|The sensuous swirl of the carving of the stoop railing anticipates of the Art Nouveau movement, which would not become popular for years to come.|
Developer Garrett Van Cleve began construction of a row of seven brick-and-stone faced rowhouses on West 89th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive in 1889. Completed the following year, they were designed by Frederick K. Camp as Renaissance Revival-Queen Anne hybrids. His plans placed the costs of the 22-feet wide residences at $18,000 to $20,000 each--or about $563,000 today for the more expensive homes.
Among them was No. 322 West 89th Street. Its English basement and parlor levels were faced in planar brownstone, while the upper stories were of red brick. Renaissance Revival took the stage in the carvings of the entrance and spandrel panels below the parlor windows. The general asymmetry, the creative use of brick as a design element (in the blind panels and chain pattern in the gable), and the substantial brick two-window dormer beside the charming half-round window were elements of the Queen Anne style.
The house was sold to Oscar Schoenherr, a partner in the silk and velvet importing business Fleitmann & Co. It is unclear if he lived here or simply used the property as rental income. Upon his death in 1897 he was living on St. John's Place, in Brooklyn.
At the time Julius S. Klous was leasing the house. He was a partner in the "hatter's trimmings" importing firm of Klous, Byron & Eastmond at No. 473 Broome Street. His position within society was evidenced by his membership in the exclusive Union League Club.
In July 1902 Klous purchased a house just steps away at No. 338 West 89th Street. The following March the Schoenherr estate sold No. 322 to John Nelson Hayward and his wife, Christine. The couple had two daughters, Sara Tyson and Christina Watson, Hayward. Socialites were informed by The New York Herald in December 1904 that "During this month, Mrs. John Nelson Hayward of No. 322 East Eighty-ninth street, is at home home Mondays."
The Hayward family's residency seems to have lasted only as long as the daughters remained single. On March 12, 1905 the engagement of Sara to Edward Stroebel Johnson was announced; and on April 14, 1907 Christina's engagement to George Ross McKee was published.
Christina's wedding took place on January 15, 1908. The following year her husband was made a partner in the real estate and insurance firm of McKee, Hayward & Co. with Malcolm M. Hayward, presumably a relative. The arrangement did not work out and in 1910 McKee "retired" from the firm.
Before then McKee, Hayward & Co. were, not surprisingly, the agents in the sale of No. 322 in October of 1909. The buyer, Marie L. Degener, already owned several properties along the row. She leased No. 322 to B. F. Haas, a real estate developer, and his wife. They lived here until 1915 when the house was sold again, this time to a "Mrs. Young."
In fact, there was no Mrs. Young. The buyer was musician Norman Winter, who now operated the house as a boarding house for others in the musical field.
Winter was a pianist and voice coach. On October 11, 1917 The Music Magazine mentioned "A great addition to the success of Miss [Florence] Nelson has been Norman Winter, the gifted American pianist, who is the accompanist at her recitals and songs." He operated his voice studio from the 89th Street house.
|The Sun, January 10, 1915 (copyright expired)|
Soprano Edythe Le Bermuth moved into No. 322 in the summer of 1921. Born in St. Louis as Edythe Hayward, she traveled to Europe, studying voice in Vienna, Paris, Brussels and Lausanne. She sang the roles of Marguerite in Faust, Violette in La Traviata, and Manon in Manon Lescaut in the leading opera houses. The married Belgian banker Arthur Le Bermuth in 1894. Now widowed, Edythe had returned to the United States the year prior to moving into the 89th Street house.
Norman Winter took a student to court in the fall of 1927. Nathaniel Wagner did not aspire to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House, but on the Broadway stage. He landed a job in the chorus of the Shubert theaters, earning $25 per week, and then came to Winter for voice lessons.
According to Winter, "I found that his voice had possibilities and it was agreed that payment for his teaching would be guaranteed by the mother of a young woman to whom he was engaged." A five-year contract was signed.
