Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Eubie Blake House - 236 West 138th Street


The block of 25 homes on the south side of West 138th Street between today's Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards was completed in 1891.  Part of the visionary project of David H. King Jr. known as the King's Model Houses, the homes were designed by James Brown Lord in a modern take on Georgian architecture.  Each of the three-story residences were clad in brownstone at the basement and parlor levels, and red brick above.  

Among them was 236 West 138th Street, which shared a split stoop with elegant iron railings with its neighbor at 234.  The openings of the parlor level were trimmed  in egg-and-dart carving and wore 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.

The house became home to John Cheever Goodwin and his wife, the former Ida Drigg.  The couple had married in Boston in 1878 and had 11 children.  A graduate of Harvard University, Goodwin went professionally as J. Cheever Goodwin.  

J. Cheever Goodwin, from Francis Wilson's 1897 Recollections of a Player (copyright expired)

A playwright, librettist, lyricist and producer, his first successful libretto being the wildly popular Evangeline in 1874.  The New York Times would later say that he wrote or adapted more than 40 musical comedy librettos.  He was a member of the American Dramatist's Club, among others.

Goodwin worked several times with Woolson Morse, writing the lyrics for his 1890 L'etoile, for his 1891 Wang, for Panjandrum in 1893, and for Lost, Strayed or Stolen in 1896.  Through those collaborations, the Goodwins and Morses became friends--something that put the Goodwins in an uncomfortable position in 1895.

On January 11 that year, The World reported that Morse's wife, actress Agnes Cecilia Riley, had walked out of their home at 30 West 24th Street and into the Goodwin house.  "She is recovering from a fit of nervous prostration brought on by the recent troubles with her husband."  The troubles stemmed from Agnes's brother-in-law, George F. Hoey, who "turned Woolson against me," she said.  Hoey's meddling had affected his own marriage, as well.  "Mrs. Morse and Mrs. Hoey are now opposed to their respective husbands, and they say that will never make up their trouble."  It is unclear how long the Goodwins' troubled houseguest remained.

Sheltering Morse's wife during their marital troubles obviously did not negatively affect the relationship between composer and lyricist.  On January 8, 1899, The New York Times reported that the pair's The Merry Monarch had opened in London.  "Gilbert and Sullivan have seldom pleased the English fancy more thoroughly," said the article.

The following year the Goodwins left West 138th Street. Their former home became a respectable boarding house, home to attorney William H. Andrews and his wife; Sam Weingart, who was involved with the Hebrew Technical School for Girls; and the Watson W. Vredenburgh family.  Vredenburgh was a former police officer and his son, Loretto was an assistant principal in the public schools.  The Vredenburgh family would remain at least through 1905.

In 1916 236 West 138th Street was returned to a single-family home.  Bachelor attorney and politician Thomas T. Reilley and his unmarried sister, Ellinor F. Reilley moved in following the end of Thomas's term as State Assemblyman.  Prior to his election he had been head football coach at New York University.

Thomas Reilley during his New York University coaching days.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

He had little time to enjoy his new home, however.  When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, he left to fight as a member of the 42nd Infantry Division of the U. S. Army National Guard, known as the "Rainbow Division."

On March 22, 1919, the New York Herald reported that Reilley had been "slightly wounded in action."  The article noted that a year earlier he had been promoted to the rank of major.  His injuries earned him the Distinguished Service Cross.

Reilley returned to West 138th Street following the war, and on April 26, 1920 was appointed to the New York Supreme Court.  It may have been that appointment or simply the changing demographics of the Harlem neighborhood that prompted Reilley to leave 236 West 138th Street that year.  The home once again became a boarding house--now populated by Black families.

Among the early residents were pianist and composer James Hubert Blake (known as Eubie), and his wife, the former Avis Elizabeth Cecelia Lee.  The couple moved into rooms on the second floor.  Eubie Blake was born to former slaves in Maryland in 1887.  According to him, he had composed the "Charleston Rag" in 1899 when he was 12 years old, but was unable to write it down until 1915 when he learned musical notation.

James "Eubie" Blake, from the collection of the Library of Congress.

On May 22, 1921, the musical Shuffle Along opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall.  The New York Times wrote that it had "the distinction of being written, composed and played entirely by negroes," adding that it had "a swinging and infectious score by one Eubie Blake."  The article noted that Blake had collaborated with Noble Sissle on the libretto.  It was a convenient arrangement, since Sissle lived next door at 234 West 138th Street at the time.  Among the tunes to come from Shuffle Along was the highly popular, "I'm Just Wild About Harry."  The ground-breaking musical would run for two years.

The unmarried sisters Catherine, Madeline and Anna Whales rented rooms here by 1925.  When their sister, Grace, visited that spring, they gave a party.  The New York Age reported on March 14 that the women  "entertained a number of her friends...Dancing and music were enjoyed and refreshments served."  There were seven unmarried women invited, and nine young men.  For the sake of decorum, the article noted that also present was "Mrs. Skenk, chaperone."

The lives of the boarders did not always go smoothly.  Allen Stewart, who was separated from his wife, lived here in 1926.  That December he picked up a copy of the New York News in which was a photograph of an abandoned child.  Authorities were hoping someone could identify him.  The little boy was his son, Earl.  Allen Stewart rushed to New Jersey to retrieve his son.

