Saturday, May 25, 2019

James W. Cole's Eclectic 1890 177 Waverly Place

The venerable two-story brick-faced frame house at No. 177 Waverley Place had become a rooming house by the late 1870's.  Among tenants were Martha McFarland and her son, William David, who was attending New York City College; and Richard C. Bolton, a clerk.  One by one similar Federal-style homes would soon be disappearing in Greenwich Village, replaced by commercial or apartment buildings.

On March 1, 1890 developer William Ranking purchased No. 177 from Anna M. Hoch.  He paid the widow $9,000 for the property; about $256,000 today.  Any roomers in the house would quickly have to relocate; for just a month later, on April 18, architect James W. Cole filed plans for a five-story "stone flat" to cost $13,000.   Ranking's total expenditure on the project would amount to $626,000 today.

The structure was built with lightning speed, and the first tenants moved in before the end of the year.  Cole had created a hybrid of architectural styles.  He faced the  basement and first floor levels in undressed brownstone.  That, along with the arched windows, echoed Romanesque Revival.  The entrance, which perched above a shallow stone stoop, featured Corinthian pilasters and a bracketed entablature whose incised, stylized palmette designs hearkened back to Greek Revival.

The openings of the planar upper floors wore molded lintels and Italian Renaissance-inspired pediments.  Their understated brackets were more in keeping with the neo-Grec style.  An impressive cast metal cornice crowned the design.

Ranking quickly sold the building.  On March 28, 1891 Samuel Aronson paid him $25,000.  Ranking's 12-month investment earned him a profit equal to more than $75,000 in today's dollars.

The flats--just two per floor--became home to respectable middle-class residents.  Among the first to move in was civil servant Dennis H. Foley.  A Commissioner of Deeds, he was a low-level city government clerk who assisted notaries public.

Like Foley, the other residents held jobs which, while respectable, did not earn them lavish salaries.  Anne M. Glass was a teacher, for instance, in 1898.  She earned about $495 per year, or in the neighborhood of $15,000 today.   The Cudibert family were in the building at the same time.  Their son hoped to add to the family's income when he placed a situation wanted advertisement in the New York Journal on October 15 that year:  "Boy, 18, experienced, willing, in machine shop."

By May 17, 1906 when Samuel Aronson sold the building to Charles Seidel and his wife, Millie, the second "e" in Waverly Place had been dropped in common usage.  The Seidel family would retain ownership for decades.

George Wilkinson lived here in 1919 when Congress passed the Volstead Act, ushering in Prohibition.   He worked for a man named Inteman as a trucker's delivery assistant.  The company's offices were relatively nearby at 18th Street and Eighth Avenue.  A delivery on the night of January 15, 1920 landed George and the trucker, William J. Flynn, in deep trouble.

The New York Herald reported that the men were arrested "while they were unloading cases of whiskey from a horse-drawn truck at a saloon at West and Liberty streets."  They were charged with possessing liquor--and not a small amount.  On their truck were 146 cases and a barrel of whiskey.  The apprehension of the deliverymen did not sit well with thirsty bar patrons.

"When the two federal agents arrested the men they were immediately surrounded by a hostile crowd of men, whom they dispersed at the point of their revolver.  The whiskey was seized."

In December 1921 Charles and Millie Seidel leased the building to Jesse Oppenheim.  In signing the 21-year lease, the new proprietor intended to modernize the outdated structure.  In reporting on the lease The New York Herald said "The property will be altered."

Oppenheim hired the architectural firm of B. H. & C. N. Whinston to update the Victorian building.  The architects not only upgraded the infrastructure, like plumbing and electricity, they removed the stoop and installed a new foyer.  Also included in the plans was an electric sign.

With the stoop removed and the entrance lowered, the transom above the double doors assumed mammoth proportions.  Surviving the update is the fantastic cast iron fringe above the well-eroded cornice.

With his upgrades in place, Oppenheim placed an advertisement in The New York Herald in October 1922:  "Just completed, 2 room kitchenette and bath suites, all the latest improvements."

The remodeled apartments continued to attract middle class tenants.  Residents William R. Compton and William H. Sayre both passed the State bar exams in 1926.  Architect George Provot moved into the building around the same time.

Born in New York, Provot had studied architecture for nine years in France, where he received his first degree in 1886.  In 1889 he received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Columbia University.  He was a member of the well-known firm of Welch, Smith & Provot before striking out on his own.  He was still living at No. 177 Waverly Place when he died in the French Hospital on West 13th Street on July 9, 1936.

Other residents at the time were being scrutinized by the Government.   Theodore and Sylvia Schwab, along with their neighbor Dora Sklar, were on a published list of Communist voters.  The three were still here in 1940 when their signatures appeared on Communist Party petitions.  Another resident, Ruth Levine, added hers as well.

Astonishingly, the 1890 interior shutters survive in the first floor, front apartment.
Having held onto the building for 35 years, in 1939 the Seidel family sold the building to real estate operator J. Perlow.  As the decades passed, the tenant list continued to be middle class.  By 1962 college student Bruce Brown was sharing an apartment with a classmate.  That year his mother, Helen Gurley Brown, published her book Sex and the Single Girl.

The Addams-Family-appropriate light fixtures are especially eye-catching.  Taking the shape of wyverns (two-legged dragons) the originals were produced in the 1890's, making them period appropriate.  However, their crisp lines suggest they might be recent reproductions.

