Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Arts & Crafts Style Pease & Elliman Building - 165 West 72nd Street





Brothers David and John Jardine were prolific in the Upper West Side in the last decades of the 19th century.  They were responsible for scores of speculative rowhouses, among them ten upscale residences for developers James R. Smith and Cornelius W. Luyster on West 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, begun in 1883.

The avenue-wide street was quickly developing into one of the area's most fashionable, and within a few years would be known as the "Queen of Streets" on the Upper West Side.  D. & J. Jardine's row was designed in the newly-popular neo-Grec style.  Faced in brownstone, they rose four stories above the high English basement.

Completed in 1884, No. 165 West 72nd Street became home to Charles C. Murphy and his wife.   He was the principal in C. C. Murphy & Co. at No. 196 Broadway.

The Murphys had an interesting house guest in the fall of 1896.  Katherine McIntosh, according to The Call on November 14, was "better known as Sister Katherine, a talented Scotch girl on the staff of the Civil hospital" in Hong Kong.  The newspaper went on, "Sister Katherine is a tall, fine-looking and intellectual woman of commanding presence and charming address."  A reporter from the New York Mall and Express visited the 72nd Street house to hear her horrifying report.

His article began "This is the story of the black plague which three years in succession has attacked the great city of Hong Kong, and which, unless stamped out, will make that metropolis a city of ruins before another decade has passed."  Katherine McIntosh stressed that "Up to 1894 there was a popular delusion that the black plague which decimated Europe at least twice had become extinct."  It was rampant in parts of Asia at the time, she warned.

Like all wealthy couples, the Murphys spent much time away from the city, especially in summer months.  On March 10, 1897 The Evening Telegram announced "Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Murphy, of No. 165 West Seventy-second street, will go abroad early next month, to remain until next autumn."

By the turn of the century the once-genteel residential street had noticeably changed.  As was the case with the avenues, the broad width of 72nd Street lured businesses which transformed or replaced the the houses.   In 1909 Henry Hollister Pease purchased the former Murphy residence and hired architect Alfred H. Taylor to completely remodel it.

Pease was a partner with Lawrence B. Elliman in the real estate agency Pease & Elliman.   On February 25, 1909 the New York Herald reported that Taylor had filed plans "for enlarging the five story dwelling at No. 165 West Seventy-second street and making it over into a six story bachelor apartment house with two stories of stores."   The alterations cost $18,000, or just over half a million today.

The change from a five- to a six-story building did not mean an additional floor; it simply meant that the removal of the stoop made the former basement level an official story now.  Taylor stripped off the brownstone and pulled the facade forward to the property line.  He created a striking Arts & Crafts style building faced in brick above the two-story storefront and decorated with a profusion of remarkable terra cotta tiles.


The Latin inscription on the left tile, "Plus Ultra" was perhaps a tongue-in-cheek comment, translating to "More! More!"

The two-story midsection featured an angled bay, its spandrel panels inset with tiles.  Two veined stone panels flanked the triple openings of the top floor, below an overhanging bracketed cornice and parapet.  As eye-catching as Taylor's cutting-edge architecture was, its overall design vied for attention with the tiles, manufactured by the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works.  Artisan Henry Chapman Mercer handcrafted the tiles in the earthy colors associated with Arts & Crafts movement.  Intricate Celtic knots, depictions of medieval lions and knights, and stylized flowers decorated individual tiles.  Above the ground floor storefront a long panel depicted a feudal town with the Biblical inscription Letificat Civitatem Dei, or "Makes Glad the City of God."


This tile, labelled St. Iohan features the royal eagle, symbol of St. John the Evangelist
While Pease & Elliman operated from the lower two floors, unmarried men leased the apartments upstairs.  An advertisement in The Evening Telegram on June 231, 1912 described an "elegantly furnished apartment, two rooms, kitcheonette, bath, maid service."

By the mid-1920's, however, Pease & Elliman had relaxed the restrictions, allowing females to rent apartments, as well.  At a time when most unmarried young women would seek lodging at a women's residential hotel, 20-year old Thelma Hall confidently rented an apartment in No. 165.  On Wednesday August 11, 1926 she escaped the city heat by heading to Long Beach, Long Island.  She nearly did not return.

At around 5:30 that afternoon she was swimming in the heavy surf far from the shore when she realized she was in trouble.  She shouted for help and, luckily, Dr. Charles F. Pabst, heard her, although he was some distance away.   By the time he reached her she had gone under twice.  A lifeguard got to the pair within a few minutes and the two men managed to get Thelma's unconscious body onto the sand.  The Greenpoint Weekly Star reported "A pulmotor was used to revive the girl and it was thirty minutes before she regained consciousness."  Thelma was taken to the Castle Baths to be treated for shock.


Around 1941 a clothing store operated from the lower floors.  (The arrow at the bottom of the photo is a tax department marker, not part of the building.)  via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services

In August 1943 real estate operator Edward Sulzberger purchased the building.  On September 21 The New York Sun reported "Edward Sulzberger, Herbert Baum and Howe-Rowland, Inc. have moved their real estate offices to 165 West 72d street."


Nubby boss tiles wind their way like marching ants along the pier of colorful tiles.
In 1975 Judith York Newman opened Spaced: Gallery of Architecture on the second floor, above a Jewish delicatessen.  It was the first gallery in New York City devoted exclusively to architecture.  At a time when most galleries were located on the East Side, The New York Times architectural critic Paul Goldberger beamed "where else but in New York could one ascend a stair past the smell of pastrami to a room devoted exclusively to the display and sale of architectural drawings."

