Friday, November 30, 2018

The Catherine Auchincloss House - 123 East 69th Street




In 1872 ubiquitous developer Christopher Keyes began construction on a row of 11 20-foot wide brownstone-fronted homes on East 69th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues.  Designed by the equally-prolific John Sexton, they were completed in 1873.

On April 14, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported the Catherine Agnew would be married to Edgar Stirling Auchincloss that afternoon in the mansion of the bride's family at No. 23 West 39th Street.  Catherine was the daughter of Andrew G. Agnew and the former Mary Hervey Bliss.  Exactly one year later, on April 15, 1904 Agnew purchased No. 123 East 69th Street.   And then the following year, in July, he transferred title to his daughter.

The reason that her parents' wedding gift was belated was most likely due to an updating of the now-outdated Victorian.  In 1904 Agnew had hired S. Edson Gage to make alterations.  Period photographs reveal a remodeled facade--a somewhat curious take on Spanish Revival.

Edgar Auchincloss was a wealthy importer.  He had graduated from Yale University in 1896 and was was a member of some of Manhattan's most exclusive clubs, including the University, Downtown and Racquet Clubs.  At a time when only the wealthiest owned motorcars, he was a member of the Automobile Club of America.  The Auchinclosses had four children--Edgar, Jr., Mary Bliss, Elizabeth Ellen and Katrina. 

The twisted wrought iron balusters of the sinuous staircase and the lighting fixture carried on the Spanish motif.  photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
The same year that Edgar and Catherine moved into the remodeled house, they acquired a 400-acre country estate near Darien, Connecticut.  Its name, Keewaydin, was taken from Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha."

On May 4, 1910 Edgar Auchincloss died in the 69th Street house at the age of just 35.  While he left about a quarter of a million dollars to relatives, Catherine received the bulk of the estate.  The New-York Tribune remarked "At her death the estate is to go to the testator's three daughters and one son" and added that the estate's executors "are empowered at any time to provide a fund of $25,000 for the son to use should he desire to embark in business, or a like sum, should he desire to enter into serious study preparatory to taking up a profession."

In a move that may have shocked society, two days after her husband's death, Catherine purchased the house next door, at No. 121, spending more than a million and a half in today's dollars on the property.  It may have been, however, a reaction to being suddenly alone that prompted the purchase.  After having the architectural firm of  R. H. Robertson & Sons make "extensive alterations and additions" to the home, she sold it to her brother, George Bliss Agnew.


The alterations to No. 121 were remarkable.  Seen at far right, No. 123 boasted a Spanish Renaissance entrance, tiled roof and dramatic balcony above the areaway.  photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The closeness of the siblings was evidenced five years later when, on the same day, September 17, 1915, architect W. I. Morris filed plans for interior renovations to both houses.  They were identical in scope, "extend stairs and bedrooms," at a cost of $3,000 each. 

The young widow never remarried.  She instead busied herself with charity work, most notably the Association for the Aid of Crippled Children.  During a its annual meeting in the 69th Street house on March 2, 1926, she was re-elected its president.   For decades she would be highly involved in her pet philanthropy, often hosting meetings, teas and receptions in the home.

In 1930 Catherine commissioned architect William F. Dominick to give the house a noticeable face lift.  His plans, filed on December 11, involved removing the stoop and areaway, remodeling the first and second story facade, and replacing the tiling of the roof and shed dormer with copper cladding.


Dominick's remodeling of the lower floors toned down the former Spanish Renaissance elements.
It was a busy time for Catherine.  Twelve days later the engagement of Edgar, Jr. to Patty Milburn was announced.  One by one Catherine's children married and left East 69th Street.  Mary was married to Nelson Lawrence Page on November 16, 1933; and Katrina's engagement to Royal Elting Mygatt was announced on July 9, 1937.  That wedding took place less than a month later at Keewaydin.  Elizabeth's wedding three years later in June also was celebrated in the Connecticut home.  Rather surprisingly, The New York Times noted on June 9, 1940, "No previous announcement of the engagement had been been made."


Catherine's library was decidedly English in design.  photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
At the time of Elizabeth's marriage Catherine had five live-in servants at No. 123--a cook, two maids and two "waiters," (the more polished maids who served, for instance, Catherine's teas, receptions and luncheons).   An example of the regular teas that would have kept those women busy was the tea hosted by Catherine and Elizabeth on April 7, 1945 for the trustees of the Child Education Foundation.  It was emblematic of the types of entertainments Catherine held--almost never merely social, but with an altruistic purpose.

On May 16, 1950 The New York Times reported that Catherine had sold the house she had occupied for nearly half a century.  Two years later, while still a single-family home, a doctor's office was installed in the first floor.  

By the early 2000's the mansion was owned by, Zack Hapton Bacon III, a partner in the multibillion-dollar hedge fund Moore Capital Management; and fiancĂ© of Diandra Douglas (former wife of actor Michael Douglas).  When he listed the property in 2005 for $10.75 million, it was described as having "six bedrooms, eight wood-burning fireplaces, a wood-paneled library and a terrace topping the fourth floor."  There were also an elevator, indoor waterfall in the entrance hall, and a gym with sauna.  Bacon changed his mind, however, and took the property off the market.  

Twice remodeled, Catherine Auchincloss's stately home is an integral part of the amazing architectural fabric of the East 69th Street block.

photographs by the author

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Rusting Beauty - 116-118 Franklin Street



photo via streeteasy.com
Samuel D. Babcock was a well-respected member of Manhattan's business and social circles.  Involved in railroads, finance, steamships and insurance, he branched into real estate development as early as 1859 when he turned his focus to the changing Tribeca district.

Babcock added to his significant holdings in 1870 when he purchased the two old brick buildings at Nos. 116 and 118 Franklin Street, just east of West Broadway.  He commissioned the well-known architect, Griffith Thomas, to design a modern loft and store building on the site.

Thomas's structure would be on the cutting edge in two ways.  The French Second Empire style had taken Paris by storm only a few years earlier; and the technology required for the cast iron facade of the upper floors had only recently been perfected.

The identical upper floors, each separated by a sill course, featured flat-arched openings between engaged columns.  Quoins imitating stone ran from the sidewalk to the cast iron cornice, upheld by substantial scrolled brackets.

Even before the structure was officially completed in 1872 it had at lease one tenant.  An advertisement in The New York Herald in January 1871 read:

LOST--On Saturday morning, in an Eighth avenue car, a Bundle, containing books.  Owner of same got off at corner of Franklin street and West Broadway.  A liberal reward will be paid to finder on delivering same at Nos. 116 and 118 Franklin street.

The unlucky bibliophile might have worked for an accessories firm.  In April 1873 a tenant was looking for "An experienced salesman to sell linen collars and cuffs."

In 1876 Charles R. Duxbury moved his newly-formed Duxbury & Co. into the building.  The firm supplied wholesale braids and bindings to apparel manufacturers dealers.  By 1886 Duxbury & Co. was a major player in the accessories business.  That year Finance and Industry said Duxbury had "developed a widespread business with connections of an influential character, while his facilities are unrivaled."

