Saturday, January 25, 2020

The J. E. Winterbottom Funeral Parlor - 966 6th Avenue

The undertaking business of J. Winterbottom & Sons was founded around 1849.  It was described by New York's Great Industries in 1885 as a "well-known and highly reputable."  On May 1 that year it opened an uptown branch at No. 638 Sixth Avenue, just north of 35th Street, in a converted home.  James Edward Winterbottom and his family moved into the floors above the funeral home.

The brownstone-faced house was one of a string of post-Civil War houses along the block designed in the Second Empire style.  The windows of the second floor featured handsome paneled piers and peaked, molded lintels.  The third floor openings wore prominent brownstone bracketed cornices.  A full-floor mansard, singled in slate, featured two tall dormers with closed pediments.

Complex designs fill the areas below the second floor lintels.  (The dark structure above the mansard is simply a privacy wall for the current roof users.)
New York's Great Industries noted "Although not sectarian in their business, their clientage is principally with Protestants.  The firm possesses every facility and improved appliances for the preservation, embalming or otherwise of the dead."  The article mentioned that Winterbottom "is available for duty night or day."

Given the firm's excellent reputation, the choice of location was perhaps a bit surprising.  It sat squarely within the Tenderloin District, notorious as one of the most depraved areas of the city where brothels, gambling houses and "low dives" flourished.

Nevertheless, the funeral home thrived.  Several years later the New-York Tribune, called Winterbottom "personally very popular, and belonging to many societies," and added that "his success was immediate."  

In 1890 Winterbottom hired James F. Quinn as manager of the Sixth Avenue location.  J. Edward Winterbottom died three years later and his wife took over running the business, relying heavily on Quinn.  

He was given a conspicuous undertaking in 1897--moving the casket of President Ulysses S. Grant to the newly completed Grant's Tomb.  The New-York Tribune reported "The house of J. Edward Winterbottom & Co., as now constituted, had entire charge of the transfer of General Grant's remains from their temporary resting place to the crypt of the magnificent tomb on Riverside Drive."

from Cornell & Shober's Directory of Trained Nurses, 1900-1901 (copyright expired)

Grant was an exception to the less lofty deceased who passed through the funeral home.   John Spellman, a jockey, was more typical.  On November 28, 1887 the Paterson Morning Call reported that his body "lay in state Saturday in the undertaking establishment of J. Winterbottom, 638 Sixth avenue."  Over the years the firm handled the funerals of theatrical types, saloon owners and gamblers.

One of the more colorful took place in 1908.  On June 12 The Sun reported "From the beginning of yesterday and all throughout the day until midnight the men and women of the Tenderloin filed into the undertaking establishment of Winterbottom & Sons in Sixth avenue above Herald Square to pay their last respects to Clarence O'Brien, the gambler, better known as Paddy the Pig."

The article listed the friends and gamblers who filed past the custom-made coffin ("one that had to be made especially for Paddy because he weighed almost 350 pounds," explained the article).  They had names like the Saginaw Kid ("who never has risen to the dignity of a gamble, but is just [an] ex-bouncer and hanger on"); Spotter and Big Nose, "the two hefty waiters from Callahan's in Doyers street;" and Bridgie Webber, "who runs a hop join in Chinatown."  Other mourners were Black Mike and his wife, Chicago Nellie; Little Tommy Murphy; and Big Hawley.

"Two girls in the corner regretted that Chicago May, who is now doing time in England, could not be present at the funeral," reported The Sun.  "She was an artist at the panel game they all agreed."  (The "panel game" was the practice of a brothel employee entering a bedroom through a hidden door and stealing cash or jewelry from a patron's clothing while he was otherwise distracted.)

By 1912 the funeral home was gone and the upper floors where James E. Winterbottom's family and then that of James F. Quinn had lived were converted to commercial spaces.  Despite the determined efforts of reformers, however, the Tenderloin District had not yet been cleaned up.  Leasing an office here in 1912 was the Jensen Employment Agency, a seemingly respectable business that was anything but.

An out-of-work young man, Samuel Feldman went to the agency's office in September that year.  His interviewer seemed more interested in finding work for young women.  Feldman later explained to police that he "inquired politely whether he knew any of New York's fair sex."  Samuel mentioned his girlfriend, Bessie Snell.  But she was not looking for work--she had a good job in an underwear factory.

After one or two more visits, the man convinced Feldman to bring Bessie in.  He was positive he could get her a job as a skilled sewing machine operator in a factory in the West--earning as much as $15 or $20 a week.  Bessie was thrilled.  She told Samuel that she would go ahead, save up enough money for them to get married, and then he could follow.

There was no job in the West other than forced prostitution; what was known at the time as White Slavery.  And once Bessie was on the train with a small group of other girls, Samuel was no longer needed.  The next morning he arrived at the Sixth Avenue office "to find out where I was going [and] the man told me he had got a telegram saying there weren't any men needed."

