Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Thalman Stables - 129 Charles Street



Herman Thalman lived at No. 129 Charles Street in the spring of 1897 when he commissioned architect Henry Andersen to design a replacement building on the site.  The plans, filed on April 30, called for a brick "stable and dwelling" to cost $12,000--about $366,000 today.   Construction did not start for many months, and was completed in 1898.

Andersen used cast iron elements to create the ground floor where two doorways flanked the central carriage bay.  Above an undressed granite cornice three floors of gray brick were trimmed in rough-cut stone and white brick.  Recessed panels executed in brick added interest.  Above the carriage bay a carved panel announced Thalman's name.  A handsomely carved horse's head--a common decoration of livery stables--graced the central opening of the third floor.


It is possible that Henry Thalman originally spelled his surname with an additional "n."  At least one source spells it "Thalmann."  If so, he had dropped the "n" by the time he started this project and even the building plans use the revised spelling.

Although the Thalman family owned a house at No. 269 West 10th Street, they moved into the dwelling space above the stable.  Thalman leased the stable section to independent proprietors.  The first was E. M. Creigle who sublet the operation in 1898 to the National L. A. Fixtures company.  The concern ran livery stables in several other locations.  Only a year later W. H. Rich was in charge of the stables, his business listed as "horses, vans, &c."

Herman Thalman was only 34 years old when he died upstairs on March 11, 1900.  J. Connet was operating the stable on January 25, 1902 when the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced that auctioneer "L. J. Phillips & Co. will sell at auction Tuesday, February 4th, No. 269 West 10th st and No. 129 Charles st."

The building was purchased by James F. Carroll for $22,500--more than $660,000 today.  He, like Thalman, he leased the building.  Carroll owned properties throughout the city, several in Greenwich Village.

William Fox ran his "stable and trucks" operation from ground level from 1902 through 1906.  The stable business saw change by the end of World War I as automobiles increasingly replaced horses.

Following Carroll's death his estate sold No. 129 in May 1922.  It was purchased by Henry J. Comens, head of the Henry J. Comens, Inc.  He and his wife, Helen, had four children and had lived in the upper floors of the building since 1913.

Although he originally continued the business as a boarding stable and offered "horses to hire;" before many years his company operated solely an auto-truck firm.  Comen's trucking company was listed as a "common carrier" by the Interstate Commerce Commission, which meant that his trucks were licensed to handle freight from various shippers and manufacturers.  (The business was apparently profitable, for in 1922 he was driving a Cadillac sedan.)  Comens disguised Henry Thalman's name above the truck bay by covering it with his own name.

Glimpsed at the right of this photo in October 1928, Comen's sign above the carriage bay reads "Henry J. Comens, Inc. Boarding Stable."  The original configuration of the entrance doors can be see, as well as striped awnings at the top floor.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
On April 23, 1941 The New York Times reported that Comens had leased "the three-story commercial building" to John Spagnuolo.  The article noted it would be used "for the servicing and storage of machinery ad pneumatic equipment."  Spagnulolo's occupancy would be brief, only through 1943.

Seen partially at the right of this photo, the cornice had been removed by 1939. photograph by Arnold Moses from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
Aacon Contracting Co. purchased the building in 1943.  It operated its woodworking operation here through 1949 when the building saw a rapid-fire turnover in ownership.   Purchased by Lilliam Schumacher, it was resold on June 27, 1949 to Richard Nussbaum.  Seven months later, on January 15, 1950, he sold it to The 129 Charles Street Corporation.

The new owners converted the ground floor to a garage and metal shop for tenant Matus Roffing Co.  Department of Buildings documents allowed two trucks to share the space with the metal shop, while insisting that the upper floors were to remain "permanently vacant."  Matus Roffing Co. remained here through 1965.

In 1972 Leonard Kaye and John L. Pace (of Kapac Realty Co.) purchased No. 129.  A subsequent renovation resulted in a "storage area and offices" on the first floor, offices on the second and a photographic studio on the third.  The ground floor was reconfigured with wider bay doors which erased the western entrance and one of the historic cast iron piers.  The neighborhood's increasing popularity (and subsequently its property values) was evidenced in Kaye's taking out of a $700,000 mortgage in 1986--equal to more than $1.5 million today.

That situation was even more clearly reflected in 2008 when the building sold for $7 million.  On April 16 The New York Times reported "A developer plans to convert this 7,000-square-foot, four-story commercial building, now with two tenants, into apartments."


Those apartments would survive only eight years.  A renovation completed in 2016 created a single-family house above a two-story garage.  Included in the conversion was the replacement of the long-lost cornice.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Levridge Flats - 172 West 77th Street



In 1892 developer George R. Dunn began construction on a five-story flat and store building on the southeast corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 77th Street.  It was designed by George Keister whose apartment buildings, private homes and resident hotels often overflowed with decorative elements.  That would not be the case with No. 172 West 77th Street, completed in 1894.  But while the overall design was, frankly, unremarkable, Keister included details which stand out.

The stone base included two shops--one opening onto the avenue, the doorway to the other nestling next to the main entrance on 77th Street.  The four stories of Roman brick above were enhanced by limestone bands and a stone cornice at the fourth floor.  Three slightly faceted metal bays on the avenue elevation added interest.  A projecting, bracketed cornice capped the design.

Keister strayed from his overall style with the Romanesque Revival granite capital of the ground floor corner pier.  Here two female faces--one with a slight smile, the other more serious--stare out from intricately carved floral forms.  Additionally, the areaway railings took on the Northern Renaissance style in their wonderful cast iron posts in the form of dragons.



Keister's most eye-catching detail, however, was the 77th Street entrance.  Here solid wing walls morphed to pedestals for stone columns, the straight fluting of which changed to spiral.  They upheld an entablature where charmingly carved with two chubby naked children play tug-of-war with a banner announcing the building's address.  Directly above, a stone balcony spanned the main entrance and that of the 77th Street shop.  It would originally have held an iron or stone railing

The closing off of the store entrance gives the balcony a decidedly off-kilter appearance.  

Dunn called his new building The Levridge.  The term "flats" or "French flats" was intended to distinguish such structures from tenements (although, technically, at the time there was no official difference).  It would be a few years before the term "apartments" came into wide-spread use.

Suites in The Levridge were spacious--either six or seven rooms each--and while tenants did not enjoy the amenities (like maid service) of more upscale buildings, advertisements did note "hall attendance."  (Hall attendants customarily wore uniforms and were on hand in case a resident needed help with packages or similar tasks.)  Rents ranged from $600 to $1,080 a year, or about $1,400 per month for the cheapest today.

The two stores were leased to M. Foster's drug store and C. H. Magna & Bro. grocery.  The Magna brothers, William and Clamor, operated two other grocery stores in the neighborhood, both on Columbus Avenue.

Most landlords on the Upper West Side happily accepted theater people--a group not welcomed in many parts of the city.  Consequently No. 172 (the name Levridge had been quickly dropped) became home to several well-known thespians.

By 1902 the Byron family lived here.  Oliver Doug Byron was described by The Evening World as "the well known actor," and his wife, Kate Byron,was "long a prominent figure on the American stage, according to The New York Herald years later.  Their son, Arthur, entered a stage career at the age of 17, in 1889.  The Evening World, on February 17, 1902 said he "comes naturally enough by his talent for acting."  Indeed, not only were Arthur's parents well-known by theater audiences, his aunt, Ada Rehan was a true star.

Kate's three siblings, Ada Rehan, William Crehan, and Hattie Russell, lived together in a house on West 93rd Street.  When William died late in 1903, Kate was appointed sole executor.  Crehan was apparently partial to Ada, for he gave Kate and Hattie each one-fourth of his estate, and Ada one-half.  Newspapers were most interested in a specific bequest, however.  On December 16 The New York Herald ran a headline "Leaves Parrot to Miss Ada Rehan."  The New York Times headline was similar and the article noted "Mr. Crehan also left his pet parrot, Poll, to Miss Rehan."