The writer described the ground floor space, saying  "In his spacious and centrally located salesroom in Franklin Street, is always displayed a complete assortment of every pattern, texture, width and shade, including braids and bindings for manufacturers of knit goods, blankets, shirts, clothing, etc., also supplies for manufacturers of kindred character."

In November 1886 the firm incorporated, becoming Duxbury & Co.  Its new president was the indefatigable Thomas C. Snedeker, with Charles R. Duxbury taking the position of treasurer.   It is unclear whether the new arrangement had anything to do with pending problems; but before long The New York Times reported "In the trade it is said that the business has not been very successful" and in 1889 said "The company paid slowly during the last year, and the debts, according to the annual reports, steadily increased, while the business did not increase in proportion."

Finally, on June 8, 1890 The Times ran the headline "A BRAID CONCERN EMBARRASSED--The Salesrooms of the Duxbury Company in the Sheriff's Hands."  Snedeker and Duxbury put a positive spin on the news, telling reporters that "the execution was a friendly one, and that it would be settled in a day or two."

It was not.  Instead, Thomas Snedeker took over the business, reorganizing as Snedeker & Co. and continuing the business without its founder.  His brothers, Joseph and William, were partners.

Sharing the building with Snedeker & Co. in the 1890's were A. W. Hangington, engaged in "stamping and tinting linens;" Joseph Linder, supplier of "cloth samples;" and J. L. Brown & Co.

Work in apparel-related factories was not an easy life.  The 16 men who worked for A. W. Hanington in 1895 worked a 60-hour week; and the dozen females who worked in Joseph Linder's shop put in 53 and a half hours.


Walter W. Walsh had more immediate problems than his work schedule on his mind on January 24 1896.  A traveling salesman for J. L. Brown, he worked late that night, unnoticed by coworkers who one by one went home.  When he tried to leave, he discovered that he was locked inside the building.

Late in the night a policeman passing the building heard a tapping noise inside.  Then, according to The Sun, a man's voice yelled "Say, help me get out, will you?  I've been locked in."

Suspecting that he may be communicating with a burglar, the cop interviewed him through the iron door for some time before finding a ladder and managing his release.  Nevertheless, Walsh was taken to the station house until his identity was firmly established.

In the meantime, the Snedeker brothers diversified their firm by adding real estate development and management.  Joseph had erected the lavish Massepequa Hotel on the Great South Bay of Long Island, and "cottages" in the vicinity in 1888.  Included as part of its new real estate business, Snedeker & Co. took over the management of the 300-room resort hotel by 1897. 

Snedeker & Co. became better known to the general public for the real estate portion of the business than for its trimmings.  On August 27, 1899 the New-York Tribune reported "As September approaches the Massapequa Hotel remains well filled, and as many of the sojourners who have been so comfortable and contented during the summer are loath to go, Snedeker & Co. have decided to keep the house open well into the month."

At the time of that article, the tenants at Nos. 116 and 118 Franklin Street were cleaning up after a fire on July 29.  The losses totaled to about $7,750--nearly a quarter of a million today.  The damage to the building may have contributed to alterations in November 1901 by architect Richard Berger.  While the storefronts may have been slightly remodeled, the bulk of the upgrades were inside.

That summer season Snedeker & Co. had debuted a new attraction at the Massapequa Hotel and its cottages.  An advertisement in June noted, "Golf Links immediately adjoining hotel."  It added "Special rates for young men."

New-York Tribune June 9, 1901 (copyright expired)
Abraham Vanderbilt operated his express (or freight delivery) firm in the building when, on February 25, 1902, the 66-year old died.  It appears that the Snedekers were quick to move in.  Among William Snedeker's directorships in 1915 was Vanderbilt & Co., still in the Franklin Street building with Snedeker & Co.

Moore & Gibson Co. published postcards and "souvenir goods" in the building through 1912.  Hand tinted scenes of towns, resorts and areas of interest throughout the country enabled tourists to show the folks back home where they had been.

This panorama of Stamford, New York, was typical of Moore & Gibson's scenic postcards.
Snedeker & Co. remained at Nos. 116 and 118 Franklin Street until just before World War I.  The tradition of apparel firms in the building continued.  In 1921 Rubin Jacobson took the fourth floor and the Manufacturing Textile Corporation took the fifth.  In 1929 the newly-formed Peerless Linen Corp. moved in.  (Unfortunately, its organization at the onset of the Great Depression seems to have been ill-timed.  It declared bankruptcy two years later.)

In December 1935 linen importers Ernest-Fischer Company announced it would move into the building the following month.  But the dry goods district would give way to galleries, restaurants and lavish residences in before the end of the century.

A renovation was begun in 1983 which resulted in one "loft dwelling" per floor above the ground floor.  A subsequent alteration completed in 2002 resulted in a duplex on the fifth floor extending into the new penthouse level, unseen from the street.

The store space, where Duxbury &  Co. displayed bindings and braids in the 1870's became home to Grown & Sewn's flagship store in April 2011.  The boutique offered men's pants, shorts, bags and accessories.


The nearly 150-year old cast iron facade has been inexcusably neglected.  Rust streaks down the surface and jagged holes mar the sill courses--a seemingly cavalier disregard of a historic property by owners who can afford lavish residences inside.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Charming 1821 Survivor at 28 Commerce Street



In 1821, about a year  before Cherry Lane was renamed Commerce Street, shoemakers Asher Martin and John Bennet got in on the building boom in Greenwich Village by erecting three modest homes at what would be numbered Nos. 24 through 28 Commerce Street.

Faced in red Flemish bond brick, the frame Federal-style houses were intended for working class families.   Two-and a half stories stories tall, each was just 16 feet wide.  They displayed none of the upscale details that defined more affluent residences.  Plain brownstone lintels and simple wooden cornices made do.  Nevertheless, the architect added decorative molding around the sunburst transom bar above the paneled door.

The delicate treatment of the entrance transom was a lovely exception to the otherwise moderate design.
It does not appear that either Bennet or Martin moved into one of the homes; although both changed professions before long,  By 1835 Bennet (perhaps having learned his new trade when constructing these houses) was living at No 2 Thames Street and listing himself as "carpenter."  Asher Martin was working for the city as an "assessor" that year, and living at No. 200 Grand Street.  The following year he received a promotion to City Collector of Assessments.

Bennet and Martin leased the houses until January 15, 1852 when they sold them as a package for $6,000, or about $65,300 each today.  No. 28 became home to mason Garret Spear.   The New Jersey native died in the Commerce Street house at the age of 56 on Sunday, November 27, 1859.  His funeral was held in the parlor the following night.

Houses like this routinely had a secondary building in the rear--either stable, a small house, or a shop (like a carpenter or blacksmith shop).  At the time of his death Spear was leasing the rear structure to brothers Charles and Gilliam B. Seely.  Both men lived nearby--Charles at No. 89 Commerce Street and Gilliam at No. 104 Leroy Street.

