Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Joseph and Josephine Bissell House - 46 West 55th Street




In 1869 developer John W. Stevens erected a row of five 20-foot wide Italianate style row houses on West 55th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  It was a bold move, since little development had reached this far north.  His architect, Thomas Thomas, faced the high-stoop homes in brownstone, the current height of fashion.

By the time former judge Henry Alker and his family were living in No. 46 the neighborhood had filled with fashionable homes for upper and upper-middle class families.  Having once been Manhattan's Public Administrator, he had served three terms on the Marine Court bench.  By the mid-1880's he was privately practicing law.  On the afternoon of Friday, November 19, 1886 he suffered a small stroke.  It was followed by a more severe one and on Sunday he lapsed into unconsciousness.  He died in the house on Tuesday morning, November 23.

At the turn of the century the former Alker house saw rapid-fire turnovers in ownership.  James H. Young sold it to Edward Van Ness in 1901; Van Ness sold it to Sadie S. Dearborn in 1902; and she sold it to Dr. Joseph Bidleman Bissell and his wife, Josephine in January 1903.  As was common, the title was held in Josephine's name.

Before moving in the Bissells initiated a major renovation of the outdated house.  On April 24, 1903 architect Edward L. Tilton filed plans for changes which included extensions to the rear and a remodeled front.  The costs were listed at $10,000--or about a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

Construction was completed in June 1904.  Tilton had stripped off the brownstone front and stoop and moved the facade forward.  Like the currently popular neo-Federal and neo-Georgian styles, Tilton's sophisticated neo-Classical design was executed in brick and stone.  The Bissell house featured a four-story bowed bay above which the fifth floor sat demurely back.

At street level a double-doored entrance above two short stone steps, sat within a molded limestone frame.  They were originally flanked by windows.  Above a beefy bracketed cornice sets of three multi-paned openings at the second and third floors was within a shared limestone frame.  Three French windows distinguished the floor above, the heavy stone brackets of the fourth floor cornice slightly extending on either side of the windows.  A simple copper cornice crowned the residence.

Born in Lakeville, Connecticut in 1859, Bissell had been educated at Yale and then at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.  Following his graduation he studied in Vienna and Munich.  He had been, by now, the visiting surgeon of Bellevue and St. Vincent's hospitals for six years.  He was internationally known for his pioneering work with x-rays and radium.


Dr. Joseph B. Bissell - from the collection of the Columbia University Roll of Honor

The Bissells and their four children--Karl, Eugenie, Joseph, Jr., and Katherine--moved into the house with two female servants.  The family's summer estate was in Tuxedo, New York.  

On November 11, 1910 The New York Times advised "Dr. and Mrs. Joseph B. Bissell have opened their cottage at Tuxedo for the annual ball at the club this evening, and are entertaining a house party there fore their debutante daughter, Miss Eugenie Bissell."  The article added "On Saturday the party will motor over to Princeton, N.J., for the Yale-Princeton game."

Along with his work at St. Vincent's and Bellevue, Bissell was the private physician of wealthy and celebrated New Yorkers.  Two of them, Julia Marlowe and her husband E. H. Sothern, were among the most famous actors of the period.  In 1911 he disappointed fans when he ordered Marlowe to cancel her performances until the insufferable "climatic conditions" of heat and humidity passed.  And three years later, in February 1914, he told reporters "he had refused to permit her to return to Mr. Sothern and resume her work on the stage."  She was ordered to take a one year rest.

As was often the case, the breadwinners of well-to-do families remained in the city during the week while their families went off to the country.  On June 23, 1912 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Joseph B. Bissell of 46 West Fifty-fifth Street has taken the Sewell cottage at Oyster Bay for the Summer, and her daughters, the Misses Eugenie and Katherine Bissell, will be with her."

As hospital surgeon, of course, Bissell's patients were not all wealthy or famous.  The day before that Times article he treated a young boy who had been "playing Indian in the street."  Handguns in the possession of children were a constant problem in New York at the time.  Boys celebrated the Fourth of July by firing pistols into the air, for instance, often resulting in injuries.

