Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Wm. H. Falls House - 7 West 24th Street



The once lavish mansion is squashed between soaring buildings.  photo via The Real Deal
At the time of the cholera epidemic of 1849 Madison Cottage--a farmhouse turned road house--sat at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.  It was the sole structure in the area.  But change was rapidly approaching.  By 1859 mansions and millionaires had reached the new Madison Square.  Madison Cottage was replaced by the white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel, which was followed by the Hoffman House, a block north on Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets, and the Brunswick Hotel at the northern edge of the Square.

The streets branching off Madison Square became lined with elegant homes for the well-to-do.  Among them was No. 7 West 24th Street, completed in the mid- to late-1850s.   Three bays wide, it rose four stories above a high English basement.   Its Italianate brownstone facade was embellished with extras which only the wealthy could afford.

Especially eye-catching were the elaborate architrave surrounds of the openings.  The tiered sills, which sat on finely-carved foliate brackets, the framings with their scrolled bases, the carvings above the elliptical arched openings, and the projecting lintels, told the passerby that this was no run of the mill brownstone.  A superb cast cornice featured foliate brackets and ornate medallions.


The family of William H. Falls lived here.  Born in 1792, Falls and his wife, Mary, had at least two grown children.  The president of the Tradesmen's Bank, he was also a director in the Pennsylvania Coal Company and the City Fire Insurance Company.

The year 1861 was significant to all New Yorkers, as Civil War erupted in the South.  But for Mary Falls, it would be the beginning of the most devastating time of her life for more personal reasons.  On January 21 that year, her husband died in the house.  Later that year, on November 28, their four-year old granddaughter, the only child of De Witt C. Hunn and the Falls' daughter Georgiana, died.  Her funeral was held in the 24th Street house on December 1.

Only five months later a third funeral was held in the parlor.  Mary's youngest son, 27-year old Theodore, died on Newburgh, New York on May 27, 1862.  His funeral took place the following Thursday afternoon.

Mary stayed on, alone in the house with her servants, until her death on June 7, 1870 at the age of 79.  Her funeral, on Friday the 10th, would be the last.

Each window was essentially sculpture.

The stately home was operated as a high-end boarding house by the spring of 1871.  The tony neighborhood demanded fine accommodations.   The house was competing with several of Manhattan's finest hotels just steps away.  An advertisement in The New York Herald in June that year offered "New and elegantly furnished double and single Rooms, for gentlemen, with or without Board."

The following year, in September, an advertisement marketed the house's high-class competition as an advantage: "Opposite Fifth Avenue Hotel (central location)--Elegantly furnished Rooms, for families or gentlemen, en suite or singly, with or without private table."

The offer of "private table" was significant; meaning that boarders were not necessarily fettered to a common dining room.  Instead of taking meals with other residents, they could be served in the privacy of their own rooms.  It was a distinction that set the operation far above the common boarding house.

As prosperous boarders enjoyed the "central location" of the former Falls house, a new medical trend was taking hold--the Russian vapor baths.   The benefits of the baths had begun being reported nearly a decade earlier.  In 1865 a Parisian physician named Buisson, wrote in The Medical and Surgical Reporter "When a person has been bitten by a mad dog, he should be made to take seven of the so-called Russian Vapor baths."  The doctor explained that the resulting perspiration would sweat out the infection.  He added that the same would work for a rattlesnake or tarantula bite.

Another expert, Dr. Laurence Turnbull, wrote a paper on "Diseases of the Internal Ear" that year.  He concluded, in part, "Finally, here belong all those cases of hardness of hearing which have happened to be relieved by the use of Russian vapor baths."

It would not be long before New York got its first Russian baths.  Appletons' Hand-Book of American Travel noted in 1867 "For those fond of the Turkish and Russian vapor baths, the establishment known as the Turkish Bath Establishment, No. 13 Laight Street, near Canal, and those conducted by Dr. Guttman, at 25 East Fourth Street, will be found the best."

