Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The George Schumann House - 29 West 88th Street

Developers Ryan & Rawnsley hired architects Thom & Wilson to design a row of five houses on West 88th Street in 1888.  They intended the speculative residences to catch the attention of financially-comfortable families.  And they would.

Thom & Wilson filed plans on March 23, 1888 for five brownstone-fronted dwellings stretching from No. 25 to 33 West 88th Street, between Eighth Avenue (later renamed Central Park West) and Columbus Avenue.  The plans projected the cost of each house at $20,000--in the neighborhood of $515,000 in 2019.

Completed in the spring of 1889, the row was an over-the-top medley of Renaissance Revival ornamentation.  The facades were a visual overload of textures and shapes--arches, rusticated and fluted pilasters, intricate carvings, angled bays and dog-legged stoops.  Nos. 25, 29 and 33 were identical; while Nos. 27 and 31 were near twins.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide was impressed.  On June 22, 1889 it declared "The passer-by on the north side of 88th street, a few hundred feet west of the Central Park, cannot fail to notice a group of five stately-looking private residences."  The Guide noted the "considerable carved work in floral and figure designs," and then described the interiors.

On the parlor floors were "reception, drawing and dining rooms, flanked by a butler's pantry, with a private stairway leading to the culinary department.  The entrance to each house is barred by three massive mahogany doors--storm, vestibule and hall--with windows of beveled glass."  Built-in furniture on this level included "handsome mirrors and hat stands" in the foyers, and a "handsome bouffe" in the dining rooms.

While the parlor floor was trimmed in mahogany, the second and third floors were in oak.  The two bedrooms on the second floor were "laid out en salon."  The Guide said "The saloons are larger than usual, and one finds oneself surrounded on all sides by mirrors, with a profusion of closets and an attractive toilet-stand."  A bathroom to the rear of this floor "has a cosy and rich appearance, and has a porcelain tub and a French bowl."  The third floor was similar to the second, and every room included a fireplace.

The stair hall was illuminated by a stained glass skylight.  Ryan & Rawnsley provided the latest in appliances in the basement service level.  "The 'Defiance' range, porcelain washtubs and other necessities complete the domestic arrangements on this floor."

On one afternoon, November 15, 1889, Ryan & Rawnsley sold two of the 20-foot wide homes.  Charles W. Schumann, Jr. purchased No. 27 and his brother, George Henry Schumann bought the house next door at No. 29.  The price of each was $32,500; or about $915,000 today.

Charles moved into the middle house, with the columned portico, and George into No. 29 to its left.
Along with a third brother, William, the Schumanns were partners in Charles Schumann's Sons, an upscale jewelry store founded by their father, Charles William Schumann.  It had long been located in the Mortimer Building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street.  In his 1891 book Art and Gems, Schumann described his opulent store.  "Messrs. Schumann's Sons carry at all times a superb stock of diamonds, watches and jewelry...They cater to the very best class of trade and carry none but strictly fine goods.  They number a large proportion of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families of New York among their regular customers."

George and his wife, Emma, had two daughters, Carrie W. and Marguerite Grace Louise, and a son, George H., Jr.  Moving into No. 29 with the family was Charles, Sr.  

The lavish carvings at parlor level include a child's head peering from a half-shell above an elaborate floral arrangement; additional children's faces in the panels below; and a fantastic lion above the doorway.  Close inspection reveals two other children's faces at the base of the door surround, one partly visible to the left.
Emma made a change to the domestic staff in 1894.  Her advertisement in The New York Herald on November 2o sought a "Competent Protestant cook to assist with laundry work.  German preferred."

Charles W. Schumann, Sr., died of heart disease in the 88th Street house on November 4, 1902.  The New York Herald noted "He was seventy-eight years old and had been ill about a week.  He leaves three sons."  The sons took over the operation of the store.  Although William was disabled, needing a wheelchair, he played a role in the business for several years.

The high-end tenor of the store was evidenced following a brazen mid-day burglary on Sunday, November 12, 1905.  Although the interior of the store was in full view of passersby, the crooks had broken in the front door and made off with silverware valued at $10,000, or about $294,000 today.  Luckily they were unable to get into the vault, described by the New-York Tribune as "being the strongest vault in the city."  In it were jewelry and silverware valued at around $14.7 million by today's standards.

At the time of the theft the Schumann girls were in their late teens.  Three months later, on February 25, 1906 The New York Herald reported that Emma "gave a large reception on Friday last to introduce her daughters, the Misses Carrie and Margaret [sic] Schumann."  Later, said the article, "an informal dance was given."

Following the uptown migration of the other jewelry stores, art galleries and similar retailers, the Schumann brothers began construction of an Art Nouveau-style building at No. 716 Fifth Avenue in 1910.  

George and Emma celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary on March 9 that year with a dinner party.  Four days later The New York Herald mentioned "On Thursday they left New York to spend a few days in Washington and Baltimore."

Each of the carved panels between the third floor windows is different.

George died at the age of 56 in the 88th Street house on October 22, 1912.  His funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.  His estate was left entirely to Emma.

The New York Times made special mention of the Schumann artworks, noting "Among the paintings were the 'Russian Wedding Feast' and 'Choosing the Bride,' by Makowsky.  In fact, Emma inherited only half of the "A Boyar Wedding Feast," as it is best known today.  Charles and George had chipped in equally on the painting when it was sold in 1885.  Their $15,000 bid was reportedly higher than Alexander III of Russia cared to spend.