They used the building for their "soda water factory," known as Seely & Brother.  Using the address of 28-1/2 Commerce Street, they would manufacture and bottle soda water here for years.  For a period it seems that the building doubled as both factory and stable for the company's delivery truck.  On October 30, 1862 the brothers looked to replace one of the horses:

FOR SALE: A black horse, 16-3/4 hands high, short tail, very stylish and an excellent military horse; 5 years old, and a smart traveler; would make a good express or carriage horse, or fit for any use; warranted right every way.  Apply at Seely's soda water manufactory, 28-1/2 Commerce street, near Bedford.

Two years later another horse was offered for sale by Seeley's, this one a "brown Hambletonian mare."

In the meantime, following Garret Spear's death No. 28 was operated as a rooming house.  Isaac Laforge, a "cutter," was living here in 1861, as were Isaac and Helen M. Lafarge.  Their marriage ended in divorce that year.  J. Sullivan was renting a rented room in the house on August 19, 1863 when his name was pulled in the Union Army draft lottery.

The proprietor of the rooming house, like so many others, was reticent to rent to an unmarried woman.  In 19th century New York, a female of questionable character could seriously damage the reputation of the house.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on June 5, 1864 offered "To Let--A nicely furnished front room on second story, to a gentleman only."

The policy was still in place six years later.  An advertisement on February 17, 1870 read "To Let--A nicely furnished attic room, to gentlemen only."  The $2 per week rent would equal about $39 today.

The attic room was not the most comfortable.  Not only did the tenant have to deal with its sloping ceiling. but in the days before air conditioning or central heat, it would have been stiflingly hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It was vacant again in 1871, and again in October 1872.  The price remained the same.

The wooden clapboards are clearly visible in this 1932 photo by Charles Von Urban.  A group of teen-aged girls have gathered on the sidewalk.  Note that the parlor floor shutters of No. 26 are tightly closed.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
At the time Timothy Colbert worked in a loft building at No. 107 Front Street, steps from the East River docks.  In the years before elevators, open shaftways fitted with pulleys were used to hoist materials up and down.  It was a dangerous system that repeatedly resulted in injuries and deaths.  On July 1, 1873 The New York Times reported that the 38-year old Colbert had plummeted from the third floor to the basement, "and was seriously injured."

Seely & Brother was gone by May 1873 when the rear building seems to have been used as a livery stable.  A patron who stored his buggies here offered them for sale that month.   "Two splendid leather top (City made) buggies; good for city or country; price $200 each."   Each would cost the potential buyer about $4,250 today.

The little house continued to house respectable, blue collar class families.  The family of little Mamie Bogart lived here in 1888 when the fifth grader was enrolled in the newly-built Public School No. 8 on King Street.

The houses of the charming row, unexceptional in 1821, are highly-sought after today.
No. 28 received inside plumbing in 1925 and an interior alteration in 1935.  The latter was no doubt in anticipation of renting unofficial apartments.  The Department of Buildings caught up with the owner a year later, when a "Multiple Dwelling Violation" was issued.

Problems came again in 1999 when the little house was deemed an "unsafe building."  The condition was corrected and No. 28 returned to life as a private family home.  The owner, Richard Verrazzani, incurred the Department of Building's displeasure again, however.  In 2010 he was cited for creating an illegal apartment in the basement.

Despite an occasional brush with the city, the appearance No. 28 and its 1821 neighbors are little changed.  They create a picturesque snapshot of early 19th century Greenwich Village.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Robert Mantell House - 146 West 95th Street


Both the parlor window and  dramatic arched opening would have flaunted stained glass.  The doorway, now the window at left, was originally above a stoop.   photo via Cityrealty.com

William J. Merritt took full advantage of the rapid development of the Upper West Side in the 1880's, designing and building scores of homes.  So confident was he in the new suburb and in W. J. Merritt & Co.'s trendy homes, that he offered them with a money-back guarantee.

In the fall of 1886 W. J. Merritt & Co. completed construction of an extensive row of three-story homes that filled nearly the entire southern blockfront of West 95th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.  Each of the Queen Anne style brick-faced houses was different and together they formed a picturesque row.  The finished homes were quickly snatched up--the Real Estate Record & Guide reporting on the sale of nine of them on a single day on December 4.  The announcement noted "The average price throughout was a little less than $15,000."  That amount would equal about $400,000 today.

While several of its neighbors displayed creative brickwork, terra cotta bosses and other eye-catching details; the design of No. 146 traded was somber.  It relied on a single terra cotta panel within the parlor floor wall and a powerful two-story arch, the lower half of which held an angled bay.   Rather than cornices, No. 146 and its neighbors wore unadorned brick parapets.



At the time Robert Mantell was a theatrical sensation.  He was described in The Illustrated American as "over six feet high and well proportioned. he has fine blue eyes and blond hair.  He is a good athlete, and is a great favorite among his male friends, who call him Bob."

According to his biographer, Clarence Joseph Bullet recalled "In 1883, Mantell as Loris Ipanoff flashed upon New York as the most brilliant romantic actor of his time."  Two years earlier he had married actress Margaret Sheldon, who went by the stage name Marie.  The couple were earning a combined salary of $125 a week, nearly $165,000 a year today and more than enough to purchase No. 146.

Catherine S. Barrow had purchased at least two of the houses from Merritt in December 1886.   On July 16, 1887 The Record & Guide reported that she had sold "the three-story Queen Anne dwelling...for $16,000 to Actor Mantell, of the Union Square Theatre."  Two months later the title was transferred to Marie's name, a move the actor may have later regretted.

Years later, in 1918, Bullett recalled "Mantell and Marie Sheldon discovered soon after they were married that they differed in tastes, ideas, ideals and tempers.  But they made the best of what both came to regard as a bad bargain.  For a long time they lived amicably so far as the outside world knew or cared."  The couple had two sons, Robert Shand and Jack Parcher Mantell.

Robert Mantell had an eye for actresses.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Marie and Robert continued to appear on stage together.  She took out a second mortgage on No. 146 in 1891; and it appears that when the family was on the road they leased their home.  The Charles Edward Bateson family was living here in 1890 with sons Richard H. and Charles, Jr. who were attending New York City College.  They were still here as late as 1896.

In the meantime, their landlords were having domestic problems.  Mantell's continued attention to actresses finally drove Marie to the end of her patience.  Already, according to Clarence Bullet, "As Mantell was a popular stage hero, the ears of Dame Gossip were pricked up.  The rumors were well grounded, though."  The climax came in Cincinnati where the couple argued, followed by Marie's packing her bags and returning to New York.

Marie obtained a legal separation and on September 23, 1892 The Evening World reported that Mantell "agreed to pay his wife $100 per week for the rest of her natural life," which included child support.  Almost immediately after their divorce was granted, Mantell married actress Charlotte Behrens.  And before long stopped paying his alimony.

