Saturday, June 9, 2018

The "Dunsbro" - 120-122 East 31st Street





Following his father's death Otto Grimmer became the sole owner of Charles Grimmer & Son.  The "painting and decorating firm" was hired by architects and building owners to do the elaborate wall and ceiling paintings in theaters, hotels, upscale homes, and such.  In March 1901 he ventured into real estate development.

At the time residence hotels had gained favor among the moneyed class.  Their expansive apartments provided the comforts of a private home; yet the services provided by the management and the common residents' dining room eliminated the need for domestic staffs. 

Grimmer purchased the "old building," as described in the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide at Nos. 120 and 122 East 31st Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues.  The sale announcement added "The buyer will erect an 8-sty fireproof apartment house on the plot."  Grimmer hired the architectural firm of Copeland & Dole to design the building.

Completed in 1902 at a cost of $90,000 (nearly $2.7 million today), The Dunsbro was a reserved take on the Beaux Arts style that often appeared in hotels and apartments with overblown decorations like festoons, wreaths and cartouches.  The two-story stone base had none of these, the architects focusing instead on a stately portico with paired polished granite columns that supported a balcony and announced the building's name.   Four stories of beige brick included angled metal bays.  The seventh floor echoed the rusticated stone base and its paired openings were fronted by handsome iron railings.  Above the bracketed cornice a copper clad mansard featured prominent dormers.

An advertisement in The New York Herald on August 12, 1903 offered nine-room apartments.  Amenities included "elevator; steam, electricity, telephone; all night service" with rents ranging from $1,000 to $1,500--more than $3,500 per month for the most expensive.  There was also a mail chute--a novel convenience.

Otto Grimmer moved his own family into the Dunsbro.  He and his wife, Margaret (known as Marie), had four children, Paul, Ethel, Margaret, and Ruth.  The family's summer home was in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

Among the financially-comfortable residents were Helen Terry Potter and her widowed mother.  Not long after moving in Helen was the subject of rather humiliating publicity.   On April 23, 1903 The New York Times noted "Miss Potter...lives with her mother in the Dunsmore [sic] at 120 East Thirty-first Street, and is said to be not more than twenty-five years of age.  Capt. Dessel paid her marked attentions for several months."

"Capt. Dessel" was the 60-year old Lewis Howard Dessel, who had divorced his wife several years earlier.  The Times described him as "a man about town, and for years he ranked as a wealthy man, and as one of the best dressed men of the hotel district."  It may have been Dessel's "marked attentions" to Helen that prompted him to rewrite his will in October 1902.

The assets listed in the document included estates in Germany and valuable properties in New York.   Society may have been a bit shocked when newspapers quoted the portion of the will that said "I bequeath to Helen Terry Potter the sum of $25,000 and the income from whatever may remain.  Of the property enumerated in the second class I leave all to Helen Terry Potter in her own control."

Helen could expect a windfall equal to about three quarters of a million dollars today.  Except her lover's fortune was make believe.  His executor announced "the belongings of Capt. Dessel consisted of clothes that sold for $47, two pawn tickets, and a stack of unpaid bills, amounting to nearly $10,000, for clothing, presents, and carriage hire."

Another young resident was Mary E. Thornton.  An early activist, she was the secretary of the Nurses' Association of the United States and routinely appeared in newspapers as she lobbied for the rights and legal status of nurses.  She was also the editor of the Department of Official Reports of the American Journal of Nursing.  In the journal's December 1903 issue she reminded officers of nursing societies to send their communications "to my address" and listed the Dunsbro.

Otto Grimmer had been a bit sneaky in his plans for the building.  A resident hotel circumvented the regulations of an apartment building, so Copeland & Dole's blueprints included the necessary elements to quality as the former.  There were, for instance, no kitchens in the apartments, and a large dining room was on the first floor.

But then surreptitious changes were made.  Grimmer got away with it only for about a year.  An investigator discovered the violations early in 1904 and the Tenement House Department issued an order that the Dunsbro "be vacated by its tenants and altered so that it will comply with the law."

The violation noted that "although it had been erected as a hotel, it was to all intents and purposes an apartment house."  The document pointed out that residents were "doing their own cooking on the premises, and it was asserted further what appeared on the plans as the hotel dining room was being used as a physician's office."

Grimmer was able to stave off the order, and a series of hearings and appeals lasted until February 1912.  The landmark case redefined "hotel," "apartment house," and "tenement" in legal city jargon, and the Dunsbro was now officially designated as an apartment house.  The Times explained "an apartment house being at least eight stories in height, having separate kitchen and bathtub, and a scale of rents from $1,500 a year up."

In the meantime, well-to-do tenants like accountant Duncan Lewis came and went.  The 40-year bachelor, described as "an athletic man," shared an apartment with his sister.

Despite the upscale tenor of the block--or perhaps because of it--residents had to be wary of thieves and ruffians.  After Lewis attended a bachelor dinner on the night of January 11, 1908 he made it as far as the steps of the Dunsbro when he was attacked.  The New York Times reported "Detectives who hurried to the Dunsbro apartments...found the man slowly recovering from a brutal beating, which, according to his physician, would have killed a man of lighter physique."   The article said Lewis "had been attacked and beaten by seven footpads who had left him for death on the sidewalk."

Lewis told police:

I was right on the steps of this house when the men attacked me.  I had been to a stag, and it was about 8:30 o'clock.  The seven men knocked me down and then jumped on me, and kicked and beat me mercilessly.  I fought until I lost my senses.  Then, they must have gone through my clothes, for my watch and chain and $110 that I had in my pockets are missing.

The stolen cash would be equivalent to more than $3,000 today.

