Friday, February 22, 2019

The Daniel G. Farragut House - 113 East 36th Street




Developers Kennedy & Haw completed construction on a pair of high-end Italianate style houses at Nos. 113 and 115 in 1859.  Three bays wide and four stories tall above English basements, they reflected the wealth of their intended owners.   Wide stone stoops led to impressive double-doored entrances under carved pediments.   Almost assuredly cast iron balconies fronted the parlor windows.  Molded surrounds ornamented the openings and the cornices were splendidly detailed.

No. 113 was sold to Henry E. Quinan, a partner with John Falconer in the shipping firm of John Falconer & Co.  He was, as well, secretary of the Atlantic Mail Steamship Company.  At some point Quinan transferred titled to his partner and Falconer and his wife, Catherine, were living here by about 1862.

When not focused on shipping, Falconer involved himself in charitable causes.  He was appointed a commissioner of the newly-organized Hudson River Asylum for the Insane in 1862, for instance.   He was elected to the board of the Tenth National Bank in 1865.

Henry Quinan may have regretted not holding onto the property.  In 1866 the citizens of New York City purchased the house as a gift to Admiral David Glasgow Farragut.  As the Washington D.C. newspaper the National Republican later explained, "admiring friends...purchased, fitted up, and presented him with the elegant residence."  A campaign had raised $50,000 which covered the $33,000 price of the house (just over half a million today), and its costly furnishings.

David Farragut was commanding the battleship Pennsylvania in Norfolk, Virginia when he married Virginia Dorcass Loyall (his second wife) on December 26, 1843.  A true military wife, she accompanied him to the West Coast in 1854 where he commanded the Mare Island Navy Yard until 1860.  At the outbreak of Civil War she moved to Washington D.C.  

Farragut's military exploits were the stuff of legend.  He entered the Navy at the age of nine-and-a-half and was appointed midshipman the following year.  He showed his mettle during the War of 1812 when, at the age of 12, he discovered and stopped a mutiny among the prisoners aboard the Essex.   The same year the boy was given charge of a captured ship and navigated it into port "over the head of the violent-tempered captain," according to the Sausalito News later.

During the Civil War he led the Union Navy in the Battle of New Orleans and the Battle of Mobile Bay.   It was during the latter conflict that Farragut gave his iconic command.  When the advance ship, the Brooklyn, stopped, throwing the fleet into confusion, Farragut shouted through a trumpet, "What is the trouble?"  The answer came back "Torpedoes."  (The term at the time referred to water mines.)

"Damn the torpedoes! Four bells!  Captain Drayton, go ahead! Full speed." shouted Farragut.

In 1867, now with the rank of admiral, he embarked on what the National Republic termed "his almost royal cruise...in command of the European fleet."  The 1892 National Cyclopaedia of American Biography said visited "several stations in Asia and Africa, being received with distinguished honor by rulers and people wherever he landed."  By special permission of President Andrew Johnson Virginia accompanied her husband on the flagship Franklin.


The two houses were originally nearly identical.
With the august couple at No. 113 was their son, Loyall.  Born in 1844, he could technically boast that he had served during the Civil War in both the Navy and Army.   At around the age of 12 he told had told his father he wanted to go to West Point.  According to the Colorado Herald Democrat decades later, "the old Admiral replied: 'I don't know how that would do; I'm not so sure whether you could stand fire.'"

When Loyall assured him that he had the courage, Farragut took him to the maintop of the flagship heading to Port Hudson.  "The lad never flinched while the shot and shell flew thick and fast about him.  Then the father said: 'Very well, my boy, that will do; you shall go to West Point.'"  Loyall was appointed a cadet at West Point by President Abraham Lincoln.  He rose to the rank of lieutenant.

The 36th Street house was filled, of course, with gifts from around the world and memorabilia from the admiral's past. Upon the Farraguts' return from the Far East in 1868, The New York Herald commented on many of the gifts the couple had received, including gifts from "the queen of the harem" in Constantinople."  The article noted "the gold and jewelled services, with diamond settings, and the fairy-like scenes, were wonderfully rich and peculiar and presented with truly Eastern magnificence."  But one of the most prized items in the house was far less exotic.  It was the admiral's 1838 portrait by William Swain.


This portrait held a place of honor in the 36th Street house.  It now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Loyall married Gertrude Metcalfe, the daughter of Dr. John T. Metcalfe, on March 30 1869.   He brought his bride to live in the 36th Street house.  

Only two months later newspapers nationwide reported disturbing news.  The Indiana Daily Wabash Express wrote on May 11, "Admiral Farragut is still kept closely confined at his residence, No. 113 East Thirty-sixth street, New York, in consequence of the neuralgia from which he has long suffered."

The following year the Farraguts embarked on "a journey undertaken for the benefit of his health," according to The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography.  While in Portsmouth, New Hampshire he suffered a fatal heart attack on August 14, 1870 at the age of 69.

On September 28, 1870 the Hudson Daily Star reported that The Farragut Funeral Committee of the Board of Aldermen had confirmed "Preparations for the obsequies are proceeding satisfactorily, and the display will be more imposing than any since the Lincoln funeral procession passed through the city."