Emma inherited half the value of "The Boyar Wedding Feast."  Whether it hung in No. 27 or in No. 29 is unknown.  image via Google Cultural Institute

The family lived on in the house and at a tea held during the first week of April 1914 Emma announced the engagement Marguerite to Harry Simpson Roberts.

During World War I George, Jr. was part of the American ambulance corps that drove into the heat of battle to remove the injured.  A letter to his mother written from the French front which arrived in June 1918 gave a hint of the horrors of warfare.  In part it said:

Our division with the 131st French division has lost between 70 and 80 percent of the strength and is now going on a much earned rest.  When we found we could not handle all the injured they sent in ten more Fords, but as fast as they came the Germans broke them up with shellfire...Every one in the section is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Four of them had to be sent away to rest...I am pretty fine, although my throat and lungs are still sore from being gassed.

Emma Schumann sold her home of more than three decades in September 1920.  The buyer, John Lucas, resold it in April 1922 to Jane Ferguson.  Whether she lived in the house is unclear; however in 1941 it was converted to three furnished apartments in the basement, two apartments each on the first and second floors, an apartment and a furnished room on the third, and five furnished rooms on the fifth floor.

That configuration lasted until 1968 when the house was returned to a single-family residence with a doctor's office in the basement.

By 2002 the property was owned by Dr. Melanie Katzman and her husband, Russell Edward Makowsky.  (Noticing the coincidence of Makowsky's surname and that of the Russian artist whose works once hung in the house is unavoidable.)  A clinical psychologist, Dr. Katzman's impressive resume includes several books and articles and the founding of Katzman Consulting, an adviser to public and private companies.

Other than replacement windows, there is little exterior change evident in No. 29 since the Schumann family moved in 120 years ago.

photographs by the author

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Lost Oscar Straus Mansion - 5 West 76th Street

The still-vacant plot to the right sat at the corner of Central Park West  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Although he was educated as an architect, William T. Evans made his fortune in the dry goods business.  President of the major firm, Mills and Gibb, the Irish-born merchant was perhaps better known for his knowledge of art and his impressive collection.  In 1890 he possibly surprised many in art circles when he sold off his entire collection and started anew, now focusing on American artworks.

At the same time he set out to provide a new venue for exhibiting his new acquisitions, not to mention a new home for his family.  On November 22 that year the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Evans "will build a semi-detached four-story residence, 40x60" on the corner of 76th Street and Central Park West.  "The dwelling will be first class in every particular, and it will have an art gallery extension which Mr. Evans proposes to place his large private collection of paintings."

Evans appears to have personally designed his new Romanesque Revival-style residence.  The basement and first floor levels were clad in brownstone, while the upper three floors were brick.  The asymmetrical design was splattered with openings of various shapes and sizes, a rounded bay on West 76th Street and a faceted bay on the eastern elevation, a fanciful turret that clung to the corner, gables and dormers.

The 47-year old Evans quickly filled the new house with American works.  In 1891 he loaned pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of art, including Frederick S. Church's Midnight, Edmund Tarbell's Girl with a Violin, George Inness's A Summer Morning, Arthur Parton's Evening, and Homer D. Martin's Madison and Jefferson.  His wife, Mary, was a collector as well, although less passionate about American art.  She loaned the museum French artist  Ă‰mile van Marcke's Landscape and Cattle.

A distinct departure from Evans's European collection was Tarbell's Girl with a Violin. (private collection, image via the-athenaeum.org
Evans's memberships reflected his cultural interests.  He was a member of the Lotus Club (where he oversaw its art collection), the American Fine Arts and the Salmagundi Clubs, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the New-York Historical Society, among others.  In 1892 he and Mary sold the plot on 76th Street corner (Nos. 1 and 3) abutting their home to the New York Historical Society.  The museum paid $21,000 for the lot, just under $600,000 today.

No. 5 West 76th Street can be partially glimpsed at the far left, behind the newly erected New-York Historical Society building in 1902.  (original source unknown)

In March 1901 the Evanses sold No. 5 to Oscar Solomon Straus who had recently returned with his family from Turkey.  Straus had resigned his post as Minister to Turkey after having "disputes with the Sublime Porte," as worded by The New York Times.  The newspaper said the Government had supported his resignation "as an act of respect" and that Straus had "left the Sultan to find some way to make good his promises" without him.

Oscar S. Straus - from The American Spirit, but Oscar Straus, 1913 (copyright expired)

Born in Otterberg, Germany, he and his wife, the former Sarah Lavanburg, had three children, Mildred, Aline and Roger Williams Straus.  Sarah had been born into a wealthy Jewish family, the daughter of banker Louis Lavanburg and his wife, Hannah.  She had been educated in private schools.

Sarah Lavanburg Straus.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
The house was the scene of a joyful gathering later that year.  On December 12, 1901 Mildred Caroline Straus was married to Edward Shafer in Temple Emanu-El.  A wedding supper was served in the 76th Street house afterward.  Among the guests were Mildred's uncle, Isidore, part owner of Macy's Department Store, and aunt Ida Straus.