But a quick thinking train conductor saved the girls.  He noticed several of them weeping and asked Bessie what the trouble was.  At the next stop he telegraphed police who met the train at Pittsburgh.  Harry Sutton, the man who was guarding the girls, was arrested.  And as a result of Samuel's report, the New-York Tribune reported on September 26 "a detective will visit the Jensen Employment Agency, at No. 638 Sixth avenue, this morning to inquire into the nature of the business."

The Joseph Polansky's restaurant was in the ground floor around this time.   Close by was a rival restaurant at No. 630 run by a man named Goldberg.  The two men joined forces in 1919, creating the Polansky & Goldberg restaurant here.

In 1925 Sixth Avenue was renumbered, giving the building its current address of No. 966.  By then it sat within the Garment District.  In 1941 a variety of small businesses were at the address, including a beauty parlor on the second floor.

Another house from the original row still survived next door in 1941.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Major change came in 1952 when Barton's Candy leased the building for the site of its fiftieth bonbonnière.  The firm hired architect and designer Victor Gruen to remodel it into a bouncy, colorful mid-century shop.  In the August 1952 issue of Architectural Forum he said "Store design is taking itself too seriously," adding that when he received the commission for the Sixth Avenue store, he saw it as "an opportunity to attack some of the clichés that grow out of the notion there is some kind of a recipe book for store design."

Gruen went on to say that he knew the "pleasant Victorian front" could "never be a good modern."  So he transformed it into "something that would make people smile."  He painted the brownstone a dandelion yellow, covered the upper windows with posters, and affixed bouncy 1950's lettering above the storefront.

Next door to Gruen's snappy redo is a Horn & Hardart automat.  Architectural Forum, August 1952 

Barton's Candy remained in the space until 1972.  The retail space became home to Metropolitan Impex, Inc., dealers in "notions and trimmings," which would also remain for two decades.

The Certificate of Occupancy granted in 1952 demanded that the upper floors "remain vacant."  It remained in place until a renovation completed in 1981 resulted in offices on the second floor and two apartments each on the third and fourth.  Panels of artificial brick now cover the facade and the mansard, and peculiar pierced guards--possibly to deter pigeons--sit atop the lintels.  But thanks to Victor Gruen the surprising survivor retains much of its 19th century domestic personality.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Matt Kay for suggesting this post

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Unrecognizable 1847 Moses Maynard, Jr. House - 13 Gramercy Park So.

The first houses began rising around the recently-completed Gramercy Park (or Gramercy Place as it was sometimes called) in the early 1840's.  Among them was No. 13 on the south side of the park, finished in 1847.  The brownstone-fronted residence was an ample 27-feet wide and rose four stories above the high English basement.  Italianate in style, its pair of French doors at the parlor level opened onto a wide cast iron balcony.  It boasted at least one cutting-edge amenity--running water supplied by the new Croton Reservoir.

No. 13 is seen as it originally appeared in this 1877 print.  It sits to the right of the highlighted Samuel Tilden residence.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The house (which was occasionally referenced by the East 20th Street address of 114) became home to the family of Moses Maynard, Jr.  An alderman at the time and the secretary and treasurer of the Long Island Railroad Company, Maynard was, like all his Gramercy Park neighbors, wealthy and prominent.

He appears to have conducted much of his city-related business from his home.  On September 5, 1849 the Board of Aldermen passed a resolution to widen Dey Street by ten feet--a project which would affect many property owners.  An announcement in the New-York Daily Tribune advised that any objections be made in writing and sent to Maynard "at his house, No. 13 Grammercy [sic] Park."

On July 30, 1855 Maynard, called "a well-known citizen" by The New York Times, died in the Gramercy Park home.  His funeral was held there the following day.

By 1860 lawyer Edward M. Willett had moved his family into No. 13.  A member of the firm Willett & Grieg, he was married to the former Amelia Ann Stephens.  (Willett had been a Columbia College classmate and good friend of her brother, John Lloyd Stephens, who is remembered for finding and mapping Mayan ruins in 1839.)

On the night of December 9, 1868, Thomas F. Barton forced open a rear window and entered the house.  He quickly gathered up two overcoats, and six silver napkin rings and other articles worth, according to Willett, $145 (about $2,650 in today's money).  The burglar's desperate circumstances were evidenced in that among the those "other articles" was a pair of Willett's shoes. 

A week later, on the night of December 15, Barton tried again at the home of a neighbor, politician Samuel J. Tilden.  Caught in the act, he was arrested.  When he appeared before the judge he was wearing Edward Willett's shoes.  Blamed for a string of other burglaries, he was sentenced to seven years in State Prison.

