Thursday, February 27, 2020

The 1904 Clara Court - 503-505 West 111th Street





The extension of the IRT subway to Morningside Heights in 1904 set off a flurry of apartment building construction.  Among the earliest developers to seize the opportunity was Emmanuel Doctor who purchased the two lots at Nos. 503 and 505 West 111th Street--steps away from the rising Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine early that year.

On April 14, 1904 Engineering News reported that architect John Hauser had filed plans for a "6-story brick flat" on the site with a projected cost of $95,000--just over $2.75 million in today's money.  He would be working with an oddly trapezoidal-shaped plot.  It was 82 feet wide along 111th Street but only 54 feet wide at the rear.

Construction proceeded at lightning speed and the building was ready for occupants by Christmas.  Blending Renaissance Revival with Beaux Arts, Hauser designed his building in three layers--known as a tripartite design.  The two-story rusticated stone base sat back from the property line behind an ornate iron fence.  The off-set entrance sat within a handsome porch with columns and balustrades which announced the building's name: Clara Court.


Unwilling to settle for a more expected portico, Hauser created a full porch, adding charm.
Unlike the more reserved base, the three-story middle section was highly decorated.  The red brick contrasted with terra cotta window surrounds, some of which boasted Beaux Arts style cartouches, some with scrolled and festooned keystones, and others with blind balustrades, ornate pilasters and elaborate pediments.  The understated top floor was embellished only with bands of stone.

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on December 27 touted Clara Court as a "new elevator apartment house" and stressed that it was "near subway and elevated stations."  There were five apartments per floor and potential residents could choose among suites of four, five or six rooms with bath, including "every improvement."  Rents ranged from $37 to $55 per month, the cheapest and smallest apartments costing the equivalent of $1,020 per month today.

Doctor apparently had no interest in being a landlord and in May 1905 he sold the new building for $165,000, making a tidy profit in the deal.  In the meantime, white collar residents called Clara Court home.  Newlyweds Leonard Valentine Holder and his bride Viola Alida were among the first residents.  They had been married on June 18, 1904.  Holder was a foreign exchange broker with offices at No. 56 Pine Street.

In 1909 Mrs. O. F. Page busied herself with the duties of president of the ungainly named Messiah Branch of the Church of the Messiah of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women.  Also in the building at the time was Henry Despard, his wife and two children.  Despard had founded the marine insurance brokerage firm of Despard & Co. and was secretary of the New York Club.

The Despards, Holders, Pages and their neighbors enjoyed a new amenity that year--telephone service.  It was most likely a centralized switchboard rather than in-apartment service, but was a welcome innovation nevertheless.  It may have been responsible, however, for a rent hike.  The smaller apartments were now 50 cents per month more expensive and the largest went up by $5.

The Holders, who had a summer home on Long Island, had had a rocky start to their marriage.  In 1916 Viola sued for separation, causing The New York Herald to say that the suit "caused interest" among the "society colony" in Garden City.  "Mr. and Mrs. Holder have been active here in social affairs," the article explained.

Viola said in her complaint that Leonard was very jealous and that early on in Clara Court "he accused her of flirting with other men [and] that he came home in November [1905] and asked her if she knew 'one Calahan,' and that on being told that she did not he chased her about the house."

After several instances of physical abuse, Viola left Leonard in September 1915, but several weeks later "was induced by her friends to return to him."  Things went well enough until April 1916 when "he again chased her and then threatened to shoot her."  When he went to look for his revolver she bolted from the apartment never to return.  In her plea for alimony she asserted that Holder earned a $94,000 salary in today's dollars.

There was less drama and more music coming from the apartment of Florence Colell de Montlord in 1916.  The professional pianist had studied under the famous Rudolph Ganz and under Maurice Bastin of the Opera Comique.  She taught pupils in her Clara Court studio at least through 1917.

Prohibition went into effect in January 1920.  It put thousands of workers--brewery and distillery employees, waiters and waitresses, and bottling plant workers, for instance--out of jobs.  But it presented an opportunity to Mary White.  On August 24, 1921 the Brooklyn newspaper The Standard Union reported "A new queen of bootleggers has been discovered, according to Federal Prohibition Chief William F. Kissick...She is Mrs Mary White, 42 years old, of 505 West 111th street."

Mary was involved in bootleg ring headed by Anthony Cassesse.  They worked with five young men ranging from 17- to 25-years old.  The gang serviced a string of road houses and inns on Long Island, providing them with "evergreen alcohol, grain spirits, whiskies and gins," according to the article.  That summer agents posing as liquor dealers arranged to buy 200 cases of whiskey from Cassese for $15,000.

On the afternoon of August 23 Mary headed to the drop off point, as she always did.  Her job was to be there when the delivery arrived and collect the cash.  This time however, when the truck pulled up and the men started unloading the hooch, the agents swooped in.  

The profitability of the bootleg business was evidenced when Cassese was found to have $61,000 in cash on him at the station house--about $856,000 today.  U. S. Attorney Wallace E. J. Collins told reporters that Mary White "is alleged to have thrown bundles of bills into a waste basket nightly from which it would be sorted out and divided."