On February 13, 1893 The Evening World reported on Margaret's "motion to punish Actor Robert B. Mantell for contempt for failing to pay alimony."  (Her legal applications, of course, were filed under her legal, not her stage, name.)  He was in arrears $1,800 at the time.

Victorian theater-goers were not pleased with the matinee idol's less than chivalrous behavior.  Nor were the authorities, who issued warrants for his arrest.  He was banished from the New York stage, not to return for a decade.  In the meantime, Margaret adapted to her new life as single mother and provider.  By 1899 she was on the governing board of the Professional Woman's League.

In 1901 physician Alfred E. Meyer and his wife were living three blocks away at No. 139 West 92nd Street.   A 1893 graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he quickly made himself known in the medical community.  In September 1896 The Medical Fortnightly had reported on his successful treatment of women suffering from chronic indigestion by using "Maltine with Wine of Pepsin."  Although there was an unpleasant side effect ("there were continued eructations of gas"), he felt it was outweighed by the outcome.  "Dr. Meyer says he thinks that the combination of 'Maltine with Wine of Pepsin' is a very happy one."

What was not so happy was the result of Meyer's late night excursion in El Paso, Texas earlier that year.  When two elderly neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. August Movius, planned a trip to California in January 1901, Meyer accompanied them.  The New-York Tribune explained "Mr. Movius is in poor health."  The trio left New York the first week of February.

They arrived in El Paso on Sunday February 10.  Three days later a local newspaper reported "Dr. Alfred E. Meyer, of New-York, came near [to] losing his life here last night...The physician has been out with friends several times since he came here last Sunday, but last night he went alone."  The article described him as "a clever young man, [who] is said to have a good practice in New-York."

Meyer's solitary adventure took him to the city's "Tenderloin" district which, like its New York namesake, was an unsavory one.  After having a few drinks and talking with "some women," he was drugged, stabbed with a dagger, and robbed.  He was found by a policemen the following morning.  "When found, he had six ugly gashes in his body, a rather serious on his side.  his clothes were literally cut to pieces, and his watch and hat were gone."

The physician who tended to him said "he could not have drunk much, and was certainly drugged."  The incident was reported in newspapers nationally and was no doubt an enormous source of humiliation for his wife.  The New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. Meyer, at her home...was shocked last night at the news of the assault."

The couple soon moved into No. 146 West 95th Street.  The scandal seems to have been left behind in El Paso.  In 1904 Meyer was Assistant Surgeon in the New York Polyclinic and a member of the Society Alumni City (Charity) Hospital.   They would not be here long, however.  Alfred became ill around 1905 and he died on December 3, 1906 at the age of just 39.

The house became home to another physician, Herbert L. Cellar, chief of the medical department of Mount Sinai Hospital.  Following his move to No. 61 West 94th Street around 1914 composer and musician John A. Broekhoven moved in.

An advertisement in The Violin World in February 1915 touted his seven-volume Broekhoven Methods In Singing and Composition, the "Most concise System of Harmony in print."  Customers were advised to write to 146 West 95th Street.

Born in 1857, Broekhoven was already well-known in the music world.  Formerly from Cincinnati, he was the author of several technical books including The True Method of Tone Production, A System of Harmony for Teacher and Pupil, and The True Method of Tone Production. 

In 1912 he had composed the overture, Columbia.  But not everyone had always been a fan of his music.  When his 1891 Suite Creole was played at the Chicago Exposition in 1893, it met with harsh criticism from the American Art Journal.  Its critic ranted:

The so-called 'Suite Creole' by Mr. Broeckhoven [sic], of Cincinnati, should have no place upon the program of a serious concert...The grotesque humor and suppressed pathos of slave life are sufficiently characteristic to form the burden of songs and symphonies; but I for one do not like to be dragged into the midst of a semi-heathenish barbecue and pelted with melon rinds.

Broekhoven lived at No. 146 at least into the late-1920's, and it was most likely one of his students who was responsible for the April 1929 noise complaint of "Singer at 146 West 95th Street."

He died in the home of his nephew in Cincinnati in August 1930.

In 1968 the house was converted to apartments, one each in the basement and first floor, and two each on the upper levels.  It was most likely at this time that the stoop was removed, the entrance converted to a window, and the Queen Anne stained glass panels removed.  A subsequent renovation in 2004 resulted in five apartments including a duplex on the top floor extended into part of the second.

Despite its ill-treatment, No. 146 maintains the architectural charm it held more than 130 years ago when it was home to one of the theater's most handsome--and mendacious--actors.

photographs by the author

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Lost E. H. Harriman Mansion - 1 East 69th Street


The house before alterations; its entrance was within the portico on 69th Street.  To the right is the carriage house.  The similar mansion to the left was built in 1882, designed by C. W. Clinton.  King's Views of New York City, A.D. 1903 (copyright expired)
Builders Peter and Francis Herter arrived in New York City from Germany where, according to The New York Times years later, Peter had been "the richest builder on the banks of the Rhine."  The brothers established Herter Brothers--a business name that would cause confusion to this day because of the well-known interior decorating firm, Herter Brothers, flourishing at the same time.

The architectural firm of Herter Brothers made their mark in New York by designing scores of tenement buildings; theirs being a bit more ornamented than the norm.  But in 1879 it was anything but a tenement they produced.  On July 3, 1880 The Real Estate Record & Guide wrote "The residence of Mr. David Dows, (Herter Bros., architects) is a double house, fifty feet front."

The massive brick and brownstone mansion sat at the north east corner of Fifth Avenue and 69th Street.  Its entrance on the side street gave it the address of No. 1 East 69th.  Four stories tall plus a full-story mansard (oddly without any windows), the house featured slightly protruding bays at the first floor which supported stone balconies at the second, arched pediments, Corinthian pilasters and a portico with stairs on either side.

Born on November 9, 1814, David Dows came from a family of farmers.   His ancestors had first settled in Massachusetts in 1630.  He left the family farm at the age of 20 to come to New York City.  Hired as a clerk by commission merchant Ira B. Cary, he learned the business, became a partner, and upon the death of the two senior partners, took over the firm, renaming it David Dows & Co.

The New York Times said later "In a comparatively few years David Dows amassed a great fortune, and his firm was both powerful and famous the world over."  He was among the organizers of the Produce Exchange and the Corn Exchange Bank; was a director in the New-York Elevated Railroad and the Metropolitan Elevated Railway; and in June 1878 he was elected five president of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  Dows and his wife, the former Margaret Wercester, had seven children, several of them married by now.

 David and Margaret filled the mansion with costly artworks, perhaps most notably Frederic Edwin Church's large painting The Heart of the Andes.

Church's The Heart of the Andes created a sensation when it was first exhibited.  Metropolitan Museum of Art
Despite their splendid mansion and sumptuous summer estate, Charlton Hall, in Hastings-on-Hudson, the Dow name rarely appeared in society columns; other than to mention that the couple had attended a wedding or other fashionable event.