On December 18, the Pittsburgh Courier published a photograph of Stewart and his son, with the caption that read, "'Yes, sir! That's my Earlie!' cried Allen Stewart, 236 West 138th street, New York, after rushing into Mothers' Institute, Jersey City."   The article said "The mother was held on an abandonment charge."

The New York Age described Avis Blake as "one of Harlem's most gracious hostesses in whose house the sincerely pleasant atmosphere embraced all visitors," adding, "Because of her husband's connections in show business she was an integral part of his every success."  In 1936, Avis was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  She was taken to the Riverside Hospital, never to return to the West 138th Street house.  

Three years later, on March 25, 1939, The New York Age reported, "Broadway and Harlem met Saturday at the bier of Mrs. Avis Blake, who lived at 236 West 138th street and was the wife of Eubie Blake, impresario-pianist of Harlem and Broadway."  Among the notable mourners at Avis Blake's funeral were Noble Sissle, W. C. Handy, Walter Thompson, George Jones Jr., and Clarence Tisdale.

Not long after Avis's funeral, Eubie moved to Brooklyn, where he died on February 12, 1983.  The West 138th Street house continued to be operated as a rooming house for decades.  Then, a renovation completed in 2006 returned it to a private home, with one apartment in the basement level.

many thanks to reader Mark Satlof for prompting this post
photograph by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Emery Roth's 1916 601 West End Avenue


In 1914 the Hamilton Institute for Girls had operated from the former mansion at the northwest corner of West End Avenue and 89th Street for years.  At the time, however, the thoroughfare's lavish private residences erected within the past two decades were rapidly being replaced by upscale apartment houses.

Alfred Saxe was among the developers responsible for the trend.  In 1903 he had built the lavish Hotel Belleclaire on Broadway, simultaneously giving architect Emery Roth his first substantial commission.  Now the men would work together again.  In 1915 Saxe put together the 601 West End Av. Inc., purchased the corner property, and set about erecting a modern, 12-story apartment building.  Roth's plans, filed in May that year, placed construction costs at $260,000, or around $7.23 million in 2022.  

Completed early the following year, 601 West End Avenue was faced in limestone.  Roth's Italian Renaissance design was splashed with touches of Vienna Secession.  It featured iron-railed balconies at the fourth floor, and stone-balustraded balconies at the 12th.  The two-story top section was dignified by double-height arches that held paired windows.  Inside there were just one apartment per floor.

Among the initial residents was Blanche Lasky, who had just divorced.  Blanche had started out as a vaudeville performer with her brother, Jesse Louis Lasky, who played the cornet in their duo act.  In 1910 she married Samuel Goldfish and they had a daughter, Ruth.  

In the meantime, her brother had turned to producing musicals.  He met producer Beatrice DeMille, who introduced him to her son, Cecil B. DeMille.  The meeting would change the lives of Blanche, her husband, and her brother.  In 1913 DeMille, Lasky and Samuel (who had changed his last name to Goldwyn) teamed to form the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company to produce silent movies.  

Samuel Goldwyn's philandering resulted in their divorcing in 1915.  Both her brother and ex-husband would go on to motion picture fame, while Blanche took back her maiden name and settled comfortably into 601 West End Avenue with little Ruth.

Blanche's self-reliance went far beyond dropping her married name.  While almost all other well-heeled young ladies were driven about by chauffeurs, Blanche took the wheel herself.  It ended badly, though, on Saturday afternoon September 21, 1918.  Two days later, The Sun titled an article "Girl Driver Runs Down Boy."  It was a serious accident.  Blanche had hit seven-year-old Peter Hresko in Yonkers.  The Sun reported, "The boy was rushed to St. John's Riverside Hospital, where it is said he has a slight chance for recovery."  He had suffered a fractured skull and broken collarbone.  The New-York Tribune added, "Miss Lasky is a sister of Jesse Lasky, the motion picture man."

At the time of the accident, Blanche had found love.  In 1917 she had became engaged to Hector Turnbull, the dramatic editor of the New-York Tribune.  But their plans of marriage were derailed by America's entrance into World War I.  The New-York Tribune said Turnbull "had to help the 27th Division break the Hindenburg line before he could realize his romantic ambition and marry Miss Blanche Lasky."

Lieutenant Turnbull returned from France on March 13, 1919 and wasted no time in making Blanche his wife.  They were married five days later.  Turnbull's military duty was not quite finished, and he returned to Camp Upton on Long Island.  The New-York Tribune remarked, "When he is discharged he will take his bride to California and write plays."

The residents of 601 West End Avenue, of course, maintained a domestic staff.  When the fifth floor tenants left town in 1921, an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald:

Couple--Lady would like to place her English couple, man and wife, as cook and butler permanently; can recommend both very highly in every respect; country for summer.

In 1930 Joseph Baumann, who ran a furniture business, and his wife occupied the sixth floor apartment.  Living with them were four servants, a butler, maid, nurse (who had charge of an infant), and a cook.  On June 12 that year, Mrs. Baumann entered a hospital for a minor operation.  When she returned home four days later, she discovered $100,000 in jewels missing from her bedroom.