For the most part, of course, the residents of Clara Court continued to live respectable lives.  Louis D. Phillips, who lived here in 1922, managed the Woolworth store at No. 1484 First Avenue.  For some reason a gang of burglars were obsessed with the safe in the five-and-dime store that year.  In March and again in June the premises were broken into and an attempt had been made to crack the 1,500-pound safe.

But the thieves were seemingly undeterred by failure.  When Phillips went to the store on October 29 he found a scene of devastation.  This time the burglars broke down the office wall, dragged the safe to the stairway and pushed it to the basement.  Nothing happened.  So they used nitroglycerin in an attempt to blow it open.  Again they were foiled.  "The explosion evidently frightened them away," reported the New-York Tribune, "for they left pliers, wire and gloves and a revolver."

Unfortunately for Phillips, while the would-be safe crackers did not make off with any money, they had wrecked the office and the stairs and heavily damaged the case of the safe.

In 1930 the 78-year old widow Mary Collins had an apartment here.  She shared it with her niece, Josephine, and her husband Charles Henry Albrecht, and their 10-year old son, Kenneth.  The Albrecht family would remain until 1940. 

Although Albrecht's occupation was listed as "salesman at a newspaper" at the time, he was destined for larger things.  He eventually became a major printer of color comic books and was the force behind the famous Charles Atlas comic book advertisements for mail-order body building booklets.

Clara Court was the scene of tragedy on January 11, 1937.  Three months earlier 40-year old Bertha Haber had leased a "kitchenette apartment" on the sixth floor where she lived alone.  At around 7:00 that morning the elevator operator, Frank Adams, found her body in the rear courtyard.  Whether she had jumped or fallen was unclear, however the responding doctor pronounced her death as being instantaneous.

The end of the line for Clara Court and its two flanking neighbors seemed evident in 1965 when the Episcopal Diocese of New York purchased it, the building directly behind on 112nd Street, and the corner building facing Amsterdam Avenue.  They were part of a vision to replace eight apartment houses with a modern home for the aged, designed by Philip Johnson.  The residents were evicted in anticipation of demolition.

Before that could happen, however, homeless families moved in.  But this was not a typical situation.  On November 14, 1970 The New York Times wrote "for the last three and a half month the squatters have been tending the buildings--carrying out garbage, making necessary interior repairs and fixing exterior damage.  Daily meetings of the squatters are held at 8 P.M. to determine what must be done the next day to maintain the buildings."

The diocese responded with, perhaps, unexpected kindness.  It earmarked $20,000 for boiler repairs to provide heat and hot water and a spokesperson said "there will be no legal action and no evictions.  We want those living in the building to be comfortable."


The odd shape of the plot resulted a sharp corner angle.
In the meantime, a neighborhood push was underway to save the buildings.  It was successful in preserving three of them, including Clara Court.  Today the building holds 30 cooperative units.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Peter J. Hamill House - 34 Dominick Street


A slight variation in brick color testifies to the addition of the third floor.  The house originally matched the one to the left.

Most of the sprawling Anthony Rogers Farm was inherited by his son-in-law, Leonard Lispenard in 1746.  It became known as the Lispenard Meadows, and while the Lispenard mansion stood at what today is the area of Hudson and Desbrosses Streets, much of the land was marshy and unusable.   In 1811 the Lispenard heirs petitioned the Common Council to drain the land and the same year building plots were first laid out.

By the early 1820's Dominick Street (named for Trinity Church vestryman George Dominick) was laid out, and shortly afterward three builders purchased twelve lots from Robert M. and Sarah B. Livingston (she was the granddaughter of Anthony Lispenard).  Working independently, they erected a long row of twelve Federal-style homes, completed around 1826, on the south side of Dominick Street between what today are Hudson and Varick Streets.

Smith Bloomfield, a mason-builder, was responsible for five of them--Nos. 28 through 36.  Two-and-a-half stories tall and faced in Flemish bond red brick, the 20-foot wide Federal style dwellings were intended for middle-class families.  Two dormers punched through their peaked roofs.  The homes were intended as income properties and Bloomfield chose to lease them rather than sell.

By the late 1830's No. 34 was home to the Frederick D. Priest family.   A veteran of the War of 1812, he and Eliza M. Brooks had been married in Christ Church in Poughkeepsie, the bride's hometown, on July 7, 1817.   Living with them in the Dominick Street house was Eliza's widowed mother, Maria Mallam Brooks.

At the time the city engaged in a practice which today is chilling.  Poverty was a crime punishable by incarceration in the Alms House on Blackwell's Island.  Children were offered for "indenturing," to work in shops, factories or homes.  Simply put it was a form of forced labor with the children receiving only food and shelter in return.

On November 3, 1842 the Priests took advantage of the opportunity by taking in Anna Johnson (or Jansen--the Alms House documents were unsure).  The girl would have been expected to help Eliza with housework and sundry chores.  But after one-and-a-half years, the family sent her back.  Their reason was that she "was not a good child."

On the evening of June 16, 1845, Maria Brooks died here at the age of 75.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.

Within only a few years Benjamin Ellis and his family were renting the house from Bloomfield.  Ellis was active in public and reform causes.  When the City Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was formed in 1842 he had been elected its president, and while living here was an official with the Public Schools.