Called by newspapers the "Disraeli of America," Straus's resignation from his post as Minster to Turkey did not diminish his political activities.  In January 1902 he was appointed a permanent member of the Committee of Arbitration at The Hague.  And his connections in government led to highly-visible guests at No. 5.   In 1903, for instance, former President Grover Cleveland was a house guest.  

Both Oscar and Sarah were active in philanthropic causes.  Straus was a director in the Hebrew Orphans Asylum and a member of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society of New York.

Straus sometimes used entertainments as a means of achieving goals.  When a bitter labor strike paralyzed the coal industry in 1902, Straus was made a vice president of the Arbitration Committee of Thirty-six.  After formal meetings in its Fourth Avenue offices provided no results, Straus invited all parties to a dinner in the 76th Street house.  Newspapers widely credited the event--during which the strike was reportedly not discussed--as leading to a relaxation of tensions.

The humor magazine Puck depicted Straus as a nurse tending to a tantrum-throwing baby during the coal arbitration.  May 28, 1902 (copyright expired)
And on December 9, 1905 Straus hosted a dinner for a highly diverse group that included, among others, Andrew Carnegie, Archbishop John Ireland, Congressman Richard Barthold, and Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University.  The purpose of the gathering was the formation of an American International Law Association.  

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Straus to the post of Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1906.  He thus became  the country's first Jewish Cabinet member.

The Straus family received devastating news in April 1912.  Isidore and Ida Straus had been heading home from Europe on the R. M. S. Titanic when the ship struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean.  The elderly couple perished together after Ida gave up her seat in a lifeboat to her maid in order to stay with her husband.  "We have been together a number of years," she was reported to have said, "Where you go I will go."

A letter of condolence from Mayor Jay Gaynor arrived at the 76th Street house.  It said in part:

Your brother met his death by neglecting his own safety in his eagerness to work for and save the lives of others.  And his noble wife refused to leave him on board the sinking ship. And thus two noble souls went down to death together.

Oscar Straus continued on in his live of public work.  On December 24, 1915 the New-York Tribune announced that he had been named the new chairman of the Public Service Commission.  It added "Mr. Straus celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday last night with a family gathering at his home, 5 West Seventy-sixth Street."  He told a reporter "I feel as fit as I did thirty years ago.  I enjoy good health and expect to be good for hard work for some time to come."

Sarah was involved in politics, as well.  On March 26, 1920, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported she would be hosting a meeting "of the Hoover women's campaign committee" that afternoon.

The esteem in which Straus was held among the top-most level of government was exhibited in June 1924 when the 71-year-old underwent surgery.  A telegram to Sarah arrived at the 76th Street house that read:

I have been deeply concerned to learn this morning that Mr. Straus has undergone an operation.  Allow me to express my sympathy to both him and yourself with all hopes for his early and complete recovery.  The nation he has served so well and long will wait eagerly for good news of him.
Calvin Coolidge
June 18, 1924

Sarah sent a return telegram to the President assuring him that the operation was entirely successful and that her husband would be home in two weeks.

The operation may have prompted the elderly couple to consider giving up their large private home.  Title was held in Sarah's name and the following year she sold it to the New-York Historical Society.   The organization announced that it would demolish the mansion for a 12-story annex to its existing museum building.  That project would not come to fruition for several years, however.

Then on February 28, 1937 The New York Times reported that the former Straus mansion was to be demolished.  "The classic architecture of the present building will be carried out in the addition.  Walker & Gillette are the architects," it said.

The nearly seamless addition engulfed the corner plot and the Straus residence.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The 1914 Cedarcliff Apartments - 40-48 St. Nicholas Place

Having learned his trade in the architectural office of his father, George Brown Pelham, George Fred Pelham opened his own office in 1890.   His son, George Fred Pelham, Jr., joined the firm in 1910. 

Pelham's designs for apartment buildings, rowhouses and hotels were impressive; but not especially out of the ordinary.  He routinely turned to the same historic styles being used by any number of New York architects--Renaissance Revival and Gothic Revival, for instance.   But the apartment building project he took on for the Strathcona Construction Co. on St. Nicholas Place in 1913 would stand out.

Filling five building plots, The Cedarcliff was designed following the Parisian "courtyard apartments" scheme.  Interior apartments looked out on a central light court, affording additional light and ventilation.  But it was the Pelham's ornamentation that made the building special.

The relatively unadorned rusticated limestone featured a wide, double-doored entrance flanked by lampposts on pedestals.  Above it, two carved cornucopia spilled fruit on either side of a swagged shield.  The five stories of orange brick above would have been unremarkable were it not for the extraordinary, polychrome terra cotta ornaments that completed the design.

More than two stories tall, the decorations were a blend of Art Nouveau and neo-Baroque styles--the sort of lavish ornament that would soon make its appearance in the motion picture palaces of major cities.

In February 1914, immediately upon the Cedarcliff's completion it was sold, bringing a price of around $200,000--or just over $5 million today.

Apartments in the building ranged from three to four rooms each, and brought rents in 1916 from $33 to $45 per month.  The rent for the larger apartments would be equal to just over $1,000 per month today.  The size of the apartments and the affordable rents were a sign that the Sugar Hill neighborhood was sliding from upper- to middle-class.

Among the early tenants was Helen J. Moses, a registered nurse who worked in the Mount Sinai Dispensary in its Children's Social Service department.  Max M. Kotzen lived in the building in October 1918 when he was appointed a Commissioner of Deeds, a civil service post roughly equivalent to a notary public today.

