Monday, November 12, 2018

The Lost Kleinberger Galleries - 12 East 54th Street


Before its two substantial remodelings, the house looked much like the old rowhouse to the left.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Charles Price Britton's 25-foot wide rowhouse at No. 12 East 54th Street was not typical of those around it.  Unlike the ubiquitous brownstone cladding which Edith Wharton would later describe as "deadly uniformity of mean ugliness," Britton's home was faced in brick.

Like most of its neighbors, the house was erected shortly after the end of the Civil War.   The Britton family were residents at least by 1882 when their address appeared on the membership list of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Britton was the head of the stock brokerage firm of Charles P. Britton & Company.   He traced his American lineage to William Britton, a sea captain who came from Bristol, England and settled in Newport in the 18th century.  (Oddly enough, his name was originally William Summerill, but he took his mother's maiden name before leaving England.)

Britton had married Caroline Berry in September 1866. The couple suffered more than their share of heartbreak.  Their second child, Mary Marsh, died in 1875 at just two years old.  Their eldest son, William Adams died at the age of 20 on September 29, 1888.  Only Henry Berry Britton, born on September 5, 1878, would survive to marry and become a member of his father's firm.

Although Britton was a member of the socially elite Union League Club, his other memberships reflected his familial history.  He held memberships in the Sons of the Revolution, the Society of Colonial Wars, and the New England Society of New York.

In April 1893 the Brittons commissioned architect John Sexton to remodel the interiors.  The filed plans are vague at best, but at about $13,000 in today's money they most likely involved cosmetic updating.

At the time John Daly and his wife Ida lived at No. 208 West 59th Street.   Daly could not have been more different from Charles P. Britton and yet their paths would cross before very long.

Daly ran gambling houses, one of which was very near his home.  The Sun, on August 6, 1893, described his two city operations as "the famous house in Twenty-ninth street near Broadway, and another in Fifty-ninth street opposite the Park."   Reportedly he paid the police as much as $100,000 per week to prevent raids.

But he was best known for his lavish gambling house in Long Branch, New Jersey.   The Sun disapprovingly called Long Branch "America's Monte Carlo," and reported "Gambling is unquestionably a craze in Long Branch,  The average man is overcome by it."  The newspaper was astonished that there a patron could gamble "with impunity and without fear of molestation unless he happens to be a native of the town."

"John Daly's place at the Branch is the house where the biggest games are played and where a man can get just about as big a limit as he cares to make.  It is the house most frequented by gamblers, because it has the reputation of running the squarest games of any at the Branch," said The Sun.

In stark contrast to the seedy gambling dens of Manhattan's Tenderloin District, this was a palace--a forerunner of the Atlantic City and Las Vegas resorts.  "The main gaming room...is a great rotunda with a beautiful stained glass top, and the bright lights glaring through the colored glass are a big advertisement of the vice inside...There is a great wide seaside piazza in front, with big armchairs that invite the passer by, and a yawning doorway that reaches out to take in all."

Like today's casinos, patrons were treated to the best in food.  "John Daly's chef is a banner man in his line.  He is said to be the best chef at the Branch.  The viands he serves for the breakfast of the guests, and the midnight lunch, are even more tempting than the meals at the Ocean Club."

But the purpose of the article was not to compliment Daly's gambling house.  The writer warned "Of course, ninety-nine men in every hundred get the worst of the game," and said of Daly's, "It was there that Senator Wolcott dropped his $24,000 in a few hours, and it was there that Banker Woerishoffer used to go and play to win or lose thousands every night."

John Daly's Long Branch gambling house was built around a central rotunda.  The New-York Tribune, August 3, 1902 (copyright expired)
And so the announcement on March 16, 1895 that the Brittons had sold No. 12 to John and Ida Daly must have sent shock waves through the neighborhood.  The selling price, $67,500, would be equal to more than $1.8 million today.

But before they moved in, the Dalys modernized the out-of-date house.  They hired architect Joseph Wolf to remodel the facade.  Wolf removed the stoop and created an American basement home.  While the entertainment rooms would still be on what had been the parlor floor, the entrance was now located a few steps below street level.

The New York Herald, July 24, 1921 (copyright expired)
The city of Long Branch dealt a severe blow to Daly six years later when it outlawed gambling.   In July 1903 The Evening World commented that the once-lavish gambling houses were "barred and desolate" and the "abode of cobwebs and dust."   John and his brother, Phil Daly (who ran another operation in the town), told the reporter that "the present state of Long Branch is worse than the old."  Gambling never went away, they asserted, but had simply been forced underground.  "Public gambling, according to their argument has a tendency to make men more careful," explained the article.

Nevertheless, Daly was out of the gambling business and turned his full attention to the more socially acceptable line of horse breeding.   He established a summer residence in Saratoga, home of the nation's oldest race track (opened in 1863).  The town lured not only racing and horse enthusiasts, but celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso and Oscar Wilde.

It was at their Saratoga cottage on Union Avenue that Ida Daly died on July 6, 1905.   Less than a year later Daly died at the age of 68 in the 54th Street mansion.  In reporting his death, the New-York Tribune called him the "well known turfman and gambler" and said "he was regarded as one of the squarest men in the gambling business"  The article noted "He frequently said that gambling, properly conducted, was as legitimate as any other business."

The Daly mansion was acquired by real estate operators Michael J. and John O'Connor.   Although still home to many wealthy families, the neighborhood around St. Patrick's Cathedral was increasingly seeing the encroachment of commerce.

Finally, on June 1, 1910 the O'Connors sold the house.  The following day the New-York Tribune reported "The buyer is Mrs. Charlotte E. Van Smith, who will use it for her dressmaking business."

Charlotte did some renovations of her own.  Within two weeks her architect, William Anagnost, filed plans to add an elevator, new doors and fire-escapes.   The transformation of house-to-business cost her around a quarter of a million in today's dollars and included living quarters for her on the upper floors.

Dressmakers like Charlotte E. Van Smith catered to the carriage trade and often used the term modiste to describe themselves.  The cost of their services and glamorous costumes earned them small fortunes, affording Charlotte to live in luxurious accommodations with a still-fashionable address.

Charlotte employed a small staff of experienced seamstresses as well as a boy whose tasks included running packages of completed gowns to her customers' homes, the steamship docks, or shipping firms if the patron were out of town.  Such was the case on December 14, 1911 when three gowns had to be completed and shipped off to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Parkinburg, Pennsylvania.  The New York Times reported that "Miss Smith kept her employees working until after dark last night" on the three dresses.  Each of the dresses were valued at about $300--nearly $7,500 today.

With the garments boxed and labeled and sent off with 15-year old Nathan Friedman, Charlotte felt she could relax.  But disaster was about to strike.

Nathan was headed to the Adams Express Company depot at 48th Street and Madison Avenue.  At around 52nd Street he was approached by a man who said he needed a messenger boy.  Nathan directed him to the telegraph office; but the man said he had been there and simply could not find one.

He offered Nathan $1 to take a message to "F. Marshall" at 838 Fifth Avenue (which was, in fact, the mansion of William Watts Sherman).  The boy refused and started on his way.

Insistent, the stranger said he lived at the Hotel Buckingham and that if Nathan would come with him to get the message, he would guard the packages until he returned.   The boy was finally convinced and went off on the phony task.  The New York Times reported "When he returned the bundles were gone" and surmised a "young man is richer by some $900 worth of evening gowns which he purloined by trickery from the boy."

Apparently now retired, in January 1919 Charlotte E. Van Smith leased her shop (in what the Real Estate Record & Guide now termed "the Van Smith Building") to another high-end dressmaker, "Miss Jean, designer of gowns." 

Exactly one year later, on January 27, 1920, the business was looking for a new model.  The advertisement in The New York Herald not only reflected the caliber of the clientele, but a change in the dress sizes today.  "Model.  Attractive, size, 36, preferably brunette.  High class dressmaking establishment.  House of Jean, Inc."

Significant change would come to No. 12 when Charlotte E. Van Smith next leased the building to the interior decorating firm of Leed, Inc.   On July 24, 1921 The New York Herald opined "One of the latest and perhaps one of the most interesting examples of remaking an old Gotham dwelling into an appropriate home for business has just been accomplished by Leed, Inc...who recently moved from 631 Fifth avenue into the four story and basement house at 12 East Fifth-fourth street, once the home of 'Phil' [sic] Daly, the gambler."