The fearsome cast iron railing posts no doubt have given toddlers the shudders for generations.
Two other residents involved in the theater were Max and Gertrude Hoffman.  Neither was an actor, but they produced plays and vaudeville acts.  On April 1, 1906, for instance, The Sun reported on a "the extra attraction" coming to the Hammerstein Theatre, called "The Swim."  "There will be produced for the first time in New York a singing and dancing act with fourteen people, arranged by Harry Williams and Max Hoffman, and staged by Gertrude Hoffman."

Gertrude's name appeared in newspapers for far different reasons on May 4, 1909.  The day before Antonio Pagliaro had been arrested and charged with felonious assault.  The New-York Tribune explained "Mrs. Holman alleged that the prisoner stabbed her as she was about to enter a drug store on Sunday night."

The tenants of No. 172 continued to be well-respected and financially well-off, most having at least one servant.  None would seem to be more so than James Philip Gilroy, the son of former Mayor Thomas J. Gilroy.  But domestic tranquility turned to upheaval by the spring of 1910.

Gilbroy had a responsible position with the O. J. Gude Company, earning $6,000 per year (a satisfying $160,000 today).  But his wife, the former Nina Huntley, accused him of drinking to excess.

On April 30, 1910 The New York Times reported "When Gilroy was not drinking in 1908, Mrs. Gilroy says, he was an exemplary citizen and a model husband."  But even Gilroy admitted that that year he began drinking too much.  So he "took the pledge" in church to abstain in 1908 and, according to him, "hasn't taken a drink since."  Well, "except those which are occasionally necessary in my business."

Calling his wife "this sweet-scented geranium," Gilroy told the judge that if he had drunk at all, it was because he was driven to it by Nina's conduct.  He said she was in the habit of accepting presents from "gentlemen friends."  The Times reported "As the result of their generosity he says, she has thousands of dollars' worth of jewels and a bank account of $3,000."  Furthermore, she "buncoed" him out of $275 when she claimed she needed to make a payment on a sealskin jacket.  He later found out that it was the gift from a man.

The back and forth he-said-she-said in the courtroom was dizzying.  Nina then said he had become "very disagreeable" since returning to drink.  "She says he broke her nose when he saw her kiss a man in a taxicab," reported The Times.  And Gilroy said it was Nina who was the drinker.

He told the court of one occasion when "his wife came home drunk and fell down stairs.  She flew into a rage and tore the curtains from the windows and threw them and the poles into the street...Then he says she pitched into him with a carving knife."

A maid, Mary Swarni, gave damning testimony.  The Times said she "testified that Robert Butt, to whose friendship for his wife Gilroy objected, was a regular caller during the afternoons, and that Mrs. Gilroy sent her out to take a walk around the block during his calls."

A much less controversial couple in the building were broker William E. Pearl and his wife.  Pearl had organized the Wall Street firm of P. T. Adams & Co. in 1889.  Following his death in 1905 his wife remained.  The apartment was the scene of her sister's funeral, Helen Schuyler Morse, on January 4, 1918.   She was active in social events, and when series of lectures was planned in the Plaza Hotel to benefit the Bethany Day Nursery later that year, The Sun noted "The tickets for the lectures may be obtained from Mrs. William E. Pearl, 172 West Seventy-second street."

By the time of the lectures, the store space facing Amsterdam Avenue was home to the Lotus Restaurant.  On January 17, 1920 Prohibition went into effect, a federal law not precisely followed by proprietor Henry Wertheimer.  On April 10, 1922 The New York Herald reported that Wertheimer was charged with violating the Volstead Act and was summoned to appear that day before United States Commissioner Samuel M. Hitchcock.

Victorian flats had fallen from favor among well-to-do apartment dwellers by now.  Jazz Age buildings with modern amenities were the new fashion.  Once home to respected citizens well-known among West Side society, No. 172 West 77th Street now attracted some less-than-savory tenants.

Among these was 29-year old Melvin Dunham.  He and Sidney Szarn had successfully committed several hold-ups when their criminal careers met an abrupt end on September 27, 1925.  At around noon that day the pair walked into the United Cigar Store at 60th Street and Broadway, brandishing handguns.  The Times said that "without any preliminaries" the crooks ordered the clerk into a rear room.  But as soon as the door was locked their victim began shouting, causing them to flee.

A police car was passing by just as they ran out of the store.  Patrolman John J. Leahy pursued them, nabbing the pair on 60th Street near Columbus Avenue.  The article said that "several hundred persons" watched the half block chase.  Melvin Dunham would not be returning to his West 77th Street apartment.  The $53.75 they stole from the cash register would earn them both long prison sentences.

On October 15 The Times reported that before Judge William Allen imposed his sentence, he questioned Dunham.

"Why did you resort to robbery?"

"Well, Judge," Dunham answered, "we read how easy it was to get away with it, and so we did it."

The judge did not consider that an adequate excuse.  Both men received sentences of between seven and a half to fifteen years in Sing Sing.

The mid-century years were not kind to No. 172 West 77th Street.  A third store was added by 1949, and at some point the doorway to the easternmost store was bricked up, creating an awkward asymmetry to the balcony.  Then, in 1971, the stores were consolidated into a single space for the Cuban restaurant Los Dos Hermanos.


The restaurant lasted in the space for years, garnering praise from food critics like New York magazine's Linda Wolfe and The New York Times' Raymond Sokolov.  It was followed around 1992 by Wildlife, a trendy bar.

No. 172 West 77th Street received horrific press coverage that year.  Resident Troy A. Rivera moved in after being released from prison in 1990 for attempting to sexually assault a young boy.  At some point, possibly in prison, he had contracted the HIV virus.

He began taunting children with obscene jeers as they walked to school.  His behavior progressed to mingling with children at the playground across the street from No. 172, despite his parole officer having explicitly prohibited him from being in contact with youngsters.

A neighbor, Sarah Rodriguez, later told police "He used to come down at 7:00 in the morning.  He'd stand on the stoop.  He'd say something to every kid who walked past.  He'd say, 'I like your butt.  Can I have your butt?'"  Nevertheless she did not think it was her responsibility to report the behavior to police.

Sarah's husband, who was the super of the building, received numerous late-night complaints of "prostitutes, transvestites and young men" (all under 17 years old) coming and going from Rivera's fourth floor apartment. 

On January 14, 1992 the unthinkable happened.  Rivera grabbed an 11-year-old boy as he walked to school alone.  Rivera forced him up the stairs and into his apartment, where he forcibly sodomized him.  The heinous crime was the talk of the neighborhood and the city for weeks.

In 2008 The Chirping Chicken restaurant took over the shop space.

Rivera was, of course, an anomaly among the tenants of no. 172.   From a broad range of ethnic backgrounds, they were on the whole hard-working, middle class families.

After more than 120 years the delightful carved address banner still brings a smile to passersby who happen to notice it; and the scary cast iron dragons no doubt continue to cause a few toddlers to pause.

photographs by the author

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Lost Greenwich Village Theatre - 7th Avenue and Christopher Streets



The towering section above the stage provided space for an electric sign announcing the theater's name.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
When the Commissioners' Plan laid out the grid of streets and avenues above Greenwich Village in 1811, Seventh Avenue began at 11th Street and ran northward.  In 1913 the city began a massive project to connect it to Varick Street to the south.  The herculean undertaking not only obliterated 194 buildings, but created oddly-shaped triangular and trapezoidal plots.