Despite a driving rain on September 30, thousands lined the streets as Farragut's coffin proceeded up Broadway and Fifth Avenue to Grand Central Depot "on the shoulders of sailors who formerly served under the Admiral," as described by Hudson Daily Star.  The ceremonies were conducted "according to strict naval etiquette."  

The special train bore the remains to Woodlawn cemetery, accompanied by "distinguished naval and military officers as well as by a vast confluence of people from all ranks of society," according to The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography.

David Farragut's legacy has perhaps never been surpassed by any military figure before or after.  His birthplace in Tennessee was renamed Farragut, Washington D.C. named Farragut Square in his honor, and monuments and statues appeared in several cities.  Two Navy destroyers were named for him as well as several other Navy ships; and the World War II Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho was just one more honor.

When the statue to her husband was unveiled in Farragut Square in Washington in 1881, Virginia was the guest of President James A. Garfield at the White House.  She remained at No. 113 East 36th Street with Loyall (who published The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, First Admiral of the United States Navy in 1879) and Gertrude.

On November 3, 1884 the National Republican reported "Mrs. Virginia Loyall Farragut, the widow of the great admiral, died Friday night last, Oct. 31, at her home, No. 113 East Thirty-sixth street."  She was 60 years old.  Virginia was interred in Greenwood cemetery next to her husband.

In July 1885 Loyall expanded the house by hiring architect G. E. Harney to design a two-story extension to the rear.  He had been, by now, an executive with the New York Central Railroad for years.   He and his wife also dabbled in real estate with Gertrude's brother, Henry Metcalfe.   Henry briefly lived with the Farraguts in 1895.  The following year Gertrude died.

In 1902 Loyall loaned a historical piece of his father's past to the Boys' Club in the impoverished Lower East Side.  The boys were putting on a play, Gilbert & Sullivan's H. M. S. Pinafore.  None of the players was over seven years old.  Loyall was a director of the club, which sought to guide the boys away from lives of crime.  The New-York Tribune reported on April 2, "Admiral Farragut's hat played a part in the performance, as it was worn by little 'Fred' Sulky, the boy who appeared as Sir Joseph Porter, K. C. B., the admiral of the Queen's 'navee.'"


The admiral's venerable uniform hat is worn by a young player.  The girls in the cast are, in fact, boys.  New-York Tribune April 20, 1902 (copyright expired)
That hat and many of the other significant items within the house would find a new home in 1917.  On October 1, 1916 Loyal died a heart attack in his summer home in Ashfield, Massachusetts at the age of 73.  The New-York Tribune noted "Mr. Farragut had lived at 113 East Thirty-sixth Street, in the house presented to his father by the people of this city."

One year later the Sausalito News announced "Some striking objects commemorative of the life and services of one of the most romantic and inspiring figures among the list of great American naval heroes, Admiral David G. Farragut, have recently been received by the United States National museum at Washington as a gift of the estate of Loyall Farragut."

Among the items removed from the house to the museum were a jeweled sword inscribed "Presented to Rear Admiral David G. Farragut by Members of the Union League Club...April 23rd, 1864."  There were also several uniform items, including that hat used in the Boys' Club play, and "several paintings of notable scenes in his career," including the William Swain portrait.

In April 1917 the Farragut estate sold No. 113 to J. P. Morgan for $45,000.   Two months later, on June 16, Morgan's daughter Frances Tracy was married to Paul Geddes Pennoyer in St. John's Church in Lattington, Long Island near the Morgan summer estate, Matinicock Point.  The newlyweds moved into No. 113 East 36th Street.

Pennoyer was an attorney and was for a time an executive with Victrola Records.  The couple had two sons, Paul, Jr. and Robert, and four daughters, Virginia, Frances, Katherine and Jesse.   In 1927 Pennoyer was made a partner in the law firm of White & Case.  The family's summer home, Round Bush, was at Glen Cove, Long Island.

The Pennoyer family left 36th Street in 1937 when Paul was placed in charge of the White & Case offices in Paris.  They would remain there until 1939.

It was most likely just after their leaving that the house was modernized by the removal of the Italianate framing of the entrance.  Oddly enough the pilasters, molded arch and keystone were left intact.

More significant change came when the house was converted to apartments in 1948.  There was now an apartment in the basement level and two each on the upper floors.  The stoop was removed and the entrance moved below the sidewalk level.  The renovations did not convert the original entrance to a window, as was often done; but placed an iron balcony in front of the doors.



The altered appearance leaves no hint that this residence was once home of one of America's greatest military figures.

photographs by the author

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Civic Shame --201 through 207 7th Avenue



Owned and neglected by the City for decades, it is nearly impossible to tell that the four structures were once upscale townhouses.

The east side of the Seventh Avenue block between 21st and 22nd Streets was lined with two- and three-story brick homes and shops in the years before the Civil War.   

