Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Maximilian C. Fleischmann House - 400 West 149th Street



The handsome copper solarium-type bay at the top floor was apparently an early addition.
In 1894 developer William Broadbelt lived in the developing, upscale neighborhood of Hamilton Heights, at No 403 West 148th Street.  In April that year he exhibited his confidence in the district by purchasing from James D. Butler what The Record & Guide described as "the entire westerly front of St. Nicholas avenue, between 148th and 149th street..for improvement."

That improvement would come in the form of a row of high-end rowhouses.  Broadbelt had worked with architect Frederick P. Dinkelberg several times.  Now on May 18, 1894 Dinkelberg filed plans for ten 20-foot wide residences, each to cost $20,000, or about $602,000 today.  

The project was completed within seven months, in January 1895.   Like proper bookends, the two end residences rose a floor above the others.  The northern-most house, No. 400 West 149th Street, like its mirror image twin on the southern end, turned its shoulder to the avenue.  The elegant rounded entrance portico was centered within the rusticated brownstone base.  Highly unusual, but indicative of the upscale nature of the home, the Scamozzi capitals of the polished granite columns were cast in bronze.  

An early, undated photograph shows the newly-planted trees, the high stoops of the St. Nicholas Avenue homes, and the fourth floor balcony of No. 400.  original source unknown.

Directly above the portico was a handsome copper-clad oriel fitted out with stained glass transoms.  The avenue elevation featured a four-story bowed bay which terminated in a balustraded balcony.  The orange brick of the upper stories was trimmed in brownstone; the piers separating the fourth floor openings on the avenue side were decorated with carved Renaissance-style panels.


The handsome Scamozzi capitals of the polished granite portico columns are bronze.  
On February 14, 1895 Broadbelt sold No. 400 to Sarah L. and William L. Loew.  But complications quickly ensued.  The title was in Sarah's name, so it was she who nominally sued Broadbelt for selling them an illegal property.  The couple realized after the fact that the bowed bay and the stoop projected beyond the property lines.   The bay extended 7.5 inches and the stoop 6 feet, 3 inches onto public property.  The suit charged that the Loews were "unable to convey a merchantable title."

The legal battle dragged on until the spring of 1900, when Broadbelt won the case.  But it was a hollow victory. The Record & Guide reported on April 21 "While Mr. Broadbelt thus wins his case he is unfortunate in having had the St. Nicholas av. property foreclosed meantime."   No. 400 had been sold at foreclosure auction on July 29, 1898.  The purchaser was Maximilian Charles Fleischmann, who paid $28,000, about $685,000 today.  It was a bargain price, little more than what Broadbelt had invested in the structure.


The stained glass transoms of the charming, if battered, copper oriel above the service entrance survive.
Fleischman and his brother, Julius, were the sons of Charles Louis Fleischmann, co-founder in 1868 of The Fleischmann Yeast Company with his brother, Maximilian.  Their commercially produced yeast revolutionized baking, making mass production of bread products possible.  The elder Maximilian Fleischmann died in 1890 and Charles Flesichmann died on December 10, 1897; leaving control of the now-massive firm in the hands of Julius and Max.  Julius, who lived in Cincinnati, handled the western operations and Max the eastern.

It was probably not a coincidence that The Fleischmann Yeast Company's East Coast manager, Jacob Baiter, lived directly across the street at No. 6 St. Nicholas Place.  We are tempted to think of yeast as having to do only with the making of bread and related items.  But it is an equally important ingredient in the production of alcohol, as well.  Max Fleischmann was also president of the Somerset Distilling Co. and the Eastern Distilling Co.  Baiter was treasurer of both firms.

In 1905 Max married  Sarah Hamilton Sherlock.  It may have been their mutual love of travel and adventure that prompted the sale of No. 400 in December 1909.  It became the property of John B. Hasslocher at a time when the Harlem neighborhood was changing. 



The arrival of the Lenox Avenue subway in 1904 and the collapse of Harlem real estate prices around the same time resulted in the district's becoming the center of Manhattan's Black population.   By 1915 No. 400 was home to multiple families.  An advertisement in The Evening Telegram on March 12 that year offered "Attractive, sunny four rooms, elevator, nicely attractively furnished."  The rent was $8 per month, or around $200 today.

An official conversion to apartments came in 1925 when architect A. L. Seidan remodeled No. 400 into one "housekeeping apartment" (meaning cooking was allowed) in the basement, a duplex on the first and second floors, and non-housekeeping apartments on the upper levels.

The early tenants were respectable and professional.  Among them was newspaperman Ray Johnson who had worked for the New York World, the New-York Tribune and the Boston American.  Following his death on December 16, 1928 his funeral was held in his apartment here.

William L. Patterson lived in the building in the fall of 1932 when he was nominated by the New York Communist Party as its mayoral candidate.  (He did not win the election.)

Perhaps the city's foremost Black newspaper as mid-century approached was The New York Age.  A dependable source of mainstream news of interest to the Harlem community, its journalist Floyd G. Snelson turned a bit catty in his "Harlem--Negro Capitol of the Nation" column on June 1, 1941:

Mae Parrish of 400 West 149th Street had planned to get married on her recent birthday...and we are wondering what happened in that Mr. L. Holt failed to show up for the ceremony.

Another renovation in 1966-67 resulted in a store and apartment on the ground floor, one apartment on the second, and two each on the third through fifth floors.  The alterations required an entrance being carved into the St. Nicholas Avenue facade.  More recently, in 1992, the second and third floors were combined as a duplex apartment.



