Friday, August 31, 2018

The 1831 Isaac Amerman House - 398 West Street




In 1830 flour merchant Isaac Amerman began construction of a house and store at No. 293 West Street, between Amos (later renamed West 10th) and Charles Streets.  Completed the following year, the Federal style structure was faced in Flemish bond brick.  Its ample 22-foot width and two-and-a-half stories above the store would provide Amerman and his wife, Jane Maria, comfortable living quarters.

Despite the pretentious proportions of the structure, it sat within a sketchy neighborhood even in 1831.  Amerman almost assuredly chose the location in anticipation of selling bags of flour to the ships that moored across West Street.  Other merchants, like ship chandlers and crockery shops, began lining the street at the same time.  But as the Greenwich Village docks soon multiplied, West Street would become often dangerous, especially after nightfall, when rough-edged sailors roamed among the riverfront saloons.

A section of a map published in 1832 shows that the only docks in Greenwich Village at the time were directly across from Amerman's house and shop.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.
It seems Amerman borrowed the money for his venture from a relative; for only a year into his business Peter Amerman along with cabinetmaker John Vanboskerck foreclosed.  In 1832 they sold the building to William and Gerardus Post.

There is little doubt that the Post brothers purchased the building merely as an investment.  They were partners in the large paint establishment founded by their father, William, in 1754.  Upon his death in 1800 the firm name had become William & Gerardus Post.  By now they were among New York's wealthiest businessmen.

The brothers retained possession for eight years, selling the property in 1840 to merchant James Dean.  Like the Posts, he and his wife, Elizabeth, would not live in the building.  Having amassed a fortune through his linen business that included a London branch, the same year that he bought the West Street building he began construction of four other structures nearby on Hudson Street.  Dean died in 1847, but Elizabeth retained possession of all the Greenwich Village real estate.

Two years before Dean's death West Street had been renumbered, giving No. 293 the new address of No. 398.  The tenants in the upstairs rooms were, expectedly, blue collar.  In 1851 two carpenters, Robert Tai and John Aikin, and shoemaker Michael Fanning had rooms here.

In 1853 the Scott family lived in the building.  The couple's lives were no doubt already difficult when tragedy struck.  On Saturday evening June 4, at around 6:00, their son, William, stepped into the path of an Eighth Avenue street car at the corner of Charles and Hudson Streets.  The New York Herald said that one of his legs was "dreadfully mangled."  He was carried into the drugstore of Dr. Muller at the corner of West 11th Street (then still named Hammond Street) and Greenwich Street, and then transported to the City Hospital.  The New York Herald reported "Notwithstanding this care, however, bestowed upon him, he died in the course of the same night."

At the time the storefront was leased to J. H. & W. W. Rimmey, which included in its business the booking of river vessels.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on June 17, 1856 read: "The charter for excursions--the large and commodious double decked barge Superior, of Cedar Hill, in complete order  Can be seen at the foot of Amos street.  For terms apply on board, of Captain Geer, or at the office of J. H. & W. W. Rimmey, 398 West street."

A possible disaster had been averted a month earlier when a fire broke out in one of the upper rooms on May 17, 1856.  The cause was listed as "children with matches."

After George Roahr leased the store space in 1865, its personality would be drastically changed for decades.  Known familiarly as "Buck," he was only 27 years old at the time; but had already made a name for himself in boating circles.  A partner in Roahr & McGrady, he not only designed and built sports boats, but was highly involved in racing them.  On October 1, 1865, the same year he leased the West Street store, for instance, The New York Herald reported on the races held the day before.  It listed Roahr among the crew of The Atlanta, a "six oar, lapstreak outrigger, built by George Roahr."   He was made the "stroke oar" of the Atlanta Club 1857 and would retain that position for more than a decade.

Roahr converted the former flour store, then office, into a saloon.  He escaped bad press in 1867 when, on Sunday June 30, officials raided the saloon.  It was not Roahr's name which was printed in the newspapers, but that of Joseph B. Boyce, most likely his barkeeper.  Boyce was held on $300 bail for selling liquor on Sunday.  (It was a significant amount, equal to more than $5,000 today.)

It was most likely Roahr who battled the City for a "cross-walk" to be laid from the docks directly to the front of No. 398 in 1868.  Cross-walks were essentially the same as the wooden "side-walks," except they were laid across a thoroughfare rather than beside it.  The boards would make crossing the dusty or muddy West Street easier, and would definitely be a boon to Roahr's saloon business.

The Board of Aldermen rejected his request.  But Roahr was determined.  He took his case to the Court of Appeals, which set aside the Board's decision.  On July 30, 1868 The New York Times reported that the Board of Councilmen had conceded and that the mayor had approved the crosswalk on June 19.

George Roahr was still a bachelor at the time and, despite his successful business and sterling reputation, he listed his address above the saloon until 1870.  That year the business was leased to J. A. Wilson.  The saloon went through a number of proprietors in rather quick succession.  In 1875 James Conchin took it over, and then sold the business to J. Smith the following year.  Smith paid the equivalent of $21,000 today.  Two years later Patrick Shanahan ran the saloon, installing a new store front in April 1878.

Ellizabeth Dean died in 1891, however her estate continued to own and manage No. 398 and the Hudson Street properties.

In 1903 the saloon got its most colorful proprietor yet, Russian-born Herman Klatzko.  Described by The New York Times as being "of distinguished bearing," Klatzko also owned a restaurant on the Lower East Side, where most of his countrymen lived.  He preferred be present himself in a grander, more flattering light than a saloon or restaurant keeper, however.

In October 1903, the same year he took over the West Street saloon, his wife, Minnie, sued him for "money advanced on December 8, 1902."  The action was the first hint of problems.  Herman and Minnie were essentially newlyweds; having married on June 25, 1901.  Less than a year after the first lawsuit, on May 24, 1904, she had him arrested--this time for a more shocking allegation.

The Sun reported that he was being held in the Tombs, charged "with having unlawfully married his niece, Minnie Klatzko."  When reporters interviewed him in his cell, he informed them that he was a riding master and "says he once taught an Austrian prince."  The newspaper said that at the time of the marriage Minnie was 19 years old "and had been in this country only a month."  Herman counter-sued and both were held on $1,000 bonds for trial.

It may have been that ugly affair that prompted Klatzko to give up the saloon business that year.  But his name would be in the newspapers again before long, for even more nefarious reasons.

Although he still ran his Grand Street restaurant, by 1909 he was identifying himself as a Russian count.  His eye had been caught by the popular and lovely Lizzie Shapiro, described by the New-York Tribune as "an actress, well known in Jewish circles."  Although Klatzko lavished his attentions on her, Lizzie's heart belonged to Max Goldberg, a dresser at the People's Theatre.

On December 15, 1909 the New-York Tribune ran the headline "AN ACTRESS SHOT / Victim, Apparently, of Jealousy, with Her Companion."  The article explained that Lizzie Shapiro and Max Goldberg had been standing at the doorway of her apartment building on Forsyth Street when they "were shot and probably fatally wounded."  It added "Herman Klatzko, known as 'Count' Klatzko...was locked up in the Eldridge street station, charged with the shooting."

Police talked to Sigmund Schwartz, a neighbor.  The New-York Tribune repeated what they learned in florid prose.  "Klatzko carried out his plan of revenge with all the diabolic nonchalance of the villain of a thrilling melodrama.  He is forty-eight years old, and has been in love with Lizzie Shapiro, who is twenty-four years old...for a long time."  Schwartz told police he noticed Klatzko loitering around the block the afternoon of the day before and "that for hours he never took his eyes from the entrance to the building where Miss Shapiro lives."