The family of John Brown lived at No. 201 in 1858 with his wife, Catherine and their 2-year-old daughter Sarah.  When the little girl showed symptoms of scarlet fever in January that year, Dr. H D. Ranney wrote a prescription.  But tragically, he accidentally left behind a different prescription for laudenum--a drug which contained opium--which he had written for an elderly patient.  It was a fatal blunder, resulting in little Sarah's death.

Next door, at No. 203, Mrs. Levenstyn ran an interesting business in 1862.  She purchased second hand clothing and household goods "for the California market."

Following the war the four vintage buildings at Nos. 201 through 207 Seventh Avenue would make way for much grander residences.   The Italianate-style houses were completed in 1868.  Four stories tall above English basements, their elliptical arched openings wore molded lintels.  The individual, but identical, cornices were upheld by hefty brackets.

New York rowhouses at the time were routinely clad in brownstone, prompting Edith Wharton to complain that the city was "cursed with its universal chocolate-colored coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried."  That could not be said of the new Seventh Avenue homes.   The architect faced them in "Ohio stone," a light tan material that set them apart.

On March 28, 1868 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide listed the construction cost of recent "first-class dwellings."  Included was No. 207, on the corner of 22nd Street.  Its cost was estimated at $3,500; or about $62,500 today.

It is possible that No. 207 always had a shop in the lower level.  The Italianate-style entrance to the rear, at No. 170 West 22nd Street, is too grand to have been merely a service entrance.   That shop was home to the Hohorst grocery store by the mid-1890's.   Hohorst sold the business to H. W. Martens in December 1899.  It was apparently a thriving business, for Martens paid $2,000, a significant sum.


Each of the entrances was identical to the now-painted example on West 22nd Street.
In the meantime, the upper floors had been operated as a boarding house for several years; apparently one suite of rooms per floor.  In 1892 William L. Linsey boarded here.  He was described by The Sun as "a tall, ruddy-faced Englishman, who told his landlady that he speculated in Wall street for a living."

But Linsey fell on hard times that spring.  Struggling to stay afloat he pawned his watch and most of his clothing.  He failed to pay his board the second week of May, and then the next.   When he failed to come down to dinner on May 26, someone went to call him.  He was found dead in his bedroom.

The Sun ran the rather unfeeling headline "Suicide of a Shorn Lamb" and reported that Linsey had "swallowed poison and turned on the gas."  The article noted "He hadn't a cent of money left."

Linsey had left a pencil-written note to a friend:

God bless you always, every, every minute.  I must seek rest in the slumbers of the beyond.  Eternity will be incomplete without you, dearest John.  I have craved Divine forgiveness.  I am too weak for this earth.  Welcome sweet, sweet death.

Another of the landlady's boarders seems to have made a quick exit two years later.  An advertisement in The Evening World on April 19, 1894 succinctly announced "entire contents of 2d flat, 170 West 22d st., to be sold at once."

On the opposite end of the row, No. 201 was home to musician Putman Cramer in 1870.  As was the case with most well-heeled citizens, he may have been away from the city that summer.  His advertisement in September announced "Dr. Putman Cramer, 201 Seventh Avenue, between Twenty-first and Twenty-second streets, begs to inform his pupils and the public in general that he is ready to resume his Vocal and Piano instructions."

Like No. 207, the house was soon operated as a boarding house, run by Samuel Clark by 1873.  Like most high-end boarding house proprietors, the Clarks took in only a few boarders who enjoyed several rooms, often an entire floor.  Long term tenants were the family of Civil War veteran Captain Charles J. McGowan, here at least by 1873.  That year daughter Janette taught in the boys' department of Public School No. 26 on West 30th Street.  

In 1869 the History and Honorary Roll of the Twelfth Regiment, Infantry, called McGowan, "one of the most active and intelligent officers in the National Guard."  He had joined the regiment in 1861.  In 1878 McGowan was brevetted to the rank of major.  The family remained in the Seventh Avenue house at least through 1880.

Clark and his wife had three young adult daughters.  In September 1878 they took in a new boarder, Victor Davis Carlton Butler.  The 43-year-old had lived next door for three years.   "He was, therefore, well known in the neighborhood, not only for his agreeable manners, but for his weakness, which was drink," said the Minnesota newspaper the New Ulm Weekly Review.

Butler came from an "excellent Georgia family."  He worked as a bookkeeper for a paper merchant, Joseph Hayward, and "was understood to be in the receipt of a fair income outside of the salary allowed him by Mr. Hayward," according to The Newcastle Morning Herald.

But Butler wore out his welcome when he "formed an attachment" with Clark's eldest daughter.  The 23-year old Louise was described in newspapers as "an exceedingly prepossessing blonde."  Her father "not desiring the alliance, had requested him to move," according to The Sun.  Clark's wariness was well-founded.  Butler's drinking problem had prompted his wife to divorce him in 1866, taking their five children with her.

Clark had given him the deadline of November 26 to leave the house.  It only made his drinking worse.  New Ulm Weekly Review explained "Butler seemed to consider his suit hopeless, and he drank.  His conduct caused an altercation with his employer...and he quit the store on Monday.  Since then he had been at home most of the time, and under the influence of liquor.  It is believed that he was crazy from the effect of liquor.  He brooded over all his troubles."

