Friday, July 3, 2020

The 1854 Thaddeus Hyatt House - 46 Morton Street

Thaddeus Hyatt erected the handsome row in 1857.  No. 46 is at the far left.

In 1854, at a time when the bulk of Manhattan rowhouses were being built with tall stone stoops, the architect of Thaddeus Hyatt's four of four upscale homes turned to the Anglo-Italianate style which precluded the necessity of navigating the steps.  Their entries were within a brownstone base.  The second, or parlor floors, boasted elegant French windows fronted by cast iron balconettes and classical stone pediments.  The openings of the upper floors wore bracketed cornices, while the sills sat upon unusual paired corbels.

Although the French windows have been replaced and, sadly, a veneer of brick applied over the brownstone base, the delightful cast iron balconettes survive.
Located at Nos. 46 through 52 Morton Street, they sat on land Hyatt had purchased from Trinity Church a year earlier.  He advertised his "first class basement Houses" for sale with $3,000 (about $94,200 today) down and "the balance on favorable terms."  His ads cleverly did not reveal what that balance was.

It does not appear that Hyatt intended to live in one of the houses, for all four were initially advertised.  Nevertheless, he moved his family into No. 46.  The lot it sat upon was made peculiar because of its location in the elbow of Morton Street's curve.  The 18-foot frontage fanned out to the rear to accommodate a 2,000-square-foot garden.

Hyatt had made his fortune through the bull's-eye vault light which he invented in 1845--an improvement of an earlier single-lens design.  Embedded in the sidewalk, the plates admitted light into areas below street level and were safe to walk on even if all the glass was broken.  One vault was even installed in the sidewalk directly in front of the Hyatts' house which survives.

Hyatt's vault plates diffused light under the street.  United States Patent letter August 27, 1867
In addition to the Thaddeus Hyatt & Co., he was a partner with his older brother, Theodore P. Hyatt in Hyatt Brothers.  Theodore was also an inventor and held several patents, like his "illuminating roofings," "fire-proof illuminating tiles," and "illuminating roof-plates."

Thaddeus Hyatt - from the collection of the Library of Congress
Thaddeus and his wife would eventually have two sons and four daughters.  They were fervent abolitionists and the New-York Tribune later said of Thaddeus "In the fifties he joined heart and soul in the movement to check the extension of slavery.  His house, in Morton-st., was the headquarters of the anti-slavery leaders in New-York.  John Brown when in the city always made his home with Mr. Hyatt."

Following the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which allowed the territory's voters to decide the slavery issue) in 1854, he poured money into the cause and traveled to Kansas for long stretches of time.

But trouble came when, following Brown's execution for the raid on Harper's Ferry, Thaddeus Hyatt refused to testify before the Senate.  His 23-page response maintained that the Senate had no power to compel his appearance.  He was imprisoned in Washington where he continued to be defiant by having "his cell comfortably fitted up, and [sending] out 'at home' cards to his many friends in Congress and in official position in Washington," according to the New-York Tribune.  "When not engaged in receiving callers Mr. Hyatt addresses anti-slavery communications to various papers and magazines."

In New York on May 11, 1860 the Cooper Union was "densely a most respectable audience," according to The New York Times, at a rally "sympathizing with Mr. Thaddeus Hyatt."

Three months into his sentence the Senate committee was dissolved and Hyatt was released.  He telegraphed home, "Have been kicked out.  Will be home to-morrow."

In the meantime, Theodore was losing patience.  Thaddeus was using company money to fund his causes.  During his imprisonment Theodore had sent a letter to W. F. M. Arny which said in part:

The fact is,...unless my poor demented, insane brother changes his course and husbands his resources, Heaven itself cannot safe him from destruction, for while he is wasting thousands of dollars on the infernal John Brown, Washington Jail humbug his property heavily mortgaged is eating him up with expense of interest, taxes & assessments amounting yearly to over five thousand dollars."

Apparently the financial pressures forced Hyatt to give up his home.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on October 7, 1871 offered "House 46 Morton Street For Sale--An elegant house, with very large lot and beautiful garden filled with shrubbery, flowers and vines."

Hyatt's home was saved by Theodore Hyatt and his wife, the former Mary N. Winans.  The title was put in Mary's name.  Thaddeus and his wife remained in the house with Theodore and Mary.

Thaddeus's interests were varied.  His early interest in aviation had led him to offer "a reward of $1,000 to any inventor able to produce an actual flying machine" in 1857.  In 1877 he published Concrete Beams in Building Structures and the following year patented the first reinforced concrete.

Theodore Hyatt was described by The New York Herald as an "inventive and mechanical genius."  He had continued to improve on his brother's invention and in 1878 held 40 patents on the vault lights alone.  It was most likely the Financial Panic of 1873 that caused a downturn in business for Hyatt Brothers, and by the end of 1878, according to The New York Herald, "business reverses are said to have set in."