The Willetts remained at No. 13 until the spring of 1884 when they sold it to Frank Work, Jr. and his wife, Emma.  The Real Estate Record & Guide pointed out that the purchase came "with right to use Park" and reported the sale price at $50,000--about $1.32 million today.  Before moving in the Works had "interior alterations" done.  They apparently went no further than cosmetic updating since no architect was involved.

Frank Work, Jr. was a partner in the brokerage firm of Work, O'Keeffe & Co. at No. 68 Broadway, with Samuel J. O'Keeffe.  James H. Work, Frank's attorney brother, served as the firm's counsel.  James Work and Samuel O'Keeffe involved themselves in a shady $7,000 loan transaction with William F. Croft in January 1889.  It ended in the courts and was most likely a significant factor in the collapse of Work, O'Keeffe & Co. in 1891.

On July 9, 1892 The Evening Telegram reported that the Works had sold "No. 13 Gramercy Park (virtually No. 114 East Twentieth street)" to John E. Cowdin for $70,000.  The price, equal to just under $2 million today, reflected the constant--actually increasing--property values along the Park.

Cowdin and his wife, the former Gertrude Cheever, had a daughter, Ethel, and two sons, Elliott Channing and John Cheever.  Their summer home was in Tuxedo Park and they would later add a country estate in East Norwich, Connecticut.  

An 1879 graduate of Harvard, Cowdin was the president of the Grand Street Realty Company.  But it was for his polo abilities that he was perhaps better known.  His many awards and championships would earn him a posthumous place in the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in 2007.

On January 13, 1894 the Cowdins received a sudden and unexpected house guest.  A close friend of the family, Baron Rudolph de Wardener, left Brentano's bookstore on Broadway around 4:00 that day and climbed aboard a streetcar.  Because of the crowd trying to file into the car, he stepped onto the front platform.

The Sun reported "The car started, and just as the Baron was about to open the front doors to get inside, the wheels of the car struck the curve just below Seventeenth street, and the Baron was thrown violently from the platform and ten feet into the street."  The article said diplomatically that he "is a heavy man" and the force of the fall broke his arm in three places and crushed his elbow.

In excruciating pain, he was taken by cab from one doctor's office to another for a hour--but none was home.  "Finally, when almost unconscious from pain and loss of blood, he succeeded in finding Dr. Robert F. Weir" who treated him, according to the article.  Because the Baron lived on Long Island, "he was taken to the house of his friend, John E. Cowdin, No. 13 Gramercy Park, where the fractured bones were set, though the elbow was so badly shattered that little could be done for it."  The Cowdins' guest remained until January 25, when it was necessary to remove him to St. Luke's Hospital.

Entertainments in the Cowdin house were often lavish.  On February 23, 1895, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. John E. Cowdin, of No. 13 Gramercy Park, will give a fancy-dress dance to-night."  

A less elaborate event took place on January 14, 1900.  Gertrude was a pianist and, according to the New-York Tribune, "well known in musical circles."  That night she gave a small dinner party for the Polish pianist and composer Ignancy Jan Paderewski and his wife, Helena. "It was an informal affair and limited," said the New-York Tribune.  Among the guests were the Cowdins' across-the-park neighbors, Henry W. Poor and his wife and conductor-composer Walter J. Damrosch and his wife, Margaret.

Ethel was introduced to society at "a large reception" in the house on December 14, 1905.  The debutante's social status was evidenced in the surnames of the girls who assisted in receiving, including Roosevelt, Fish, Atterbury and Tuckerman.

In the spring of 1908 Gertrude sailed to Europe, quite likely to shop for fashions for the coming summer season.  In April John received an urgent telegram to sail immediately "because of the illness of his wife."  His steamship docked on May 3.  According to the New-York Tribune, "Mr. Cowdin arrived in Paris a few hours before his wife died."  

On May 17 Cowdin arrived back in New York on the French liner La Touraine with Gertrude's body.  Her funeral was held in the Gramercy Park house the following morning.  The New York Evening Telegram reported that it was attended "by a large gathering of well-known people, including a delegation of members of the Colony Club," which she had helped found.  The article noted that among "the collection of beautiful floral tributes was a wreath of white carnations bearing the card of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt."

Ethel was married to Charles Morgan in St. George's Church on June 4, 1910.  The Evening Telegram noted that "Owing to the family being in mourning, the reception which will held following the ceremony at the home of Mr. Cowdin, No. 13 Gramercy Park, will be very small."

Two years later there would be two more Cowdin weddings.  On June 5, 1912 John Cheever Cowdin was married in California, and about two weeks later, on June 24, his father married Madeleine Knowlton.  The wedding, which took place in the home of the bride's mother, was small and "was followed at 4 o'clock by a reception, for which about 300 invitations were sent out," said The New York Times.