Brothers Wilfred Whaley and Laurence Alexander Mack lived in the building in 1918, as well.  Laurence was the president of The Underwriter Printing and Publishing Company, publisher of The Weekly Underwriter.  Wilfred was the vice-president of the firm.  Their family's prestigious roots were evidenced in Laurence's memberships in the Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Sons of the Revolution.

When the United States entered World War I, Wilfred Mack joined the Army.  He did not see action, but was appointed to the Division of Finance and Accounts in the Quarter Master's section where he earned the rank of Captain in 1918.

Two other tenants were fighting in the war that year.  R. J Heisler was a member of one of the Army's Field Artillery battalions; and J. C. O'Brien was on the front lines in France.  His family received horrible news in October that year--just one month before the war's end--when he was listed as missing in action.

By 1923 artist Agnes B. Fernbach was living in the Cedarcliff.  Born on June 29, 1879, she had studied under the ground breaking Ernest Haskell and Alphonse Mucha.

Agnes B. Fernbach produced "In Roger Morris Park, in 1921, possibly when living in the Cedarcliff.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Scandal arrived at the Cedarcliff Apartments in 1931 when Thomas L. Cowan, described by The New York Age, as "one of the star agents in the employ of the New York office of the Victory Life Insurance Co.," was arrested for grand larceny.   Despite his impressive work record, questions arose in 1930 and in June he was fired for "alleged mishandling of the company's funds."  Now, after a closer inspection of the books, it was discovered that he had been collecting money for the purchase of company stock, but had "failed to render any accounting for his collections."

The New York Age, which ran the front page article about Cowan's troubles, was among the most influential Black newspapers of its time.  It was evidence of the continuing change in demographics in the Sugar Hill neighborhood.

The newspaper reported on a new social organization formed in the Cedarcliff the following year.  On March 12, 1932 it reported that the "Carleida Social Club held its first tea on Sunday afternoon, March 6, at the home of its president, 48 St. Nicholas place.  H. (Ali Oop) Smith and R. (Concordia) Kirby were among the guests present who mainly composed the club's church friends."  The article said that the highlight of the evening was "the many solos and speeches delivered by a few of the guests, the solo by the secretary was the main surprise, and everyone spent a most enjoyable evening."

A colorful tenant at the  time arrived in the form of Henry "Red" Allen and his family.  The jazz trumpeter and vocalist has been compared to Louis Armstrong.  According to biographer John Chilton, in his Ride, Red, Ride: The Life of Henry "Red" Allen, while living here in 1933 Allen was approached by composer Patrick "Spike" Hughes.  Hughes, says Chilton, "had regularly praised Red's recorded work."  When he arrived in New York for a long visit that year, Hughes "organized a series of recording sessions; among the first musicians that he invited to play on these dates was Red Allen."

Harris and Betty Perry had an apartment in the Cedarcliff in 1938.  Betty was 28-years old and worked as a domestic in the home of William R. Goodheart in Great Neck, Long Island.  At around 10:30 p.m. on Friday evening, January 21, 1938 she was riding in a car driven by Walter Kistler, another Great Neck resident, when it was involved in a three-car collision.

Betty refused medical attention at the scene and asked to be taken back to the Goodheart residence.  There she complained of dizziness and nausea.  She was taken to the Flushing Hospital, where she died of a fractured skull.  Authorities found the entire situation shady--not only because the seriously injured woman initially refused to be treated in a public hospital; but because the accident had never not been reported to authorities.

In 1939 Edward W. Simon had been a letter carrier for 14 years; and he was well known for his lodge activities.  But on February 25, 1939 The New York Age ran a headline reading "Edw. W. Simon Arrested in P.O. Theft" and began its article saying "Fraternal circles are buzzing this week over the arrest of Edward W. Simon, former power of Elkdom and one time exalted ruler of Manhattan Lodge, No. 45."  It was not the first time he had gotten into trouble shady conduct.  Simon's "exalted" status had crumbled when he was suspended from the Elks in 1937 "for refusing to give records to the Grand Lodge concerning the financial and business affairs of the lodge."

Toward the end of 1938 Post Office officials suspected that Simon was "rifling the mails" in search of cash or checks.  Decoy letters were slipped into the mail which would end up on his route.  The ruse worked and on February 14 Simon was arrested by Postal Inspector Dowley.

If Red Allen had given the Cedarcliff a musical reputation, it was enormously enhanced when the building was purchased by Lionel and Gladys Hampton.   Lionel, of course, was an internationally known jazz musician and bandleader, later inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame.  And in his 1991 biography, There and Back, Roy Porter notes that in 1948 he "moved into a building owned by Lionel and Gladys Hampton at 48 St. Nicholas Place."

Porter was a jazz drummer who backed legends like Charlie Parker.  A year after moving into the Cedarcliff he organized and went on the road with a large band that included Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Knepper and Art Farmer.  Sadly, that was near the end of his glory days.  In the 1950's drug addition forced him to essentially withdraw from the music scene.

Another notable musician here had nothing to do with jazz.  Edward Margetson, called by The New York Age a "scion of West Indies musicians," operated his studio in his apartment in the early 1950's.  Interestingly, Margetson started his career as an organist and for decades was the organist at the Church of the Crucifixion.  His mother, according to The New York Age, was "considered one of the finest pianists of her time, and his father a skilled choral director on the Island of St. Kitts, British West Indies."

