Saturday, June 30, 2018

A "Fairy-Tale" Fantasy - 159 East 64th Street




By the mid 1870's the East 64th Street block between Third and Lexington Avenues was lined with nearly identical brownstone-fronted rowhouses.  No. 159, like its neighbors, sat above a rusticated English basement.   Its windows wore neo-Grec architrave surrounds with incised decorations.  Classic triangular pediments sat above the parlor openings, echoed in the overhanging hood above the entrance.  The windows of the upper floors were topped with molded cornices, and a substantial bracketed cornice completed the design.

The 20-foot wide house was owned by Theodore Russell in the 1880's.  Russell lived in Flatbush and apparently used it as a rental property.  Then, in April 1890 he sold it for $20,000--about $556,000 today--to Mitchell and Henrietta Herschfield.

A graduate of Columbia University, Herschfield was an attorney and a Commissioner of Deeds.  The couple had a daughter, Blanche, and lived quiet lives on East 64th Street, their names rarely appearing in print other than for charitable acts or similar reasons.  Henrietta, for instance, was listed as a "contributor of clothing" to the United Hebrew Charities in 1906.

Mitchell Herschfield died on September 30, 1910 at the age of 58.   Although Henrietta soon moved out, she retained possession of No. 159.   She was living at No. 418 Central Park West in August 1914 when she announced Blanche's engagement to Daniel M. Ellenbogen.

In June 1916 she leased No. 159 furnished to well-to-do broker Eugene Jackson Koop and his wife, the former Marietta Barkley Ludington.   The family's comfortable existence was evidenced in a help wanted advertisement on October 11, 1920:

Cook--Good, plain cook wanted for small family, private house; two other maids; wages $65

The listed wages were probably monthly, equal to about $200 per week today.

On Tuesday June 27, 1922 an auction was held in the house.  The announcement listed "furniture, china, bric-a-brac, paintings, oriental rugs and carpets."  Clearing out the residence was necessary because three weeks earlier Henrietta Herschfield had sold No. 159 to Samuel and Amanda Liebmann Hoff.

At the time of the sale homeowners along the 64th Street block were furiously renovated their architecturally outdated homes.  A few months earlier, on December 11, 1921 New York Times journalist Helen Bullitt Lowry noted "On Sixty-fourth Street and Sixty-third Street, between Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue, fairy-book streets suddenly open to view just around the corner from weary miles of brownstone.  Here is the warm blush of pink stucco and gay red tiles.  Here are stern wrought-iron gates and romantically barred grilled windows."

H. R. Shurtleff sketched the block for The New York Times in December 1921.

Before moving into their new home, the Hoffs joined the trend.  They hired the esteemed architect William Lawrence Bottomley to transform their old brownstone to a Mediterranean fantasy in keeping with its neighbors.  The plans, filed on June 28, 1922, estimated the cost of the alterations at $20,000--more than a quarter of a million dollars today.

When the renovations were completed in 1923 little trace of the 1870's Victorian was left.  The stoop had been removed and the entrance moved to the street level.  A cheerful slathering of pale yellow stucco covered the facade.  A full-width cast iron balcony graced the second floor, accessed by fanlight-capped French doors within an arched opening.  A graceful cartouche perched upon its keystone.  Where the robust metal cornice had been, blind roundels provided understated decoration.

An attorney, Samuel Hoff had practiced law in New York since about 1889.  He was also a director of the Lincoln Safe Deposit Company and the Lincoln Warehouse Corporation.  He and Amanda had six children, by now all grown.

A few years after moving in, Samuel Hoff became ill.  He did not improve and died in the 64th Street house on November 21, 1929.

Two years later Amanda slightly renovated the house in order to rent furnished suites.  The changes, which included a two-story extension to the rear, may have had to do with her upcoming marriage to Dr. Leopold O. Stieglitz on July 27, 1932.

Amanda made more significant alterations in 1936 when she hired architect G. Kurth to convert the house to one apartment each on in the first and second floor, two one the third, and one on fourth.  Among her first tenants were Robert Hitchcock and Mary Topping Rubin.  The couple was married on March 4, 1936.  They would be here at least through 1940.

Amanda Hoff Stieglitz died on July 16, 1938.  No. 159 was purchased by Mrs. C. Buckminster Marcy.  When she sold it in 1950 to "an investor" the property was described as a "four-story apartment house."

The new owners altered the first and second floors in 1953 to "offices and studios."  The high-end architectural antiques store of Edwin Jackson, Inc. was here for several years.  Specializing in period mantels and fireplaces, it counted among its customers the White House and some of Manhattan's most prestigious decorators.

Among the tenants upstairs were Arthur William Brown and his wife, Grace Green Brown.   The couple had met as students at the Arts Students League.

Arthur was a nationally-known magazine illustrator.  He got his start illustrating magazine fiction by authors like Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, and Arthur Train.  Grace was a designer of women's handbags and apparel.   She had started out as a designer of stained glass windows for Louis Comfort Tiffany.

In 1964 William Brown was elected to the Society of Illustrators' Hall of  Fame.  Grace died in their apartment on May 6, 1965 and William died the following year, on October 24.

By the mid 1970's R*E*A*L International had taken over the retail space.  The firm operated  residential resort properties in Marbella, Spain.  It was followed by caterer Donald Bruce White who ran his business at ground level and lived in the upper floors.

Following White's death, party designer and florist Renny Reynolds took over the building.  He closed his two East Side shops and moved his business in in November 1987 and, like White, occupied the entire upper portion of the house.  Reynolds had hired interior designers Jed Johnson and Alan Wanzenberg to redo both spaces.

Times journalist Elain Louie described the shop in December that year, saying in part "The floor is paved with both natural and glass bricks.  A garden under a skylight joins the house to the wing, with an iron fountain, which Mr. Reynolds bought in Capri, Italy, in the center."

The Renny Reynolds shop remained here through 1995.  In 1996 it became home to Chrome Hearts, owned by apparel designers Richard and Laurie Lynn Stark, described by The Real Deal writer Katherine Clarke as "best known for outfitting rock and roll greats such as the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols and the Scissor Sisters in leather jackets and diamond encrusted cuffs."

In 2005 they purchased the building from Renny Reynolds for $7.5 million.  Eight years later, after moving their store to Madison Avenue, the Starks listed the property for $14 million.

The store space became home to The Elder Statesman "Winter Shop" in December 2015.  Operated by Greg Chait, its flagship store was in Los Angeles.  It was a one-season venture, selling items like "10-pound cashmere blankets."


Now once again a private home, the former store space contains a "vast gallery," according to real estate listings, and the dining room.  In the meantime, William Bottomley's fanciful 1922 facade remains intact, an important piece in what Helen Bullitt Lowry deemed a "fairy-tale street."

photographs by the author

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Noah Bigelow House - 13 Commerce Street




Perhaps no developer was more active in Greenwich Village in the 1820's than Charles Oakley.  In a single transaction the fall of 1819, for instance, he purchased 20 building lots.  Before 1830 he erected scores of wooden, brick faced homes--most often in groups of three or four--in the rapidly developing district still far north of the city.

In 1826 he completed four such houses on Commerce Street, Nos. 9 through 15.  Two and a half stories tall, the Federal-style homes were faced in Flemish bond brick.  The entrance to No. 13, above its stone stoop, conceded the working-class nature of the homes.  While the entrances to upscale Federal homes boasted ornate leaded transoms and sidelights, fluted columns and carving, this was handsome but understated.  Flat pilasters and narrow sidelights framed the single door.

Oakley originally leased the houses.  The tenants of at least three were involved in the building trade.  But by the early years of the 1840's No. 13 was owned by the Rev. Noah Bigelow.  Born on March 4, 1783, Bigelow had served during the Revolutionary War.  He and his wife, the former Sarah Jackson (who was known as Sally), had six children: Lucy, Sarah Jane, Sally Anne, Elijah, Samuel Merwin, and Ruth Grace.