Despite his mother's progressive thinking, Bruce's father, David Brown, seems to have been a bit more conservative.  According to biographer Gerri Hirshey in the 2016 Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, he wrote to Bruce's girlfriend (and later wife), Kathy Ames, in 1963 saying in part that perhaps she could convince him to cut his hair.

Among the residents in the mid-1980's was illustrator Robert M. Cunningham.

Although the brownstone entrance has been seriously weather-eroded and the loss of the stoop is regrettable, James W. Cole's brooding Late Victorian flat building is an architectural treat.

photographs by the author

Friday, May 24, 2019

Soon to be Lost - The Rohe & Brothers Building, 527-531 West 36th Street

photograph by Renee Stanley

In 1872 the massive Manhattan Market opened on New York's West Side.  Engulfing the block between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, from 34th and 35th Streets, it was the largest market building in the world--offering fresh meats (a butchery was on site), fish and produce.  It was a welcomed neighbor for Rohe & Brother, which had erected its sprawling provision packing house and lard refinery at No. 533 through 541 West 36th Street two years earlier.  Simultaneously an architecturally matching warehouse and stables building had been erected on West 35th Street.

Although a block apart, the main plant (center) and the warehouse (left) were designed to match. from the collection of the Library of Congress

In 1897 The National Provisioner noted that the packing and refinery property "has been added to a number of times...The building is a substantial one of brick, and extends from 533-543 West Thirty-sixth street, to 534-540 West Thirty-seventh street.  The abattoir [butchery] is located at the foot of Fortieth Street, North River, and occupies four lots."  Charles Rohe had died in 1888 and his son, Charles, Jr., became a member of the firm.  Charles Sr.'s other son, Julius, by now supervised the packing house and the manufacturing of goods.  Florian's sons, Albert and Oswald Rohe, worked in the store and main office.

Florian Rohe as he appeared in 1897.  The National Provisioner, January 30, 1897 (copyright expired)

The National Provisioner noted that "the secret of the success of Rohe & Bro. is the splendid business ability which characterizes its movements and the bond of fraternity which exists between employees and employers."  The Rohes recognized the importance of good employee relations and a contented staff.   A separate article in the journal reported on the 11th annual employee ball.  Many, if not most, of the factory workers were German immigrants and the event was a brilliant change to their day-to-day lives.  "The entire office staff of the house of Rohe & Bro., from the office boy to their traveler and salesman, was present, while the large force of employees, numbering many hundreds, together with their wives and sweethearts, were delighted participants in the night's proceedings, all actuated by a loyal regard for the interests of the firm."

On January 19, 1898, The Butchers' Advocate and Market Journal reported that year's ball, held in the Lexington Avenue Opera House.  "When the orchestra, led by Professor Rode, started the grand march, about 300 couples were on the floor, and these quickly fell in behind Mr. Albert Rohe and wife, who led the army of gay marchers through a series of evolutions more beautiful than any ever seen before in this city."

Two months later, on March 5, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that George D. Bogert had sold the "old buildings" at Nos. 527 through 531 West 36th Street to Rohe & Brother for $24,750; just under $860,000 today.  The property abutted the main lard refinery and packing plant and The New York Times noted "the buyer will erect a factory on the site."

That would not happen, however, until 1902.  On March 29 that year The National Provisioner reported "Rohe & Brother now have their specifications in for their new packing house at 527-531 West 36th Street."  The firm had hired the architectural firm of Werner & Windolph to design the structure, which was projected to cost about $1.8 million in today's money.

Somewhat surprising was the architectural style of the new two-story addition.  It may have been that Charles Rohe (his uncle, Florian, was deceased by now) directed Werner & Windolph to match the old factory; or perhaps the architects themselves chose to meld the two.  Either way, the design, out of style for years, seamlessly carried on the design of the 1870 Rohe & Brother building.  Only the delicate corbel table that ran below the cornice broke ranks with the original structure.

Upon the building's completion the Rohes incorporated "the packinghouse firm of Rohe & Brothers," as reported in Industrial Refrigeration in April 1903.  The article mentioned "The company will do a general meat packing business."  It was an interesting and unusual move.  By 1908 there were three corporation names.  Charles was listed as head of Rohe & Brother;  Albert as head of Rohe Bros.; and William of Rohe & Bro.  All three, legally separate firms, were listed as "large refiners and provisions."

The sons of the firm's founders never abandoned its interest in employee contentedness.  On June 29, 1904 The Butchers' Advocate and Market Journal reported on the employee summer outing at Bachmann's Pavilion on Staten Island.  "How those Rohe & Brothers' employees did enjoy themselves!  They danced and bowled and ran races and absorbed the product of Mr. Bachmann with a strenuousness that would make a lazy man tired just to look at."

The two-story building at Nos. 527-531 held the company's offices.  Working past nightfall could be risky, given the sketchy Hell's Kitchen location and that threat came to pass on the night of January 22, 1913.  The Elmira Star-Gazette reported "Five men dashed up to Rohe & Brothers' wholesale meats, provisions and oils plant at 527-531 West 36th street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, last night in a taxicab and at the point of revolvers held back two inside and two outside employees of the firm."  The Morning Call of Patterson, New Jersey entitled its article "Wild West Game in New York" and began "The west side of Manhattan, where automobile holdups and robberies are not by any means unknown, experienced last night its most spectacular Wild West holdup and robbery about 7:30 o'clock."