Goldberg was back in July 1979 to view the gallery's exhibition of modernist Paul Rudolph's architectural drawings.  He viewed the architect's work as being as much art as draftsmanship.   "Mr. Rudolph has a gift for composition and lyrical line that distinguished him from most of his colleagues," he wrote on July 5.

Newman's choice of subject for the exhibitions in Spaced was carefully thought out and diverse.  In February 1982 she launched an exhibition of "more than 40 plans, representing architectural creations from Versailles to the present," as announced in The New York Times.

Newman closed Spaced: Gallery of Architecture in 1983 and reopened it sixteen years later in another location.  Room Plus, a furniture store targeting apartment dwellers was in No. 165 by 1984.



Alfred H. Taylor's ground floor storefront was significantly altered in last part of the 20th century and a renovation destroyed the panel between the first and second floors which was still in place as late as 1997.  But, astoundingly, much of the tilework survives; an easily overlooked architectural treasure.

photographs by the author

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Lost Harmonie Club - 43-45 West 42nd Street


The garden to the right would be filled with an extension of the club, for its members' wives.  King's Handbook of New York City 1893 (copyright expired)


Wealth could not buy Jewish New Yorkers membership into the exclusive social clubs in the mid-19th century.  And so they formed their own.  The Harmonie Club was established on Grand Street on the Lower East Side in 1852.  A few years later it moved to No. 141 8th Street; and then in 1865 began construction of its lavish clubhouse on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  The site looked upon the large park behind the Croton Reservoir where the Crystal Palace had stood only a few years earlier.

The 104-foot wide plot was leased for 21-years from Robert J. Livingston with the option for two renewals of the same length.  Henry Fernbach was commissioned to design the clubhouse.  A Prussian Jew, he had trained at the Bauakademie in Berlin and was best known for his synagogue designs.

His massive stone structure took inspiration from the French Second Empire style sweeping Paris.  A high, wide stone staircase flanked by cast iron lamp posts rose to the porticoed entrance.   Italian Renaissance pediments capped the openings of the second floor and the fourth floor took the form of a tall mansard roof.  The New-York Tribune said "It is entered by a broad staircase, and is of solid construction, as well as offering a general appearance of comfort and repose."

Fernbach did not use the entire plot, leaving 2o feet to the side for a garden.  "A high stone wall, with gate in the centre, guards this space.  Looking from the street over the wall one may see the top of a tent.  This is the roof of the summer-garden which the club has established here, and where the members, their families and friends may find recreation on warm summer nights," explained the Tribune.

The membership of the club (described by the New-York Tribune as "one of the most select Hebrew clubs here") was capped at 400.  The initiation fee was $100 (a little more than $1,500 today) and the annual dues the same amount.

As with other men's clubs, the Harmonie Club was a male-only domain.  But women got a glimpse inside the lavish interiors four times a year.  

On November 25, 1886 The New York Times reported "The Harmonie Club threw open the doors of its capacious and handsome clubhouse, Nos. 43 and 45 West Forty-second-street, last evening to the wives, sisters, cousins, aunts, and other feminine relatives of its members, for the first of the customary four entertainments which are annually given to them."

This one took the form of an art exhibition followed by a supper and dance.  "The Harmonie Club possesses a remarkably roomy house, one of its apartments being a spacious ballroom.  It is in this that the unusually interesting loan collection is exhibited," said the article.

A potential member's acceptance into the best clubs required voting on the part of the members.  In some clubs it was done semi-anonymously but dropping either a white or a black ball into a ballot box.  The Harmonie Club's procedure was much more public.

On October 7, 1888 the members discussed the possible membership of Otto J. Lang.  Henry Newman made his opposition clear, calling Lang "a thief and a scoundrel."  Lang was not made a member and three days later his lawyers slapped Newman with a civil suit for $25,000 damages for slander--nearly three quarters of a million dollars today.

Newman's defense was interesting.  The New York Times on January 25, 1889 reported "He admits that he used the words alleged in the complaint, but denies that they were spoken maliciously."  He explained "it is the duty of members to express opinions to fellow-members of the character of candidates, so as to exclude such persons as they think ought not to be admitted."  He said he used the words "thief" and "scoundrel" without malice; but because he knew them to be true and important information for the other members.  The court now had to weight freedom of speech against slander.

In 1892 King's Handbook of New York City described the Harmonie Club as "the most homelike in jealous regard for privacy of clubs.  An ancient and honored institution of the German colony of New York, an aristocratic club, with the characteristic that the members attend it with their wives, if they please, reputed to be very wealthy, and one of the most delightful of social circles, it seldom permits itself to appear in the printed newspapers."

The description overstated women's access to the club.  And there was a growing problem with space.  Since the opening of the new clubhouse there had been three increases of membership--each of 50--so that now there were 550 members.  The situation seemed to have reached the breaking point when in 1896 The Menorah: A Monthly Magazine for the Jewish Home reported "The Harmonie Club, which for thirty years and more has had its home at 45 West Forty-second Street, new York City, is getting ready to remove to a site further uptown."

The New-York Tribune, on May 4, explained "the leading members say that it is not so much the inroads of business interests into the street that has influenced them in their determination to go elsewhere as it is the need of more commodious quarters.  Where these are to be chosen is not yet known."