Charlton Hall -- from the collection of the Irvington Public Library
In March 27, 1890 a headline in The New York Times was far more dire:  "DAVID DOWS DYING."  The article began "At a late hour last night the physical condition of Mr David Dows was not such as to afford the family much hope for his recovery...The worst is feared, and all the family are at the residence of the sick man at Fifth-avenue and Sixty-ninth-street."

Symptoms of the now-retired mogul's illness had appeared a week earlier as a series of chills.  Little by little he worsened until doctors diagnosed him with a "complication of ills the most pronounced being a very severe affection of the kidneys."  The newspaper ended its report saying that the 75-year old was "reputed to be many times a millionaire."

Indeed he was.  Following his death three days later, the newspaper reported "His estate is estimated at $18,000,000."  That amount would translate to half a billion dollars today.

The funeral, held in the Dow mansion on April 2, was attended by some of the most powerful figures in politics and industry.  Among them were the former Secretary of the Treasury, Charles S. Fairchild, John Sloane, Henry O. Armour, Darian O. Mills, Samuel Babcock and Roswell P. Flower (who would become New York Governor two years later).

Margaret remained in the house.  David, Jr., who was living in Irvington, New York at the time of his father's death, moved back into the mansion.  Also living with in the house with their mother were Tracy, who was attending Harvard, and Mary .

Margaret died in her home on February 3, 1909.  Her will left large bequests to numerous philanthropies, including the Children's Aid Society, the New York Homeopathic Medical College and Hospital, and the Daisy Fields Hoe and Hospital.

A little over a year before Margaret Dow's death, Edward Henry Harriman had purchased the plot at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.  But the millionaire banker and railroad executive seems to have had second thoughts about building a mansion in the neighborhood which was quickly being taken over by commerce.  On April 13, 1907 the Record & Guide pointed out that "no plans have been prepared or architect selected for a $2,000,000 residence...It was stated that no immediate improvement of this corner has yet been determined"

The delay might also have been influenced by another ongoing project.  At the time of the article, Harriman and his wife, the former Mary Williamson Averell, were focused on the design and construction of their summer mansion, Arden House, on their 40,000-acre estate near Turner Village, New York.  Designed by Carrere & Hastings, construction had begun in 1905 and would go on for several more years.

The Harrimans had five children, Mary, Henry Neilson, Cornelia, Carol, William Averell (who was known by his middle name and went on to become Under Secretary of State), and Edward Roland Noel.  Prospects of the Harrisons building on the 52nd Street corner came to an abrupt end when, two months after Margaret Dow's death, the couple purchased No, 1 East 69th Street and the abutting house on Fifth Avenue.  The Record & Guide explained that they intended "to unit the two properties into the site for a new residence."

But once again, the Harrimans rethought the idea.  Instead society architect Grosvenor Atterbury and with Julian L. Peabody as associate architect were brought in to update and remodel the Dow mansion.  The plans, filed on June 12, 1909, called for replacing the mansard with a new fifth story (a feature of which, when finished, will be the sun parlor," noted The Times), removing the portico and remodeling the entranceway.  The New York Times added "A new ornamental bay to light the library will be built at the second story and have a window seat.  All the present gas fixtures for lighting the large rooms will be replaced with electric chandeliers and brackets, the wires in various instances being laid in open conduits."

E. H. Harriman emerges from his carriage on East 33rd Street.  In the background is the 71st Regiment Armoryphoto from the collection of the Library of Congress

The renovations cost $40,000--just over $1.1 million today.  The Harrimans were not in New York when The Times article was published.  E. H. Harriman had suffered immense stress over the past year--battling law suits, the government, and labor organizations.  On June 8. 1909 The New York Times reported he had landed in Plymouth, England on the Kaiser Wilheim II and "declined to discuss the question of attempting to float in Europe a $150,000,000 bond issue for his railway linen."  A hint of problems within the article went unnnoticed by most readers.  "He will afterward go to Vienna to consult a medical expert, and intends to spend three months in Europe."

Within two weeks reporters took a closer look at his condition, saying he was in Austria "taking the cure," although his doctors said he suffered only from "a nervous ailment."  Frequent articles appeared in the American papers, always saying he was "resting" but feeling better.   On August 21 The Times reported on his treatment by the Viennese specialists: bed rest, special foods every two hours, sun baths, and "when there is no sunshine, champagne baths are to be substituted."

All the while construction continued on the two homes back home.  On August 11, 1909 The Times reported that Arden, although not yet completed, "would be in shape for [Harriman] and his family to move into early next week when he returns from abroad."  In fact only 12 of the 150 rooms had been completed.

Seen from above, it is easy to understand why construction on Arden House lasted years. photo The Wall Street Journal August 5 2010 
The Harrimans landed in Jersey City on August 24.  Their special train car took the family to Arden where the millionaire was transferred to an limousine which had been specially outfitted with train wheels.  It followed the private tracks up the steep slope and directly into the basement of the mansion.  Accompanying the family was the Viennese doctor who had been treating him.  The estate's 600 employees stood in formation at the bottom of the hill to greet their employer.

It was not until after his death, on September 9, that the Austrian physicians revealed that he had been battling stomach cancer.  The following day Adolf Struempell admitted "I could not, of course, communicate this diagnosis to private inquirers, but I informed Mr. Harriman's American physicians of it and that the conditions did not indicate that an operation was hopeless.  I hastened Mr. Harriman's departure homeward."

The Times reported that his estate was valued at "more than $100,000,000."  It was, in fact, more in the neighborhood of $247 million--a staggering $6.8 billion today.

Atterbury and Peabody's renovations to the former mansard are evident.  photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress
Mary was emotionally devastated by her husband's death.  In his 2000 The Life and Legend of E. H. Harriman, Maury Klein wrote "Crushed by grief, she languished in the seclusion at Arden, the huge estate in the Ramapo Mountains of New York that Henry had not lived to complete.  Then, in January 1910, she confided to friends that she was ready to take up life again."

The village of Turner, incidentally, was renamed Harriman in honor of their most famous resident.

The widow's reemergence into public life came gradually.  On May 5, 1910 The New York Times reported that daughter Mary was engaged to Charles Cary Rumsey; but added "Mrs. Harriman was not prepared yesterday at her home, 1 East Sixty-ninth Street, to make an announcement of the matter, but a formal statement is expected to be made to-day."

The hesitation may have been only partly because of Mary's emotional condition.  There is some evidence that she felt her daughter was marrying below her station.  While Rumsey had had a rather privileged upbringing, he had turned to sculpture rather than business for his life's work.

The Times explained he had met Mary four years earlier at the races.  "Later he undertook some work at Mr. Harriman's new house at Arden.  He was up there a good deal, and so got on intimate terms with the family."  The article noted "At Mrs. Harriman's house yesterday all inquires on the subject of the engagement were disregarded.  Mrs. Harriman refused to see reporters and set out word through her butler that their questions would be answered to-day."  A servant quickly asked the reporter "Has it got into the papers?"