The burglars had a narrow time frame during which to make the heist.  According to The New York Times on June 17, "Some member of the household was said to have been in the apartment all the time during Mrs. Baumann's absence, except between 3 and 8 o'clock on Sunday afternoon."  It was thought that the thieves entered Mrs. Baumann's bedroom window, which opened onto a fire escape.  The article noted, "Mrs. Baumann, who was confined to her bed upon return from the hospital, expressed confidence in her servants."   The value of the stolen gems reflected the affluence of the residents of the building, equaling more than $1.6 million today.

The building that had been home to wealthy socialites for decades was converted to a single-room-occupancy hotel in 1949.  Then, in 1957, it was remodeled as the Mayflower Nursing Home.  Its residents were well-heeled and many of them well-known.  Josephine Emerson, for instance, was an early resident.  A relative of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, she had served as concertmaster of the orchestra of the National Conservatory of Music from 1892 to 1895, while Antonin Dvorak was its director. 

Mabel Parsons was also an early resident.  Her father, Samuel, had been Superintendent of Planting, Superintendent of Parks, landscape architect, and Park Commissioner.  He had spent his career fighting encroachment of commerce into Central Park, and following his death Mabel took up the cause.  In 1923 she opposed the building of a subway extension under the west side of Central Park, insisting that it would take years to replace the trees destroyed in the process.  She later fought Mayor John F. Hylan's plan to build a music and arts center on four and one-half acres of the park, and in the 1960's, when Huntington Hartford donated funds for an outdoor cafĂ© on the southeastern corner of the park, she successfully derailed the plans.

An audit conducted by the Department of Social Services in 1973 revealed disturbing practices.  It found that the operators of the Mayflower Nursing Home were pocketing Social Security checks of dead patients.  The findings may have prompted an unannounced visit on November 21, 1974 by the Temporary State Commission of Living Costs.  It found "the same deficiencies in care and the same violations of safety codes," that had been reported over a 17-year period.  A New York Times reporter visited, as well, writing that he "found it to be a former hotel overcrowded, by Medicaid standards."

On July 1, 1975, The New York Times reported that the Mayflower Nursing Home had been shut down.  The vacant building was purchased by the Recycling for Housing Partnership of Austin Laber and Jerome Kretchmer.  As the renovations and conversion to a cooperative apartment building neared completion on April 28, 1978, The New York Times reported "there are to be 25 three-bedroom apartments and a two bedroom penthouse."  At the time, 22 of the apartments had already been sold.

The exterior of Emery Roth's dignified structure survives beautifully intact.

photographs by the author
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Monday, December 5, 2022

The Lost Emery Roth-Designed 417 Park Avenue


image via

In the years preceding the country's entry into World War I, the stretch of Park Avenue from 46th to 57th Streets rapidly filled with luxury apartment buildings.  Their sprawling suites were intended to equal or surpass the amenities of private homes.  In the spring of 1916, prolific apartment house developers Bing & Bing prepared for another, on the southeast corner of Park Avenue and 55th Street.  Architect Emery Roth filed plans in May, that called for a 12-story brick and limestone building to cost $400,000 to construct (approximately $10.2 million in 2022).

Roth, who is remembered as one of New York City's preeminent apartment house architects, designed 417 Park Avenue in the Renaissance Revival style, with occasional stone or iron balconies at individual windows, and a four-bay wide balcony at the ninth floor on the avenue side.  The sedate design culminated in a deeply overhanging copper cornice.

Although construction would not be completed until 1917, apartments were being advertised as early as August 1916.  Some, like the 18- and 19-room apartments with six baths, engulfed an entire floor.  There were also apartments of 11, 8, and 7 rooms.  Rents for an 18-room suite were listed at $12,000 per year, or $25,500 per month by today's conversion.

The floorplan of the 9th floor shows three apartments, the largest (at top) with separate elevator access.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The opulent apartments filled quickly.  On January 6, 1917 the Record & Guide reported that Frederick E. Bright had taken a 12-room apartment, and two weeks later, announced that wealthy chemist Dr. Edward Goodrich Acheson had leased "a large apartment of 18 rooms and 6 baths, comprising an entire floor."  The next month,  theater owner and manager Martin Beck signed a lease for a 19-room suite.

Another of the original tenants was Henry Beekman Livingston, whose second wife, Frances Redmond, had died in 1916.  Born on Washington Square in 1854, Livingston came from some of the oldest and most socially prominent families of New York.  Not long after moving in, the millionaire broker tried his luck at love again.  On October 10, 1918, the New-York Tribune reported, "Mme. L. Duford de la Claire will be married to Henry Beekman Livingston, of 417 Park Avenue, to-morrow in the Central Presbyterian Church."

The Jules Glaenzer family were also initial tenants.  The son of the well-known art dealer and importer George A. Glaenzer,  he and his wife.  When the couple was married on February 2, 1916, the New York Herald called it "one of the largest weddings of that winter in New York society."  Five hundred guests had been invited to the reception at the home of the Edith's parents.  

The residents' names appeared regularly in the society columns.  On November 11, 1919, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported, "Mrs. Thomas B. Yuille, of 417 Park Avenue, will give a reception with dancing on the afternoon of Christmas Day for her debutante daughter, Miss Burks Yuille."