Four years later Cowdin hired architect Adolph Mertin to remodel the Gramercy Park house into apartments.  Mertin's extensive plans, filed in January 1916 called for a new facade, elevators, and extending the building to the rear.  

The completed make-over left no hint of the former brownstone.  The stoop had been removed and the entrance moved to the former English basement level.  It was recessed within an arched opening which held a charming sculpture of a youth.  Each of the apartments had vast studio-type windows that looked out onto the Park.

An advertisement offered a three-room and bath apartment in 1917 for $1,700 per year; or about $2,775 a month today.  Interestingly, among the initial residents was John Cowdin's still unmarried son, Elliott.  Also in the building were the families of Hendrick Suydam, Dr. Edward Rufus, and Henry Lee Hobart.

The Hobarts, whose country estate was at East Hampton, Long Island, were socially visible.  Henry's wife, Marie, was a sometimes playwright, and the author of the "St. Agnes Mystery Plays."  In May 1920 she hosted a luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria to announce the engagement of their daughter, Margaret Jefferys Hobart, to the Very Rev. George B. Myers, dean of Holy Trinity Church in Havana, Cuba.

Expensive automobiles line the curb as a woman in a fur collar strolls by Gramercy Park around 1940.  photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services
Engineer Adolphe H. Wenzell and his socialite wife, the former Zillah Townsend Thompson, were living here in 1922 when Zillah's shocking secret was leaked to the press.  On June 17 The New York Herald reported "Another young woman of society has decided to go on the stage.  Following the modern idea that every one should have an avocation, Mrs. Adolphe H. Wenzell...will embark upon a professional career the coming season."

"Mrs. Wenzell at her home last night rather reluctantly admitted that the report of her stage aspirations was correct," said the article.  Zillah made it clear that Adolphe was comfortable with the move.  "In all my plans and aspirations I have the fullest support of my husband.  He is an engineer and in his business has to do a good deal of traveling.  We are completely in accord in the idea that a woman should have some useful and serious work to do in the world."

Well-to-do tenants continued to make No. 13 their home over the next decades, like author and actor John W. Vandercook who moved in with his new bride, the former Jane Perry, in 1938.

A renovation in 1995 resulted in a total seven apartments within the building.   As it did in 1917, Adolph Mertin's bold transformation makes its own statement among its 19th century neighbors.

photographs by the author

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The 1906 Morgan Library - 33 East 36th Street

photo by Beyond My Ken

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was not uncommon for millionaire collectors to have art galleries included in the plans for their mansions; or to built opulent gallery buildings adjoining already standing residences.  In 1903 financier J. Pierpont Morgan, Sr. took the concept to a new level.

Morgan and his family lived in the brownstone mansion on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street, built for John Jay Phelps in 1853.  Behind it, at No. 33 East 36th Street, was the former home of William Bird.  On February 1, 1902 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Morgan had purchased and demolished that home and hired McKim, Mead & White to design a "two story marble library."  Charles Follen McKim was the principal architect of the structure, the cost of which was estimated at $300,000--about $8.83 million in today's dollars.

As the project got off the ground, Morgan expanded his holdings around his mansion.  Within a month of the death of Mrs. William E. Dodge in March 1903 he purchased her house, No. 225 Madison Avenue, directly next door to his.  And in November 1904 he purchased the Anson Phelps Stokes house on the northern corner of the block as a gift to his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. and his wife.  Mrs. Stokes had an asking price of $1 million on that property.

A nicely dressed man surveys the construction site from atop a rock.  The backs of the Morgan mansion (left), the Dodge house (center) and the Phelps residence can be seen.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Construction on the library and gallery was not completed until June 1906.  The the design the Morgan Library was an amalgamation of bits and pieces of Italian Renaissance structures--sort of an architectural Lego project in marble with stunning results.  McKim's inspiration for the entrance, for instance, came from both the 16th century Villa Medici and the Villa Giulia.

The Villa Medici, built around 1544 for Cardinal Ricci via
The top level of the Nymphaeum of the Villa Giulia, designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati for Pope Julius III was a model for the entrance.  photo by Mongolo1984

McKim's biographer, Alfred Hoyt Granger later said "Mr. Morgan gave Mr. McKim a free hand to do anything he liked, which shows what the great financier's opinion was of the great architect."  The lavish budget was reflected inside.  The entrance Rotunda was based on the Villa Madama in Rome.  Artist Harry Siddons Mowbray based his designs on those of Raphael and Pinturiccio.  The complex marble floor was a near copy of one found in the Villa Pia in the Vatican gardens.

The sumptuous ceiling of the Morgan Rotunda -- photograph by Purpleturtle52-KH
The through the doorway of the Rotunda can be seen Morgan's library.  Two of the four marble pillars can be seen, each costing $60,000 at the time, according to a contemporary report.  photo via the Morgan Library & Museum
The largest of the spaces was the library--built to house Morgan's astonishing collection of rare books.  The inlaid Circassian walnut bookcases, the study ceiling and a few doors were the only wooden elements in the building--a reflection of Morgan's intense fear of fire.  