Surprisingly, the firm's president, L. R. Kaufman, did not seek the help of a professional architect.  Instead, he personally remodeled the facade with striking results.  What had been a modified Victorian rowhouse was now what pretended to be a glorious French Gothic mansion; its yawning, deep-set entrance recalling a 15th century gatehouse.

Carved crockets adorned the entrance arch, a faux balcony introduced the second floor with grouped, stained glass windows, and a series of pointed Gothic arches--including two blind arches at their end--finished the top floor.   Inside Kaufman attempted to retain a domestic environment in which to display the firm's furniture, artwork and bric-a-brac.  The New York Herald said he had finished the walls in "rough old terra cotta plaster with marble terrazzo floors in black and white squares.  The general effect is the production of old Italian walls in warm colors."

A new staircase lead to the main showroom on the second floor.  Leaded windows similar to those in the front opened onto the rear garden, "which is to be finished with a terrace and loggia with playing  fountains,"


The New York Herald, July 24, 1921 (copyright expired)

Leeds, Inc. operated from the lower two floors.  The third floor was leased to Louise & Annette, Inc., a millinery shop; and the upper apartment where Charlotte E. Van Smith had lived was sublet to 
Mrs. Wendell Phillips.    

Mrs. Phillips would be forced to perform an unpleasant task later that year.  She was the president of the Carry-On Association which operated the Carry-On Club for disabled soldiers on Madison Avenue.   Clubs for military men who had returned from the war were common and rarely prompted anything but favorable press.

But in September 1921 seven men complained to the courts that they had been ousted from the club and asked to be reinstated.  A journalist from The New York Herald visited No. 12 East 54th Street, but on October 1 reported "Mrs. Phillips refused to discuss the matter other than to say the men ejected were considered 'disturbing elements.'"

In the fall of 1927 the esteemed Kleinberger Galleries moved from 725 Fifth Avenue to the former Leeds, Inc. showrooms.  Kleinberger routinely dealt in Old Masters and catered to the country's wealthiest and best informed collectors.  Just before leaving its former location, the gallery exhibited a modern piece--an oil portrait of American hero Charles A. Lindbergh.

The New York Times reported "The portrait is the work of M. A. Rasko, a New York artist who went to Mitchel Field and sketched Lindbergh on the day before his take-off.  The aviator was shy at first, thinking Mr. Rasko had gone there to photograph him.  Finally he relented and allowed the artist 'five minutes.'  Mr. Rasko stayed forty-five minutes and completed his sketch."

Now at No. 12, Francis Kleinberger returned to more familiar territory.   In January 1928, for instance, he was asked to settle a dispute when London art critics declared that "The Lute Player" by Vermeer in the collection of Philadelphia attorney John G. Johnson was a forgery.   The controversy arose when an identical picture appeared in the Royal Academy's Winter Show in London, on loan from the collection of the late Lord Iveagh.

Kleinberger emphatically defended Johnson's as the original.  "I am positive that the painting is a genuine work by Vermeer," he said.  As for Lord Iveagh's painting, he withheld an opinion until he had the opportunity to examine it.

Later that year, in November, the gallery held an exhibition of paintings by early German masters, including Hans Holbein's portrait of King Edward VI of England as a boy.  The show was to benefit the American Red Cross.

Kleinberger Galleries remained in the building at least through 1935.  By the early 1940s it had been converted to a Swedish restaurant, the Three Crowns.  It was operated by John Perrson and Bror Munson who had run the Sweish Pavilion at the World's Fair.  Robert W. Dana in his 1948 Where to Eat in New York said "It has a beautiful dining room and bar, not too large, but nicely proportioned."  The successful eatery operated into the early 1960s.

postcard from the collection of  the Columbia University Libraries
In 1970, about a century after it was erected as a brick-faced Victorian rowhouse, the unique structure was demolished.  The 43-story office building known as 520 Madison Avenue now occupies the site.

photo via The Skyscraper Center

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Clarence S. Day House - 43 East 68th Street




As a frenzy of development erupted on the Upper East Side following the end of the Civil War, scores of cookie-cutter brownstones sprung up along the blocks branching off Central Park.  Among them was a row of seven houses built by John C. Thompson--Nos. 37 through 49 East 68th Street.

No. 43 was home to John M. Shaw by the early 1880's.  Shaw was the principal of the brokerage firm of J. M. Shaw & Co. (and, as a matter of fact, its only member).  Dealing in commodities, mostly grain, his successful firm maintained two offices, one at No. 54 New Street and the other on West 23rd.  But Shaw's comfortable lifestyle came to a crashing end when, on the afternoon of April 17, 1891, his firm's failure was announced on the floor of the Stock Exchange.

The 68th Street house was leased briefly by Henry Spratley and his wife, the former Annie Ringwood Johnson.  Spratley's business dealings included his position as treasurer of the Traders and Travelers' Accident Company, of which former mayor Hugh J. Grant was president.  Also in the house were Spratley's five children from his marriage to Hester A. Awaise, who died in 1883.

Well-to-do women at the time went "calling" in the afternoons.  To ensure that they would not arrive at at someone's doorstep only to find that that woman, too, was out calling, the newspapers kept its readers informed of who was available to receive.  On February 18, 1892, for instance, The New York Times noted "Mrs. H. Spratley of 43 East Sixty-eighth Street will be at home Saturday afternoon."

The Spratleys moved on early in 1893 and in April the house was offered "For sale or to let."  The succinct advertisement in the New-York Tribune described it merely as a "four-story brownstone house."

Dr. G. A. Sabine leased No. 43 until around late 1895, when it was purchased by former congressman Charles Delemere Haines and his wife, Mary.  Haines's term of office in the U. S. House of Representative had just ended.

With his political career over, Haines returned to business life.  On September 25, 1896 The Sun noted "Mr. Haines is the President of or the majority stockholder of a lot of small railways."  His legal counsel was William Jennings Bryan, for whom the newspaper held little respect.  "Mr. Haines, when asked yesterday about his experience with Mr. Bryan as a corporation lawyer, said that Mr. Bryan was a personal friend, and that he did not wish to talk about the matter."

Charles D. Haines.  from he National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1899 (copyright expired)
Also in the house were the adopted children of Charles's deceased brother; Eleanor Elizabeth and Benjamin Franklin Haines.  Following Eleanor's marriage to Louis H. Jones on November 15, 1899, an "informal reception" was held in the 68th Street house.  Benjamin, incidentally, would follow in his step-father's political footsteps, becoming mayor of Medford, Massachusetts and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

On June 5, 1902 Charles and Mary Haines sold No. 43 to Frederick Brooks and his wife.   Brooks was the son of John Brooks, and grandson of one of the original Brooks Brothers, of menswear fame.  It does not appear that the couple intended to live in the house, but (to use today's vernacular) to "flip" the out-of-date brownstone as an investment.

The architectural firm of Tracy & Swartout was hired to completely remodel the Italianate style structure into a modern, American basemen plan residence.  Plans were filed on March 25, 1903.  The following day the New-York Tribune explained "A four story extension will be built in the front and a two story extension in the rear.  A new light shaft and a fireproof elevator will be put in.   The extension will be of brick, with marble facing." The make-over cost Brooks the equivalent of just over $1 million today.

At the time Manhattan's wealthy homeowners were turning away from the frothy marble or limestone Beaux Arts style to the more sedate neo-Federal and neo-Georgian styles, executed in brick (perhaps most vividly exemplified by the massive Andrew Carnegie mansion completed one year earlier).  Tracy & Swartwout followed suit, transforming the vintage Victorian with a neo-Federal facelift.

The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered a few steps above sidewalk level.  The facade was pulled forward to the property line (substantially increasing interior square footage).  A dignified portico fronted the entrance, above which a fanlight echoed the shape of the arched openings on this floor.

Tracy & Swartwout used variegated brick with burned headers to simulate age.  Its warm brown-red tone was contrasted with white stone trim.   The splayed lintels of the upper floors were in keeping with the Federal style.  A stone balustrade partially hid the copper-covered mansard.