But perhaps none of the early residents appeared in print more than Edward G. Acheson and his wife, Margaret Mahler.  On January 18, 1920 The Sun reported that Dr. and Mrs. Acheson would be hosting a dinner "for their daughter, Miss Jean Acheson, and her fiancĂ©, Amelius Jarvis, Jr., at the Plaza, to be followed by a dance at 417 Park avenue."

Dr. Edward G. Acheson, from The Story of Electricity, Vol. I, 1919 (copyright expired)

The Acheson apartment was the scene of another dance on January 23, 1920, the night before Jean's wedding.  The ceremony in St. Bartholomew's Church was covered in detail in the society pages.  Jean's sister, Margaret, was her maid of honor and afterward a reception was held in the Park Avenue apartment. 

The Acheson's son, Jules, had married in 1916.  He and his wife, Edith, also lived at 417 Park Avenue.  The New York Herald wrote on April 27, 1921 that the friends of Edith Glaenzer "form a large circle in society."  It also noted that those friends were taken by surprise to learn that she had been granted a divorce.  "Only the intimate acquaintances of the couple, who were married five years ago, knew that they had separated."  Divorce among high society was still somewhat taboo.  Edith had taken her young son to the home of her parents at 640 Park Avenue while Jules remained in their 417 Park Avenue apartment.  Those surprised friends were no doubt shocked to further read, "'An unknown woman' was named as corespondent [sic] and it was alleged that she went with Mr. Glaenzer to an apartment in Fifth avenue."

The scandal did not necessarily damage Jules Glaenzer's social standing, at least not permanently.  On November 18, 1922 the New York Herald reported on the dinner party he gave for Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten, saying it was one "of the largest parties" the couple had enjoyed in New York.  Among the varied guests were Manhattan social elite, like W. Rhinelander Stewart, and theatrical figures, like "Miss Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks with whom the Mountbattens passed some time in California."  George Gershwin was also a guest.

The courtyard of the building became a "sylvan nook" after Herbert N. Jennings was hired as superintendent.   On July 25, 1937, The New York Times described him as "a student of horticulture for many years."  The article said, "In the midst of a wealth of shrubbery and flowing plants is a pool six feet square stocked with gold fish, miniature turtles and even a few frogs."

photographer unknown, via

In 1946 the building became a cooperative, one of the first to do so after World War II.  Purchasing an apartment around mid-century was vice president of Random House book publishers, Robert K. Haas and his wife Merle.  A founder of the Book-of-the-Month Club, he  had served as its president from 1926 to 1931.  In 1932 he co-founded the Harrison Smith and Robert Haas publishing firm, which merged with Random House in 1936.  Although he retired in 1956, he remained on the board of directors and continued to go to the office three days a week.

Well-known investment advisor Washington Dodge lived at 417 Park Avenue by the late 1960's.  He had served as the financial editor of Time Magazine from 1929  to 1933, and now was a partner in Clark Dodge & Co.  His was a noteworthy career that almost did not come to pass.  In April 1912, when he was five years old, he was returning from Europe with his parents on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic.  Amazingly, as the luxury liner sank, all three of his family were saved.

On December 15, 1977, The New York Times journalist Virginia Lee Warren titled an article "Classy Last Holdout On the Block."  "There it is," she wrote, "the only apartment house left on Park Avenue between Grand Central Terminal and 57th Street."  At the time of her article, several of the massive apartments had been divided.  "Most of them range from six to 10 rooms, but there is one that has only four rooms and another that has five.  The 28 units include four penthouses, two of them duplexes, one duplex having three rooms, the other seven."  She noted, "[Emery] Roth, who later founded his own firm with his sons, took it for granted that there would be wood-burning fireplaces.  They still work."

But then, on June 5, 2019, Habitat magazine reported, "GDS Development is negotiating to purchase the century-old residential co-op building at 417 Park Avenue and East 55th Street for around $200 million...If the deal goes through, GDS could erect a nearly 220,000-square-foot office tower on the side."  The deal went through.  Habitat commented, "Reliable sources report that Emery Roth is spinning in his grave."

Photographer Michael Young documented the beginning of demolition in the summer of 2021.  image via

Demolition of the venerable structure began in August 2021.  

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Saturday, December 3, 2022

The Philip F. Pistor House - 353 West 19th Street

In 1830, Don Alonzo Cushman, a friend of Clement Clarke Moore, began purchasing lots in Chelsea, the once sprawling country estate of Moore's family.  He, along with another friend, James Wells, would be greatly responsible for the development of the new neighborhood.  Cushman would erect rows of speculative, high end houses in Chelsea.

On October 26, 1843, Mary Matilda Falconer Cushman, Don Alonzo's daughter, married Philip F. Pistor in St. Peter's Church on West 20th Street.  Born in France as Philippe Frederic Pistor, the groom had anglicized his name upon arriving in America.  The newlyweds moved into the newly-build house at 251 West 19th Street, almost assuredly a gift from the bride's father.

The three-story residence was faced in red brick.  Its double-doored entrance atop the high stoop sat within an elliptically arched stone frame.  The parlor windows were, almost assuredly, originally full height (as seen in the once-identical house next door at 351).  An Italianate cornice with foliate brackets and a paneled fascia crowned the structure.