Like all middle class families, the Ellises employed at least one servant girl who lived in the attic level.  It seems that the roof was leaky in the summer of 1850 and someone set out to patch it from inside.  It nearly ended with the house being burned to the ground.

On August 28 the New York Morning Courier reported "fire was discovered about half past 5 o'cock Monday evening in the dwelling house of Benjamin Ellis No. 34 Dominick street, caused by carelessness in leaving a pail of boiling pitch over a furnace in one of the attic rooms.  The firemen were promptly on the spot, but before they could subdue the flames, the roof of the building was consumed.  One of the female members was slightly burned while attempting to make her escape."  The Evening Post added that in addition to losing its roof, "the building was considerably damaged by water." 

An advertisement appeared in The New York Herald on May 8, 1856 seeking "A Protestant Girl to do the housework of a small family; must be a first rate washer and ironer, and understand plain cooking.  To one competent and willing, good wages will be paid."  There was nothing extraordinary about the ad other than the last condition:  "One without cousins preferred."

In 1866 Smith Bloomfield's estate sold No. 34 to James M. Horton and his wife, Mary.  Earlier that year he had sold his share in a provisions firm to his partners George Dorn and John C. Guffin.  It was an amiable split and in an announcement in newspapers in March he called them "men of integrity."

It appears Horton used the money from the sale to open a new milk business.  On November 22, 1866 The New York Herald reported "James M. Horton is spending $5,300 on the erection of a milk store at 29 Vestry street."  It was not the only construction project he was engaged in at the time.

He raised the attic floor of No. 34 to full height and updated it with an impressive Italianate cornice and brownstone lintel over the doorway in the same style.  The paneled Federal style doors and transom were replaced with up-to-date double doors.


The panels of the doors precisely lined up with the new panels of the side walls.

If the Horton family lived in the remodeled house, it was not for long.  The following year they sold it to John and Jane Taylor who were living here with their adult son, James D. Taylor.  

James had fought in the Civil War in I Company of the New York National Guard.  He may have been living with his parents because of a long-standing medical condition. He died at the age of 24 on January 19, 1872 "after a long and lingering illness."   His funeral was held in the house two days later, well attended by members of his military company.

By 1879 John Dreyer, Jr. and his family had purchased the house.  Dreyer was in the provisions business in Washington Market.  

The house was the scene of a horrific tragedy in the fall of 1881.  The John Loescher family lived a few houses away at No. 40 Dominick Street.  Their son, John, Jr., was 14-years old at the time.  He and Julius Haefner, who was a year younger, had been best friends for years.  The New York Times said that they "were almost inseparable companions."

On the evening of September 21 the boys "quarreled for the first time in their lives" while eating pears.  The argument ended in their pelting one another with the fruit.  Three nights later John Loescher was on Dominick Street near his house when Julius appeared.  According to him, "Haefner suddenly struck him in the mouth."  The Times reported "Loescher had a common jack-knife with a blade two inches long in his hand, and as soon as he felt the blow he plunged the blade into Haefner's body up to the hilt."

John turned and fled while the injured boy staggered to the door of No. 34 in an attempt to get help, but "with a gasp fell dead."  The body was taken to a drugstore at Varick and Broome Street where, in a bizarre coincidence, Julius's mother was just walking out.  "She swooned as she saw the bloody corpse of her son, and was taken home by some of her neighbors."

It did not go well for the teen-aged culprit.  In his cell he explained to a New York Times reporter "I was mad when I did it and I didn't mean to to it."  While the journalist was still there the "crying and moaning" of a man could be heard.  John recognized that it was his father.  When John Sr. entered the cell, he told his son, "I would give $10,000 if it was you instead of that boy."  The Times concluded "Then the heart-broken man left the place, and the cell-door was closed again on the young murderer."

Veronica Dreyer was the victim of a thief who snatched her purse in December 1885.  It contained only a small amount of money; but her screams for help were enough to result in James Maloney's arrest.  In court on December 23 he wanted to explain his story to the judge, "but objected to being sworn," according to the New York Herald.  

Surprisingly, he was allowed to speak without being sworn in.  He said he had not intended to steal the purse, but only "to take it and hand it to her, to show how carelessly she was carrying it."   The judge was not convinced and Maloney was sentenced to two and a half years in Sing Sing Prison.

The family remained in the house until the estate of Catherine Dreyer sold it in 1909.  In 1915 it was home to Charles A. Peacock, a partner with his brother William in the fruit business, W. H. Peacock & Co., at No. 97 Water Street.

The house was sold again in 1923 to politician Peter J. Hamill and his wife the former Matilda Van Axen.  The couple had two children.

A Tammany Democrat, Hamill had been a member of the New York State Assembly since 1916.   Two years after moving into the Dominick Street house he was elected the Tammany Hall leader of the First Assembly District.  It was a sign that he was a rising star within the party.

It seems that the Hamills rented a room in the house to Edward Schramm in 1929.   By now the once quiet residential street was seeing the demolition of the old Federal houses and the rise of massive factory buildings in their place.  One such building was being erected at the corner of Dominick and Hudson Street that year.