Otto Grimmer was for years the president of the National Painters and Decorators Association of New York City.  It was most likely that connection that resulted in Edward H. and Gladys G. Aschermann moving into the Dunsbro.  The couple were pioneers in modern interior design.  They not only chose their clients' draperies, paint and other elements, but custom designed the furnishings.  Their rooms exemplified the taste and appointments of the Dunsbro apartments.

This corner of the Aschermann's apartment exemplified Arts & Crafts interior styling.  Modern Art Collector, September 1915 (copyright expired)
Delightful stenciling, custom furniture and tapestry in the Aschermann's "music and sitting room."  from The Practical Book of Furnishing the Small House and Apartment, by Edward Stratton Holloway, 1922



Other Dunsbro residents included Mrs. Franklin C. Randall whose deceased husband had been affiliated with several railroads.   She was active in charity, being the "chairman of ushers" for the afternoon of opera given to benefit the Little Mothers' Aid Association in March 1912, for instance.

Nevertheless, her busy travel schedule seems to have left her little time in New York.  On March 9, 1913 The Times noted "Mrs. Franklin C. Randall has closed her home, 120 East Thirty-first Street, and gone to Palm Beach."  Three months later, on June 22, the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. Franklin C. Randall, of No. 120 East 31st street, is at Short Beach, Conn., for the summer."

Early in 1916 David Bradley Buffum took an apartment.  The Buffum family traced its American roots to colonial days and was well-known among New York and Princeton, New Jersey society.  Buffum had graduated from Harvard in 1914 and his renting in the Dunsbro had everything to do with his upcoming marriage to Marjorie S. North.

On March 5 The New York Times reported on the fashionable wedding the day before in the Church of the Holy Trinity on East 86th Street, "the Rhinelander memorial church."  The article noted "Mr. and Mrs. Buffum have gone South on a honeymoon trip, and on their return late in April will live at 120 East Thirty-first Street."

Later that year Buffum continued his studies at Columbia University and later at Cornell.  He enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps at the outbreak of war, and saw action throughout the conflict.

One resident of note was Mary Elizabeth Sherman, daughter of General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Born in 1852 and known to her friends as Lizzie, she never married.   She died on April 6, 1925 at the age of 73.

By now the Grimmer daughters were growing up.  They received private educations and were visible in Manhattan and Ocean Grove society.  The first to leave home was Ruth, who married Donald Smith in the First Baptist Church in Ocean Grove on April 8, 1926.

The Dunsbro was the scene of a disturbing accident on January 8, 1933.  Fifty-eight year old Andrew J. Hall described himself as "an investment salesman," known today as a financial adviser or broker.  He was cleaning his pistol that evening when it discharged, sending a bullet into his stomach.   He was taken to Bellevue Hospital where, despite his "very serious" condition, "he was placed in the prison ward, under arrest on a charge of illegal possession of firearms," according to The Times.

Margaret Grimmer died on April 25, 1934.  Otto and the girls remained in the Dunsbro, but despite outward appearances, his finances were not the best.

In May 1902, while the building was under construction, he took out a $14,000 mortgage with Nellie Rogers Mills.  Throughout the decades he had paid her six percent interest, due twice a year.  She never pressed him for the principal (although the original agreement made it payable on May 27, 1904).   Trouble had began in 1931 following Nellie's death.  Her executor was not so understanding.

On December 2, 1936 The New York Times reported on 19 parcels being auctioned in foreclosure sales.  "Among the Manhattan items were...the eight-story Dunsbro Building as 120-122 East Thirty-first Street."

Despite losing the property, Grimmer retained his apartment--at least for now--and his outward social status.  Two months later, on February 21, 1937, The New York Times reported "The Misses Ethel and Margaret Grimmer, daughter of Otto Grimmer...entertained with a tea dance yesterday in the Trianon Room of the Ambassador Hotel.  In the party were classmates of Miss Ethel Grimmer at Wellesley College, and those of Miss Margaret Grimmer from the Gardener School."

That same room would be the scene of another Grimmer entertainment that fall.  Otto hosted a luncheon there on October 2, during which he announced Ethel's engagement to Robert Freeman Spindell.  The wedding, which took place in the First Baptist Church on Broadway at 79th Street on December 1, was covered in the society pages.

Shortly afterward Otto Grimmer moved from his beloved Dunsbro to Bronxville, New York.  In 1940 the new owners converted the expansive flats to 13 single-room-occupancy apartments per floor.  The conversion was indicative of the change in the once-fashionable neighborhood to one of stores and offices.

By 1954 the building became the Lexington Residence Club; which provided members sleeping rooms.  One resident, 54-year old George Dodger, was employed by an insurance firm; but according to other club members he had grown despondent that summer.  On Saturday, August 21 a maid entered his room to find his body slumped over the stove.   He had turned on the gas jets as a means to take his life.

One club member came up with an interesting scheme to sail the world in June 1962.  The headline of an advertisement in Motor Boating magazine read "Share Costs 1-2 Year Round World Cruise."  The ad read "Experience yachting couple wishes to team up with congenial man & wife in buying a steel auxiliary Schooner, Ketch or Yawl up to 60'.  Purpose: round the world cruise making documentary 16 mm sound film."  Those interested were directed to write "Captain Charles J. Golak, Lexington Residence Club."


Around 2007 The Lexington Residence Club became Hotel 31.  Above the canvas awning, carved into the stone entablature, the word DUNSBRO can still be seen--a reminder that the building once housed well-to-do families with impressive pedigrees and country homes.

photographs by the author

2 comments:

  1. What is the difference between a tenement and an apartment?

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    1. There is no technical difference today--a tenement is any multi-family building (although the term carries shoddy connotations). When the Grimmer case was settled a tenement was any multi-family building that did not fall into the apartment definition as defined above.

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