Wednesday, May 20, 2020

From Apartments to Mega-Mansion, Wm. H. Bickmire's 1899 133 East 73rd Street

In the last week of April 1899 real estate operators Mandelbaum & Lewine purchased the two three-story houses at Nos. 133 and 135 East 73rd Street at auction.  Before the week was out they had resold them to Michael F. Cusack.  On May 2 the New York Journal and Advertiser announced that he "will build a six-story apartment house, with elevator and modern improvements there."

The newspaper either got the details slightly wrong, or Cusack altered his plans.  For when his architect, William H. Birkmire, filed plans in August they called for just five stories.  He estimated the construction costs of the structure at $30,000; or around $955,000 today.

Birkmire's design drew from several styles.  Beaux Arts appeared in the stoop and porch on East 73rd Street and in the terra cotta spandrel panels of ribboned wreaths above the third floor.  Overall his inspiration was from the currently-popular neo-Georgian style that had begun nudging out Beaux Arts a few years earlier.

Stealing the show, however, were the four Lexington Avenue storefronts.  Their ebullient ornamentation epitomized the Belle Epoch with dainty metal canopies over each entrance, pairs of lamps that hung from thin spikes sprouting from cast iron urns, and an elaborate oeil de boeuf window in the corner store that could have been plucked from the Champs-Élysées.
A decorative metal cornice decorated the entrance to each storefront.
Although badly battered, the fact that the unusual lamp posts survive along the Lexington Avenue storefront at all is miraculous.
The apartments of "seven large rooms and bath," as described in an ad, filled with financially-comfortable residents.  Among the initial tenants were Isaac Alkus and Maurice Mass, both of whom were Commissioners of Deeds, a position similar to a Notary Public today.  Mass's main position was as a clerk with a downtown bank.  His son, Leon, was a tailor.  

Even the corner lamppost survives.
Both Mary Russell and Mary Fraser received their certifications as registered nurses in 1904.  Among the more affluent residents, presumably, was Dr. Edgar Steiner Thomson who lived in the building at least in 1900 through 1901.  He served on the faculty of the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital.

Leon Mass found himself in serious trouble in 1902.  He was arrested in July for what today would be termed stalking.  The Brooklyn newspaper The Daily Standard Union explained that Mrs. Anna Wilkinson, who lived in the St. James Hotel, accused him "of having annoyed her for eight or ten days by following her whenever she went out."

The New York Herald described Wilkinson on July 14 as "a beautiful young woman, whose gowns were the most stylish that have been seen in the Yorkville Court during the time of the present attachés."  She did not accuse the young man of having improper sexual or romantic intentions; but of being a spy for her husband.  She told the court "I have been unable to appear on the street without being followed.  This has been going on for a long time, but for ten days it has been unbearable."

"Showing much irritation," Leon Mass addressed Mrs. Wilkinson directly, telling her "You made a mistake.  If you have been followed, it has been by some person other than me."  Mass's employer later supported his story that he was a tailor and not a private detective and the complaint was dismissed.

When the property was sold in April of 1906, the New-York Tribune described it as "a modern apartment house."  The storefronts housed a variety of businesses.  The corner shop was what might be called a women's boutique today, selling custom handbags; No. 1026 was the shop of furrier Philip Kesler; and No. 1028 was Anthony Gunther's undertaking establishment.

Reverse painted signage on glass has somehow endured for more than a century.
Sisters Margaret Schuyler Townsend and Janet King Townsend took an apartment together in October 1913.  The daughters of Stephen Van Renasselaer Townsend and Jacket Eckford Townsend, their impressive pedigrees were reflected in their names.  Only days after the lease was signed, The Sun noted "The Misses Janet King Townsend and Margaret Schuyler Townsend, after passing a year in Europe, will be at 133 East Seventy-third street for the winter."

John Duir Irving, a former professor of economic geology at Yale University, shared an apartment with the family of his brother, Dr. Peter Irving.  The men were direct descendants, according to the New-York Tribune, "of a brother of Washington Irving."

For the preservation of their reputations as well as for their safety, unmarried women did not often live alone.  The Townsend sisters side-stepped the problem by sharing an apartment.  One well-to-do woman not phased by the stigma was Charlotte C. Castner, who lived in the building by 1917.

Bickmire had to design the storefronts to accommodate the slope of Lexington Avenue.
Charlotte's social calendar was filled on April 15 that year.  She went to the Waldorf-Astoria for an early dinner, then to the opera.  When she returned home late that night "she found that her apartment had been ransacked," according to The New York Times.  "Among the missing articles were a necklace valued at $8,000, another necklace worth $3,000, and a brooch she valued at $3,500."  Also stolen were furs and silverware.  The total haul would be worth nearly $420,000 today.

Three months later, on July 20, The New York Times entitled an article "Gem Theft Puzzles Police."  The Philadelphia Enquirer picked up the story the following day, reporting that Charlotte had taken her frustration to the top of the Police Department.  The article said she "has made a personal appeal to Arthur Woods, Police Commissioner, to have a special effort made" to recover the goods.  Woods assigned "several special detectives to the case."