Despite its beleaguered appearance, the avenue doorway and the loss of most of the stained glass, the Fleischmann house manages to exude its former stateliness; reminding us of a time when those who could afford bronze porch capitals built sumptuous homes in the neighborhood.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

John B. Snook's 1862 Cast Iron 391 Broadway





On June 9, 1860  the New-York Daily Tribune published an article entitled "City Improvements" and commented on the "number of elegantly-finished marble-front stores" being erected in the dry-goods district.  "With the panic of 1857 came a cessation in improvements generally throughout the city, but during the last two years the march has again resumed."  The article described a long list of buildings being erected, adding "Preparations are in progress to erect upon lot No. 391 Broadway a first-class marble-front store, which will cost about $40,000."

That building would sit on a 25-foot plot owned by Lorillard Spencer between White and Walker Streets.   The vintage structure on the site, along with the little building in the rear, had been the home and shoe store of Benjamin Lockwood in the 1830's.  His son, Benjamin, Jr. carried on the business here well until about 1847.

Now Spencer agreed to allow his uncle, John D. Wolfe, to replace the old buildings with a modern loft structure.  Wolfe had amassed his large personal fortune through the hardware and real estate business.  He commissioned the prominent architect John B. Snook to design the building.

If, like the Tribune reported, Wolfe had intended to face his building in marble, those plans soon changed.   Two years earlier Snook had sought out the services of Daniel Badger's Architectural Iron Works for the facade of his striking No. 620 Broadway.   He now used the same technology for No. 391.

This cast iron facade, too, most assuredly came from the Badger's foundry.  Striking similarities are found in one example in the the firm's 1865 catalog.   Above the storefront, supported by fluted, Corinthian pilasters and columns, the Italianate-style building featured engaged Corinthian columns, arched openings and spandrel panels below the third and fifth floors which pretended to be balustraded balconies.  

The building was completed in 1862--a time of great national upheaval.  Not only had the Civil War broken out a year earlier, but the now-diluted army presence in the Far West was dealing with Native American uprisings.  

One of Wolfe's first tenants did his part.  On November 7, 1862 the New-York Daily Tribune announced "Relief For The Minnesota Sufferers--Contributions are needed for the relief of the sufferers by Indian depredations in Minnesota, and will be received by Frederick C. Jones, No. 391 Broadway."

By 1868 Thomson, Langdon & Co. had moved its formidable operation into the building.   Manufacturers and wholesale dealers in corsets, it marketed its "Glove-Fitting" model as being unexcelled in "elegance, comfort, durability."


This advertisement was published in 1868.
By 1872 the firm had branched out, manufacturing other items and acting as commission merchants for foreign makers.  An advertisement that year touted the "Glove-Fitting" corset (which "has been greatly improved"), the new Thomson's Crown Gloves and the Thomson "unbreakable busk" (or corset stay).  It also announced "We are Agents for the celebrated Gerson of Berlin."  The ad said that shipments from Germany arrived every week with "fashionable garments for ladies' wear--suits, embroidered jackets, paletotes, sacks, opera cloaks, &c."

That year the ground floor store was the scene of an exciting, if brief, exhibition and sale.  The 1850's had seen inventors and engineers battling over improvements to the sewing machine.  In 1857 James Edward Allen Gibbs, a farmer in Virginia, patented the first chain stitch single-thread sewing machine.  He partnered with James Willcox Gibbs to form Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company.  Now they brought their innovations to Broadway.

On April 16, 1872 the New-York Daily Tribune announced  "There is an Exhibition, now on view at 391 Broadway, which possesses many points of interest.  It is that of over a thousand Sewing-Machines, of almost every leading name known to the public.  These Machines are exhibited by The Willcox & Gibbs S. M. Company...and they will be sold at Auction To-Morrow."

The following day the newspaper followed up with a full-column article entitled in part "Willcox & Gibbs Triumphant."  In reporting on the successful sale, the journalist commented on the invention itself.  "The condition of millions of working people has been vastly improved both in a material and moral sense  A branch of foreign trade of no mean dimensions has sprung up; while in almost every family of the land the influence of this invention is felt in the diminution of female drudgery."

In the meantime Tompson, Langdon & Co. continued to diversify.  One of two separate ads in The New York Herald on May 28, 1873 offered more than 50 "choice and delicate odors" imported from the Crown Perfumery Company of London.  The scents were available in $1, $2 or $3 bottles--the most expensive costing about $40 in today's money, a pricey amount at wholesale.

The other advertisement announced that Thomson Langdon & Co. was now selling pairs of "the Celebrated Crown Hair Brushes."  Made of "real Russian bristles," they were guaranteed to be "penetrating; they make hair brushing a pleasure, and, with proper use, will last a lifetime."


November 23, 1872 (copyright expired)
Among Tomson, Langdon & Co.'s employees was a young bachelor, F. D. Markwell.  The salesmen was sent abroad by the firm early in 1873.  Having completed his business, Markwell boarded the R.M.S. Atlantic at Liverpool to head home on March 20 .   A gale buffeted the ship on the night of March 31 and at around 3:15 the following morning, near Halifax, the Atlantic struck a rock just below the surface.  To the terror of its passengers and crew the ship began listing, and then sinking.  

The ten lifeboats were lowered, but the heavy seas either swept them away or smashed them.  One of the crew managed to somehow get a life-line stretched to shore; the only hope for passengers (some of whom had to escape the sinking ship through portholes).   The terrifying notion of using the life-line was possibly the reason that all but one of the women and children--156 in all--remained aboard.  All of them perished except 12-year old John Hindley.  Of the 952 on board, only 371 survived. 