Charles Rohe, Jr. was the principal of the firm following Florian Rohe's death. Empire State Notables, 1914 (copyright expired) 
While the employees were held at gunpoint, one of the robbers jumped over the wire cashier's cage and snatched up $700 in cash, a considerable $18,300 today.  The gang escape in the waiting taxicab and although the four employees rushed out in pursuit, they were unable to get the license plate number in the darkness.  The Elmira Star-Gazette said "None of the employees could give much of a description of the robbers, further than that all were 'tough looking,' and all wore caps."

In 1914 Rohe & Brother was, according to Chicago's The Day Book, the "largest New York provision packer."  The firm was, for instance, the major United States exporter of lard to Venezuela.  

In 1930 the Rohes sold off all the firm's property in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood except for Nos. 527-531 West 36th Street.  The Sun explained on May 6 that year that the building was still used as Rohe & Brother's executive offices.  But that would not last long, either.

Architect William H. Fuhrer renovated the building in 1936 for the bottling plant of milk dealer Hershey Farms, Inc.   It was run by Max Doner, who chose not to use union employees for its delivery drivers.  It was a daring decision at a time when unions used strong-arm tactics to force businesses to comply with their demands.

A 1940 tax photograph reveals the ground floor changes for Hersey Farms, including an architecturally disparate pedimented entrance.  The main Rohe & Brother plant has been demolished.  photo via NYC Department of Records & Information Services.
On March 19, 1942 nine labor leaders, involved with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen & Helpers of America, Local 445, were indicted on extortion.   The New York State prosecutor charged that between December 1935 and November 1940 the defendants "feloniously, wrongfully, willfully and extorsively obtained the sum of $7,125.00" from Max Doner "by the wrongful use of force and fear induced by threats" to injure both him personally and the property of Hershey Farms, and to induce strikes.

Hershey Farms remained here until 1959 when the building was once again renovated, this time for a storage warehouse.  In 1970 it was converted for use by Scheuman Lumber.   A later occupant was Steven & Francine's Complete Automotive Repair Inc. who shared the building with its owner, the Convention Center Hardware & Supplies, LLC. 

By 2012 the once gritty district had been discovered by developers and the upscale Hudson Yards project, formerly unthinkable, was on the table.   The old Rohe & Brother  building sat within the four-acre Hudson Park and Boulevard project--Phase II of the larger Hudson Yards development.

The buildings at the right of this photo have all been demolished, stranding the Rohe & Brothers building as in a wasteland.  photo via Commercial Observer, November 2012.
Faced with eventual eminent domain Convention Center Hardware and Supplies placed it on the market in November 2012 for $10 million.

Any architectural historian who might pass the vacant and boarded up building today would date its construction at around 1870; not knowing that its anachronistic design was based on its 32-year old next-door neighbor.  But they would have to be quick.  The unlikely survivor has a short life expectancy.

many thanks to Renee Stanley for prompting this post

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Charming Bedfellows--Nos. 14 and 16 St. Nicholas Place

The wooden shingles of the second floor are a latter renovation, sometime after 1938.  The boxy green entrance to No. 14 was originally an airy open porch.

The district of northern Manhattan which would become known as Sugar Hill was expected by many to be the city's next exclusive residential neighborhood.  Both freestanding residences and rowhouses rose in the 1880's which would house well-to-do families.  James Montieth cleverly created a hybrid of the two.

A Sugar Hill resident himself (he lived on St. Nicholas Avenue at 154th Street), he acquired the properties at Nos. 14 and 16 St. Nicholas Place and laid plans for two upscale homes.  Perhaps to make the most efficient use of the plots and wring out the most floor space as possible, he directed architect William Grinnell to design connected houses fashioned to appear nearly as one.  The result was a fairy tale delight.

Completed in 1884, the Queen Anne style houses featured all the architectural bells and whistles expected in the style--asymmetric lines, a mixture of materials and colors, and a riot of shapes and angles.  The two-story and attic structures sat on bases of rough cut schist--a highly unusual choice for the style.   No. 14 stole the spotlight with its corner tower and bulbous onion dome.  The stucco-covered and half-timbered gable at the side tied into the more prominent example of No. 16.

The gable of No. 16 was originally stucco faced and included Tudor half-timbering.
That house featured a projecting bay supported by a shallow wooden entrance porch.  The Tudor-style gable boasted elaborate half-timbering.  The two dwellings shared a wide box dormer and their chimneys marked the separation line.

When the houses were completed U.S. District Attorney William Dorsheimer and his wife, Isabella, lived in Washington D. C.  But on February 4, 1886 he wrote a letter of resignation to President Grover Cleveland.  The couple moved to New York where Dorscheimer died in the spring of 1888.

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on March 20, 1892 apparently caught the eye of Isabella P. Dorsheimer.  It offered "the 2-1/2 story stone and frame house, No. 14 St. Nicholas Place...adjoining the residence of James A. Bailey.  The above property is in the choicest and most desirable residence locality in the city of New-York."   Isabella leased the home from the Montieth family and was listed (as "widow") at the address at least through 1894.

On May 21, 1896 James Montieth's heirs sold No. 14 to Thomas Alexander, who paid $25,000 for the house, or just over $770,000 today.  He immediately transferred title to his wife, the former Annie Newton.  The couple had three children, Marion, Arthur Douglas and Nelson.