Somewhat surprisingly, the handsome house at No. 7 West 24th Street was soon converted to a bath.  It was no small project--costing $100,000, or around $2 million today.   At least part of the expense went into providing the amenities expected by the wealthy patrons of the neighborhood; not to mention the marble-walled swimming pool installed in the lowest level.

The Imperial Russian Baths opened on June 9, 1873.  Little was done to the exterior of the house; and even the stoop remained.  Gentlemen entered at the basement, a few steps down from the sidewalk, while women entered on the parlor level.   In the men's area were 26 private, carpeted dressing rooms for disrobing.

The men then entered the "vapor-bath room," a 32 by 22 foot area "wainscoted and fitting up with Italian marble and furnished with marble couches," according to The New York Times.   The 19 by 7 foot swimming pool, or "plunge," was located here, fed by constant streams of filtered watered falling from two large nickel-plated lions' head spouts.

In the same room was the hot or cold water shower bath, and a steam bath.  Next to that was what The Times described as "a marble wainscoted room, where those who desire a heavy shower, or the upward water-shoot, can have it, together with a semi-circular needle-spray bath, which is pronounced by surgeons, &c., to be very invigorating."

Now invigorated, the bather moved to the "couch-room," where his body was "shampooed by the attendants."  The newspaper explained that "After robing in the dressing-rooms, the bather passes up-stairs to a handsome parlor, elegantly carpeted, and furnished with Turkish lounges, the walls being ornamented with handsome paintings, &c., where he can rest until ready for the street."

More modest gentlemen could request private bathing rooms and have their own valets attend them; enjoying all the same amenities of the more daring patrons.  The same held true for the female bathers.  The Times noted "Ladies also have the privilege of selecting their own maids as attendants during the process of bathing."

On the second floor was the Medicated Bath Department, "fitted up with every needed appliance," and the Electrical Bath Department which was emphasized to be "entirely distinct and disconnected with the other portions of the building, thus giving the bathers a privacy which is considered needful by many."  The Times summarized its assessment of the establishment saying "The whole building is very tastefully and elegantly furnished, and is well located."

An advertisement in The New York Herald two weeks later read "Keep Cool--To Do This Go to the Imperial Russian Baths."  The ad mentioned that the baths closed at 10 p.m., and noon on Sundays.

Like many other newspapers, The New York Times ran blurbs which appeared to be news articles; but which were in fact paid advertisements.  On such article appeared on Christmas Eve, 1874, and promised "Russian vapor baths are first-rate for fortifying the system against colds.  The baths opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, will be found to furnish every convenience for the exigeant bather."

In 1876 the operation was extended with the addition of a Turkish bath.  On November 22 The Christian Union praised it in terms that, too, smacked of a paid endorsement.  "Complete success has attended the opening of the new Turkish Bath at No. 7 West Twenty-Fourth Street, opposite Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York.  Everybody is delighted with its superior heating, ventilation, furnishing and attendance.  The ladies especially revel in its luxurious elegance.  The Russian Vapor Baths, in the same building, are also splendidly refitted."

Well-to-do renters continued to live on the uppermost floors.  Max Jansky lived here in August 16, 1880 when he ventured into the notorious red light district of Greene Street.  He foolishly wore a 26-stone diamond ring valued at $1,400, around $33,500 today.  He returned home without it.

Unlike many wealthy businessmen, who would avoid the scandalous publicity, Jansky reported the theft and the following day Emma Petersen, "an inmate of the house No. 115 Greene-street," was arrested and charged with the felony.  The Times reported "The ring was found in the possession of the girl, but the stones had been removed from the setting and could not be found."

Early in 1881 the baths hired a new clerk, a young Irish immigrant named Maginniss.  He brought with him a riveting life story.  The son of a wealthy Dublin manufacturer, he had longed to be a scholar; but his father, described as "a man of practical ideas," instead apprenticed him in the factory.  When he was 15 years old, he took money due him and bought books.  His father was incensed and sold them.