The alterations to the mansion were, of course, completed by now.  Mary brought back Grosvenor Atterbury and Julian L. Peabody in February to update the carriage house.  The plans called for new walls, windows, stairs, and elevator shaft.  The $10,000 in renovations would equal about $266,000 today.

Behind the mansion was the substantial carriage house.  To the left is the garden gate and a slice of the conservatory.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Mary turned her focus to charitable works.  She carefully read each of the "begging letters" that came in, asking for help from her massive inheritance.  She generously supported institutions like the Boys' Club and medical facilities; while, as noted by Maury Klein, "she gave not a dime to any cause that did not interest her personally."

Living with her mother in the Fifth Avenue mansion were Carol, 10-year-old Edward (who was known as E. Roland), and Averell.  The family population was increased in 1911 with the addition of Laddie, a West Highland Terrier.  The luxurious surroundings of the grand home could not compete with the dog's instinctual urges and on November 14, 1912 he made a break for Central Park.

Two days later The Times reported that Mary Harriman had "appealed to the police" to help find the wayward pup.   The article said he was last seen "headed at full speed for Central Park.  Its green stretches are right across the avenue from his home."  Mary worried that "although Laddie is a year old, that night was the first he ever spent out."

Mary was honored when her granddaughter, the first child of Mary and Charles Cary Rumsey, was given the name Mary Averell Harriman Rumsey.  The christening was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion in April 1914.

The following year in September Averell married Kitty Lanier Lawrance and moved his bride into his mother's Fifth Avenue house.  Perhaps not to be outdone by his sister and brother-in-law, he and Kitty named their firstborn Mary Averell Harriman.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mary opened her mansion to the public on May 1, 1916 for an exhibition and sale of Edward Willard Deming's native American themed paintings, bronzes and decorative panels.  The exhibition lasted several days.

In February 1915 E. Roland, then 19 years old, suffered appendicitis.  His mother instructed doctors William G. Lyle and George E. Brewer to perform the operation in the mansion.  On February 26 The Times reported "The young man withstood the ordeal well and is rapidly regaining his health."

Mary Harriman routinely hosted lectures; either in connection with social issues or for her many charities.  On April 4, 1915, for instance, she hosted a "Conference in French by Jules Bois of Paris," and on December 12, 1916 The Times reported that "The Committee for Men Blinded in Battle held a meeting yesterday afternoon at the hoe of Mrs E. H. Harriman...to hear a report by Miss Winifred Holt, President of the Executive Committee in France, who returned here recently for a short visit."

The side of the Harriman house (right) faced Fifth Avenue.  The closer residence at No. 881 Fifth Avenue is the Adolph Lewisohn mansion.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Two weeks later E. Roland's engagement to Gladys C. C. Fries was announced.  The Sun reported "Socially prominent persons in New York are much interested in the engagement."  The last of the Harriman children to marry would be Carol, whose engagement to R. Penn Smith, Jr. of Philadelphia was announced in June 1917.

As the country became embroiled in world war, Mary's focus, like that of so many other socialites, turned to relief work.  On January 7, 1919 the Women's Advisory Committee of The War Camp Community Service met at No. 1 East 69th Street.  A report that afternoon noted that the group had found sleeping accommodations for more than 1 million uniformed men passing through the city the previous year.

Although she was nearly 70 years old, Mary Harriman managed to maintain her social activities.  On January 16, 1920 she gave "a small dinner" for 150 guests in honor of Roland and his wife.  One society columnist noted "It was for young people, chiefly debutantes."

Mary seems to have been frequently visited by her daughters.  Following an appendicitis operation in August 1920, Mary Rumsey recouperated at her mother's home.   On April 4, 1921 The New York Herald reported that "Mr. and Mrs. R. Penn Smith, Jr., who have been passing several weeks at the home of her mother, Mrs. E. Henry Harriman...have gone to their house at East Williston, L.I." and on October 31 that year the same newspaper noted "Mrs. Charles Cary Rumsey is at the home of her mother, Mrs. E. Henry Harriman, 1 East Sixty-ninth street."

The following year, on September 21, 1922 Charles Cary Rumsey was a passenger in an automobile traveling on the Jericho Turnpike.  It smashed into a stone abutment, throwing Rumsey from the car and almost instantly killing him.  Mary Rumsey moved back to No. 1 East 69th Street with her mother.

Mrs. E. H. Harriman in 1927.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.
She presented one of her husband's works, a statue of Francisco Pizarro to the Spanish town of Trujillo, where Pizarro was born.  In recognition, the King of Spain ordered that she be decorated with the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic.  The ceremony took place in the Harriman mansion on June 25, 1930.  Mary was presented the decoration by Don Alejandro Padilla y Bell, the Spanish Ambassador to the United States.

A view from 69th Street towards Central Park shows both the carriage house (in the middle of the frame) and the mansion.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On the night of November 7, 1932 the 81-year-old Mary Averill Harriman died in the New York Hospital after a brief illness.  Two years later in May 1934 a days-long auction was held of her furnishings, artworks, and silver.  Among the items sold were an early 18th century Aubusson tapestry, sets of George III and George IV silver flatware and a George II silver pierced cake basket.

The house as it appeared in 1932.  The mansion on the southwest corner have been demolished for an apartment building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The chance of survival for the gargantuan mansion during the 1930's was slim at best.  Yet it survived until 1947 when it and the house next door were demolished to be replaced by Emery Roth's last work--880 Fifth Avenue--which survives.

photo via Streeteasy.com

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Park Avenue Methodist Church - 106 East 86th Street




In 1768 property, 42 feet wide by 60 feet deep,was acquired on John Street, near Nassau by the first Methodist congregation in America.  The John Street Church, popularly known as Wesley's Chapel, was opened in October that year.  From that humble start, Methodism spread.  

In the spring of 1837 a new congregation was formed well north of the city in the village of Yorkville.  In a coincidence of timing, the venerable John Street Church was being demolished at the time.   On February 1, 1837 that year The Herald had reported "The property on which the Methodist Church in John street stood is said to be forfeited by the late sale and conversion of it into stores."

Under the leadership of Rev. Daniel De Vinne the Methodist Episcopal Church in Yorkville purchased four plots on what would become East 86th Street, and according to The New York Times decades later (on November 12, 1882), the old structure "was purchased by the Eighty-sixth-Street congregation and removed to the site of their present house in 1837."

The Yorkville congregation outgrew the building within two decades.  "In this venerable old edifice worship was conducted until 1858, when it was torn down and a new brick church was erected in its place at a cost of $9,800," reported The Times.  But it was not entirely the end of the historic structure.  The article went on to say "At the erection of the second church building a single beam of the old John-street wood was placed under the kneeling-board in front of the altar."