At the time Mary Leland Thorp Butler lived here with her daughters, Eleanor Grenville and Hope (both members of the Junior League).  The girls' father, author and journalist Robert Gordon Butler, had died in 1906.  The Butlers were among several residents who were personally affected by the war in Europe.  

Eleanor Butler joined the Y.M.C.A. canteen service and went to France.  Other residents of the building who shipped off to France were John Duir Irving, Franklin Cooper, who lived with his widowed mother Nora F. Cooper, and Charles B. Stuart.

Stuart was promoted to First Lieutenant on December 18, 1916, the same year that John Duir Irving was commissioned as a Captain of Engineers.  Irving served as an instructor at the Army engineering school in France.

Although Irving did not see battle, he was nevertheless a casualty of war.  On August 2, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported he had died from disease in France.   Three months later the Official U. S. Bulletin published the latest list of American soldiers killed in France.  Among them was Franklin Cooper.

At the end of the war Eleanor Butler rejoined her mother and sister in the 73rd Street apartment.  On April 7, 1923 she was riding in the car of Ethel Outerbridge.  (Ethel was the wife of Eugenius H. Outerbridge, first president of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority for whom the Outbridge Crossing is named.)  The chauffeur, Thomas Davies, turned from 72nd Street onto Lexington Avenue just as the Lexington Avenue street car approached the intersection.  "Motorman John Hennessy jammed on his brakes, but it was too late to avoid the collision, which threw the motor car against the curb," reported The New York Times.  "Mrs. Outerbridge was pitched against a seat and Miss Butler was thrown to the street."

Although slightly injured himself, Davies drove the women to the Presbyterian Hospital.  Ethel had two broken ribs and cuts, and Eleanor suffered "contusions of the scalp and right hand."

The sisters' names appeared in newspapers for much happier reasons two years later.  On February 15, 1925 The New York Times reported that Eleanor Grenville Butler had married Henri Louis Marindin "at noon yesterday at the home of the bride's uncle, Willard Parker Butler."  Hope was Eleanor's maid of honor.  The article noted that they were the great granddaughters of Benjamin Franklin Butler, Attorney General under President Van Buren.

Seven months later, on September 29, a wire from Paris to The New York Times announced "Friends here learned only today of the marriage of Huntington Wilson, former American Under-Secretary of State, to Miss Hope Butler, niece of Charles Butler of New York, which occurred at Zurich, Switzerland on September 1." 

Other residents over the years were Mrs. C. Barron Taylor and her daughter, Gertrude Bowdith Taylor (Gertrude's debutante entertainments were held during the 1930-31 season); Frederick Osborn and his wife, the former Margaret L. Scheffelin; and Miles Oakley Bidwell.  Bidwell, who was the head of M. Oakley Bidwell Associates, a publicity agency, was married to Frances Jones Mallory in his apartment here on October 27, 1933.  And for years U. S. Navy Commander Francis Bowie Stoddert and his wife and son lived in the building.

On June 25, 1940 Mrs. Lowry Gillett announced the engagement of her daughter, Enid, to Peter Irving, Jr.  Ironically, the prospective groom was the son of Dr. Peter Irving and nephew of Captain John Duir Irving.  He had spent his childhood in the building now home to his fiancée.  

Change came in 1961 when the building was connected internally with No. 137 East 73rd Street and converted to doctor's offices, known as the Lexington Professional Center.  Over the years it was home to groups like the Women's Medical Group, one of only two clinics in the city where abortions could be legally performed.  On October 25, 1970 The New York Times reported that it and the Women's Medical Center on Irving Place "could do perhaps 50,000 abortions a year at a cost ranging from nothing to $200 a procedure."

The two buildings were connected internally in 1961.
In 1972 the Acupuncture Center of New York faced legal battles when it was closed by court order for "practicing medicine illegally," as reported in The Times on November 12.  But the most celebrated tenant was sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose office was in the building for years.

Not all the tenants were so upstanding.  Psychiatrist Aaron Friedberg's main office was on Park Avenue, but he kept an auxiliary office here.  In July 2003 he was arrested on charges of "selling prescription drugs," according to The New York Times.  Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau charged that he "rented space that was used for the illegal drug sales at 133 East 73rd Street."

In 2008 plans were filed to alter the building "from offices to residential."  Owner Lloyd Goldman, through his broker Ivan Hakimian, marketed the property "as an opportunity for a single-family residential conversion" into "one of the nicest and most unique mansions Manhattan has ever seen," as reported in The Real Deal in May 2010.

Astonishingly, Avi Dishi, president of Elysee Investment, purchased the building for $32 million that September and obtained approval to convert the building "into what would technically be the largest single-family home in Manhattan," according to The Real Deal's Sarabeth Sanders on September 15, 2010.

Construction continues on the 24,207-square-foot residence.  In the meantime, the astonishingly surviving 19th century storefronts have emerged along Lexington Avenue.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Holly Tooker for prompting this post


  1. Avi Dishi? (not Avi Disher)

    1. Thanks! Auto-correct always thinks it knows everything. It doesn't!