After Sarah Jane married Charles Shute Pell in 1840, the newlyweds moved into the Commerce Street house.   Sarah Jane tragically died just three years later.  Pell and their young son, Charles E., stayed on with the Bigelows. 

Charles S. Pell was one of two teachers in the Boys Department of Grammar School No. 8 on Grand Street, near Wooster, in 1844.  The following year he was promoted to principal. 

Bigelow was the minister of the Bedford Street Church, a position that entitled him to a tax break on his home.   After paying his property tax for 1843, he pointed out to the Board of Assistants that he had been over taxed.  In response the minutes of the Board's July 22, 1844 meeting noted:

The Committee on Annual Taxes, to whom was referred the peitition of Reverend Noah Bigelow, a clergyman of the Methodist Episcopal Church, to have taxes refunded to him for 1843, in Ninth Ward, in consequent of his being a minister of the Gospel report that Mr. Bigelow was assessed on one thousand seven hundred dollars, on No. 13 Commerce Street; that he is entitled to a deduction from his estate of one thousand five hundred dollars, by virtue of his clerical office.

Rev. Bigelow received a refund of $13.60, or about $460.00 today.

On August 4, 1849 the New-York Daily Tribune ran a single-line article that read simply "Rev. Noah Bigelow, long and favorably known as a clergyman of the Methodist Church, died on Thursday morning, at his residence in this city."

Charles Pell inherited farmland land on the Upper East Side and began construction on a house at what would later be numbered 311 East 58th Street.  But never moved in.   Remarried by 1853, both he and his wife were teachers in the New York Orphan Asylum.  The position not only provided them lodging; but gave Charles the opportunity to flex his gardening skills. 

Year after year he submitted his plants to the exhibition of the American Institute, and year after year he brought home awards.  In 1857, for instance, he his "twelve long blood beets" won second place; his "twelve turnip rooted blood beets," were first; and for his "best collection of cut flowers" he got a silver cup and $10.  He also brought home silver medals for his dahlias, "best collection of plants in pots," and chrysanthemums.

Sally Bigelow was evidently left alone in No. 13 after Samuel Merwin Bigelow died at the age of 24 on December 29, 1857.  His funeral was held in the house the following afternoon at 3:00.

Sally continued working within the Bedford Street Church, serving on the Committee for the Sick and the Church Committee in 1865, for instance.  The closeness of Sally with her grandson, Charles E. Pell, was evidenced by his acting as her "attorney-in-fact" by 1876.  He was actually not a professional attorney, but a partner in the lumber firm Dennat & Pell, and a real estate operator.

On December 3, 1886 Sally transferred the title of her home to Charles E. Pell.  The price was listed as "nominal," suggesting it was most likely a gift.   She died a few months later at the age of 102.

Pell quickly sold No. 13 to James. E. Bonesteel.    On March 11, 1887 plans were filed to update the aging home.  The plans called for "building to be raised, also other alterations, cost, $500."  The term "raised" meant that the attic would become a full-height third floor.   The nearly seamless addition included an up-to-date Italianate style cornice.

Bonesteel apparently never lived in the house, but leased it.  The Ferguson family was living here at the turn of the century.  Little Alva P. Ferguson died in the house on April 13, 1903 at just 7 years old.

James E. Bonesteel sold No. 13 to Katherine P. Retugna in April 1919.  Her $5,500 mortgage (provided by Bonesteel) would be equal to nearly $78,000 today.  Katherine died around 1946, but Anna and Teresa Retugna were still listed in the house as late as 1961.

The house changed hands for $1.4 million in 2002; and then in the spring of 2007 it was purchased for $4.1 million.  Designer Steven Riddle was hired to do a massive make-over.  The Federal interiors disappeared in favor of glamour.   Period-inappropriate mantels took the place of Federal originals.  The house was placed back on the market in January 2008 for $5.25 million.

The nearly $1.5 million renovation included a French mantel and granite-topped bar (an upgrade that would no doubt have caused Rev. Bigelow to shudder).  photo via Curbed New York
Because No. 13 sits squarely within the Greenwich Village Historic District, no alterations could be made on the exterior.  The 1826 ironwork survives, and outwardly the house looks little different than it did in 1887 when James Bonesteel raised the roof.

photographs by the author

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Chas. R. Behren's 1892 54-56 Franklin Street



Visitors to the Foley Square courthouses today might pass through the Collect Pond Park.  Its name is the last reminder of the 48-acre body of water that reached a depth of 60 feet in some sections.  During the mid-18th century it was a popular destination for picnics in the summer and ice skating in the winter.  But the expansion of the city brought tanneries, slaughterhouses and similar businesses that dumped their waste in the lake.  By the end of the 18th century it was derided as "a very sink and common sewer."  By 1813 the entire Collect Pond had been filled in.

An 1880 engraving by Charles E. H. Bonwill, depicted the 1796 test of John Finch's steamboat on Collect Pond.  With him in the boat is Robert Fulton.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

With the odorous problem eliminated, Sugar Loaf Street was extended east to Broadway in 1816 and its name changed to Franklin Street, in honor of Benjamin Franklin.   The street soon filled with respectable brick faced homes.  But by the end of the Civil War, those houses began being replaced by commercial structures.

The two brick buildings at Nos. 54 and 56 Franklin Street were gone in September 1891--possibly the result of a fire.  Developer John Townsend Williams purchased the vacant lots from the Metropolitan Telephone and Telegraph Co. for $90,000.   He was just completing construction of the Romanesque Revival style loft building three blocks away, at Nos. 152-154 Franklin Street, when he hired architect Charles R. Behrens to design Nos. 54 and 56 Franklin Street.

Behrens turned to the currently popular Romanesque Revival style--just as John B. Snook Sons had done at Nos. 152-154 Franklin Street.  But the two would be widely different.  The John B. Snook Sons structure was remarkably light and airy with great expanses of glass.  Nos. 54-56, completed in 1892, was a much more somber take on the style.

The two story base of rough-cut stone framed a handsome cast iron storefront.  The overall stern personality of the building was tempered by the graceful arches of the second floor--their spandrels decorated with cast iron garlands and brackets.  Behrens ignored the expected arched openings at the mid-section, preferring no-nonsense square headed windows instead.   But at the top floor, above a projecting stone cornice, he produced an attractive arcade--each opening separated by piers with stone capitals, and connected by brick eyebrows.

The second floor exhibits especially graceful details in cast iron.

Among Williams's earliest tenants were commission merchant G. F. Jempson; the Home Soap Company; cutlery, hardware and gun dealer Herman Boker & Co.; and F. L. Harding, manufacturer of "unique valentines, tally cards and the 'Handy Tally Cabinets," as described in The American Stationer.  By 1898 Clucas Publishing Company was in the building, as well, publishers of trade journals like the Commercial Enquirer and the Commercial Reporter.

When the Sportsmen's Association held its second annual Sportsmen's Exposition in Madison Square Garden in March 1896, Herman Boker & Co. exhibited its firearms.  The firm was again exhibiting in Madison Square Garden in January 1899; but this time it was not rifles and pistols the firm was advertising, but its bicycles.  The New-York Tribune explained the exhibit on January 22 saying in part "To the enthusiastic followers of the bicycle is promised a rare treat ad Madison Square Garden this week.  The Garden is now a cycle city."

Ironically, on the very night of the Tribune's article fire broke out in Herman Boker & Co.'s Franklin Street space.  Two days later The New York Times reported that the firm suffered damages equaling more than $300,000 today.   The blaze did not spread to any other floors.