Pistor was in the drygoods business at 52 Broad Street.  Both his affluence and his startling attention detail were reflected in an advertisement he placed in newspapers in early 1854: 

$5 Reward--Lost, on Thursday, January 19, in the afternoon in going from Baltic street Brooklyn, through Henry and Atlantic streets, crossing the South ferry, and taking one of the Fourteenth street stages to corner of Nineteenth street and Ninth avenue, a small diamond breastpin in shape of a star.  The finder will receive the above reward on leaving it at 52 Broad street, upstairs, or at 251 West Nineteenth street, New York.

The reward would be equal to about $165 in 2022.

The couple would have ten children.  The first, Frederick, was born in 1843 but died soon afterward.  Their seventh child, Matilda was born in 1854.  She, like Frederick and her sister Mary, born in 1851, died in infancy.  It was shortly after Matilda's death that the family moved to a fine home on West 22nd Street.

It appears the house was rented to a series of tenants over the next two decades  Carlisle Norwood and his family were here for a few years starting in 1855.  They were followed by John Whitfield, an importer, here until 1861.  That year Martha Hawley, a widow, moved in with her two adult daughters, Mary and Harriet S.  Harriett taught in Primary School No. 19 on West 18th Street, and Mary gave voice lessons at home.  She placed an advertisement in The New York Times on October 11, 1861 that read:

Miss Mary E. Hawley respectfully informs her pupils and friends that she has removed to No. 251 West 19-st., where she will resume instruction in singing.

The Hawleys remained until about 1864, when again, a string of tenants leased the house.  By 1876 the Dreyfus family occupied were here.  It had been renumbered 351 West 19th Street in 1867, and, oddly enough, renumbered again in 1876 when the all the numbers along the block were moved up one address, making it 353 West 19th Street. 

Emile and Julius G. Dreyfus were "chemists," or pharmacists, with a drugstore at 15 Cedar Street.  Isidor and Julius R. Dreyfus were partners with Max Nathan in Nathan & Dreyfus, a locomotive oil manufacturing firm.  Like the previous renters, the Dreyfuses' residency would be short-lived.

In 1884 the house, described as a "desirable three story high stoop brick house of 12 rooms," was again advertised for rent.  But, instead, it was sold to Josephina A. De Baun, the widow of Hausman De Baun.  

It was about this time that the house received a stylish updating.  The entrance and window lintels received hardy cornices that sat upon sturdy brackets, and an ambitious cornice replaced the original, its brackets large-scale versions of those below--flanking robust rosettes.

Sadly, Joseph A. De Baun would not enjoy her new home for long.  She contracted pneumonia in the fall of 1887, and died on October 7.  Her funeral was held in the parlor three days later.

The De Baun estate rented 353 West 19th Street until 1891, when the heirs sold it to Mary G. and Robert H. Smith for $35,000--just over $1 million in 2022.

Over the next decades the successive owners continued to rent the house to respectable tenants.  Living here during the World War I years, for instance, was Walter Eugene Tober and his wife, the former Olga Hammershlag.  Born into a well-known banking family in Switzerland in 1847, he came to America as a young man.  He settled in the South, representing the banking firm of Duncan Sherman & Co.  There, The Sun later said, "he was looked upon as one of the foremost cotton experts in the country."   In New York City, he was associated with the John Wanamaker store. 

In the decades before air conditioning, New Yorkers suffered in the intense heat.  And Edwardian deportment did not allow for the removal of hats and coats in public.  On August 3, 1917, The Sun reported, "Prostrated by the heat, Walter Eugene Tobler, 70, died suddenly yesterday at his home, 353 West Nineteenth street."

A renovation completed in 1970 resulted in a duplex apartment in the basement and parlor levels, and one apartment each in the upper floors.  

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Friday, December 2, 2022

The 1930 George Washington (Freehand) Hotel - 23 Lexington Avenue


Born in 1878, Harry Barth joined his father's restaurant and hotel supply firm, I. Barth & Son, around the turn of the last century.  It grew to be the largest hotel and restaurant supply business in the East.  Barth sold his interest in the company in 1925, accepting the caveat that he could not involve himself in the business for a decade.  And so, instead, he focused on acquiring and erecting hotels, forming the Barth Hotels Corporation and the affiliated Club Hotel Corporation.

On March 18, 1929, The New York Times reported that Barth's two corporations planned the erection of a $3 million hotel on the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street.  "The George Washington Hotel, of which Frank M. Andrews is the architect, will be a sixteen-story structure, containing 630 rooms, each with private bath, and stores on the ground floor."  In fact, Frank M. Andrews would work with John B. Peterkin on the design, and both would be listed as "associated architect."  

By now Barth operated a chain of hotels, filled with carefree tourists and businessmen who spent freely.  But had he been able to see seven months into the future, he assuredly would have halted the plans for another.  During construction, on October 29, the Stock Market crashed, plunging the nation into the Great Depression.  Years later, The New York Times would recall, "Construction on the last unit of the group, the George Washington Hotel at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street, was begun just before the depression, which put an end to this venture."  The costs of the hotel, completed in 1930, forced Barth and his corporations into bankruptcy.

