On June 1, 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich had filed plans for a "brick flat" to be erected on the northeast corner of Columbus Avenue and 75th Street. The owner of the projected building, estimated to cost $275,000 (just under $8.5 million today), was listed as Corydon H. Merriman, of Oakdale, Long Island.
That was, in fact, not quite true. Merriman was the private secretary of millionaire Christopher Rhinelander Robert and it was Robert's money that was behind the project. Born in 1829, he was taken into his father's business, Robert & Williams, as a young man. His father, Christopher Sr., had already amassed a large fortune and had founded Robert College in Constantinople. The younger Robert's first wife had died about three years after their wedding and in 1875 he married the widowed Julia Remington Morgan.
That year he began construction of a sprawling country home at Oakdale, Long Island (the same location Merriman listed as his address) that abutted William K. Vanderbilt's Idle Hour estate. It was not a neighborly relationship and when Vanderbilt's expensive hunting dogs repeatedly trespassed onto Robert's estate, Robert set traps. It led to a "rather excited" confrontation at the Oakdale train station during which "the talk was warm," said The Sun. Robert ended the verbal duel saying "The traps are on my land, aren't they? Well, if you keep your dogs at home they won't get caught in them." The Sun concluded "No more dogs were caught."
Robert's French Huguenot forebears had come to America from the town of La Rochelle and it appears he gave his Oakdale estate that name. In 1876 he started construction of another mansion in Newport. Robert was a man of leisure, having retired around the time of his marriage to Julia. The Sun said that he "spent much of his time in Paris. He was very fond of horses, and made several tours through France driving a four-in-hand."
It is unclear why Robert disguised his ownership of the Columbus Avenue project; certainly he owned much property in Manhattan and was well-known. But it may be explained by his nearly reclusive tendencies. The Sun said "Mr. Robert was a man of many acquaintances but no intimates. He was well educated and an agreeable talker when he chose, but reticent and fond of solitude."
Completed late in 1897, Lamb & Rich had produced an 11-story Renaissance Revival style structure of brick and stone with decorative elements in terra cotta. Like his Long Island estate, Robert christened the apartment building La Rochelle. The upscale building turned its shoulder to the avenue; its entrance on West 75th Street recessed behind a sumptuous triple-arched pavilion of fluted, banded engaged columns with elegant Scamozzi capitals. They upheld an entablature emblazoned with the building's name under an arched pediment. The two-story columns were repeated on the Columbus Avenue side, only slightly disguising the storefronts.
|photo via nynesting.com|
The third floor was faced in planar stone, its windows framed in Gibbs-like surrounds. The restrained ornamentation of the upper floors was confined mostly to brick and terra cotta quoining, and brick voussoirs above the end openings. A projecting stone cornice partially hid the 11th floor, preserving the structure's proportions.
|The elevated train ran up Columbus Avenue in 1910. The World's New York Apartment House Album (copyright expired)|
An ad in the New-York Tribune on April 17, 1897 touted La Rochelle as the "finest and most complete house in the city." It boasted "three elevators with all-night service; electric light and steam heat free; no extra charges; open on all sides; not a dark room or closet in the house." It included, as well, a "first-class French Restaurant on premises."
The apartments were spacious, just four to a floor. They included large parlors and dining rooms, and most had three bedrooms. Servants rooms, interestingly, were in some cases isolated across the hall from the apartment proper. The rents, ranging from $1,200 to $1,900 per year, would equal between $3,083 to $4,883 per month today.
|The World's New York Apartment House Album (copyright expired)|
Among the initial tenants were Christopher Rhinelander Robert and his wife, and Corydon Merriman, who now had a second job as manager of La Rochelle. Robert's new lavish apartment did not change his often odd behavior and, in fact, his conduct became even more erratic.
On New Year's Day 1898 he and Julia boarded a steamship headed to Paris to visit her three children by her first marriage. The Sun reported that he "suddenly changed his mind and insisted on returning to his apartments." The building's janitor later mentioned that Robert "had been especially dejected and peculiar in his actions for the last week."
At around 9:00 the next morning Julia was in the music room when she heard a noise that she feared was a gunshot. The Sun reported "she was afraid to investigate alone, and sent a hallboy for C. H. Merriman." Merriman and the janitor forced open the door of Robert's bedroom. They found the 68-year-old "sitting in a chair, fully dressed; he had shot himself in the right temple, and a 38-calibre revolver lay beside him on the floor."