On the afternoon of November 26, the day he was to move out, Butler declared "he would never quit Mr. Clark's house, but would be taken from it a corpse," as reported in The Sun.  The family did not take him seriously and "made light of it to him."  In fact, he was quit serious.

At around 5:00 that afternoon Mrs. Clark and her three daughters went to his room.  He told them he had taken poison, threatened to throw himself from the window, and then took his single-barreled Colt pistol from the bureau drawer and put it in his pocket.

All the women except for Minnie Clark left the room.  She asked him "What are you going to do with that?" and he replied "Oh, nothing.  But it is a handy weapon to settle matters with, is it not?"

Then, before the young woman could react, he pulled out the firearm and uttering "God forgive me," fired a bullet into his brain.  The Newcastle Morning Herald called him a "victim of love and melancholy."

As the end of the century approached the Seventh Avenue neighborhood was drastically changing.  A block to the east Sixth Avenue was lined with retail emporiums and the elevated railroad ran up its center.  All of the basement levels of the row had been converted for business.  In 1891 W. Ulmer renovated the basement of No. 201 for his saloon.

The shop next door at No. 203 had been a furniture store at least since 1874.  Under various proprietors, it would remain so at least through 1904.

The lower level of No. 205 was converted for business around 1889.  Mary A. Fitzgerald ran her ladies' tailoring establishment here that year.  In 1897 it was converted to a restaurant, first run by H. Elias and then by J. A. Westervelt beginning in 1899.

The Martens grocery store was still in the corner building after the turn of the century; but that would change in 1904 when the Excelsior Brewing Co. converted it to a saloon.  It was later run by Peter and Michael McEntee by 1912 and they would operate it for several years.


A mish-mash of storefronts front the former houses in 1931.  No. 203 retains its original entrance (identical to the surviving counterpart on West 22nd Street) and its stoop and Italianate ironwork.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
As the avenue changed, so did the former homes.  Architect Hugh E. O'Reilly owned No. 205 in the first years of the 20th century and ran his office from the building.  He was here at least through 1913.    Samuel Coleman's pharmacy was in No. 205 by 1912 while Max Green's real estate office occupied the former parlor floor.

In the Depression years there was one apartment per floor above the storefront of No. 203.   A Chinese laundry occupied the store of No. 201 and the Marathon Restaurant was in No. 205.

By the third quarter of the 20th century the four structures were beleaguered.  In 1976 the City seized all four buildings through tax closure.  The structures were entered into the Tenant Interim Lease Program, a program that allows tenants to manage and potentially buy the properties after major rehabilitation.  But that never happened.

The storefronts limped along.  In the early 1980's vintage record store Pyramid Records was at No. 201 and My Old Lady, a "nostalgic clothes" store, was in No. 207.  But upstairs things were going badly.

Tenants were removed from Nos. 203 and 207 when the conditions were "deemed hazardous to poor structural integrity."  The 1868 cornices were removed, leaving gray scars.  While the City promised rehabilitation, nothing happened.   In 2012 City Council Speaker Christine Quinn pushed hard for renovation.  She told the New York Post "It's an eyesore, and it's a waste, and we only wish we'd be able to move it along faster."



Kate Briquelet, writing in the New York Post on November 25, 2012 wrote "A cluster of four city-owned Seventh Avenue properties that should be renting for millions--and paying their fair share of taxes--sits nearly empty, boarded up and falling apart."  Only two families remained in the apartments--one in No. 201 and the other in 205.

In May 2018 the Department of Housing Preservation and Department announced intentions of redeveloping the properties.  The proposal described "3 bedroom units to be included in the building program."  Nearly a year later nothing has happened and the once upscale dwellings remain a shameful eyesore.

photographs by the author 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Yorkville Relic - 412 East 85th Street






In the 18th century summer estates of wealthy New Yorkers like Richard Riker, Archibald Gracie and Peter Schermerhorn dotted the Upper East Side.  But the 19th century saw factories being erected near the riverfront and wooden cottages appearing on newly laid out streets.  In 1826 the New York Evening Post remarked about the district which would later be named Yorkville.  “Twelve months ago here were not more than two or three buildings on the barren rock, where there are now upwards of sixty, some of them built in a good substantial manner.”

Although still far from the city proper, the houses were being erected along the Commissioners' street plan mapped out in 1811.  At some point--historians give the dates of 1855 to 1861--a comfortable frame home was erected on East 85th Street between what would be First and York Avenues.

Generally called "vernacular" in style--meaning a carpenter-builder had drawn the plans with no particular architectural style in mind--the three-bay wide house nevertheless exhibits elements of the current Italianate style in its elliptical arched openings under floating lintels and the deep-bracketed cornice.

As with similar houses in the mostly rural district there was a small front garden.  A stoop led to the parlor floor where the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows welcomed cooling breezes during warm summer months.

In the years before the house was constructed Yorkville saw an increase in population as Irish and German immigrants moved here not only to work in the breweries and factories, but to help build the Croton Aqueduct.   An Irish family was living at No. 412 East 85th Street by the late 1860's.