Despite the pall of the Depression, Andrews and Peterkin had designed the brick-faced structure in a 1920's take on Renaissance period architecture.  The three-story stone base was distinguished by elaborate, polychrome terra cotta framed windows set into shallow arched recesses.  The impressive, double-height stone entranceway drew inspiration from a triumphal arch, its free-standing Doric columns and layered pilasters upheld an arched opening and entablature.

Architecture and Building magazine noted in its February 1930 issue that the hotel "is designed to cater exclusively to single young men and women in New York City who seek attractive accommodations at very moderate rates."  To garner extra income, the ground floor contained shops while the entire second floor was devoted to "an interesting series of public rooms," some of which could be rented for meetings and other assemblies.  The article said "As this hotel is for permanent residents rather than transients, the atmosphere of these rooms in intimate."

For the residents, there was a "gallery" in the Italian Renaissance style.  A library was finished with Georgian wooden paneling and held a copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.  "It is comfortably furnished with numerous arm chairs and reading lamps," said Architecture and Building, adding, "The lounge follows the Colonial period in a finish of knotty pine."

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

The upper floor rooms were relatively small, with just a single bed, night table, small desk, and an easy chair.  But each had a bathroom, closet and a telephone.  On the roof was a "sun parlor," enclosed in French windows, and a roof garden.

A major tenant was the City College Club, which had a hand in the designs for its space.  Its private entrance was on East 24th Street, although the clubrooms had access to other parts of the hotel.  On December 29, 1929, The New York Times explained, "The main club consists of an entrance foyer off which are grouped the club rooms and the vestiaire [i.e. coat room], telephones, men's rooms and service pantries."  

The main room was 50 feet long and 30 feet wide, "and so planned as to serve as a general lounge and club room at all times.  It can be easily transformed into a meeting hall or dining hall wherein may be given dances, general receptions, &c."  The room had been designed in a Dutch Colonial motif, using models and documents in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for guidance.  The tiled fireplace, with the insignia of the College of the City of New York, was fabricated in Holland.  There were also a 25-by-30-foot billiard and bridge room, a library and a card room.  

The opening of the George Washington Hotel not only coincided with the Great Depression, but with the rise of Nazism in Germany.  In the July 1932 German elections, the Nazi Party became the most powerful political group in Germany.  Its influence spread quickly to America.

On August 28, 1933, The Daily Worker, a Socialist newspaper, reported on the Kulturbund, or Culture Union, "an aristocratic Nazi organization in which the 'gentlemen' Nazis segregate themselves from the riff-raff and small fry, who have their Storm Troop, and carry out the rowdy work."  The article said, "They have elegant headquarters in the George Washington Hotel, on Lexington Ave. at 23rd St., and all the leading Nazis live there in style, supported in part by the 75-cent weekly dues of the rank and file."

"The president of the 'Kulturbund' is George Schellenberg, adventurer and ex-movie actor," said the article, "who lives at the George Washington Hotel and has a big job in a department store, where he is notorious for his vicious manner of treating the workers under him."  The Daily Worker claimed that Schellenberg, after spending his inheritance in Germany, "came to America to make his fortune, but made a miserable failure of it until with Hitler's accession to power he got his chance to try for a bloody Nazi career."

The House Immigration and Naturalization Sub-Committee put Clarence A. Hathaway, an editor of The Daily Worker, on the stand on November 15, 1933 as part of their investigation "to probe Nazi propaganda activity in the United States."  The committee members and Americans at large were shocked, "when Hathaway not only revealed the presence of super-patriotic Mr. [Hamilton] Fish at a recent Nazi meeting at the George Washington Hotel of New York City, but also when he offered 'to produce documents showing that Hamilton Fish is engaged in Nazi activities in the United States.'"  The testimony, expectedly, drew strong denial from Fish.

Ironically, the hotel that had been a hive of Nazi activity became a refuge for German Jewish children eight years later.  In 1941 the German-Jewish Children's Aid Organization brought 1,000 refugee youths to America.  According to Lori Gemeiner Bihler in her 2018 book Cities of Refuge, "Some of these thousand children stayed at the George Washington Hotel on Lexington Avenue.  In a period of a few days, they received medical attention and an opportunity to find their 'land legs' with the other children.  They were then placed either with relatives, Jewish foster families, or in temporary housing."

On January 26, 1939, English-born novelist Christopher Isherwood and British poet W. H. Auden took rooms here.  Although they occasionally had sex, according to the 2013 book W. H. Auden in Context, edited by Tony Sharpe, they were not romantically entangled.  On January 29 Auden wrote his mother, saying, "We have found a nice hotel--the George Washington--23rd St. and Lexington Ave."

Isherwood soon moved on (to southern Calif0rnia), but Auden, who very much liked the hotel, remained.  Upon hearing that British composer Benjamin Britten was planning a visit to American in June 1939, Auden wrote and recommended the George Washington Hotel.   "It's much the nicest hotel in town and the manager Mr. Donald Neville-Willing (and don't forget the hyphen) is expecting you.  There is a good piano."