But then a less costly solution was hit upon: extending the structure into the garden plot.  It was a plan that would cause much less upheaval and could now include women as well.  On July 8, 1897 Engineering News reported that "The Harmonie Club, 45 West 42d St., expects to erect a woman's club-house as an addition to its present building, on an adjoining lot."  Extension renovations of the main clubhouse were planned as well.

The following month the New-York Tribune reported that plans had been filed by Herts, Tallant & Newton.  "A three-story stone addition...is to be built on the side of the house," it said, costing $1.25 million in today's dollars.

The addition and the renovations to the original building were completed in June 1898.  By then the construction costs had risen to $85,000, more than twice the original estimate.  The newspaper described the improvements in an article that engulfed nearly a full page.  

Where the garden had been was now "an annex for the use of women and a conservatory of unique design."  On the first floor were a reception room, coat and reading rooms.  The women had their own dining room, of course.  It was one-and-a-half stories tall and included a music gallery.  A staircase led to the conservatory above.

The remodeled main building now contained a German-style grillroom with heavy wooden tables and antique chairs.  The Tribune said "on the same floor are a bicycle-room and dressing-rooms."   At the head of the staircase on the second floor was a "lofty room" that stretched the width of the building.  It contained six billiard tables.  That floor also housed the dining room and a lounging room.  They were configured so they could be opened into one large space.

A beamed ceiling, green leather upholstery and antique furniture gave the Grillroom an air of an old German space. New-York Tribune, June 19, 1898 (copyright expired) 

"The most pretentious part of the club is the third floor with its large ballroom and music-room, forty feet high, sixty feet wide and eighty feet long."  The stage was outfitted with the latest in "mechanical contrivances."  The musician's gallery in the Renaissance-style ballroom was supported by four caryatids representing characters from Wagnerian operas.  The wall frescoes represented the arts:  Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Harmony, Counterpoint, Comedy, Drama, Farce, and others.  The two expansive ceiling paintings depicted Morning and Evening and the central dome painting was the "Genius of Harmony."


The chair on the floor gives perspective to the size of the musicians gallery and a supporting caryatid in the ballroom.  New-York Tribune, June 19, 1898 (copyright expired)
The conservatory could be accessed from the ballroom, as well.  It was designed so it could be joined with the ballroom when occasions demanded.  A fascinating aspect of the conservatory, with its vast expanses of glass, was the cooling system.


The glass ceiling of the conservatory was water-cooled.   The doorway to the left opened onto the ballroom.  The stairway at right leads down to the ladies' dining room.  Munsey's Magazine, October 1899 (copyright expired)
Large tanks held water which was forced over the glass roof.  "The water from the sprays runs over the roof and down into the tanks at the sides, then the water is forced up from the cellar to the roof;  the same water, after being cooled, is used over and over again, thus cooling the atmosphere of the conservatory," explained the Tribune.


A postcard depicted the renovations including the addition with its striking rooftop conservatory.  Note that the entrance staircase has been removed.  
But now with a membership of 600 the expanded clubhouse would not suffice for long.  In its October 1902 issue the Building Trades Association Bulletin announced "The Building Committee of the Harmonie Club, of No. 45 West Forty-second street, will meet soon to consider the matter of getting a new home."  Three months later, on January 31, 1903, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced "The Harmonie Club...will erect a 7-sty clubhouse to cost about $400,000...on the south side of 60th st." just east of Fifth Avenue.


In the summer of 1899 canvas awnings shielded the interiors from the heat of the sun, including a massive awning over the conservatory. Munsey's Magazine, October 1899 (copyright expired) 
McKim, Mead & White designed the new building, construction of which was well under way in the fall of 1904.  The Harmonie Club abandoned its home of four decades in December the following year.

The venerable 42nd Street clubhouse was converted for business purposes.  For several years James Fay ran his upscale antique furniture shop here, selling early American pieces and artworks.


New-York Tribune, January 10, 1909 (copyright expired)

Then in March 1912 Stern Bros. department store announced plans to erect its massive new $1.5 million store engulfing Nos. 29 through 45 West 42nd Street, through the block to 43rd Street.   Today the site of the Harmonie Club is occupied by the 1974 W. R. Grace Building, designed principally by Gordon Bunshaft.


  photo by WestportWiki

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The James Polhemus House - 96-98 Grove St (170 Waverly Place)


The original house was 2-1/2 stories tall and not as deep along Grove Street.

James Polhemus was born in September 3, 1792 on Long Island.  He grew up, however, in New York City  Identified in city directories as a grocer, he married Catherine Hadley on December 31, 1816.  They had one child, Catherine Ann, born in July 1819.

The elder Catherine died two months before her 27th birthday on September 10, 1823.   Exactly one year later, almost to the day, James married Mary Smith, on September 11, 1824.

The following year James began construction of a new home on the corner of Burrows and Sixth Street in Greenwich Village.  Completed the following year, it was two-and-a-half stories tall and faced in Flemish bond brick.  It is possible that the Sixth Street (later renamed Waverley Place) front always had a store in the ground floor.  Next door on Burrows Street (later Grove Street) was a wooden building, two stories tall, which may have been a stable or small shop.

When the family moved in its population had increased by one.  William S. Polhemus was born on September 7, 1825.  Another addition, James, Jr., came in October 1827.  The family Bible noted he was born "corner of Burrows and Sixth Street."  By the time John was born on December 3, 1829 the street had been renamed.  The Bible entry read "corner of Grove & Sixth Streets."