James Coss was born in Ireland in 1840.  On March 10, 1870 his wife, Margaret, gave birth to twins.   But merely enduring childbirth in the mid-19th century did not guarantee survival for the infants.  

At just five months old, little Margaret Coss died in the 85th Street house on July 24.   Her tiny casket was placed in the parlor until her funeral two days later.

The house was lost in foreclosure in June 1875 and purchased at auction by Martin Clear and his wife, Annie.  Clear's commute to his poultry business downtown was not as difficult as might be imagined.  Streetcars ran along Second and Third Avenues starting in 1858; and the Third Avenue elevated railroad would open in 1878.

Martin and Annie seem to have been financially comfortable.  In 1878, for instance, the Department of Public Charities and Corrections accepted his bid to provide 13,650 pounds of poultry to its various institutions.

The Clears rented a room in 1879 to the unmarried Denie D. Matthews, a school teacher in the Girls' Department of Grammar School No. 37 on East 87th Street.

In 1880 Martin transferred the title to his wife.  The same year he enlarged the house by extending the basement forward.  It now provided a commodious front porch--no doubt a frequent refuge on warm summer evenings.  Simultaneously a third floor was added to the rear extension.  The architect was Julius Boekell who was responsible for scores of buildings but is largely forgotten today.  The renovations cost Clear a significant $6,000--about $148,000 today.

Following Martin's death, Annie E. Clear sold No. 412 on January 15, 1896 to Johanna Seebeck.   Seebeck, a real estate operator, paid the equivalent of $295,000 in today's money.  She sold it on May 2, 1901 to Marie Steindler and Elias Gussaroff.  They, too, were in the real estate business and before long would partner as Gussaroff & Steindler.

As Johanna Seebeck had done, the new owners leased the house.  In 1908 it was home to Joseph Rosenberg, who was appointed a Commissioner of Deeds that year.

But before 1915 the family of John Herbst was living here and would remain for decades.   Herbst was well-known as a maker of granite and marble monuments.  He had started out as a partner with Otto Schaefer in Herbst & Schaefer "a monumental firm at 41 East Forty-fifth street," as described in Stone magazine in July 1901.  But theirs became a rocky alliance, ending that summer with Otto Schaefer filing suit "against John Herbst for a dissolution of the firm."

Herbst forged ahead, forming Herbst's Marble & Granite Works.  While his stone yard was located at No. 440 East 92nd Street, he kept an office in the 85th Street house.  And used the front yard as a showroom.


Gravestones fill the front yard around 1916.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Throughout much of the century many neighborhood children no doubt skittishly scurried past the yard which looked much like a year-round Halloween display.  

Like the Clears, the Herbsts rented a room in the house for several years.  Margaret Glynn lived here at least from 1919 through 1921, receiving a widow's pension from the New York Police Department of $300 per year.


By the time this photograph was taken in 1932 the firm name had been changed.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
As the Herbst sons reached adulthood they joined their father's business.  Before 1932 it had been renamed Herbst & Sons.  

The Herbst family remained in the house until 1966.  That year the newly-formed Landmarks Preservation Commission placed the house on its list of structures to be considered for landmark designation.



In the meantime, the new owners went ahead with minor interior renovations, installing an apartment on the third floor.  With no landmark designation, the historic house got a stroke of good fortune when it was later purchased by Catherine and Alfredo De Vido.  

The couple restored the house based on early documentation; a project that was aided by the fact that De Vido was an architect.  The porch was rebuilt and the clapboards replaced.  While De Vido relied on help from the LPC for early documentation, he was not altogether disappointed that the house was not landmarked.  The New York Times columnist Matt A. V. Chaban noted on December 8, 2014, "there were some benefits to not having official oversight, such as when he installed simple two-pane windows that were lacking the original arches, as well as wider clapboards."


When Julius Boekell added the third story in the rear for Martin Clear in 1880, he left the original exterior wall intact.  The original four-over-four windows and clapboards can still be seen.  photo by Nicole Bengiveno, The New York Times, December 8, 2014

In December 2016, exactly half a century after No. 412 East 85th Street first appeared on the LPC's consideration list, it was declared a landmark, insuring its continued preservation.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Holly Tooker for suggesting this post

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The 1916 Astor Court - Broadway and 89th Street


photo by Jim Henderson
On June 20, 1914 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect Charles A. Platt had filed plans for a 12-story "store and apartments" building to fill the eastern blockfront between 89th and 90th Streets.   The million-dollar structure, more than 25 times that amount in today's money, would be the first large-scale project for the 23-year old multimillionaire, Vincent Astor.

Completed two years later, Platt's sedate brick neo-Renaissance structure sat on a two-story rusticated limestone base.  The understated facade could boast little ornamentation.  Ambitious stone balconies surmounted the entrances on 89th and 90th Streets, and two others clung to the fifth floor cornice on the Broadway elevation.   The crowning copper cornice made a statement.  Projecting fully eight feet from the facade, it was brilliantly painted in gold and red.