Among the latter was the lot at Christopher Street, Seventh Avenue and West Fourth Street.  In November 1916, two years after the dust had settled, the Greenwich Village Players issued a press release that announced a coming 500-seat theater for the neighborhood.   The New York Times reported "It will be situated in historic Greenwich Village and will bear the name of that centre of Bohemian and artistic life.  The building will be at Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue." The article added "The building itself will be in the Dutch Colonial style of architecture from plans by Herman Lee Meader."

The Greenwich Village Players had been incorporated only months previously.  It was the brainchild of English-born Frank Conroy, described by The Times as "one of the most talented actors with the Washington Square Players."   When Conroy left London for New York, actor Harold Meltzer joined him; both becoming members of the Washington Square Players.

Conroy envisioned his own theatrical company and discussed his dream with other actors at Boni's bookstore, just off Washington Square, one evening.  (Boni's was a regular gathering spot for Village artists and actors.)  Restaurateur Barney Gallant, a long-time neighborhood resident, was there.  He joined in on the discussion, offered to be the group's business manager and to provide significant financial backing to the venture.

Frank Conroy founded and directed the theater.  Pearson's Magazine, December 1917 (copyright expired)

Several months later the Seventh Avenue site was decided upon, and ground was broken in April 1917.  The style was now described by The New York Times as Georgian, "a style that is harmonious with the old brick houses of the neighborhood."

On November 18 the newspaper reported "Conroy declares that his theatre is to be handicapped in no way by traditions or customs, that it will be free to produce plays of any length and of any sort."  The number of seats, by now, had been reduced to 425 and the construction costs were estimated at $100,000 (around $1.9 million today).

A month earlier The Real Estate Record & Guide had said "there is probably no more important feature, tending toward the fostering of community interest and spirit, than the new theatre...During the last two years this part of the city has undergone a decided metamorphosis in its character."  It was an opinion echoed by The Quill a few years later when, in September 1923 it credited the theater for "saving the Village."

Meader's office released this rendering in 1917.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, September 1, 1917 (copyright expired)
"The erection of this magnificent new theatre with upholstered seats mollified to an extent the fumes of malice that were brewing among the traditional enemies of Bohemia.  In fact, the chances are that the whole of Bohemian Greenwich Village would have been burned, massacred, and pillaged in the name of law and order had not the unenlightened been placated by this obviously decent structure that in a way offsetted the affronts on the respectability typified by the flamboyant signs of cake and coffee parlors, with their cigarettes, squeaky phonographs and Don's Jazz band."

Meader's completed structure was an Edwardian melding of several styles.  The diapering of the variegated brickwork produced a diamond pattern on the three-sided front.  Ionic columns flanked the three entrances and stone quoins contrasted with the brick.  The shallow stone hood above the main entrance was emphasized by brick voisseurs, which were in turn outlined in stone.  Classical stone urns sat upon a brick parapet.

In December 1917 Pearson's Magazine called it "a real honest-to-goodness show house" and said its stage was "second to none in New York."  Not everyone was impressed.  Guldo Bruno, in his Fragments From Greenwich Village, wrote "What did the Greenwich Village Theatre people do?  On the most picturesque of all New York's squares they erected a Greek structure in the architectural style of a small-town savings bank."

The exterior of the theater was completed when Jessie Tarbox Beals snapped this photograph.  Seventh Avenue is not yet paved and what appear to be wooden crosswalks stretch across Christopher Streets.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Frank Conroy's intimate friend, Harold Meltzer, took on the job of director, and Barney Gallant took on the additional title of "press representative."   They had promised to focus on one-act plays, while "not neglecting" longer plays.   The short plays were highly successful; but then Theatre Arts Magazine was disappointed in the theater's first full-length play in May 1918.

"In Karen...Frank Conroy's players and staff do not completely fulfill the promise of their earlier bill of one-act plays.  The acting acting and staging failed somewhat of that unity and distinction which should characterize art-theatre production."  The critic called Fania Marinoff, who played the title role, "temperamentally unfitted for the part" and said the acting ranged "from the quietly effective work of Mr. Conroy to the painful antics of a cub-actor."

A charming charcoal sketch in this 1921 postcard depicted the theater from the park across Seventh Avenue.
The reviews of the theater's offerings were, of course, good and bad.  But rave reviews poured in after the opening night of the Greenwich Village Follies on July 15, 1919.  The production had been delayed several times, prompting The Times' critic to begin this review, "Someone said recently: 'Well, when the Greenwich Village Follies does open, it had better be good.'  It opened last night.  And it is good."

A vaudeville-type variety show, the Greenwich Village Follies staged comedy skits, singing and dancing.  The Times raved it "has melody and beauty pre-eminently, and where it does not win outright on these points it scores on novelty, burlesque, and comedy."  The Follies would be an eagerly-anticipated annual show for years.

The man responsible for releasing good publicity for the theater, drew some rather negative attention on November 2, 1919 when The Times reported "Bernard Gallant...now manager of the Greenwich Village Inn in Sheridan Square, is the first man in New York to go to jail on a charge of selling intoxicants."

Gallant had acquired a house guest earlier in playwright Eugene O'Neill, who was briefly staying in New York.  It was most likely that arrangement which resulted in the Greenwich Village Theatre's introducing several of O'Neill's works.

Like other off-Broadway theaters, The Greenwich Village Theatre was the starting point for several stage and screen stars.  On November 17, 1920 press attention was focused on Yiddish actor Jacob Ben-Ami who starred in Sven Lange's Samson and Delilah.   Critic Alexander Woollcott deemed the production "arresting and potentially significant" and far down in his column he mentioned an unknown player, saying that Edward G. Robinson had delivered "a fine performance."   Among other famous actors who performed here early in their careers were William Harrigan and Walter Huston.

As moving pictures gained popularity, the theater's management embarked on a bold move.  On May 29, 1921  The New York Times reported "The Greenwich Village Theatre is to become a Summer motion picture house next Wednesday evening when 'Heedless Moths' will open for a run.  The star of the production is Audrey Munson, an artist's model, and its story is said to deal with life in an artists' colony."

Andrey Munson had posed for dozens of sculptures across the country, around 20 of them in New York City alone.  She is immortalized as Civic Fame atop the Municipal Building, the three female figures on the USS Maine Memorial, and the two widows depicted on the Firemen's Memorial, among others.  She was popular among artists not only for her lovely figure but for her willingness to remove all her clothing--a relative rare trait among Edwardian women.  Heedless Moths had been written expressly for Audrey and its plot was essentially a vehicle for her to disrobe again.

The priggish Villagers who had years earlier protested against tearooms and cigarettes now set their sites on the scandalous movie poster at the Greenwich Village Theatre.  A member of the Washington Square Association and the pastor of St. Joseph's Church went to Chief Magistrate William G. McAdoo on June 6, 1921 to complain that the theater refused to remove the offending poster.  McAdoo went to see for himself, and although someone had pasted a ballerina skirt over Audrey Munson's anatomy, it was not enough.

"There is no doubt that the poster was palpably indecent," he said.  "There were a number of men and women staring at it and also little children, schoolgirls, with books under their arms."  He ordered the police to remove the poster.

Despite a resultant outcry from artists, poets and writers, the poster remained down.  Although Heedless Moths went on, it appears to be the last attempt at the movies for the Greenwich Village Theatre.

The season of 1925 was notable.  It opened with Maxwell Anderson's Outside Looking In; and would include his When in Rome and Eugene O'Neill's The Fountain, The Great God Brown, and Desire Under the Elms.

A scene from O'Neill's The Fountain.  The set designs were, apparently, not always elaborate. from the collection of the New York Public Library
In May 1926 the theater management announced that it had merged with the Actors' Theatre.  The name Actors' Theatre was retained and, while its permanent home had not been decided upon, the announcement made one thing clear: "It will not be the Greenwich Village."