The house originally matched those on either side.  photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
As the work neared completion Clarence Shepard Day and his family were living at No. 420 Madison Avenue.  In May 1905 they purchased the remodeled house from Brooks.  While the selling price was kept private, Day's $50,000 mortgage (about $1.5 million today) affords a hint.

Day was a principal in the brokerage firm of Day, Adams & Company and a director in several railroads.  He and his wife, the former Livinia Elizabeth Stockwell, had four sons--Harold, Julian, George and Clarence, Jr.   The boys had all attended Yale University and each followed decidedly different career paths.  Harold, who suffered from traumatic epilepsy as the result of a childhood accident moved to California.  His brothers all started out in their father's firm; but only Julian would remain as a partner.

Clarence S. Day 
Livinia Stockwell Day photos via Clarence Day An American Writer, 2006, original source unknown.
Clarence, Jr. left the firm in 1896 to join the Navy and following the Spanish-American War pursued a career in writing and illustration.  (Interestingly, his grandfather, Benjamin H. Day had founded The New York Sun in 1833.)  George would leave Day, Adams & Company around 1908 to work at Yale.

Like Annie Sprayley, Livinia Day busied herself with social activities while her husband worked.  On December 14, 1905 the New-York Tribune noted "Mrs. Clarence S. Day will hold another of her Thursday receptions to-day at her new home, in East 68th-st."

Although Clarence, Jr. lived with his parents, the arrangement did not mean that he was struggling financially.  On September 19, 1906, for instance, The New York Times reported "The announcement was made to-day that the Yale Alumni Weekly has been purchased by Clarence S. Day, Jr."  Two years later he helped George found the Yale University Press.  (George became the treasurer of Yale in 1910, a position he held for years.)

The Days maintained a summer home, Upland Farm, in Westchester County.  The society pages kept track of the couple, The New York Sun noting on April 16, 1913 "Mr. and Mrs. Clarence S. Day will sail on the Mauretania next week and on their return will go to Upland Farm, their country place."  And in 1922 The New York Herald announced that the couple "will leave New York early in May for their country home...Mrs. Day held her last at home for the season recently at her town residence, 43 East Sixty-eighth street."

By now Clarence, Jr.'s poems, short stories and cartoons had appeared in popular magazines and newspapers like Harper's Weekly for a decade.  By the end of World War I he was an established writer with a regular column in Metropolitan Magazine.  His first book, a satirical look at civilized man's behavior, This Simian World, was published in 1920.

He was a semi-invalid due to intense arthritis contracted at an early age.  He wrote mainly from his bed in the late hours, sleeping most of the morning and afternoon.  A historian for The New York Public Library notes "While entertaining family, friends or new acquaintances, Day was an informal host who rarely wore more than a crepe dressing gown.  He saw visitors in the bedroom, which also served as his office, surrounded by his books, letters, manuscripts and drawings."

In 1922 Clarence, Jr. met a young art librarian, Katharine Dodge, whom he hired as his secretary.  The employer-employee relationship blossomed into a romantic one.  Clarence moved out of the 68th Street house in 1925 and he married Katherine in 1928.  He went on to write best-selling books like his 1935 Life With Father, the autobiographical work for which he is best remembered.

On January 7, 1927 Clarence Shepard Day died of pneumonia at No. 43 East 68th Street at the age of 82.  While his obituary in The New York Times outlined his long career in the brokerage business, it said "He was best known, however, for his work in the development and financing of railroads."

Day's estate, valued at "more than $1,000,000," was passed to Livinia "for life and upon her death to four sons and three grandchildren."  Livinia moved to No. 1170 Fifth Avenue where she died two years later, on January 19, 1929.

Following Clarence's death, the 68th Street house had been purchased by Sidney A. Kirkman.  Before he and his wife, the former Mary Lewis, moved in, they commissioned architect Walter B. Chambers to make significant changes.  New floors were installed at different levels, the floor plans were rearranged, and a 17-foot rear extension was added.  The first floor was recessed behind a charming brick arcade, the mansard was removed and the facade of the top floor moved forward.  It was now topped by a brick parapet interrupted by openwork stone panels.

The 1927 alterations were seamless, including the perfectly-matched brickwork.  Chambers removed the single iron balconette at the second floor and added three bowed versions.
Kirkman was the head of Kirkman & Son, a manufacturer of soap and soap products.  Its large factory was located in Brooklyn.  In 1930 Colgate-Palmolive acquired the firm taking on its popular brand names like Lux and Borax as its own.

Some of Kirkman & Son's packaging was a bit racy for the time.

The Kirkmans summer home was on Cotuit, Massachusetts.  Mary was a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames and the Colony Club.  Like her fellow club members, she was active in charitable causes.  She was especially involved with the Stony Wold Sanatorium.  On January 13, 1936, for instance, she hosted a tea for the committees working on plans for the Yankee Doodle Ball to benefit that facility.

As developers razed grand mansions to replace them with apartment buildings, Sidney A. Kirkman was pro-active in preserving his quiet block as well as the light and air to his own home.  As they became available he purchased the Hoffman Nickerson house at No. 47, and the W. H. Porter residence at No. 45.   He then had "private-house restrictions" written into the deeds before reselling them in 1946.

Kirkman became ill in the spring of 1953 and died at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center on May 11.   Mary died in the 68th Street house ten months later, on March 10, 1954.


The mansion continued life as a single-family residence, although today there is admittedly an apartment in the basement.  The product of two significant architectural make-overs, it has been almost perfectly preserved.

photographs by the author

Friday, November 9, 2018

The 1894 Aspell & Co. Building - 151 Hudson Street




On July 1, 1823 Helen Lispenard Stewart was married to James Watson Webb in the mansion of her father, Alexander L. Stewart.  The three-and-a-half story Federal-style mansion sat at the southwest corner of Hudson and Hubert Streets.  Directly behind it was a two-story brick stable.

By the outbreak of the Civil War the days of wealthy homeowners and fashionable gatherings in the neighborhood were nearly a memory.

As late as 1937 altered houses similar to the Stewart mansion survived along Hudson Street one block south.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
By the 1890's the Stewart mansion had become a seedy rooming house, occupied by dockworkers and other rowdies.  Among those was longshoreman William Goonan and his wife, and William Cleary, another dockworker.

On Saturday night, March 24, 1894 Cleary began drinking.  It would be the last time the roughneck got drunk.  At around 1:00 in the morning he was in Goonan's room and the two got into a vicious fight after Cleary claimed "that he was the best man along the docks."

According to The Evening World, "Goonan disputed Cleary's claim and the two men clinched.  They rolled out of the room into the hallway and down a flight of stairs.  On the landing below a big pool of blood tells that a fearful fight took place there."

Roused by the noisy affray, a boy ran from the house and called Policeman Schoenfield.  When the officer arrived he found Cleary stabbed in the face and neck and Goonan with a knife in his fist.  The Evening World reported "Goonan, who was also badly beaten in the fight, was committed to the Tombs without bail."

The old mansion was soon gone.  It had been purchased a year earlier, on April 14, 1893, by Joseph H. Bearns, who owned several properties in the area.  The principal in the liquor importing firm Joseph H. Bearns & Co., he had hired architect Julius Kastner to design a five-story loft building on the opposite corner of the block, at No. 10 Hubert Street, two years earlier.  In fact, the two had worked on similar projects since the 1880's.  They would collaborate again for No. 151 Hudson Street.

Kastner's completed structure was similar to several of his other designs for Bearns.  A handsome, industrial take on Romanesque Revival, it was faced in yellow Roman brick and trimmed in brownstone and red sandstone.  Designed in four parts separated by brownstone cornices, it exhibited expected husky Romanesque Revival elements like undressed bandcourses, lusty medieval-style carvings, arched openings at the top floor.  But Kastner softened the  design with the use of bullnosed bricks which rounded the corners.  While he could have saved Bearns money with terra cotta decorations, he opted for carved ornaments throughout and executed the complex cornice in stone.

The rounded edges soften the overall appearance of the building.  Note the spiraled corner detailing of the top floor.  The stone elements that drip like stalactites from the cornice are somewhat hidden today behind metal sheathing. 