An argument ensued and the teen left home to educated himself.  He earned enough money to enter the City College in Dublin, learned French and Italian, and began writing poetry.  At the age of 19 he fell in love with an Italian girl and set off for America to make a fortune, promising to return within three years and marry her.

He arrived in New York in 1875, traveled to Philadelphia, then to Texas where he was employed as a clerk in a railroad company, earning $100 a month.  In January 1881--with his deadline to return in three years in the past--he was back in New York.  After working as a clerk for the Associated Press; then took the job with the West 24th Street baths.

Maginniss had much on his mind.  He had contracted malaria while in Texas, he had not made his fortune, and his dreams of a literary career seemed unreachable.  The Chicago Tribune reported "He felt his poverty and felt above the position he occupied.  He received $10 a week in the baths."  He even pawned his clothing and had to borrow $15 from a friend to reclaim them.

He often told his closest friend, E. J. McGanney, of his sweetheart back home, "extolling her dark, Italian beauty."  His mood no doubt worsened when he received a letter from Ireland asking "he neglected to come back and claim the girl who was waiting for him."

On Monday March 8, 1881 Maginniss asked the manager of the baths, Mr. Becker, if he would be offended if he resigned.  He explained that his health would be improved by out-of-door work, and he thought he might return to Texas soon.

The following morning police arrived at the Russian Vapor Baths, and asked for an employee to accompany them to Washington Square Park. The body of a man had been discovered sitting upright on a bench, dead from an apparently self-inflicted bullet wound.  Thomas Donelly was sent, and he identified the corpse as M. H. Maginnis.  The management of the baths paid for the young man's burial, aided with donations from friends.

The tragic story spread nationwide, prompting a long article in the Chicago Tribune headlined: A Poor Student.  A Young Irish Collegian Who Came To America To Win a Fortune For the Girl He Loved, and Met with Disappointment and Death."

In 1887 the Hoffman House hotel absorbed the Russian Vapor Baths.  A tunnel was broken through from the hotel to the basement of the former house, and the name was changed to the Hoffman House Baths.  On September 26 The New York Times gushed "No. 7 West 24th-st., in rear of hotel [is] the most select and elegantly appointed baths in the city.  The plunge is filled continually with fresh water.  The sulphur and medicated baths are in charge of William Welsh, an experienced manager having the indorsement of many of our leading physicians."

A bizarre episode took place on December 27, 1894 that might have been comical in its slapstick-like details were it not for the potentially disastrous circumstances.  Around 3:00 in the morning Florence Masterson had been left to look after the hotel's engine room by Pete, the hotel's engineer.

No sooner had Pete left, than a bolt blew off a steam valve, letting steam escape.  Masterson, fearing an explosion, raked the hot coals from below the boiler.  The Evening World reported "He worked so wildly he set fire to a chair."

The distracted man did not notice the burning chair; and when he felt the danger had passed, he dropped exhausted onto the chair, which promptly set his clothing afire.  He jumped up yelling "Pete! Pete!"  But the engineer was in another part of the building, unable to hear him.

The night watchman of the Hoffman House Baths was suddenly startled by Masterson's wild appearance through the tunnel.  "As he ran he stumbled over everything in his way," reported The World.  "Once he rushed headlong into a stone wall and cut a deep gash in his head."

By the time he burst into the Baths, he was too excited and alarmed to speak.  Breman asked him "What's the matter?" then, seeing the flaming clothes, tried to stop him so he could smother the fire.  But Masterson never slowed down, running wildly away howling "Fire!"

Breman assumed the Hoffman House was on fire and sent in a fire alarm.  The commotion roused the female hotel employees.  "There are half a hundred girls who occupy rooms in the house over the engine-room," explained the newspaper.  "It didn't take them long to run shrieking into the street."

Fireman arrived, quieted the women and sent for an ambulance for Masterson.  The damage in the engine room was negligible; resulting in The Evening World's scoffing headline "A Two-Dollar Fire Creates Excitement and Burns a Man."