The street renaming came about after uproar from the residents, like James Polhemus.  The similarity between Burrows Street and the nearby Barrow Street caused great confusion.  In the summer of 1829, for instance, Polhemus was assessed $4.75 for the public well and pump on Barrow Street (about $132 today).  He protested to the Committee of Assessments asserting "that he has no front on Barrow street."  On August 9 the committee reversed the assessment.

The Polhemus family moved from Grove Street in the early 1830's.  For certain a store was operating from the Waverly Place front by the 1850's.   

In March 1869 Ann Martin sold the property, including No. 96, to James Green for $32,500, a substantial $618,000 today.  Within the year he had replaced the wooden structure with a two-bay extension and raised the entire house to four floors.  A bracketed Italianate cornice brought the building up to date; but the Federal style doorway, with its sidelights and transom, and the cast iron porch newels were preserved.

Green's expansion project was possibly in anticipation of operating the building as a rooming house.  Among the residents in 1874 was Civil War veteran William McCoy and his mistress.  McCoy made his living as a "journeyman jeweler."  The Wilmington, Delaware Daily Gazette noted on July 15 that year that "he had become a drinking man while in the army during the war, and on returning to civil life married."  Before too many years had passed, McCoy's eye wandered.  The newspaper wrote that he "abandoned his wife and two children to live with some one else."

Now living with the other woman in the Grove Street house, McCoy had turned to drugs as well.  Laudanum was a popular over-the-counter pain remedy which, because it contained opium and morphine, was highly abused and addictive.  The powerful drug was used not only for its narcotic properties but for its deadly ones.

The Daily Gazette reported that McCoy "was recently found dead in his bed at No. 96 Grove Street, New York, having taken poison...He began recently to take laudanum, which was the drug finally used for his exit."  His deathbed remorse was recorded on a note he left in the room:  "Good-bye wife and children.  You will soon forget me.  I feel the fatal drug working now."  

Another resident, 65-year old Catharine Jones, nearly met her death in a terrifying incident on May 30, 1883.  She was in line to cross the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian footway that afternoon, among an unusually large crowd.  The Paris, Kentucky Bourbon News reported that at around 4:00 the throng "thickened, swelled and stopped in its motion just at the stairs leading up from the concrete roadway to the bridge proper.  Strong men and feeble women, manhood and infancy, were wedged together in that jam by the fearful pressure of the crowd. which extended miles, one might say, on either end of the line."

Like the others, Catharine was trapped among the mass of humanity.  Unable to move forward or backward, scores of people fainted as the situation stretched on for an hour.  When bridge officials tried to alleviate the human jam by removing sections of the iron railing a stampede resulted.

Some, "weak and fainting as they were, immediately fell helter skelter, heels over head, down on the jagged, gravelly road beneath a mass of bruised, discolored human flesh.  Scores were trampled upon instantly, and to stumble was death.  Men were dragged out of that heap of helpless humanity with faced blue as indigo, and the life blood trickling out of their nostrils; children and women, pale, disheveled and dead."  Newspapers published long lists of the dead and injured.  Luckily for Catharine, she survived with head and chest injuries.

The rooming house was operated by what The New York Times described as a "pleasant-faced old lady" in April 1885.  At around 9:30 on the night of April 14 she answered a rap on her door to find John Henry McKenzie there.  He and his wife had rented a room looking onto Grove Street for two years.  The Times called McKenzie, who was 55-years old, "a tall, portly Scot, with a heavy gray mustache and partly bald head."   Originally from Prince Edward Island, both were considered "well educated and intelligent."

But two weeks earlier Mrs. McKenzie had thrown her husband out with all his belongings.  She had grown tired of his excessive drinking.  The New York Daily Graphic described her as "a sober, industrious seamstress," and added that on the night he knocked on the landlady's door he had been "drunk eleven weeks."

McKenzie had been there that afternoon, but his wife was out.  At that time, according to The New York Times, "The housekeeper saw that he was then decidedly under the influence of liquor.  When he called again in the evening he was still drunk."  When she told him she did not know if his wife was at home or not, he rushed up the stairs and banged on the door.  

Hearing him "storming and cursing," the landlady "threw her apron over her head and ran out through her area and thence down the street in search of a policeman," reported The Times.  In her absence McKenzie finally gave up, after getting no response from within the apartment.

But Mrs. McKenzie somewhat foolishly "softly raised the window and looked out to see if he were gone."  McKenzie, on the sidewalk below, raised his "seven-shooter Smith & Wesson revolver" and shot.  She threw her arms into the air, screamed, and disappeared back into the apartment.  McKenzie then fired another shot into his head behind the right ear.

Police rushed to the McKenzie apartment and "found Mrs. McKenzie in a faint condition sitting in a chair.  The right side of her dress was saturated with blood."  As she had thrown her arms into the air in horror, a bullet had entered her right armpit.  Within thirty minutes she was composed enough to walk to the ambulance outside.  John Henry McKenzie was not so fortunate.  He died on the sidewalk.

Among the tenants here in 1886 was vaudevillian Margaret Tennant, who was described as a "light and character comedienne."  