Schwartz was awake at 3:00 on the morning of December 14 and saw Lizzie and Goldberg arrive at her door, where they paused to talk.  He heard six shots and saw them both sink to the pavement.  He rushed out just in time to see Klatzko light a cigarette and walk calmly away.  Both victims, before their deaths, identified Klatzko as their assailant.  When he was arrested and searched, a photograph of Lizzle Shapiro was in his pocket.

The shocking details of the trial were covered by newspapers as far away as Utah.  Readers were, perhaps, shocked when the trial was briefly stopped on May 23, 1910 when the judge, the Assistant District Attorney, and Klatzko's lawyer stepped out for a private two-hour discussion.  Klatzko offered to plead guilty to manslaughter in hopes of getting a lesser sentence.  The D.A. refused to accept a a plea to any crime less than murder in the second degree.  The trial resumed.

The evidence against Klatzko was overwhelming.  One witness, actor Boris Thomashefky, said Klatzko told him after the shooting "It had to be done.  Don't ask me any questions."

The trial finally came to an end on May 24, 1910 when Klatzko pleaded guilty on both counts.  Newspapers like the New-York Tribune were no longer referring to him as a count, but as a "saloon-keeper."  He was sentenced to between 19 and 29 years in prison, which the New-York Tribune said "is almost equivalent to life imprisonment, for Klatzko is now fifty-five years old."

In the meantime, Charles J. McQuade took over the lease of No. 398, including the saloon, in May 1907 at an annual rent of $1,900--about $51,000 today.  He and his brother, William, ran the saloon for years.

A horse drawn dray sits outside the white-painted No 398 in 1927.  Although difficult to read in this photograph, a large sign "RESTAURANT" hangs above the storefront.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Prohibition caused the McQuades to change the saloon to a "restaurant."  But while the name changed, the patrons and the operation remained essentially the same.  Then, on January 8, 1923, William McQuade was arrested after a raid by Prohibition agents.  He was held on $1,000 and arraigned before Prohibition Commissioner Horace G. Hitchcock.

The McQuades left No. 398 in 1925.  During the Depression years Raymond Thompson leased the shop, beginning in 1935.  His West Shore Grill was well known to dock workers for more than a decade.

When the estate of Elizbeth Dean sold the building, along with the Hudson Street properties, in June 1956, The New York Times remarked "The transfer was the first since 1840."

The riverfront neighborhood was slow to share in Greenwich Village's emergence as a Manhattan's cultural and bohemian epicentery.  Except for a stint as the home of Alexander Zeitlin's truck covers business for 1955 through 1965, the former saloon space continued to see coffee shops, delicatessens and food shops come and go throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

The building was still painted in 2006.  photo via the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report
Upstairs, however, things were slightly different.  Erik Wensberg lived here in the 1960's and as late as 1970.  A reviewer for The New York Times, he was also editor of the Columbia Alumni News / Columbia University Forum.  Simultaneously, Cuban-born playwright Rene A. Buch lived in the building.  He founded the Greenwich Mews Spanish Theater in 1968 and was its artistic director.  (It was renamed Repertorio Espanol.)  He would go on to receive an Obie Award for "sustained excellence in direction" and a Drama Desk Award in 1996 for "sustained excellence."

Despite the alterations throughout its nearly 190-year history, No. 398 West Street retains much of its domestic Federal period appearance.

photograph by the author

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Thomas Blagden House - 113 East 64th Street




William P. and Ambrose M. Parsons were a total package in real estate operations in the late 1870's and early 1880's.  Their firm, W. P. & A. M. Parsons, acted as developer, builder and architect.  In 1881 the brothers began construction of a row of six speculative brownstone houses on East 64th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.  Completed the following year, they comprise one of the firm's last projects.  In December 1883 W. P. & A. M. Parsons declared bankruptcy, with outstanding debts of half a million dollars.

However before the 64th Street row was completed, on December 19, 1881, the partners had sold No. 113 to Henry B. B. Stapler and his wife, Helen.  The couple paid $33,000 for the four-story brownstone, in the neighborhood of $816,000 today.

Born in Alabama on February 24, 1852, Stapler was a Yale educated lawyer.  He would become District Attorney in 1891.  The family, whose country home was in Pelham Manor, New York, did not remain in the house for long.  It was sold to Charles W. Schumann in October 1884 and the $29,000 sale price reflected a significant loss.

This was possibly due to the fact that No. 113 sat, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks.  The trains that ran down the center of Park Avenue separated the fashionable from the acceptable.  The blocks east of Park Avenue would not become truly modish until the tracks were submerged and covered over around the turn of the century.

Schumann owned a jewelry store far downtown at No. 24 John Street.  He was duped by a clever 20-year old on August 1, 1888.  George J. Levy browsed the showcases of gold watches and took a fancy to one priced at $125.  The pricey trinket would be worth more than $3,000 today.  He mentioned to Schumann that he was the son of J. H. Meeker, whose name was familiar in New York as a wealthy banker.

Levy, aka Meeker, said he would "see his father about the watch."  Before long he came running back into the store, "without coat or hat," according to The Evening World, "and said his father wanted him to buy the watch."  He presented a check for the full amount.  The newspaper said "He got the watch and the check was discovered to be worthless."

Schumann was not the only merchant the young man fooled that day.  He gave a phony check to Mather & Wentworth for a $120 diamond ring; and cashed another for $298 at a bank.  He was caught and arrested later in the day.

The Schumanns stayed on in the 20-foot wide brownstone until March of 1890, when it was sold to Emma C. Freud for $28,500; another loss.  Something seems to have been going on along the block, for six other houses were sold the same day.

Real estate operator Thomas Blagden and his second wife, the former Sarah Sampson, purchased the house in 1902.  The couple had four children, Miriam, Thomas, Donald and Edward.  They maintained a second house in Washington D. C. where Thomas Blagden conducted much business.

"Camping"--a term vastly different in meaning than today--was becoming popular with millionaires at the time.  Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains had caught the attention of wealthy New Yorkers for its pristine views and ample hunting and fishing.  On June 10, 1906 the New-York Tribune noted "Upper Saranac is one of the most beautiful spots to be found in the mountains, and on its shores are some of the finest camps which the Adirondacks can boast.   Levi P. Morton has a fine camp on Eagle Island.  Isaac N. Seligman and Adolph Lewisohn both have fine camps on this lake.  Others are owned or occupied by John D. Rockfeller, jr., Percy Rivington Pyne, Robert Dun Douglas, D. L. Emmett Holt, S. P. Ferris, E. P. and S. A. Swenson and other well known New Yorkers."

The article continued "At the head of this lake is the deer preserve of Thomas Blagden, who occupies the cottage near by which was used by ex-President Cleveland during the time he spent in the Adirondacks several years ago."

The Blagden Cottage at Upper Saranac.  original source unknown
The Blagden family was active in Saranac society.  Sarah sat on committees that organized benefits and functions.  On September 13, 1908, the same year that Edward graduated from Yale, the New-York Tribune reported on a fair given at the Casino by his brother, Donald, "for the benefit of the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium."  The article mentioned "An unusual feature of the fair was the sale of a fawn for the deer preserve of the young man's father for $50."  In a separate article on the same page it was reported that "Thomas Blagden, jr., won the last of the sailing races of the season under the auspices of the Upper Saranac Lake Yacht Club."

Miriam's social focus seems to have been mainly in Manhattan.  In January 1914, for instance, she joined wealthy socialites like Mrs. Jonathan Bulkley and Mrs. Lucien H. Tyng in hosting a series of operatic talks in their homes for the benefit of the East Side House's music school.

Thomas, Jr. engagement to Ethel Noyes was announced in June 1914, followed by Edward's to Alice Ely the following year. 