Alexander had begun working for the Federal Government as an office boy in 1867 at the age of 13.  On New Year's Day 1887 he was appointed commissioner and deputy clerk of the United States District Court, in which position he acted "as cashier of the admiralty branch of the district court," according to the New-York Tribune.  By the time he purchased the St. Nicholas Place home, his responsibilities had greatly increased.  He now oversaw all bankruptcy cases and Federal felonies.  On April 29, 1896, for instance, The Sun reported that "Henry J. Butler, a letter carrier attached to Station A, was brought before Commissioner Thomas Alexander yesterday afternoon...on a charge of having stolen letters containing money."

Like all moneyed families, the Alexanders closed their Manhattan house during the summer.  While they were gone during the summer of 1899 there was a break in.  The Sun reported that Thomas Alexander, "upon visiting his home at 14 St. Nicholas place, for the first time in six weeks, the house having been closed for the summer, he found that it had been entered and every room showed traces of having been carefully searched."  The intruders took nothing, but were evidently searching for something in particular.  "They had opened every drawer and searched every cranny, and apparently every scrap of correspondence had been read over."

Between the topmost tower windows pierced panels create stylized sunflowers, an important motif in the Queen Anne style.
Frustrated, the burglars now focused on Alexander's office.  On August 26 The Sun entitled an article "Alexander's Curious Visitors," and noted "Sometime between Saturday noon and Monday morning some person pried open two drawers of the cashier's desk in the clerk's office of the United States District Court in the postoffice building.  Commissioner Thomas Alexander is clerk of the court."  Once again the thieves went away empty handed.  "The lock of one drawer was forced off and fell into the drawer and the clutch of the other was forced back into the lock." 

In the meantime, No. 16 had originally been sold to the family of Leonard B. Smith.  Smith was a partner in the tea and coffee firm of Eppens, Smith & Wiemann at No. 267 Washington Street.  In 1896, the same year that the Alexanders moved into No. 14, Smith leased the residence to the Augustus R. Adams family.

Adams was an attorney and member of the law firm Adams & Hahn at No. 76 Williams Street.  His son, Robert Allison Adams, was enrolled in the "classical" courses at New York City College at the time.   On May 13, 1902 Augustus died at the age of 60.  His funeral was held in the house three days later.

Leonard Smith and his wife sold the 32-foot wide house to Emma Reiner in 1905.  The Adams family continued to lease under their new landlord.

While moneyed New Yorkers routinely spent weeks or months abroad every year, the Alexander family stayed relatively close to home.  Thomas Alexander commuted to their summer residence on the weekends, most likely spending weeknights at his club.  But on February 23, 1907 The Sun reported that the Commissioner would be taking his "first vacation since 1898."  The two-week visit to London, said the article, "will be the Commissioner's first real holiday since 1898.  Ever since the bankruptcy law went into effect that year the Commissioner, who is also clerk of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, has never for a single day been a hundred miles away from his office or beyond reach by telephone."

In 1912 the Alexanders began construction of a new summer house in Harriman, New York, overlooking the Ramapo Mountains.  While construction proceeded, the family leased a house nearby.  On the night of July 9, according to The Sun, Thomas "started with his two sons to visit the new home, and in the darkness stumbled into a well that has been sunk about fourteen feet.  His cries for aid brought his sons, who were a little distance away, and they saw that other help was needed."

One of the boys rushed to a neighbor who brought his automobile across the field.  He had the foresight to bring along a wicker chair.  In the meantime, a call was made to Dr. Rhullison who lived about six miles away.  Using the automobile lights to illuminate the well, the men carefully dropped packing crates into the hole until they could clamber down.  The chair was lowered and Alexander was carried up.  The 58-year-old had suffered three broken ribs, but nothing more serious was evident.  What the country doctor did not perceive was that, in fact, his skull was fractured.  

Alexander lingered in the Harriman house for two weeks.  He died of heart failure on July 24 as a result of his injuries.  Alexander's estate was valued at about $1.7 million in today's dollars, the bulk of which was bequeathed to Annie.   The family continued to live in the St. Nicholas Place house and at Briarton, the new Harriman estate.

Following the expected mourning period, the Alexander family reappeared among society.  On June 24, 1916 Marion was married at Briarton to Charles Meding.  She was given away by her brother, Arthur.  The Sun reported "Two hundred guests came out from New York by automobile."

After the Adams family had leased No. 16 for two decades, on September 13, 1917 Robert A. Adams purchased it through his father's estate.   The family's focus, however, was no doubt mostly concentrated on Arthur's well being.

Five months earlier the United States had entered World War I and Arthur enlisted in the Army.  He was sent overseas as part of the American Expeditionary Force in France with the rank of First Lieutenant where he held the position of Chief Ordnance Officer.  But on June 4, 1917 The Sun reported that he had been "to-day honorably discharged from the camp for physical disability."

1st Lt. Arthur Douglas Alexander was a Columbia-educated attorney.  photo via Columbia University Roll of Honor
While overseas Arthur had contracted tuberculosis.  He continued his military service in the States until after the Armistice.  On March 28, 1919 the Columbia Alumni News reported that he "has been discharged from the service and may be addressed at 14 St. Nicholas Place, New York City."  Less than a month later, on April 21, Arthur died in the St. Nicholas Place house of the disease.  In January 1921 Columbia University announced the establishment of The Arthur D. Alexander Memorial Cup to be presented annually at the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball Championship.

On April 1, 1925 an advertisement in The New York Times announced the liquidation of the real estate of Thomas Alexander.  Included was No. 14 St. Nicholas Place, described as a "splendid home; exceptionally fine views."