The top floor of the building was occupied at the time by the Home Suspender Company factory, and the fifth floor was home to the Peerless Suspender Company.  On the evening of November 9 that year another fire broke out; this time a small one in the Peerless factory.  R. E. Van Der Veer, manager of the Home Suspender Company, rushed downstairs to successfully help extinguish the blaze.

A wonderful Gothic-arched delivery entrance is on the Cortlandt Alley side.
The following day The New York Times reported "After all was quiet he fell to work with such a will that when his bookkeeper left him he did not take the precaution to tell him to leave the key to the front door in the regular hiding place, so that he could get out."   It was a regrettable mistake, for when the bookkeeper got to the street door, he absent-mindedly put the key in his pocket and went home.

Two hours later Van Der Veer turned out the lights and headed down the stairs.  He felt around behind the radiator where the key was normally hidden.  Thinking that it had possibly fallen, he groped around in the dirt under the radiator, coming up with only a few loose nails.  Pounding on the door was useless.  Franklin Street was deserted.

The Times said "Then he went to the top floor again, muttering things about the bookkeeper, and called up Police Headquarters on the telephone."  Three policemen arrived to rescue the imprisoned executive.

The first years of the 20th century saw two of the long-term tenants leave.  On January 31, 1901 The Pharmaceutical Era announced that "Increasing business and urgent need for more room has driven the Home Soap Co. from 54 and 56 Franklin street, where they have been for several years."   And two years later to the day The American Stationer reported that F. L. Harding had moved.  "The constantly increasing demand for these well-known Harding goods has made this move necessary."

On February 10, 1903 F. L. Harding announced the move in The New England Stationer and Printer (copyright expired)
The removals did not signal problems for F. Hoyt, who had purchased the building from Williams for $250,000 in June 1895.  No. 54-56 continued to attract tenants, including the Boland Commission Co., the Maintenance Company, which took the third floor in February 1904, and wholesale paper merchants Osborn & Wilson, and Wilson & Towne Paper Co.

The Maintenance Company had been established in 1897.  It was an interesting, early example of a contract equipment repair firm.  A 1907 advertisement promised that "Machinery protection costs but a trifle and may be the means of saving you thousands of dollars' loss, aside from the hazard to lfie and limb."  The firm scheduled regular inspections, repairs and routine maintenance of elevators, pumps, motors and dynamos.

Boland Commission Co. represented Hines' Patent Hammock in 1903  The House Furnishing Review, April 1903 (copyright expired)
The ground floor store was home to Benj. McCabe & Brother in the first years of the 20th century.  An advertisement in the American Carpet & Upholstery Journal gave a hint of the broad array of floor coverings the wholesaler and importer handled.  "Carpets, Rugs, Cocoa Mats and Matting, China and Japan Matting, Linoleum, Etc."

By 1909 the Schenck Chemical Co. was making its patent drugs here, including its Dr. Edwards' Dandelion.  An advertisement in the Vermont newspaper, The Bennington Evening Banner on March 6 that year promised that Dandelion was the

Best Known Remedy for Rheumatism and Malaria.  Stimulates the kidneys so as to eliminate the uric acid that causes Rheumatism and Kidney Disease, regulates a Torpid Liver; acts gently and without griping on the bowels; disinfects the entire Alimentary Canal and produces a clean, smooth Skin and clear Complexion, by eliminating all poisons from the system.

In 1920 the Robert Roy Co., dealers in stationery, took the second floor.  The firm immediately placed a help-wanted advertisement in the New-York Tribune for a "telephone operator [with] some knowledge of typewriting."

Robert Roy Co.  would be a long-term tenant, remaining at least for two decades.  By then it shared the building with the Apr Burr Printing House, which took space in 1941.

The Franklin Street building was a pioneer in conversion of Tribeca factories to residential space.  In 1977 it was converted to two apartments per floor above the ground floor, with a single apartment on the sixth floor.


The Franklin 54 Gallery was at street level in 2004; occupied today by Postmasters Gallery.  In need of a gentle cleaning, the 1892 structure is remarkably intact.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Price Building - 604-612 Sixth Avenue




David Price opened his first women's clothing store, D. Price & Co. around 1887.  The Tammany Times later remarked "From the beginning of its career this firm has cultivated the intelligence, taste, judgment and discrimination of the women of New York."  Around the turn of the century Price staked his place as a major women's outfitter by establishing a store on Sixth Avenue, along the "Ladies' Mile."

Price leased No. 286 Sixth Avenue, at the southeast corner of 18th Street, from Henry Morgenthau.  In 1906 he enlarged the store by spreading south into the two adjoining buildings.  He hired architect Frederick Jacobsen to update the four-story brick and stone store and loft buildings.

When Price renewed his lease in August 1910 he had already demolished the old buildings and commissioned the architectural firm of Buchman & Fox to design a modern store.  A month earlier, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported David Price had already leased half of his proposed store, and that Henry Morgenthau had also leased the plot on West 18th Street, directly behind.

"Two new buildings corresponding in architectural design will be built, covering the entire property," the article said.  "An out-of-town concern is the lessee of the store from Mr. Price, as well as of the rear plot from Mr. Morgenthau, so that plans provide for a large establishment on 18th st, with an entrance from 6th av."   Buchman & Fox would be responsible for the design of both buildings.

The "out of town concern" that leased the 18th Street building was J. G. McCrorey & Sons, which The New York Times said on July 24 "operate a chain of 5 and 10-cent stores in Western cities."   Both buildings would proudly announce their owners' names in terra cotta.

While the completed Price Building was unquestionably the alpha dog of the two structures, they were designed to architecturally coexist.   Costing $150,000 (nearly $4 million today) the four-story Price Building was clad in white terra cotta.  Its tripartite design included a nearly all-glass street floor storefront of arcade entrances and show windows.   The two-story midsection was sparsely decorated with spandrel panels between floors and snarling lions' heads between each bay.  The stately top floor sat above a cornice and frieze decorated with Greek key and floral tiles.  A modilioned cornice crowned the design.

The ground floor featured incredible expanses of glass.  The Tammany Times, October 26, 1912 (copyright expired)
The McCrorey Building was long and low, just two stories tall.  Buchman & Fox married the two structures by carrying over decorative elements--near-matching upper window surrounds.  Above the cornice a terra cotta parapet, identical to those on other McCrorey buildings, added dimension.



In October 1912 The Tammany Times commented in Price's new fall line.  "A magnificent display of cloaks, suits, waists, skirts, furs and gloves is now on display at the establishment of D. Price & Co. Nos. 278-286 Sixth avenue, corner Eighteenth street."  The article commented that the store had a reputation "of carrying nothing but the highest possible grade of goods that could be offered for a given price and absolute elimination of cheap and shoddy fabrics from its stock at all times."

At the time of the article the Ladies Mile had greatly changed.  The grand emporiums that once drew well-heeled shoppers had mostly abandoned Sixth Avenue, moving north of 32nd Street.  Price himself opened a new store on 34th Street.  In July 1913 he hired architect Walter G. Steinle to "reset store fronts" to the store.  It was possibly at this time that the retailer broke up the ground floor into smaller shops.

By 1916, in addition to the 34th Street store, D. Price & Co. had a branch in Brooklyn and another in Newark.  Nevertheless, Price maintained his offices in the Sixth Avenue building.  When he hired Kate Cohen as his waist buyer that year (shirt waists were tailor-fitted blouses, the most popular women's apparel item of the time) the American Cloak & Suit Review noted she "makes her headquarters at the Sixth Avenue store of D. Price & Co. and looks at sample lines of waists there every Wednesday forenoon."

David Price altered the storefronts again in September 1917.  The alterations, designed by J. M. Felson, cost him about $9,500 in today's dollars.