Thomas had met Ethel in Washington where The Sun said she "was one of Washington's undisputed belles."  The newspaper noted that the Blagden home "out on Spring road was one of Washington's show suburban homes, particularly on account of the deer which were to be seen grazing in the grounds, sometimes crowding down at the great gate and demanding a little friendly attention from the passers by and sometimes scampering off in pretty panic at some overstrenuous motor horn."

Because Thomas Jr. worked for a steel company, he was exempt from military service.  During the war he and Ethel moved in with her parents in Washington, The Sun calling her one "of the lucky war-time brides."

Miriam, on the other hand, was more hands-on during the conflict.  Popularly called "Blaggie" by her friends, she traveled to Europe to work with Anne Morgan and her American Committee for Devastated France.  In a letter to her mother dated April 6, 1919 Anne reported on the work of rebuilding the devastated country.  She mentioned in part "yet this month or rather next we are losing some of our very best old workers...Blaggie may have to leave in June."

Sarah and Miriam, still unmarried, remained on in the 64th Street house following Thomas's death.  While her aging mother essentially dropped off the social radar, Miriam remained active.  She opened the house for a tea hosted by Edward's daughter, Sarita, on October 27, 1937 for the junior committee for the New York debut of pianist William Fleming,

A year later the colorful Miriam, who ran her own real estate firm on Madison Avenue, appeared in newspapers for much more exciting reasons.  She boarded a monoplane at Floyd Bennett Field on November 8, 1938 with a friend, amateur pilot Cornelius E. Mitchell, at the controls.  The pair intended to fly to Mineola, Long Island, but rain and low clouds "cut the visibility to nil," according to The New York Times.  Mitchell was forced to land the airplane on a sand lot baseball field near Jamaica Bay.  The newspaper said "A few motorists passing on the boulevard paid no attention to the plane."

Sarah Sampson Blagden died in the house on Saturday, October 21, 1939 at the age of 91.  Rather shockingly, Miriam announced her engagement to George A. Crocker of Oyster Bay, Long Island just 11 days later.  The wedding took place in the parlor of No. 113 on November 9.

Miriam wasted little time in selling the house which had been the family home for nearly four decades.   The following year 13 furnished rooms were being rented in the house.   Unexpectedly, owner Theodore A. Cieslewicz did a remarkable renovation in 1948, removing the stoop and replacing the facade with dignified stone facade and porticoed entranced.



Despite the tasteful remake, it continued life as a rooming house until 1981 when it was converted to one apartment on each floor but the third, which contained two.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Max Ams Building - 399 Washington Street



Born in Baden, Germany in 1844, Max Ams came to New York in 1866.  Two years later he organized a fruit canning and packing firm, the Max Ams Preserving Company.  By the early 1880's he was highly successful and operated what J. P. Zavalla in his 1916 The Canning of Fruits and Vegetables called "a very large export business of American food products."

On January 4, 1882 he purchased the 25 by 80 foot property at No. 399 Washington Street for $7,800.  Six years later he erected a five-story structure on the site, designed by William Graul.  Although a few early documents described the finished building as a stable, the loading platform which raised the first floor above street level, creating a loading dock, proves it was always  a loft and store building.

The cast iron base was simple yet attractive.  Rosettes covered the bolt heads along the otherwise unadorned exposed lintel.  Graul's neo-Grec design for the red brick upper stories included bricks standing on end to suggest capitals to the piers and rough-cut granite lintels and bandcourses.  The complex corbel table and cornice were executed entirely in brick.

It appears that Ams erected the building originally as an investment--one that did not work out.  On January 4, 1890 he bought back the "five-story brick factory" building in foreclosure for $21,000 (nearly $585,000 today).  It is unclear exactly what Ams used the Washington Street building for; although it was most likely for warehousing and shipping.  His operation was spread among several buildings in the neighborhood by now, including his Greenwich Street headquarters and two five-story buildings on North Moore Street.

Among the products most likely warehoused in the Washington Street building were crates of jam and canned vegetables.  Ams' son, Charles, was a chemist and in 1888 had taken up the problem of hermetically sealing cans.  Up to now cans were hand-sealed with solder.  J. P. Zavalla wrote "There were almost as many leaky cans as there were perfect ones and the loss through these was enormous."

Charles perfected the metal can still used today, which he called "the sanitary can."  He and his father established another company, the Max Ams Machine Company, to manufacture the cans as well as the canning equipment.

The same year that Charles started work on the sealing problem, his father helped form the American Fruit Preserving Association with six other jam makers.  Within the decade it controlled 80 percent of the business and had earned the nickname "The Jam Trust."  It was brought down by a young boy.

On March 3, 1892 four complainants, including one very youthful investor, filed a petition saying they had bought stock "without compete knowledge of the nature of the concern."  That prompted an investigation.  The following year, on June 15, The Evening World reported "The small boy has won a great victory.  A Chicago Judge on Tuesday decided that the American Fruit Preserving Association, commonly known as the 'Jam Trust,' is as unconstitutional as some of its preserves."

By the turn of the century Max Ams had a vast personal fortune and lived in an upscale home in Westchester County.  His broad-flung interests included the presidency of the Mauser Manufacturing Company (a silver company headquarters in Mount Vernon near his home), the Max Ams Beef and Fish Company, and directorships in the American Encaustic Tiling Company and the Riverside Bank.

With failing health Ams retired in 1907.  The New-York Tribune explained "his physicians [had] told him that he could not recover."  Charles took over control of the Max Ams Machine Company and the Max Ams Preserving Company.  A year later, on September 5, 1908, Max Ams died.

Charles' aggressive business sense prompted him to purchase the entire town of Turnerville, Connecticut in October 1912.  The Sun reported it had been bought "outright by Max Ams, who makes jams at Mount Vernon, N.Y.  Turnerville is not much of a place except that included within its boundaries are about 2,000 acres of land."  Charles, according to the article, had not announced his plans, "but it has been stated that he may remove his manufacturing establishment there."

And so he did.  He changed the town's name to Amston and erected two factories, a large house and 50 tenements for the factory workers.

An advertisement hints at the broad variety of goods stored and shipped from the Washington Street warehouse.  The New-York Tribune, May 25, 1913 (copyright expired)
With the operations having moved upstate, the Ams properties in Manhattan were sold off beginning in 1916.  Manufacturing jewelers Arnold & Co. took over No. 399 Washington Street in 1919.  In March 1933 the building would get a long-term tenant, Steinhardt & Kelly; one with an amazing background.

Joseph H. Steinhardt was born in 1854 in Tauberbischopsheim, Germany where his parents ran a small shoe and leather store.  The New York Times reported decades later, "Wonderful tales reached the family of the fortunes to be gathered in the United States, and at 13 the boy crossed the ocean to obtain his share."

The teen, however, was obstinate and strong-willed.  That resulted in his being kicked out of the house of the relative where he was living.  With no money and little command of English he worked briefly as a newsboy, then was hired by a newspaper editor as a night time messenger on the condition that he would go to school during the day.  He didn't.

Eventually a truckman asked him to roll barrels of apples on the fruit pier.  When he was finished Joseph was given a bag of apples as payment.  He ate five during the day while he went door-to-door selling the others, netting 50 cents.  He suddenly realized how he could make money.

Before too long he advanced to bananas and by the time he was a young man had saved enough to buy a pushcart.  But he encroached upon the territory of a young Irish vendor and daily the two battled.  The Times said "Day after day the German and the Irishman abused each other until the former suddenly suggested: 'Let's cut this out and be partners.'  Thus was created the firm of Steinway & Kelly."

The newspaper said "The partners started their joint business with a horse and wagon, developed a house-to-house trade with families, added hotels, and finally a step of great important--gained entraince to the business of supplying ships.  The firm was among the chief operators in opening up the farm regions of the West and Northwest.  In 1924 Steinhardt told an interviewer "Each year, to some two hundred-odd new fruit growers I advance $4,000,000 and pay the railroads $2,500,000 in freight charges and the telegraph companies $60,000 in tolls."