As the building rose, Aspell & Co. was operating from Nos. 314-316 Greenwich Street.  The wholesale grocery dealers embarked on an unusual marketing scheme that year.  It opened a new department that offered certain items at wholesale prices to individual shoppers--a savings of up to 50 percent.

An advertisement on August 19, 1894 promised the housekeeper that on top of the savings, she could have "the goods delivered free of charge in or out of the city" (foreshadowing by more than a century retail giants like Amazon).  There was "a full line of staple and fancy groceries and wines, etc., also table delicacies suitable for city, country or seaside use."

New-York Tribune, November 13, 1895 (copyright expired)

Before the turn of the century Aspell & Co. had moved into No. 151 Hudson Street.  It shared the building with the Cincinnati-based S. A. Sloman Co.  Samuel A Sloman had made a drastic change to his family's business a few years earlier--from trading in furs to the manufacture of liquor.

Since the mid-1890's he marketed his Diamond Wedding Whiskey as a remedy rather than an intoxicant.  His ads promised it "invigorates feeble constitutions, renews life and arrests disease."  Others said it restored "power and suppleness to the muscles, warmth and richness for the blood."

This ad promised the whiskey was "invaluable to nursing mothers."  original resource unknown
Apparently the military bought into the restorative powers of Diamond Wedding Whiskey, for in 1900 both S. A. Sloman & Co. and Aspell & Co. were bidding on contracts with the U.S. Navy.

Three years later the directors of Aspell & Company agreed to dissolve the corporation.  It was replaced at No. 151 Hudson Street by Wm. A. Leggett & Co., wholesale grocers and dealers in condensed milk.  William Leggett had established his company in 1870.

In January 1908 Joseph H. Bearns leased the entire building to Bennett, Day & Co. "for a long term of years."  Wm. A. Leggett & Co. was allowed to stay on as a sub-tenant.

There was no long a Bennett in Bennett, Day & Co.  The wholesale grocery business was owned by husband-and-wife partners Henry Mason Day and Emily Garnett Day.  The Virginians had come to New York in 1874 and opened a dried fruit and nut business.  The New-York Tribune noted decades later that for "many years [Day] imported whole crops of fruits from Brazil and other countries and disposed of them to wholesalers in this country."

The Days were prosperous and maintained a summer home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where Henry moored his yacht.  But Henry's health had begun failing by the time his company leased the Hudson Street building.  He had essentially retired in 1903, spending most of his time in Europe, California and Florida because of his ill health.  On January 18 1909, a year after signing the lease, he died at the age of 58.

About the time of Day's death William A. Leggett suffered an attack of bronchitis.  His condition did not improve and a year later, in September 1910, he succumbed at the age of 81.

Kastner's attention to detail included delightful miniature Romanesque Revival columns incorporated into the upper portion of the cast iron storefront.
Although his death brought an end to Wm. A. Leggett & Co.; Bennett, Day & Co. continued under the control of Emily Day and her son, Lee Garnett Day.  Lee was, perhaps, less interested in the wholesale grocery business than in adventure.

On December 25, 1914 The New York Times noted that he had graduated from Yale University in 1911 and "has hunted big game from India, and recently returned from a trip of five months' exploration in Brazil."  The purpose of the article was to announce he was setting off on yet another expedition, this time "to explore unknown parts of the South American jungles under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Chicago."  Day personally managed and financed the extensive undertaking.

Day told the reporter "Not a specimen of the mammal or of bird life has ever been obtained there.  Should we be successful in getting specimens some of them at least should prove to be of value to the collections of the museums because of their rarity."

Bennett, Day & Co. remained at No. 151 through 1917, before moving to No. 165 Hudson Street.  That year Simon W. Greenbaum & Co. was incorporated by Simon and his brother, H. M. Greenbaum, and J. Socoloff to import and export peas and beans."  In February 1918 the firm leased the Hudson Street building.

The Produce District edged up against the wholesale shoe district.  As the years passed shoe merchants pushed out the grocery dealers in some areas of Tribeca.   When Simon W. Greenbaum & Co. signed the lease on No. 151, the O'Sullivan Heel Company was operating from nearby No. 131 Hudson Street.  By 1922 they had taken over the Greenbaum lease.

Founded by James and Humphrey O'Sullivan in August 1899, the firm manufactured replacement heels for men's shoes.  It marketed its rubber heels as being less jarring than the more common leather versions.  An advertisement in 1922 explained "One of the chief causes of fatigue is the strain of standing--the jar of walking on hard floors and pavements."  The hard leather heels gave no relief and "ordinary rubber heels are little better."  But as in the Goldilocks story, O'Sullivan's Safety Cushion Heels "combine just the right toughness for long hard wear with the greatest amount of springiness."

The Evening World, June 12, 1922 (copyright expired)
In 1908 author William Richard Cutter wrote "Countless imitators, in all countries, have paid their sincerest flattery, by their unscrupulous attempts to foist upon the public, their imitations of rubber heels, and the inevitable results, that none have been, as yet, successful, each claiming for his own to be as good as the 'O'Sullivan'--'The Standard'--the yard stick of the rubber heel industry."

O'Sullivan Rubber Co. was still in the building in 1950 when the Bearns estate sold No. 151 "to an investor," as reported by The Times on March 1.  The article noted that it was the last of Bearns's many properties to be sold and that the "sale was the first involving the property in fifty-seven years."

At the time the Tribeca renaissance was still a few decades away.  The first signs of change would come in 1980 when the ground floor became home to Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant.  The New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton approved, saying "Huge napkin-size crepes are the eating implements in which are wrapped curried stews such as the doro watt, and minchet abesh wott.  Kitfo, a raw ground beef specialty is a personal favorite."

Sheba made way for Thai House Cafe in early 1987.  Six months after its opening New York Magazine said "This is food you'd expect to find in a Thai home, carefully cooked and tamely spiced."  The restaurant remained in the space at least through 1991.

In the meantime the building had experienced cinematic exposure when it posed as the Hotel Broslin in the 1982 film Basket Case.  A large neon sign was hung from the fire escape for the outside shots of the fictitious hotel.

Although a Certificate of Occupancy for the commodious loft dwellings at No. 151 was not officially rendered until 2010; the building had become residential decades earlier.  In 1992 Birnbaum's New York, written by Stephen and Alexandra Mayes Birnbaum noted "Only the most urban personalities tend to live in TriBeCa--Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese are among the pack who have lived in converted lofts at 151 Hudson Street."

The building stretches back to No. 2 Hubert Street, where the Stewarts' two-story stables once stood.
Meticulously restored, the facade of Julius Hastner's 1894 structure is essentially unchanged.  Its three-color design stands out among its neighbors in the constantly-evolving Tribeca neighborhood.

photographs by the author

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Auguste Nicolas Cain's 1866 "Tigress and Cubs" - Central Park Zoo


photo via New York City Department of Parks & Recreation
Construction on Central Park began in 1857.  Within a decade some parts were finished enough to allow for embellishments.  In 1864 Gordon Webster Burnham presented the park with a bronze sculpture, Eagles and Prey, by Christophe Fratin.   Three years later twelve eminent citizens including artist and inventor Samuel F B. Morse, jurist John Jay, Robert Hoe, and William T. Blodgett,  donated another, Tigress and Cubs.

The grouping was the work of 45-year-old French sculptor Auguste Nicolas Cain,  He, like Fratin, was associated with the animaliers--a group of painters and sculptors who specialized in animal-themed works.  And like Fratin's, Cain's grouping depicted nature in deadly survival mode; a mother tiger bringing a newly-killed peacock to her cubs.

The six-foot high grouping, cast in 1866, was placed on an outcropping of rock overlooking the lake the following year.  In his speech at the unveiling Controller of the Park, Andrew H. Green, pronounced "The artist, by the freedom, vigor, and commanding expression with which he has treated his subject has placed himself among the first of the school of sculptures to which it belongs--a school especially adapted to the landscape of the Park."

Harper's Weekly, April 25, 1868 (copyright expired)
Cain had apparently not titled the sculpture and for decades journalists would apply their own names to the work.  When Harper's Weekly reported on the new gift in April 1868, the article called it Tigress Bringing the First-Fruit to Her Young.  And while the writer admitted that it "adds materially to the beauty of that picturesque spot," he seems to hold back on overall praise.  "The citizens of New York will have ample opportunity of confirming Mr. Green's opinions of the beauty of this work."