No. 16 was vacant in 1938, its windows boarded up and a plank fence protecting it from invaders.  Note the elaborate Tudor gable.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
No. 16 had been sold three times by now, yet was still a single-family house.  By the mid 1940's it was home to Dr. Alma Mary Haskins and her husband, James Egert Allen.  Almas was the only Black woman practicing podiatry in the city at the time.  Born in Newport News, Virginia, Haskins received her medical degree from New York University and had served as president of the New York County Society of Podiatrists in 1927 through 1929.

James E. Allen was born in 1896 in Greenwood, South Carolina.  He had been an educated in the New York public school system since 1926.  Additionally, he was a community advocate, civil rights activist and author.  An active promoter of African American studies, he was the first president of the New York City Branch of the NAACP.

The esteem in which the community held Dr. Haskins was evidenced in a comment in The New York Age on February 26, 1949.  "Send fancy get-well cards to Dr. Alma Mary Haskins who is better after suffering from a severe attack of sciatica."

Both houses managed to survive the 20th century as single family homes, although in 2003 No. 14 was converted to apartments--one each on the first and second floors, and two on the third.  A rediscovery of the Sugar Hill neighborhood at around the same time resulted in the careful preservation of Nos. 14 and 16.  They are the oldest surviving structures in the Sugar Hill Historic District.
photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Percival Kuhne House - 7 East 78th Street

In 1879 banker and railroad tycoon Henry H. Cook purchased the entire block between Fifth and Madison Avenues, from 78th to 79th Street for $500,000 (roughly $13 million in today's money).  The property was undeveloped and it would be nearly two decades before Manhattan's millionaires would make it that far up Fifth Avenue.   The far-sighted Cook knew they would come.  He erected his own gargantuan mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street.

Because Cook owned the entire block, he was able to choose his neighbors and ensure his property values were secure.  The New-York Tribune explained years later "He has divided the remaining land and sold it parcel by parcel to desirable purchasers who would erect uniformly handsome houses."  Those buyers had no choice in the matter.  Cook wrote restrictive covenants into the deeds which demanded that only private homes in a "splendid style" be erected.  

Among those buyers would be Percival and Lillian Kuhn.  On April 23, 1899 the New York Herald reported "Mr. Percival Kuhne has bought a beautiful dwelling further up town, just out of Fifth avenue, and bounding the Park, which he and Mrs. Kuhne will probably occupy before hot weather sets in."  The reporter got the facts slightly wrong.

The Kuhnes, who lived at No. 32 East 39th Street in a rapidly changing neighborhood, had indeed purchased the property at No. 7 East 78th Street on what had become known as the Cook Block.  But there was no "beautiful dwelling" on the plot; it was a vacant lot.   Three months later, on July 18, the New York Journal and Advertiser set the record straight.  "Percival Kuhn is to build a five-story brick dwelling...costing $25,000 at No. 7 East Seventy-eighth street."

The Kuhns had chosen the firm of Hoppin & Koen to design their 25-foot-wide mansion; quite possibly because Francis L. V. Hoppin was a personal friend of the couple.  The firm would produce for the Kuhnes a refined and stately Beaux Arts style residence.

Tall, exquisite fencing enclosed the areaway, anchored by imposing urn-topped stone posts.  A four-step porch rose to the the arched doorway within the limestone base.  A full-width balcony with elegant iron railings fronted the three sets of French windows at the piano nobile.  Their architrave stone frames were topped by carved pediments; the central example a broken arch that embraced a bulbous cartouche and scrollwork.

A single carved lily adorns each side of the gate posts.

A smaller balcony fronted the grouped center openings of the third floor, beneath a balustraded stone Juliette version at the fourth.  The mostly unadorned fifth floor sat above the projecting limestone bracketed cornice.

Percival Kuhne was born on April 6, 1861 to Frederick and Ellen Miller Kuhne.  His father had co-founded the banking house of Knauth, Nachod & Kuhne.  Percival attended the University of the City of New York, then continued his studies in Germany.  Upon his return in 1884 he entered his father's banking firm.
Percival Kuhne - The Redemption of New York, 1902 (copyright expired)
In 1893 Kuhne married Lillian Middleton Kerr, daughter of George J. Miller, "a descendant of an old and aristocratic English family," as described by Milo T. Bogard in his 1902 The Redemption of New York.  The couple was highly visible in society both in America and Europe.  The Successful American noted "Mr. and Mrs. Kuhne were the only American guests present at the wedding of Princess Helen of Orleans to the Duke d'Aosta, in July, 1895...Besides the Orleans family, all the English royal family except the Queen were present."

The couple had a daughter, Gwendolyn, and the family summered at various fashionable resorts.  While away during the summer of 1900, construction on their mansion was completed.  On October 22 The Evening Telegram noted "Mr. and Mrs. Percival Kuhne, who are now at Lakewood, N.J., will take possession of their new residence at No. 7 East Seventy-eighth street, in about the second week in December."  The timing was perfect--the height of the winter social season.

Except that the house was not totally finished yet.  

So while the painters and decorators put the final details on the interiors, the Kuhnes took a suite at the Savoy hotel.  It turned out to be a costly few weeks stay.  On February 26, 1901 The Morning Telegraph ran a first-page headline "Banker Kuhne Robbed Of A Fortune in Gems."