A colorful Steinhardt & Kelly fruit crate label. from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution
Kelly died in the early 1920's, followed by Steinhardt's death on December 10, 1926.  Steinhardt & Kelly, Inc. was doing more than $15 million in business a year at the time.  Steinhardt's step-son, Norman D. Frank received controlling interest in the firm.



The company operated from No. 399 Washington Street through the 1970's.  In 1988 it was converted to apartments, one per floor above the commercial first floor.  While the cast iron piers and lintel of the old storefront survive, the industrial in-fill is regrettable.  Despite the mismatched brick repairs, the early 20th century fire escape and 120 years of grime (making the granite lintels appear black), William Graul's interesting neo-Grec design survives nicely.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Richard Pacheco for requesting this post

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Fanny Brice House - 306 West 76th Street


The entrance, relocated when the house was converted to apartments, was originally centered.
Alonzo B. Kight acted both as developer and architect in the 1890's.  By the turn of the century he would be president of the Barnard Realty Co., but in 1896 when he started construction on two upscale homes on West 76th Street, he worked alone.

His plans, filed on April 10, 1896, projected two four-story limestone-faced houses, each an imposing 25 feet wide.   The upscale amenities included "hot air heating, parquet flooring, hardwood trim, tiled bathrooms and exposed plumbing."  Each were expected to cost $50,000 to construct--more than $1.5 million today.

Kight changed his mind at some point, making the two homes even grander.  When completed in 1897 they both rose five stories.   No. 306 featured a full-width, three-story angled bay which increased both ventilation and light inside.  A prominent, bracketed cornice above the first floor provided corner balconies behind solid stone railings.   Above the third floor a stone balustrade protected the ample terrace created by the projecting bay.

The new home was purchased by Gilbert Colgate in November 1897 for "about $70,000," according to the Real Estate Record & Guide.  (Kight raked in a substantial profit of about $610,000 in today's dollars in the deal.)

Born on December 15, 1858, Colgate was a major player in American business and manufacturing.  A year before buying No. 306 he had been made a partner in Colgate & Company, founded by his grandfather, William Colgate, in 1806.  Gilbert's brothers, Richard, Sidney and Austin, were also partners.

Originally a starch, soap and candle manufacturer, by now Colgate & Company made perfumes, essences and perfumed soap.  In 1873 it had added toothpaste, sold in a jar, to its product line.

Gilbert's wife was the former Florence Buckingham Hall.  When they moved in they had three children, eight-year-old Elizabeth, four-year-old Florence, and baby Grace, at one.  The family would grow in 1899 with the birth of Gilbert and in 1902 with the arrival of Robert.

The drawing room of No. 306 was the scene of the wedding of Florence's sister, Mabel Scott Hall, to Chicagoan Sherwood Johnston Larned on October 25, 1899.  The New York Journal reported "Three little ribbon maids also were in attendance upon the bride, forming an aisle with white ribbon, through which she passed.  They were her nieces, Elizabeth, Florence and Grace Colgate."

Grace and Mabel were flower girls in another family wedding in the house on May 23, 1902.  Florence's niece, Mary Hall Putnam married Ira Mallory Remsen, that afternoon.

Both Gilbert and Florence were involved in philanthropies and social issues.  They were members of The Indian Rights Association, for instance,

By the time the couple announced Elizabeth's engagement on April 22, 1911, Gilbert was vice-president of Colgate & Company.   Elizabeth had fallen in love with Stanley Maddox Raumbough who came from a military family.  Raumbough's grandfather was General David S. Stanley and his father was Colonel David  J. Rumbough.  The groom-to-be was a lieutenant in the 15th Cavalry and was currently service as a junior aid at the White House.

In May 1916 Colgate hired architect Harry N. Paradies to install an elevator in the house.  The alterations cost him about $7,000 in today's dollars, but the increase in convenience was no doubt invaluable.

The following year, in July, Florence's engagement was announced.  Like her sister, her fiancé was in the military, Major Edwin St. John Greble, Jr.  With war raging in Europe, there was no time for long engagements.   The wedding took place two days later, on July 28 in the Rutgers Presbyterian Church.

It was a military ceremony.  The groom was the son of Brigadier General Edwin St. John Grebel, and the ushers included two captains, two majors, and a lieutenant.  The New-York Tribune reported "Major Greble is a member of the 2d Field Artillery of Pennsylvania, and he and his bride will start this week for camp."

Gilbert Colgate rose to president of the firm in 1920; but the year was marked by sorrow when Florence died on February 24 at the age of 56.  The Colgate boys were away at school at the time.  Gilbert Jr. was a sophomore at Yale and Robert was away at the exclusive Phillips-Andover Academy.  Her funeral was held in the 76th Street house three days later.

Grace Hall Colgate was married on June 6, 1922, and she not only married a military man like her sisters, she married Major Joseph Wright Rumbough, the brother of Elizabeth's husband.  He was in charge of the field artillery instruction at Camp Benning, Georgia.  In reporting on the wedding The New York Herald said "there were present many relatives and friends of the bride, and also persons prominent in army circles."

Two months later Gilbert Colgate sold No. 306.  Newspapers and journals made note that he had owned the house for a quarter of a century, but were vague about the new owner.  It was not until October 21 that the Real Estate Record & Guide announced "Fanny Brice, the actress, is the buyer of the former Gilbert Colgate residence."

The popular entertainer's marriage was already troubled.  Her husband, Julius "Nicky" Arnstein, was a professional gambler and con artist, who had no fewer than six aliases.  The couple had two children, Frances and William.

In 1915, while he was still married to Carrie Arnstein, he was imprisoned in Sing Sing Prison and Fannie visited him every week.  After Carrie divorced him in 1918 they married.

Arnstein's past followed the family to West 76th Street.  According to biographer Herbert G. Goldman in his Fannie Brice: The Original Funny Girl, "Fannie's immediate plans for the townhouse were settled, not by her, but by Arnold Rothstein.  The famous gangster gambler insisted Fanny buy her furnishings from him.  He himself, what's more, would make all the selections."

Fannie had little choice in the matter.  Rothstein had supplied Arnstein's $100,000 bail money.  Although the amount had been repaid, Fannie recognized the new demand as "interest."  The furnishings came with a $50,000 invoice.  An appraiser placed the value at between $10,000 and $13,000.

A month after she purchased the house the Record & Guide reported that Fannie Brice Arnstein, had commissioned architect Samuel Cohen to make $15,000 in renovations.  While retaining the first three floors as the family's residence, she transformed the upper two floors into apartments for friends like actresses Valeska Suratt and May Weston.

Two years after moving in Arnstein was again imprisoned, convicted this time for conspiracy to carry stolen securities into Washington DC.  He was sentenced to three years in Leavenworth prison.

The often-zanny comedienne as she appeared in the 1924 Ziegfeld Follies while living in the 76th Street house.  from the collection of the New York Public Library 

Immediately upon his release Arnstein began seeing other women.  The humiliation became too much to bear for Brice.  On September 17, 1927 The New York Times reported that she had filed for divorce in Chicago, adding "Miss Brice's suit makes what is said to be the first instance of plastic surgery being held responsible for alienating the affections of a husband."

The article explained that since having work done on her nose in 1923, "Arnstein developed an inferiority complex, repeatedly informing her that [because] she was so much more beautiful he was uncomfortable in her presence; that he, thereupon began seeking the society of other women and told her that plainer women appealed to him more."

"At her home, 306 West Seventy-sixth Street," said The Times, "where her children are being cared for by a governess, the report was denied."  But, of course, it was all very true.