The 52-year old Schramm was walking under the sidewalk scaffolding at the site on May 3, 1929 when it collapsed.  He was taken "severely injured" to St. Vincent's Hospital.  Two other pedestrians were slightly injured.

Later that year, on December 5, the State Democratic minority leader Maurice Bloch died from an embolism.  Two weeks later the Buffalo Courier Express called Hamill the "leading contender for the toga left by Bloch."  And, indeed, before the year was out Hamill was chosen the Democratic leader in the State Assembly.

Hamill's stellar rise came to an abrupt and unexpected end.  In the first week of January he suffered a severe appendicitis attack in the house and was rushed into surgery.  He never recovered from the operation and died in the hospital on January 13, 1930 at the age of 44.  His children, Mary and Peter, Jr., were just four- and two-years-old respectively.

The esteem with which Hamill was held within the political community was exemplified by Mayor James J. Walker's personally choosing the pall bearers for his funeral.  Among the 2,000 mourners in St. Alphonsus' Church on January 17 was Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Members of the St. Patrick's Cathedral choir sang the mass.  The chaplain of the United States Military Academy at West Point officiated, helped by the chancellor of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Monsignor Thomas G. Carroll and, according to the Buffalo Courier-Express, "more than twenty priests."

The following week the Buffalo-Courier Express reported that Matilda Hamill had been "appointed supervisor of investigators for the new crime prevention bureau of the police department."  Her annual salary, $4,500, would be equal to about $67,700 today.


Every window shade in Matilda Hamill's house was pulled to precisely the same level.  photo via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services. 

Matilda Hamill remained in the Dominick Street house until 1963.  Quite remarkably, as the neighborhood had filled with mammoth industrial structures, the south side of the block around No. 34 survived.

In 2012 No. 34 was nominated for landmark designation.  It was not a prospect well received by its owner, Robert Neborak.  He complained before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on March 27 that designation would force him to "bear the entire financial brunt" of preserving a building that did not warrant landmark status to begin with.   He said No. 34 "is not a notable architectural example of anything other than a well-maintained old building."

Neborak's arguments were unsuccessful and the 186-year old house was deemed an individual landmark.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The John Achelis House - 16 West 69th Street




In 1895 developer William E. Diller constructed two mirror-image homes at Nos. 18 and 20 West 69th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  He was apparently well pleased with the project, for the following year he brought erected an identical pair at Nos. 14 and 16.

Faced in brownstone at the basement and parlor levels, the four-story and basement homes featured dog-legged stoops which led to the double-doored entrances.  The upper floors were clad in red brick and trimmed in stone.  At the second floor a three-sided bay was decorated with Renaissance-inspired carved panels and a handsome stone balustrade.  

An egg-and-dart cornice with a frieze of carved vines and flowers separated the third and fourth floors.  The egg-and-dart motif was carried on in the architrave frames of the openings.


The pair of identical houses to the right, now painted white, were erected a year before Nos. 14 and 16.
Each of the 25-foot wide houses cost Diller $40,000 to construct, just under $1.25 million in today's money.  On May 1, 1897 the Real Estate Record & Guide announced that he had sold No. 16, saying "This is one of two houses just completed."  The article noted it boasted a "smoking-room, butler's pantry, bathroom and laundry extension."  The buyer was Fannie F. Morris, who paid Diller $80,000, garnering the developer a 100 percent profit on the property.  

Among Fannie's live-in servants in 1900 was 18-year old Jessie Winning.  Bicycles were a wildly popular fad at the time, but they were also very expensive.  So Jessie must have prudently saved her money to purchase hers.  She was riding on Central Park West on the evening of April 1 that year when she was involved in a horrible accident.

A party of four were headed downtown to the fashionable Sherry's restaurant in a coach.  A milk wagon was parked by the curb and the coachman attempted to go around it.  The New-York Tribune reported that Jessie "was knocked from her wheel and run over" by the coach.  "The wheels passed over Miss Winning's left leg and stomach."  She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital and George Fitzer, the coach driver, was arrested.  He insisted that Jennie had "rode under the horses' feet."  (The four dinner goers left the scene and continued on to Sherry's.)


Schellenger's dramatic stoop design includes balustrades, paneled wing walls, and a heavily-carved, scrolled console. 
Fannie Morris remained in the house until February 1903 when she sold it to John Achelis and his wife, the former Emmy Boeckler.  The couple had five children: sons Thomas, Johnfritz, and George Theodore, and daughters Emma and Dorothea.

Achelis was the junior partner in the dry goods commission firm of Frederick Vietor & Achelis, at the corner of Leonard and Church Streets.  The New-York Tribune said of it "There is no firm in the drygoods district that stands in higher estimation or rests upon a firmer basis."  It had been founded in 1825 by Charles Graebe.  Three years later it became Grabe & Vietor when John's grandfather, Frederick, was taken into the business.  By now the firm had branches in Bremen, Chemnitz, Paris and Lyon and did a staggering business.  Its 1897 sales were reported at $15 million--more in the neighborhood of $468 million today.