During the 1890's the storefront was home to a Chinese laundry.  It was the scene of a vicious act on May 4, 1898.  The New York Times reported "Some boys threw a beer bottle through the door of the Chinese laundry at 96 Grove Street last night, striking Chu Fon, the proprietor, on the head and fracturing  his skull."  He was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital.  

The rooming house continued to see working class tenants.  Michael Casey, who made his living as a street car conductor, lived here in February 1909 when he was involved in a fatal accident.  The mother of 4-year-old Helen Moytstack was watching from the window as the little girl crossed 23rd Street when Casey's street car ran her over.  "In her anguish at the sight Mrs. Moytasck made an effort to jump out of the five-story window, but was detained by her 16-year-old daughter, Mary, and some neighbors," reported The Times.

The newspaper dramatically noted that it "was one of the few times the little girl had been out alone.  She was on her way to buy some candy with a penny her mother had given her, and she also wore a new white dress and a red coat that had been bought on Saturday."  Her dead body was wedged under the wheels of the trolley.

Casey's street car was quickly surrounded by an angry mob who threatened both him and the motorman.  Police from the 22nd Street station house took the two men in, "followed by more than a thousand persons," said the article.  They were charged with homicide.

A most interesting tenant in the post World War I years was James Le Baron Johnson, the former assistant rector of Grace Church.  He had earlier been married to Mabel Van Rensselaer.  At the time he was also the fire chaplain, a position that required him to administer to the spiritual needs of fire fighters and their widows and children.  The massive June 1900 fire at the North German Lloyd piers in Hoboken put an enormous strain on him and he suffered a mental collapse.  Following his release from a sanatorium later that year, he informed Bishop Potter that he would leave the ministry.

As it turns out, it was not the strain of his job that prompted his resignation--it was love.  The New-York Tribune reported "Several weeks later it was discovered that he had eloped with Mary Hoffman, a nurse at Bellevue Hospital.  His wife obtained a divorce and he and Miss Hoffman were married."

The couple moved into the Grove Street building and Johnson was now in the insurance business.  His offices were on the 12th floor of No. 70 Fifth Avenue.  On March 3, 1921 the 51-year-old fell from his window to the courtyard below, dying instantly.

Unless undeniable--like a gunshot or slit wrists--suicides were routinely covered up.  An associate stressed to the press that Johnson "was in poor health...and probably had been stricken with weakness, and went to the window to get air, losing his balance and falling out."

The World War II years saw artist Saul Schary living here.  Born in Newark in 1904, the modernist painter produced a wide variety of works--portraits, still lifes and landscapes.  


Titled Untitled. this 1934 still life by Schary hands in the Smithsonian American Art Museum
A renovation completed in 1999 resulted in a restaurant in the shop space and two apartments each on the upper floors.


The triangular pediment over the door was part of the 1870 remodeling.
photographs by the author

Friday, November 15, 2019

Cleverdon & Putzel's 1896 60 Grand Street





In 1895 developer John Clark hired the architectural firm of Cleverdon & Putzel to design three loft buildings at Nos. 60 to 64 Grand Street, just east of West Broadway.  They designed the seven-story structures in a commercial take on the neo-Classical style--artistically creating a balanced grouping by giving the middle building its own design, separate but amiable to the flanking, identical structures.

Like its twin at No. 64, the cast iron storefront and the entrance to the upper floors sat above a short set of steps.   The upper floors were clad in beige brick, laid to simulate rustication.   The spandrel panels separating the second through the sixth floors were embellished with elaborate terra cotta.  The top floor featured arched windows separated by stone columns; and a row of masks lined up within the frieze below the deeply overhanging cornice.



The building was completed in 1896 and among the early tenants was the newly-formed American Hide and Leather Company.  The concern was incorporated on May 2, 1899 with a startling capital of $70 million--over $2 billion today.  The Evening Telegram explained "The principal office will be at No. 60 Grand street and the company is authorized to engage in tanning, manufacture of leather and to deal in skins."  

The company's tannery was in New Jersey where trouble arose in January 1914 when it was sued for dumping toxic waste.  A New York Supreme Court decision in May 1918 found that the firm's officers "were chargeable with knowledge that anthrax germs were being discharged from the tannery into the creek through the sewer."

Most of the tenants at the turn of the century were in the garment business.  In 1902 they included J. Salinger, neckwear maker; T. J. O'Hare, manufacturer of tea gowns; and Fredrichs & Levin, cloaks.  Surprisingly unrelated was the commercial photography studio of Duckett & Adler, which would remain for years.

M. & I. Cohen occupied the third floor of the building in the spring of 1904.  The skirt manufacturer employed 25 young women.   Late on the afternoon of May 27 the insulation on the wiring of an electric motor that ran some of the machinery burned off.  The motor was enclosed in a wooden box which caught fire.  The Evening World reported "One of the girls, Fannie Epstein, a forewoman, fainted at the sight of the flames and fell to the floor, near the motor."

The other girls panicked and rushed to the elevator and stairs.  Just over a dozen took the stairway and when they got to the ground floor they "found their further progress impeded by several large packing boxes which had been piled in the hallway witting to be taken to one of the upper floors."

Luckily for the women, Vance Drexel was passing by.  The New York Times called him the "athlete known as the 'Brooklyn Ajax,' who picked them up as if they were bandboxes and tossed them into the street."  In the meantime, the company's bookkeeper, Emanuel Rosenberg, carried the still unconscious Fannie Epstein down the three flights of stairs.