Journalists and photographers camped out at Grand Central Terminal that week, awaiting Fannie's arrival from Chicago.  The Times said "Miss Brice appeared tired and worn when she stepped from the Lake Shore Limited...Reluctantly she posed for the newspaper photographers."  She repeatedly pleaded, "I'm all in.  I want to get home and see the children."

But when her taxicab arrived at the 76th Street house, it was already a mob scene.  While the children waited inside, she answered a barrage of questions.  The New York Times recounted:

"Why go to Paris?" she said.  "I have a good lawyer in Chicago, and he got me a divorce in forty-eight hours."
When she was asked if she contemplated marriage a second time, she flashed back:
"Isn't that a silly thing to ask me?  How do I know?"
Then she made a comic grimace, although her eyes were filling with tears, and said:
"Haven't I had enough?"

Before the year was out Fanny Brice and her children had left West 76th Street.

Although the house continued to be home to moneyed residents, none would have recognizable names like Colgate and Brice.  By mid-century it had been converted to unofficial apartments and not all of the tenants were model citizens.

Jack Bernstein lived here in 1955.  The 48-year-old was arrested and held without bail on May 7 that year, facing life imprisonment after already having been convicted three times for felony burglary.  He had a record of 14 previous arrests.

The New York Times reported "When he was arrested last Friday, the police found $100,000 in stocks and bonds and $20,000 in furs, jewels and silverware in his car and his apartment at 306 West Seventy-sixth Street.  A fully loaded .38-caliber automatic and a set of lock picks were also found in the car."

In 2006 the house was converted to 14 apartments: three on the first floor, two on the second, three each on the third and fourth, and a duplex on the first and penthouse level (installed in 2000 and invisible from the street).

photographs by the author

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Lost U. S. Grant House - 3 East 66th Street


When this photo was taken, only No. 3 survived of the original row.  It had lost its rooftop balustrade by now.  original source unknown

In 1881 developer C. W. Luyster completed a row of seven "magnificent brown stone residences," as described by the Real Estate Record & Guide, on the north side of 66th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  Designed by James E. Ware, each was an ample 34-feet wide and rose four stories above an English basement.  The architect dipped into several styles to produce the row--wide Italianate stoops led to the entrance porticoes and delicately-carved neo-Classical panels decorated the space between the second and third floor openings.  The angular personalities of the homes drew from Renaissance Revival and neo-Grec.  Ware alternated the full-height commodious bays from left to right down the row, creating a rhythmic undulation.

Luyster placed a $120,000 price tag on each of the houses, nearly $3 million today.  The last to be sold was No. 3, the nearest to Fifth Avenue and Central Park.  On August 6, 1881 the Record & Guide reported "Ex-President U. S. Grant has clearly made up his mind to become a resident of New York.  Within the last few days he has purchased a residence in the finest quarter of the city.  It is situated [at] No. 3 East Sixty-sixth street."  In a separate article the journal noted "General Grant carefully examined the property before purchasing."

Luyster was generous to the former President and Civil War hero.  The Record & Guide noted "The price paid (90,000) was considered very low."  In fact, the mansion cost Grant nothing.  He paid for it from the $250,000 "which has been raised by the admirers of General Grant to make him comfortable during the rest of his life," explained the publication.

There would be no professional involved in the decorating.  D. Appleton & Co.'s Artistic Houses called it "spacious and well-appointed" and said it "is furnished in a style that speaks of comfort rather than of ostentation.  There has been no lavish outlay of money to produce mere effects."  In what seemed almost an apology for that, the writer said "General Grant seems to have said to himself...Many of my friends, to be sure, would put themselves in the midst of a much more costly and luxurious environment.  This is not my taste."

The Aesthetic Movement, with its importance on things Asian, was in full evidence in Julia Grant's decorating.  The book noted that the curtains in the parlor windows "are beautiful specimens of Japanese embroidery...and Mrs. Grant purchased in India the fine rug that adorns the floor."  An embroidered screen was a present from the citizens of Tokyo.  Two intricately carved teakwood cabinets, also from Japan, held the Grants' collection of porcelains collected during their travels through Asia.  Other gifts displayed in the parlor were a pair of carved elephant tusks from the Maharajah of Jehore and a silver cabinet in the form of a temple from the Maharajah of Decca.  Of that unique piece Artistic Houses said "Perhaps nothing like it has ever been displayed in a private house in this country."

The Grant parlor was filled with Asian artifacts.  To the left is a mother-of-pearl inlaid upright piano, the latest in fashion.  To the right can be seen Read's painting of Sheridan.  Artistic Houses, 1886 (copyright expired)
Two of the oil paintings in the parlor were of other Union generals.  Grant's favorite was Sheridan Twenty Miles Away, by Thomas Buchanan Read.  He liked it so much that he refused to give it to General Philip Sheridan, a good friend, when he asked for it.  The other was a full-length portrait of General Winfield Scott by George Fuller.  Also in the parlor was a family portrait by William Cogswell, painted around 1871 when the children were still young.  Also on the first floor were the drawing room and dining room.

The dining room was "simply and quite charmingly furnished in white-oak, with the general's monogram stamped on the backs of the chairs." 

Directly above the parlor was Grant's bedroom, connected to the library which overlooked 66th Street.  The library, of course, held Grant's substantial number of books, but valuable gifts presented to him over the years as well.  Of the large antique oak cabinet in the room Artistic Houses said "No piece of furniture in the United States of America contains a display of curiosities at once so flattering to the owner and so rich in historic interest."

There were more than a half-dozen gold-headed canes, one of which had been owned by the Marquis de Lafayette and had been presented by ladies of Baltimore.  There was also the handle of the cane Grant broke during the struggle "with a lunatic" in Washington.  Artistic Houses said "The general's use of that instrument as a weapon was exceedingly dexterous, and resulted in the speedy discomfiture of his assailant."

The City of London had given Grant a gold box decorated with a figure of Liberty, the United States coat-of-arms and the figure of Britannia.  One on side was the Capitol Building and on the other St. Jame's Palace.  A box from Dublin was fashioned from wood reputedly from a tree planted by Shakespeare; a silver casket was the gift of Edinburgh, and a silver repousse, gilded, was from the city of Glasgow.

There were also swords carried in battle during the Civil War and lavishly-decorated and jeweled presentation swords; and on one table stood a miniature gold reproduction of the table on which General Lee signed the articles of capitulation.

The library's fireplace, overmantel and bookcases were in the Eastlake style.  A dainty china spittoon sits next to the brass fender.  Artistic Houses, 1886 (copyright expired)
Having been a war hero and a United States President, Ulysses S. Grant now embarked on a new career.  He partnered with Ferdinand Ward to form the investment firm Grant & Ward.  In the meantime Julia slipped into the Manhattan social swirl.

On January 31, 1883 The New York Times reported that she had given "an afternoon tea" the day before.  While that may sound like an intimate gathering of half-a-dozen close women friends, there were, in fact, more than 30 guests.  Among those arriving at No. 3 East 66th Street that afternoon were Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and her daughter, Carrie; John Jacob Astor and his wife; Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt; Mrs. Paran Stevens; the William K. Vanderbilts; and Ward McAllister and his daughter.

But disaster was just around the corner.  Unknown to Grant, Ferdinand Ward was operating a pyramid scheme, earning him the modern sobriquet the "Bernie Madoff of the Gilded Age."  And as with all such cases, the house of cards came tumbling down.  On May 6, 1884 Grant left East 66th Street thinking himself a millionaire.  The New York Times remarked "When he arrived at his place of business in Wall Street, he found he was ruined.  As he entered the office he was met by his son, Ulysses Jr., who said: 'You had better go home, father, the bank has failed.'  A few minutes later the elder Grant got into his carriage and was driven home.  He never returned to Wall Street."

He and Julia counted their cash and discovered they had about $80.  The Grant sons, who also lived in the house, had already ordered a supply of cigars to last several months.  Those were immediately returned.  To make the situation worse, Grant had recently been diagnosed with throat cancer.