And so when this boy and his friends decided to play "Indians," it made perfect sense to them to use real revolvers.  The game ended with the boy being shot.  The Sun said "The bullet entered the left side, passing dangerously near the heart, liver and kidneys, cut the spinal cord and fractured the sixth rib."

Joseph Bissell used his x-ray equipment to find the bullet.  The Sun said "The X-ray probably saved this boy's life, but unfortunately he is a cripple, being paralyzed below the waist, with no possible chance of recovery."

Bissell's experimentation with radium went far beyond x-rays.  In 1910 he established the Radium Sanatorium on West 70th Street "for the treatment of cancer with radium."  In the days before the dangers of the element were clearly understood, he not only amassed a sizable stock of radium, but applied it directly on his patients.  

He performed the procedure outside of the sanatorium as well.  On January 1, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported "The first radium operation for cancer performed in Bellevue occurred...when Dr. Joseph B. Bissell, one of the visiting physicians, of 46 West 55th st., placed $12,000 worth of radium on the eyelid of James Grogan, forty-five years old, a laborer."  Dr. Bissell pronounced the procedure as "satisfactory," and the article noted that "The operation was watched with great interest by most of the Bellevue students and staff."

On April 6, 1915 Eugenie was married to Laurence Millet in the 55th Street house.  Bishop Patrick Joseph Hayes of St. Patrick's Cathedral performed the ceremony.  The groom's father, artist Francis Davis Millet, had lost his life in the R.M.S. Titanic disaster three years earlier.  The New York Times reported "The house was decorated throughout in apple, peach, almond and other Spring blossoms, and in the drawing room an aisle outlined by ribboned posts topped with flowers led to a huge rosebush covered with pink flowers, before which the ceremony was solemnized."


Eugenie Bissell on her wedding day. The New York Times, April 18, 1915 (copyright expired)

Three months later Joseph Bissell was on his way to London where he had been invited to "do special work in St. Mary's Hospital with radium and radium solutions in the treatment of infected wounds," as explained by the New-York Tribune on July 3.  The article mentioned "Dr. Bissell has the largest amount of radium possessed by any one person in New York City, and is suggested as managing director of the radium institute being planned by philanthropists of this city."

Karl's engagement to Pheobe Doelger, daughter of the wealthy brewer Peter Doelger, Jr., was announced on November 17, 1916.  The wedding took place five months later in St. Patrick's Cathedral on April 24.

Dr. Bissell was made a major in the United States Army when the United States entered World War I.  The chief surgeon at Fort McHenry, Maryland, he came home for Thanksgiving in 1918.  He became sick on November 30 and died in the house three days later of food poisoning.  His funeral was held in St. Patrick's Cathedral on December 4.

The following year, in September, Josephine sold No. 46 to another well-known doctor, James Ramsay Hunt.  The price was not disclosed, but Hunt's $35,000 mortgage--just under $400,000 today--hints at the cost.  Joseph moved to No. 850 Park Avenue where she announced Katherine's engagement to John G. W. Husted a few weeks later.

Born in Philadelphia in 1872, Hunt graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1893 and, like Bissell, then studied in Europe--Paris, Berlin and Vienna.  A neurologist, he joined the staff of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1910.  And also like Bissell, he had served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I, at one point deployed to France as a director of neuropsychiatry.

Hunt and his wife, the former Alice St. John Nolan, had three children, James, Jr., Alice St. John and Emily.  Their country estate, Mount Holly Farm, was at Katonah, New York.

The family's purchase of No. 46 came at a time of substantial change in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood.  Millionaires were migrating ever northward along Central Park and their former homes were being taken over by commercial interests.   In March 1922 a hearing was held in the offices of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment regarding "Changing from a residence to a business district West 55th Street" between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Alice Hunt was there to make her protests known.  With a total of seven people opposing the amendment and seven supporting it the change was temporarily shelved.

By the time of Alice's protest her husband had been made president of the American Neurologic Association.  He would go on to preside over the New York Neurologic Society in 1929, and the American Psychopathological Society in 1932.  Through his research his name became associated with several neurological conditions, including Ramsay Hunt's atrophy, Ramsay Hunt's paralysis, and the Ramsay Hunt syndrome type 2.