The New-York Tribune described John Achelis as "a popular man in the clubs of the city, and goes a great deal into society."  The family's summer home was Invermara in Sea Bright, New Jersey.  And like other wealthy families, the Achelises spent time abroad.  John was apparently too tied up with business to accompany his family in the spring of 1905.  Among the passengers who boarded the Kaiser Wilhelm II on April 23 that year were "Mrs. John Achelis, Miss Achelis, Miss Dorothea Achelis, Thomas Achelis and Master George Achelis."

On January 21, 1905 John and Emmy announced Emma's engagement to Gardiner Hope Miller.   In reporting the event The Daily Standard Union noted "Though Miss Achelis made her debut in Manhattan, her childhood was spent on the Heights [i.e. Brooklyn Heights], where she has many warm friends."  A year later, on January 14, 1906, the newspaper revisited Emma's engagement, saying the wedding would take place "some time in the spring."  

Emma's mother would not see her daughter married.  Four weeks later, on February 13, Emmy died "suddenly," as worded by The New York Herald.

Rather surprisingly, although it was delayed, Emma's wedding took place on September 19 at Invermara, just six months into the mourning period.  The New-York Tribune mentioned that "owing to the recent death of Mrs. Achelis [it] was rather quiet," and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said it "was thus simple in the extreme."

The bride's brother, Thomas, was attending Yale at the time, studying architecture.  He joined the Yale Dramatic Association by his senior year when he played the lead in Revizor which was staged in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria.  In the audience was theatrical producer and manager Daniel Frohman.  "He pronounced Achelis the best amateur he had ever seen, and this opinion was general, judging from the applause the young man received," reported The New York Times on April 21, 1908.  Frohman offered Thomas "an important part in one of his companies for next season."

That a career on the stage was not what John Achelis intended for his son goes without saying.  One can imagine the somber father-to-son discussions that took place in the smoking room or study of the 69th Street house.  The New York Times no doubt anticipated this, saying "The chance of his adopting the stage as a profession is remote."  As it turned out Thomas surprised almost everyone and apparently disappointed his father when he turned to acting.

In March 1910 Achelis hired the architectural firm of D'Oench & Yost to make what the Record & Guide said were "extensive alterations" to No. 16.  The updating included new, modern toilets, removing some interior walls, and enlarging the rear extension.


In 1913 John Achelis owned a Stearns-Knight car which would have been similar to this model.  LIFE magazine, 1913 (copyright expired)
Most likely to shield his family's name from the taint of the theater, Thomas Achelis took the stage name of Paul Gordon.  But it was his given name that appeared in the newspapers when his engagement to Margery Maude, daughter of famous British actor Cyril Maude was announced on December 23, 1915.  The New-York Tribune reported "The marriage will link one of England's best known theatrical families with one of New York's foremost business houses."  Apparently John's displeasure at his son's career choice had not abated and he had nothing to do with the announcement.  It was Thomas's brother, Johnfritz, who officially informed society.

Johnfritz, who graduated from Yale in 1913, may very well have given his father concerns as well.  While still in school, according to The Sun, "He appeared in several plays."  Instead, however, he joined the military and by the time of his marriage to Louise Musgrove on November 2, 1918, had reached the rank of lieutenant in the Field Artillery.  After serving six months on the French front, Johnfritz apparently wasted no time in proposing.  On November 10 The Sun reporting that "News reached this city last week of the marriage in Anniston, Ala."

Like his brothers, George attended Yale.  He was a senior there when his engagement to Grace Parker was announced on May 6, 1919.  Grace was the daughter of Professor Horatio Parker, head of the university's School of Music.  George graduated in June and the wedding took place on November 29.  The Sun reported "After their wedding trip he and his bride will make their home in Woodmere [Long Island]."

Heartache was in Grace's future.  Her father, who had written the music for her wedding, died on December 18, less than three weeks after giving her away.  Then, four months later on April 25, 1920, her 23-year old husband George died after a brief illness.

Grace moved from the couple's Woodmere residence to No. 16 West 69th Street, with her father-in-law and Dorothea.  She was no doubt a great help to John when he had to cope with a social event far outside of his comfort zone--Dorothea's introduction to society.  On January 1, 1922 The New York Herald announced he would host a dinner at Sherry's for her, followed by a theater party.  Helping the debutante receive her 40 guests that evening was her sister, Emma.

On June 28, 1923 the New York Evening Post reported on Grace's engagement to G. Herbert Semler.  "Mr. Achelis died three years ago, and since then Mrs. Achelis has made her home with her father-in-law, John Achelis, in town at 16 West Sixty-sixth Street, and at his country place in Seabright, N.J.," said the article.  The wedding took place on October 6 that year at Invermara.

Whether John ever reconciled with Thomas is unclear.  The actor's marriage had not lasted and he later married actress Ann Mason.  Around 1926 the couple moved to Florence because of Thomas's ill health.  He died there in May 1929.

John Achelis remained in the 69th Street house with Dorothea.  They appeared in society columns as they sailed to Europe together and as Dorothea entertained in Seabright.


Dorothea was snapped by paparazzi in 1930.  New York Evening Post November 8, 1930

They were at Invermara on May 26, 1932 when the 80-year old died.  Surprisingly, less than two months later, on July 9, The New York Sun reported "Miss Dorothy Achelis, who sailed for Europe last evening on the Bremen, was the guest of honor at a farewell dinner given prior to the sailing by a group of friends at the Starlight Roof Garden of the Waldorf-Astoria."  Later that year, on December 13, an auction was held in the 69th Street house of the furnishings and artwork.