Newspapers were filled with the story of the firm's collapse and of the financial ruin of the former president.  Charles Wood, an upstate brush manufacturer read the accounts with concern.  And on May 10 sent a gift of $500 and a letter offering to loan him another $1,000.  Two days later Grant replied;

Dear Sir:  Your more than kind letter on Saturday, inclosing check for $500, and proposing to send the like amount on my note, payable in one year, without interest, is received.  The money at this time would be of exceeding use to me, having not enough to pay one months servant hire, or room, if I were to leave my house, and nothing coming in till the 1st of August.  I therefore accept the check just received, and this is my acknowledgment of a debt of one year from this date, on the terms of your letter.

The Grants' dire financial circumstances were again reflected in a letter to Wood after the $1,000 loan arrived.  Grant said in part:

You have conferred an obligation more than I can ever repay.  The money, of course, I do not doubt I can return.  But, being caught without $100 in my pocket, and nothing coming in until August, it became a serious question what to do.  You, in the generosity of your heart, have relieved that anxiety.

Julia owned property in Washington, including a house that sold for $6,500, giving them money to live on.  Samuel Clemens, a good friend, urged Grant to write his memoirs, which added to their income.

But the stress and humiliation of the situation took their toll on the proud statesman and military leader.  By the spring of 1885 Grant's doctor was practically living in the house and he routinely sent "bulletins" to the press on his patient's condition.  Crowds formed outside No. 3, staring up at the second floor in hopes of a glimpse of the president.

A feeble Grant was helped into his carriage outside the 66th Street house in one of his last public outings. Harper's Weekly April 11, 1885 (copyright expired) 
On March 19, 1885 The Sun reported "It is several days since Gen. Grant has been down stairs.  He is confined to his library and bedroom except when he walks for exercise in the hall."  The throat cancer was interfering with his ability to speak and swallow.

Crowds assembled below Grant's windows.  The other houses in the row can be seen in this view.  Harper's Weekly April 11, 1885 (copyright expired) 
On July 24, 1885 The Sun reported "With one last weary opening and closing of the eyes and a little gasp so faint that it was but a gentle sigh, Gen. Grant expired this morning as peacefully and painlessly as a tired child might fall asleep.  Death could hardly come to any man freer from terror than it came to him."

Twelve years later, on February 12, 1893, The New York Times mentioned "Mrs. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is an active lady of about seventy years.  At present Mrs. Grant is in California visiting her son, but the greater part of the Winter was spent in town at the house 3 East Sixty-sixth Street, which was presented to Gen. Grant."  In fact, she would not return to 66th Street.

Two weeks later The Record & Guide announced she had sold the house to her neighbor, Henry O. Havemeyer, for $130,000 (about $3.65 million today).

The Henry O. Havemeyer house sat at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 66th Street.  The Grant house was directly behind. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Havemeyer's interest in the house was most likely merely to ensure his new neighbors would be acceptable to him.  He quickly sold it to Phillips Phoenix and his wife, Eleanor.  Phoenix owned much real estate, including their country home in Tuxedo, New York.  In 1879 he had erected the Madison Square Theatre on West 24th Street.  His 31-foot ice yacht "to be used this Winter on Tuxedo Lake," as reported in The Times, had caused much comment in December 1886.

Eleonor Phoenix died in the mansion on March 4, 1902.  Phillips remarried within the next few years.  Despite his somewhat flamboyant past, the middle-aged millionaire and his new wife, the former Lillie G. Lewis, lived rather quietly in the stately, if architecturally outdated home.

Phillips died at No. 3 on April 11, 1921.  He left approximately half of his $2.7 million estate to Lillie, including the house.  Her inheritance would be more in the neighborhood of $18 million today.  By the time of Lillie's death in the house on October 13, 1924 No. 3 was the last of the 1881 row left standing.

Four months after her death, in February 1925, the house was thrown open for a public auction of "paintings and sculpture, together with the French furniture and household embellishments" from Lillie's estate.  The several-day sale brought in $33,252.50, or nearly half a million today.

What followed was a dizzying change of ownership and repeated promises to build an apartment building on the site.  The house was sold in 1926 to "be demolished and replaced by a twelve-story apartment house," according to The Times on October 5.  Instead the house sat empty for two years, sold in foreclosure in June 1928.

In 1926 the stoop had been removed and a For Sale sign hangs across a parlor window.  from the collection of the New York Public Library 
It was purchased by former Ambassador James W. Gerard, who resold it in February 1929.  Then, on August 5, 1930 it was sold to builder Michael E. Paterno who promised he "would soon demolish the house and improve the site with an apartment house to accommodate five families."

That did not happen and the former Grant mansion sat neglected, now with its stoop removed, for another three years when Paterno lost it in foreclosure on January 20, 1933.  Four months later a "For Sale" sign hung on the facade.  On April 4, 1933 The New York Times write "The old home is in a condition strongly suggesting 'haunted.'"  Vandals had gained access through the rear windows and defaced the interiors of the historic home.

When the Trans-Boro Realty Corporation purchased it in August that year, saying it planned "to improve the site," New Yorkers may have been skeptical.  But a month later architects Boak & Paris filed plans for a nine-story apartment house to cost $100,000.  Before long the historic home was a mere memory.

Boak & Paris's Art Moderne building survives.


many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for requesting this post

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The J. Macy Willets House - 604 Park Avenue




There was little left of Park Avenue's 19th century appearance by the end of the first World War.  The train tracks that had run down its center had been lowered below ground and replaced by a planted boulevard.  Small stores and narrow houses had in many cases been replaced by upscale homes as the fashionable neighborhood of Fifth Avenue spread eastward.

On July 5, 1919 the Record & Guide reported that architect S. Edson Gage had been chosen by the newly-formed 604 Park Avenue Co. to "prepare plans for alterations" to the 27-foot wide building at that address.  The firm, composed of William A. White & Sons and W. Albert Pease, Jr., had grand visions for a proposed house, as evidenced in the $105,000 building loan it acquired the following month.  That figure would be nearly $1.5 million today.

The old structure was not altered, as suggested, but demolished.  Its replacement was completed the following spring--a handsome residence of stone and variegated brick.  Gage had turned to the currently-popular neo-Georgian style.   The structure was grounded, and its six-story height visually relieved, by a two-story limestone base.  The unpretentious, nearly unadorned ground floor drew attention to the second.   Here a balustraded stone balcony fronted a trio of arched windows.

The upper floors were clad in handmade clinkler bricks (so-called because of the sound they made when knocked together) laid in Flemish bond.   Their various colors, ranging from light red to black, were achieved through extreme temperatures in firing.  And their purposely rough faces and irregular shapes gave the appearance of age.  Contrasting with the rugged brick was the finely-dressed limestone trim.

The sixth floor sat back above the stone cornice, partially hidden behind a brick parapet with stone balustrades.  Servants who would occupy the uppermost rooms most likely much appreciated the commodious outdoor space during hot summer nights.

No. 604 Park Avenue was sold to Josiah Macy Willets in June 1920 for the equivalent of more than $3 million today.  In reporting on the sale, the Record & Guide made note of the elite location, saying "The property adjoins the home of Jonathan Bulkley at the northwest corner of 64th st and nearby are the residences of Thomas Howell and Gifford A. Cochran."

The Willets family had arrived on Long Island from England in 1638.  The location of their sprawling estate in when is now Queens retains the name Willets Point.   Josiah Macy Willets preferred to be known by his first initial and middle name.  In 1894, when he was five years old, his mother, the former Mary Kingsland Macy, died.   He was educated at the private Browning School in Manhattan before entering Yale.