His business troubles weighed heavily on Theodore.  The newspaper said that in addition to his depression, "for some time past he has been under medical treatment for a nervous complaint, which took the form of insomnia."

On January 8, 1879 Theodore Hyatt went to his office at No. 25 Waverly Place as usual.  The New York Herald reported that around noon, "Jacob Jacobs, while passing Mr. Hyatt's office on the second floor, heard what he describes as a 'gurgling noise.'"  The office door was locked, so Jacobs went to the office next door, climbed out the window onto a wide cornice, and made his way to Hyatt's window.   Theodore Hyatt sat at his desk "with a Smith & Wesson seven-barrelled revolver in his hand."  He had shot himself in the head.

Within months of the death Thaddeus and his wife moved to Brooklyn.  Mary N. Hyatt transferred title of No. 46 Morton Street to her son, Theodore Porter Hyatt on June 4, 1883.

The house remained in the family for decades to come.  Around 1901 Celeste W. Herrick, the granddaughter of Theodore P. Hyatt, moved in.  The unmarried Public Library assistant got into a heated battle with her next door neighbor, Professor William P. Montague in 1921.

Montague, who was a philosophy professor at Columbia University, purchased No. 48 in March of that year.  He and his wife, Dr. Helen Montague, immediately began to enlarge the house to the rear with a two-story extension, the second floor of which would be Montague's study.

Celeste Herrick was determined to stop the construction.  On July 6, 1921 she appeared in Supreme Court in an action, as described by The New York Herald, "to defend the privacy of her bedroom and bathroom."  The article explained "Miss Herrick alleged the extension not only cuts off light and air from the garden in her back yard and from a rear porch to her house but, worse still, there are windows in the extension only a few feet from the rear wall of her home, behind which are her bedroom and bathroom."

Montague told the court "both my wife and I feel very sorry that she is annoyed," but he maintained that the glass in the first floor was translucent and the plain glass of the second story did not look into the rooms next door.  Celeste argued that translucent glass made no difference, because the windows could be opened.   Nevertheless, "Justice Whitaker apparently decided to trust the professor, for he denied the application for an injunction."

In 1938 the executors of Celeste Herrick's estate sold the house to Anita M. Filmore.  On August 2 The New York Sun reported that architects Corbett & McMurray had filed plans "for converting the house into apartments at a cost of $38,000."  It was a significant remodeling, equal to about $689,000 today, which resulted in two apartments, a triplex and a duplex.

Following the remodeling the ground floor facade was still intact, although the window details had been shaved off.  photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Around 1975 Francis and Patricia Michaels Mason moved into an apartment.  Francis had already had an impressive career.  He had served as cultural ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, was appointed chief of East/West Exhibitions in 1965 which organized the exhibition of American art in the former U.S.S.R. and Communist-bloc countries.  Now, in 1975, he was made assistant director of the Pierpont Morgan Library.

He was perhaps best known as a critic and interpreter of dance.  He had close relationships with George Balanchine and Martha Graham.  (In his 2009 obituary Patricia Fieldsteel wrote "Some of Francis's happiest moments were spent alone with Martha at his house on Morton St., talking long into the night, while they drank and reminisced.")

The Masons' country home was in Rye and Fieldsteel noted "The magnificent gardens at the Morton St. house and home in Rye were featured on many tours, as well as in books and magazines."  Francis died in his sleep in the Morton Street house on September 24, 2009 at the age of 88.

A "horse-walk" between No. 44 and 46 provided access to the rear yards.
In January 2012 No. 46 was put on the market.  It sold ten days later to screenwriter and former actress Sofia Carmina Coppola and her husband musician Thomas Mars, who paid $9.85 million ($1 million more than the asking price).  The Wall Street Journal commented that "a single-family conversion would cost another $4 million or so."  Nevertheless, in September 2015 plans were filed to reconvert the former Hyatt house to a single family home.

photographs by the author

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The 1902 Rhinelander Apartments - 12 Fifth Avenue

photo via

In 1834 construction was completed on the impressive mansion of Henry Brevoort, Jr. at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street.  The residence, which sat on land owned by his father, was surrounded by undeveloped land.  Fifth Avenue was still unpaved at the time.  But a decade later upscale homes were rising all around.

In 1848 Brevoort started construction on four houses in the newly-popular Gothic Revival style a block to the south of his own home.  Stretching from No. 10 at the northwest corner of 8th Street to No. 16, they were clad in brownstone and featured medieval touches such as incised panels with quatrefoil designs and square-headed eyebrows over the windows.