By 1882 Yorkville was no longer a distant hamlet; but a part of the steadily growing city.  The congregation had once again outgrown its building.  In August ground was broken for a new church directly across 86th Street and on November 12 The New York Times reported that the laying of the cornerstone would take place the following day.  The article noted that the wood from the John Street Church "will be removed and placed in a similar position in the new...church so that the church will retain its claim to material, as well as spiritual descent from the first of American Methodist churches."

With the new building came a new name.  On April 2, 1883 The New York Times announced "This organization will soon be known as the Park-Avenue Church, as it is now building a fine house of worship at Park-avenue and Eighty-sixth-street."  

That impressive structure was designed by well-known architect J. Cleveland Cady.  The eccentric design in included a 150-foot tall corner tower, "built after the style of the Campanile in Florence" and gargoyles on the Park Avenue elevation "which have the face of a tiger, the wings of a bat and the claws of an eagle."  The cost, including the land, would equal $5.68 million today.

At the time the Park-Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church had a membership of more than 700, described by The New York Times as "fashionable."  Nevertheless, it would be another 21 years before the $40,000 mortgage would be paid off.  On March 18, 1905 the New-York Tribune reported that the debt was finally paid off.  The celebratory service, predicted the newspaper "will be a memorable one in the long history of the Old Eighty-sixth Street Church, as it has always been known."

Debt would come again in the 1920's.  A new concept was sweeping metropolitan areas--the "skyscraper church."   Congregations from coast to coast were demolishing their old structures and building apartment or office buildings which incorporated a ground floor church space.  In theory the congregation would reap tremendous income from the rental properties.  Not everyone was thrilled by the concept.  The New York Times, for instance, editorialized, "Must we visualize a New York in which no spire points heavenward?"

By now the Park Avenue corner sat within a much-changed neighborhood.  Old houses and shops had been pulled down to be replaced by jazz-age apartment buildings.  The property on which the church stood was ripe for similar development.

On July 6, 1924 The New York Times wrote "The decision of the Park Avenue Methodist Church to tear down its present edifice for the erection on the site of a fifteen-story apartment house, the lower four floors of which will be utilized for the continuance of the church activities, there is presented not only another striking illustration of the changing conditions for successful church management in certain parts of the city, but also additional evidence of the increasing popularity of East Eighty-sixth Street as an apartment residential thoroughfare."

As the trustees worked with architect Henry C. Pelton, the concept changed.  A year later, on July 27, 1925, they announced that the 15-story apartment building plan would go ahead; but without the church.  A separate, three-story structure would be erected for that purpose directly behind, on 86th Street.

The trustees estimated the rental income from the apartments at "not less than $10,000 a year," according to The Times.  "The church believes that this sum will almost pay the running expenses of the congregation."  Cady's brownstone structure was razed in July 1925 and construction was immediately begun on the new buildings.

The cornerstone of the church was laid on March 23, 1926.  The Times noted that it "will be in the Byzantine style.  It will contain an auditorium, to seat 537 people, on the street level, with Sunday School, social rooms and a pastor's study on the two upper floors."  "Byzantine" was a  broad description, and Henry C. Pelton's design drew heavily from the Southern Sicilian Romanesque style.

Three months after the dedication, Samuel H. Gottscho photographed the new building.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The $250,000 structure was dedicated by Bishop Luther B. Wilson on January 8, 1927.  A separate dedication service was held later that evening for the new Skinner organ.

For decades the annual New York Methodist Conference had taken place in the Park-Avenue Methodist Church, and they continued within the new building.  At the time of its dedication Prohibition was a flashpoint of controversy as hundreds of thousands of citizens sought its repeal.  The Methodist Church was firmly in favor of Prohibition, as evidenced in the Conference meetings here on April 3, 1927.

Dr. Clarence True Wilson, general secretary of the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals of the Methodist Church asserted "The liquor traffic is in the course of ultimate extinction."  He insisted that the newspaper accounts were fake news.  "There are those who would have you believe there is a great uprising against prohibition, but this is not so."

Pelton carried on the Southern Sicilian Romanesque motif inside with the tile-paved floor and simple stenciled walls.
Four years later his stance was embraced by the Rev. Dr. James Josiah Henry, new pastor of the Park Avenue Methodist Church.  In his sermon on October 25, 1931 he claimed that the New York newspapers were not giving a "true picture" of Prohibition; saying in part "It is this unfairness that has led so many people to state that the eighteenth amendment and the Volstead act cannot be enforced.  This is utterly false."

In the meantime, the sometimes bland meetings of the New York Methodist Conference were enlivened by an arrest in April 1930.  Two years earlier Rev. L. B. Haines conducted the wedding ceremony of John Willis and Ella Acker.   Rev. Haines later learned that the 74-year old bridegroom was already married.  Six weeks after the sham marriage Willis deserted Ella and returned to his first wife, who was none the wiser.

John Willis was described by The New York Times as being "fond of religious services."  And so he attended a session of the Conference in the Park Avenue Methodist Church.  The last person he expected to be there was the Rev. L. B. Haines.   Haines slipped out of the church and found a policeman.

On April 8 The New York Times reported "With his two wives in court sympathizing with each other and united in indignation against him, John Willis, 76 years old, pleaded guilty to bigamy yesterday."

The "society room" with its plaster walls and tiled hearth had a monastic feeling. photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, March 25, 1927, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
From the pulpit Rev. John J. Henry did not hold back in his often spirited social and political opinions.  Ardently anti-union, he announced in his July 22, 1934 sermon that "Reds and radicals" were responsible for the recent strikes on the West Coast.  He told the story of a manufacturer who, when he found his plant was being picketed, invited the employees to go fishing with him.  The next morning everything was fine within the factory.

"But you cannot treat radicals and Reds that way...They are simply suffering from industrial insanity and they are seeking to destroy our industrial system."  He then turned to commercial isolation, the Depression Era version of America First.  "We could not possibly supply the rubber needed by our great automotive industry.  So it is well to remember when we grow too cocky that we could not get along without Brazil.  If we close the door to Cuban sugar in order to aid our own sugar interests, we only punish ourselves.  If a man makes a corner in wheat on the Chicago market, peasants on the slopes of the Alps may starve."


He broadened that stance in September 13, 1936 by including the welcoming of all peoples.  The Times wrote "Nationalism and high racial feeling he described as evils which tend to destroy representative government."

In his sermon he said in part "I hope there will come a time in the future when you can love the man who lives in the Ukraine, Germany, Holland and other countries just as well as you love your own race and nation.  I say this because I believe there is an Almighty God.  Unfortunately, the world is not yet in that condition of mind.  Too many still believe that 'blood is thicker than water.'"

Seven months after that sermon the Park Avenue Methodist Church was in trouble.  The income from the apartment building, which the trustees had assumed would carry expenses, fell short.  On April 26, 1937 The Times ran the headline "Park Ave. Methodist Faces Loss of Home."  The original 10-year $800,000 mortgage on both properties--a considerable $13.7 million today--was now due.  The article explained that Rev. Henry had asked members to "confer Friday evening on steps to prevent the threatened loss of the church of its place of worship."