The article explained "Percival Kuhne, the banker, was despoiled of diamonds worth $150,000, which he kept in his apartments at the Savoy Hotel, on the morning of Feb. 2."  While the Kuhnes were at the theater, burglars had entered their suite and made off with the loot, worth more than $4.5 million by today's calculations.  It was at the time the largest private robbery in police history.  The article noted that Kuhne "is very wealthy and is particularly fond of diamonds."

For two weeks police could find no clues nor suspects.  Photographs of the missing jewelry were distributed to pawn shops and finally a break came.  On the morning of February 25 "Judge" Lewis anxiously stood in line at a pawn shop. The Morning Telegraph described Lewis as "shabbily dressed and seemed very nervous."

When his turn came to approach the clerk, Lewis pulled a bulky package from his pocket.  "The negro opened it nervously and drew out a brooch set with an immense turquoise and covered with fourteen one-half karat diamonds."  Lewis asked $200 for Lillian's stolen pin, valued at $2,500.  The clerk quickly recognized it from the police photographs and stalled Lewis by pretending to negotiate a price.  Meantime, another clerk ran outside to find a policeman.  "McAleenan appeared to be busy examining the stones in the meantime, and Lewis was greatly surprised when a policeman entered the door and placed him under arrest."

It did not take long for investigators to determine that Lewis was an unwitting pawn (or in their words "only a tool").  The real thief appeared to be a bellboy at the Savoy, Morris Orman (whom The Sun felt obligated to say "is also a negro").  He had left his job at the Savoy Hotel shortly after the burglary.

Orman had offered Lewis money to pawn the items and, in fact, was waiting on the sidewalk outside the pawnshop when the police arrived.  He made his escape, leaving Lewis to his fate.  When police went to Orman's apartment, they found it empty and the former bellboy had disappeared.

Shockingly, a newspaper reported that Kuhne admitted "when he and his wife went to the theatre on the night of the robbery they did not lock their door.  All a thief had to do was to enter and help himself." 

Shortly after the Kuhnes moved into their new mansion Lillian's name appeared in unflattering print.  Socialites looking to raise money for charitable causes often threw afternoon bridge parties.  It was a time-tested and enjoyable fund-raising practice.  But in March 1901 the rector of Grace Church embarked on a mission to "put an end to society gambling, at least among men and women who call themselves Christians," as reported in The Chicago Tribune.  

The article noted that one socialite, who preferred to remain anonymous and who would welcome the end of the practice, listed the names of leading society women at a recent party.  Among those "good people" was Lillian Kuhne.

Keeping up with the Kuhnes' movements was nearly a full-time job for society columnists.  On August 24, 1902 the New-York Tribune reported that they had hosted a "gay party" at the Country Club in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island; and on June 19, 1903 The Evening Telegram announced "Mr. and Mrs. Percival Kuhne, of No. 7 East Seventy-eighth street, will soon leave for Cedarhurst, L. I., where they have taken a cottage for the season."

In the winter season between those trips, entertainments were hosted at No. 7 East 78th Street.  Among them was a dinner party on January 27, 1902.  The guest list included socially recognized names like Livingston, Phipps, Kipp and Phelps, as well as the Kuhnes' friend and architect Francis L. V. Hoppin

On July 1, 1907 The Daily Standard Union, a Brooklyn newspaper, announced that Percival, Gwendolyn, and "Mrs. Kuhn and maid" had sailed for Europe for the summer.  Shortly after their return a disturbing rumor hit the newspapers.  On October 14, 1908 the New York Herald reported "Friends of Mrs. Percival Kuhne...learned yesterday that she had been placed for treatment in a sanitarium at Larchmont.  The Kuhnes' residence at No. 7 East Seventy-eighth street, has been closed and Mr. Kuhne has gone to a hotel to live."

The family issued a denial, saying "The fact is that Mrs. Kuhne and her daughter have been out of the State on a pleasure trip during the past week."  But, in fact, things were dire.   Percival kept the 78th Street house shuttered and brought his wife and daughter to the Plaza Hotel suite.  It was there, on September 30, 1909, that Lillian died.

Kuhne sold No. 7 to the 49-year-old publisher Ormond G. Smith and his wife, the former Grace H. Pellett.  Smith's father, Francis S. Smith, was a co-founder of Street & Smith.  Upon his father's retirement in 1887, Ormond had taken over running the firm, which published inexpensive novels and popular magazines.  Among the impressive list of authors published by Street & Smith were Horatio Alger, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Upton Sinclair and O. Henry.

Interestingly, they shared a mutual close friend with the Kuhnes--Francis L. V. Hoppin, whose firm had not only designed the 78th Street house, but Shoremond, the Smiths' country estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island.
The Smiths' Oyster Bay mansion was designed in 1912.  The Architectural Record, December 1916 (copyright expired
The Smiths welcomed a son, Gerald Hewitt Smith, on September 28, 1912.  Grace did not take long to bounce back and reenter the social swirl.  Like Lillian Kuhne, she entertained the top levels of society and the Hoppins were frequent guests.  On November 7, 1912, for instance, The Sun reported "Mrs. Ormand G. Smith gave a dinner last night at her home, 7 East Seventy-eighth street, afterward taking her guests to the Moulin Rouge.  Among them were Mr. and Mrs. Francis L. V. Hoppin, Miss Lola Robinson, Mr. and Mrs. James H. Kidder, E. De Peyster Livingston and Frederick Townsend Martin."