On April 3 the New-York Tribune's full-page coverage of the disaster--the worst loss of civilian life in the North Atlantic to date--noted "Mr. F. D. Markwell, a salesman of the firm of Thompson [sic], Langdon & Co., No. 391 Broadway, a young single man, who has been abroad on business for the firm" was "among the saved."

Markwell sent two telegrams to New York on the same day as the Tribune's report.  Both reflected the horror of the incident:

To Thomson, Langdon & Co., No. 391 Broadway: I am safe and well, but remain with the wreck to save the bodies of friends lost.  Send me a draft on some Halifax bankers, for money, by telegraph.  I have lost everything.

The other went to the New York office of the Associated Press:

Say to the friends of the cabin passengers of the steamer Atlantic that I will remain with the wreck until I have secured all the lost cabin passengers.  I have boxes going to the wreck this morning to receive the bodies.  The bodies of Mrs. Fisher and Miss Merritt we have.  The bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Merrit, Miss Scrymser, and John H. Price of New-York, I have great hope of securing.

By 1884 Thomson, Langdon & Co. had moved to Worth Street.  Cloakmakers Meyers & Stix were operating from the building the following year when the industry was hit with a general strike.  On August 17, 1885 The Evening Telegraph reported "Over 300 dress and cloakmakers employed in the several manufactories of this city are on strike."  The same amount was anticipated to walk out the following day.  Among those affected was Meyers & Stix.  According to the article eleven men participated in the strike.

Interestingly, the 1890's saw apparel firms joined in the building by a raft of Railroad Ticket Agencies.  In 1893 agencies of the Missouri Pacific Railway, the Texas and Pacific Railway, the Florida Central and Peninsular Railway, and the International and Great Northern Railroad were in the building.  By 1896 they were joined by the Clyde Steamship Lines agency as well.

In December 1898 agent W. E. Hoyt (who would remain here for years) advertised:


The Hot Springs of Arkansas
The National health and pleasure resort; owned and controlled by U. S. Government.  Elegant hotels, Arlington, Eastman and Park.  Golf and other amusements. For information and booklets apply to W. E. Hoyt, 391 Broadway.

In June 1899 the Spencer estate contracted the architectural firm of Jordan & Giller to make "alterations to stores and lofts" at a cost of $8,000.  The upgrades to the aging structure would be equivalent of about a quarter of a million dollars today.

Less than five years later, in March 1905, more renovations were done.  This time a dumbwaiter was installed along with a new storefront, designed by Westervelt & Austin.  The improvements were in anticipation of W. Thompson's restaurant on the ground floor.  He had signed a lease a few months earlier.

On April 2, 1910 the Record & Guide ran a large announcement of the coming sale of the Lorillard Spencer Estate.  No. 391 Broadway was described as being "located in the Hardware Section."  The highest bidder for the property was William H. White, who spent $110,000 (in the neighborhood of just under $3 million today).

While the auction announcement deemed the neighborhood the hardware district, No. 391 continued to attract drygoods and apparel firms.  In November of 1913 the Rival Hat Company took the top floor and in May 1916 Wizard Shirt Company moved in.

Linen merchants P. Rosner & Brother were in the building by 1919.  The firm was the target of thieves twice in a matter of weeks in 1920.  On the night of February 12, 1920 burglars entered and made off with goods valued at $5.000.   Then, on March 7, another loss was detected.  This time the crooks were sneakier.

The New-York Tribune reported "The owners of the store declared that when employees entered on the morning following the visit of the burglars there was no outward sign that goods had been taken."  When the valuable stock was removed, the crooks arranged boxes and bolts of fabric to hide the fact that anything was missing.  It would be a couple days before the theft was noticed.

The Broadway block was changing by now.  Around 1922 the first one-man attorney office moved in, and by the end of the decade at least four others were here.  Nevertheless, the venerable building continued to house textile firms as late as the 1990's.

But then, on August 27, 2013, The New York Times ran the headline "Sudden Burst of Residential Activity in an Overlooked Slice of TriBeCa."  Journalist Julie Satow's article began "The area of lower Broadway south of Canal Street in Manhattan has long been characterized by nondescript discount stores and lunchtime counters packed with city workers.  It has been mostly ignored by the wave of gentrification to the west that has flooded TriBeCa over the last decade."

The renovated spaces make it hard to imagine women manufacturing corsets here.  image via corcoran. com

Like the 1860 article in the New-York Tribune, this one listed the many new structures and renovated buildings.  And once again No. 391 was on the list.  "The Keystone Group acquired 391 Broadway, a commercial building, eight months ago and is converting it into four residential floor-through lofts."


Easily overlooked behind the zig-zagging fire escape, the nearly 120-year old building has suffered.  Most of the Corinthian capitals have fallen off their cast iron columns.  Nevertheless, the dignity of John B. Snook's Italianate business palazzo survives.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The 1903 Hotel Bretton Hall - 2350 Broadway






In 1902 developer brothers James and David Todd commissioned the fledgling architect Harry B. Mulliken to design a minor structure--a one-story wooden tool shed on West 114th Street.  It may have been a test of sorts, one which Mulliken apparently passed.  The following year Mulliken and his new partner, Edgar Moeller were working on three substantial hotel commissions for the Todds, the Hotel York at Seventh Avenue and 36th Street, the Aberdeen Hotel at 17 West 32nd Street, and the Bretton Hall Hotel, which would engulf the entire eastern blockfront on Broadway from 85th to 86th Street.