No. 12 Fifth Avenue was a match to Nos. 14 and 16, seen here.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
At the turn of the century most of the millionaires had abandoned this section of Fifth Avenue, moving further northward towards Central Park.  On January 18, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that developer Max Juster had purchased No. 12 Fifth Avenue with intentions of erecting a nine-story apartment hotel.  The journal made note that it would be a step up for him, saying his "operations heretofore have been confined to tenement houses."

Juster announced his choice of architects, Louis Korn, the same day.  The well-known architect was known almost exclusively for his designing of tall loft and store buildings and the Rhinelander would be a notable departure from his comfort zone.  

Korn's plans, filed on February 14, 1902, projected the cost of construction at $150,000--or about $4.6 million today.  When construction was completed in 1904, Korn had produced a somewhat bizarre design that caused The New York Times architectural journalist Christopher Gray to call it decades later "a confusing assemblage of four distinct sections."

Those sections sat upon one another like unrelated building blocks.  The entrance sat within a handsome columned portico.  The rusticated two-story stone base supported four floors of red brick dominated by a powerful two-story Beaux Arts style limestone window and balcony.

photo by Spencer Means
The entire seventh floor was visually a part of the massive cornice which introduced the eighth and ninth floors.  Korn forwent a terminal cornice in favor of parapet, broken by balustrades, and topped by a  partial flat roof on stilts.

Louis Korn's design is best described as eccentric.  photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Apartment hotels blended the permanency of an apartment with the convenience of hotel living.  Residents enjoyed maid and hallboy service (hallboys ran errands, delivered mail and packages, and helped tenants as needed) and could dine in the building's restaurant.  

An advertisement in October 1904 described the building as "perfectly appointed, located in the best section of Manhattan" and added, "Modern in the strictest sense, and conducted on the highest plane of efficiency, this hotel appeals especially to discriminating and refined people."  The apartments ranged from two to six rooms.  The ad noted "Restaurant a la Carte, Table d'Hote."

The hotel management was put in an uncomfortable situation in the spring of 1906.  The Bolsheviks sent author and Socialist activist Maxim Gorky to the United States on a fund-raising trip.   When he arrived in Hoboken on the ship Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse on April 10, he was received with overwhelming warmth.  The New York Times reported that “the reception given to Gorky rivaled with that of Kossuth and Garibaldi.”  Gorky related that now his long-cherished dream to visit the free land of America had come true.  It was a love affair that would be short-lived. 

On April 15 the New-York Tribune said that while he had been overwhelmed by the "warmth and welcome" he had received, he "has also learned that it is unfortunate to lend his name to expressions of sympathy to those who are held for crime in this country without a clear knowledge of all the circumstances."  Gorky paid for his outspoken opinions by finding himself and "Madame Gorky" evicted from their rooms at the Lafayette-Brevoort hotel.  Its proprietor sent their bags to the Rhinelander with a message to hold rooms.  He apparently did not say for whom.

But the Tribune reported "When they got to the Rhinelander an house before midnight, however, they were told by Frank Geraty, the manage, that they could not stay there and that their baggage must be removed immediately."  They went from there to the Hotel Victoria, and then to the Hotel Belleclaire, receiving the same cold reception.

In the meantime, the well-heeled residents were an interesting lot.  Lemuel Ely Quigg had started his career as a journalist, working with newspapers like the New-York Tribune and the New York Press.  He turned to politics and was elected to Congress in 1894.  By the time he moved into No. 12 Fifth Avenue with his wife Ethel, he had become the right hand man of Tammany leader Boss Tom Platt.  Known as "The Accelerator," he admitted later than he had distributed $200,000 in bribes on the rapid transit project.

Engineer John E. Starr and his wife lived in the Rhinelander in 1906 when he was called upon to solve a potentially disastrous problem.  The head of the Starr Engineering Company, he was well known for his expertise in refrigeration.  The New York Times said that he "invented several absorption refrigerating devices and a machine that produces temperatures from 30 to 75 degrees below zero."

On January 3, 1906 The Patterson Morning Call reported on a terrifying situation in the Brooklyn-Manhattan rapid transit tunnel.  Cast iron rings which connected the concrete sections had failed and the newspaper reported that "a small twenty inches below the adjoining section on the New York side."  Trains came to a halt, of course, pending a solution.

"Meanwhile, the company, after failing to devise a plan for readjusting the sunken part of the tube, has engaged John E. Starr, a prominent mechanical engineer, to remedy the difficulty and has accepted a novel plan of his invention," said the article.  Using ammonia, Starr froze the river bed, telling reporters "It has been shown that frozen mud has the stability of concrete."  Four feet of mud was frozen, thereby stabilizing the broken section and making repairs possible.