Women as well as men took advantage of the pool (separately, of course); and it proved an excellent vehicle for a publicity stunt in April 1904.  Ethelberta Jones was in rehearsals for a play.  In one act her character had to dive off a bridge.  Supposedly she had been coming to the Hoffman House Baths every day for two weeks to practice "the great rescue scene" when, on April 24, she was horribly injured.

At least one journalist saw through the charade.

A tipster telephoned all the newspapers, saying "a woman had fractured her skull diving into the pool."  The reporters converged on the Hoffman House Baths.  The skeptical writer for The Sun said they arrived "in time to see a limp lady, her head swathed in bandages, appear from the inner recesses, supported by the strong arm of a doctor, whose name and address were furnished.  She was pale and her head rolled as she was half carried to the cab waiting outside."

The journalist smelled a press stunt.  "Oh, yes, the reporters might see the pool where the lady was hurt diving, and they might take pictures, too."  Refusing to give the production free advertising, he ended his story saying the scene for which she was practicing was from the play "'Rum-li-lardle-um,' which opens at the Chrysolite Theatre on Mumpuary 3."

The Hoffman House hotel closed its doors in March 1915.  The building at No. 7 West 24th Street was converted to business, the stoop removed and a new two-story commercial storefront installed.   The area, once filled with mansions and first class hotels, was now the center of Manhattan's retail glass, china and linen district.  By 1919 Henry Witte, dealer in brilliant cut glass pieces, had opened his showroom in No. 7.

Another cut glass merchant, H. A. Diehl, took space in the building in 1920.  The Pottery, Glass & Brass Salesman noted on July 29 that Diehl "has just made important changes in his showroom that give him very much more space than he previously occupied...Some handsome new fixtures have been installed and the entire space rearranged."  The article casually mentioned "Henry Witte, who has been at 7 West Twenty-fourth Street for some time, has also made some alterations in his showroom."

H. A. Diehl not only carried brilliant cut glass tableware; but elaborate pieces like this cut glass lamp.  Pottery & Glass Salesman, July 1920 (copyright expired)

By mid-century the 24th Street block had suffered.  The high-end retailers were gone and No. 7 was home to Sid Grossman's photograph studio, where for years he held photography classes; and to San-Mar-Dee Sales, which marketed its "colorful foam hanger covers" in 1957.  The firm promised the item "makes wire hangers slip proof--protects clothing, perfect for all 'Drip-Drys."

In the early 1960s the family-owned printing firm, Alvin J. Bart & Co., Inc. was located here.  The family was puzzled when 25-year old Lawrence J. Bart, a vice president in the company, failed to show up for Thanksgiving dinner in 1963.  The following day his 18-year old brother, Stephen, and a friend went to Lawrence's London Terrace apartment to check on him.

The building superintendent let them in, where they Bart's body amid a scene of a violent struggle.  He had been strangled by a dog chain, a portion of which had been used as a gag.  The New York Times reported "The blade of a steak knife was imbedded in his chest."  The force with which the victim had been stabbed had broken off the handle.

Bart's German shepherd puppy had been locked in the bathroom.  Detectives could find no signs of forced entry, leading them to believe the victim knew his attacker.

It was not until 24 years later that the cold case was solved.  On April 20, 1997 61-year old Lawrence Henry was arrested and charged.  The murder mystery would most likely never have been unraveled were it not for the religious conversion of a former prostitute who came forward with information.

In 1999 the building was converted to offices on the lower two floors, with a total of six apartments upstairs.   Then in 2014 Mark Geragos, attorney to high profile clients like Mike Tyson, purchased it for $9.5 million.  He announced his intentions to convert it "to its full potential for residential purposes."

In January 2017 the lower floors were obscured by a sidewalk bridge as construction gets underway.

Few passersby can fathom the colorful history of the vintage mansion, one of only two left on the block that hint at the former residential neighborhood.

photographs by the author

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