Taken around the time of the renovation of No. 16, the stoop next door is still intact.  via the NYC Department of  Records & Information Services
The subsequent owners initiated a renovation, completed in 1940, which resulted in apartments and furnished rooms.  There are 14 residential units in the house today.  Yet the exterior is amazingly intact, little changed since the Achelis family lived here for three decades.



photographs by the author

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Lost Thomas Shields Clarke House - 50 Riverside Drive



photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1860, Thomas Shields Clarke pursued a career far afield of the railroad industry in which his father was an executive.  After graduating from Princeton University he studied at the Art Students League in New York, the Académie Julian in Paris, and ultimately the esteemed École des Beaux-Arts.

Clarke's first real recognition came in 1885 when one of his paintings was exhibited at the Paris Salon.  The following year he married Adelaide Knox in Switzerland.  The couple would have three children, Alma Adelaide, Beatrice, and Charles John.  Having lived abroad for eleven years, in 1894 Clarke brought his family to New York and soon turned his focus to creating a permanent home.

Architect C. P. H. Gilbert was busy designing a number of upscale residences along Riverside Drive and its side blocks.  On April 5, 1896 he filed plans for a four-story brick residence on the northeast corner of Riverside Drive and 77th Street for Clarke.  The commodious mansion would be 28-feet wide on 77th Street and stretch 83 feet along the Drive.  Construction costs were projected at $40,000, or approximately $1.23 million today.

Completed within a year, the red brick structure followed the angle of Riverside Drive with a succession of angles and setbacks.  Gilbert drew freely from historic styles.  Romanesque Revival appeared in the first floor openings and the medieval corbel table that girded the house above the third floor.  An Italian Renaissance hood capped the main entrance above a cascading staircase, and a deeply overhanging Tuscan roof completed the design.

The family had barely moved in before the idyllic quietude of the location with its beautiful vistas of the Hudson River was shattered by dynamite explosions on the opposite side.  At a meeting of the West End Association on November 19, 1897, Clarke asked a committee "to report whether property-owners have any remedy for damages due to heavy blasting on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River."

The Clarkes were visible in high society, summering among the wealthy at the best resorts.  On June 30, 1899, for instance, The Evening Telegram reported "Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Shields Clarke, of No. 50 Riverside Drive, leave this week for Lenox, where they have taken a cottage."

At the time Clarke had just completed his portion of the Admiral Dewey Memorial--an elaborate triumphal arch and colonnade which would would sit at Madison Square to welcome the admiral to New York.  A compliment of well-known sculptors had been hired to create models of the figures that would adorn the arch.  Workers then translated them into plaster for the temporary monument.  A month after the Clarkes arrived at Lenox The Sun reported on August 27 "The designs for the statue of Commodore Hull, the work of H. K. Bush-Brown, and that of Commodore McDonough, by Thomas Shields Clarke, have not been completed, but work on them will be hurried."


Among the statues of military figures lining the top of the arch was Clarke's Commodore McDonough.  King's Views of New York, 1899 (copyright expired)
Rather than continuing to lease, in 1901 the Clarkes took steps to establish a permanent summer home in Lenox.  On August 4 the New-York Tribune reported "Thomas Shields Clarke, the New-York sculptor, has bought the Mattoon estate of two hundred acres...The farm will be developed, and Mr. Clarke will build a summer home on his purchase."

And indeed he did.  Designed by Wilson Wyre, Fernbrook would be completed in 1904.  Although it was a sprawling manor, because Clarke wanted a "rustic" home, it took the form of an overblown English cottage.


A vintage postcard depicts Fernbrook's charm.
In the meantime the Riverside Drive house was the scene of the Clarke's winter season entertainments.  On December 14, 1901, for instance, they hosted a reception for American illustrator and muralist Edwin A. Abbey.  He was in town for the exhibition of his mural decorations for the Boston Public Library at the American Art Galleries.  The guest list included figures from the publishing and art communities, like Charles Scribner, Walter Appleton, Louis C. Tiffany, and art collector Henry Marquand and his wife.


Thomas Shields Clarke, Brush & Pencil, August 1900 (copyright expired)
Life at Fernbrook was normally bucolic; but it was the scene of near violence in the summer of 1908.  On the afternoon of June 5 Adelaide "had words," as described by the New-York Tribune, with the estate's superintendent, Thomas Pelle.  She complained to Clarke who fired Pelle and ordered him and his family off the now 300-acre estate.  Pelle responded by finding a club and threatening to kill the artist.  "The police made a quick run in an automobile to the Clarke place and arrested Pelle."

The Clarkes spent that winter season in Paris.  The Riverside Drive house was in charge of a caretaker, but he did not live in the mansion.   He arrived one morning to find the house ransacked by thieves who, according to The New York Times, "carried off nearly $10,000 worth of art treasures, jewelry, valuable antique bronzes, ornaments, silverware, and wearing apparel."  While the value on paper was about a quarter of a million in today's dollars, Clarke knew well that some of the items were invaluable.  His collection of ancient Greek and Roman bronzes was considered one of the finest in New York.