In January 1928 N. Brewster Morse signed a five-year lease with owner Marguerite A. Barker for the vacant building.  The New York Times reported on January 5, "The theatre will be renovated and will reopen about the middle of next month.  According to the announcement, the new policy will be 'unique and revolutionary.'"

That policy included "musical, dramatic and motion picture features, with a change of program every two weeks."  In the lounge area art exhibitions were to be held, "where tea, coffee and cigarettes will be served during the intermissions."  Among the first films screened was Paul Fejos's The Last Moment, described by one critic as an "impressionistic picture."  The Times called it "a weird, startling and brilliant achievement."

It seems that even Greenwich Villagers were not ready for the weird and startling, and two months into his five-year lease Morse returned control of the theater to Marguerite Barker who told reporters she intended to show "unusual films at popular prices" beginning on April 9, 1928.

That idea did not go well, either.  The Irish Theatre, Inc. took over for the 1929 season, opening with Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie.  But despite its successful beginnings, the end of the line for the Greenwich Village Theatre. was on the near horizon.

Five months later, on February 4, 1930, The New York Times announced "Demolition of the Greenwich Village Theatre on the northwest corner of Christopher and Fourth Streets...will begin early in March."  The article explained that developers George and Edward Blum had filed plans for a 19-story apartment building, the tallest in Greenwich Village.

It may have been the Great Depression that overturned the grandiose plans.  But for whatever reason, the demolished theater was replaced with the two-story Art Deco style Stewarts Cafeteria building.  It survives, significantly altered at street level.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Bertram H. Borden House - 48 East 68th Street




In 1864, having graduated from Yale University, Matthew Chaloner Durfee Borden moved to New York City from his native Fall River, Massachusetts.   The following year the 23-year old married Harriet M. Durfee.

Borden (whose family traced its New England roots back to 1635) worked his way up from a clerk in a dry goods jobbing house to heading a fabrics printing firm, the American Printing Company.  In 1869 he extended his control over his business by building three fabric mills to manufacture his own goods; adding the Fall River Iron Works Mills later.

The Bordens had seven children and owned homes in both Manhattan and Rumson, New Jersey.  At the time of his death on May 27, 1912, only three of his children survived--Bertram, Howard and Matthew.  Matthew was disinherited for having married a Jewish girl; so Bertram and Howard received the bulk of their father's $6 million estate--more than $156,000 today.  (Incidentally, Matthew accepted $1 million from his brothers in exchange for not contesting the will.)  Bertram was in charge of the fabrics firm, M. C. D. Borden Company, and Howard ran the Fall River Iron Works Mills. 

Bertram H. Borden was born in 1868.  In 1896 he married Mary Livinia Owen, daughter of Dr. Henry E. Owen.  The Owen family was prominent in the Rumson summer social circle.  The couple would have no children.

On January 11, 1919 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Borden had purchased the four-story brownstone at No. 48 East 68th Street.  The article noted he "will rebuild for his occupancy."   The 20-foot house was part of a row completed in 1878 and its dour neo-Grec architecture was decidedly out of date.   Within a few weeks Borden had hired Carerre & Hastings to design an up-to-date residence on the site.  On March 1 the Record & Guide noted "only the side walls of the original building are to be used."

By April 30, 1919 the old house was gone and construction was underway.  No. 48 had been a match to the brownstones on either side of the now-vacant lot.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Borden's choice of architects is not surprising.  Not only was Carrere & Hastings among the preeminent architectural firms of the day, Thomas Hastings had designed Matthew C. D. Borden's handsome stable-carriage house in Rumson.  The firm produced a quietly-elegant five-story neo-French Renaissance mansion faced in limestone.  Completed within the year, the house cost Borden the equivalent of nearly $810,000 today.

The architects placed the arched entranceway three steps above the sidewalk, drawing attention away from the service entrance to the side.  A stone balcony with a handsome French railing fronted a pair of French doors at the second floor, or piano nobile.  Above each set a carved basket of flowers spilled festoons of fruits and blossoms down the sides of the enframements.  Intricate panels of bas relief carvings at the fourth floor depicted the arts.  The fifth floor, above an ornate stone cornice, most likely took the form of a mansard roof.


Bertram and Howard had inherited equal shares of the sprawling estate an Rumson.  Howard took the portion with the mansion, and in 1914 added another 90 acres to his share.

Bertram enlarged his section, as well, in 1917.  The same year that he began construction on his townhouse, he commissioned Arthur C. Jackson to design his Tudor Revival style summer home in Rumson.  The New York Times called it "one of the show places of this locality."

Mary was well-known for her charity work.  In December 1919, shortly after moving into the 68th Street house, she was listed as a patroness of a concert at the Hippodrome to benefit the Stony Wold Sanatorium.  The couple was prominent in Manhattan society, as well.   When, for instance, the newspapers annually listed the season's box holders in the Metropolitan Opera House (people The New York Herald on November 7, 1920 called "families able to enjoy their opera amid such luxurious surroundings) Bertram and Mary were consistently included.  They shared their box with Howard and his wife.

But it was in Rumson that the Bordens were best known.  Bertram, like his father, was enthusiastically athletic--an adept polo player, a yachtsman, and equestrian.  He owned and flew his own airplane, as well.

Bertram's name appeared on the sports pages repeatedly for his wins both in polo and in yacht races.  One victory, on July 31, 1920, was a rather hollow one.   It was an extremely windy day when the vessels embarked on their quest for the Rumson Country Club's annual cup.  The New York Herald reported "Commodore Samuel Riker, Jr., was sailing his yacht Frances when a hard puff struck her and keeled her over."  One by one the other yachts capsized.  The newspaper concluded "The race was won by Bertram H. Borden's Rumpus, which was the only boat to finish."

The city house held much of the Borden's extensive art collection  Many of the entertainments here revolved around Mary's charity work.  On February 19, 1928, for instance, The New York Times noted that on March 8 the Thursday Morning Lenten Sewing Class of the Cribside Committee of the Babies' Hospital would be held in the Borden residence.

Mary was widely known for her gardening skills and was a an important player in the Rumson Garden Club.  The organization's annual flower show was routinely held on the grounds of the Borden estate.



Although they did not give up ownership of No. 48, they moved out in 1930.  On June 25 The New York Times reported that Bertram had purchased a "large duplex apartment containing fourteen rooms and six baths" in the newly-constructed 740 Park Avenue.  The couple leased the 68th Street mansion to well-heeled tenants.

When the Bordens returned from Europe late in the summer season of 1933 they went directly to the Rumson estate.  On September 22 Mary was taken to the Monmouth Memorial Hospital with appendicitis.  The 62-year old died there three days later.  In reporting on her death, The New York Times remarked that she "had been a leader in philanthropic work" and noted "Together with her husband, Mrs. Borden donated an annual scholarship at the Red Bank High School."

That was only a hint at the massive amounts of money the Bordens lavished upon the community.  In 1920 they had donated a five-acre property, Victory Park to the town as a memorial to the soldiers from Rumson who died in World War I.  They built a stadium for the school, and Bertram established the Mary Own Borden Memorial Foundation.

Mary's estate was appraised at over $2.2 million.  The 68th Street house, title to which was in her name, was left to her husband, as was the New Jersey property.  She bequeathed paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including a landscape by George Innes, and paintings by Joseph Israels, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jules Breton.  Those four artworks alone were valued at $128,000 in today's dollars.

Bertram leased the 68th Street house to a succession of wealthy New Yorkers, including Clement D. Cates, Virginia Hemingway and Mrs. Alice Stone Farmer.  He sold the property around 1949.  By now he was living permanently in Rumson, where he died at the age of 82 in the spring of 1956.