The bronze grills of the bookcase doors matched the exquisite bronze fencing outside.  A construction worker confided to a reporter from the New-York Tribune, "Every one of those bars in the fence was twisted by hand.  That costs money, but Mr. Morgan wanted it made by hand.  I know it cost a good deal, because the bronze doors, with twisted bars, which he had made for the bookcases cost $550 a pair, and one of the panels of that fence would make three pairs of those doors."

Mowbray was also responsible for the decoration of the ceiling, inspired by that of the 16th century Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  Among the decorations were constellations significant to Morgan--the signs of Aries (Morgan's birth sign) and Gemini (that of his wife, Frances Louisa), for instance.

Above the mantelpiece, designed in the Renaissance style, is the 16th century tapestry The Triumph of Avarice.  photograph by Pingthing
Leading off the library was J. P. Morgan's office, or "study."  It was here that he conducted much of his business away from his Wall Street office.  Unlike the library mantelpiece which was fabricated for that space, this one was a 15th century antique.  The leaded windows were brought from Switzerland and date from the 15th through 17th centuries.  Most impressive, perhaps, is the ceiling which was imported from Florence.

from the collection of the Library of Congress
photo via the Morgan Library & Museum
The Record & Guide was impressed, saying "the Library Building for J. Pierpont Morgan, Esq., in design and construction, marks an era in the Renaissance of classic work."  Alfred Hoyt Granger said "In this building restraint and discrimination are carried to the nth power." 

Morgan's concern about fire went well beyond the use of fireproof materials.  As the structure neared completion in June 1906 a reporter who stopped by the site was told:

The building is entirely fireproof.  The walls are about four feet thick.  There is a heavy wall of Tennessee marble, and then a space of fourteen inches between it and the interior brick wall.  Inside is a vault of 1-1/2 inch steel, in which to keep the most valuable of the old manuscripts, some of those Mr. Morgan picked up in monasteries, etc...There is a sliding shutter of asbestos to cover each window.  The shutters are hung on counterbalancing weights, so that one man could raise them all in a few moments.  They slide down into grooves in the wall.

Fire understandably continued to prey on the mind of Morgan.  His collection of artwork and manuscripts was irreplaceable.   Within a year of the library's completion, he announced he would be demolishing the Dodge mansion which, he felt, sat too close to the library behind.  The Record & Guide explained "Mr. Morgan evidently realizes the danger to these treasures that might arise from a burnable structure adjoining the museum.  His idea is to secure an open space all around it, by removing the Dodge mansion, which covers the middle of the block on the Madison av. side, and stands between the museum and the avenue."

Rarely did outsiders other than those meeting with Morgan in his study see inside the library.  But there were notable exceptions.  

President William Howard Taft was in town in February 1910.  Although Morgan was abroad, his personal attorney Lewis Cass Ledyard took Taft on a private tour of the library.  The President was partly prompted by the recently painted portrait of Morgan which hung in the study.  It was executed by Peruvian artist Carlos Baca-Flor and The Evening Telegram said "The artist has been recommended as the one to paint the official portrait of President Taft to be hung in the White House with the paintings of other Chief Executives."  Taft told reporters he was "pleased with the work."  He and Ledyard spent half an hour browsing the other artworks.

President Taft came to the Morgan library to inspect this portrait.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A January 1912 Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, arrived in New York with his wife, Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia, and their daughter, Princess Patricia.  The third son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, he and his family were fêted with the usual string of receptions, luncheons and dances.  

On January 23 The Evening World reported that on the previous day they "went to the home of J. P. Morgan and inspected the Morgan library and galleries."  The Morgan children where their hosts.  "They were met at the entrance by Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Morgan, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Satterlee, Miss Ann Morgan and Mrs. Hamilton, another daughter of the financier, who escorted them through the Morgan private museum."

J. Pierpont Morgan, Sr. died on March 31, 1913.  At a time when funerals were routinely held in the drawing rooms of the deceased, Morgan's took place in the study he loved.  On April 13 The New York Times reported "In the red and gold west wing of the white marble Morgan library building...the body of J. Pierpont Morgan rested yesterday.  During the day members of the family and a few of the intimate friends of the dead financier visited the room where the body lies."

For a few years J. P. Morgan, Jr. continued to use his father's study.  On September 11, 1915, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "In the library in Thirty-sixth Street where the late head of the house of Morgan made financial history and where but a year ago plans were made to prevent the United State being drained of its stock of gold, the first of a series of conferences between the leading bankers of Europe and the United States was held yesterday."