Although the Smiths' summer estate was truly grand, they changed scenery in January 1921 when Anne Vanderbilt, widow of William K. Vanderbilt, sold them Stepping Stones, her Jericho, Long Island estate.  The New York Times reported on January 19 that Smith "is reported to have paid about $500,000 for the property.  Mr. Smith recently sold his country place at Oyster Bay...for about $1,000,000."

The New-York Tribune printed this frustratingly grainy photo of Stepping Stones on January 23, 1921 (copyright expired)
The Times added "Located in the picturesque Wheatley Hills, Stepping Stones is one of the notable places of the section...The house, which occupies the crown of a hill that overlooks the estate, was built by privately prepared plans by John R. Hill, under the personal supervision of the late William K. Vanderbilt."

Grace would enjoy only two seasons at Stepping Stones.  She became ill in the fall of 1922, and died in the 78th Street house on January 13.  The Evening Telegram noted "Her death was unexpected, although she had been ill for some time."  Grace's entire estate, valued at about $1.53 million, was left to her husband.

By the time of Grace's death, Ormond was highly involved in the French Institute in the United States, an organization whose goal was "the diffusion of the knowledge of French culture."  Smith, who was the group's vice president, had been educated in France and held a life-long affection for the country and its way of life.  

When the Duc de Trevise visited New York in December 1925, Ormond hosted a dinner party in the 78th Street house.  Not surprisingly, among the high-ranking guests that evening was Francis L. V. Hoppin.

Ormond's work for the French Institute did not go unnoticed abroad.  In December 1927 he was made an Officer of the Legion of French by decree of the French President.  After rising to president of the institute, in November 1929 Ormond donated a new six-story building to the group at Nos. 22-24 East 60th Street.  

It was just one of many considerable philanthropic gifts.  He donated $40,000 to the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and $25,000 to the French Hospital, for example.  He was also a vice-president of the New York Eye and Ear Hospital and the New York Free Dispensary.

On the night of April 17, 1933 Ormond Smith suffered a fatal stroke in the 78th Street house.  He was 72-years-old.  Gerald, who was away at Princeton University, received half a million dollars (more in the neighborhood of $9.7 million today), which was held in trust until his 21st birthday.

The young man retained ownership of No. 7 until the fall of 1940 when he sold it "for occupancy."  In reporting the sale The New York Times remarked that it "contains an electric elevator" and noted the upscale tenor of the street.  "It is in the same block as the residences of Mrs. James. B. Duke, John D. Ryan and Winthrop W. Aldrich.  At the corner of Madison Avenue is the home of the late Stuyvesant Fish."

Henry Cook would no doubt have been seriously displeased when the house was converted to apartments in 1946.  It now held two "doctors' apartments and offices" on the first floor, and two apartments per floor above.  The renovations included a horrific sixth floor addition that snubs Hoppin & Koen's regal design.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Phyllis Winchester for suggesting this post

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The 1889 John B. Gleason House - 34 West 88th Street

In 1889 speculative developer James J. Spaulding completed a row of 19 brick and brownstone-faced homes on the south side of West 88th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  They were, by any estimations, remarkable.

Architects Thom & Wilson had created a string of harmonious, yet individual, 23-feet wide homes whose architectural personalties drew from album of historic styles--Renaissance Revival, Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival.

Thom & Wilson designed a striking row.  No. 34 is left of center, behind the silver car.

At No. 34 two hefty stone newels decorated with carvings of ribbons and roses introduced the wide stoop.  Above it the double-doored entrance was flanked by caryatids with innocent Victorian faces.  Leafy brackets upheld the Renaissance-detailed entablature and cornice, which morphed into a pseudo balcony at the second floor.

The hallway window at the second floor was framed in stone quoins supported by volutes carved with dainty draping and ribbons.  Fluted Corinthian pilasters separated the three grouped openings on this level.  A lushly-carved arched pediment perched above a molded cornice.  The third floor windows wore Renaissance-inspired pediments.  Thom & Wilson saved a delightful surprise for the top floor, where a telamon and a caryatid shared the job of upholding the pressed metal Queen Anne style cornice.

The house became home to the family of John B. Gleason, a partner with his father, William Gleason, and C. P. Collier in the law firm of W. & J. B. Gleason .  

Gleason, who graduated from Yale University in 1876, would be linked to some of New York's most publicized cases.  He went on to defend, for instance, Mary F. Wilmerding in 1898.  She deemed insane by her wealthy husband, John C. Wilmerding, Jr., and committed to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum; although with no real evidence of insanity.  And in 1914 he would defend Harry K. Thaw in his trial for murdering Stanford White.

But in 1895 Gleason had another matter on his mind.  Bicycling had taken American by storm and there was no place in New York City more popular for "wheeling" than Riverside Drive.  But getting from the smooth-faced Boulevard (later Broadway) to Riverside Drive meant navigating the unpaved east-west block.  Mud and ruts made the one-block journey difficult.

On March 1 he and scores of others signed a petition urging the Board of Aldermen to pave one "short block," 108th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive, with asphalt "so connecting those two smooth roads for bicycles and light vehicles."

Gleason's wife, in the meantime, slipped into the routine of women in society.  On February 24, 1896 The Press listed her as among "Some of those receiving to-day."

But, rather surprisingly, on August 20 the following year the New-York Daily Tribune reported that No. 34 "was sold in the plaintiff, the Equitable Life Assurance Society, for $36,400."  The buy-back price would equal just over $1 million today.