In 1951 a conversion was begun to convert the former Borden mansion to two apartments per floor, except the fourth which had three.  The mansard roof was disfigured into glass-fronted penthouse level which, while architecturally stylish for the period, has nothing to do with Carrere & Hastings' French Renaissance design.

Although termed "apartments" by the Department of Buildings, the basement spaces were used commercially.  In 1951 Laumont & Malagon, photography studio was here; and in 1953 A. Graham Biddle, a plastic surgeon, had his office in the building.


A subsequent renovation, completed in 2000, resulted in two "garden" apartments in the basement level, and a single-family home above.   Other than the somewhat gruesome top floor, the sedate exterior of the Borden house is remarkably intact.

photographs by the author

Friday, October 26, 2018

Frederick W. Klempt's 1880 Tenement and Saloon - 16 North Moore Street



For years James P. Wilson's saloon had stood on the southwest corner of Varick and North Moore Streets.  In 1878, after he was appointed a deputy sheriff, Wilson sold the business to a man named Conroy; although he continued on as bartender.  Conroy's new venture would not last long at all.  In 1879 developer Albert Block acquired the corner and hired architect Frederick W. Klempt to replace it with a tenement and store.

Klempt filed plans in March 1880 for a "five-story brick tenement" to cost $16,500--or about $408,000 today.  Largely forgotten, Klempt was busy at the time, mostly designing tenement buildings throughout the city.  The structure he designed for Block at No. 16 North Moore Street was typical of his work.  Twenty-five feet wide on North Moore, it stretched 75 feet south along Varick.   The four upper floors were faced in red brick, their sandstone lintels decorated with incised floral designs, typical of the neo-Grec style.  A rigidly geometric iron cornice carried on the style.

The ground floor held two storefronts under a continuous cornice.  The northern space seems to have been designed as a saloon, operated by Edward G. Schroeder, from the beginning.  A cast iron column fronted the angled doorway.  Both storefronts featured wood-framed, projecting shop windows.

A sandstone street sign was incorporated into the facade.  The incised decoration of one of the lintels can be seen at the right.

Interestingly, following Albert Block's death, his sons John P., Richard W., and Edward Block, did not inherit the property, but purchased it from the estate.  The three men paid $45,000 for the building on October 15, 1886; a considerable $1.2 million today.

In the meantime, middle-class tenants lived in the upper floors, coming and going through the entrance at No. 11 Varick.  Among them was former policeman John Hamblin.  He had retired from the force on September 29, 1868 and lived here on his $300 per year pension (about $8,400 today).  He would remain in the building for several years, most likely until his death.

Druggist Robert Ray and his wife, Margaret, had domestic problems in the winter of 1889.   For whatever reason, Margaret, who was 25 years old, was convinced her husband intended to murder her.   If so, he would have had easy access to the means to do so.   Murders and suicides in the 1880's and '90's routinely involved substances like carbolic acid or Paris green, easily purchased at drugstores.

At 3:00 on the morning of February 18, Margaret ran out of the building in her bare feet, "while laboring under the delusion that some persons were trying to poison her," reported The Evening World.  A policeman "found it necessary to take her in charge," not because she needed protection, but because she was hysterical.

In 1889 it was not easy for a woman to convince officials that it was her husband, not she, who was the culprit.  "At the Jefferson Market [courthouse] she told Justice Duffy that her husband wanted to get rid of her, and that she was not insane."   It does not appear that investigators went to the North Moore Street apartment.  Instead Margaret "was committed to examination as to her sanity."

In July 1890 36-year-old Charles N. Brunie took over the lease of the saloon from Edward Schroeder.  The German-born Brunie was already well-known as a saloon proprietor, having operated the upscale bar in the Northwich Hotel since 1879.  A Souvenir of New York's Liquor Interests described that saloon in 1893 saying it was "elegant in all [its] appointments, being fitted up with solid black walnut fixtures, heavy plate glass mirrors, artistically decorated walls and ceiling and all the latest improvements."

The booklet noted "Mr. Brunie's trade had so increased that he found it necessary to supply additional accommodations for his customers and he opened a branch store at the corner of Varick and North Moore Streets.  This is neatly and attractively fitted up and enjoys a large and high-class patronage."  (Considering the industrial neighborhood around the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad's freight yards, one wonders exactly how "high-class" Brunie's patronage here was.)

Brunie had a close call on June 20, 1893 when the train he was aboard, returning from the races at Sheepshead Bay, derailed.  Seven passengers were killed and among the 18 injured was Brunie.

When Richard and Edward Block decided to build another tenement next door, they instructed architect George F. Pelham to nearly duplicate No. 16.  The close match was slightly out of date architecturally, but created a visually appealing composition.

Although No. 18 North Moore Street (right) was designed by a different architect and constructed 14 years later than No. 16, the two purposely appear to be contemporary.
While most of the tenants lived quietly, eking a living through low-level jobs; some were victims of tragic accidents.  On Saturday, September 5, 1896 August Creger attempted to fill his rare spare time by renting an 18-foot fishing boat and heading into the Hudson River.  Later a severe storm struck.  Two days later The New York Times reported "He has not been seen since.  The boat, split from stem to stern, was found by harbor police in the North River yesterday."

Charles Jaeger worked in the nearby freight yards.  The 54-year old was at work on the night of September 2, 1898 when disaster struck.  The Times reported "He was standing on the tracks weighing freight when a car backed up and he was caught between it and a car standing on the track."  He was crushed to death.

With no playgrounds and no parks nearby, the children of No. 11 Varick Street played in the streets.  Eight-year-old Anna Morrisey joined a large group of children playing games on Thanksgiving Day, 1914.  While they frolicked, a vicious dog was menacing passengers attempting to board the Barclay Street Ferry, several blocks to the south.  The Times reported "A policeman chased it up West Street and realizing that the animal was a menace, telephone to the Beach Street Station."

Two policemen were sent out to find the mad dog.  They found it at Varick and Franklin Streets--too late to prevent chaos.  "The youngsters tried to get of out of the way, but the animal sprang into the group," said the article.  Screaming children scattered, but the dog repeatedly bit them.  When 8-year-old Teyo Croco received a bite on his hand, his brother Victor tried to rescue him.  He too was bitten.  Anna Morrissy was one of the six who were attended to by a doctor from the Hudson Street Hospital.

The dog was cornered by the policemen in front of No. 40 Hudson Street and shot.  The Board of Health was notified regarding the presumably rabid animal.

The saloon had been taken over from Charles Brunie in 1906 by Ernest W. Fick.  But the enactment of Prohibition put an end to that business.  In 1920 the space was converted to the office of the Blue Line Motor Freight line; and by 1933 it was home to the Johnn'y Express company.

The struggles of the tenants was exemplified by young Raymond Tassaro in 1922.  The 12-year-old's mother was a widow and there were several other children in the family.  To help support them, he ran a newsstand after street across the street, at Franklin and Varick Streets.

Saturday January 7 was a frigid day and Raymond started to build a fire at the edge of the sidewalk to keep warm.  He most likely never saw the H. J. Heinz delivery truck backing up to the curb.  The rear wheel crushed and fatally injured the boy.  The driver was arrested on a technical charge of homicide.

Almost immediately after the repeal of Prohibition the ground floor once again became a bar.  The Tribeca neighborhood was still gritty through the 1970's.  Among the upstairs tenants in 1971 was Don D. Dumas.  The 41-year old accountant had done temporary work for the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Administration.  On June 3 that year he was arrested on charges of forgery, grand larceny and the cashing of forged checks.