Alida Blake Hazard headed the New York branch of the Florence Crittenton Association, founded in 1883 "to aid and encourage destitute, homeless, and depraved women who wish to seek reformation."  Her outspoken opinions are, perhaps, surprising today.  

"White slavery," or forced prostitution, was a significant problem in New York City.  After an Italian immigrant girl's body was discovered in June 1917, The Evening World launched an investigation which revealed a horrifying truth.  In the past six months more than 700 immigrant girls had been reported missing in New York City.  Alida Hazard campaigned to end the "vulgar explosion" of press coverage, and accused the newspapers of profiting from the crimes.

She was equally outspoken against women's right to vote, warning that it would lead to Socialism, a "greater evil."  She pointed out a "curious alliance...between the Socialists and the Suffragists."

Dr. Frederick S. Mason and his wife were living at No. 12 Fifth Avenue in the years preceding the outbreak of World War I.  In addition to his medical practice (he would be remembered for his experiments in the treatment of gonorrhea), Mason was the head of a perfume factory.

In 1913 the couple traveled to Guayaquil, Ecuador where locals were battling an outbreak of bubonic plague.  But the Masons came home earlier than expected.  On January 2, 1914 the New-York Tribune entitled an article "Returns To Face Suit" and reported that Dr. Mason and his wife had arrived in New York the previous day.  "As soon as the vessel docked Dr. Mason and his wife hurried to their home.  Neither would discuss Miss von Huber's suit."

Miss von Huber was Dorothy L. von Huber who had filed a $200,000 suit for breach of promise.  The young woman had been an employee in the perfume factory and told reporters "that for more than two years the doctor kept company with her, taking her to places of entertainment."  Her "love suit," as described by the New-York Tribune, would amount to $5.28 million today.

Dr. Mason's defense was persuasive.  While he emphatically denied the allegations, he also pointed out "that she had a husband in Washington" and therefore was unable to accept an offer of marriage had it been offered.

With the unpleasant matter behind them, the Masons traveled to Europe where war had just erupted.  They returned from France in September 1914 to relate the horrors they had witnessed.  The New York Evening Telegram reported "In the Paris General Hospital, Dr. Mason said he saw two Belgian girls, sixteen and twenty-five years old, respectively, who are recovering from serious wounds inflicted by German soldiers."

Diana Leighton and her husband, a traveling salesman for a Chicago-based woodworking firm, lived in the building in 1922.  On August 2 her husband was out of town and Diana went to Central Park to ride on the bridal path.   The Brooklyn newspaper The Daily Star reported "An automobile operated by Charles Yacobellis...was commandeered by Mounted Policeman William J. Garvey in Central Park yesterday to carry Miss Diana Leighton, 23 years the Reconstruction Hospital after she had been thrown from a horse."  Tragically, two days later the young woman died.

Descendants of Henry Brevoort, Jr. lived in the apartment building at the time.  Their letters to editors of newspapers may have raised eyebrows around town.  On April 24, 1922 The Evening Telegram printed an opinion sent in by Anton Brevoort supporting the concept of branding thieves on the face.  His letter said in part:

Branding of criminals under the left eye for the first offence of stealing cattle in the far West years ago and under the right eye for the second offence--letter "T," one inch--was the cure for cattle thieving at once in Wyoming...Now, if New York State had such a law Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, &c., would be more comfortable places for thieves, thus relieving New York State.

The following month Livington Brevoort sent a question to the editor of The Evening Telegram:

Kindly advise me if my wife has any legal right to punch me in the eye on Decoration Day, making it black and blue?  This she did last Decoration Day and threatens to this one.

As the Masons had done in 1913, Majorie Howarth and her husband traveled to Ecuador in March 1922; however theirs was purely a pleasure trip--or at least it started out that way.  The Unitarian Register reported "only after their arrival in South America did they decide to include the dangerous journey over the Andes among their pleasures."  

Upon their return to New York in October The New York Times ran the headline: "New York Woman Scales The Andes / Mrs. Marjorie Howarth First of Her Sex to Cross the Third Range."  The 885-mile trek over land and water included an ascent of 14,600 feet above sea level.  At one point, after Mr. Horwarth became so ill that he had to be carried, Marjorie took command of the expedition.  

The Horwarths returned to No. 12 Fifth Avenue with exotic souvenirs and an unexpected memento.  The Times reported "Besides such trophies as a couple of jaguar skins, one of a young boa-constrictor, a live parrot and several grains of puree gold, which the Indians presented in return for gifts of stores, Mr. and Mrs. Howarth have as a further souvenir of their jungle experiences an Indian boy...This Indian is named Segendo Garzon.  He pleaded so hard for a view of the United States that the explorers consented to bring him along."

In 1949 a renovation resulted in a doctor's office on the ground floor and four apartments each on each floor other than the seventh and eights, which had three.  An addition on the roof contained one apartment.  It was most likely at this time that the limestone entrance portico and the parapet roof were removed.