Having studied liturgical, symphonic and chamber music at Columbia University and the recipient of several grants and fellowships; in 1927 Margetson decided to introduce his Harlem neighbors to choral music.  He later explained "They said it couldn't be done...when I became obsessed with the idea that the entire community in which I lived should share the benefits of my musical education.  They said I couldn't interest laymen in joining a choral group, making rehearsals and sacrifices of time for the sheer love of music."

But "they" were wrong.  On December 20, 1952 The New York Age reported "The walls of staid Madison Ave. Presbyterian Church still echoed with the sound of vibrant voices and enthusiastic applause Sunday night" following the 25-year old group's performance.  The 47 members of the chorus included "dressmakers, tailors, clerks, laundrymen, housewives and the like."

In the early 1970's Chink Cunningham and his wife, Evelyn, lived here.  Cunningham ran an after-hours club on 148th Street at St. Nicholas Avenue with a partner, Johnny Walker.  According to Sonda K. Wilson in her Meet Me at the Theresa, "Those in the know understood that it was a numbers and bookmaking place.  Cunningham and Walker admitted a select clientele like Joe Louis, Lana Turner, Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine, Romare Bearden, and Tallulah Bankhead, who loved to gulp down bourbon."

Cunningham was admitted to the Harkness Pavilion of the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in July, 1973.  Two weeks later, on August 7, he checked himself out.  He died the next morning in his apartment in the Cedarcliff.

On January 7, 1975 a tenant called the elevator, only to find a horrifying sight when it arrived.  The body of 50-year old Eric Illidge was on the floor.  He had been shot in the head.  The New York Times reported "The body had been stuffed into two sea bags, one over the head, the other over the feet."

The renaissance of the Sugar Hill neighborhood has resulted in renovated apartments and an updated lobby; although much of George Fred Pelham's interior architectural details survive.  And outside, those remarkable terra cotta decorations still cause pause.

photographs by the author

Friday, September 13, 2019

Peter Herter's 1900 224 East 74th Street

Peter Herter family was involved in all aspects of real estate development.  He ran the Herter Realty Company as well as the architectural firm of P. Herter & Son.  His son, Peter J. Herter was the in-house architect.  The Herters specialized in tenement buildings, lavishing them with borderline gaudy ornamentation that appealed to lower income tenants.

The three-story wooden house at 224 East 74th Street had stood for years when Pauline Wittner sold it in 1899.  In September Herter filed plans for a "six-story brick flat" to cost $35,000--just over $1 million today.  Although the Upper East Side was filling with lavish mansions nearer Central Park, the grittier neighborhood between Second and Third Avenues was perfect for such a structure.

The same month Herter filed plans for another tenement on the site of the old Ephraim Howe residence at No. 228 West 4th Street.  The result of designing the two structures simultaneously would result in fraternal twins--almost identical at first glance.

Completed in 1900, both buildings sat upon full-floor store levels.  Because Herter did not put their entrances below street level, as was possibly more expected, the first floor apartments were unusually high.  That resulted in a disproportionately tall entrance, necessary to maintain symmetry with the flanking openings.  

As he did on West 4th Street, Herter lavished the 26-foot-wide brick and stone structure with a riot of decorations and styles.  He borrowed freely from the Romanesque Revival, Renaissance Revival and Moorish Revival styles, the latter making its appearance in the alternating cream and red colored bricks of the first floor arches.

Several of the stone details in both buildings were identical--notably the half-bowl balconettes in the form of spread-winged eagles and grimacing male faces.  But at No. 224 East 74th Street Herter added pretty spandrel panels above the second floor windows of angels holding a shield containing his own monogram.  They were repeated above the top floor openings.  Judging by the West 4th Street building, a rather simple cornice upheld on brick brackets finished the design.

There were two apartments per floor, two facing the front and two at the rear.   Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, May 5, 1900 (copyright expired)
Peter Herter described the building to a reporter from the Record & Guide in May 1900.  "Well, take my building, No. 224 East 74th street; there we have three and four rooms in each apartment, with one bath on each floor; we get $18 for the four-room apartments and $13 for the three-room apartments."  (He mentioned the West 4th Street tenement, as well, calling it a "good class of building.")

The building was barely completed before the Herters were hauled into court by the previous tenant of the demolished frame house.  When he purchased the property it was home to fresco artist Edmund Lenkey and his wife Johanna.  But on September 10 (the same month that plans were filed for the new building), Lenkey contracted typhoid fever and was taken to the Presbyterian Hospital.

He was released and sent home on September 25 to fully recover.  But on October 3 the couple received a dispossess notice from the Herters.  Johanna went to court and was granted a stay until her husband could be declared completely recovered.  Nevertheless, aware that the couple were still inside and that Lenkey was bedridden, the Herters engaged a demolition firm and informed the Lenkeys that work would start on October 5.  And it did.

The workers began dismantling the house around the heads of the Lenkeys.  The New-York Tribune reported that Johanna testified "they tore all the doors and windows out, cut off the water, and removed the sink, and made the place uninhabitable."