At the time the tenant list had undergone a peculiar transformation.  In January 1973 The New York Times noted "The building, which has a bar and grill on the ground floor, is occupied mainly by single men."  Those men were, according to police, mostly homosexuals.

Donald MacNiven was 40-years old and his next-door neighbor, John Beardsley, was 53.  Both had lived in their fifth floor apartments here for about a decade.  When fire fighters responded to a fire in MacNiven's two-room apartment on January 8, 1973, they found both men dead on the living room floor.

The fire was described as "suspicious" and both MacNiven and Beardsley had multiple stab wounds.  A neighbor, Stewart Hieghton, told investigators that he was awakened around 6:00 that morning "by sounds of scuffling."  But after listening for a few minutes, he went back to sleep.  An hour later he smelled smoke and notified the landlord, who called the Fire Department.

The police description of MacNiven's apartment is evidence that the Tribeca renaissance had not yet arrived here.  According to The New York Times it "was sparely furnished.  There was a mattress on the floor and no bed.  Books and magazines were strewn around the living room."

The attacks soon appeared to be just the beginning of a reign of terror.  Days later another gay man, Ronald Cabo, was found stabbed to death in his Thompson Street apartment.   And then on January 19, 1973 The Times reported "The discovery of the bodies of two young men floating in the Hudson River off Greenwich Village added yesterday to the fears of the homosexual community, already stunned by the three recent murders of homosexuals in the area."

The rediscovery of Tribeca eventually did arrive at the corner of Varick and North Moore Streets.  By the early 1990's Walker's, a trendy watering hole opened in the former saloon space; and upstairs today there is a total of just eight apartments.  While the ground floor has undergone significant change, the upper floors appear much as they did when Margaret Ray feared for her life in 1889.

photographs by the author

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Waldo M. Hutchins Bench - Central Park




In an article about civic memorials in 1913, The Lookout magazine lamented "in a busy, careless city the average person soon forgets."  That short civic memory is responsible for statues and monuments throughout the city in honor of persons--like John Purroy Mitchel, Roscoe Conkling, and Samuel S. Cox--once renowned, but now essentially forgotten.  And like Waldo M. Hutchins.

Hutchins and his wife, the former Elizabeth Ellsworth, had four children--Julia, Augustus, Waldo and William.  Born in Brooklyn, Connecticut on September 30, 1822, he traced both sides of his family to the first settlement of Connecticut.

Hutchins's career was impressive and wide-flung.  In 1842, the year he graduated from Amherst College, he traveled to New York City and entered the law office of Slosson & Schell, "as a student."  He was admitted to the bar in 1845 and in 1852 was admitted as a partner in the law firm with John Slosson and Augustus Schell.

His meteoric legal career would have been enough to earn him wealth and fame.  At just 29 years old he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the State Assembly.  But seemingly indefatigable, he branched out into railroads, insurance, banking and politics.  The same year he was made a partner in Slosson, Schell & Hutchins, he was elected to the New York Assembly.

And decades later the New York State Bar Association Reports noted "Soon after the passage of the act of 1853, providing for the construction in the city of New York of the Central Park, he was appointed one of the Commissioners."  Hutchins successfully juggled his various responsibilities.  In 1865 he successfully represented the City of New York in its fight to established a professional fire department; and in 1867, following his term in the Assembly, he made time to serve as a delegate to the State constitutional convention.

In 1878 Alexander Smith won the Democratic nomination for Congress.  But on the night before the election, he died.  On October 5, 1879 The New York Times reported that Waldo Hutchins had been nominated as his replacement.  He was elected on November 4 and served until March 3, 1885.

Now back home in New York City he resumed his law practice.  On November 27, 1881 The Times reported that he had been elected to the post of president of the New-York Park Association.  The article mentioned its object was "to secure increased park area for the City of New-York."  A report read that the meeting noted "the park acreage of New-York as compared with that of other great cities...had been completely outstripped in providing such places of creation for her citizens."

His tireless fight to acquire more parkland for the city was in part responsible for his being re-elected as a Park Commissioner in June 1887.  Two years later he was chosen its president.  The New York State Bar Association Report of 1889 made note "it is proof of the interest he took in those breathing spaces and pleasure grounds of the people, that, although his connection with the board was interrupted by duties in Congress and business interests, he returned to it in later years."

While Hutchins's creating of green space and roads was overwhelmingly popular, his support of using Central Park as the site of a world exhibition in 1889 fell flat.  The New York Times, on July 8, railed against the idea, equating it to "the condemnation of Central Park" and saying that while New Yorkers would welcome a world's fair they were "irrevocably opposed to the destruction of the advantages they already possess in their only completed park."  The fair did not happen.

Hutchins received another disappointment that year after he offered a position to Frederick Law Olmstead as a consulting landscape architect on retainer.  Olmstead did not respond warmly.  Writing from his home in Brookline, Massachusetts on June 8, 1889, he said in part:

I do not wish to be called in occasionally to prepare or aid in preparing details of design for works with regard to which I have no continuous or comprehensive responsibility...Judging from the experiences to which I have referred it seems to me probably that what I have thus said will make it unnecessary that you should be put to the expense of my visiting New York at this time.

Although Hutchins had incurred the ire of The New York Times over the world's exhibition concept, he won its admiration when he fought against the relocation of the precursor of the Central Park Zoo in 1890.  An editorial on June 27 said partly "Mr. Waldo Hutchins really deserves the thanks of his fellow-citizens for preventing two of his associates in the Park Commission from voting the removal of the menagerie to the North Meadow."  The editors accused Commissioners Gallup and Borden of being detached.  "There is something grotesque in the notion that the general promiscuous public takes a more intelligent interest in the park, has a greater pride in it, and is much more concerned to prevent its spoliation that the men who are its official guardians."

In January 1891 Hutchins became ill.  On February 5 The Evening World announced "Park Commissioner Waldo Hutchins is lying seriously ill at the Park Avenue Hotel...It began with a severe cold, complicated with a bilious attack, and later developed into a slight attack of pneumonia."  The article added "Should he recover, he will not be able to leave his room for ten days or more."

He did not recover.  On February 9, 1891 The New York Times reported "Mr Hutchins made a hard fight and passed the night safely...A little after 5:30 o'clock yesterday morning a change for the worse was noticed, and half an hour afterward he sank into a stupor.  At 7:20 o'clock he died."

The following day The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote "Seldom do so many venerable New Yorkers come together to pay homage to the memory of the dead as there were assembled this morning in the Madison square Presbyterian church in New York, during the services over the remains of the late Park Commissioner Waldo Hutchins. The body of the church was filled."

The name of Waldo M. Hutchins was well on the road to obscurity when his son, Augustus S. Hutchins, stepped in.  Like his father's his was a broad-based career.  An attorney, he was also a vice president in the Metropolitan Savings Bank; and director in the North River Insurance Co., the United States Fire Insurance Co., and the Williamsburgh City Fire Insurance Co.



In 1932 he hired architect Eric Gugler to design a granite bench for Central Park in memory of his father.  Costing $15,000 (about $270,000 today), it would be more than a mere seating area.

The semicircular (or exedral) shape has a secondary purpose--it is a clock of sorts.  Twice a year on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes its shadow precisely coincides with three arcs incised into the platform--at 10:00 a.m., at noon, and at 2:00 p.m.  Additionally, a sundial, incorporating an Art Deco bronze figure, perches on the back of the bench.  The sculpture, attributed to Paul Manship (who created the monumental Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center), depicts a female dancer trailing flowing scarves.


Echoing Waldo Hutchins's life-long work for the citizens of the city, a Latin inscription along the back of the bench translates "One must live for another if he wishes to live for himself."  The inscription within the sundial translates "Let it not be destroyed by the passage of time."

