George J. Hamilton was both an architect and real estate developer. He worked tirelessly in the Harlem district in the 1880's and '90's erecting flat buildings and rowhouses. In January 1889 he filed plans to erect twelve residences--18 and 19 feet wide each--along the block front of Edgecombe Avenue between 138th and 139th Streets. Each was to cost $8,500 to construct--around $239,000 today.
His Queen Anne style row was completed in the spring of 1890. Like its neighbors, No. 88 Edgecombe Avenue rose three stories above a high English basement. The basement and first floor were faced in rough-cut brownstone; the upper floors in red brick. The grouping of three parlor floor windows was enhanced with stained glass transoms. A metal-clad rounded bay rose two stories to a conical "witch's cap" which protruded from the slate shingled mansard.
Interestingly, the title to No. 88 was held by Hamilton's wife, Ida M. Equally interesting (or more so) was the deal she made on September 6, 1890. She transferred the title to the Lorillard Brick Works Co., "with agreement to deliver bricks." The new owner soon sold the house to Edwin D. Smith, Jr.
Smith was a physician. Living with him in the 14-room house was his mother, Emily. Dr. Smith had two sisters, Lucille and Mildred, and a brother, George De F. Smith.
After Dr. Smith's death around 1903 the Edgecombe Avenue house was inherited in equal shares by his sisters. In the summer of 1904 Mildred sold her half to Lucille, whose married name was Martin.
For a year she leased the house to the Felix Russak family. Russak was head of the insurance firm Felix Russak & Co. on Pine Street. He had gone into the insurance field in 1874 and was deemed by The Insurance Press "a gentleman of the old school." The family's social station was high enough to earn them mention in the society pages. On June 25, 1905, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "Miss Lotta Russak, of No. 88 Edgecombe-ave., is at Huntington, Long Island."
Lotta's engagement to Emil Klett of Berlin, Germany was announced later that year, on November 25. The New York Herald remarked "Mrs. Russak and her daughter recently returned from an extensive tour of Europe."
The following month Lucille Martin sold the house to John Rankin. He and his wife, Mary, had a daughter, Margaret. They took in at least one boarder by 1910, real estate operator Edward A. Bell.
Rankin advertised the house for sale in April 1911, describing it as "handsomely furnished, in fine repair, must sell." Nevertheless, it did not sell and the Rankins continued living here. His eagerness to sell had cooled in 1915 when developers began purchasing up almost all the properties on the block as the site of an apartment house. Or it may have simply been his greed that resulted in No. 88 being vised in by the modern structures which were completed in 1916.
If, indeed, Rankin had held out for more money, his plan backfired. He offered the property for sale again in May 1918 with a price tag of just $10,000--about $170,000 today. Before he could find a buyer, Margaret died. Her funeral was held in the house on December 14, 1919.
Mabel A. Dreyer purchased No. 88 and converted it to furnished rooms by 1921, earning it the Department of Building's tag "tenement house" that year. She advertised "Front Room, modern apartment; kitchen privileges" for one or two tenants in May 1923.
By now Harlem had become the center of Manhattan's Black community. In the first years of the 1930's the tenants of No. 88 were well-heeled professionals, such as Dr. William C. Roane and his wife, the former Carita Y. Owens, who moved in in May 1931. The couple had been married in May the previous year.
They wasted no time in opening their home. On August 1 that year The New York Age reported, "Arthur Reason of St. Louis, Mo., was the guest last week of Dr. and Mrs. William C. Roane, 88 Edgecombe avenue. While here Prof. Reason was entertained at dinner by Mr. and Mrs. S. Van Holmes of the Dunbar Apartments."
And six months later, on January 9, 1932, the same newspaper reported "Mr. and Mrs. John Matthews, Miss Madeline Matthews and Mr. Mickens of Washington D. C. and Counselor William A. Pollard of Philadelphia, Penn., were the holiday guests of Dr. and Mrs. William C. Roane, 88 Edgecombe avenue."
Carita Roane was a manager of the New York State Employment Service. On April 9, 1938 The New York Age reported that she and her husband would be spending a week at the home of Mr. and Mrs. P. T. Greene, in Washington D. C. "The purpose of Mrs. Roane's visit to Washington is to attend a conference with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt."
Throughout the 1930's newspapers reported on the comings and goings of the residents of the house. At some point before 1940 the stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to the ground floor. A Greek Revival enframement, perhaps salvaged from a demolished house, was installed.
|In 1941 the house had lost its stoop. The architects of the large apartment houses designed them around the vintage home. via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services|
Today there are four apartments in the Smith house. The stubborn hold out is one of two surviving relics of George J. Hamilton's 1890 row (the other being at the southern corner).
photograph by the author