The proportions of the deeply-projecting cornice can be gauged by the window below.  Architecture, September 1916 (copyright expired)  

Most innovative was Platt's treatment of the courtyard within the U-shaped structure.  Rather than using it as a turn-around for automobiles picking up and dropping off residents, he created a restful refuge.  The New York Times noted it "is adorned with a fountain in the centre of a formal garden."

Despite the presence of the well-known Astor Court Building on West 34th Street, or perhaps because of it, Astor named the new structure the Astor Court.  Residents entered through two entrances, under glass marquees, at No. 205 West 89th Street and 210 West 90th.  Stores installed in the Broadway ground floor provided additional income.


The exquisite glass-and-iron marquees have been replaced with canvas awnings.  Architecture, September 1916 (copyright expired)  
On October 31, 1916 The American Architect complained of overall disappointing apartment design.  "So much speculative building and attendant poor architecture have characterized this type of building in New York."  But it pointed to the Astor Court as an example "of what can be accomplished," adding "The features of domesticity, privacy and refinement are everywhere apparent in the Astor Court Apartments."

The New York Times, on April 23, had called the building "noteworthy" and "decidedly the superior of many of the Park Avenue houses" in "genuine architectural dignity."

Astor's marketing included opening a model apartment in the newly-finished building.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on June 18, 1916 announced that it was "open for inspection."

A Model Apartment completely furnished by the Interior Decoration Division of Gimbel Brothers, as a suggestion to lovers of fine apartments everywhere.  Furniture, Hangings and Floor Coverings.  You are cordially invited to enjoy this exhibit.

There were eight apartments per floor, ranging from seven to nine rooms.   It would quickly become home to well-to-do residents--some them both celebrated and colorful.
Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, December 2, 1916 (copyright expired)

On May 11, 1916, as the Astor Court was nearing completion, a cable from London reached The New York Times that announced the marriage of Winfield R. Sheehan and Kay Laurell.  Both were well-known in the entertainment field.

Sheehan, who had started out as a reporter for The Evening World and then as secretary to former Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, was now a vice-president of Fox Film Corporation and one of its major stockholders.  Kay Laurell was a Broadway actress whom The Times pointed out "was considered one of the handsomest girls in Mr. Ziegfeld's last year's 'Follies,' when the revue was presented at the New Amsterdam."  Along with the news of the marriage, the article managed to remind readers that Kay had appeared on stage in an "exotic scene...wrapped in gauze and stage sunlight" and "at the end of one of the acts strapped to the muzzle of a cannon."


Kay Laurell -- from the collection of the Library of Congress
In fact, Kay Laurell, who started out as an artists' model as a teenager, had been discovered by Florenz Ziegfeld and became famous for her striking beauty and her willingness to disrobe.

Two months earlier, opera star Geraldine Farrar was married to Lou Tellegen, considered one of the handsomest actors on screen or stage.  On February 6 The New York Times explained "The prima donna and the actor first met in New York last Winter, when Miss Farrar was singing at the Metropolitan and Mr. Tellegen was appearing in the principal role of 'Taking Chances.'"  By now they had appeared in three silent films for the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Film Company.  She was his second wife.

Both sets of newlyweds moved into the Astor Court Apartments.  
Geraldine Farrar and Lou Tellegen posed for a domestic photograph in 1916, possibly in their Astor Court apartment.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
Irene Taylor also lived in the Astor Court at the time.  The well-to-do widow had recently moved to New York from Minneapolis.  Although she was not famous, her name would soon become well-known to newspaper readers.

William Baer Ewing was president of the Ford Tractor Company, based in Minneapolis.  He was obligated to come to New York after he was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for mail fraud "in connection with the exploitation of the company's stock," as explained by The Evening World.  Some eyebrows were raised when he chose not to check into a hotel, but moved into Irene Taylor's apartment.

The unseemly arrangement did not escape the notice of Edward L. Kelly and Daniel Finn.  On August 13, 1917 they knocked on the apartment door.  When Ewing answered, they flashed a badge and identified themselves as Federal agents Hollahan and Doherty.

When Ewing asked them the purpose of the call, one replied "You know the Mann white slave law."  (The 1910 Mann Act made transporting females across state lines for the purposes of prostitution a felony.)   Ewing immediately realized he was the target of extortionists.

The men suggested they all walk to Riverside Drive where they sat on a bench.  Ewing later testified that, playing along,  "I asked them what it was worth to hush up the matter and they told me that as I was a pretty good sort of a little fellow they would not go hard with me and $5,000 would do."

The next morning Ewing was in office of Federal authorities, accompanied by his attorney.  They provided him with marked bills to take to his appointment the following afternoon.  When the payment was made, undercover detectives moved in and arrested the crooks.

Nevertheless, the embarrassing fact that Irene Taylor had a man living with her was now well publicized.  The Evening World noted that at the trial Kelley was asked "how he knew that Ewing was living with a woman not his wife."