James Ramsay Hunt - original source unknown
According to Alice Hunt years later, her parents hosted weekly dinner parties in the house, attended by other medical professionals and "wealthy members of the business world."

Following his prep school years at St. Paul's School, James Jr. went on to Yale, where he was a member of the rowing team.  On October 24, 1930 his engagement to Eleanor Pratt, granddaughter of one of the founders of the Standard Oil Company, was announced.  The Times noted that James "will be graduated with the class of '31, the marriage taking place shortly afterward, on June 27."

The ceremony took place in the Church of St. John's of Lattingtown on Long Island, a village surrounded by sprawling Gold Coast estates.  The organist of Grace Church was brought in to "play a program of wedding music for a half hour while the guests were arriving," reported The New York Times.  In the meantime, the organist of St. Paul's Chapel waited at Welwyn, the estate of the bride's family.  As the guests approached for the reception, she "played a program on the chimes in the Pratt estate."

Alice was next to be married.  Her wedding to Sherman M. Bijur took place in St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Katohah on May 5, 1935.  Emily was her sister's maid of honor.  Following the ceremony a reception was held at Mount Holly Farm.

It was a short marriage.  On April 27 the following year Alice obtained a divorce in Reno, charging Bijur with cruelty.  The Times remarked "Mrs. Bijur had asked the court to restore her former name, Alice St. John Hunt."  With her maiden name restored, Alice busied herself in New York with political and social issues.  By December she was executive chairman of the women's division of the New York State Economic Council.

The Hunts were at Mount Holly Farm on July 22, 1937 when James Ramsay Hunt died "after a long illness," as described by The New York Times.  He was 63-years old.  Oddly enough, that newspaper's obituary omitted Emily as a survivor, listing only his wife, James and Alice.

Emily was quite alive and her debutante entertainments were held in 1939.  On May 25, 1941 her mother announced her engagement to Warren Burke.  By then Alice had been married three years to Elisha Lee.  That wedding had taken place at Mount Holly Farm on December 3, 1938.  Unfortunately that marriage, too, ended in divorce.

Alice Hunt was struggling financially at the time.  The year prior to Emily's wedding the Bowery Savings Bank foreclosed.  And once again the house became home to a physician--actually two of them.  The bank sold No. 46 in 1943 to Drs. Harry Sidney Newcomer and his wife, Marian Anastasia Statts Newcomer.   

The couple initiated a conversion which resulted in business offices on the first and second floors, a duplex apartment on three and four, and four furnished rooms on the fifth.  Marian ran the Marian Newcomer's Mater Christi Guild from one of the commercial spaces.  Others were rented to the Dioptric Instrument Corp., makers of precision lenses, and Reach Yates Matton, an advertising agency.

The Newcomers retained possession of the house until 1954 when it was sold to Edward A. Viner.  The principal of the Edward A. Viner & Co. investment firm, he moved his business into the building, and altered the upper floors to offices through the third floor, and a duplex apartment on the fourth and fifth floors.  Just two years later Viner died and his estate sold the building.  It became home to a string of commercial tenants, mostly in the apparel field.

In 1987 clothing retailer Jean Robert Ltd. purchased the former home and, once again, made renovations.  Completed in 1989, they resulted in a showroom on the first and second floors and offices in the upper floors.  The ground floor was changed with the removal of the windows and the widening of the entrance, giving it a rather churchy appearance.

Then, on August 14, 2001, the National Real Estate Investor entitled an article "A New House of Fashion: 46 West 55th Street," and reported that "Les Copains, the Italian fashion design house of men's and women's clothing, knitwear and accessories, purchased 46 West 55th Street for $4 million.  The clothier will occupy the five-story, 7,400 sq. ft. townhouse building as its U.S. headquarters and as showrooms for its various fashion lines."



With little outward hint, the haute couture fashion house continues to occupy the former Bissell residence.  It is an astonishing survivor of a much different period along the now-bustling block.

photographs by the author

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