The Todd brothers had purchased the undeveloped Bretton Hall site from Le Grand K. Pettit.  They took out a $1.25 million building loan toward Mulliken's total projected construction costs of $1.55 million--just below $47 million today.  The architect's plans called for "187 suites, with 506 rooms, 231 baths, and 385 toilet rooms."

As construction neared completion, the Todds leased the property to hoteliers Anderson & Price for 21 years.  It appears to be Anderson & Price who named the hotel.  They additionally ran the newly-opened Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods in the New Hampshire White Mountains.

Completed in 1903, the Bretton Hall Hotel sat on a three-story base of rusticated stone.  Nine floors of red brick, limestone and terra cotta rose to an elaborate iron cornice that sprouted frothy ornaments.  Mulliken's insertion of seven-story stretches of quoins and stone-faced bays gave the structure verticality and visually relieved the heavy mass.


The newly-completed hotel had no storefronts and an exuberant galvanized iron cornice.  Not the 86th Street subway entrance hugging the side of the building (left)  photo by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The New-York Tribune commented on the behind-the-scenes technology necessary to operate the resident hotel.  "The building has an electric plant, four engines, four boilers, four dynamos, a cold storage, laundry and kitchen plant."  The article added "It also has six elevators and a United States mail chute."

Unlike transient hotels, resident hotels like Bretton Hall leased suites to long-term tenants.  They enjoyed the amenities of a hotel--barber shop, dining room, maid, hallboy and messenger service, for instance--along with the relative permanence of an apartment building.

On November 1, 1904 Mrs. John Jay Tonkin of Oswego, New York, moved into a suite with her 11-year old daughter, Rosamond.  The Evening Telegram explained that they were "driven from their luxurious home on Lake Ontario by dread the child would be stolen."

John Tonkin was well-known as an iron manufacturer and philanthropist in Oswego.  For more than two years his family had been terrorized by threats of Rosamond's kidnapping and worse.  The Evening Telegram said "It is believed the man is an artist, for many of the letters were illustrated with sketches of the girl and of the fate which it might be expected she would meet if she fell into the hands of her pursuers.  Tortures and death by pistol and poison were pictured with such hideous vividness that they, as much as the threats, undermined the health of the fond mother."

Even with Rosamond (whom The Evening Telegram described as "tall and well developed for her age") and her mother now secretly ensconced in Bretton Hall, no chances were taken.  The Tonkin coachman accompanied Rosamond to school on 70th Street near Riverside Drive.  It was the only time she was permitted outside, "as she was kept indoors at other times through fear, and had become pale."

Four months after Rosamond and her mother moved into their apartment, the threats had stopped.  And so in March 1905 "Rosamond was permitted to trundle a hoop on the sidewalk in front of Bretton Hall."  On each occasion the doorman, Charles Lytle, was instructed "to keep his eyes constantly upon her," reported The Evening Telegram.  But "Something called him into the house for a moment one day and when he returned to the sidewalk he saw the child in conversation with a man and walking near Eighty-sixth street."  Lytle ran after them, grabbing Rosamond, at which point the man rushed away.

Later Mrs. Tonkin received a letter demanding $50,000.  The writer promised that if the money were not paid, Rosamond would be kidnapped.  Instead, John Tonkin offered the $50,000--about $1.47 million today--to anyone who could identify the man.  Handwriting experts were called in.  With their whereabouts now known, Rosamond's mother took her back to the family house in Oswego.  Undeterred by the intensified hunt for him, the extortionist sent a new demand on June 8:  "Dear Sir:  Unless we have $100,000 before June 10 at noon we will take your Rosamond.  You had better call off your detectives.  Remember June 10 at 12.  Mr. The Three."

(As a side note, the threats eventually stopped and Rosamond was married to Ensign Forrest U. Lake of the U.S. Navy a decade later in 1914.)

In the meantime, the meeting rooms of Bretton Hall were used by clubs and organizations.  Only the well-to-do could afford automobiles and motor yachts and in November 1904 The New York Motor Club was formed in Bretton Hall.  At its inaugural meeting on November 17, the purposes submitted by the Committee on Constitution and By-Laws were "to encourage the interest of motoring on land and water."  

But one member shouted out, "Why not add in the air?"

For years inventors had struggled to perfect a flying machine and, as a matter of fact, the Wright brothers had successfully flown their biplane for 59 seconds the previous December.  The suggestion prompted a heated debate which, according to The New York Times, "waxed hotter and hotter."  Nevertheless before the meeting adjourned the purposes of the club had been amended to "promote motoring on land, water and in the air."

A month later, early on the morning of December 14, 1904, the "engineer" (one of the staff tasked with minding the heavy equipment)  went to the basement to "start the engines and dynamos," as reported by The Evening Telegram.  "He found the cellar filled with four feet of water.  Barrels and boxes were floating about.  Hundreds of dollars' worth of machinery had been damaged."

A large water main had broken and burst through the 86th Street subway station wall, "hurling aside the wall of the subway as if the bricks were merely chips of wood."  The flooded subway was crippled throughout most of the day and traffic was closed on Broadway until around 1:30.  The Evening Telegram said "One of the places which suffered most was the big Bretton Hall apartment house."