Notified of the theft by a cable from the caretaker, Clarke sailed home.  His great fear was for the bronzes, knowing that uneducated crooks might very well sell them for scrap metal.  Detectives spread across the city, scouring pawn shops, art galleries and such.  Thankfully, all of the bronze antiquities were found in a junk shop where the dealer said he had purchased the lot for $20.

The break-in prompted Clarke to burglar-proof his Riverside Drive home.  Not only did he move the caretaker into the house, he installed "sliding steel blinds and burglar alarms on doors and windows," according to The Times, as well as interior alarms.  "If any safe breaker succeeds in getting through the steel blinds he will set going half a dozen burglar alarms, which will arouse the whole block."

The Clarke's entertainments most often took place during the summer, at Fernbrook, than in the Riverside Drive house.  Even Beatrice's coming-out dance was held in her father's studio there.   And while house guests at Fernbrook always held social significance, none were more impressive than the President and First Lady in 1913.  On August 3 The Sun explained "Mr. Clarke was a classmate of President Wilson at Princeton."

A month later the Clarkes sold No. 50 Riverside Drive to Albert E. Smith, the head of the Vitagraph Company.  Born in England in 1875, the son of a gardener, Smith had come a long way.  The Sun later recalled that he and J. Stuart Blackton "were entertainers in the Lyceum when they first became interested in motion pictures; that was in 1898.  Mr. Smith invented a device to eliminate the objectionable flickering, and Mr. Blackton devoted his ability to perfecting the methods of expressing thought through action."  By now Vitagraph Company was one of the largest motion picture studios in the nation.

Smith's purchase of the Riverside Drive residence came just months after his marriage to silent film actress Hazel Neason (he had divorced his first wife, Mary May, in 1912).  


The service entrance was tucked around the corner, on the West 77th Street side.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Sun called Smith one of the six men responsible for making moving pictures not only popular, but an art form of sorts.  His large scale productions were costly and elaborate.  On May 23, 1915 The Sun reported "for one single thrill in 'The Juggernaut' $25,000 was spent on a scene in which an entire passenger train and a railroad bridge were wrecked."  (That one-time take would cost the equivalent of $645,000 today.)

As tensions rose overseas Smith used film as a means toward public awareness.  Fearful that America was unprepared for war, he produced The Battle Cry of Peace, mixing entertainment with political statement.  



The silent film industry was centered on the west side of Manhattan, in Brooklyn, and in New Jersey at the time.  The sprawling Vitagraph studios were in Brooklyn.  So elated was Smith when World War I came to an end, that he rewarded his entire staff.  On November 17, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported "Everybody in the Vitagraph studio, from office boy to star, was presented with a $5 bill by Albert E. Smith last Monday in honor of the signing of the armistice.  And then he gave them a half holiday to go and spent it.  And if they stayed in Brooklyn $5 was enough to last them, money goes so much further on the other side of the bridge."


Albert E. Smith The Sun, May 23, 1915 (copyright expired)
Two months later he collaborated with Sergeant Arthur Guy Empey who had served eighteen months in the trenches, was wounded three times, and who earned his rank "for bravery in action."  Sent home "invalided," he had taken up the pen "with the purpose of arousing the American people to their highest fighting pitch by actually showing them what the war means to this country," according to the New-York Tribune.

With the war now over, Smith purchased the rights to Empey's book, Over the Top, and cast Empey to play himself in the film version.  The resultant work was as much thrilling entertainment as documentary.


New-York Tribune, March 31, 1918 (copyright expired)

Smith's use of the film medium as an important documentary tool continued.  On December 8, 1918 The Sun reported "At the request of several prominent anthropologists Albert E. Smith, president of the Vitagraph Company, will begin recording by motion pictures the dances, games, sports and all things possible to a complete pictorial history of the American Indian early this spring."  Smith was intent on memorializing the disappearing culture authentically.  "Accuracy will predominate in the picturization, and the spectacular, while not neglected, will be sacrificed for historical values."



Hazel Neason Smith, original source unknown
Hazel died on January 24, 1920 at the age of 28.  It may have been the emotional shock of her loss that prompted Smith not only to sell the Riverside Drive house, but everything within it.  On December 16 the New-York Tribune reported "The house furnishings and embellishments contained in the residence of Albert E. Smith will be sold on the premises, 50 Riverside Drive, this morning and to-morrow."

The auction listing revealed the sumptuous interiors, saying that the "handsome furnishings and embellishments" were "by the Tiffany Studios, W. & J. Sloane and other First Class Establishments."  The oil paintings were sold separately in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hotel later.

Smith's sale of the unusual brick mansion came at a time when the opulent homes of Riverside Drive were being bulldozed for modern apartment buildings.  No. 50 survived only nine more years.  On December 3, 1929 The New York Times reported that the 50 Riverside Drive, Inc., Isaac Polstein, Inc. planned at fifteen-story apartment building on the site.  That structure, designed by Gronenberg & Leuchtag, survives.
photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The 1832 Club Stables - 15 Downing Street





James Votey was born in 1805 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Having relocated to New York City, he married the former Martha Coe in 1831.  By now he was now a vice-president in the New-York and Schuylkill Coal Company .