The company made money on the deal when it sold it to "a Mrs. Segelken," as reported in The New York Times on September 27, 1898, for $40,000.  It was not uncommon in the late 19th century for real estate buyers to use pseudonyms for anonymity, at least temporarily.  It appears that "Mrs. Segelken" was in actuality Anna M. Fink, wife of Henry J. Fink.

The well-to-do couple had two children, Clara and Charles.  By the time they moved into the house Clara was a young woman and before long was highly visible in the young Upper West Side set.  It was she, more than her mother, who entertained most often in the 88th Street house.

On January 13, 1900, for instance, The Evening Telegram reported "The fourth meeting of the West End Euchre Club was held at the home of Miss Clara Fink, No. 34 West Eighty-eighth street last evening, followed by refreshments and an informal dance."

The West End Euchre Club may have been short-lived.  On December 2 that same year the New York Herald noted "The first meeting of the Fleur de Lis Euchre Club was held on Wednesday evening at the residence of Miss Fisk, No. 34 West Eight-eighth street.  This club is one of the most popular on the west side."  (How the newspaper decided it was so popular after the first meeting is unclear.)

Clara continued her interest in fledgling social clubs.  On February 3, 1901 the New York Herald mentioned that she had "entertained the members of the Avo Club" on the previous Tuesday afternoon.  This one, too, would not last long.

On December 2, 1901 The Sun explained "The Avo Club is an organization which was formed about a year ago by thirty young women of the upper West Side and met once a week to talk over things in general.  While there was no rule against marriage, there was a tacit understanding that the cares and responsibilities of matrimony were out of keeping with the objects of the club."

That, it turned out, was the fatal flaw.

After a year one member announced "that she had other engagements and presently she got married."  Then another, and another, until eight more engagements had been announced.  Included in that list was Clara Fink.  The newspaper concluded "it looks as if the Avo Club was doomed."

Clara's wedding to Howard Franklin Mead would take place the following spring.  On April 13, 1902 The New York Herald reported that "One thousand invitations to the ceremony have been issued by the bride's parents."  The article added "Miss Fink is a popular member of the younger set and this season has been seen much in society."

Clara Fink in her wedding dress.  New York Herald April 13, 1902 (copyright expired)
The wedding took place in All Angels' Church on April 30.  The Evening Telegram said the bride was "attired in an elaborate costume of duchesse lace."  A "large reception" was held in the 88th Street house.

A far more somber ceremony was held in the parlor in February, 1919.  After being ill only a short time, Anna died in the house on February 7.  Her funeral was held here three days later.

Henry and Charles were, apparently, already deep in negotiations for the formation of a new firm.  Just three weeks later the Henry J. Fink Co., Inc. was incorporated.  The new endeavor was described as "jobbers and merchants in woodenware, hardware, household furnishings."  But Henry would not live to head it very long.

Five months later, on August 2, 1919, the New-York Tribune reported that the estate of Henry J. Fink had sold No. 34 to Dr. Thomas F. Reilly.

Reilly and his wife, Kathryn, had four children, Lucille, Eileen, Paul and Thomas, Jr.  Born in Pennsylvania, Reilly had graduated from Lafayette College in 1893 and received his medical degree from Bellevue Medical College four years later.  He converted a room in No. 34, most likely in the basement level, for his private practice.

By now Reilly was considered an "authority and lecturer on certain phases of medicine," according to The New York Times, and was on the faculty of Fordham university.  He was, as well, the president of the board of Fordham Hospital, vice president of the board of St. Vincent's Hospital, and sat on the board of St. Elizabeth's Hospital.

Dr. Reilly's good standing resulting in his being the personal physician of eminent figures like the Right Reverend Monsignor Edward N. Sweeney, pastor of the Church of the Ascension.  While living here he wrote complex medical articles, like his "Hitherto Undescribed Signs in Diagnosis of Lethargic Encephalitis," published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1920.

The Reillys remained in the house until April 1930, when they moved to No. 160 Riverside Drive.  The 59-year-old doctor died there just seven months later, on January 24, 1931.

In the meantime, the 88th Street house had been a scene of unspeakable tragedy.  It was now the home of the William and Catherine McDonald family. The couple had four children, James, who was 14; William, 12; four-year-old Kathleen; and Mary.

On December 7, 1930, as Catherine made an apple pie Kathleen played on the kitchen floor.  The busy homemaker did not pay much attention to the child as she turned her attention to preparing the rest of the family's dinner.

That evening Catherine served the pie, but "finding an odd taste both to the piece at her plate and the unserved portion in the kitchen," according to the New York Evening Post, she ate only a bite.  Within a few hours both her husband and Kathleen were sick.

Suspicious, Catherine checked the kitchen where Kathleen had been playing.  A bag of roach powder was missing.  Panicked, she administered an antidote and summoned a physician.  Tragically, the 39-year-old William died just after midnight.  The rest of the family were recovering by the following day.

During the Great Depression the house was again lost in foreclosure.  The United States Trust Company sold it in 1940 to David M. Madden.  It remained a single-family home until 1971 when it was converted to one apartment per floor.

One of the apartments was home to a highly-unusual--perhaps shocking--business in the mid-1970's.  DMC offered women instruction in freely expressing their sexuality.

New York Magazine November 7, 1977
Other than replacement windows, the striking 1889 rowhouse is outwardly essentially unchanged--its wonderful figural carvings standing guard after more than 125 years.

photographs by the author