The problem was not the artist's adept execution of the subject--it was the subject itself.  The issue which Harper's dexterously side-stepped was the violence depicted in the piece.  Victorian sensibilities were ill-equipped to view bloody carnage, even when it involved motherly devotion.

While Harper's Weekly had been diplomatic, other critics were blunt.  Clarence Cook, in his 1869 A Description of the New York Central Park. wrote "We cannot agree with those who think such figures as this of the Tigress, and that of the Eagles bringing their prey to their young, particularly suitable to the Park.  They are, both of them, fine and spirited works of their kind, but they are much better suited to a zoological garden than to a place like the Park, for the ideas they inspire do not belong to the tranquil, rural beauty of the Park scenery."

Cook's 1869 guidebook titled the sculpture simply The Tigress. A Description of the New York Central Park (copyright expired).  

Cook was unrelenting.  "They are simply records of carnage and rapine, and however masterly the execution, or however profound the scientific observation they display, they are apart from the purpose of noble art, whose aim is to life the spirit of man to a higher region and feed him with grander thoughts."

Oddly enough, the sculpture sat atop a wooden base for years.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Four years later Scribner's Monthly chimed in.  In a pages-long article about Central Park, it pointed out some of the regrettable statuary and suggested the works might be hidden away or moved.   "No great harm is done by accepting from a private individual such a gift as the statue of Commerce...because it may be tucked away anywhere; and so with the 'Tigress and her Cubs,' and the 'Eagles bringing food to their Young,' which will find a good place somewhere about the new Natural History Museum, if the live animals do not object to the indifferent drawing of the bronze ones."

Publications--and even the Parks Commissioners--continued to devise their own titles for the work.  The May 12, 1883 minutes of a Commissioners' meeting called it the "Statue of Tigress and Young."  In 1889 American Architect and Building News called it A Lion Bringing a Dead Peacock to its Cubs; and in 1894 the Evening World deemed it The Lioness and the Peacock, not even getting the species correct.

After having sat atop a temporary wooden base for 16 years, the Commissioners agreed on May 12, 1883 that Calvert Vaux should design a pedestal from stone unearthed in the park's on-going construction.  The minutes recorded "Resolved, That the Architect be directed to prepare a plan for a base for the statue of 'Tigress and Young,' now standing at the sound end of the Mall on the Central Park, and report whether a portion of the granite lying on the Central Park can be utilized for that purpose."

Vaux's granite base, seen here in 1891, was apparently scrapped in the 1934 move.  photo from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

One art critic, William Crary Brownell, was far less censorious in his appraisal of Tigress and Cubs.  Nevertheless his compliment in his 1892 French Art: Classic and Contemporary Painting and Sculpture was not only slightly insulting; but disparaged Central Park's artworks as a whole:

There have been but two modern sculptors who have shown an equally pronounced genius for representing animals--namely, Barye, of course, and Barye's clever but not great Cain.  The tigress in Central Park, perhaps the best bronze there (the competition is not exacting), and the best also of the several variations of the theme of which, at one time, the sculptor apparently could not tire, familiarizes the Americans with the talent of Cain." 

Maintenance of Central Park was never-ending.  The City Record listed the expenditures of 1915 to fix arbors, railings, comfort stations and such.  In reporting that $12 had been spent to repair Cain's grouping, the city gave it yet another name:  Lion and Cubs.

As Clarence Cook had hoped for 66 years earlier, Tigress and Cubs was moved to the Central Park Zoo in 1934.  After a renovation of the zoo in 1988, it was again relocated, between the Tropical Zone and the Intelligence Garden.  The removal of the stone base resulted in an extremely low vantage point and, subsequently, the loss of the former majesty of the grouping.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Crumpets and Jazz - 55 Christopher Street





In 1853 three fine brick-fronted homes were completed at Nos. 55 through 59 Christopher Street.  Each was 22-feet wide and three stories tall above a high English basement.  The double-doored entrances above the tall stoops were embellished with simple molded Italianate framing.  The floor to ceiling parlor windows were most likely fronted by cast iron balconies.  Cast metal cornices featured paired brackets and fussy decorative cartouches.  The elements that stood out as somewhat unusual were the graceful rolled lintels of the openings.

The original brownstone framing of the entrance can be seen through the trees in this 1916 photograph by Jessie Tarbox Beals.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Nos. 57 and 59 were owned by Peter J. Christie and Gilbert J. Bogart, respectively.  Both were in the building trade, so it is likely they were responsible for the construction of the row.  John Kemp, the owner of No. 55, however, was a well-to-do merchant.  What, if any, connection he had with the other two is unknown.

Newspapers of the day printed the passenger lists of sailing ships departing to and arriving from Europe.  The names of John Kemp and his wife, like other moneyed New Yorkers, appeared in print often over the years.  One crossing, however, stood out.

Returning from England in December 1854, the Lady Franklin was buffeted by gales.  Under the command of Captain J. Thompson, the crew managed to successfully weather the storms, while providing as much comfort to the guests as possible.  Before reaching New York Harbor, several of the passengers, including the Kemps, signed a letter of thanks to the captain, which was reprinted in The New York Herald on Christmas Day that year.  It said in part, "We, the undersigned passengers, on board your fine and strong ship, being about to terminate our voyage from Liverpool to New York, after a somewhat rough and boisterous passage, cannot part without expressing to you our strong admiration of the vessel, and the various arrangements made for our health and comfort."

John Kemp seems to have worn a Southern-made pocket watch; a pricey accessory which he discovered missing in the winter of 1861.  His advertisement in The New York Herald on February 21, 1861:

Lost, on Tuesday, in the vicinity of College place [West Broadway today] or Hudson street, a gold Watch and Chain, marked Wm. Ashton, Charleston, S. C.; No. 6,496.  The finder will receive the above reward by leaving it at John Kemp's, 55 Christopher street.

The reward of $20 offered would be equal to about $575 today.

As was the case in many families with large houses, in 1858 the Kemps rented a portion or their home.  Their advertisement in The New York Herald in March read "To Let--Part of house 55 Christopher Street, consisting of front and back parlors, kitchen and bedroom on the second floor; also part of the third floor with privilege in bathroom, washroom and subcellar."

The couple apparently did not relish the thought of rowdy children, however.  The ad concluded "A small family of grown persons preferred."

On April 15 1868 John Kemp sold No. 55 to Martin H. Reed for $15,500--just over a quarter of a million dollars today.   Reed remained in the house until his death in 1874.  It was sold by his estate on January 23, 1875 to Gilbert L. Stevenson and his wife, Eleanor.

Like the Kemps, the Stevensons took in boarders by 1880.  Two well-to-do bachelors, Halstead C. Hynard and Albert H. Schoudel lived in the house that year.

Schouldel would be a part of a fascinating, if unrelated, side story years later.  After marrying, he moved into a house in Brooklyn.  When he and his wife went to their country home one weekend in June 1893, The New York Times reported that they left "a negro servant, Emma Crawley, in charge of the house."  Emma decided to throw a party

A private watchman saw eight young men enter by the basement door on Saturday, around midnight.  "Shortly afterward five other young men were admitted."  The watchman called police who stormed in.  Eight men were arrested and two girls were found hiding in the basement.  "The rest of the party escaped," said the article.  One may assume that Emma Crawley lost her job.

The Stevensons would be the last to own No. 55 as a private residence.  As they prepared to move to Williamsburg, Brooklyn on April 1, 1889 they sold it to John P. Gaw for $13,500.  Gaw operated it as a rooming house; prompting the Real Estate Record & Guide to term it a "tenement" when he sold it in 1893; making a $50 profit.

Among the more colorful roomers here came along early in 1916.  The 78-year former school teacher old had left his 61-year old wife, Jeanette Bernard, behind in Brooklyn.  Their domestic troubles had started when Bernard came across a former student, Jennie M. Thompson, who was now a teacher herself.