The disruption may have resulted in the artist's death.  The Morning Telegraph explained "The noise and disturbance so affected Mr. Lenkey that he became worse.  It became necessary to remove him to a house across the street, where he died on October 14."

Johanna sued the Herters for $50,000 damages; about $1.5 million today.  She told the court on February 20, 1901 that when the demolition crew arrived she had "protested and explained that her husband was dangerously ill.  The Herters were communicated with, but ordered the work to go on."  

Although undetectable from the street, Peter Herter's initials are included in the decorative panels.

Residents of turn of the century tenement houses rarely appeared in newsprint for their applaudable activities.  And the tenants of No. 224 were not exceptions.

Emil Klapper, a cook, moved into the building with his wife, Minnie, following their wedding in 1902.  They had been married less than a year when domestic troubles arose.  It seems that Klapper was involved in some illegal activities and that may have been why Minnie left him on May 5, 1903.  And in a display of anger and spite, she took all of his clothes with her.

The World began its article entitled "Wife Gone; Clothes, Too" on May 6 saying "Emil Klapper, a cook, who has been married less than a year, is sitting in an empty flat to-day at No. 224 East Seventy-fourth street, mourning the loss of all of his personal belongings and afraid to go after his wife, who carried them away.  He fears that if he attempts to follow her she will carry out a threat to have him arrested.  Minnie had left a note that read:

Dear Emil:  I am going away from here.  Don't you try to follow me, because if you do I will surely make lots of trouble for you, in fact, I'll have you pinched.  MINNIE

Despite the threat that he might be "pinched," some of Emil's friends did go to the police, who sent out a "general alarm" for Minnie Klapper and the stolen wardrobe.

The unusual eagle support (the round "balcony" would have originally held a railing) and the severe face to the right are also found on Herter's West 4th Street building.

In late 1903 or early 1904 Caroline Friend purchased the candy store in one of the two ground floor spaces.  She and her daughter, Camile, moved into the tiny apartment in the rear.  But the business did not take off as she had anticipated and she quickly panicked.  The Globe and Commercial Advertiser reported on May 5, 1904 that "Worry over a business venture prompted Mrs. Caroline Friend to attempt suicide by carbolic acid early to-day."

Camile found her mother and rushed out onto the street and notified Policeman Musanecker.  Suicide by swallowing carbolic acid was common and police officers were well trained in quickly reacting to it.  The article said he "obtained a can of milk and some eggs, which he gave as an antidote."  It saved Caroline's life, but did not help her mental anguish.

A month later, on July 25, The Evening Post reported "Mrs. Caroline Friend, forty-six years old, a widow, who keeps a small candy store at No. 224 East Seventy-fourth Street, attempted suicide this morning by inhaling illuminating gas.  Mrs. Friend was taken to the Presbyterian Hospital, and will recover."

Peter Herter's wife, Maria, held title to the property.  She sold it in 1906 to the realty firm of W. & J. Bachrach, run by William and Julius Bachrach.  

At the time of the sale the Lamb family lived in the building.   Their 14-year old son, James, took his air-rifle to the roof on March 11 that year.  He tested his weapon by shooting at chimneys.  It was an innocent enough sport until another teen, George Beaudry, emerged on the roof of No. 217 East 73rd Street, directly across from Lamb.  Beaudry began exercising the pigeons he raised on that roof.  They seemed to Lamb a much better target.

When the 17-year old Beaudry protested, Lamb turned the rifle on him.  The New York Times reported "One of the slugs passed through Beaudry's hat, another through his coat, and a third struck him in the thigh, injuring him so seriously that it was necessary to have him taken to the Presbyterian Hospital."

Seeing what he had done, Lamb dropped his air-rifle and ran from the building.  Beaudry's parents filed a complaint at the East 77th Street station house and a detective went to the Lamb apartment.  The Times said "He was absent, and his parents expressed the greatest surprise at the story told by the Beaudrys, but were confident that the boy would return at bedtime.  The detective was still waiting for him late last night."

The hard and sometimes violent lives of tenement dwellers was clearly illustrated by the Rolands, who lived here by 1909.  On the cold night of January 9, 1910 Thomas Roland sent his wife, Annie, "to get 25 cents' worth of whiskey," according to the New-York Tribune.  Annie left, leaving her kettle boiling on the stove.  But she did not return as quickly as her husband would have liked.

On the street she ran into friends and paused to talk for a while.  "When she returned her husband growled at her for being gone so long and became abusive," said the article.  Annie, in an effort to avoid confrontation, ignored him and went into the kitchen.  When she refused to respond to his rantings, he was even more enraged and picked up the large kettle boiling on the range and pour it over Annie's head.

The New-York Tribune said "Mrs. Roland gave one scream and sank to the floor."  Neighbors heard the cry and rushed into the apartment, doing what they could until the ambulance arrived.  In the meantime, Thomas had fled, sparking a search by plainclothes cops.

The working class residents of No. 224 routinely placed ads searching for work as laundresses, housekeepers, and similar positions.  One, John Pollen, was looking for a waiter's job on October 17, 1911.  His ad described himself as "35, German, wishes position in club, or anything."

Another tenant, Frederick Novack, found a job as a chauffeur for Otto Bidbasch.  He was driving his employer on East 82nd Street on the evening of August 6, 1914 when he struck a seven-year old boy.  Samuel McGarrigal had been roller skating in the street in front of his home.  The little boy suffered a fractured skull and was taken to the Reception Hospital.  The New York Herald ended its report with a detail about the boy that did not bode well for Novack.  "He is a son of a traffic policeman."