Votey had owned the plot of late at No. 15 Downing Street in Greenwich Village singe 1825, possibly with the intentions of someday erecting his home there.  Instead, around the time of his marriage, he erected a brick-faced three-story stable on the lot.  The location was inconvenient to both his office, which was far downtown at No. 48 Wall Street, and his home on Grove Street.  Votey sold the newly-completed structure in 1832.

Many of the stables erected later in the decade would feature a central bay door flanked by openings.  But at just 19-feet wide the modest building made do with one bay door to the left with a pedestrian doorway next to it.  Storage on the second floor would have held tack, hay and other supplies, while rooms for at least one stable employee were on the top floor.  Behind the building were the necessary manure pits.

No. 15 became a boarding stables, known as the Club Stables, operated by a man named Sawyer.  Here neighborhood residents kept their vehicles and horses.  At least one of Sawyer's clients was financially comfortable enough to travel abroad.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on April 12 1854 sought a buyer for "Two superior light wagons, built to order."  It noted "will be sold cheap, as the owner is about leaving for Europe.  Apply at the club stables."

Similar ads appeared throughout the coming years.  George Carpenter, whose offices were at No. 13 Chambers Street, advertised a "light trotting wagon, and one top wagon" for sale in 1855.  He made special note that the latter was "nearly new, with a shifting top, and fit for city use."  And the following year a "fine bay horse" was offered for sale.  It "would make a lady's saddle horse."

In 1861 the Club Stables got a new next door neighbor.  William Martin and George Kinnier had run John Harrison's Brewery on Sullivan Street for seven years.  Now they acquired the New York Steam Brewery and renamed it the United States Brewery.  The operation ran through the block from Nos. 38 and 40 Carmine Street to No. 17 Downing Street.  The partners' announcement of the take-over in December 1861 noted "they will manufacture the choicest brands of Pale and Amber Ales, X. and XX Porter."

It was not long before Sawyer's Club Stables was absorbed into the brewery complex, which at least by 1868 was owned by John Boyd and William Kirk.  It appears that the former stable building continued to be used to house trucks and horses, as well as the offices of the firm.  Boyd and Kirk ran saloons throughout the city as well.

The partners leased the buildings from the widowed Ellen Wilson who lived in Brooklyn.  In January 1887 she transferred title to Joseph Wilson, presumably a relative, for $4,582.00, or about a quarter of a million in today's dollars.  

By the time William Kirk died in 1889 he had purchased No. 15, title to which was now transferred to his children, John L. Kirk, Emma Kirk, Margaret J. Ruth and Mary E. Clelland.  In March the following year they sublet the building to Rudolph Kraft and Adolf Lucker, owners of the Champion Brewing Company.  

John L. Kirk hired architect J. B. Franklin to make alterations for the new tenants in July that year.  His plans included "interior alterations and walls altered."  But the Kirks apparently changed their minds.  Just a year later, on January 24, 1891, the Record & Guide announced the Kirks had cancelled the lease.  Seven days later an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "Ale Brewery In This City" for sale with "immediate possession."


In July 1892 Kirk hired architect A. T. Norris to convert the building back to a stable.  The renovations, which cost about $57,000 in today's dollars, were mostly on the inside, although they included widening the truck bay.  

In October Kirk advertised "New Stable, 15 Downing St. To Lease" and touted "three stories high, 17 stalls, carriage hoist and wash stand, ample rein storage and new floors."

Kirk continued to make updates to the building and on August 18, 1912 he advertised in the New York Herald: "To Let--Stable, 20 large stalls, newly refitted, wagon elevator, immediate possession."  A nearly identical advertisement appeared in the newspaper four years later.

It may have been the phasing out of horses in favor of motorcars following World War I that ended the operation of No. 15 Downing Street as a stable.  By the 1920's it was being operated as a junk shop operated by the De Vito family. 



A sign reads "Junk Shop in this 1927 photograph.  Second-hand clothes are displayed in front of the old carriage bay doors.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Michael De Vito found himself in serious trouble on September 19, 1939.  Calling him a "junk dealer," The New York Sun explained "De Vito, who has been running the business during his father's illness, was arrested yesterday at the junkyard at 15 Downing street, where detectives found about 700 pounds of brass fittings and ball bearings."  The problem was that the brass had been stolen from the Jersey Central Railroad.  "He admitted having bought the brass," said the article, "but said he didn't know it had been stolen."

He had even larger problems to deal with, however.  "De Vito is wanted by Baltimore authorities for breaking parole in connection with a homicide case.  He has been sentenced to from six years to life imprisonment."


As mid-century approached, the upper floors were painted.  Little else, including the sign, had changed.  photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services.
As little Downing Street was discovered by a new (and moneyed) generation in the last quarter of the 20th century, No. 15 was unofficially converted to a two-family residence with a garage on the ground floor.  It was not until 1985 that it received its blessing in the form of a Certificate of Occupancy from the Building's Department.



Now nearly 190 years old, the little stable-turned brewery-turned junk shop is disguised by a cumbersome fire escape and a coat of blue paint that prompts a "what were they thinking?" moment.  That and its location on the quiet side street make it easily overlooked.

photographs by the author