Robert's brother, Frederick, demanded a full investigation. His concern may have had as much to do with the scandal of suicide as with the possibility of foul play. Frederick's attorney, Thomas C. T. Crain, explained to newspapers "In the case of the death of Mr. Robert it appears that those most familiar with the facts desired to keep as many of them from the public as possible."
Frederick tried to cast doubt on the possibility of suicide by pointing attention to the inexpensive revolver. His lawyer said "Mr. Robert was a man particularly careful about his personal appearance and about the excellent condition and quality of everything he possessed. I am told that the pistol found on the floor was a cheap affair, and hardly such a one as a man like Robert would be expected to own." Nevertheless the coroner's jury unanimously deemed Robert's death self-inflicted.
In the meantime, La Rochelle continued to fill with socially visible families, like Elbridge Gerry Snow, Jr., his wife, Frances, and their two children. The Evening Telegram said of them "Both come of excellent families. The elder Elbridge Gerry Snow is a cousin of Elbridge T. Gerry, and young Mrs. Snow was Frances Pickett, the daughter of a Montana ranch owner."
The couple repeatedly appeared in the society columns. On January 3, 1901, for instance, The Evening Telegram announced that Frances "has issued 100 invitations for Saturday, January 12, from four to seven o'clock...The afternoon reception will be followed by dancing at night." And on January 31 the following year The New York Herald reported that the Gerrys "will give a musical this evening at their residence...followed by an informal dance."
Unknown to any of those guests was that storm clouds had been brewing within the Snow apartment for months. But they and everyone else in New York would soon be very aware.
Elbridge left the La Rochelle apartment on June 4, 1902, moved in with his parents, and sued Frances for a divorce. In response, she refused to allow him to see their two children, Elbridge, Jr., who was five-years-old, and four-year old Dorothy. The Snows' domestic break-up changed from a private matter to a very public one when Elbridge tried to force Frances to share the children.
Newspapers followed the drama as Frances barricaded herself and the children within the apartment. The Evening Telegram reported on June 25 "Mrs. Snow is believed to be shut up in her apartments...away from the detectives and process servers, who are guarding the house and awaiting a chance to serve the writ. If Mrs. Snow could leave the State with her children she would be safe from the jurisdiction of the court." The newspaper said Snow declared that he "could show provocation for leaving his home and also why he believed Mrs. Snow was not a competent person to continue as the children's custodian."
Frances managed to escape to her attorney's office on June 24 by wearing the gray cloak of the children's governess and a heavy veil over her face. "Even the hallboys are said to have failed to recognize her and she reached her counsel's office safely," said The Telegram. But she narrowly escaped being served on the way home.
"As she was coming out, however, a process server...walked up and remarked, 'Mrs. Snow, I believe.'" Frances replied "I never saw you before and climbed quickly into her waiting cab. "The process server threw the paper at the hansom, but his aim was bad and it slipped off the cab doors to the street without touching Mrs. Snow."
Frances would have to make a heart-rending decision the following year in December when the divorce decree was issued. The New York Press reported the judge "awarded a child to each parent, leaving the choice with Mrs. Snow."
The Snow divorce was not the only high-profile separation going on within La Rochelle. Prominent opera figures Emil Fischer, who was about 60-years old and his 30-year old soprano wife, Camille Seygard moved in shortly after their marriage in 1900. The Morning Telegraph called Fischer "one of the best bassos in the world."
On May 7, 1902 The Evening World reported "It may interest a good many persons in New York to know that Emil Fischer, the ponderous basso, and Camille Seygard, the opera company singer...are no longer husband and wife."
|A cabinet card depicted Fischer in the role of Wotan in Das Rheingold|
Their troubles had started in the fall of 1901 when, according to Madame Seygard, her husband had turned his attentions to Paola Wheinig, whom The Evening World brusquely described as "another singer of less renown, but with apparently more charms for the basso." With her suspicions aroused, Seygard did not inform her husband that she was returning unexpectedly from a concert tour in January 1902.
|Camille Seygard's domestic bliss was short lived. from the collection of the Library of Congress|
Domestic strife seemed rampant in La Rochelle. Another well-heeled couple, William Talbot Perry and his wife, the former Grace Wells, seemed to have the ideal relationship and lifestyle. The had moved into La Rochelle following their fashionable wedding in London's St. George's Church in 1899. The Evening World said on March 16, 1903, "They had their automobile, their yacht, their summer home. It looked like a perpetual honeymoon."
But behind closed doors it was anything but that. Grace filed for divorce in May 1903 saying "only four months after their marriage he had thrown her to the floor and beaten her with a cane; threatened her with a pistol two months later, and that he applied opprobrious epithets to her while proclaiming his admiration for certain actresses whose photographs he kept."