In the meantime, Price had amassed a significant personal fortune.  He and his wife, Sadie, summered in Newport and lived in a spacious apartment on West End Avenue.  The couple endured a horrific incident on August 14, 1918.   Tillie Adler had worked as a maid for the Prices for 12 years.  Sadie found a note that morning asking her to make sure Tillie's estate be given to her son, who was currently on Randall's Island.

The maid's body was found in the courtyard, seven floors below.  She had jumped from a window in the apartment sometime during the night.  The Evening World reported "A nervous breakdown is believed to have been the cause of the suicide."

The change to the personality of the Price Building and the Sixth Avenue neighborhood in general was evidenced in the circumstances surrounding the death of a West Virginia banker president in August 1920.  James Ready operated a pool room in the Price Building.  He and his assistant, "Joe Klein," shared lived together in a rooming house.  The banker's body was found in the their room.

Police said that Edmund H. Crim was "found early Sunday morning sprawled in a strange room on the second floor of a West Thirty-fourth Street rooming house--pockets turned inside out and diamonds gone."  The banker had died of alcohol and morphine.

The McCrory store (the firm dropped the "e" around 1914) was the scene of a startling incident on July 19, 1921.  Concetta Alesi stole a 10-cent powder puff--at least she tried to.  The New-York Tribune reported that, according to police, she "had filched the powder puff and was about to quit the store when the store detective, Hattie Walters, accused her of the theft."

The newspaper continued "Not speaking English well enough to argue about it, Concetta is said to have uncorked a powerful right hand swing which landed on Miss Walker's jaw and knocked her out."  While the detective lay unconscious on the floor, Concetta reportedly bit her on the arm and on the leg.

Patrolman John Shaw dragged Concetta off the women, but got her only as far as the street.  "There she spied a fruit peddler's cart and the thought struck her that Shaw would look sweet in a setting of bananas and pears."  The 31-year old powder puff thief had already proven she was a robust woman when she knocked out Hattie Walters with a single punch.  Now she lifted Officer Shaw off his feet and attempted to toss him into the fruit cart.  "It was a creditable attempt and nearly upset the cart, but it failed," said the Tribune.

Luckily for Shaw another officer appeared on the scene.  "Together the two patrolmen by alternatively shoving, lifting and pulling Concetta through the streets brought her to the lock-up."

David Price died pf a heart attack at the age of 60 in his West End Avenue apartment on April 7, 1922.  He left his estate of more than $1 million entirely to Sadie.  It sparked the beginning of a long and ugly court battle by extended family members who tried to invalidate the will.

In 1925 Sixth Avenue was renumbered, giving the Price Building the new address of 604-612.

The McCrory's store remained on 18th Street at least through the Depression years.  In March 1932 the Chain Store Age was impressed with a window dresser's ingenuity.  "A window which was artistic while showing the customer just what was needed to duplicate a sample jardiniere filled with living plants, was noted in a McCrory store on West Eighteen Street, New York City."   By interspersing live "snake plants" among Asian-style crockery, the designer suggested their possible uses to shoppers.

In 1936 architects Hinogue & Palmer converted the Price Building to showroom and factory space.  It was indicative of the decline of the neighborhood.  Throughout the subsequent decades the once-haughty retail palaces would sit vacant or become filled with small industrial companies.

In 1940 the ground floor of the Price Building (lower right)  housed several shops, including Sonny's Food Shop and A. Mintz & Son.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1949 Knickerbocker Motors joined the Price and McCrorey buildings.  The Sixth Avenue storefronts were removed and the first floor gutted to create an automobile showroom.  Garage doors were installed in the McCrorey Building and it was converted to a service garage.

Change finally came in the latter part of the century as the Ladies' Mile was rediscovered.  By 1993 the Housing Works Thrift Shop called the old McCrorey Building home. and in 1995 Old Navy renovated both buildings for its spacious store.  The make-over included an architecturally sympathetic storefront installation.



While nothing remains of Buchman & Fox's 1910 storefronts, the upper floors of both buildings sparkle; their striking terra cotta facades essentially unchanged.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Benj. N. Disbrow House - 322 West 108th Street




Prolific developer Joseph A. Farley and architects Janes & Leo were by no means strangers in October 1898.  As a matter of fact, their offices were in the same building, at No. 967 Boulevard (later renamed Broadway).  The men had worked together on several projects of speculative, upscale rowhouses on the Upper West Side.  They embarked on yet another, now, with the architectural firm filing plans for four side-by-side homes on October 7.

The houses, Nos. 316 through 322 West 108th Street, would be four stories high and faced in brick.  The plans projected the construction costs at a total of $110,000 (or about $837,500 each today).  Janes & Leo mysteriously designed the row as three harmonious Georgian Revival homes and one Beaux Arts beauty with absolutely nothing in common with its stepsisters.

No. 322 featured a rusticated stone base (as opposed to the planar stone of its neighbors) with a projecting columned portico.  The upper floors were faced in beige brick and lavishly trimmed in limestone.  At the second story French doors within an elaborately carved enframement opened onto a full-width balcony with French-style iron railings.

Matching iron railings decorated the bowed bay of the third floor, which was capped by handsome copper cresting.   An ornate, bracketed cornice supported a stone-balustraded balcony at the top floor.

Janes & Leo cleverly handled the downward slope of West 108th Street by increasing the stoops of each house by one step.  Note the fifth floor balustrade of No. 322, now sadly lost.  Record & Guide, September 2, 1899 (copyright expired)
The row was completed one year later.  No. 322 was the widest, at 25 feet.  Light filled the vestibule through a full panel of glass in the door, "projected by a black iron grill," as reported by the Real Estate Record & Guide on September 2, 1899.  "The hall floor is parquetted, and the hall itself contains a large fireplace surmounted by a stepped hood with fire seats on either side."

The service entrance opened onto the long hall leading to the back of the house where there were "a bicycle or butler's room, kitchen and laundry."  The first floor contained the drawing room, music room, dining room, and butler's pantry.    The drawing room was, as might be expected, French in style, paneled in white mahogany and trimmed in gold.  The dining room was "of English Gothic design" and "appropriately trimmed with black oak and lit by ornamental leaded glass windows, with a swinging sash in the corner."  All the first floor rooms had parquet floors and fireplaces with gas logs--the latest in convenience and cleanliness.

A stained glass skylight spilled light down the staircase.  Directly above the drawing room was the library, paneled in dark mahogany.  The master bedroom was also on the second floor.  The Record & Guide described "A salon passage containing four large hanging closets, a washstand, closets, drawers, and a full length cheval glass, leads into a bedroom trimmed in birdseye maple, adjoining which, further on, is a completely appointed bathroom, floored in mosaic, paneled in white and gold and furnished with all the best appliances of lavation."

The third floor contained two bedrooms connected by a "dressing salon," and one bath.  The top floors contained two more family bedrooms, three servants rooms, a storage room (often called "a trunk room").  The top floor also held, interestingly enough, a water tank in case of "any unforeseen contingency of water supply."

The Record & Guide was taken with the layout for servants' smooth operations.  "Rear stairs give the servants access to the upper floors and convenience is further studied by a dumbwater running from the kitchen.  The butler's pantry contains every conceivable necessity, including porcelain-lined refrigerator and plate warmer."

No. 322 was purchased by the 53-year old Benjamin Newton Disbrow.   Society seems to have greatly forgotten, or at least overlooked, the scandal the dragged his name into the newspapers 13 years earlier.

Disbrow's wife, Jeannette, left their Brooklyn home in the spring of 1886 to move in with her sister and brother-in-law, the Harrises, in Manhattan.  Jeannette claimed he "ill treated" her.  He asserted she deserted him, "preferring the gaiety of Manhattan life."