His father, Howard, was the principal of the banking firm Willets & Co., founded by Howard's grandfather in 1813 and was a director of the Gotham National Bank.  In 1898 Howard purchased the 250-acre farm in White Plains, New York, which he named Gedney Farm in honor of the family who had owned it since 1740.  According to The New York Times the house had "100 rooms and a library alone worth $100,000" along with "antique furniture and costly fittings."

J. Macy Willets grew up there and in Manhattan.  His father maintained a famous herd of Jersey cattle and became more and more involved in thoroughbred horses and pedigree hunting dogs.  He became intimate friends with Hildreth Kennedy Bloodgood, whose family also dated to the 17th century in Queens, and who, too, was equally involved in dogs and horses.

The close relationship between Howard Willets and Hildreth Bloodgood, begun through their mutual interests in breeding animals, had an unexpected result.  In 1910 J. Macy married Bloodgood's daughter, Gladys Augusta Casey Bloodgood in the bride's Manhattan townhouse.

Howard Willets moved into the Park Avenue mansion with his son and daughter-in-law.  By now he had sold Gedney Farm and moved his prize cattle, horses and dogs to an estate in New Marlboro, Massachusetts, nearly abutting the 800-acre farm of the Bloodgood family.  (The Gedney Farm mansion had burned to the ground in 1909, the massive blaze consuming the irreplaceable furnishings, art and library.)   J. Macy and Gladys established their summer estate, Cassilis Farm, between the properties of their parents.

J. Macy Willetts around the time of his wedding. History of the Class of 1911, Yale College (copyright expired)
Howard's interests were, by now, principally focused on dogs, while J. Macy's were on horses.  Howard was the president of the American Kennel Club and the Master of the Foxhouds of the Westchester Hounds.  J. Macy and Gladys were highly visible in the horsey crowd, and the year they moved into No. 604 J. Macy was one of the founders of the exclusive National Saddle Horse Club.  The club announced as its purpose the "uniting and promoting saddle horse interest and all equestrian sports."   The couple's names routinely appeared in society column accounts of the fashionable American Horse Show.

But it was Howard's name in newspapers in 1923 that drew society's attention.   Five years earlier he had hired 24-year old Elise Dorothy Gunsel to work in the headquarters of the American Kennel Club.  A graduate of Columbia University, she was married to Frederick Gunsel.   The New York Times later remarked diplomatically that it was there "that she and Mr. Willets first became friends."

The 18th century English architecture carried on inside.  Delicate neoclassical details, reminiscent of Robert Adam, decorate the ceiling, the mantel and paneling.   Even the piano is stenciled with matching detailing.  At the north end of the room a massive painting of geese was incorporated into the room's architecture.  photographs by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In April 1922 Elise divorced her husband and took back her maiden name.  On May 25, 1923 The Times ran the headline "HOWARD WILLETS TAKES YOUNG BRIDE / Banker, 62, Married to Elise D. Young, 29."   The article said the ceremony took place in the chambers of Supreme Court Justic Michael L. Erlanger, and was witnessed by J. Macy.

A day earlier the newspaper had noted Willets' impressive club associations: the University, Grolier, Piping Rock, Metropolitan, South Side, Sportsman's and Racquet and Tennis Clubs, along with the St. Nicholas Society and the Society of Colonial Wars.  There was not a lot to say about Elise.

"Mr. Willets has of late made his home...at the Park Avenue address," said the article.  "Mr. Willets and his bride will live in New York after spending several months traveling."

J. Macy and Gladys had three children, twin sisters Julia Kennedy and Mary Gladys, and Josiah Macy, Jr.   A debutante dinner for the girls, who were educated in the private Brearley School, was held in the Pierre in December 1930.

When J. Macy, Jr.'s engagement to Elizabeth C. Bullock was announced in September 1931, The Times noted that he, along with his parents and Mary, "are attending the horse show at Rochester this week."  It added that Julia "is at Casilis [sic] Farm."  Both girls attended the bride in the Rochester, New York wedding on December 21.

The following November the Willets announced Julia's engagement to Robert Rowland Comly.  The plans were unhurried and the couple was not married until February 11, 1933 in the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street.

Mary's turn at romance came in 1934.  Her parents announced her engagement to Williamson Pell, Jr. on February 10.  After detailing an impressive and exhaustive list of both their pedigrees, The New York Times announced "Mr. and Mrs. Willets will give a dinner tonight at the St. Regis for their daughter and Mr. Pell."

Chippendale and Sheraton antiques furnish the drawing room.  Through the painted double doors the gracefully-winding staircase can be glimpsed.   photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Twins to a near-fault, Mary's ceremony in the Church of the Heavenly Rest "was a duplicate of that of the bride's twin sister," said The Times.  Even the floral decorations were closely copied.  Both girls wore the wedding gown their mother had been married in.  The antique lace veil had been worn by Mary Kingsland Macy at her wedding, by their mother, and now by both of the Willets girls.  A reception in the Park Avenue mansion followed the ceremony on June 23, 1934.

Now empty-nesters, J. Macy and Gladys traveled back and forth between Park Avenue and Massachusetts.  On November 22, 1936, for instance, a society column article noted "Mr. and Mrs. J. Macy Willets, who have been in New York for several weeks, are back at Cassilis Farm, New Marlsboro, and will remain for Thanksgiving.  They are to be at their apartment [sic], 604 Park Avenue, after Dec. 1."

By now J. Macy was a director of the National Horse Show Association, president of the American Hackney Horse Society, the American Spaniel Club and the New Marlboro Game Association.  He was a member of the Westminster Kennel Club, the Racquet and Tennis Club, the Essex Fox Hounds and, like his father, the St. Nicholas Society and Society of Colonial Wars.

Julia's marriage to Robert Rowland Comly ended in divorce in October 1938.  She was quietly remarried in her parents' house on January 28, 1939.  Her only attendant was Mary.  The groom's father, Paul Campbell, Sr., was best man.  It was, perhaps, the last event in the house for the Willets family.

J. Macy leased the house furnished to William A. Read, vice president of the Central Hanover Bank and Trust Company later that year.  (The real estate notice mentioned that it "contains a private elevator).

In the fall of 1940 Gladys's uncle, Dr. Samuel W. Lambert, was among the house guests at Cassilis Farm.  J. Macy Jr.'s birthday was on October 7 and his father left the house that afternoon to attend the birthday dinner in Stamford, Connecticut.  Gladys stayed back with her guests.

At around 7:30 that evening Willets entered Cassilis Farm residence and, without saying a word, went upstairs.  A few moments later a maid rushed to Gladys, saying that Willets had been hurt.  She hurried upstairs with Dr. Lambert to find J. Macy with a gunshot to the head.

Willets was conscious, and explained that he had pulled his car over about eight miles away and shot himself.  When he died not die immediately, as he suspected, he drove home.  Lambert began first aid while a second doctor from Great Barrington was summoned.

While Lambert continued to work on him, Willets was removed to Fairview Hospital eight miles away.  At around 1:00 in the morning Manhattan brain specialist Bryon Stookey arrived.  But the wound was too severe.  Williets died around 6:00 on the morning of October 8.  He was 51.

On the front seat of his car a 22-caliber rifle was found with one spent shell.  Also in the automobile was his briefcase, which held his will executed in 1923.  He had cut off his signature, suggesting he intended to revoke it and draw a new will.  In reporting his death, The New York Times mentioned "Mr. Willets had a stable of sixty horses.  In his souvenir room were hundreds of trophies and ribbons won at dog and horse shows."

Willets' mangling of the will caused severe financial problems for Gladys.  The estate was tied up in court, effectively eliminating accessibility to funds.   A year, in October 1940, she petitioned the courts to make her temporary administrator, explaining that conditions had now reached emergency status.