Residents looking forward to a warm breakfast that morning would be disappointed.  The kitchen, also in the basement, was out of commission.  But the inconvenience to the 175 families living here went much beyond that.  "The hotel is without elevator service or electric lights and no heat can be supplied until the cellar is cleared.  No meals can be served, and the patrons are forced to seek out refectories elsewhere."  And because four $5,000 boilers were destroyed, the entire building was without heat in the December cold.

Society women routinely gathered in the dining rooms of New York hotels for tea and luncheon.  But they were unwelcome without a male escort after 6:00.  At the dawn of the women's rights movement, some well-to-women had had enough.  One socialite complained to a reporter "To be sure, it might be that the man in the case was only a messenger boy brought in from the nearest telegraph office for the express purpose of complying with the letter of the law," but being seated without "a mere man" was impossible.

To fight back the Equity Suffrage Club was formed in Bretton Hall in 1908.  It was composed, according to one account, "of both men and women" and its first attack would be a boycott of those hotels following the system.

In February 1909 Anderson & Price purchased the hotel they had been leasing since its opening.  In reporting on the deal, the New-York Tribune remarked "It is one of the largest exclusive apartment hotels in this city."

For years the residents would appear in society columns and on the membership lists of exclusive clubs.   Typical of them were Alden M. Young, the senior partner of Young & Warner and a director in two dozen corporations, and his wife.  The Evening World called him "well known in club and fraternal circles, having been a member of the Union League Club, the Railroad Club, the Recess Club, and Odd Fellows and Royal Arcanum."

The ballroom of the hotel was often the scene of society weddings, as well.  On January 30, 1911, for instance, Eva Arnold, daughter of Standard Oil Company official Edward D. Arnold, was married to Earle Wayne Webb here.  The New York Times mentioned "The presents, which numbered 250, filled three rooms of the first floor of the hotel."

It was apparent the following year that Anderson & Price were now accepting some transient guests.  And the arrivals on October 7, 1912, may have been a bit unnerving to strait-laced residents.  The Sun reported "In splendid physical condition and confident of victory, the Red Sox arrived here from Boston at 6 o'clock last evening and went to Bretton Hall."

Nevertheless, the long-term residents continued to be both well-heeled and well-known.  Among them in 1913 was Henry L. Brittain, treasurer of the H. L. Brittain Company on Park Row.  His was a ground-breaking firm manufactured "moving picture machines for the home."  He was also treasurer of the Granite Spring Water Company, the Anchor metal Novelty Company and the Simplex Camera Company.

On January 2, 1913 the New-York Tribune reported on a significant turn of events for the wealthy businessman.  He had traveled to Britain regarding the settlement of an estate.  According to dispatches received by the Tribune from London, Brittain "was robbed of documents that related to an estate valued at $5,000,000."  Brittain told investigators he "does not expect to recover the lost documents which were stolen from his kit bag," but offered a $250 reward, nevertheless.

Brittain was among the last of the long-term residents.  Anderson & Price advertised Bretton Hall in 1914 as "New York City's Largest Transient Uptown Hotel."  The ad touted "exceptionally large, quiet rooms with baths...All the comforts of the better New York Hotels at one-third less price."  A sketch of the building clearly showed that the cornice was still fully intact.

But two years later that condition was slightly different.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on December 3, 1916 called the Hotel Bretton Hall the "largest and most attractive uptown hotel" with single rooms and a bath priced at $2.50 and $3 per day, and suites at $4 to $7.50.  The most expensive accommodations would be about $177 in today's money.  But the photograph showed that cornice had been toned down, possibly in an attempt to keep the building looking up to date.
Anderson & price had quietly altered the cornice by the time of this 1916 photo. New-York Tribune, December 3, 1916 (copyright expired) 

Despite the change from resident to transient, Bretton Hall continued to be a location for society weddings.  Such was the case on June 26, 1916 when Esther Ford, the daughter of State Supreme Court Justice John Ford, was married to John Cassan Wait here.  Ford had also served in the State Senate in 1895.

Well-dressed patrons were, perhaps, unaware of labor problems with the waiter's union when they sat down in the Bretton Hall dining room on the evening of June 16, 1919.  But Price & Anderson were well informed and prepared for problems.  The New York Times reported that the 50 waiters, "stood at their posts, appraising the guests as they entered for the meal.  According to one of the guests, there was an air of expectancy about part of the waiters, and this was explained when a whistle blew."

Immediately upon hearing the whistle, the waiters formed a line and "with military precision departed."  The well-timed strike was planned to cause the most upheaval as possible.  But Price & Anderson were well ahead of the potential disaster.  The Times wrote "But just as the last of the strikers went through the door fifty substitute waiters came in another.  So far as the guests were concerned the walkout merely served to show that most of the strikers had learned correct marching while in the service."

A much more disturbing incident brought Bretton Hall back into the newspapers in November that year.  Frank A. Skelton and his wife were residents of Montreal, but had taken rooms in Bretton Hall for the winter.  On Saturday night, November 22 the couple went to the theater.  When they returned about midnight, "they found everything topsy turvy," said The New York Times.  "Drawers from dressing tables, desks and bureaus were scattered on the tops of the tables, and clothing had been thrown upon the floor by the visitors in their search for jewels.  Two jewel cases had been emptied and left open on one of the tables."

The thieves were successful in their search.  They had made off with "about thirty diamond rings, watches, necklaces and other valuable pieces of jewelry."  The loss was estimated at about $290,000 in today's money.  Mrs. Skelton refused to confirm that number, saying merely "Some of the pieces were so old as to be considered treasures; others were new, made of diamonds and platinum, and were of unusual design.  The loss was heavy."