In the meantime, things were not going well in the Sheehan apartment.  On July 3, 1917 Kay went to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.   On the 16th Billboard magazine explained she "is recovering from a nervous breakdown."  The article added "Mrs. Sheehan retired from the stage when she became the wife of Winnie Sheehan.  It is said as soon as her health is restored she will return to the footlights in a musical production."

But there was more to the story.  The following day the New-York Tribune reported she had sued for separation.  "The actress alleges cruelty," said the article, adding "Shortly after the marriage, she says, Sheehan commenced a course of unkind, harsh and tyrannical conduct toward her."

Although the couple never divorced, they never reconciled.  Laurell returned to the stage and to her scandalously revealing costumes.  She appeared in Zeigfeld's patriotic pageant The Spirit of the Allies in 1918.  H. L. Mencken described her as being gifted "with all the arts of the really first-rate harlot" in his 1918 In Defense of Women.  

Still married to Sheehan, she died in childbirth in 1927.  The father was the son of Yukon lumberjack and secret agent Klondike Joe Boyle.

Winfield Sheehan left New York when the motion picture industry moved to Hollywood.  He won an Academy Award as Fox studio head for Cavalcade and was nominated three more times.

Another of the original tenants related to the theater were William Frederick Peters and his wife.   The composer wrote scores for plays and then films.   When silent movies were screened they were accompanied by musical scores.  Among those written by Peters were scores for Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm and Little Old New York.

His wife left the theatrical side of things to him, focusing instead on entertaining.  On April 26, 1918, for instance, The Sun announced "Mrs. William F. Peters of 205 West Eighty-ninth street, will entertain Saturday afternoon, May 4, in honor of Miss Priscilla Bigelow of Boston."

Sometime before this Geraldine Farrar and Lou Tellegen moved to No. 20 East 74th Street and turned their Astor Court apartment over to Geraldine's parents.  Her father, Sidney Douglas Farrar, had been a sort of celebrity in his own right.  A professional baseball infielder, he played from 1883 through 1890.


Sidney D. Farrar in his playing days, from the collection of the New York Public Library
Henrietta Barnes Farrar invited a dozen men and women, four reporters and two publishers to her drawing room on May 1, 1920.  The guest of honor was Mary McEvilly, who claimed to be the spiritual conduit of 15th century Hindu spirit Meslom.

According to The New York Herald, "It was the largest gathering, both Mrs. Farrar and Miss McEvilly explained, that Meslom ever had been called upon to greet at one time through her pencil point, but the medium and the hostess expressed assurance of a satisfactory sitting."

Participation from the apprehensive participants was tepid "until a question on prohibition was injected into the ether.  That broke the ice and queries flowed freely thereafter."  Meslom correctly predicted that the "'drys' will lose."

Reporters would haunt the 90th Street entrance of the Astor Court the following year in August in hopes of catching Geraldine Farrar coming or going from her parents' apartment.   The diva had locked Lou Tellegen out of the 74th Street townhouse, not even allowing him to retrieve his clothing.

Tellegen had just returned to New York from a "shack" he had rented in Long Beach, California.  Geraldine told her friends "he was there in order to have the quietude necessary to learn the long role in his new play."  (That play, L'Homme a la Rose, was being produced by Archibald Selwyn, who perhaps not coincidentally lived in the Astor Court.)  Perhaps Geraldine discovered that her husband's female secretary was also there.

On August 7, 1921 The New York Herald surmised "Whatever has come about to disturb the serenity of the married life of Lou Tellegen and Geraldine Farrar, it is of recent development."  The journalist suggested it could be the stark differences in the current successes of their careers.  While Geraldine Farrar continue to be in high demand on the operatic stage, she was equally popular in films.  Between 1915 and 1920 she had made more than a dozen motion pictures including Cecil B. De Mille's 1915 Carmen.  Tellegen, on the other hand, had hit his professional nadir.

"It long has been the subject of comment in theatrical circles that Miss Farrar so patiently continued her interest in Tellegen's enterprises.  Not a single one of them has met with success in New York.  He was last seen in a play by Augustus Thomas called 'The Blue Devil,' which failed so completely that it was never seen in this city."

Attempts to find her at the Astor Court were unsuccessful.  On August 7 The New York Herald reported "At 210 West Ninetieth street, the apartment house in which Miss Farrar provides a home for her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Farrar, it was [said] 'She comes here sometimes, but not to-day.'"


In retaliation Tellegen filed for separation; but his attorneys had a challenging task in serving papers on Geraldine.  Five paid witnesses loitered about the northwest corner of 74th Street and Central Park West, where they could see the Tellegen house.  On the evening of August 4, after they reported that she left in a car with her parents and two other women, a lawyer set an ambush.

When the automobile returned at around 11:20 p.m., the witnesses rushed up, pretending to be fans.  As Geraldine stepped out, one said "Is this Miss Farrar?"  Suspecting nothing more than a request for an autograph, she answered "Yes, I am Miss Farrar," at which point the woman said "I have a letter for you."  The attorney quickly thrust the envelope at Geraldine.

The New York Herald reported that she "did not take it, but quickly jumped out of the car and hurried into her home, calling out to the supposed admirer as she did so: 'That was very nice of you.'"  The envelope had fallen to the floorboard of the automobile.  The process server picked it up and handed it to Henrietta Farrar.  Since it had touched Geraldine, it was deemed served.  