Indeed, W. H. Auden formed a friendly relationship with Donald Neville-Willing, and upon his leaving, presented the manager with a thank-you in the form of a poem hand-written on five sheets of hotel stationery.  It began:

O, is there a technique to praise the Hotel George Washington then,
That doesn't resemble the ways the 
Really professional men
Convince a two hundred pound matron
She's the feather she was in her youth?
Well, considering who is the patron,
I think I shall stick to the truth.
It stands on the Isle of Manhattan
Not far from the Lexington line,
And although it's demode to fatten,
There's a ballroom where parties may dine.

As mid-century approached, Dr. Philip Newton and his second wife, lived here.  His extraordinary life started in Fort McIntosh in Laredo, Texas, where his father, Major John Newton, was serving.  In 1914 he went to Europe to serve with the Red Cross during World War I, and was made surgeon in the American Ambulance Unit of the Grand Duchess Tatiana, daughter of Czar Nicholas.  He was made a general in the Russian Imperial Army, and in 1915 married Russian Princess Helene Schahofskaya.

During World War II Newton operated a pharmacological laboratory that made vitamin-infused candies for British children.  He died in his room in the George Washington Hotel on June 17, 1950.

By the 1970's the hotel had grown seedy.  Lenny Sullivan, a 27-year-old who lived on East 27th Street, rented a room long enough to have an afternoon fling with a "woman friend" on July 29, 1973.  As he stepped out of the shower, he touched the air conditioner which, according to The New York Times, "was wired improperly and not grounded."  He was fatally electrocuted and his companion received an electric shock when she attempted to pull his body away.

A self-described artist, Tony Shafrazi paid $15 each week for his room here in 1974.  On February 28 that year he entered the Museum of Modern Art and, in front of a crowd of patrons, took a can of red spray paint from his coat and sprayed "Kill Lies All" on Picasso's painting Guernica.  As a guard grabbed him, Shafrazi demanded, "Call the curator, I'm an artist."  At the 54th Street station house, he explained his vandalism saying, "I'm an artist and I wanted to tell the truth."  Thankfully, the masterpiece was fully conserved.

A tragic resident was former actor Al Hodge. He started his career as a radio actor, once playing the Green Hornet.  But he rose to fame with the advent of television.  In 1948 he was hired as the title character of the series Captain Video.  He became a hero to children across the country until the show was dropped in 1956.  Unfortunately for Hodge, he had become so identified with Captain Video, that he could no longer find work.  He turned to alcohol, went through a series of marriages, and finally ended up at the George Washington Hotel, living off Social Security checks.

On March 22, 1979, Judith Cummings of The New York Times wrote, "But, with the Green Hornet and Captain Video long behind, him, Mr. Hodge was found dead and alone Monday in a midtown hotel, his realm reduced to the dimensions of a single room."  He was 66 years old.

An unlikely tenant at the time was Brigid Berlin, the daughter of Hearst publishing mogul Richard E. Berlin and his socialite wife Muriel, known as Honey.  Brigid had rebelled against her upbringing.  The New York Times's John Leland said, "She took mountains of speed and made thousands of recordings and Polaroid photographs of New York's bohemian demimonde, when such a thing existed."  Berlin was a mainstay of the Andy Warhol set and appeared in his movies Bad and Chelsea Girls.  

In 1991 musicians Dee Dee Ramone, founder of the bank the Ramones, and Richard Barone had rooms here.  Ramone mentions the hotel in his book, Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones; and in his book, Frontman, Surviving the Rock Star Myth, Barone writes:

...we moved downtown to the rather shabby George Washington Hotel on Lexington and 23rd.  An SRO--single room occupancy or standing room only--either phrase applied.  Our rooms had barely enough floor space for one to stand and answer the nonexistent phone.  I saw my first junkie collapse and remain in front of the elevator in the lobby as people walked past.  Rumor had it that movie queen Veronica Lake, one of the stars in my mother's scrapbook, had sadly spent her last days working as a counter waitress in the drab coffee shop downstairs.  This was not exactly the Plaza.

On July 2, 1995, The New York Times reported that The Educational Housing corporation, a provider of student housing, had signed a 15-year lease on the hotel.  "The corporation will check each room twice a year, and repaint it if existing lead paint has peeled or chipped."  Three years later the newspaper announced that 600 beds here had been leased to the School of Visual Arts for student housing.  

Change came in 2018 when the investment firm AllianceBernstein remodeled the George Washington Hotel to the Freehand New York hotel.  Design studio Roman and Williams transformed the interiors to attract a hip "artist community," according to the owners' marketing.  Amazingly, the Gilbert Stuart George Washington painting was still in place, albeit a bit dingy.  Roman and Williams had it professionally conserved and rehung it in what is now the George Washington bar.

photographs by the author
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Thursday, December 1, 2022

The 1833 Garret Forbes House - 136 Bank Street


A wide range of tradesmen invested in the building boom that erupted in Greenwich Village in the 1820's and '30's.  Among them was William E. Fink, a grocer.  In 1833 he erected a row of speculative houses on Bank Street, at the corner of Greenwich Street.  Three stories tall and faced in Flemish bond red brick, they were early examples of the Greek Revival Style, exchanging a short attic level for the peaked roof and dormers of the Federal style.  They clung to that earlier style, however, in the entranceways where the single, paneled door below an overlight was flanked by thin columns.