The fascinating astronomical bench sits greatly unnoticed on a slope near the Conservatory Water, or model boat pond.  And despite his son's valiant efforts, Waldo M. Hutchins's name is largely forgotten.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Unexpected: A District Attorney, a Gourmet and a Spy - 391 West Street




Men's apparel merchant Solomon Lent dabbled in real estate at the turn of the last century.  He bought and sold properties, mostly on the west side of Manhattan.   When he purchased the two-story store at Nos. 391 West Street and the house directly behind at No. 8 Weehawken Street on February 4, 1902, however, he had another purpose in mind.   (The venerable buildings were originally a single structure, part of the wooden Greenwich Market House, built in 1834.)

The tiny block was only 28 feet deep--exactly the width of the properties--relatively a sliver of a normal city block.  Despite the sketchy riverfront neighborhood, Lent paid the equivalent of $325,000 for the property.  He then put Prussian-born architect Richard Rohl to work designing a store and tenement building to replace the old structures.

Completed within the year, the five-story building was faced in red brick.  The West Street facade was ornamented with terra cotta, its neo-Renaissance design presenting a handsome presence on the thoroughfare.  The Weehawken elevation, where the tenement residents entered, was left undecorated and factory-like.

A neo-Classical pressed metal cornice tops the otherwise neo-Renaissance design.  Rohl's heavy use of terra cotta on the West Street elevation resulted in a pleasing appearance.
Lent may have anticipated similar development along the block.  That never happened and the Lent building towers above its two- and three-story neighbors even today.  At one point it held the neighborhood nickname of "the Skyscraper of the West Side."  The street level store was home to the Lent men's furnishings store, run by Solomon and his son, Milton.  The shop would have catered to the longshoremen, sailors and other workers along the riverfront.

It appears that Lent considered selling No. 391 in June 1908.  The Real Estate Record & Guide announced he had given a $14,000 mortgage to Edward E. Black; but that deal fell through and the Lent family would hold title to the building for decades.  The family's men's store continued through 1922.

As blue collar tenants came and went through the back door over the years, one in particular stood out.  Unlike his neighbors, Frederick A. Sperling was a lawyer and on New Year's Day 1931 District Attorney Thomas C. T. Crain announced he had appointed Sperling as Assistant District Attorney.

Sperling started out with unremarkable cases, like his prosecution of attorney Benjamin Weissman in July that year.  Weissman was accused of cheating a client.  He had represented shoemaker August Sardo in a suit against the Interborough Rapid Transit Company after his son was injured.  Weissman settled the claim for $1,350, but gave his client only $50.

Before long, however, Sperling was making a name for himself in high-profile cases.  In 1933, for instance, he led the charge against union-run "rackets," and in June 1934 he represented the people against ten Communists, accused with rioting and attacking police with nail-studded clubs.

In 1929 No. 391 towered above the 1834 structures, one of which it replaced.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Another surprising resident was John (known as Jack) Van Bibber--an amateur chef, cookbook author and literary agent.  He moved into a second floor apartment in the late 1940's.  The young bachelor had a mural painted on a dining room wall for which he paid $50.  He later described it as "an awful mural with columns designed from every known style of architecture and Cuban ladies in Empress Eugénie hairdos."  As his success and subsequent finances increased, he filled the apartment with art and antique furniture.

With the repeal of Prohibition, the former clothing store was converted to a tavern, the Glascow Bar & Grill.  A bar would remain in the space until 1960.

In the meantime, in 1948, Alger Hiss, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace  had made headlines across the country.  Hiss had been highly involved in the establishment of the United Nations, had been both a U. S. State Department official and a United Nations official.  But now he was accused by the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities of being a Soviet spy.

Although he maintained his innocence until his death and the charges were never fully substantiated, Hiss received two concurrent five-year sentences.  He served three and a half years.

On February 17, 1959 The New York Times reported that Hiss and his wife, Priscilla, were separating after the 30 years of marriage.  Alger moved out and into an apartment at No. 391 West Street.  His troubles continued here.

On May 14, 1960 police reported "that the apartment of Alger Hiss on the lower West Side waterfront had been ransacked."  The Times described the building as "crumbling" and reminded readers that "Mr. Hiss, who is 55 years old, served a prison term for perjury after denying that he had passed confidential paper to Communist couriers in the Nineteen Thirties while he was a State Department official."

The disarray of the apartment was disproportionate to the items taken--a $30 gold ring and a $5 pair of cuff links.  The police told reporters "there was no indication whether the motive was burglary or other reasons"

In 1967 the Lent family sold No. 391 to a most unlikely buyer--long time resident Jack Van Bibber.  He was lesser known to Greenwich Village residents for his culinary and literary work than for his outspoken push-back against Robert Moses's proposed Lower Manhattan Crosstown Expressway.    The project would have connected the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges.

The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne had visited the Van Bibber apartments (there were two by now) in January 1967, the same year he purchased the building.  Claiborne dismissed Van Bibber's harsh critique of his dining room mural.  "The truth of the matter is that the mural, done in pastel tones, has a good deal of charm."

Claiborne described the spaces where "the 45-year-old bachelor frequently whips up buffets for 20, occasional cocktails for 50 and formal dinners for six to eight."  In addition, he wrote, "there is a large living and dining area in his second apartment, two flights below the first  It is decorated with art collected both in this country and abroad, pre-Columbia art from Mexico and last year's Christmas tree.  He also has a summer house on Fire Island."

A table was set up for a buffet in Van Bibber's apartment in January 1967.  The New York Times January 12, 1967
The writer was no less unkind to No. 391 than his newspaper had been seven years earlier.  "Mr. Van Bibber's apartment faces Pier 48, in a five story building with a dilapidated front."  At the time of the article Van Bibber had recently translated an Italian encyclopedia of cooking; and was at work translating a cookbook by Raymond Oliver, the proprietor of the Paris restaurant Grand Vefour.

The building was purchased in 1996 by Eight Weehawken LLC.  By then the once-gritty waterfront was noticeably changing.   Upscale high-rise apartment buildings and trendy restaurants and boutique hotels would soon pop up along the blocks to the north and south.  Today the Waterfront Bike Shop operates from the shop where longshoremen purchased work clothes from Solomon Lent.

Craig Claiborne had begun his 1967 article saying "Jack Van Bibber lives in a tenement."  Today that description no longer applies  A two-bedroom apartment here recently rented for $3,800 per month; the real estate agent boasting "it is located on the 4th floor of a walk-up building but is worth every step."

photographs by the author

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Chester W. Chapin House -- 331 West End Avenue




In 1887 construction began on a row of eight houses on the west side of West End Avenue, between 75th and 76th Streets.  It was an unusual arrangement of ownership among the developer, George B. Jacques and his architectural firm, Berg & Clark.  Possibly as part of the commission negotiation, Charles I. Berg and his partner Edward H. Clark each owned one property, and  Berg shared ownership with Jacques in one other.

The row was completed in 1888, a frenzy of shapes and styles.  No. 331, owned by Charles L. Berg, was a marriage of the Renaissance Revival and Queen Anne styles.  The 22-foot-wide residence cost $20,000 to build; more than half a million in today's dollars.  Red brick contrasted with the brownstone base, while limestone provided accents to the upper floor.  Two quirky, unrelated dormers, poked through the slate-shingled roof.  The elegant neo-Georgian fanlight above the entrance was defiantly out of character; fighting stylistically with, for instance, the colorful stained glass transoms of the upper floor windows.

Berg & Clark created a dizzying mixture of shapes and angles  No. 331 is at the far right. photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
The house caught the eye of the trustees of The New York Institute for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb.  Charles I. Berg personally gave the organization a $30,000 mortgage on the property.  Whether it ever moved in is unclear; but if so it was a short-lived arrangement.  On March 12, 1891 Berg and his wife, Ada, sold the house to millionaire Chester Williams Chapin for $50,000.