Living in the hotel "in luxurious fashion," according to The New York Herald, at the time was Mrs. May Jennings Bennett, a 32-year old widow widely known in religious circles.  She was vice-president of the Women's Foreign Missionary Society and was active in the work of the Fort Washington Presbyterian Church.  As so it was most likely a great surprise to many when police knocked on her door on October 3, 1919 to arrest her.

Mrs. Jennings, through her church work, came in contact with many moneyed women.  At teas or lunches in her Bretton Hall apartment she would mention that she was embarking on real estate projects--purchasing old houses in order to replace them with modern apartment buildings.  After she had interested her victims in the potential, she would even take them to the see the properties, none of which she actually owned.  She then collected thousands of dollars "investment" from her unwitting dupes.

May Jennings's defense was even more startling.  When a journalist visited her jail cell on January 10, 1920, she said "I admit I played the part of a crook, but my downfall is due to the psychic divine control a man, formerly a Presbyterian minister, has had over me for the last year.  That man conducts mystic ceremonies up near Central Park, and during all the time I was robbing my friends and acquaintances of thousands of dollars, I was under a spell cast over me by him."

Her trial was held on January 21.  She pleaded guilty and offered her curious explanation.  Judge Mulqueen was not swayed.  "I am convinced you are a common and base swindler," he said before announcing her sentence of nine years in prison.   When her lawyer pleaded for leniency, the judge reminded him that he could have imposed the maximum penalty of 40 years.  "I think she is being treated leniently."

An even bigger jewelry heist than the Skelton robbery happened two months later. Mr. and Mrs. Charles MacManus of Rye, New York, took rooms on the fourth floor here in the spring of 1920.  On March 30 Mrs. McManus placed her jewelry in a trunk after dressing for luncheon.  The following evening, when dressing for dinner, she found that someone had been in the trunk.

Missing were about 35 pieces of jewelry.  Their total value, $30,000, would be equal to more than $375,000 today.   The pieces were insured, unfortunately, for only about half their value.  Ironically, the most valuable of the pieces had been in a safe deposit vault and had only been removed a few days earlier for appraisal.

The proprietors of the hotel embarked on a forward-thinking plan for its employees in February 1927--shared-cost benefits.  The New York Times explained "The Hotel Bretton Hall joined its employes in the purchase of a $225,000 group life insurance policy from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company."  More than 200 employees now not only had a life insurance policy, but an early form of health benefits.  "The plan includes a visiting nurse service, distribution of health conservation pamphlets and provides for the payment of an employe's insurance in full if he becomes totally and permanently disabled before the age of 60."

In June 1929 the owners, Benjamin Winter, Inc., hired architects Springsteen & Goldhammer to make renovations, including converting the southern half of the street level to shops  The Times noted that "remodeling of the interior of the 500-room structure is also under way."  The renovations resulted in 150 single rooms, 120 two-room suites, 25 three-room "apartments," seven four-rooms suites and, along with the stores, a bar and restaurant.


An advertising postcard shows the shops in the southern end of the building.
In 1931 another store, much less architecturally invasive, was installed in the northern corner for The Chase National Bank.
The heyday for Bretton Hall seems to have passed by 1939 when a room cost $2.50 per night.  It was a mere fraction of the amount charged in 1916.


The 1931 commercial space, now a Citibank branch, was sympathetically inserted into the base.
In February 1950 the newly-formed Hotel Bretton Hall, Inc., headed by Grace Bordiga, purchased the structure.  In reporting the sale, The New York Times noted "Improvements planned by the new operators...include plans for dining room so that it can be used for catering purposes and the installation of kitchenettes in some additional apartments."

While still offering 78 hotel rooms, the renovated Bretton Hall now included dentists offices and, on the second floor, the Rutledge Club and offices.  Somewhat surprisingly, the building became a center of the Upper West Side Haitian community.  Decades later, in 1993, Rev. Thomas Wenski, director of the Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center recalled to a New York Times reporter "Our community was centered on the West Side of Manhattan, mostly around 86th Street along Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue...A number of families managed to congregate at the Bretton Hall."

The ballroom here was rented by campaign of Representative Bella Abzug to watch the election results  of July 20, 1972.  Although the 51-year old Congressional freshman had hoped to rally the feminist vote, she and her supporters were disappointed when it became obvious she had been unseated.

In the early 1980's an organization called the Artists Assistance Services took advantage of the low rents in Bretton Hall to scoop up apartments and offer them to "people in the arts."  New York Magazine cautioned, however, "But there was a little clause attached:  The tenant had to share his living room with a 'cultural activity.'"  And so artist Abby Cahn shared hers with a karate class.  That was a problem, she found out, when the karate instructor refused to let her have any furniture.  And if classes were in session she was not allowed to enter.

Emad Salem, living here in 1993, was a translator and bodyguard for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, known commonly in the United States as "the Blind Sheikh."  Following the World Trade Center bombing that year, Salem made himself available to to the F.B.I., who later said "Mr. Salem was central to the arrests of the accused plotters, luring them to make statements that were recorded, helping to test explosives and even renting the house in Jamaica, Queens, where the suspects are accused of mixing the fertilizer and fuel for the bombs."  With Salem's assistance, the F.B.I. was able to wiretap that house.