As the financial crisis dragged on Rev. Henry returned his focus on social and political issues.  Naturally, war, Nazism and Facism would soon be on the top of his list.  Nearly three months before America was pulled into the conflict with the attack on Pearl Harbor he railed against Hitler and warned of repeating the mistakes of World War I.

In his September 14, 1941 sermon he cautioned against the "mistake of the 1918 Armistice."  He said that just as the Allied armies were ready to enter Germany "and crush a power that was menacing the world," the Armistice stopped them.  Now, he stressed, "as defenders of religion it is our duty to destroy sin and hate--everything that Hitler represents."

Rev. Henry stepped down because of poor health around 1945, ending a colorful chapter in the history of the Park Avenue Methodist Church.  His retirement came at a time when the church's financial condition had once again become a crisis.  The Methodist Church ordered the congregation to close in 1946; but appeals by members to the United Methodist Society resulted in financial support and a 10-year reprieve.  In 1956 the apartment building was sold.


Financially secure today, the church continues to serve the the neighborhood--one drastically different from the rural hamlet where it was founded nearly 190 years ago.

photographs by the author

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Orpheum Theater - 126 Second Avenue


One of two Greek-inspired drama masks on either side of the marquee can be glimpsed at the top of the ground floor pier.

In 1837 construction began on two nearly mirror-image Greek Revival homes at Nos. 126 and 128 Second Avenue.   Each three bays wide, they were three-and-a-half stories tall and featured the details of upscale residences--handsome wrought-iron basket newels at the shared stoop, paneled double entrance doors and a stone balustrade above the cornice.

In 1860 the trustees of the New-York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children purchased No. 126.  The institution was at the time located at the corner of Bleecker and Crosby Streets, but, as noted by The New York Times on May 7 that year, "The Dispensary and Infirmary patients are constantly increasing."  The "large and commodious" 25-foot wide home, according to the trustees, was "well adapted for the accommodation of patients."

The building as it appeared around 1868.  original source unknown

By the turn of the century the facility was gone.  The once-elegant neighborhood was now the center of New York's German immigrant population.  Along Second Avenue were restaurants, beer gardens, and at least one pleasure garden, the Orpheum Garden.

Pleasure gardens had been popular for most of the 19th century.  They offered food and drink and, in the warm months, open-air entertainment in the rear "gardens" where patrons could escape the stifling heat of their tenement rooms.

On February 14, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported that the vintage house-turned infirmary-turned-recreation venue was about to get a face life.  "Plans have also been filed for remodelling the four story and basement restaurant and concert hall, No. 126 Second avenue for the Orpheum Garden Company."

It is unclear how far-reaching those original exterior renovations went; but the interior was remodeled into a silent film theater.  In January 1913 the Practical Mother's Association of Greater New York sent its foot soldiers out to investigate the posters displayed by such venues.  Their intention was to attack "the films and houses which deserve reprobation."  One sanctimonious member inspected the Moving Picture Theatre at No. 126 Second Avenue, reporting "Crowd of children outside.  I did not go in, but outside of building up to standard.  Posters good."

At the time the theater was owned by Nathan Bloch.  It was doing well enough that the following year he hired architect Harold L. Young to design a replacement building.   His plans called for a "$10,000 theatre."  That figure would translate to about $253,000 today.

The result was a handsome brick-faced theater, two stories tall.  Trimmed in limestone, it was a refined 20th century take on English Regency architecture; the second floor and parapet being a near copy of the 1819 entrance to the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly.

Harold L. Young quite possibly referred to T. H. Shepherd's 1819 Burlington Arcade in London.  copyright expired
The new theater was named the Orpheum--an obvious nod to the Orpheum Garden.  The venue continued to draw crowds and two years after its opening Bloch re-hired Young to update the building with "new fire-proof widows."

The title of the property was in the name of Nathan Bloch's wife, Gizella.  The couple retained ownership for decades, but did not attempt get involved in the theater's management.  They leased it to a series of theatrical management firms--like Benjamin Sherman who took it over in September 1929 and the Danrold Amusement Company, Inc. which leased it in September 1934.

Motion pictures gave way to live entertainment in 1958 when the American Mime Theatre opened in the renovated venue.   The New York Times theater critic Arthur Gelb was not overwhelmed.  Following opening night on September 24, he wrote "Watching the American Mime Theatre is more like looking at a group of high-spirited, attractive young people playing charades than watching an artistic achievement.

"Like an onlooker at charades, a member of the audience at the New Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue can get pretty bored."  His brutally frank review ended "Once they figure out who and what they are, let them come back and try again."

Despite the lackluster performance of its opening production, the Orpheum Theatre became a popular off-Broadway venue.  The following spring Producer Philip Rose's production of the new musical, My Old Friends, was staged; and on May 18, 1959 the Peter Pell production of Chic, starring Virginia de Luce, opened.

Dancer and actress Virginia de Luce had made her Broadway debut in New Faces of 1952. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York  
Later that year a new musical Little Mary Sunshine thrust an unknown actress into stardom.  The tongue-in-check production opened on November 18, 1959 starting Eileen Breenan.  The role earned her an Obie Award.

Eileen Brennan as Little Mary Sunshine at the Orpheum Theatre.  original source unknown
Throughout the decades the Orpheum Theatre would see a succession of veteran stage stars.  On January 15, 1962 Felicien Marceau's play, The Egg, opened with Dick Shawn starring.  In the cast of Matty and the Moron and Madonna, which opened on March 29, 1965, were Katherine Ross and Sylvia Miles.  And on September 26, 1967 George Tabori's joltingly-titled The Niggerlovers opened starring Stacey Keach.  Tabori described the play as "contemporary--set in New York--and on one level of meaning about the problem of black and white."

photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In December 1979, Harvey Fierstein brought his Fugue in a Nursery to the stage here.  The Times critic John Corry was tepid in his assessment of Fierstein's offering, saying in part, "Nonetheless, credit Mr. Fierstein with warm intentions; he likes his characters...Mr. Fierstein likes them well enough to even play Arnold himself.  There is vanity at work here, but Mr. Fierstein is serious about it."

Critic John Corry was relentless in his deprecation of An Evening with Joan Crawford, which he called "a ramshackle musical at the Orpheum" following opening night on January 29, 1981.  The production, the cast of which were mostly female impersonators, "alternates between ridicule and adoration of Miss Crawford and it makes of her a holy monster."  He concluded "One imagines the actors sitting around, telling Joan Crawford stories and imagining that you will find them as amusing as they did.  You will not, and necrophilia is not nostalgia."
'
photo by Beyond My Ken
No one could imagine that when the production of Stomp opened in 1994 it would still be going strong nearly a quarter of a century later.  Although the sizable marquee obscures much of the lower half of the structure, little has changed to Harold L. Young's elegant 1914 movie theater.