Convinced Jeannette was cheating on him, Disbrow began divorce proceedings and hired two private detectives who followed her every move.  They went so far as to rent an apartment almost directly across from the Harris house on East 54th Street.  The constant surveillance taxed Jeanette's increasingly fragile nervous condition.

The New York Times said "She had been living a very retired life for two years or more, and on account of the unhappy character of her married life experienced a horror verging on frenzy of anything bordering on publicity."   Finally Jeanette attempted suicide by slashing her throat with scissors on June 7.  Her brother-in-law, Theodore Harris, said she "was simply being hounded to death by her husband."

When Jeannette died ten days later, newspapers were brutal in blaming Disbrow.  The New-York Tribune described, for instance, "The pitiful story of Mrs. Jeannette M. Disbrow, the young and estimable woman whose insanity, attempted suicide and death on June 17 resulted from the effect upon her sensitive nature of a suit for an absolute divorce begun by her husband, Benjamin N. Disbrow."

By the time he purchased No. 322 Disbrow had married Josephine L. Wagner, widow of Norman T. Wagner.  Josephine brought her children, Webster and Norma, into the marriage; and she and Benjamin now had one daughter of their own, also named Josephine.

Benjamin's busy business schedule did not seem to discourage Josephine's summer plans.  On October 1, 1904 Brooklyn Life reported that "Mrs. B. N. Disbrow, who has been at the Wayside Inn, Luzerne, New York, was to return to 322 West One Hundred and Eighth street, Manhattan, this Saturday."  On April 22, 1906 the New-York Tribune noted "Mrs. Benjamin Newton Disbrow and her daughter, Miss Norma L. Wagner, sail on Tuesday for Genoa on the Carpathia;" and three months later the newspaper mentioned "Mrs. Benjamin N. Disbrow, of New York, has arrived in Stockbridge."

At the time, little Josephine had a one-year old pet bulldog, Bully Boy II.  The pet caused quite a stir several years later then a maid took it on an afternoon walk.  On July 8, 1914 The New York Times reported that Mrs. Marie Kennedy was walking along Broadway when she saw the woman and the white French bulldog.  "Mrs. Kennedy gave a cry and pounced on the dog, telling the maid she had no right with it.

"Mrs. Kennedy got hold of the dog's front legs and endeavored to get immediate possession, a move which the maid frustrated by pulling equally as hard in the opposite direction by the hind legs.  The dog did not part in the middle, but it got a severe scratch on its breast from a pair of feminine finger nails."

A beat cop, Patrolman Tracy, came to the dog's rescue and took it to the West 100th Street Station.  Lieutenant McCormack figured that if the women separately called to the animal, he would respond to the real owner.  But that plan failed when both women explained that they were not the actual owners, but were taking care of it.  Jacob Sheer arrived from the Disbrow house and saved the day by convincing the lieutenant that it indeed lived at No. 322 West 108th Street.

By the time of the doggie dispute both daughters were old enough that their names began appearing in society pages.  On April 4, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported on the recent arrivals at the Pinehurst, North Carolina hotels, including "Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin N. Disbrow, Miss Norma L. Wagner [and] Miss Josephine L. Disbrow."  Three months later the family checked into the fashionable Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

It would be among the last trips Benjamin would make.  He died on November 18, 1916.

In May 1920 Josephine sold No. 322 to the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity.   The house was apparently used as temporary housing for alumni, like Raphael Philip Russakow, who was here in 1921, and Nathan Berman who listed his address here the following year.  Berman had earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1914.

By the beginning of the 1930's the house was owned by general contractor Kielman A. Schuddekoff who also ran his business, the Whitefield Management Corp., here.  Schuddekoff became the target of an investigation in 1936 when subcontracted workers complained he was demanding kick-backs.

One was painter William Castaldi who was hired to work on an apartment building at No. 385 Central Park West that August.  His boss, Paul Lehman, said he would be paid the union wage of $9 a day for a five-day week, but each of the painters would have to give Schuddekoff $10 a week to keep their jobs.

Castaldi gave Schuddekoff five $10 bills, one for each of the painters on the job.  A detective later stopped the contractor and checked his pockets--the marked bills had been supplied by the police.  On November 5, 1936 the 34-year old Schuddekoff was found guilty.  At his sentencing on November 23 he chose to pay a $500 fine rather than serve six months in the workhouse.

Although the Depression Era fine was steep--amounting to nearly $9,000 today--Schuddekoff was lucky that he got the choice.  Three Special Sessions judges had argued about allowing him to opt out of a prison sentence.   Two were adamant that he go to jail; but sentencing required a unanimous vote.

Schuddekoff retained ownership of No. 322 until November 1945, when he transferred title to the nearly formed 322 Holding Corp.  The firm leased rooms in the former mansion, and apparently did not pay a great deal of attention to maintaining it.

On November 1, 1954 The New York Times ran a headline "Water Leak Routs 18 Dwellers" and reported "Eighteen persons were evacuated yesterday from their apartments in a five-story building at 322 West 108th Street, off Broadway, after a leak in a water pipe between the fourth and third stories."

Change came in 1965 when the house was converted to the St. Seraphim Russian Orthodox Church.  The first floor was used as worship space, and the upper floors to "living and sleeping quarters by clergy, students, and persons connected with the church," as described by the Department of Buildings Certificate of Occupancy.

Among the church's members was Alexander Kerensky, the attorney and revolutionary who played a key role in the Russian Revolution of 1917.  He had served as the new Russian Provisional Government's Minister of Justice, then as Minister of War and finally Minister-Chairman.  He fled Russia after the Bosheviks overthrew his government.   The rector of St. Seraphim, Rev. Alexander Kiselev, conducted Kerensky's funeral at Frank E. Campbell's on Madison Avenue on June 14, 1970.

St. Seraphim Church was the scene of another notable funeral on July 25, 1984.  Vera Nemtchinova had been a star of ballet and one of the city's best known ballet teachers.  In reporting on her death The Times noted "Miss Nemtchinova's most famous role was that of the androgynous 'Girl in Blue' in 'Les Biches,' Bronislava Nijinska's 1924 ballet about the sexual and social mores of the chic set in France.  It was in such experimental ballets--including the 1930 'Aubade,' which the young George Balanchine created for Miss Nemtchinova's own company--that the Russian-born dander became known as a new type of ballerina in a modern mold."

The church remained in the building until around 1996 when the Nour Foundation made the former worship space its home.  Still here today, the Nour Foundation presents musical performances.  New York Magazine announced on May 20, 1996 that the Ensemble for the Selcento would be performing works by Strozzi, Falconieri, and Frescobaldi as part of the New York Early Music Series here, for instance; and on May 21, 1999 The Times reported on the late 16th and early 17th century lute songs that would be played here.


While the Disbrow house shows the regrettable scars of decades of multiple uses, Janes & Leo's striking design shines through as vibrantly today as it did nearly 120 years ago when it emerged as the show-off next to its three more conservative sisters.

photographs by the author

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Lost A. T. Stewart Mansion - Fifth Avenue and 34th Street


The upward slope of 5th Avenue is evidenced in the balustraded marble wall that surrounded the property.  Higher than pedestrians' heads at the front of the mansion, it is shoulder height toward the rear.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Called "one of the wonders of the City," the Samuel P. Townsend mansion on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street surpassed all others in cost and magnificence upon its completion in 1855.  So New Yorkers were startled when Alexander Turney Stewart announced plans to demolish and replace it with a new house in 1866.  But they had no idea of what was to come.

Stewart opened his first dry goods store in 1823, selling Irish lace and linens.  A consummate retailer, by 1848 he was known as the "Merchant Prince of America " and ran the largest emporium in the world, with branches in 12 countries, and before long was among the richest men in America.