Following the arrest of the sheikh and his cronies, Salem made a quick disappearance with Government help.  On June 26 The New York Times wrote "Neighbors at the Bretton Hall residential hotel at 2350 Broadway, where Mr. Salem lived, said they saw garbage from his apartment at the trash chute on Wednesday, including a telephone that looked as if it had been ripped from a wall, and pictures of his son and daughter."  Salem's information had also helped derail 12 other targets, "including Grand Central terminal, the Empire State Building and Times Square," said officials.

By now the entire cornice had been gone for years.  The owners embarked on a renovation late in 2006 that initially called for reproducing the lost cornice.  Architect John C. Calderรณn, however, found that "the cost was prohibitive."  Instead he designed a parapet of red brick and cast stone in an effort to approximate the lower design.  Despite the good intentions, it falls short of a design-completing cornice.


More than a century of changes did not affect the elaborate three-story Beaux Arts entrance.
The completed $1 million renovation resulted in 461 rental apartments.

photographs by the author

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Lost Eglise du St. Esprit - 45-47 East 27th Street


American Architect & Building News, July 27, 1901 (copyright expired)

The French language church L'Eglise Francaise a la Nouvelle York was organized in the 17th century by the Rev. Pierre Daille.  His was the first French-language congregation to have a dedicated structure in which to worship.  The small church building was located near today's Battery Place.  It was the first of several locations; the moves prompted by one or both of two factors: a growing congregation and an increasingly commercial neighborhood squeezing out the parishioners.

The congregation no doubt thought they had found their permanent home in 1862 when a handsome new brownstone edifice was erected at Nos. 28-32 West 22nd Street.  The block was one of high-stooped homes and just half a block to the east on Fifth Avenue Manhattan's wealthiest citizens lived in enviable luxury.  But by the end of the 19th century the millionaires of Fifth Avenue had moved further north, while stores and lofts invaded Sixth Avenue and the side streets. 

Apparently newspapers and their readers found the cumbersome French name too inconvenient; for the church was variously referred to simply the Eglise du St. Esprit, the French Church of the Holy Spirit, or the French Church of St. Esprit.  And so it was on March 25, 1899 when the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced that "The French Church of St. Esprit is the buyer of Nos. 45-57 East 27th Street."  The journal noted the property would be used "as a site for a new church edifice."  (The site had for years been part of the Stephenson car factory complex.)  The church paid $55,000 for the plots.

By the end of summer the trustees had selected the architectural firm of Brun & Hausen, whose name has almost entirely disappeared from memory.  Construction of the "three-story brick and stone, steel construction church" according to The Engineer Record, would be $50,000--bringing the full price of the project to nearly $3.3 million today.


The office of Brun & Hausen released the above rendering to the press. The World, October 10, 1899 (copyright expired)

Construction commenced on October 9, 1899.  Newspapers were especially struck by some details requested by the Rev. Alfred Victor Wittmeyer and the trustees.  The World reported "It will be the first church in New York with billiard and recreation rooms and a complete gymnasium in the basement."  The article explained that the funds to erect the limestone and brick structure came from the sale of the 22nd Street property.  

The Evening Post added that there would also be a bowling alley, reading-room, Sunday-school room, recitation-room, lecture-room, and an apartment for the janitor.  It made special note that the "young men's room" and the "young women's room" would have "bathrooms and a douche attached."  The article noted "The style of architecture is to be pure French Gothic of the fifteenth century."

Interestingly, because the stained glass windows of the old church were "of a kind, it is said, that is not now made," they were carefully disassembled and reinstalled in the new edifice.  The Gothic motif was carried on into the interior where cast iron columns, rather than stone, upheld the balconies and roof.

The trustees were also intent on creating "a temporary house for French working-girls, which has long been greatly needed," according to The Evening Post on June 29, 1899.  Young women arriving from France could find shelter in the Huguenot Home until employment was found for them.

Construction was completed in February 1900.  At the time the congregation numbered around 300; many of them traveling relatively long distances since finding a French-language church was not easy.  The Evening Post commented that they "are scattered all over Greater New York and its neighborhood.  They include residents of Brooklyn, Staten Island, Jersey City, and Hoboken, while many live in Harlem."

Rev. Wittmeyer had been rector of the church since 1879.  Born in Lorraine, France, he was brought to America by his father, who had been banished by Napoleon III "for excessive republicanism."   The young man had enlisted in the Union Army and fought in both the Battle of Gettysburg and the second Battle of Antietam.  At the end of the war he traveled to France to prepare for the ministry and there became entangled in the Franco-Prussian War.  Once again he fought in battle.

Back in America Wittmeyer was one of the founders of the Huguenot Society of America and would go on to write several books on French Protestantism in the United States.  The French translation of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer used in the L'Eglise du St. Esprit was by him.

Three years after construction of the new building was completed, Wittmeyer took on another mission.  On June 4, 1904 The Globe and Commercial Advisor explained "He will sail on the Rhinedame of the Holland-American Line on June 28 and will spend the summer in France, Belgium and Switzerland, speaking in the interest of French immigration from a religious and material standpoint."


The church as it appeared in 1916.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Wittmeyer had seen first-hand the difficulties the immigrants experienced upon arriving in an unknown land.  "He will tell his audience how they should prepare for business life here and who should not come here at all," said the article.

The churches of well-to-do congregations closed during the summer months.  There was little need for them to remain open when the bulk of their communicants were gone from the city at fashionable resorts or summer homes.  So Wittmeyer's leaving in June made sense.  His return, however, was a bit late.  On September 3, 1904 The Globe and Commercial Advisor announced "The French Episcopal Church, Eglise du St. Esprit, will reopen tomorrow, but the Rev. Dr. A. V. Wittmeyer, who is on a mission abroad, will not return until later."