Then, in February 1924, Morgan presented the building and its collection to the public "in memory of his father," according to the Putnam County Republican.  The newspaper said "Both the library, which consists of 35,000 rare volumes and is known as perhaps the finest private collection of books and manuscripts in the world, and the Renaissance marble palace in which it is lodged...were conveyed outright by Mr. Morgan to a board of six trustees, of which he is president."

Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the trustees of the American Museum of Natural History told the New York Evening Post "I consider it the most important gift in the world of literature ever made in the history of the City of New York, and it is destined to exert a very great influence on American literature."

photograph by Beyond My Ken
Of course, it was just the first step in the evolution of the private collection to "one of the world's foremost collections of manuscripts, rare books, music, drawings, and ancient and other works of art," as worded by the Library's website.  A succession of expansion projects take center stage on Madison Avenue; however the exquisite marble 1906 structure remains an architectural treasure.  As Alfred Hoyt Granger said in 1913, "There is no more beautiful monument to the memory of either Mr. Morgan or Mr. McKim than this library on Thirty-sixth street."

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Edward W. Sparrow House - 41 East 68th Street

By any estimation Edward Wheeler Sparrow had already led a remarkable life by the turn of the last century.  Born to well-to-do parents in Ireland, he came to America in 1858 at the age of 12.  Traveling West he landed several jobs, including being a page in the Michigan State Legislature and a clerk in a dry goods operation.  As he saved his money, he invested in real estate, eventually owning valuable Lansing, Michigan property, including 16 blocks in downtown Lansing.

In the 1870's the young man partnered with William Knoll, establishing saw mills and extensive lumber operations in the Northwest.  He lived, according to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, "the life of a frontiersman."  Before moving to New York City, in addition to his lumber and real estate interests he had helped organize the City National Bank in Lansing (which he headed for 20 years), developed iron resources in Brazil, and was president of the Lansing Wheelbarrow Co.

Sparrow married Helen Therese Grant in 1896, and the couple had a son, Edward Grant Sparrow.  Just three years after their marriage Theresa died.  On June 30, 1903 Edward married Margaret B. Beattie, daughter of cleryman Charles Beattie.  Margaret was well-educated, having attended Vassar College.  They would have one daughter, Margaret Alicia.

In 1910 Sparrow purchased the older house at No. 41 East 68th Street, formerly home to John Terry Gardiner and his wife.  On May 25 the New-York Tribune reported that the architectural firm of Parish & Schroeder had filed plans for a six-story mansion on the site.  "The facade will be of brick, with trimmings of limestone," said the article.  The plans placed the cost of construction at $60,000--about $1.65 million today.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The architects created a neo-French Renaissance residence that left no doubt about the wealth of its owner.  Above the rusticated stone base a full-width balustrade gave the impression of a balcony.  The corniced windows of the restrained second and third floors made no attempt at ostentation--that was left to the top levels.  Intricately carved panels flanked the fourth floor openings.  An ample fascia decorated with carved shields ran below the stone cornice which doubled as a balcony to the steep two-story mansard.

Edward Sparrow would not enjoy his new mansion for long.  The 67-year-old fell ill in the winter of 1913, and died in the house on February 21.   A funeral was held in the mansion on February 24, and another in Lansing, Michigan, where he was buried, the following day.

Edward Wheeling Sparrow (original source unknown)
Sparrow had apparently anticipated his impending death and signed his will just five days before.  He managed to control his $3 million estate (more in the neighborhood of $78.5 million today) even after death, putting it in trust with specific directions as to how it was annually distributed to his heirs.  Margaret, for instance, was to receive "a sum not to exceed $50,000 a year" (about $1.3 million today), and Edward's allotments increased as he reached certain birthdays.  Sparrow guarded five-year old Margaret's coming inheritance from any fortune hunters.  Her money, said the will, was "separate and apart from the control or influence of any husband."  Should she die, the money was to go to her children.  If she were childless, it reverted to Margaret and Edward.

The will included life warnings for the children:

I charge upon my son, Edward Grant Sparrow, the practice of economy and that he refrain from ostentation or display, as such practices are not in keeping with the pursuit of learning and are always offensive to good manners and gentlemanly demeanor, and I wish here to impress upon both of my children and especially upon my son the desirability of acquiring a thorough knowledge of business as is practicable.

Unexpectedly, given that she was still in mourning, Margaret and the children arrived at the fashionable Hotel Wentworth in New Castle, New Hampshire six months later.  On August 23 The Sun noted that several members of society had arrived by automobile, including "Mrs. E. W. Sparrow, Edward Sparrow and party, in an Alco."

Margaret was a summer resident of Lenox, Massachusetts where she regularly leased Home Farm, the estate of the deceased William A. Slater of Washington.  And as the "camping" fervor swept society in the years just before the outbreak of world war, she once again hired hired Parish & Schroeder to design "a wooden camp" at Old Forge, New York in 1917.   (Other than pine trees, lakes and occasional passing ducks, the term "camp" for high society had little to do with the term as used today.)