The candy store was still operating in March 1917 when the owner offered it for sale.  An advertisement in The Evening Telegram read "Candies, cigars, stationery; established; near schools; telephone; rooms; rent $15; bargain $110."  

By the early 1920's one of the retail spaces was a tea room run by "Mrs. Welch."  The proprietress knew her repeat customers well and and established a sort of friendship with some.  One of her regulars was Mary O'Brien who came in on July 20, 1923.  Mrs. Welch noticed that Mary appeared dejected when she sat down at a corner table.  She told police later that she attempted to "cheer her up."

But Mary simply sighed "It's all over."  As Mrs. Welch stepped away, the 27-year old woman took a small bottle from her handbag and swallowed half of its contents--iodine.  The New York Times reported "Mrs. Welsh screamed and ran for a policeman.  A Reception Hospital ambulance was called and the young woman was taken there."

Two young women shared an apartment in 1929.  Winifred Grayson and Marjorie Wharton were arrested for prostitution On March 7 that year four vice officers rushed into their apartment and arrested them for prostitution.  The officers reported they were found with two "unknown men" who had paid them $5 each.

But in a trial that began on December 16, 1930 the two women testified against the officers.  They insisted they had been framed and that the officers had abused them.

The New York Evening Post reported on December 17 that Winifred testified that Officer Peter F. Lamb "seized her money, purse and jewelry" and "pushed her as she was escorted toward the street, causing her to fall and injure her knee."  She said that she and Marjorie were forced to ride on the laps of two officers in the police car, and that when she screamed for help one of them struck her.  "My nose bled and my ears rang," she told the court.  "The officer told me not to get blood on his coat."

The women's story was not without question, however.  Both had given fictitious names--Winifred's last name was, in fact, Sakwich and Marjorie Wharton was Jennie Domzalski Jappas.  Their case fell apart even more when the defense attorney managed to get Marjorie to admit she had changed her story at least four times.

The heavily German and Irish Yorkville neighborhood continued to be reflected in the tenant list of No. 224.  On June 6, 1936, for instance the Irish-American newspaper The Advocate announced "Patrick Joyce, 37, 224 East 74th street, native of Galway, and Miss Mary Murphy, 35, 935 East 70th street, native of Fermanaugh, will be married June 7 at St. John's."

By 1940 the building had lost its cornice.  NYC Department of Records & Information Services
One tenant with an Irish surname appeared in the newspapers for a less happy incident.  On September 5, 1940 the Long Island Star-Journal reported that "John Murphy, 38, of 224 East 74th street...was held in $500 bail for Special Sessions on a bookmaking charge."  Murphy was arrested in Queens when he was seen "accepting horserace bets from four men" on a street in Astoria.

Although the building lost its cornice sometime in the 20th century and a fire escape obscures some of the detailing; Peter Herter's 1900 tenement building is little changed.  The original floor plan survives, and the shops where once two despondent women tried to end their lives, continue to operate.

photographs by the author

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The General Henry W. Benham House - 104 East 36th Street

photo via cityrealty.com

At just 18-feet wide the four-story brownstone house at No. 104 East 36th Street was surprisingly narrow for the upscale block.  But its handsome Italianate design held its own with its wider neighbors.  Molded architrave surrounds framed the openings and the tall parlor window, which matched the proportions of the entrance, most likely always held French windows that opened onto a cast iron balcony.

Built around 1856, the house was home to Irish-born Matthew McLaughlin and his wife, Bridgett.  The elderly couple had two grown sons, Owen and Michael.   Bridgett McLaughlin died in the house at the age of 80 on March 28, 1865, "after a long and painful illness," according to The New York Herald.  The funeral was held in the house three days later.

Before long the house was home to Jacob Valentine and his wife, Mary.  Born on September 15, 1823, Valentine's ancestors had settled in Hempstead, Long Island in the early part of the 18th century.  An attorney, Valentine was Chief Officer of the New York Supreme Court by the early 1870's.  The couple had two daughters.

Maintaining a residence like this one required a capable staff.  On March 26, 1867 an advertisement in The New York Herald sought "A First Class Cook, Washer and Ironer; one not afraid to work and with good city references."  The duties listed were more often handled by two servants--a cook and a laundress.  So it is perhaps not surprising that the new hire did not work out.  A year later a new advertisement appeared in The Herald:  "Wanted--A Girl; must be a first class washer and ironer and a good plain cook."

A help wanted ad in April 1870 was especially interesting.  "Wanted--In a private family, by the month, a first class embroideress on flannel."  Exactly what it was that required a month-by-month embroiderer is a head-scratcher.  Mary Valentine continued to bundle domestic duties when she advertised in The New York Herald on April 22, 1873 for "A Protestant girl, as nurse and seamstress; must be a good hand sewer."

In June 1881 an auction of "the entire contents" of the Valentine house was held.  Among the items being sold, according to the announcement, were "a rosewood Parlor suite," Wilson and Brussels carpets, and "elegant Dressing Bureau and Bedstead."

The following month the Valentines sold No. 104 to Henry Washington Benham for $18,000 "and other consideration."  The cash portion would be equivalent to about $456,000 today.