The Evening World said that the building was "occupied largely by women, many of whom, when they heard the excitement on the third floor, became somewhat frightened themselves, and would have run for the hallways had not their employers prevented them."   

The real hero was 16-year old Moe Greenberg who worked in the building.  Known as a "buff," he fully intended to become a fire fighter and spent his free time doing chores for the members of Hook and Ladder Company No. 6.  He even wore a badge embossed with the word "Buff."  He fought the fire alone and by the time fire fighters made it to the scene he had extinguished it.

One tenant, here by 1912, manufactured an interesting product.  The Hip-Fit Mfg. Co. made and marketed an item guaranteed to hold up men's trousers with "perfect bodily freedom at all times."  It also gave abdominal support, according to ads.  Despite the firm's lengthy descriptions of what the Hip-Fit did, it never pictured or explained what it was.


The Sun, April 3, 1912 (copyright expired)

Hip-Fit would remain in the building at least into the 1920's; as did Duckett & Adler's photograph studio and Hans K. Lorentzen, another long-term tenant.  They would be joined in the early 1920's by the American Stuffed Novelty Co., Inc. and the A. & S. Petticoat Company.


The sale price of the American Stuff Novelty Co.'s riding bear in 1921 cost parents the equivalent of $70 today.  The New York Herald, December 11, 1921 (copyright expired)
By the last quarter of the 20th century the Soho renaissance had caught up with No. 60 Grand Street.   In 1993 the Philip Williams Posters shop was here, selling what The Times columnist Mimi Sheraton called in November 1997 "a wild collection of posters on food, theater and other subjects, along with such naive art as paintings on scrap metal from the rural South."

The store became home to the Denton & Gardner art gallery at the turn of the century, not long before the upper floors received a conversion to residential use.  The alterations, completed in 2008, resulted in one apartment per floor.



Cleverdon & Putzel's handsome 1896 building survives virtually intact; one of the innovative set of fraternal triplets.

photographs by the author

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Luther Halsey Smith House - 412 West 154th Street




By the time developer William H. Lake began construction of three homes on West 154th Street and five more around the corner on St. Nicholas Avenue, the neighborhood was quickly filling with upscale residences.   His architect, Henri Fouchaux, filed plans in August 1898 for the 20-foot wide homes, each estimated to cost $15,000, or about $468,000 today.

Fouchaux designed all eight of the houses in the popular Beaux Arts style.  The three 154th Street homes were designed in an A-B-A configuration.  No. 412, the western most, was like its neighbors a restrained example of the often gushy style.  Three stories tall above an English basement, it was clad in limestone and featured an angled bay at the second floor, supported by ornate stone brackets.

Fouchaux stepped away from the French motif by embellishing the newels of the dog-legged stoop and the spandrel panels of the second floor bay with Renaissance-inspired carvings.  Above the understated third floor was a bracketed pressed metal cornice.

In 1900 Lake sold all eight of the completed houses to Charles Hibbard.   The ambitious real estate operator seems to have been over-optimistic, for he lost six of the houses in foreclosure in 1902.   At the time of the auction on March 29 he owed the bank $16,690 and back taxes of $600--or about $550,000 today.

No. 412 soon became home to Luther Halsey Smith.  Born in Pittsburgh in 1842, he had run a "plate manufacturing" business there before moving to New York in 1900.  He and his wife, the former Anna Mitchell Gardner, had five children, all adults by now.

In May 1909 the 67-year-old suffered "an attack of paralysis," as worded by The New York Herald--what would be called a stroke today.   On November 4, 1910 he died in the house of a second, massive stroke.

No. 412 changed hands several times over the next decade.  In the years following World War I it was owned by Joseph Fleischman, who was leasing it to Mary Gardner Smith.  In May 1921 he hired architect Charles Sheres to make $7,000 in interior alterations.  The plans were vague and may have been merely updating to the plumbing and other modernization.

The unmarried Mary Gardner Smith was active in clubs and charities.  She sat on the Board of Managers of the Florence Crittenton Home, an organization founded in 1883 "to aid and encourage destitute, homeless, and depraved women who wish to seek reformation," and was a member of the Daughters of Pennsylvania, the Riverside Park Protection League and the New York City Federation of Women's Clubs.  In 1921 she was appointed a delegate to the State Convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Mary had moved on before 1923 when the house was being leased by the Legal Fraternity of Gamma Eta Gamma as the Chapter House of its Fordham University branch.   Some members lived in the chapter house, including William O. Hubertson and Russell H. Corcoran, both of whom passed the bar exams later that year.

By the end of the decade the residence had once again changed hands.  It was home to spiritualist preacher Syrenus Heylieger, who claimed to be a member of the General Assembly of Spiritualists.  The New York Age, saying that "Mr. Heylinger hails from the 'sunny isle' of Bermuda," noted on November 12, 1932, that he "admitted that he conducted spiritualistic seances to augment his unstipulated salary."

Heylieger's unstipulated salary was enough that he could afford a chauffeur and in 1929 he hired Albert Hodge, one of his followers, at a salary of $35 per week.  Hodge's wife had recently died and on February 1 the spiritualist offered to handle the funeral arrangements.  Hodge gave him $147 for the undertaker's fees.  According to him, Heylieger told him shortly thereafter than he needed another $560.  When Mrs. Hodge's $502 insurance benefits arrived, Hodge signed the check over to Heylieger.