The removal of the portico left nearly no trace.  photo via
That configuration remains today.  Other than the mid-century alterations, Louis Korn's rather unconventional building looks much as it did when the first tenants moved in in 1904.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The 1855 Egbert L. Viele House - 8 West 28th Street

In 1855 John E. Kinnier erected two handsome brownstone-faced houses at Nos. 6 and 8 West 28th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway.  At 25-feet wide and four stories tall, the high-stooped homes were intended for well-heeled buyers.

At the time Egbert Ludovicus Viele was the State Engineer of New-Jersey and would be appointed Chief Engineer of Central Park in 1856.  Born in 1825, he was graduated from West Point in 1847 and had served in the Mexican American War.  He was made engineer of Brooklyn's Prospect Park in 1860, but left the job to fight in the Civil War.  In 1863, upon his return to civilian life with the rank of general, he was made Commissioner of Parks.

Viele and his wife, the former Teresa Griffin, moved into No. 8 West 28th Street with their several children.  Like the other owners of upscale houses along the block, they filled it with expensive furnishings.  The New-York Daily Tribune later commented "General Viele traveled extensively, and possessed a valuable collection of art treasures."

General Egbert L. Viele - from the collection of the Library of Congress
Teresa had chronicled her life as the wife of an infantry soldier on the Texas frontier in her 1858 book Following the Drum.  It was republished in 1864, while the family lived here.

While her husband's name routinely appeared in print regarding public projects, Teresa busied herself with charitable works.  On November 21, 1867 the New-York Daily Tribune listed her as a member of the executive committee of The New-York Ladies' Southern Relief Association.  She kept high company within the group, whose president was Mrs. James J. Roosevelt.  Among the others on the committee were Mrs. James Stokes, Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, and Mrs. Dudley D. Field.

The Viele family had moved on in 1870 when the house was being operated as an upscale boarding house.  It was soon taken over by The Army and Navy Club.  Men's social clubs routinely were situated within exclusive residential neighborhoods.  In its 1873 edition, the Hand-Book to New York noted that the "brown-stone building, No. 8 West Twenty-eighth Street...has been elegantly fitted up as a club house.  The club now numbers over two hundred members." 

The Army and Navy Club did not last particularly long.  In 1875 The St. Nicholas Club, founded in June that year, moved in.  It, too, would not stay long.  The club moved to No. 12 East 29th Street in 1878 and the former house became home to the Sherman Club, a political group, and the Young Business Men's Association.

Architect J. B. Hamilton owned the property in 1882 when he personally designed alterations.  They included an extension into the rear yard.  The renovated space became home to Morelli's Restaurant, a popular spot for dinner meetings for several years.

The Thirteen Club routinely met at Morelli's.  The eccentric group celebrated the number 13.  On November 14, 1885, for instance, The New York Times reported that Judge McAdams had been re-elected its president here the night before.  "In thanking the company for their congratulations he referred to the fact that he should begin his thirteenth year in the civil court on January 13, 1886, and that the change by which he opened his first office at No. 13 Wall-street led him to his present distinction."

In April 1886 a group of insurance men, no doubt hoping to sway businessmen in the theatrical field to protect their properties, gave a dinner at Morelli's following a production of Evangline at Haverly's 14th Street Theatre.  They invited the composer and producer, Edward E. Rice and the male members of the cast.  The rampant sexism of the 19th century was reflected in The New York Times' comment "A rumor had been circulated to the effect that the invitation to the supper included the female members of the company, and both Manager Rice and his hosts were justly indignant thereat."  The article noted "The supper was one of Morelli's best efforts."

In May 1887 million Robert Hoe bought No. 8 at auction for $57,000--about $1.58 million today.  The New York Times described it as being "occupied by Morelli as a restaurant and by other organizations as a place of meeting as well as dining."  

Hoe was notified by Building Inspectors "that the westerly wall of the house...was not safe and should be rebuilt."  It was most likely the prospects of the necessary construction project that prompted Hoe to embark on a major remodeling.  The New York Times reported that he "decided to remodel the house, place a store underneath and bachelor apartments above."  The architectural firm of Charles Romeyne & Co. was hired to design the renovations.

Surprisingly, business went on as usual inside as the significant project commenced.  The Times explained "They began operations by shoring up the weak wall, but in doing so managed to throw the weight of the roof and heavy timbers on the opposite wall."

On the morning of April 12, 1888 Mrs. Zarah Cranni took a small table at the rear of Morelli's, overlooking the rear garden.  Zarah was noticeably pregnant.  Her tranquil morning tea ended abruptly.  The Times reported that around 10:40 a.m. the "crashing of falling timbers startled the people in the neighborhood of Broadway and Twenty-eighth street."  Parts of the third and fourth floors collapsed "with a great crash, carrying with it four working men and piling up a great mass of debris in the yards of several houses in the rear."