He had married Cornelia M. Clinch, a daughter of successful ship chandler Jacob Clinch, on October 16, 1823.  Theirs was a somber marriage.  Stewart reputedly showed his wife little overt affection or warmth.  Their attempts to have a family ended in tragedy.   John Turney Stewart was born in 1834 and died a few weeks later; and May was stillborn in 1838.

Alexander Turney Stewart - Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 22, 1876 (copyright expired)
After having lived in progressively grander homes as his fortune grew, Stewart now set his sights on the former Townsend property, directly to the north of William B. Astor's mansion.  He hired architect John Kellum who had studied under the masterful Gamaliel King.  (The two were partners between 1846 and 1859.)

Kellum had earlier designed Stewart's department store on Broadway and 10th Street.  It was the beginning of a long professional relationship between the Stewarts and the architect.  For the Fifth Avenue mansion, he would stun Manhattan society by dismissing the expected brownstone or red brick and turning to gleaming white Tuckahoe marble.  And he designed the residence in the new French Second Empire style, recently introduced from Paris--a stark contrast to the stuffier Italianate houses still being erected.

The lavish home took several years and $2 million to complete.  Four stories tall above the rusticated basement level, the grandeur of the palace was such that it could turn its shoulder to Fifth Avenue and face 35th Street.  Not that it mattered; the Stewarts did not use an address--the house spoke for itself.

Paired Corinthian pilasters separated each bay of the first floor where delicate balconies clung to each opening.  A majestic marble staircase (it could hardly be called a "stoop") led to the entrance--a columned portico that upheld a matching balcony.  The configuration was copied as projecting columned balconies on the Fifth Avenue side.

The full-height mansard featured French-styled dormers and was crowned by delicate cast iron cresting.  A marble wall surrounded the property, about six feet high along the front.   Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly wrote "Mr. Stewart's marble palace, built on the site of the large structure formerly the residence of Dr. Townsend, is perhaps the handsomest and most costly private residence in the country."

Well-dressed pedestrians pass the newly-completed structure on a still residential Fifth Avenue Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, July 1876 (copyright expired)
D. Appleton and Company's Artistic Houses summed up the interiors succinctly:  "The interior of the Stewart mansion, at Fifth Avenue and thirty-fourth Street, is palatial.  Many European palaces are less so."

The first and second floors were clad in Carrara marble.  Artistic Houses described "The grand stairway and railing are entirely of white marble.  Every ceiling is eighteen feet nine inches high."  The vast entrance hall, lined with life-size statuary, led to the "grand picture-gallery."   To the left of the hall was the dining room, to the right were the reception room, the music room and the drawing room, accessed by a marble hallway.

The entrance hall had a museum-like quality.   Fluted marble columns uphold the giled ceiling.  To the rear is the doorway to the Picture Gallery above which the sweeping marble staircase can be glimpsed.  Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)

The ceilings and frescoed panels of the breakfast room, picture gallery and dining room were executed by Italian artist Mario Brigaldi who had earlier decorated Emperor Dom Pedro's imperial palace in Brazil.  The cost to Stewart was $5,000 for each room--about $97,000 today.  Brigaldi reportedly spent a full year in the house, decorating at least a portion of every room.

The drawing room extended the full width of the Fifth Avenue side.  "Furniture of gilded whitewood, covered with pale yellow satin, is disposed methodically," according to Artistic Houses.

The Reception Room (top) and the Music Room.  Works of art were distributed throughout rooms like these. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired) 
Frank Leslie's reported "Certainly the most interesting feature of the building, however, is the art gallery in the rear, where are located a large number of important and valuable works, selected by Mr. Stewart during his numerous visits abroad."  The magazine placed the value of the collection at $600,000.  "The picture gallery is about 50 ft. by 30 in dimension, and in this are placed the principal works, a large number, however, being hung in the parlors, drawing-rooms, and corridors."   Newspapers, magazines and books devoted columns to describing in detail the sculptures, porcelains, paintings, and tapestries distributed throughout the Stewart house.

The Picture Gallery.  There were more than 165 oil paintings in the collection--obviously more than wall space allowed for.  Paintings are propped up against the walls and life-sized sculptures.  Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)
On the second floor was the library, directly above the drawing room and running the full width of the Fifth Avenue side.  Books were hidden behind the mirrored doors of the black walnut bookcases.  Life-sized portraits of Alexander and Cornelia Stewart were exhibited here.  Gobelin tapestries hung on the walls and gilt-bronze chandeliers illuminated the crimson carpeting and wall panels.  The billiard room and the "Lace Room" shared this level.

Stewart's Library was sumptuously decorated--including marble door and window frames, walnut woodwork and gilt bronze chandeliers.  Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)
The third floor contained bedrooms, including two luxurious guest suites, one known as "General Grant's room."  It faced Fifth Avenue and its furnishings were rosewood.  The items for indelicate personal needs like washing and relieving oneself were discreetly disguised.  There were two "magnificent wardrobes and wash-stands combined; you open their central mirror-doors, and the lavatory apparatus is disclosed."

Cornelia Stewart's bedroom was the height of post Civil War period fashion. Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)
Despite the grandeur of their new Fifth Avenue home, there were rarely large entertainments here.  Cornelia notoriously avoided publicity and Alexander disdained wasteful expenditure.  When the couple did entertain, however, it was impressive.

On June 21, 1869, for instance, The New York Times noted that on the previous afternoon President Ulysses S. Grant "dined with Mr. A. T. Stewart, on Fifth-avenue."  And when the President and his wife were back in town following the White House wedding of their daughter Nellie to Algermon Charles Frederick Sartoris in May 1874, they were received by the Stewarts.  The New York Herald reported on May 23, "The entire party, consisting of the President and Mrs. Grant, Mr. and Mrs. Sartoris and their friends from Washington, took dinner at the residence of Alexander T. Stewart, after which all returned to their hotel."

The Stewarts would be hosts to another head of state seven months later.  On December 29 King Kalakaua of Hawaii, Royal Governor John Kapena and Hawaiian Chief Justice Elisha Hunt Allen were lunch guests here.

Artist Mario Brigaldi's work can be seen in the ceiling and wall panels of the Drawing Room.  Artistic Houses, 1883 (copyright expired)
Alexander T. Stewart was a somewhat complex man.  While he reprimanded his employees for using too much string to tie up packages, for instance, he gave munificently to charitable causes.  In 1869 he hired John Kellum to design a block-wide working women's hotel to help address the problems of struggling single women.

Around the first of April 1876, Stewart contracted a cold which progressed to what the The New York Herald indiscreetly described as an "inflammation of the bowels."  On April 10 the newspaper reported that "the great merchant millionaire" was critically ill in his mansion.   Stewart had ordered his doctors not to report any information on his condition.  "If it were stated that his illness was of a very grave nature the announcement would doubtless draw to the house troops of inquiring friends, which is not at present desirable."  That same day the tycoon died.

Crowds massed around the mansion following news of the millionaire's death.  Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, July 1876 (copyright expired)
The New-York Herald reported on April 13 "A force of police guarded the entrance and patrolled the street in front and these kept at a distance any sightseer whose curiosity might too much embolden him.  All through the day carriages were being driven up to the door and there deposited some solvent looking old man with sober face, who toiled up the grand staircase and disappeared behind the huge portal, only to have his identity with some well known financier become the subject of discussion among the people outside."

Inside "The maganificent halls were occupied by knots of gentlemen who discussed in undertones the great merchant's death...while round about them were the accumulations of masterpieces of art and the costly wonders of decorative beauty."

Stewart's body was laid in the Lace Room on the second floor.   The New York Herald reported on a rather macabre side-note.  "The body of Mr. Stewart lies in one of those new-fashioned preservers which have supplanted the ordinary ice coffin...Without coming in contact with any part of the body the ice is so arranged as to create and sustain around it a uniformly cold temperature, which is so free of moisture that the garments of the dead are perfectly dry."