Hodge held the chauffeur's job until the summer of 1930.  He was shocked in the summer of 1932 to receive a bill from the undertake for $287.  He had Heylieger arrested for grand larceny.  In court the spiritualist denied ever receiving the $147.  Instead he claimed he had paid Mrs. Hodge's medical bills and the cost of a nurse; and following her death had bought flowers (a bleeding heart), paid for the shroud, dresses for the two children, $65 in rent and bought a new suit for the now-revolting Hodge.  The New York Age said "Heylienger prefaced and concluded all of his statements with 'If I remember well.'"

The once-gracious home continued to see various tenants and uses.  Another minister, William A. Campbell, lived here in April 1936 when he filed for bankruptcy, listing nearly $29,000 in liabilities and no assets.  

And in the mid-1940's Almot Products Company, a wig maker, operated from the house.  An advertisement in the Pittsburgh Courier on March 1, 1947 entitled "Human Hair / Hair is Woman's Glory and Success" offered "hair fascinators," like the popular Page Boy style ("Once you try our Page Boy you will never buy elsewhere"), or the V-Roll.  "New York is the style center of the world.  Nearly every girl in New York wears a V-Roll," said the ad.  The wigs cost $3.50 by mail order, about $40 today.

The house was unofficially divided into apartments by the late 1960's.  Twenty-seven-year-old James Mueller occupied a two-room apartment in the winter of 1971 when on February 6 seven detectives armed with search warrants forced their way in.  They found a "narcotics factory" where Mueller and a 20-year old woman, Cheryl Cherry were "cutting the heroin...and already had packed some of it in 900 glassine bags," according to The New York Times.

An official renovation to apartments came in 1977.  A duplex now engulfed the basement and first floor, with one apartment on the second and four one-room apartments on the third.

The revival of the neighborhood was evidenced when Marie Brown, proprietor of Marie Brown Associates, moved her office here around 1990.  The African-American Writer's Survival Handbook said of her in 1991 "she has been a major force in the publishing industry for more than 20 years."


Henri Fouchaux's limestone-faced row looks much as it did in 1899.
Despite its sometimes rocky history, the 120-year old structure is little changed outwardly from the time when Luther Halsey Smith's carriage waited by the curb.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The William Knabe & Co. Building - 437-439 Fifth Avenue


photo via nyrej.com

By 1904 the age of commodious private homes along Fifth Avenue below 42nd Street was essentially over.  It was a circumstance that did not escape the notice of Horace A. Hutchins.   

The self-made man was born in Cleveland, Ohio where, according to The Successful American in January 1903, he "started out in life at the bottom of the ladder."  His break came in 1872 when Standard Oil Company bought his refining business and offered him a job.  By now he had amassed a large fortune and turned to real estate development as a side line.

In 1904 Hutchins purchased the dwellings on the southeast corner of 39th Street and hired esteemed architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design a vast commercial structure on the site.  In reporting the plans on December 10, 1904 The American Architect and Building News noted "Work will begin May 1, 1905."

C. P. H. Gilbert created a striking Beaux Arts structure faced in tan brick that might well have been mistaken for an upscale hotel.  The two-story rusticated limestone piers of the base gave way to a pair of engaged columns on either side of the marquee-covered entrance.  The six-story midsection featured balconies above the third floor openings.  The upper portion was introduced by a stone balcony with iron railings that wrapped the Fifth Avenue and 39th Street corner, and the eleventh floor took the form of a stupendous mansard roof with elaborate dormers.


Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, February 17, 1906 (copyright expired)

As construction neared completion, on February 17, 1906 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the building had been leased.  "Messrs. Knabe & Co. will occupy the ground floor and basement for their piano warerooms," it said.  The article mentioned that the structure "will be called the Knabe Building."  

As the piano firm settled in, Horace A. Hutchins sold his new structure to the Paris-based real estate firm, Raimon Company, in October 1906.  The price, $1.25 million, would be more in the neighborhood of $36 million today.  The Record & Guide noted that real estate men regarded the price as "a fair value for this location," and added "The predictions of many old time operators that 5th av would eventually be the leading business thoroughfare now seem to be rapidly materializing."

The offices in the upper floors were leased to a variety of firms.  In 1907 publisher and dealer in old books Francis P. Harper moved his operation from No. 14 West 22nd Street into the building.  In reporting on the move in its February 16 edition, The Publishers Weekly advised "Mr. Harper's specialty has been in rare, curious and out-of-print books, early Americana and Rebellion literature, and he is among the leading experts in this line."

The American Automobile Association took offices here as its headquarters at around the same time.  And the real estate operator W. M. Ostrander, Inc. took the entire top floor that year.  Incorporated in 1905, The New York Times later said the firm dispersed "attractive literature regarding suburban real estate from the company's well-furnished offices."   


Lippincott's Magazine Advertiser, January 1907 (copyright expired)

On June 30, 1907 W. M. Ostrander placed an advertisement in The Sun entitled "Don't Invest a Dollar in Real Estate Before Reading My New Magazine, 'Ostrander's Money Maker.'"  The guide cost 5 cents a copy or 50 cents for a year's subscription.  (Perhaps Ostrander should have read his own publication, for two years later the firm went under.)

Tenants in the building were shocked by a gruesome accident that summer.  James R. Huntley had been called to repair a battery that operated the elevator bell.  As he worked, he "was struck by a descending elevator and crushed between the bottom of the car and the floor of a sub-basement," reported the New-York Tribune on June 28, 1907.  "He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where it was said last night that he would probably die."