Some workmen jumped from the upper stories onto adjoining buildings.  The bay window of the house next door was ripped off and the rear extension was demolished.  One workman was killed and several others injured.

As the wall first gave way, "four bricks and a large piece of stone smashed in the window" where Zarah Cranni was sipping her tea.  The New York Times reported that the bricks and glass "did not strike her.  The lady was so frightened, however, that it brought on premature delivery."

The builder, Eramus D. Garnsey and his foreman, William Campbell, were arrested at the site.

When the dust cleared construction eventually resumed and was completed without further incident.  The third and fourth floors of the renovated building were clad in beige brick and trimmed in brownstone.  A two-story storefront now replaced the parlor and English basement levels.  That space became home to the newly-formed Equitable Bank.  On December 13, 1889 The Press reported that it had "launched into operation yesterday," adding "It is handsomely fitted up."

The trustees of the new bank soon ran into problems.  Only a month later, on January 31, 1890, The New York Times ran the headline "Banks Quickly Wrecked" and reported that warrants had been issued "for the arrest of the leading participants in a foolhardy conspiracy, which not alone has closed the Sixth National Bank and the Lenox Hill Bank...but also threatens the existence of the Equitable Bank, 8 West Twenty-eighth-street."  The prediction came true and the Equitable Bank collapsed soon thereafter.

The space became home to publisher J. W. Bouton's bookstore in May 1890.  The New York Times explained that here "he has much more commodious quarters for the display of his collection of rare old books."

The Fencers' Club was located directly above Bouton's bookstore.  On January 13, 1890 The Evening Telegram described the club's "more commodious quarters."  "The new suite d'armes is decorated in bronze and yellow, and a high dado of Japanese matting.  A sword shelf runs all around the room, and the walls are decorated with cross-swords, sabres, and masks."

The members of the Fencers' Club came from the highest echelons of society.  That was evident at the afternoon reception on May 26 that year.  The New York Times said "The rooms of the Fencers' Club at 8 West Twenty-eighth Street were well filled with ladies and gentlemen" who witnessed demonstrations of fencing before enjoying a 5:00 tea.  Among those participating in the demonstrations were millionaires Perry Belmont, Amory S. Carhart and James W. Gerard.  The guests included Ward McAllister and his daughter, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, and the daughters of tycoon Charles B. Alexander.

Intricate foliate carvings fill the spandrel panels of the upper floors.
The rest of the house contained upscale bachelor apartments.  The well-to-do residents began missing cash late in 1890.  The mystery came to an end in January 1891 when John Wallace walked into his room to find a 13-year old boy rifling through his things.  Louis Miller had already grabbed $160 in cash--equal to about $4,640 today.

Louis was the son of the building's janitor, John Miller.  On January 17 The Press explained "Louis has been in the habit of going in and out of the Twenty-eighth street house at will for some time past, and it is averred that hundreds of dollars have been stolen from the place, which is occupied by men only."   In court Wallace, perhaps feeling that the boy had learned his lesson, did not press charges.  John Miller, however, was of a different mind set.  "At the father's suggestion the boy was committed to the Juvenile Asylum."

In 1897 the former bookstore became home to the Knickerbocker Auction Rooms.  The firm would sell masterpieces of art, furniture, china and porcelain for years here.  On February 18, 1897, for instance, The Press reported on the results of the first day of the auction of the Cyrus W. Field estate.  "The collection includes paintings by Corot, Zein, and Cleveland Coxe, antique furniture, tapestries and bric-a-brac."

The items sold at the Knickerbocker Auction Rooms brought in large amounts of cash, a fact not overlooked by burglars.  On February 8, 1903 The New York Press reported on a brazen heist.  Burglars broke in through the basement, then broke through the door at the head of the stairs.  They were apparently less interested in the paintings, furs and other valuables than in cash.  "Finding nothing to suit their taste, another door was broken open to get to the second floor, and then the cracksmen attacked the safe."

The Knickerbocker Auction Rooms safe was directly in front of the second floor show window.  Undaunted, the burglars drilled a hole in the safe's door, broke open the first, and finally the second heavy doors then examined the contents.  They lit a gas jet in a rear room, then "placed chairs around the table, and settled down to a slow and careful selection of the different articles of value."  The crooks made off with cash, checks and "other valuable papers," and $2,000 worth of solid silverware.  The heist topped $60,000 in today's money.

The occupants of the apartments continued to be well-to-do.  In 1894 Modesto Salizano, consul general of Ecuador lived here; and at the turn of the architect Stanford White and Joseph Stanford split the rent on an apartment.  Neither of the men lived here, but used the rooms for entertainment. 