In 1842 126 Bank Street (renumbered 136 in 1866) became home to the family of Garret Forbes.  Born on September 2, 1785, his father was the noted silversmith, William Garret Forbes.  Like his two brothers, Garret joined his father's business beginning in 1805.

This silver creamer, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an example of Garret Forbes's work.

Forbes soon opted for a different career, and in 1817 was appointed "weigher and collector" in the U. S. Customs House.  It was a highly responsible Government position that he held until 1839, when he was replaced by Jesse Hoyt, who was nominated by President Martin Van Buren.  

When Forbes moved his family moved into the Bank Street house, he held the position of  Day Inspector at the Customs House.  Then, on August 12, 1844, he was the victim of a purge.  The New York Herald wrote that the building was "the scene of much excitement yesterday, owing to the announcement of some fifty removals from the Custom House, with as many appointments.  There were long faces, and short faces, puckered mouths and open mouths, grinning on one side and squirming on the other."  Among those let go was Garret Forbes.  

The 59-year-old retired.  City directories now listed him simply as "late Customhouse officer."  Meanwhile, living with him and his wife, Sarah, were their daughter and her husband William Barnes, who was involved in the insurance industry.  

On April 19, 1851 the Morning Courier and New York Enquirer reported, "Mr. Garrett [sic] Forbes, an old and respected citizen, while walking in his yard, on Friday afternoon, suddenly dropped dead, supposed to have been caused by a fit of apoplexy."  The term referred to what is today called a stroke.  The funeral of the 66-year-old was held in the parlor the following day.

William Barnes, an ardent abolitionist, became actively involved in the Kansas Free-Stater movement, started in 1854.  The Free-Staters, composed mostly of abolitionists from New England, initiated an organized emigration of like minded settlers to the Kansas Territory in order to make Kansas a slave-free state.

By 1857 Barnes was secretary of the New York State committee.  He placed an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on March 25, 1857 that read:

Ho! For Free Kansas
A Company of Kansas Emigrants will start from Bennett's Temperance Hotel, Buffalo, on the First Day of April, 1857, under charge of the Rev. A. H. Shurtleff of Watkins, N.Y.  Tickets can be procured by furnishing satisfactory evidence to the undersigned of the intention of the applicant to become a bona fide Kansas Emigrant.  Fare:  Albany to Kansas City, Wyandot, Quindaro, and Leavenworth, $28.57.
                                        William Barnes, Secretary

By 1860 Barnes was, as well, the head of the Insurance Department of the State of New York.  His financial status afforded him the ability to purchase a country estate in White Plains, New York.

Sarah Forbes died in the Bank Street house on January 23, 1861 at the age of 72.  Her funeral was held there four days later.

William Barnes and his wife remained at 136 Bank Street until a freak accident changed Barnes's life.  The couple was at their country home in the summer of 1866.  On July 12, Barnes was watching the operations of a mowing machine on the property.  The New York Herald reported, "While he was in front of the horses attached to the machine, they took a sudden start, driving the blades of the mower into his leg near the foot, almost severing the lower portion of the limb."  The article said Barnes's wound was so severe that amputation would be necessary.

The Bank Street house was purchased by James M. Renville, a clerk.  Born in  1835, he appears to have been a life-long bachelor.  It was almost assuredly he who enlarged the attic windows to full height.  Renville remained here until his death at the age of 59 in 1894.

The West Side Federal Savings & Loan Association took possession of the house during the Depression years.  The institution sold it in May 1938 to Frederick Andrews for $9,000, or about $173,000 in 2022 terms.  The following year the house next door at 138 Bank Street was demolished for a gas station.

The original configuration of the attic windows can be see in the once-identical 134 Bank Street (left).  image via the NYC Dept. of Records and Information Services.

In 1972 the house became home to a colorful Greenwich Village figure.  William Gottlieb purchased it that year for $37,000 (about $184,000 today).   Born in Coney Island three years before Frederick Andrews had bought the house, he quietly accumulated properties in Greenwich Village.  Moreover, his lifestyle gave no hint of his wealth.  He dressed shabbily (one local said he appeared to be homeless), and drove around the neighborhood in a car with its windows broken out.  Andrew Rice of The New York Times later described him, writing "Gottlieb was a heavyset and invariably dressed in wrinkled pants and an old golf shirt, which some people suspected he seldom changed."

The miserly landlord's only efforts to improve a property, according to real estate agent Arnold Warwick, was "making them habitable and applying a fresh coat of paint."  Inadvertently, he became a leading preservationist in the district simply because he never demolished nor altered his buildings.

The buildings he purchased on the far West Village along Hudson Street and Eighth Avenue were relatively inexpensive in the 1970's.  Because he refused to sell, only to buy properties, he saw the worth of his empire skyrocket.  

In October 1999, Gottlieb complained of dizziness in his Hudson Street office, and collapsed.  He had suffered a stroke and died on October 5 at the age of 64.  At the time of his death he was one of the largest owners of property in the West Village, his real estate estimated to be worth between $200 and $300 million.

After more than 165 years as a single-family home, 136 Bank Street was converted to three apartments.  Outwardly, little has changed since James M. Renville enlarged the top floor windows in the early years following the Civil War.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to