As Margaret's camp was under construction, she and Margaret Alicia, who was now old enough to be listed in society columns, went to Lenox.  Edward joined the Marine Corps. in 1917 and fought overseas.  When he came home in August 1919, The Sun reported that he was "visiting his Home Farm."  Two months later on October 19 The Sun reported that Margaret had given a "farewell luncheon at the Lenox Club for twenty-six guests before closing Home Farm and returning to New York this week."

It was the last time Margaret would close Home Farm.  Two weeks earlier the New-York Tribune had reported that she "is likely to purchase Sunnycroft, the country place of the late Mrs. George Griswold Haven."

By the terms of her father's will, Margaret Alicia could not touch her fortune until her thirtieth birthday.  In the meantime her mother had to make do with the $2,000 per month the girl was allowed.  At the equivalent of $28,000 today, Margaret feared it was not a large enough amount with which to clothe and adorn a girl approaching her debutante years.  In January 1923 she went to court to plead for more money for the 15-year-old.  Given Margaret's own income, the judge was unmoved.  The New-York Tribune reported somewhat sarcastically, "Miss Margaret Alicia Sparrow must makeshift on $2,000 a month for the next 15 years."

Margaret Alicia's debut was unexpectedly understated.  She was introduced to society at a tea in the 68th Street house on December 21, 1926.

Margaret established another summer estate near Locust Valley, Long Island around this time.  She and Margaret Alicia traveled as a pair, appearing in society columns for years as they entertained and moved between their residences.

Like her mother, Margaret Alicia attended Vassar.  She became especially interested in supporting the Girls Scouts of America (a favorite cause of her mother), and was an avid sportswoman.  The New York Post described her as being "interested in riding and hunting and is a familiar figure at the smart sports events held during the year on Long Island."

On April 14, 1936 her mother announced Margaret Alicia's engagement to George Hale Pulsifer.  The wedding was held on the grounds of the Locust Valley mansion on June 12 that year.  The New York Post described "a natural setting of green, with trees and shrubs in the background, but with no special floral decorations and no altar."

In 1950 Margaret moved permanently to Locust Valley.  She died there on July 22, 1958 at the age of 88.

When she left the 68th Street mansion it was converted to apartments, two each on every floor but the top, which held one.  The service entrance was altered to a window and it may have been at this time that the handsome areaway fencing was removed.  The top floor apartment was divided into two in 1968.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

An Elegant Shell - Keith's 81st Street Theatre, Broadway at 81st Street

Born in Dundee, Scotland, Thomas W. Lamb arrived in New York in 1883 at the age of 12 and went on to study architecture at the Cooper Union.  Eventually, after working as a buildings inspector for the City, he established his architectural office, Thomas W. Lamb, Inc.  His first commission for a theater came in 1909 from William Fox, who was involved for the fledgling moving picture industry.  Within eight years he had designed three more motion picture theaters on Times Square.  

On March 26, 1913 The American Architect reported that Lamb had filed plans for a "3-sty theatre and stores to be erected on the corner of Broadway and 81st St. for the Fulton Building Co."  Construction costs were projected at $130,000, or about $3.4 million in today's terms.

Unlike Lamb's projects for William Fox, the 81st Street Theatre was intended mainly as a vaudeville venue, with "photo-plays" as an added attraction.  It was completed by the end of April the following year.  The Broadway section which held the lobby, ticket booths and lounges was three stories tall.  Its dignified neo-Classical style facade was executed in white terra cotta and featured soaring double-height arches flanked by columns and separated by tall Corinthian pilasters.  The auditorium directly behind was clad in dull red brick which purposely did not compete with the Broadway showpiece.

The theater opened on May 25, 1914, this ad calling "one of the finest vaudeville and photo-play theatres in New York City.  The Evening World, May 25, 1914 (copyright expired)

In its July 1914 issue Architecture and Building beamed "The new Eighty-First Street Theatre...which has just been opened, is decidedly a step forward in the erection and equipment of a modern vaudeville and photoplay house.  The amount of study which has been given and the taste displayed throughout this entire structure is evident, even to the exterior of the building which is of matt [sic] glaze white terra cotta."

The lobby was lit by solid brass sconces and hanging fixtures "of white glass in Adam's design."  Architecture and Building, July 1914 (copyright expired)
The lobby was paneled in Caen stone--a marble-like material--and its ceiling was decorated in "delicate clouded effects."  The critic said "On entering the theatre one is impressed with the harmony and refined richness of the entire color scheme."  The carpeting and the curtains were deep red.  The seats were upholstered in Spanish leather dyed to match.  Above the audience was a large mural depicting music and dance.  Architecture and Building commented that it "introduces just a sufficient amount of color to give a rich note to the entire color scheme."  