Among the other well-to-do families in the building at the time was that of attorney Charles O. Maas, who lived on the fifth floor. The couple, who routinely summered in Europe, would remain in La Rochelle at least through 1911. But it was the socialite's quick thinking and grit that drew press coverage in 1907.
On the night of February 24 Charles was not at home and Mrs. Maas was sitting in the parlor when, around midnight, she saw flames in the bathroom area reflected in the parlor mirror. She tried to call the elevator boy, Fritz Taylor, but he could not be found either by the elevator bell or by telephone. The Evening World reported "Running down the stairs she took charge of the telephone switchboard and called up every occupant of the big house. It was only a few moments till they were down to the street and standing about in the snow with their arms full of valuables and the clothing they had not yet got into."
As it turned out Fritz had not abandoned his post, but had run to turn in a fire alarm. The fire was restricted to the Maas apartment, but unfortunately two "valuable paintings" were destroyed in the blaze.
Adolph e. Wupperman, a "dealer in bitters," was in the building in 1918 when he was the victim of an extortion plot. Andrew W. Work threatened to expose him of an unspecified "criminal act while engaged in business" unless he paid $18,000--a significant $300,000 in today's dollars.
After Wupperman gave him $50 in marked bills on August 12, the 76-year old extortionist was arrested. His defense was simple. The Sun reported "Work protested vigorously, saying he was too old to stand imprisonment."
Wupperman's name appeared in newspapers four years later for a far different reason. After attending meetings of the local Ku Klux Klan, Wupperman told reporters "that he was impressed" and hosted a Klan meeting in his La Rochelle apartment in the summer of 1922. Wuppermann said "The discourse was very interesting. The speaker disclaimed any purpose to sow discord among people of different religions or races, and altogether it seemed to me that it might be a very useful organization." He told a reporter from The New York Herald in December, "It was so entertaining and instructive that I repeated it on several occasions."
Sixteen-year old Robert Garrabrants was a handful for his mother. In February 1925 she demanded to know how he came to have several radios in his room. He refused to tell her and she wrestled with the issue for hours, then phoned the police to have him arrested. The radios were traced to a break-in at the the Ansonia Music Shop on Broadway. Police said Garrabrants confessed to breaking into other nearby radio shops.
Mrs. Garrabrants refused to post bail for her only son, telling the magistrate "that she had tried hard to make him a good boy. She believed, she said, it would be better for him to be punished mildly now than grow into a criminal," according to The New York Times.
But after he spent four days in the Tombs, Robert's mother felt he had probably learned his lesson and paid a reduced bail of $1,000 to free him.
Two months later the teen was back in custody, charged with the theft of "several thousand dollars' worth of jewelry from the apartment of Mrs. Sadie Small at 221 West Eighty-second Street," according to The Times. Detectives suspected he was mentally unbalanced, possibly the result of being struck by an automobile a year earlier. On April 3 The Times reported they had scheduled "an examination to test the mentality" of the 16-year old.
|The lobby of La Rochelle has survived beautifully intact. photo via city realty|
Burton enjoyed his new found wealth. His bride had, according to newspapers, $300,000 in cash (more than $4.4 million today) as well as real estate. According to the New York Evening Post later, "He was so smart, [Susan] said, that she entrusted all her money to him immediately, though he was only sixteen. She even followed his lead in playing the stock market--but with poor luck."
Things did not progress smoothly as the years passed. On May 2, 1935 The Evening Post reported "Mrs. [Susan] Olive Tucker, fifty-eight, giggled today and reported that her unruly young husband, Burton, twenty-eight, has been a good boy since she had him arrested." Burton had knocked her down in their La Rochelle apartment.
Susan posted bond and the judge cautioned him against physical abuse. "You have a sweet wife, be a good husband." But it would not be the last time they appeared in court.
The Tuckers were still living in La Rochelle on May 10, 1937 when the New York Post ran the headline "Cash Ran Out--So Did Husband." By now, according to Susan, she had become "merely his housekeeper." Burton had taken up with a younger woman and abandoned Susan and their three children. Tragically, he had exhausted her entire fortune. "Today, I'm penniless," she told the court. "I haven't enough to fee the children tomorrow."
Throughout the coming years La Rochelle would continue to see well-heeled and celebrated tenants. William Earl Brown, a vocal instructor and author of Vocal Wisdom, lived here until his death on May 16, 1945, for instance.
In 2015 a renovation resulted in seven apartments per floor. Other than replacement windows and the regrettable loss of the terminal cornice, the exterior of the building with the astounding past survives little changed.
photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for suggesting this post