Jennie, who was 51, was an accomplished artist and when Bernard expressed an interest in painting she began giving him lessons.  It did not sit well with Jeanette.  Exactly what led to her husband's moving into the Christopher Street apartment is unclear, but when she appeared before Justice Kapper in the Brooklyn courts on February 4, 1916, she accused him not only of abandonment, but with "being on too friendly terms with Miss Jennie M. Thompson."

The judge was frustrated with the entire affair.  "It is a pity that the elderly couple have reached a bitter matrimonial litigious stage instead of that peaceful evening of life to which the happily mated look forward," he said.

At the time of the Bernards unpleasantness, Greenwich Village had become Manhattan's Bohemia.  Cafes and tearooms sprouted up in the basement levels of houses.  Artists, poets, musicians and actors gathered in the subterranean dens, exchanging ideas.  No. 55 was about to get one of its own.

Mary Alletta Crump (who went by her first initial and second name) had come from the South to take a nursing course in a New York hospital.  The stress of the training was too much, however, and she was advised to follow "a lighter profession."  Taking inspiration from her surname and an old family recipe, she opened The Crumperie in the basement of No. 55 in 1917.

Crocheted curtains, simulating quilts, added to the charm of the antique furnishings.  photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

M. Alletta added to the allure by wandering among the tables strumming a ukulele and singing folk songs.  Multilingual, she sang French and Russian ballads as well as Negro spirituals.  Word spread across the Hudson and on November 17, 1922 Margaret Rohe, writing in the Perth Amboy Evening News, gave offered a charming glimpse inside.

"In the basement of a little old-fashioned house at 55 Christopher Street Miss Crump set up her Lares and Penates and tea tables and crumpet utensils...Here daily from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. she purveys steaming, amber-colored tea and hot buttered crumpets on which you may heap with your own lavish hand a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon."
The Perth Amboy Evening News depicted M. Alletta atop a piano entertaining her guests.  (copyright expired)
In other such tearooms, like Edith Unger's Mad Hatter a few blocks way, local artists were welcomed to add their own personality to the walls.  The Crumperie was no different.  Artists with crayons converted the water stains on the walls to elephants, sheep and other frolicking animals.

M. Alletta Crump posed with her ukulele for photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Rohe wrote "It's a refreshingly quaint little spot, this Crumperie, furnished in real old colonial furniture with braided rugs on the floor and bits of patchwork quilt for curtains at the windows.  A bright fire crackles on the hearth...it is no wonder it is a favored haunt of the original 'gang' of the Village, those clever radical young artists, sculptors, actors and spring poets who first discovered this old corner of New York as a Mecca for true Bohemians."

Mary Alletta Crump had moved on by 1924; but it was not the last New York would hear from her.  In 1941 a fleet of "mobile kitchens" was established by the American Women's Voluntary Services.  The food trucks were on hand for "emergency feeding work in case of disaster."  When the first class of trainees was graduated on July 2, they received their diplomas from M. Alletta Crump.

In the meantime the basement space had become "55," a tearoom which doubled as exhibition space.  On March 2, 1924 The New York Times reported "A group of old league students now well into the professional stage are exhibiting for the third time at "55," that is, at a hospitable tearoom at 55 Christopher Street."

Apartments upstairs were being rented by financially comfortable tenants in the Depression years.  On June 15, 1930 The Times reported that Donald Snedden had taken an apartment in the building.  The 27-year-old was an Associate Professor of Psychology and Statistics at New York University.  His wife, the former Marcia Mendenhall, was a psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital.

A few months after moving into their new apartment, the Sneddens purchased a sloop, the Sea Fox, with intentions of making a cruise to Bermuda in June 1931.  On Saturday, May 23 they hosted a sailing party on the Long Island Sound.   The guests included Marcia's brother and his wife, several educators and 30-year-old Robert Johnston, a radio and night club entertainer.  Of the eight persons on board, at 30-years-old, Johnston was the only one not still in his 20's.

A violent gale blew in, with winds reaching 46 miles per hour.  The Sea Fox was lost; and planes and boats searched for the vessel for days.  On Tuesday a fisherman plucked the body of 25-year old Marcia Snedden from the waters.  One by one over the subsequent days the other seven bodies were recovered.

Following the repeal of Prohibition the basement space where tea and crumpets had been served for years became Hymie's Bar.

For years, beginning in the early 1960's, the Country Dance and Song Society had its headquarters at No. 55 Christopher.  It was headed by May Gadd, considered at the time to be the foremost authority in the United States on English country dancing and its American cousin, square dancing.  (She had been consulted by choreographer Agnes de Mille for help in the 1943 musical Oklahoma, among other stagings.)   Every Tuesday evening country dance classes were held in the Christopher Street space, at least through 1977.

Around 1983 the former Hymie's Bar gave way to 55 Bar, a jazz club.  It became an annual destination during the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival.

The 20th century was not kind to John Kemp's once-elegant home.  The carved embellishments of the entrance were shaved flat (as were the lintels of the central windows, no doubt to accommodate a fire escape), and the basement and stoop were covered with a stucco-like substance.  The deteriorating cornice was given a slap-dash repair with galvanized metal painted to match.  Today there is one apartment, on the top floor in the building.


But it is the basement, oddly enough, where the history of No. 55 played out and continues to do so today.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Chas. Robinson Smith House - 34 West 69th Street



In the first years of the 1890's Gilbert A. Schellenger nearly single-handedly designed the entire southern block of West 69th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  He would be responsible for 21 rowhouses and three flats on the block.  Surprisingly, they were not the projects of a single developer, but three unrelated operators.

The block filled with upscale Renaissance Revival style high-stooped homes faced in brownstone.  Two of the row of seven residences designed for George C. Edgar's Sons, however, refused to conform.  The 22-foot wide homes at Nos. 34 and 36 were faced in gray brick upon limestone bases.  Shallow, three-stepped porches led to the entrances nestled behind the fluted Ionic columns that upheld striking two-story bowed bays.  Unlike most of the homes along the block--with their abundance of decorative carving and quirky doglegged stoops--Nos. 34 and 36 exuded formal architectural quietude.

Construction on the row was begun in 1895 and completed early in 1896.  Even while finishing work was being done, No. 34 was sold on November 19, 1895 to Augustus B. and Esther A. Elfelt.  The purchase came none too soon for an important family event.

At noon on November 18, 1896 the house was the scene of Claire Elizabeth's marriage to Lee Kohn.  It was a major social event within the wealthy Jewish community.   The bridegroom was a cousin of the Straus brothers, owners of R. H. Macy & Co.  He was a partner in Macy & Abrast and in L. Straus & Sons.  Among the guests at the wedding were Isidore and Ida Straus, and Joseph and Caroline Seligman.

The joyous occasion quickly soured when a diamond tiara disappeared during the reception.   An immediate search was made, with no results.  Avoiding unwanted publicity, Elfelt hired private investigators.  Two months later he reluctantly brought in the police.

According to The New York Times on January 18, 1897, Elfelt "declines to say to whom it belonged, and the officials of the Detective Bureau are equally reticent."  Detective Sergeant McCauley did say that if the thief was a professional, there was little hope of retrieving the tiara.  It would by now have been broken apart and the individual diamonds sold.

But there was hope.  "He added that the detectives are working on the theory that the theft was not committed by professionals, but that the jewels dropped from the head of the wearer and presented an irresistible temptation to some one who say them."  Nonetheless, it does not appear that the tiara was ever recovered nor the thieve found.

The stately presence of No. 34 (left) and its twin  stand out along the brownstone homes of the block.
Within the year Augustus B. Elfelt sold No. 34 to Charles Robinson Smith.  The sale may have been prompted by ill health.  Elfelt died in the family's country home at Irvington-on-Hudson the following year, on November 8, 1899, at the age of 68. 

Smith was a prominent corporate lawyer, married to the former Jeannie Porter Steele.  The couple had two daughters, Hilda and Gertrude (another daughter, Elsa, died in childhood).  Months after moving in, Charles diversified by co-founding of the General Chemical Company in February 1899.

Jeannie's attentions were on entertainments in her new home.  In December 1898 Form, The Monthly Magazine of Society wrote "Miss Ethel Thornell, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Thornell...must also be included in the list of happy, handsome girls who will be launched on the not always smooth sea society between now and the New Year."  Jeannie helped calm that social sea by hosting an "Easter dance" for Ethel in the house on April 5, 1899.