Chapin's father, Chester W. Chapin, Sr., President of the Boston and Albany Railroad, had died in 1883.  He left an estate of about $2 million (more than 25 times that amount today).  The Pacific Commercial Advertiser later explained "he left the bulk of his vast estate to his son, who had already made himself a millionaire and a power in the railway, steamship and financial worlds."

Indeed, Chapin had founded the New Haven Steamboat line, was president of the Connecticut Railroad and the Western Railroad, and had merged several others to form the Boston and Albany system.  In addition, he founded the Chapin Trust Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, the National Start Company, and was a director in many other corporations, banks and railroads.

Chapin had moved to New York City from Springfield in 1880.  He and his wife, the former Emelia Ward, had married in New Orleans in 1867.  It was a surprising match.  Although they were both 27, Emelia was a widow with three children.  Two more children, Julia and Pauline, would increase the family.

No. 331 West End Avenue was a fraction of the size of the Chapin mansion at No. 34 West 57th Street.  But the family never intended to live in it.  Instead Chapin purchased it for the use of his extended family when they visited New York.   Among those using the house from time to time was Chapin's married sister, Anna Rumrill, and his cousin Charles Henry Chapin, and their families.

The vast wealth of Chester and Emelia Chapin was summed up in two sentences in The Pacific Commercial Advertiser in 1906.  "They entertained extensively at their town house, No. 34 West Fifty-seventh street, just down the block from the Vanderbilts, Huntingtons and Oelrichses; their hospitalities at their many country places at Red Bank, Springfield, Montclair, Lebanon Lake and Tampa, and at their village at Aix-le-Bains, France, were notable.  There were notable cruises, too, on their yachts, Whim, Iroquois and Yampa."  Their Putnam County "farm" engulfed 2,000 acres.

The colorful stained glass survives in the second story transoms.  The brownstone has been regrettably painted.

On November 25, 1894 The New York Times remarked on the Chapins' Thanksgiving house party.  "Many guests have been invited to their Berkshire residence which is a spacious, old-fashioned mansion, and is always kept ready for occupancy.  The building is over 200 years old, and is delightfully arranged for house parties.  An interesting feature of the house is the ballroom, which occupies an entire floor, and has at either end an immense fireplace."

Quite possibly among the guests were Charles H. Chapin's three daughters, Louise, Annette, and Elizabeth (known as "Bessie").  They and their parents were repeated guests at the country estates and on long voyages on the Chapins' lavish yacht, the Yampa.  Chester Chapin was especially generous to his young Chicago nieces, since, as one newspaper put it, their "father had not been so well blessed with this world's goods as he."

As the Bessie and her sisters had grown to young women, they visited New York relatively often.  They stayed in the West End Avenue house, always with a chaperon, of course.  Their aunt Anna Rumrill often filled that position.

Chester's and Emelia's daughters married and left the Fifth Avenue mansion.  The Pacific Commercial Advertiser remarked "Instead of growing closer together as their children married and went away to homes of their own, Mr. and Mrs. Chapin gradually drifted apart, though married nearly forty years."  The newspaper added, somewhat cattily, "And it was then that the millionaire turned to his pretty cousin, winsome 'Bessie,' for companionship and sympathy."

Bessie spent less and less time in Chicago.  The Advertiser said "The summers found her practically mistress of the great estate at Lebanon Lake, with Mr. Chaplin's sister, Mrs. James A. Rumrill, as chaperon.  When she was in New York a house which Mr. Chapin has bought on West End avenue was always opened to her and her mother and sister."

There was no hint of scandal; no whispered words that Chapin and his young cousin were engaged in anything unseemly.   But in the first years of the 20th century "Mrs. Chapin had quietly dropped out of sight of her friends," according to one newspaper.  She quietly obtained a divorce and "was handsomely provided for."

Chester's affection for his cousin now blossomed.  Although he was 65-years-old, 40 years older than Bessie, and she had always called him "Uncle Chet," they were married in Chicago on November 22, 1905.  Following their honeymoon, which included a voyage to Hawaii, the newlyweds only briefly lived in the massive Fifth Avenue mansion.  On May 18, 1907 The Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Chapin had transferred the deed of No. 331 West End Avenue to his wife as "a gift."

Despite the initial surprise to society, the fall-spring marriage seems to have worked out well.  It weathered what could have been a significant bump on December 6, 1911 when Chester was served with a summons to appear "in a suit brought against him by a Mrs. Janet H. Phillips, a widow, living on the upper west side," reported The New York Times.

The newspaper said on January 3, 1912 "The nature of the action has not been determined because the complaint did not accompany the summons, but it is intimated that a 'package of letters' will play an important part in the suit, should it come to trial."  The implication was clear.

Chapin admitted to reporters that he had known Mrs. Phillips for 15 years; but "had not known her directly in the last seven years."  He charged that "it was only a desire to get money from him."

A journalist from The Times went directly to No. 331 to get answers.  "Mrs. Chapin was seen at her West End Avenue home yesterday afternoon," he reported on January 3.  "She appeared in a black riding habit."

Bessie dismissed the entire affair.  "I saw my husband only an hour ago, and he said nothing about it.  We have been married for six years, and I never heard of such a woman."  As she spoke, Chester showed up.  "Mr. Chapin returned from a drive, just then.  When a show of anger, he refused to say anything about the suit."

It is possible the Chapins avoided messy publicity, whether Janet Phillips had a real complaint or not, by paying her.  There was no subsequent trial.

Chester and Bessie were gone from New York for a prolonged period beginning in the summer of 1915, prompting them to lease No. 331 to R. M. Claussen.   Their departure may have been prompted by the noisy demolition of the neighboring houses to the south house that year.  By the time the couple returned the rowhouses had been replaced by a 12-story apartment building.

Bessie had, at the time, a somewhat unusual hobby for a woman of society--that of breeding pedigree cats. When the 15th annual Atlantic Cat Club opened "with a yowl," according to the The Evening World on November 22 the following year, the newspaper noted that Bessie was "one of the largest exhibitors.  She has almost a score of cats on display."

Following World War I the Chapins loaned their Putnam County estate to the Government for use as a convalescent camp for wounded soldiers and sailors.  Hundreds of returning veterans stayed there for months.

On November 11, 1922, at the age of 80, Chester W. Chapin died in the West End Avenue house.  In reporting on his death, The New York Herald remembered his active life. "Mr. Chapin formerly drove a fine team of horses in this city and was a leader in all horse shows and similar events.  He also hunted much in the Rocky Mountains and on the plains.  He was a licensed navigator and gave substantial support to yachting."

Chapin's will was filed for probate on November 21.  The New York Times reported that he left "an worth between $4,000,000 and $5,000,000."  In addition to securities worth $200,000 (just under $3 million today), Bessie received the West End Avenue house another on West 78th Street, the Sands Point, Long Island estate "Meadow Farm," and the country homes at Port Washington, Long Island and Pasadena, California.  The article added "She is given also the furniture, paintings, jewelry and personal and household effects."

Bessie sold Meadow Point in 1924, and No. 311 West End Avenue in 1932.  She died in Santa Barbara, California on November 15, 1969 at the age of 88.

She had held on to No 311 long enough to prevent its demolition when the other remaining Berg & Clark houses were demolished in 1925 for an Emery Roth-designed 15-story apartment building.  Now wedged between the modern structures, No 311 survived as a single-family home until 1986, when it was converted to two apartments per floor.  A subsequent renovation in 2000 added an unseen penthouse.

Elizabeth Chapin's refusal to sell gave us a wonderful squashed-in hold-out.
photographs by the author