friend would be titillated by the photos, he was sorely disappointed.  Anderson went to Anthony Comstock of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.  The following day Officer O’Connor arrived at the Sevillia armed with a warrant for Tonner’s arrest.  When he was arrested “another batch of the photographs was found in his possession,” reported The Evening World.

Tonner was held on $2,000 bail and charged with possessing and exhibiting obscene pictures.  In court he pleaded guilty; but in doing so he was unaware that the charges had been upgraded to “immoral practices.”

In sentencing Tonner, Judge Cowing accused him of being mentally ill.  “While there can be no palliation for the crime, it seems to me that some of your medical friends should have interested themselves in your behalf, for I think that you are not of sound mind.”  The judge felt he was being lenient in giving Dr. Tonner two years and six months in the penitentiary, saying the maximum penalty was 20 years.

“On the way to the penitentiary Dr. Tonner told Prison Guard Kelly that he thought he had pleaded guilty only to the charge of having obscene pictures in his possession.”

Most of the upscale residents appeared in the newspapers for much more respectable reasons.  On January 29, 1896 The New York Times advised society that Mrs. C. Vanderbilt De Forrest would be receiving “informally on Sunday afternoons after 3 o’clock for the rest of the season,” for instance.

The wedding of John Alden Philbrick and Elizabeth Van Valzah Wilson (“an unusually handsome girl,” according to The Times) on January 20, 1898 was a “notable” affair.   The newspaper was especially interested in the fact that a photographer had been hired for the reception.  A headline the following day read “Bridal Party Photographed” and the lengthy article said in part “There was a wedding reception at the home of the bride’s mother, 348 West Fifty-seventh Street, at which the bridal party, which formed a brilliant group, was photographed by flashlight, much to the interest of the guests.”

The newspaper noted that Philbrick “and his bride will live at the Sevilla [sic], 117 West Fifty-eighth Street.”

The newlyweds would have as neighbors an elderly couple, Augustus and Martha Gaylord.  On October 8, 1900 they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary here.  Gaylord had come to New York from Connecticut in 1847, when he was 21 years old.  Because of ill health, he moved to Wisconsin in 1856 and during the Civil War was Adjutant General of the State of Wisconsin.  Following the war, in 1872, he returned to New York and started business. 

The same year that the Philbricks married, Augustus Gaylord finally retired at the age of 72, stepping down from his post as Commissioner of the Ammunition Manufacturers’ Association.  On March 30, 1901 he died in his apartments in the Sevillia at the age of 75.

Another well-known resident was Col. Sanders Dewees Bruce, a direct descendant of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland.  He had earned his rank during the Civil War, during which he commanded the 22nd Brigade in the Battle of Shiloh.  Both General Sherman and General Grant recommended him for Brigadier General, but he resigned because of heart disease in 1864 and came to New York.

Bruce was an authority on pedigree horses and established the American Stud Book (the rights to which he sold to the Jockey Club for $35,000); and wrote The Horse Breeders’ Guide and Handbook and The Thoroughbred Horse.  His interests were reflected also in his memberships in the American Geographical Society and the American Museum of Natural History.

Like Bruce, Major Charles F. Ulrich had distinguished himself in the war.  The New York Times noted “He was brevetted Major for gallant and meritorious conduct in connection with the explosion of the mines at Petersburg, Va.”  Following the war he returned to New York and entered the insurance business.  The Times said “Major Ulrich was wealthy and unmarried.”  He would remain in the Sevillia until his death in his apartment on September 25, 1902.

That year the Sevillia described itself as "absolutely fireproof" when it advertised “one sunny apartment of two large rooms and bath, $1,000 a year, unfurnished; or $100 a month furnished.  Another of four rooms and bath, $800 a year, unfurnished; or $100 a month, furnished.  Restaurant.”  The “restaurant” was a necessity for residents in the apartments without kitchens.  The $100 monthly rent would be equivalent to about $2,850 today.

Upscale New Yorkers abandoned the city for the summer months, traveling to resorts like Newport and Tuxedo Park.  On June 20, 1904 an advertisement in the New-York Tribune offered “Three furnished apartments to sublet for the summer at low rents.”  It noted the conveniences of “restaurant, electric light, telephone.”