The New York Times reported that the Lace Room was already filled with floral tributes and the funeral would be even more so.  The casket was to sit on "an oblong pyramid of flowers seven feet in length by three in width, composed of almost every description of floral treasures...At the head of the casket is to be placed a floral cross 6 feet high by 4 wide and 8 inches in diameter...A wreath of violets two fee in diameter will be attached to this piece."

At the foot of the casket a broken column, five feet in height was anticipated to be "of rare beauty."  An altar composed of camellias, lilies, roses and hyacinths would be at one side of the casket, and a four-foot tall harp of flowers would occupy the opposite side.  The Stewart store employees presented two floral "monuments" nine feet tall.

Stewart was temporarily buried in St. Mark's graveyard.  Cornelia called upon John Kellum once again to design a lasting memorial--the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, Long Island.  It would include a mausoleum for her husband and herself.

Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography now considered Cornelia Stewart "the wealthiest woman in the world."  She had inherited an estate estimated at between $30 and $40 million--as much as $950 million today (another estimated $10 million went to employees, Cornelia's relatives, and charities).  Tragically for her, with great fortune came fortune hunters,

Not long after the funeral Cornelia began receiving ghoulish letters from all parts of the United States, purportedly from her dead husband.  On June 1, 1876 The New York Herald said the letters, signed by Alexander T. Stewart, were "of a nature to shock the most indifferent readers."  They said in part, for instance:

I see the fatal mistake I made while on earth; I placed my confidence in persons unworthy of it and I caution you beware."

Another read:

...from the spirit land I see things clearly and you had better place the management of your affairs in the hands of whose parties who are named herein.

The letters were all delivered by messenger, not by mail.  The Herald noted "Hundreds of scheming and dishonest men and women have deliberately gone to work for the purpose of influencing Mrs. Stewart to regard all her dearest friends as treacherous, as people unworthy of the slightest confidence."

Immeasurable wealth did not buy Cornelia Stewart happiness. from the collection of the Garden City Archives  
But soon Cornelia would face an even more macabre plot.  On November 8, 1878 The New York Times ran the shocking story that "The grave of the late Alexander T. Stewart was successfully robbed between midnight and sunrise yesterday morning, and his remains carried off, evidently in the hope of obtaining a large ransom for their return."

The New York Herald opined that of the thousands present at Stewart's burial, none could imagine that his remains would "be ruthlessly disturbed by the demoniac hope entering the brain of some foul fiend of making money out of a traffic with the body."

Despite the best detective work, the grave robbers could not be found.  Six years later, on April 7, 1884 The New York Times printed hope when the notorious robber Lewis C. Sweigels promised to return the body in return for his pardon.  Working on behalf of Cornelia, Judge Henry Hilton paid the $25,000 ransom.  Whether or not the corpse was actually Stewart's remained a mystery.

The Stewarts had spent their summers in fashionable Saratoga Springs.  Cornelia left there on September 1, 1886 to return to her marble mansion.   On Saturday evening, October 23 her dressmaker arrived and had Cornelia try on several nearly-finished dresses.  Afterwards, Cornelia took a warm bath and went to bed.

By the following morning she had caught cold.  When it worsened, her doctor, J. C. Minor was summoned.  He diagnosed pneumonia.  She declined rapidly and around 9:30 on Monday morning she died.

Newspapers, of course, recounted her many philanthropies and her fabulous fortune--still estimated at $30 to $40 million--and her nearly incomparable art collection.  The New York Times noted "Since her husband's death, Mrs. Stewart has lived very quietly in the mansion at Fifth-avenue and Thirty-fourth-street, and her name has not appeared frequently in public prints of late years.  She always dreaded publicity or display."

As she had directed, Cornelia's funeral was much more reserved than her husband's.  She was buried in the crypt in the Cathedral of the Incarnation; The Times reporting that she now lay "beside the grave wherein Mrs. Stewart had always supposed that the remains of her husband reposed."  It was a slightly-veiled reference to the questionable corpse.

The Stewart mansion sat vacant for more than two years while The Manhattan Club negotiated with the estate.  Then, on December 13, 1889, The Evening World ran the headline "Palace For A Club" and reported that the Manhattan Club would soon "enjoy the finest club home in America."  The had club signed a 21-year lease with an annual rental of $35,000.

The exclusive men's club would not live out its lease, however.  On January 8, 1898 The Sun reported that it was "already heavily burdened by debt and the great cost of conducting its clubhouse."  The following year it moved out.   What would become of the magnificent structure was on the mind of nearly every New Yorker.

On February 2, 1901 the New-York Tribune announced an outlandish scheme.  It said that negotiations were underway for the purchase of the mansion as a gift for a charitable institution.  If successful, the unnamed benefactor would "remove the structure at his own expense and have it erected, in its present form, somewhere in Westchester."  Not surprisingly, the scheme never came to pass.

Instead, demolition began two months later.  Policemen were to be stationed at the site to stop pilferers.  The New York Times reported on March 6 "Hundreds of workmen are daily demolishing into a reminiscence what was once the grandest residence in New York, and collectors of curios from the old house have been busy for the past week."

The windows have been removed and billboards sully the marble wall as demolition gets underway in 1901.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The palaces of Europe to which the mansion had been compared upon its completion lasted for centuries.  The palaces of Manhattan stood for mere decades, razed with a cavalier disregard for architectural nobility to concede to what was commonly called "the march of progress."

The corner today.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The 1845 Robert Pettigrew House - 8 East 18th Street




By 1845 mansions had begun appearing along Fifth Avenue around 18th Street.  But Robert Pettigrew's home at No. 8 East 18th Street completed that year, was not so pretentious.  Nevertheless, at 25-feet wide and three stories tall, it was a commodious residence.  Nothing remains of its original appearance, but a 19th century photograph reveals a short stoop, white stone lintels that contrasted with the red brick, and a bracketed cornice.

It is unclear how long the Pettigrew family stayed on at No. 8.  In 1848, when Robert Jr.'s wife died at the age of 23, the couple was living several blocks away at No. 269 West 18th Street.

In the first years following the Civil War, Mrs. C. Donovan ran her dressmaking shop from the lower level of the house--an indication of the changes already taking place in the neighborhood.  The rest of the residence was let as furnished rooms.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on July 1, 1868 offered "To Let--Furnished, one suit of rooms, including Parlor, at No. 8 East Eighteenth street, two doors from Fifth avenue."

Mrs. C. Donovan catered to the carriage trade.  Her expensive French-styled designs were worn by the wives and daughters of New York's wealthy businessmen.

This striking day dress was produced in Mrs. C. Donvan's 18th Street shop.  garment on display at the The Barrington House
Mrs. C. Donovan ran a substantial operation that employed several women.  An advertisement on April 27, 1873 sought "some first class waist and skirt hands at No. 8 East 18th st.; also an errand boy."

At the time of that advertisement, the address had become connected with an infamous incident.  Irish-born Bridget McCabe lived in rooms here and worked as a maid in a nearby brownstone.  Much to her annoyance she obtained a roommate in 1871--her sister Rose.

Rose McCabe was 23-years old in 1854 when she was recruited by Bishop Thomas Louis Connolly into a new order of nuns to care for Irish orphans in Canada.  Rose became Sister Mary Stanislaus of the Sisters of Charity.  Things went well until she angered her superior, Mother Vincent, and eventually the bishop himself when she continued to speak out against Mother Vincent's treatment of the orphans.  In 1861 she was put on a boat and sent back to New York.

After teaching in several schools, Sister Mary found herself out of work and moved in temporarily with Bridget.  The relations between the sisters was tense and things came to a climax on March 14, 1871 when Bridget rushed into Sister Mary's room.  Sobbing, she said their sister, Eliza, was near death and they must go to her at once.