While many other wealthy families summered in Newport and Tuxedo Park, or in country estates on Long Island, the Smiths most often spent their summers in France.  Their daughters' early years were divided between New York and Paris.

Following Gertrude's coming out during the winter season of 1900-01, society columns routinely announced when Jeannie, Hilda and Gertrude were "at home"--the complex procedure by which socialites arranged their afternoon schedules to avoid conflict.  On December 20, 1903, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported that the women "will be at home Tuesday, December 22, from 4 to 7."

Earlier that year the house had been the scene of a more somber gathering.  On April 30, 1903 the famous African explorer and author Paul Belloni Du Chaillu had died in St. Petersburg, Russia.   The explorer had no immediate family and American Consul General W. R. Holloway was unsure what do with his body.  A cable from Assistant Secretary of State Loomis in Washington DC directed "Have the remains embalmed, placed in a vault, and await instructions."

But before that happened, according to The New York Times on May 23, "Ambassador [Robert] McCormick received a cable message from New York from Charles Robinson Smith, as Du Chaillu's nearest friend, asking that the body be sent to his home, 34 West Sixty-ninth Street, for burial."

In June 1910 Smith enlarged the house when he hired architect Louis R. Metcalf to add a one-story extension to the rear.  The improvements cost $2,500, or about $66,500 today.

The family rubbed shoulders with Manhattan's highest echelon of society.  When, for instance, August Belmont married actress Eleanor Robson on February 26, 1910 in the bride's home, The New York Times explained, "It was necessary to restrict the attendance at the wedding to the immediate families of the couple, as the space afford by Miss Robson's home was inadequate for a large reception."  Among the select few others invited were Charles, Jeannie and Gertrude Smith.

As was the case in 1896, the 69th Street house was the scene of a wedding on April 16, 1914.  Hilda was married to Lyman Beecher Stowe, grandson of Harriet Beecher Stowe that afternoon.  The ceremony, like August Belmont's had been, was understated.  "None but the near relatives and a few intimate friends have been asked to the wedding, and a very small reception will follow," said The Times.

In the meantime, Gertrude busied herself with charitable and social causes.  As early as 1904 she was on the Standing Committee of City Hospital on Blackwell's Island; and in 1915 was Chairman of the Vacation Club at No. 38 West 39th Street, which changed its name to the American Fund for French Wounded a few months later.

Eleanor Robson Belmont had given up her career on the stage when she married.  She did, however, perform at least one more time on April 29, 1916.  For the Smiths' anniversary that year poet and author Josephine Daskam Bacon wrote a play, The Bouquet.  It was presented in the 69th Street house with Eleanor Robson Belmont and Francis Starr acting.

The Smiths tradition of summering in Europe came to and end with the outbreak of World War I.  Charles purchased an estate, Glendale, near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Like the daughters of many wealthy New Yorkers, Gertrude continued her war relief efforts.  She worked closely with Edith Wharton to amass medical supplies for the troops in France.  She went so far as to sail to Europe in a blacked-out ship and flew over the front lines to deliver the supplies.   Following the war she received the Legion of Honor from the Government of France.

The family received a scare in October 1918 when Charles appeared to be near death.  The New-York Tribune received a cable from Lenox, Massachusetts on October 18 that said he "is seriously ill with pneumonia at his summer home, The Dugway, at Glendale.  His daughter, Miss Gertrude Robinson Smith, received word of her father's condition at their city home, 34 West Sixty-ninth Street, yesterday afternoon and immediately came to his bedside."

The crisis passed and on May 9, 1920 The Times reported "Charles Robinson Smith has opened his place at Stockbridge, Mass., for the season."  At the time, Gertrude, who was now 39 years old, had become active in promoting the arts there.  In 1919 she constructed her own residence on the family's estate.  She was eventually a founder of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, which later became known as Tanglewood.

The Smith family left 69th Street in the mid-1920's.   Although the mansion was not officially converted to apartments, rooms were being rented by 1923 when Maria Lessing and her daughter, Marion, moved in.

Born Maria Wilhelmina Dilg, she had married Otto Eduard Lessing in Bavaria in 1898.  Lessing, who studied at the University of Tubingen later earned degrees from the University of Michigan.  He was Professor of German at Smith College from 1913 to 1922, when he was appointed Professor of German at Williams College.  But when she discovered he was having an affair, Maria took their daughter to New York City and the former Smith house.

If she thought the drastic move would bring her husband back, it did the opposite.  He moved in with his girlfriend.  By August 1928 Maria had had enough.  She sued her husband for divorce "on the ground of misconduct with a woman not known to his wife, with whom he is alleged to have 'lived openly.'"

Surprisingly, Lessing asserted that he had obtained an absolute divorce in Mexico in January that year "on grounds of desertion and incompatibility."  Not only that, he had remarried on March 1 in Newark, New Jersey after obtaining the advice of lawyers who said everything was perfectly legal.

A reporter knocked on the door of No. 34 West 69th Street and talked to Marion.  On August 14, 1928 The New York Times reported that she said "her father had admitted to her that he had unsuccessful tried to get a divorce from her mother in Paris," and had heard he had obtained a decree in Mexico, but that no papers were ever served on her mother.

A colorful tenant in the 1930's was Nikita Balieff and his wife, the former Helena Konisarjevska.  The New York Times called him "the rotund Russian impresario whose failure to master the English language made him one of the most popular masters of ceremonies."   The vaudevillian, writer, and director was well-known throughout the country.

Balieff made the cover of Time on October 12, 1922 (copyright expired)
He had been forced to leave Russian during the Revolution, became popular in Paris, then came to American in 1922.  He died while living here on September 3, 1936.  Despite his tremendous successes--he was introduced to President Calvin Coolidge at one point--The Times noted "But true to the traditions of the theatre, he died with almost all his fortune gone."

Another theatrical tenant was singer and actress Florence Forsberg.  She was 25 years old in 1953 when she was among the cast of Wonderful Town as a singer and the understudy to Edie Adams.   Florence had been good friends with Korean War veteran, Lester Johnsen for about five years at the time.

Florence Forsberg appeared on stage and television.
After the show on the night of July 16 the two were having drinks in Florence's apartment.  The following morning her body was found with 14 stab wounds.  Almost simultaneously Johnsen shot himself with a hunting rifle in the apartment he shared with his mother and sister on West 108th Street.  He left two notes, one of which read:  "I am sorry for what I did.  We were in a passion.  We were both drunk.  I killed her.  I am sorry.  Life is not worth living."   He had left No. 34 West 69th Street around 4 a.m. and killed himself at about 7:15.  He gave no motive for the murder.

In 1963 the former mansion with its colorful history was converted to apartments.  Despite the unsympathetic replacement windows, a door more appropriate to a 7-Eleven convenience store, and an dingy coat of grime, the house continues to exude an august presence.

photographs by the author

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Lost Broadway Tabernacle - 6th Avenue and 34th Street



At the turn of the last century, the neighborhood around the church was no longer quietly residential. from the collection of the New York Public Library

By the time evangelist Charles Gradison Finney preached his first sermon in New York City around August 1829, he was renowned.  Affiliated with no church, his no-nonsense sermons struck home to many among his audiences.  In 1900 church historian Susan Hayes Ward wrote "The hearer at the time felt that Mr. Finney was talking to him personally rather than preaching before an audience...He did not speak about sinners in the abstract, but he talked to the individual sinners before him."

In December 1831 a congregation was organized especially for the preacher, and on February 14, 1832 the Second Free Presbyterian Church was constituted with a membership of 41. It initially operated from Broadway Hall, just north of Canal Street, and then from the former Chatham Garden Theatre, renamed the Chatham Street Chapel. 

From its inception the church embraced Finney's passionate anti-slavery stance.  Black worshipers were welcomed (albeit in a separated section)--a policy which, coupled with Finney's outspoken abolitionist sermons, did not sit well with many outsiders and newspapers.  During the riots of 1833, a mob broke into the church and attacked black members.  On July 8 the Courier and Enquirer spat "Another of those disgraceful negro-outrages &c., occurred last night at that common focus of pollution, Chatham Street Chapel."