A month later, on October 9, he was back in the pulpit and his sermon, "The Religious Crisis in France," reflected the trip.  The New York Press noted "Mr. Wittmeyer has been addressing audiences in France since early in the summer and has had exceptional opportunities to learn the facts of prevailing conditions there."


Around 1926 once again the congregation found itself hemmed in by commercial buildings.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
New Yorkers aware of the good works of the congregation were possibly shocked when they read a headline in The Sun on April 10, 1925:  "French Girls May Lose Home / Church du St. Esprit Sells Building and Sues to Evict 24 in Huguenot Institution."  The trustees had sold the Huguenot Home at No. 237 West 24th Street, built simultaneously with the church, and "provided no other place for the home."  When the young women, many of whom spoke no English, found themselves with no place to go, they stayed.  And so the church started eviction proceedings.  It was an unexpectedly cold move.

After heading L'Eglise du St. Esprit for 45 years, Rev. Wittmeyer died on November 12, 1926.  The New York Times said his death was due to "ailments incident to his age."  He was 79.

It may have been only Wittmeyer who had kept the congregation in the 27th Street location.  Not long after his death the property was sold and the congregation moved its worship services to the auditorium of the French Institute uptown.   The Brun & Hausen designed church and other surrounding properties were demolished for the 20-story office building known today as 386 Park Avenue South.


image via 42Floors. com

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Boring & Tilton's Flemish Revival 214 West 16th Street



Edward Lippincott Tilton and William A. Boring had long been close friends, studying together at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, then entering the office of McKim, Mead, and White in 1890 upon their return to New York.  A year later they broke away to form their own practice, Boring & Tilton.  The firm was hired in the spring of 1898 by Charles M. Velbinger and Emma L. Cirche to design a modern apartment building to replace the old house at No. 214 West 16th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

The plans, filed on April 22, called for a five-story brick flat building to cost $20,000 (about $625,000 today).  The architects had a residential-sized plot to work with, just 25 feet wide.  An interest in the city's Dutch roots was sweeping the city at the time and Boring & Tilton joined the trend, designing structure in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style.  

Seven months after the plans were filed, Velbinger and Cirche took in a third partner in a similar project--an abutting apartment building at Nos. 216 and 218, also designed by Boring & Tilton.  The architects carefully designed the two as congenial neighbors, with many of the architectural elements echoed, but not copied.

No. 214, completed in 1899, was clad in red brick and heavily trimmed in limestone.  Projecting bands of stone alternated with brick at the first floor, above a short stoop, and the double-doored entrance was sumptuously framed in a carved limestone surround.  The windows, like those on the upper floors, exploded with dramatic voussoirs that extended past the lintels.  A lavish Renaissance frieze separated the first and second floors.




Projecting brick piers ran up the sides, interrupted by stone bands which were carefully lined up with those of No. 216.  The tour de force of the design was the elaborate Flemish Renaissance gable, decorated with heavy side volutes, a blind cartouche, and similar ornaments.

The building filled with respectable, if not wealthy, tenants.  Among the early residents was P. Roullier who ran an unusual business, at least by a 21st century viewpoint.  His advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on June 30, 1901 offered "Mattresses Remade at your residence.  Hotels and boarding Houses solicited." 

Patrick Quilty typified the financial and professional status of the residents.  He was hired as a topographical draftsman by the city in September 1906 with an annual salary of $1,450.  That would amount to just under $42,000 today.

Less typical and decidedly less respectable was 28-year-old Lawrence Coburn, who lived here in the early 1920's.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described him simply as a "pickpocket."  His career came to an abrupt end, at least for a while, when he was caught in the act.  He pleaded guilty to attempted larceny in the second degree on January 24, 1922.  He was sent to Sing Sing for up to two years and six months.


No. 214 (left) once wore a Flemish gable very similar to that of its next door neighbor.  Only the stubs of its volutes and bits of ornamentation survive.

The Great Depression years saw an increased interest in Socialism among the working class.  Because the most radical of the groups turned to domestic terrorism to make their points, the Federal government kept tabs on Socialists and Communists.  On its list of Communist voters in 1936 were No. 214 residents Lionel Byalin, Esther Greenberg and Jeanette Rubin.  (Byalin was in the building at least through 1940 and continued to appear on the Government's radar.)

More involved in the Socialist movement was Felix Morrow, who not only lived at No. 214 West 16th Street, but ran the SWP [Social Workers' Party] Minority Group from his apartment.  He wrote an open letter to the National Secretary of the Workers Party which appeared in Labor Action on December 17, 1945, after the Workers Party announced its intention to publish its own bulletin, separate from the united party publication.  Morrow said in part "But a united Trotskyist party is so all-important today that for the sake of it we appeal to the comrades of the WP to pledge themselves not to exercise this right."

In contrast to those politically-focused tenants, the names of others appeared in print for purely social reasons.  When Mary Hollingsworth was married to Arthur I. Ebbets in Tarrytown on May 11, 1951, for instance, newspapers reported that the guests then motored back to Manhattan for a reception in her apartment here.



A renovation was completed in 1978 which resulted in three apartments per floor.  It may have been at this time that the Flemish Renaissance Revival gable was sliced off, leaving decapitated remnants of the volutes and lost cartouche details.  Only the gables of Nos. 216-218 give us an idea of what we lost.



photographs by the author