Cassilis Farm, she said, engulfed "some thousand acres," and had more than 60 hackney show ponies, two large herds of cows, a kennel of cocker spaniels, and "numerous other livestock and animals."  Since her husband's death she had been unable to pay the farmhands and "many of them here are in need of money to pay their living expenses."  She was granted temporary letters of administration to maintain the Massachusetts and Park Avenue properties.  Gladys told the court "these assets would be liquidated as soon as possible."

Within three years the Park Avenue mansion was converted to apartments.  All its residents were wealthy and respected, like Edward Kellog Baird and his new bride, Helen Davidson Hughes, who moved in following their wedding in July 1944.  But one tenant that year was a bit more shady.

Isidore Fried was the general manager of the liquor manufacturing firm Hercules Liquor Products Company.  On November 9, 1944 a grand jury found him guilty of 31-charges of "ceiling-price violations."  Government officials called it "a major black market liquor case" and Assistant United States Attorney J. Wolfe Chassen said in court "this is one of the major cases that broke the liquor black market in the United States."  The 51-year old Fried was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in a Federal penitentiary and a $56,000 fine (more in the neighborhood of $760,000 today).



Life for the former Willets mansion as an apartment house would be short lived.  In 1946 it was purchased by the Kingdom of Sweden and converted to the Swedish Consulate to the United Nations.  When the Consulate moved to Second Avenue, the house was retained as home to Sweden's consuls general.

photographs by the author

Friday, August 24, 2018

The House Where Grove Press was Born - 18 Grove Street


The corner location provided windows on Bedford Street--allowing for additional light and ventilation inside.
In 1829 carpenters Samuel Winant and John Degraw, both carpenters, merged their businesses as Winant & Degraw and branched into the building trade.  In 1839 they purchased the plots on the eastern third of the block bounded by Hudson, Grove, Bedford and Barrow Streets.  Within the year they began construction of four identical houses at Nos. 12 through 18 Grove Street.

Finished the following year the 21-foot wide Greek Revival-style houses were three stories of orange brick upon brownstone English basements.  Handsome but unassuming, the homes were modestly trimmed with stone lintels and sills.  The entrances were framed by the expected heavy stone pilasters and entabulatures of the style.

The good friends took the middle houses for themselves; Winant moving into No. 14 and Degraw into No. 16.  It is unclear who the original purchaser of No. 18 Grove Street was; but its location at the corner of Bedford Street made it the most appealing of the four with its extra wall of windows and side access to the rear yard.

The lady of the house dropped her expensive shawl in the fall of 1854.  An advertisement in The New York Herald offered at reward of $150 in today's dollars "to any person who may take a square French shawl to No. 18 Grove street, lost on Sunday, about 3 P.M., either in a car in Bowery, or in Bleecker street, between Bowery and Carmine."

The family living here would not have been wealthy, but financially comfortable enough to have at least two servants, a cook and a maid.  In a middle-class household like this one, a servant would be expected to take on several tasks, as evidenced in the February 21, 1860 advertisement for "A good, neat and competent girl wanted as a nurse and plain sewer; also to make herself generally useful."

The arrival of a new baby in the house no doubt prompted the need for a nurse.  The ad cautioned "None but those of an obliging disposition and in quest of a good steady place need apply."  That girl with an "obliging disposition" would earn between $5 and $6, according to the ad, or about $180 a week on the high end.

The following year, in October, the family left Grove Street and offered the house was for lease.  The advertisement promised "rent low; lease may be had," suggesting that if the family intended to return, it would not be for a long while.

David O. Hogan and his wife, Mary E. were living here at least by 1866.  That year, on January 14, little Charles S. G. Hogan was born. 

The early years for Victorian children were especially tenuous and that year approximately one-third of all deaths reported in New York City were children.  On December 4, 1866 The Sun reported that 83 children in Brooklyn had died the previous week, ten of those from scarlet fever.

It was about the same time that Charles began showing symptoms.  The little boy died in the Grove Street house on January 3, 1867, just 11 days before his first birthday.   His funeral was held in the house the following Saturday afternoon.

In the first years of the 20th century real estate operators Pepe & Brother became well-known in the Greenwich Village area for remodeling run-down, antiquated houses into modern structures, frequently incorporating artist studios.  Their re-makes often involved a coat of stucco and Mediterranean inspired touches like faux balconies and tiled roofs.

Belle C. Bunn was a real estate operator in the neighborhood at the time and in 1910 owned No. 18.  She may have followed Pepe & Brother's lead when she initiated a "rebuild" of the house that year.  Although a few of the Greek Revival elements (like the doorway) survive, it was apparently Bunn who stripped off the exterior details and covered the brick with stucco.

A subsequent interior remodeling in 1921 resulted in two apartments in the upper floors and a doctor's office in the basement.

The house was purchased by Louise W. Bender, widow of Louis Bender, assistant treasurer of the New York Central Railroad, sometime after his death in February 1928.  Louise's estate sold the property in April 1945 to Aida Aliprando and Marion Booth.

Living in one of the apartments at the time was attorney and author Ambrose Doskow and his wife Naomi.  The two were a fascinating couple.  Shortly after graduating from Columbia University's Law School, Doskow had served as clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo.  Now a trademark litigation expert, he was the author of books like the 1940 Anti-Semitism and the Law in Pre-Nazi Germany and Historic Opinions of the U S. Supreme Court, published in 1936.

When Naomi Brodie Doskow died in February 1946 she was just 33-years-old.  But she had served as national secretary of the Junior Hadassah, the Young Women's Zionist Organization of America, and secretary of the American Zionist Youth Commission.

The following year Aliprando and Booth sold No. 18 to Cecil Associates, which resold it in November 1947.  The house became home to a newly-formed publishing firm, which took its name from the location: Grove Press.  The tiny company managed to publish only three books within the first three years, including the 1950 The Verse in English of Richard Crashaw.

The owners sold the business in 1951 to Barney Rosset for $3,000.  Under his direction Grove Press introduced avant-guard literature including several (at the time) controversial works deemed too racy by other publishers.  Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot was among them.  The Beat Generation's Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were authors and poets represented by Grove Press.

The firm's success necessitated larger quarters and in 1962 it was gone.  No. 18 was once again converted to two residences, an apartment in the basement and a single family home above. 

No. 18 Grove Street as it appeared prior to 2016.  photo by gallery 438 via 18 Grove Street, New York City proposal
It was the scene of a chilling attempted crime on December 1, 1964.  Police had been looking for an ex-convict, 38-year-old Shepard Campbell, for nearly a month after he had raped two Greenwich Village women.  Campbell had a record of 22 arrests.

That day two detectives spotted him in the Village and followed him in a car, but lost him when he climbed a fence.  The New York Times reported "Later, they heard a woman scream in a building at 18 Grove Street.  They captured the suspect as he ran from the building."

When the building appeared on the market in 2016 the 517 Group proposed to convert it to condominiums with  a cafe in the rear and a roof garden.  The firm's proposal said "The project has a more modern design to attract wealthy residents as well as wealthy investors."

The proposed condo project with its rear cafe.  rendering via 18 Grove Street, New York City proposal
Instead, it was reconverted to a single-family residence that included five bedrooms, a 12-seat screening room and a 5,000-bottle wine cellar.  Real estate listings boasted that Belgian designer and "antiquarian" Alex Vervoordt had "thoughtfully selected" all the interior details and that buyers would find the interiors "wabi-sabi"style; referring to the Japanese philosophy of simplicity and imperfection.


The renovated house also included a yoga a meditation room, a full-floor library with a wet bar and wood-burning fireplace, and a roof terrace with dining area and "lounge."  A Mediterranean-inspired tiled faux roof, in keeping with Pepe & Brothers early 20th century designs in the neighborhood, took the place of the long-lost cornice.  The sumptuous home was put back on the market in the spring of 2018 for $25 million.

photographs by the author