Completed in 1892, the 25 rowhouses along the south side of West 138th Street between today's Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards were designed by James Brown Lord. The three-story, red brick residences were part of the visionary project of David H. King Jr. known as the King's Model Houses. Lord's modern take on Georgian architecture included egg-and-dart carving around the parlor level openings and elongated, foliate-carved keystones. The upper story windows were framed in brownstone quoins and wore splayed lintels. A pressed metal cornice with an ornate fascia crowned the design.
Behind the row was an "interior cross-street," accessed by two wide carriage entrances with iron double gates. Families used them, most likely, as often as the tradesmen who made rear deliveries. King originally planned circular flower beds and fountains for the rear courtyards. The carriage entrances made the houses on either side especially desirable, because they were afforded an extra wall of light and ventilation.
The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide published a projected view of the courtyards on April 9, 1892. image courtesy of the Office of Metropolitan History
Among them was 240 West 138th Street. It became home to wealthy silk importer William B. Strong and his wife, the former Mary E. Leavitt. The couple had married in June 1884. Not long after moving into the West 138th Street house, the Strongs' domestic bliss fell apart.
In January 1896 Strong ordered Mary out of the house. She later explained, "for the sake of appearances, she remained there, paying her own expenses until June." (Because Mary had her own significant fortune, she could afford to support herself and maintain the charade.) At that point she went to the summer estate of her sister, Mrs. Francis Tuckerman, in Bar Harbor, Maine. At the end of the summer social season, Mary relocated to Newport where she owned a cottage.
Finally, Mary dispensed with appearances. On May 24, 1898 the New York Herald ran an all-caps headline, "DIVORCE FOR MRS. W. B. STRONG / Wife of a Prominent and Well-do-Do Silk Importer Gets a Decree in Newport / WOULD NOT SUPPORT HER." Mary's hopes of avoiding scandal were over. She obtained her divorce on charges of "failure to provide necessities."
Almost immediately, Strong sold 204 West 138th Street to the newly-married Dr. Joseph Brown Cooke. Born in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1868, he had had a privileged upbringing. He attended three private academies--the Franklin School, Trinity School, and Phillips Exeter Academy--before entering the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons where he earned his medical degree in June 1891.
Cooke married Constance Rachel Cottin in London on May 31, 1898. The couple had a newborn daughter, Lucy Elizabeth, when they moved in. Three more children would soon arrive, Constance Ursala in 1901, Joseph Cottin in 1902, and Charles Harris in 1904.
Well-to-do families spent the summer months at either their country homes or at fashionable resorts. Very often the husbands would remain in the city during the week to take care of business, joining their families on the weekends. Most of them stayed at their social clubs, rather than go to the expense of keeping their townhouses open for a single occupant. But Dr. Cooke likely saw patients at home during certain hours, so he remained in the West 138th Street house.
Dr. Cooke's family was "in the country," as worded by The Sun, during the summer of 1907, "but he has relatives stopping at the house." Cooke arrived home around midnight on August 17 and, according to The Sun, "after writing letters for an hour, he went to bed."
The New-York Tribune reported, "About an hour later the physician was awakened by some one on the stairs, and, getting his revolver, went into the hall." He ran into a man and, according to The New York Times, demanded, "Put up your hands and don't move." Instead the burglar bolted. Cooke fired a shot and the intruder fell down the stairs." Cooke was close behind, and fired two more shots in quick succession. The Sun continued, "the thief dodged through the hallway to the rear of the house and got out through an open window. The physician fired another shot, but the burglar climbed over the fence and got away."
By now, reported The Sun, "the neighborhood was aroused and several patrolmen came hurrying up." In the dining room, the Cooke silver had been loaded into bags, ready to be taken away. The burglar was, most likely, on a search for jewelry on the upper floors when Cooke encountered him. Blood spots were found outside the kitchen window, leading police to believe Cooke had hit the robber.
The following afternoon, John Williams, reportedly an elevator operator, entered Otto Krauss's drugstore on Seventh Avenue with an open bullet wound on his arm. Krauss summoned the police, who asked Williams how he came to be shot. He refused to answer and was held on suspicion of the Cooke burglary.
The erudite Dr. Cooke published a textbook, A Nurse's Handbook of Obstetrics, in 1903, the same year he wrote a pamphlet for expectant mothers, "Before the Baby Comes." He lectured on obstetrics for the city's Department of Charity in 1908.
In 1909 the Cookes left West 138th Street. Their former home was purchased by banker Frederick William M. Kamm. Living with her unmarried brother was Therese C. C. Kamm.
Born in Bonn, Germany in 1847, Kamms' parents brought the children to America in 1852. Frederick joined the banking firm of Lazard Freres in 1869 and four decades later was still there. His elevated interests were reflected in his memberships in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Geographical Society.
Sadly, Frederick Kamm would not enjoy his new home long. He died of a heart attack in the house on July 5, 1909 at the age of 62. Therese died three years later, on January 14, after a short illness. The 65-year-old's funeral was held in the parlor two days later.
The block was seeing significant change by then. The extension of the subway into Harlem in 1904 made the district more accessible. Landlords downtown had been taking advantage of their Black tenants for years, overcharging on rents. The northward migration of the Black community was changing the demographics of the formerly all-white block.
There was a quick succession of owners for 240 West 138th Street, until Dr. J. Freeman Otto purchased it in March 1921. Harrison ran the Cosmopolitan College of Chiropractic, and on March 16 the New-York Tribune reported that he "will remodel the dwelling, altering the two upper floors into dormitories."
Simultaneously, Otto hired Hubert H. Harrison as the school's Instructor in Embryology. According to Jeffrey B. Perry, in his Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, Harrison wrote in his diary that he was "the only Negro on the Faculty and the only member of it who is not a doctor." He gave a series of lectures for the students and their guests.
An advertisement for the Cosmopolitan College of Chiropractic in April 1922 lured prospective students with the prospect of financial success and respectability. It said in part, "Incomes of $5,000 and $10,000 dollars per year are common and the added advantages of social prominence and opportunity for service are not equalled."
The school did not last at the location, and by 1924 204 West 138th Street was being run as a boarding house by Louise Peters Haubs. Among her tenants in 1924 was Theodore Baker and his live-in girlfriend, Jessie Wright. Jessie managed a hairdressing parlor at 2343 Seventh Avenue. On July 16, 1924, the couple had an argument and Baker shot Jessie three times in the chest. The Pittsburgh Courier reported, "The woman was in bed at the time of the shooting."
Louise Haubs sold the house to Jacob Goodman, who resold it in January 1929. The New York Sun reported that the buyer "expects to make extensive alterations with intentions of using the house as a furnished rooming house."
In 1940, William Julius operated what the Census Bureau deemed a "lodging house." Almost unbelievably, the census that year listed 32 persons, including Julius, living here. Several of them comprised small families, like 21-year-old Hamer Banki and his 20-year-old wife, Cuetta. They had an 18-month old son, Norman.
The venerable house received a make-over in 1982, when it was converted to seven apartments, two per floor plus one in the basement level.
photograph by the author
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