On December 26 that year the offices of the American Automobile Association were the scene of outraged members of "all of the automobile organizations both in club and trade circles," as described by the New-York Tribune.  The Park Board had enacted an ordinance excluding any vehicles with chains on their wheels not only from the city's parks, but "all the streets, driveways and roads under the jurisdiction of the Park Board."  The Tribune said the enactment "has met with the prompt disapproval and protest of every automobilist."

The Edison Monthly, February 1911, (copyright expired)

Automobile racing was just emerging as a popular upper-class pastime at the time.  When one set of rules for the Vanderbilt Cup race was set down by the American Automobile Association while the Automobile Club of America devised another set, it prompted "protests from the French and English clubs," said the New-York Tribune on May 27, 1908.  The day before that article a meeting of the racing board had been held in the American Automobile Association's offices and, according to the newspaper, "so far as can be judged, the fight is on for the control of automobile racing and touring contests in this country."

For generations American socialites depended on ropes of pearls to express their wealth and social status.  But now cut stones were quickly replacing them.  Eduard Van Dam, who also had jewel cutting shops in Amsterdam and Antwerp, was in the Knabe Building by now.  The Evening World said on September 24, 1908, "that owing to an increased demand for diamonds he has place a full force of men at work on full time in his New York house and that the two in Europe are similarly busy.  He said that the diamond industry would soon be in full operation."

Other tenants at the time were Mrs. Adeline Stanhop-Wheatcroft's "new Dramatic Studio," which opened in September; and the studio of Martin H. Hanson, whose Concert Direction Company managed the careers of concert vocalists and musicians.  (He was still here in June 1914 when he introduced American audiences to Russian ballet, signing a contract with the Russian Imperial Theatre.)


New-York Tribune, September 5, 1908 (copyright expired)

Also in the building was the studio of photographer Edward S. Curtis.  In January 1911 he published his massive 28-volume work of Native American photographs, The North American Indian, financially backed by J. Pierpont Morgan.  Curtis had lived with various tribes for months in order to fully understand their cultures and properly capture them on film.

In connection with its release he opened an exhibition of original photographs in the studio that month.  The Evening World, on January 14, deemed his work "in far vaster scope and closer intimacy" than paintings and sculptures.  "For Mr. Curtis, with his camera, has lived as a brother with the many different tribes of the red men, all the way from Canada to Mexico."

In the meantime, Knabe & Co. was doing well in their ground floor showrooms.  On May 19, 1909 The Review of Reviews commented "Just from the handsome Knabe building at Thirty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue alone more high-grade pianos were bought last season than from any other piano house in New York City."




In the early 1920's Knabe Piano drew crowds by exhibiting famous instruments.  On December 17, 1922 The New York Herald announced that Richard Wagner's piano upon which he reputedly composed his operatic "Ring" cycle, would be played here.  "Musicians, Wagnerian experts, composers and many of the more representative people in New York, to the number of nearly a thousand, will be in the assemblage in the Knabe studios, 437 Fifth avenue, next Thursday, to see the master piano and hear it played upon."

And in July 1927 Berthold Neuer, the firm's vice president, returned from France with two pianos formerly owned by Franz Liszt.

But already the firm had laid plans to leave its home of more than two decades.  On January 24, 1928 The New York Times reported that the company had donated 50 pianos to charity, "in commemorating its coming removal to the new Knabe Tower" at No. 657 Fifth Avenue.  

At the time Ovington's had been housed in what an advertisement called its "impressive seven story temple of stone" directly across the avenue since 1921.  The firm styled itself "The Gift Shop of Fifth Avenue."  With Knabe gone, Ovington's crossed the street.

It took 400 hundred men, guarded by scores of police, to moved more than $1 million in stock across the avenue at night.  The New York Times reported "a steady line of men carried everything from ivory elephants to paintings and Persian rugs to the new store."

To modernize the Edwardian structure for Ovington's, architect Frank H. Hutton was commissioned to transform the two-story base and strip off some of the fussy decoration.  C. P. H. Gilbert's show windows and columns were removed and filled in, and the cast iron balcony railings stripped away.


from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Ovington's had been formed in 1846 as a small store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.  It now sold a vast array of items for the home, from small furniture to china, silver and crystal, to decorative items like statuettes, bookends and wooden boxes for tea or cigars.


The price of the crystal hors d'oeuvres dish with the sterling silver rim pictured at lower right of this 1936 ad would equal about $408 today.
In February 1951 Ovington's moved again, this time to No. 666 Fifth Avenue.   The ground floor of the Knabe Building was converted to a restaurant "with restriction on entertainment" in 1964.  The upper floors continued to house a diverse tenant list.  The Buscarlet Glove Company, importers and distributors of women's gloves, was here at the time, as was The Japan Light Machinery Information Center.  It offered a free booklet to anyone thinking of buying binoculars, field glasses or opera glasses that year.

The Japan Light Machinery Information Center was still in the building in the mid-1970's along with its division, the Japan Camera Industry Association.


photo via henson architect.com

Recently the Knabe Building was restored by Scott Henson Architect.  The work included reconstruction of deteriorated brick and repair of the copper mansard.  Despite Frank Hutton's 1928 modernization, Gilbert's striking 1904 structure is still--nearly--Paris-worthy.