The congregation moved into a new structure in 1836, the Broadway Tabernacle on Broadway between Worth and Catherine Lane.  The following year Finney left to teach theology in Ohio.  But he left his congregation a strong abolitionist legacy.  On July 6, 1840 the church was reorganized under David Hale; but it still held fast to its motto "Slavery and Christianity cannot live together."

The Congregational Quarterly later explained "the encroachment of business compelling families to remove up town, made it difficult, if not impossible, longer to sustain a church in that locality; and, in 1857, the Tabernacle was sold, and the last religious service was held within its walls on the 26th of April in that year."

The congregation paid a total of $78,500 for eight lots on 34th Street at the northeast corner of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, facing what would later be named Herald Square.  It later sold the northern portion for $33,000, making the net cost of the land about $1.3 million today.

In her 1901 The History of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, Susan Hayes Ward noted "In selecting an architect for the new structure the choice of the Building Committee lay between Mr. Upjohn, the architect of Trinity Church, New York, and of Dr. Storrs's Church in Brooklyn, and Mr. Leopold Eidlitz."  They chose Eidlitz, whose plans were accepted on July 17, 1857 "on the condition that the church could be  built for $73,000."  On Christmas Day 1857 the cornerstone was laid "in the presence of some hundreds of spectators, many of whom were ladies," according to The New York Times.  Inside the cornerstone was a Holy Bible, Church Psalmist, copies of the church manuals, and other documents.  A copper plate read:

The Broadway Tabernacle Church and Society,
Organized July 6, 1840,
after the Congregational order of New England, erect this their second house of worship
A.D. 1857-8
Leopold Eidlitz-Architect

As Upjohn most likely would have done, Leopold Eidlitz turned to the Gothic Revival style.  He faced the church in field stone (described as Little Falls rubble) and trimmed it in light-colored sandstone. Its 89-foot front faced Sixth Avenue and it stretched back along 34th Street 150 feet.  The Congregational Quarterly reported "The style of the building is perpendicular Gothic, carried out with a chaste and almost severe simplicity, which imparts an air of grandeur and beauty to the whole structure."  The corner tower rose 135 feet, dominating the neighboring brick and brownstone residences.

The Congregational Quarterly, January 1860 (copyright expired
The church was dedicated on April 24, 1859.  The New York Times reported that long before they were opened, "crowds were pressing in at the doors."  The Congregational Quarterly said "The interior effect is rich and imposing.  Entering from the Avenue, one sees before him a nave 90 feet in length, 34 feet wide, and nearly 70 feet high--a large church of itself...Through the rich oak-hued case of the organ, there are glimpses of the groined ceiling...Standing at the door of the nave, one is struck with the perfect proportions of the house, the admirable simplicity and taste of its details, and the solidity of the whole structure."

Keeping the project within the family, Eidlitz's builder brother, Marc, had constructed the church.  The stained glass windows were executed by Henry E. Sharp (whose "Faith and Hope" window from the demolished St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Brooklyn now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the organ was built by R. M. Ferris.

from The History of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, 1901 (copyright expired)
A magnificent new venue, of course, in no way changed the political and social stance of the Broadway Tabernacle.   When the Rev. J. A. R. Rogers was "expelled from Kentucky by a mob," as described by The New York Times on February 25, 1860, for his anti-slavery opinions, he was welcomed as a speaker at the Broadway Tabernacle.  He spoke "upon Southern Christianity, the prospects of Freedom there, and the incidents connected with the expulsion of himself and his brethren from their field of labor."

Later that year, on October 8, pastor Rev. Dr. Joseph P. Thompson spoke about the hypocrisy of some New Yorkers.  "Yet now men calling themselves Christians, who gave largely for foreign missions, pretended to doubt whether it was wise, and safe, and patriotic to talk against Slavery as a system of iniquity, and to vote against its extension."  He told the congregation that returning missionaries told him "that they saw men flourishing here in Broadway who at Gaboon had been engaged in the Slave-trade."
from King's Handbook of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)

Following the outbreak of Civil War, Thompson was even more energized in his sermons.  On September 26, 1861 he said in part "It is necessary to wipe out Slavery, from the South...It is prying upon our vitals, and must be cut out with the sharp edge of the sword."

As had been the case for decades, the Broadway Tabernacle's outspoken abolitionist policy sometimes made it a target, no more so than during the violent Draft Riots of 1863.  The three-day reign of terror resulted in the murders of black citizens, the burning of the homes and businesses of known abolitionists--even the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue where children barely escaped with their lives.  Christian Work recalled on January 24, 1901 "Union services were so frequent in the Tabernacle...that during the riots of July, 1863, the mob was with difficulty prevented from burning the building."

The incident merely steeled Rev. Thompson's resolve.  He later recalled "During the draft, and when treason lurked at the North, your pastor came into the pulpit and said that we must not give it up.  After the sermon, a meeting was held, and funds were subscribed to raise a church regiment."

Thompson realized that declaration of peace could not wipe out racism.  In his sermon of December 7, 1865 he acknowledged "A gigantic system is slow to die; and when injustice has been sanctioned by custom, legalized by the State, shielded by the church; when wealth and family distinction have been founded upon it, and children trained to practice it, and woman has devoted all the passionate energy of her nature to its support, it is not possible that the spirit of justice will die in an instant."  He concluded "One thing was certain--that the people of the South should recognize the negro as being come at last, and they might as well at once make up their minds to it"

More than 2,000 people filed into the church on December 10, 1865 for a memorial service for the 360,000 Union soldiers who had perished.  In his discourse, Thompson detailed both the number of black and while soldiers who had died in the hospitals, on the battlefields, and in the "prison pens."

The neighborhood around the Broadway Tabernacle was highly affluent.  At the eastern end of the block stood the marble palace of Alexander T. Stewart and the brownstone mansions of the Astors.  The wealth of the congregation was evidenced in 1871 when Thompson announced his retirement.

On October 25 The New York Times reported that the congregation had accepted his resignation.  Following the meeting it was agreed to present him with a gift of $52,000, slightly over $1 million today.

The Broadway Tabernacle continued its policy of outreach.  An annual event within the church was the anniversary exercises of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum.  Citizens could see the fruits of the instruction received by the children, who one-by-one got up before the assembly and performed feats like writing on a blackboard or demonstrating sign language.

In 1878 the Sixth Avenue Elevated was erected directly in the face of the church.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The church supported a number of organizations like the Seamen's Friend Society, the Home Missionary Society, and the Female Guardian Society.  Equally important was the issue of Temperance and the auditorium was frequently the meeting place of the National Temperance Society.    As was common with the Tabernacle it approached the subject differently than most.

It organized the New-York Christian Home for Intemperate Men at No. 48 East 78th Street in 1877.  The goal of the facility was, according to its president William T. Booth, "to save men who were rendered homeless and had lost everything by their appetite for drink."  Once the men were made sober, they were helped to find employment.

The congregation's concern for and inclusion of minorities extended to the highly discriminated against Asian population.  On May 13, 1884 The New York Times reported "About 900 Mongolians, varying in ages from 12 to 30, sat in the Broadway Tabernacle last evening, and took part in the first anniversary entertainment of Chinese Sunday-schools connected with the churches of New-York and Brooklyn...The Tabernacle was red with flags."

By now commerce had encroached on the formerly-exclusive neighborhood.  The Metropolitan Elevated Railway had extended its tracks directly in front of the Broadway Tabernacle in 1878.  With it came stores and other businesses.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Finally, on December 28, 1901 The Outlook reported that the Tabernacle had sold its property a week earlier for $1.3 million.  "The purchasers expect to build a gigantic hotel on the Tabernacle lot and adjoining property," it said.  The article noted "in the sale of the Broadway Tabernacle the end is seen of a structure of National significance."

The change in the neighborhood is evidenced in 1901 as Macy's department store rises in the background on Herald Square.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In reporting on the last service held in the church on April 27, 1902 The Outlook recalled Joseph P. Thompson.  "Under Dr. Thompson the Tabernacle occupied its most conspicuous place in our history  It had already been known as a place for the oppressed."

The proposed "gigantic hotel" did not come to pass.  Instead the 11-story Beaux Arts style Marbridge Building replaced the church.  Designed by Townsend, Steinle & Haskell, it survives.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society