General Henry W. Benham - from the collection of the New York Public Library

Benham and his wife, the former Elizabeth Andrews McNeil had three children, Henry Hill, Lilla Marion, and Elizabeth Maria.  A fourth child, Henry McNeil, died as a child.

Elizabeth Benham had notable family connections.  Her father was General John McNeil, who had distinguished himself during the War of 1812; her grandfather, Benjamin Pierce, had been Governor of New Hampshire; and her half-brother, Franklin Pierce, had served as President of the United States from 1853 to 1857.

Henry W. Benham  had a distinguished career.  As a civil engineer he had worked on government works as a member of the Engineer Corps and was an expert in constructing pontoon bridges.  But it was for his military service that he was best known.   He served in the Mexican War in 1847 and '48; and during the Civil War was in command of the engineer brigade of the Army of the Potomac.  The Evening Star said of him, "He constructed and commanded the defenses at City Point, Va., in October, 1864, and on March 13 1865, was brevetted brigadier general for gallant services in the campaign terminating with the surrender of Lee.  On the same date he was promoted to the rank of major general in the United States Army."  Benham was mustered out of service on January 15, 1866.

On January 9, 1883 Lilla Marion married artist and portrait painter Frederick Dielman.   (Among his most notable works is the impressive mosaic mural History in the Library of Congress.)  

A year later, on June 1, 1884, Henry W. Benham died in the 36th Street house at the age of 71.  The Evening Star reported "He was attended in his last moments by Mrs. Benham and their two daughters, but his son, Lieut. Benham, is at present on duty in [the] Washington territory."  The New York Times attributed his death to "a complication of disorders."

Elizabeth lived on in the 36th Street house with her unmarried daughter, Elizabeth Maria.  The women leased it for the winter season of 1896-97 to wealthy newly-weds Archibald Mackay and the former Helen Gansevoort Edwards.  

The New York Times called the bride "one of the prettiest girls in society" at the time of the wedding.  The Evening Telegram reported on November 27, 1896 that the couple "will, on their return from their wedding trip, reside at No. 104 West Thirty-sixth street."  And two days later The New York Press announced that "Mrs. Mackay will receive on Mondays after December."  

The Benham women leased the house again for the winter season of 1904-05 to E. W. Wilson.

Elizabeth Maria died on October 15, 1909 at the family's country home in Oakland, New Jersey.  She left the bulk of her substantial estate to her mother, which, following her death, was to be "divided between the testatrix's brother, Capt. Henry Hill Benham, U.S.A., and her two nephews Frederick M. Dielman and Ernest B. Dielman," according to the Louisiana newspaper The Lafayette Advertiser.  But there was one codicil that drew attention nation-wide.

According to the New York Herald on October 28, 1910, Elizabeth wanted to ensure that "the education of her niece should be practical."  Therefore her will provided $400 to pay for classes in "cookery, drawing and cutting," for teen-aged Lilla Elizabeth Dielman.  The bequest would amount to nearly $11,000 today.

Lilla was an apparently favored niece; for upon reaching 21-years of age, she would received $8,000 outright and a life interest in $8,000.  The world-wise Elizabeth added that the income was "to be free from any debts or control of any husband."

Elizabeth Andews Benham attended the funeral of her son, Major Henry Hill Benham, on March 23, 1911.  She survived another four years, dying in the 36th Street house on January 4, 1915.

The Lilla Benham Dielman continued to lease the house for some years.  It was home to Cornelia Ridgely Wainwright, widow of William P. Wainwright, until her death on May 31, 1918.  Her funeral was held in the house on June 3.

John W. Stevens leased No. 104 next; and on March 22, 1919 the Benham estate sold it to him.  But he did not retain possession long.  On May 20, 1920 an advertisement listed "For Sale: 104 East 36th St., near Park Ave. 4 story and basement dwelling, 12 rooms, 2 baths."

Purchased by Samuel Bookman, by September the house had been converted to apartments.  The stoop was removed and then entrance moved to the basement level.  The architect responsible did a rather remarkable job of matching the renovations with the original design.  The original entrance became a window and matching iron half-round balconies were installed at both openings.  The new entrance received a period-perfect surround; possibly the original which was carefully removed and lowered.

photograph by the author
The apartments throughout the building were designated as "non-housekeeping apartments," meaning they had no kitchens and that cooking was disallowed.  The Department of Buildings went further, describing them as "bachelor apartments."  The new apartments on the former parlor floor were offered by agents Pease & Elliman in December 1920.  "Apartments of two rooms and bath occupying entire floor.  French doors, painted walls.  Plenty of light and air.  Latest conveniences of every type."  

On January 20, 1956 The New York Times reported that Fred H. Hill had signed a contract to buy No. 104.  The article noted that he intended to alter it "into two simplex and triplex apartments."  The renovation was completed the following year, resulting in a doctor's office and apartment in the basement, one apartment on the first floor, and two each on the upper stories.

A subsequent renovation, completed in 2010, converted the building into a doctor's office in the former basement level, a triplex apartment above, and a duplex on the fourth floor and new penthouse level, unseen from the street."

Once one of a long row of elegant Victorian homes, No. 104 looks rather lonely today, an anachronism between a looming 20th century apartment building and a parking garage.  Once home to prominent families, it is easily overlooked today.

photographs by the author