Tellegen's complaint, it turned out, was that Geraldine "was unwilling to rear a family, as she deemed it incompatible with her career as an artist," according to The New York Herald on August 9.  In fact Tellegen had carried on several affairs during the marriage.  

The irate star agreed to relinquish her husband's clothing; but she refused to allow him back into their home to retrieve them as he requested.  Neither would she send them to his hotel.  Instead she sent them to the Manhattan Storage Warehouse where, she said, "he is at liberty to call for them."

Her parents continued to be in the scopes of the press.  The New York Herald even tried to find her at the Farrar summer home at Chateaugay Lake in the Adirondacks.  

Tellegen's life (including two more marriages, to actresses Nina Romano and Eve Casanova) following his 1923 divorce from Geraldine would be tragic.  His career had relied greatly on his good looks; but on Christmas Day 1929 he fell asleep while smoking.  His face was seriously burned.

Following extensive reconstructive surgery in 1931, he became increasingly despondent.  On October 29, 1934 while a guest in a Hollywood mansion, he locked himself in a bathroom, then committed suicide by stabbing himself seven times with a pair of scissors.  Reportedly his body was surrounded by newspaper clippings of his former stellar career.

When Geraldine Farrar was notified of his death, she famously replied "Why should that interest me?"

In the meantime, Archibald Selwyn who had attempted to help Tellegen in 1921 lived on with his wife in the Astor Court.  Like Winfield Sheehan, he had gotten in on the ground floor of a major film company.  He and his brother Edgar, had joined Samuel Goldfish (who was later professionally known as Samuel Goldwyn) in forming Goldwyn Pictures Corporation.

Selwyn divided his time among writing screen plays, managing New York theaters and producing plays.  He and Edgar, as Selwyn & Company, erected three New York theaters, the Apollo, the Selweyn and the Times Square.  They produced the first Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Jesse Lynch Williams's Why Marry? in 1917.

When his sister, actress Rae Selwyn was married to F. Maitland Goldsmith on March 28, 1922, the celebrity-filled reception was held in the Astor Court apartment.

In 1924 the Selwyn brothers parted ways and Archibald (known popularly as "Arch") continued producing plays like Noel Coward's 1925 Easy Virtue and his 1928 This Year of Grace.

Of course not all the residents of the Astor Court were in the theatrical field.  Ernesto G. Ros was one of the owners of the Santa Fe sugar central--a massive sugar processing firm--in Santo Domingo.  When his daughter Flora became engaged to William H. Davis in May 1922, the New-York Tribune described it as being "of interest" to society.  The wedding was performed on October 26 in the fashionable St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue, and the reception held at Sherry's.

Less uplifting press surrounded Clarence G. Hellman earlier that year.  The 47-year old was the head of Hellman, Straus & Co., lace manufacturers and importers.  But the firm was in deep financial trouble and on February 10 an application for receivership was made in the United States District Court.  The papers showed liabilities amounting to $950,000--a staggering figure approaching $14 million today.  The pressures were too much for Hellman.

That night as his partner, Milton Straus, prepared to go home he stopped by Hellman's office to say good-night.  He found the door locked and there were no reply from inside.

Straus and a salesman, Herman Simon, stood on chairs to look into the transom.  Hellman, who was at his desk slumped forward, did not respond to their shouts.  When a policeman was called and the door broken in, it was discovered that Hellman had shot himself in the head with a pistol.

The Astor Court, unlike some hulking apartment houses from the beginning of the century, did not decline.  It continued to house well-heeled residents like August W. Kelley, retired vice president and trustee of the Union Trust Company.  He died in his apartment on December 4, 1930.   The well-known urological surgeon Dr. Emanuel Donheiserf and his wife, Sally, lived here in the 1960's; as did actor-director Stanley Prager and his wife, television and screen actress Georgann Johnson.


Stanley Prager original source unknown

Prager had been a stage and film actor before going into directing.  He told an interviewer in 1969 that he played "all the parts that Phil Silvers wouldn't play."  He said that directing television commercials gave him the financial independence to do projects he liked.   Not wanting to be tied down to a single activity, he sometimes gave up directing highly successful television shows.  He directed "Car 54, Where Are You" for just one season, and "The Patty Duke Show" for two.

On May 26, 1985 Michael DeCourcy Hinds, writing in The New York Times, called the Astor Court "one of the best examples of the dozens of 13-story buildings erected along Broadway" at the time of its construction.  He noted "The building is now being converted into cooperatives and Stephen B. Jacobs, a Manhattan architect, has designed 10 new penthouse apartments on the roof."  The renovations were completed later that year.


The lobby as it appeared in 1916 Architecture, September 1916 (copyright expired)  
Is little changed today.  photo via streeteasy.com
Architecturally, little has outwardly changed to Vincent Astor's and Charles A. Platt's bold residential project.  And although the protruding copper cornice no longer wears its exotic red and gold paint, it remains a showstopper.