The Buffalo Courier described Joseph Stanford on June 27, 1906 as "a dilettante in the arts, who is as well known in the exclusive society of Paris and London as he is to the '400' of New York and Newport."  The article noted that the "sumptuous apartment that embraces the entire top floor of No. 8 West Twenty-eighth Street, was jointly used by both."

Stanford White - from the collection of the Library of Congress
The reason that the two wealthy men desired a private get-away was explained by the newspaper.  "Both Stanford and Stanford White gave dinners and other entertainments in this superbly furnished suite of rooms, which were talked about in whispers in the clubs and boudoirs of society.  Their guests were young girls of surpassing beauty and charm of person, but socially obscure.  At times one or two other boon men companions of the hosts were also bidden to join in the unique festivities."

The article said the girls, who "were not old enough to be called young women," were "supplied with unlimited quantities of champagne."  It was most likely the prominence of the men that precluded police intervention.  "Meanwhile, the wine-inspired songs and cries of the guests of Stanford and Stanford White would reach the ears of the policemen and detectives on the street without, who were waiting, waiting for other conclusive evidence to raid the place."

The Knickerbocker Auction Rooms was followed by Jack Slazenger's sporting goods store, which remained in the building until 1914.  In 1920 the Robert Hoe estate sold the building to a newly-formed company headed by C. Solomon, S. Sackheim and D. Greenbaum.  The District Republican Club leased rooms as its headquarters at the time and would remain throughout the 1930's.

Another renovation completed in 1945 resulted in a store on the ground floor, a "gelatine mixing and packing" plant on the second, and showrooms and offices on the third and fourth floors.  One of the spaces was home to Israel House in the 1950's, where "miscellaneous handicrafts and art goods, foodstuffs, jewelry, leather and metal goods" made in Israel were exhibited.

The neighborhood which would become known as Nomad greatly declined in the second half of the 20th century and No. 8 showed noticeable signs of neglect.  But the renaissance of the area brought change and on December 15, 2015 The New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant reported that Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, owners of Eleven Madison Park restaurant, planned to open Made Nice, at No. 8.  They described the restaurant as a "fast-casual spot."

During the 2020 protests the storefront was boarded up.
The restaurant opened in the summer of 2016.  A mural by Shepard Fairey decorates a wall.  Despite its significant abuse, No. 8 West 28th Street retains much of its appearance following Charles Romeyn's 1888 renovation.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Robert Rheinhold Reutter House - 36 West 88th Street

In 1889 real estate developer James J. Spaulding completed a row of nineteen brick and brownstone homes on the south side of West 88th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  Each of the 23-foot wide residences was striking.

Architects Thom & Wilson had created a string of harmonious, yet individual, 23-feet wide homes whose architectural personalities drew from an album of historic styles--Renaissance Revival, Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival.

No. 36, like its neighbors, was four stories high above an English basement.  A dog-legged stoop led to the double-doored entrance flanked by stout, fluted engaged columns.  The entablature, embellished with Renaissance style carvings, supported a hood decorated with delicate ribbons and fruits.  The angled bay at the second floor was supported by a single leafy bracket.  Stone bands and panels created interest to the upper floors and the cast metal cornice wore a delightful mansard cap.

photograph courtesy of Landmark West!
In January 1890 Augusta Mertens purchased No. 36 for $35,000--just over $1 million in today's money.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide pointed out "This is the fourth house sold of the row."   Her residency would be relatively short.  She died in the house on November 22, 1894 at the age of 53.

photograph by the author
The following year, in October, the executors of Augusta's estate sold No. 36 to "a Mr. Ryder," according to the Record & Guide.  The buyer was actually Christopher Rheinhold Reutter (who went by the name Robert).  He paid the exact price Augusta Mertens had five years earlier.

Born in W├╝rttemberg, Germany in January 1847, Reutter had married Lena Unger in on June 21, 1883.  In January 1885 he had left the banking firm of L. von Hoffman & Co. to co-found the brokerage firm of Hellwig & Reutter.  He was, as well, a trustee in the German Savings Bank.

The couple had two sons, Robert H. and Charles Earnest, and a daughter Gertrude.  Their summer home was in Litchfield, Connecticut.

In May 1896 Reutter hired architect John P. Voelker to add a second floor to the rear extension of the house; possibly to add a bedroom or increase the size of one.  The renovations cost the equivalent of $15,700 today.

The family was at the Connecticut house during the summer of 1905 when Robert Reutter died on August 27.  His body was brought back to the 88th Street residence for his funeral, held three days later.

Lena and the children continued on in the house.  Charles graduated from Columbia University in 1912 and Robert graduated in 1913.  The brothers both joined Hellwig & Reutter--Charles in 1914 and Robert in 1917.