In 1908 the widowed Mrs. Frank W. Sanger lived in the Sevillia with her 23-year old son, Louis.  Frank Sanger had been the manager of Madison Square Garden and among the properties he left his wife was the Empire Theatre. 

Louis, who had graduated college the year before, left the apartment early in the evening of December 21, 1908.  Scandal would follow.

Three days earlier Mrs. Florence L. Greaves had been granted a divorce from William Homer Greaves, “well known in racing circles,” according to The Times.  The couple had been married for seven years and Florence charged her husband “with misconduct at Saratoga on August 15, 1908.”

Florence immediately took back her maiden name of Burns.  The Sun noted that she lived in the Rossleigh apartments at No. 1 West 85th Street “with a maid.”  It soon became apparently that the misconduct in the marriage was not confined to William Greaves.

Mrs. Sanger had no inkling that when Louis left the Sevillia that evening he was on the way to the Rossleigh.  The Sun reported on December 22 “Miss Burns…left her apartments early in the evening, accompanied by Mr. Sanger.  They went in a taxicab and Mr. Sanger told the driver to go to Tiffany’s, which was open last night.”

The newspaper also revealed that the couple had obtained a marriage license at City Hall earlier that day.  Reporters rushed to the Sevillia to get more information on the socially-shocking story.

The Sun wrote “Mr. Sanger’s mother…said last night she didn’t know her son intended to marry Miss Burns, although she had heard that he was acquainted with her.”  The social embarrassment was no doubt devastating for the wealthy widow.

Dr. Stanley O. Sabel’s medical office was in the building at the time.  He had graduated from Columbia Medical School in 1898.  In astounding coincidence, he had been treating a 20-year old patient whose name was also Florence Burns the year before.

On January 9, 1908 Florence appeared before Justice Davis in the Supreme Court asking that her father, Samuel G. Burns, be appointed as her guardian for litigation purposes.  The reason for her request, she said, was “that she is about to sue Dr. Stanley O. Sabel…for $10,000 damages for an alleged vicious assault upon her while he was attending her professionally.”

The date of the alleged assault, she said, was on December 4, 1907.  Her shocking claims and the massive compensation she requested apparently fell flat.  On October 23 that year Sabel was still in the Sevillia and, in fact, took former classmate Dr. D. G. Reese Satterlee into his practice.


Despite its brushes with scandal, the Sevillia continued to house wealthy and well-respected New Yorkers.   Among these was Oliver C. Gayley, Vice President of the Pressed Steel Car Company and brother of James Gayley, first Vice President of the United States Steel Corporation.  Somewhat coincidentally, Oliver’s former sister-in-law, Julia Gardiner Gayley (daughter of Curtis Crane Gardiner of Gardiner’s Island) married a Sevillia resident, Gano Dunn, on August 26, 1920. 

In 1919 the Sevillia was electrified, including conversion of its two old hydraulic elevators.  The New York Edison Company announced “This eleven-story apartment building has an electrical installation of 900 lamps” and added “Forethought has kept the Sevillia modern for twenty-five years.”

Unlike many late Victorian apartment houses, the Sevillia maintained its status throughout the first half of the century.  Among the residents in the 1930s was W. D. Harper, grandson of one of the four Harper brothers who founded the noted publishing firm.

But by mid-century the aging building was in decline.  Now called the Park Wald Hotel, it caused a near international incident in 1959 when the Dominican Liberation Movement, an exile group, established its headquarters in the building.  The organization was formed in opposition to the regime of Generalissimo Rafael Leonides Trujillo Molina.

In response, the Dominican Republic Government accused the United States Government of harboring conspirators.  In a formal declaration on November 3, 1959 it said “that the United States should halt what it said were plots being carried on in the United States against the regime.”

Attorney General Luis E. Suero was quick to name Alfonso Canto, of the 58th Street group, as a “chief conspirator” against the Dominican regime.  And he praised the Dominican Republic as “a decidedly anti-Communist country and loyal collaborator of the United Sates and the cause of the free world.”


After decades of decline, the former Sevillia apartment house was renovated in 2010 to become the Central Park Mews.  A facade restoration was completed six years later.  Now containing 99 rental units, the tradition of the building that broke new ground in apartment living nearly 125 years ago goes on.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Michael McShea for suggesting this post

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful building. A gem. Hubert, the immigrant, was quite a great American architect.

    ReplyDelete