It was a cruel ruse and the carriage took the women to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.  Bridget, like so many family members, had devised a simple plan to rid herself of her unwanted relative.  She declared her sister insane and claimed she had attempted suicide.

Unlike less fortunate inmates, Sister Mary managed to find supporters in the outside world.  Her case--likely because of her religious status--drew the attention of the press.   John D. Townsend took her case and on August 13, 1872 they appeared in court.  He told the judge she was "of perfectly sound mind" and had been committed "at the instance of interested parties," her sisters.

The New York Times commented that Sister Mary "appeared in Court in the habit of her order, and is apparently possessed of much refinement and intelligence."  A week later Sister Mary Stanislaus was released from the Asylum.  But it was not the end of the story.

She was taken in by the family of Michael J. McCarthy.  But, as reported in The New York Times on January 4, 1874, "shortly afterward her sister, Bridget McCabe, demanded her custody on the ground that she was the proper person to maintain her."

While Bridget might have been satisfied that her sister was being taken care of and no longer a burden; she seems to have had a cruel hatred for her.   When John D. Townsend learned from McCarthy that Bridget was gone from the home, he tracked her down to East 18th Street.  "He learned from Sister Mary that her treatment there was far from what it ought to be, and she again sought his aid."

Townsend approached Bridgett and "told her that her sister complained of ill-treatment and was very unhappy with her."  He offered to take charge of Sister Mary, and pay her support until she was received back in the Church or found employment.

The Times reported "Miss McCabe would not listen to the proposition, and much against Sister Mary's wishes, counsel was obliged to leave her in her sister's care."

The story did have a happy ending, however.  Bridget was eventually pressured to give up her control.  Sister Mary was taken into the family of an Episcopal clergyman on on 72nd Street.  The Times noted "Mr. Townsend says that Sister Mary has been for more than a week in [Rev. French's] family, and if he had ever doubted her mental correctness all such doubts would not be dispelled, for a more sensible and devoted lover of her Church it would be difficult to find."

In the meantime, Mrs. C. Donovan's business continued to thrive.  On a single day in October 1874 she placed three want ads in The New York Herald, one of which sought "a forewoman to take full charge of workroom; one who fully understands her business."  The following year, in September she look for "A smart errand boy, from 12 to 14 years, for a dressmaking establishment.  Apply at No. 8 East Eighteen street, basement door."

In 1881 the house was converted for business.  The entrance was lowered to sidewalk level, a storefront installed, and the first floor extended 26 feet into the rear yard.  The ground floor shop became home to Louis Hartman's "Artistic Picture Framing" store.   His advertisements touted "Largest assortment of Designs for Bronze, Gilt, and Wood Frames, at most reasonable prices."  The store also re-gilded old frames or damaged frames.

Mrs. C. Donovan moved her shop to No. 245 Fifth Avenue; but another garment maker, M. F. Saliade moved in.  Many dressmakers at the time worked under pseudonyms, calling themselves Madame, for instance, to suggest a French connection.  M. F. Saliade's real name was Mary F. Sharpe and she was trying valiantly to make it on her own following terrifying domestic abuse.

She and her husband, Henry E. Sharpe, had lived together with their 2-year old daughter, Henrietta, on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn.  But as she later told the courts, he had "often abused and beaten her, and on one occasion had thrown her down stairs."  After one incident she had him arrested and in January 1885 they separated pending divorce proceedings.  It was a contentious case, with Henry demanding one half interest in Mary's plaiting (or pleating) business.

Mary moved into No. 8 East 18th Street with her daughter, and opened her shop.  Although Henry was allowed visitation, he never came to Manhattan to see Henrietta--until six months later.

On Sunday afternoon, July 19, Mary took Henrietta to Union Square.  When they returned about an hour later Mary left Henrietta in the vestibule while she rushed upstairs for a moment.  When she came down, the little girl was gone.

Coincidentally, the next day Henry appeared to visit his daughter.  Mary was irate and demanded he return the child.   Claiming he knew nothing of her disappearance, he went to the police, saying "he feared that the child had been stolen or was being secreted by his wife."   Mary countered, telling a reporter "she was sure that her husband had taken the child away for the purpose of coercing her into giving up some property to him."

Sharpe did his best to paint his wife as the culprit, going so far as to serve her with a writ of habeas corpus requiring her to produce the child in court.  Mary did not back down.  On July 24 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Sharpe insists that her husband has taken possession of the child and that his informing the police of the disappearance of the little one and obtaining the writ of habeas corpus are simply subterfuges to divert suspicion from him."

When suspicion continued to be focused on him, Sharpe came up with another theory.  He told a reporter from The Sun "As I am the head of the integral cooperation movement in this country, there are opposed to me many of the Anarchists, who are making a bitter war on me...They wouldn't stop to do anything to injure me because of my position.  They know how much I am attached to the child."

Mary saw through his new explanation.  "There was no one to take [the child] away but Sharpe, and I want him to return it  to me.  I'll have none of his fooling."

Tragically for Mary, it would seem that Henry won both the battle and the war.  Later that year an advertisement in Harper's Bazaar offered work to "hand-pleaters."  The name of the establishment was now, "Henry E. Sharpe, 8 E. 18th St."

By now Louis Hartman's frame shop was gone and Taylor & Son's piano store had moved in.  The neighborhood was filled with piano and organ dealers at the time.  On April 20, 1886 dozens of them, including Taylor & Son, joined together, agreeing to institute what today would be called "summer hours."  An announcement in the Music Trade Review said "We, the undersigned, piano and organ manufacturers and dealers, music publishers and dealers, hereby agree to close our respective places of business at one o'clock on Saturday, during the months of June, July and August."

In the fall of 1892 a "well-dressed woman of lady-like manners," according to The Times, entered the store and purchased an upright piano on terms.  After Mrs. Julia McLaughlin made her first $15 installment, the payments stopped.  An employee of the store went to the fashionable address where the piano was delivered, No. 46 East 85th Street, to see what the problem was.

Mrs. McLaughlin appeared at the door with tears in her eyes and explained that her daughter was upstairs at the point of death.  "He expressed regret for having called at so inopportune a time and withdrew," said The Times.

At the same time two other piano dealers, E J. Winterroth and W. Wisner & Sons, were having the same problem.    On January 5, 1893 The Times reported "When Mrs. McLaughlin was next sought she had moved, and the firm discovered that she was merely in the house as a sort of janitress to take care of it til the family whose home it was returned."

Julia McLaughlin was finally tracked down in Jersey City and arrested.  The pianos were never recovered.

At the turn of the century the piano and music district had moved uptown.  In 1902 the building was leased to the New York and Amsterdam Carpet Company.   The storefront was altered in 1904 for H. J. Klappert's restaurant, which would remain in the space for several years.

In 1916 Humboldt Mfg. Co. moved in. makers of ingenious gadgets like the Kant-Klog sugar and salt shakers.

The Kant-Klog shaker incorporated a spiral metal piece which broke up any clogs.  Home Furnishing Review, March 1916 (copyright expired)
The little building housed a variety of business throughout the subsequent decades, including a bookstore in the 1930's.  Around mid-century the entire facade was given a new brick face, successfully eliminating what remained of the 1845 design.

The early 21st century renaissance of the neighborhood was evidenced when Hemant Mathur opened Devi, an Indian restaurant, in No. 8 around 2004.  The acclaimed eatery was a destination spot for years.  In 2015 a new storefront was installed and today Sweetgreen, a health food restaurant, calls the ground floor space home.


Despite near 175 years of changes, the Pettigrew house retains its domestic appearance--an interesting footnote on the architecturally fascinating block.

photographs by the author