Gertrude was 15-years old in 1916 and her mother seems to have already been grooming her for her introduction to society.  On December 22 Lena hosted a luncheon for her at the fashionable Sherry's restaurant.

Lena was not the only member of the family to entertain.  On April 18, 1915 The New York Press reported "Mr. Charles E. Reutter of No. 36 West Eighty-eighth street will give a dance, followed by supper, at the Hotel Gotham, on Wednesday Evening, April 26."

The event may have had to do with his engagement to Mildred L. Meadows.  The couple was married in St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue on June 28, 1916.  The newlyweds moved to No. 156 West 86th Street and purchased a summer home in Rye, New York.

Gertrude attended the Brearley School, a private institution for girls.  She continued to be the focus of her mother's social focus.  On December 3, 1916 The Sun announced that Lena would be hosting a dinner dance for her daughter at Sherry's the following Saturday night.  

The much anticipated event finally came during the winter season of 1919-1920.  On October 29, 1919 The Evening World announced "Another debutante will be Miss Gertrude H. F. Reutter, of No. 36 West 88th Street, who is to be introduced on December 13, at a ball to be given for her by her aunt, Mrs. Charles E. Reutter, of Rye, N.Y."

In June 1921 Lena announced Gertrude's engagement to Henry Clarke Banks.  As had been the case with her debut, the wedding took place in Charles and Mildred's Rye home that November.   Mildred was her matron of honor and four-year old Charles, Jr. was the page.

Robert was still unmarried and living with his mother in the 88th Street house.  At the time of his sister's wedding storm clouds were forming over his career.  The following year, on September 15, 1922, The New York Herald reported that the president of the New York Stock Exchange had "announced yesterday the expulsion of Theodore A. Hellwig and Robert H. Reutter from membership.  With Charles E. Reutter they compose the firm of Hellwig & Reutter."  Both men were charged with "conduct inconsistent with equitable principles of trade."

Perhaps seeing the impending collapse of her son's career, Lena sold No. 36 in 1921 to Horace Andrew Saks and his wife, the former Dorothy Drey.  The couple had two children, eight-year old John Andrews and five-year old Edna Jane.  Their summer home was in Elberon, New Jersey.

Saks was born on July 14, 1882, the son of Andrew and Jennie Saks.  Andrew Saks and his brother, Isidore, had established the Saks & Company department store on 34th Street in 1902.  Horace and his brother, William, worked with their father and uncle in running the store.  Following Andrew's death in 1912, Horace essentially took the management reins and it was he who pushed to move the store to Fifth Avenue.

Horace Andrew Saks - The New York Times, November 28, 1925
In 1922 Saks joined forces with Bernard Gimbel to create a high-end specialty store on Fifth Avenue.  (A specialty store differed from a department store by not offering items like housewares and appliances.)  On September 15, 1924 the new Saks Fifth Avenue, engulfing the block between 49th and 50th Streets opened.

On November 25, 1925 Saks was in his office when he complained of a carbuncle on his cheek that had annoyed him for several days.  He went to his physician who sent him directly to Mt. Sinai Hospital for treatment.  Doctors found that septic poisoning had already set in and had spread throughout his system.  The New York Times reported on November 28, "Despite all that medical science could do, Mr. Saks sank rapidly and died within forty-eight hours."  Horace Saks was only 43 years old.

photograph via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services

For the next few days newspaper pages overflowed with editorials and letters to the editors praising him.  While extolling his business acumen, The Times added "Personally, all who knew his forcible yet sympathetic temperament, his genial and kindly contacts with his fellow-workers and his friends, will understand the sense of loss which his death will so widely entail."  Philip Goodman wrote "He was that very rare person among business men--a man who was charmingly and culturally civilized."

The house managed to survive as a single-family home for several decades.  In its May 4, 1970 issue New York Magazine reported "Technically the brownstone at 36 West 88th Street is not yet a cooperative," but advised that it "is a limited partnership."  

A few years earlier John Schetky and a friend, Bill Edgerton had found three friends to pool their money and buy the house "which none of them could have afforded alone," said the article.  It added, "Each of the owners designed his floor according to taste."  Both Schetky and Edgerton were master carpenters and they set up a woodworking shop in the basement to craft cabinets, paneling and doors.

Two years after the New York Magazine article, The New York Times reported that Schetky's wife Viviana operated a French cooking school from their space.  Viviana Schetky held a Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu de Paris.  A five week course of once-a-week classes cost $125.

photograph courtesy of Landmark West!

The Department of Buildings has never issued a Certificate of Occupancy for apartments.  Nevertheless there are five units within the house.  But other than replacement windows, the exterior of the striking residence is little changed.