But the deal fell apart when Wagner broke his engagement and married the niece of another voice teacher, Oscar Seagle. The mother of the first fiancee, understandably, refused to continue paying for Wagner's lessons. Seagle, at the same time, insisted "something was amiss with his training" and took Wagner as his own student. On November 20, 1927 The New York Times reported Winter was suing for $20,000 (around $289,000 today). Wagner's defense was that "after he had changed teachers his voice improved and that he was justified in ignoring the contract."
|The street address is incorporated into the Renaissance-inspired carvings of the entrance.|
Another notable musical residence was Jean Theslöf. The Finnish singer was as well known for his athletic abilities. In 1924 he competed in four shooting events in the Summer Olympics.
Salesman and amateur boxer Robert Exton lived here by the fall of 1936. In October he was given a wire-haired terrier, Terry, by friends. They were unaware that the dog was losing its eyesight. The New York Post later explained "Like a parent who grows more and more attached in a child afflicted with some infirmity, Robert Exton became more and more devoted to Terry because he was going blind. Every night he bathed Terry's eyes with boric acid solution; he nursed him as though the dog had been a human being."
The Long Island Sunday Press was even more dramatic in painting its word picture:
[Exton's] best-loved pal was his little fox terrier. Exton and the dog were inseparable chums...going everywhere together in the man's leisure hours, sleeping in the same room. On $20 a week, in New York, there is not much leeway left over for luxuries. Yet the terrier was fed on the fat of the land, even when hunger was none too far away from his master. The good little dog gradually went blind. No longer could he frisk through the parks on his daily walks. He must be led on a leash, and be guided away from any obstacle which might hurt or bruise him if he should collide with it.
Tragedy came on March 29, 1937 when Exton took Terry to the apartment building at No. 169 West 97th Street to visit his sister and brother-in-law. For some reason the doorman, Joseph Johanson, attacked the dog. The Long Island Sunday Press reported that the 49-year old doorman "did one of the most rottenly unpardonable things any man could have done under the circumstances. As the dog went unseeingly past him, Johanson kicked the poor little sufferer with right savage force."
Johanson had chosen the wrong man's dog to kick. The amateur boxer landed a punch which knocked him off his feet. Johanson's head struck a set of steps, fracturing his skull. He died later at the Knickerbocker Hospital. Before turning himself into police, Exton took Terry to his sister's apartment. "As he was being led away, he turned to his brother-in-law, Morris Stein...'Will you please keep up the treatment of Terry's eyes? If it stops now, all the work I've been doing won't do them any good,'" said the Sunday Press.
Exton's murder hearing was held on June 2. The Canisteo, New York, Times began its article saying "Judges as a rule are human," and The New York Times added "Quoting from a publication entitled 'Man's Best Friend,' a eulogy on dogs, Magistrate Brooks in homicide court recently dismissed a charge of homicide against Robert Exton...Many in court applauded the court's decision."
Exton remained in the 89th Street house and soon had a second dog. On February 23, 1938 the New York Sun reported on the Bloomingdale's dog show and mentioned "Another dog is Punchdrunk Lady of Hallwyne, entered by Robert Exton of 322 West Eighty-ninth street."
|This spandrel panel was evidently executed by a beginner stone cutter. The profile is at once charming and comical in its naivete.|
Dr. Robert Amos Mee practiced from the house by 1943. He would be a significant figure in another murder case. Lieutenant Adam A. Rother and Rita Costello came to his office on July 2 that year seeking to discover if the 41-year old Coast Guard officer could sire children. They came back the next day and again two days later.
Less than two weeks later, on July 17, the couple were riding in a taxicab on Staten Island. The driver was shocked by a gunshot and the flash. Rita Costello was dead in the backseat. Rother was charged with first-degree murder and the sensational trial was vividly covered in newspapers across the country. Prosecutors claimed he killed her because she refused to marry him. Dr. Mee was brought to the stand in March 1944 to testify about the office visits. In the process he was asked a puzzling question. The New York Sun reported "Under cross-examination he stated that Miss Costello did not have any venereal disease."
In the end, a single female juror saved Rother from the electric chair. The other eleven, who voted for a first-degree murder conviction, agreed the lesser second-degree charge "rather than have the trial end in a disagreement," explained The Times, on March 30, 1944. Rother was sentenced to 20 years to life imprisonment.
The 89th Street house was officially converted to apartments in 1958. There were now two apartments per floor, including the basement level. Rather amazingly the stoop was not removed, as was common in most such conversions.
photographs by the author