The main ceiling panel depicted Music and Dancing.  Architecture and Building, July 1914 (copyright expired)
Acts in vaudeville theaters changed often and patrons visited more than once a week.  The proprietors of the new theater quickly established a clever gimmick to keep its customers coming back.  On July 2, 1914 The Evening World reported "At the Eight-first Street Vaudeville and Motion Picture Theatre, the management lends umbrellas to patrons in rainy weather."

A highly unusual event took place on September 25, 1918.  Members of the Screen Club staged a benefit for its house fund.  Moving Pictures magazine reported "Many picture people were present.  The proceeds for the club came from the sale of souvenir programs and autographed photographs, also the difference in the advance of seat prices."

None of that would have prompted press coverage.  But then at 11:00 four audience members were selected and brought on stage.  While the audience watched, a motion picture was made.  Moving Pictures explained "The film was to be 500 feet in all, and will be shown at the theatre October 15-17."

The management was rethinking its programming by the spring of 1919.  In March Variety wrote "This theatre divides its program with a feature picture, playing three [vaudeville] acts at either side of the film.  Through that the theatre confesses that first it is a picture house rather than vaudeville, and secondly it prefers pictures."

On September 1 that year the management of the theater was turned over to B. F. Keith, who immediately changed the name to B. F. Keith's 81st Street Theatre.  That was the only initial change.  Vaudeville reported "The house will open with six acts and a picture, without a headline attraction billed."  There were two performances each day, "placing it in the big time class," said the trade journal.

Columbia Daily Spectator, December 3, 1919 (copyright expired)

Audiences showed their disapproval of vaudeville performers by tossing pennies.  On November 1, 1920 a group of well-dressed young men in the orchestra section were caught by booking agent Charles Stockhouse "casting pennies on the stage during the turn of Clayton and Lennie," as reported in Vaudeville.  Stockhouse went to the street and found a policeman, who arrested the youths.

As it turned out, they were not neighborhood rowdies, but college boys "home from school on an election day week-end vacation."  The night court judge "reprimanded the penny throwers, stating to them they stood in no different position before him, though they were sons of wealthy fathers, than any other culprit," reported Vaudeville.  "He warned them if a further complaint was lodged against either they would receive a jail sentence."

The neo-Classical design of the exterior was carried on within the auditorium.   Architecture and Building, July 1914 (copyright expired)
Patrons enjoyed the works of the best directors and most celebrated screen stars here.  On January 11, 1920, for instance, The New York Herald announced "At B. F. Keith's Eight-first Street Theatre the feature will be Cecil B. De Mille's 'Male and Female,' with Miss Gloria Swanson in the lead.  There will be six vaudeville features in addition to the feature."

Among the live acts in February 1928 was Rudy Vallée and his musical group, the Connecticut Yankees.   The crooner was the equivalent of a pop star of today and drew masses of screaming female fans.  The crush of devotees on opening night caused traffic to come to a halt on Broadway.  He mentioned the incident in his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, calling it "the tremendous outburst we received."

Stores lined the street level in this 1915 photograph.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
At mid-century the venue had become a full-time motion picture theater, operated by Howard Hughes's R. K. O. Pictures.  The New York Times theater critic was less than thrilled with The Lisbon Story on September 6, 1951.  Saying that the film "arrived from over the water yesterday afternoon at the R.K.O. Eighty-first Street Theatre, British National Film, the company responsible did neither continent any great favor."  He concluded his critique saying "Anyone who pays good money to see this one deserves the boredom he'll get in return."

Then, in December 1953, CBS-TV announced it had leased the property.  The venue was converted to its first color television studio.  Among its most memorable productions here was the 1957 Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella starring Julie Andrews.  It was the only musical written by the partners expressly for television.

The elegant terra cotta building, now named the Reeves television studio, seemed doomed in November 1984 when it was sold to a developer for $11 million.  The Landmarks Conservancy pronounced the structure "an excellent example of early classical and elegant movie palace building form."  The following spring, however, The New York Times reported "But the landmarking effort was never pursued."

It was only the developers, Louis V. Greco, Jr. and Peter Gray, who had formed the Landmark Restorations Company three years earlier, who saved the front of the building.  When they purchased the building the television soap opera "Search for Tomorrow" was still being taped there.  The firm announced plans for a 22-story apartment tower, Renaissance West, designed by Beyer Blinder Belle behind the gutted Broadway section.  The New York Times remarked "Landmark Restorations has made a specialty of projects with a preservationist character, or at least a sensitivity to history."

At a time when developers are demolishing vintage structures at an alarming rate, it is refreshing that at least the shell of Thomas W. Lamb's handsome 1914 theater was preserved by one of them.

photographs by the author