Friday, March 24, 2023

The Fletcher Henderson House - 228 West 139th Street


On August 16, 1890 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on what it described as "One of the most important building operations ever undertaken in this city."  Developer David H. King, Jr. had broken ground for an ambitious project of houses "of a first-class character" that would engulf the  entire block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (today's Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, respectively) and 138th and 139th Streets, as well as the south side of  138th Street between the same avenues.  An interesting aspect of what were called the King's Model Houses was that the developer had hired three architects--Bruce Price and Clarence S. Luce worked together on the full block, while James Brown Lord designed the homes on the south side of 138th Street.

Five months later, on January 27, 1891, the Record & Guide reported that King had expanded the project, writing that he "intends to build another block just north of the present block he is improving on 137th and 138th [sic] streets, 7th and 8th avenues."  The new portion, engulfing the northern blockfront of 139th Street, would follow the same plan as the others and be designed by McKim, Mead & White.

The block of homes designed by Bruce Price and Clarence S. Luce were a creative take on the neo-Georgian style.  The World explained, "These houses form a whole block...There is a great court in the centre of the block."  Faced in beige brick and richly trimmed in white terra cotta, the 17-foot-wide homes were three stories tall above English basements.  

Like its neighbors, 228 West 139th Street featured a single-doored arched entrance that sprouted a dramatic, elongated keystone.  The splayed lintel of the parlor window was composed of alternating, foliate terra cotta sections, matched by smaller versions above all but one of the second story openings.  The exception, at the second floor, was crowned by a lintel in the form of a fasces, and an arched panel with a wreath and garlands.  Above it all was a brick parapet with balustraded openings.

Elaborate terra cotta elements distinguished the houses.

The block filled with professional families and No. 228 West 139th Street became home to the Joseph Clark Robinson family.  Robinson and his wife, the former Mary Frances Cramer (known familiarly as Fannie) had three children, Mary Edith, Alice Nelson, and Clarence Cramer.

Joseph Robinson was listed in city directories as a clerk--a somewhat nebulous term that ranged from an office worker to a highly responsible position within a bank or corporation.   When the family moved into the 139th Street house, Clarence, who was just 12-yeard-old, was already enrolled in the "Sub-Freshman" scientific course at the College of the City of New York.

On June 14, 1896, The World began an article saying, "The entire upper west side of the city is in a state of alarm, because of a daring robbery carried out yesterday afternoon in one of its most aristocratic sections."  The article continued:

The scene of the robbery was the elegant home of Henry [sic] C. Robinson, dry-goods merchant in Worth street, in one of the King model houses, No. 228 West One Hundred and thirty-ninth street.

Six months earlier the Robinsons had hired a servant, Johanna Herran, described by The Sun as "a German girl, about twenty years old."  On Saturday afternoon, June 13, "Mr. Robinson and his entire family were at the Sunday school picnic of the Mt. Morris Baptist Church, and the servant was alone in the house," according to the article.  The reporter said that around 2:00 "two rough-looking men rang the bell."

The World wrote, "'We're from the gas company,' said one of the men, ' and want to examine the gas meter.'"  Johanna told them the family was away and they should come back another day.  

"We can't waste time coming back," he replied.  "We're bound to attend to the meter now."  The World said his manner was authoritative and the fact that they men carried notebooks convinced the servant to admit them.  She took them to the cellar where one of the men grabbed her by the throat and forced her face-first onto the concrete floor.  At this point the second man sat on her back.  He stuffed a gag which he had fashioned from a handkerchief and a small piece of kindling into her mouth and secured it.  Johanna's arms were bound behind her back with another handkerchief, and her legs were tied with twine.  The World reported, "This done, the poor girl, who thought she was to be murdered, was left lying face downward on the cold concrete.  Her face had been bruised on the floor and her nose was bleeding."

At 4:00 the family returned home.  When no one answered the doorbell, they used their key to enter.  The Sun reported, "The house was in confusion, and a glance into the dining room showed that the thieves had made off with the silver."  Fannie Robinson called to Clarence Andrews, the 16-year-old son of Police Commissioner Avery Andrews, who was in his yard directly behind theirs.  The teen jumped the fence and helped in the search for the burglars, still thought to be in the house.

Young Andrews took a lantern to the cellar.  "There he found the servant, still bound and in a half-fainting condition," wrote
The Sun.  "Blood was oozing from her nose and mouth."  Clarence Andrews ran to the corner and found Policeman Thornton.  He and other officers arrived at the house and took Johanna's statement.  Afterward she went to bed, "suffering from the severe nervous shock."

According to The World, the burglars had nearly wrecked the house:

Everything was turned topsy-turvy.  Articles of clothing were strewn from first floor to garret.  All the drawers had been opened out and the contents dumped on the floor.  Mattresses were taken off of beds, and even carpets were torn up.  Much of the wreckage appeared to have been committed solely in a spirit of vandalism.

The thieves had made off with jewelry and silverware valued at "many thousands of dollars," according to The World.  As it turned out, Johanna was fortunate.  Two days later, Dr. Lewald, who had attended her, said, "If she had remained an hour longer with the gag in her mouth, she would be dead.  Fright and suffocation would have done the work."

Fannie came from an old New York family.  On February 8, 1897 The New York Press reported that she hosted a "whist afternoon" for The National Society of New England.

Around the turn of the century, the Robinson family left 139th Street.  Owned by an "E. Hamilton," it was leased in 1903 to the Jacob family.  On a single day, June 19, 1905, the New York Herald announced the engagements of sisters Jennie and Birdie Jacob--Jennie to Alfred Bleyer and Birdie to Morris Israel.

Living here in 1907 was salesman Solomon Piser.  He and a friend attended a crap game in the Bennett Building on Ann Street on Friday night, May 10 that year.  The room where the illegal game took place had been raided by police just a month earlier.  According to Piser, he and his friend "started a friendly crap game there" with another salesman named Louis Bloom and his friend.  Bloom was down $150 when Piser's friend briefly walked out of the room.  Piser told police, "Then the other two seized him," threw him to the floor and took $343 from his pocket and fled.  It was a significant theft--equal to more than $10,000 in 2023 money.

Despite having been involved in illegal gambling, Piser went to the police.  Louis Bloom was arrested at his house the next night.  "It was my money and I took it.  That's all," he told the arresting officers.  He refused to identify his friend.

In the post World War I years, the neighborhood was changing as Manhattan's Black community migrated northward.  A significant number of Black musicians--Eubie Blake, W. C. Handy, Billie Holiday and Noble Sissle among them--moved into the King's Model Houses, now known as Strivers' Row.

In 1924 pianist, orchestra leader, arranger and composer Fletcher Henderson and his wife Leora purchased 228 West 139th Street.  Born in 1897, Henderson would become one of the most prolific and influential Black musical arrangers in jazz history.

The year he and Leora moved into 228 West 139th Street, his band became the house band at the Club Alabam on West 44th Street.  Then, in July 1924 he landed what was intended to be temporary engagement at the Roseland Ballroom.  The reception by patrons was such that in October the orchestra was rebooked, now with Louis Armstrong in the group.  It was soon known as the best Black band in New York City.  Other members of the orchestra were Charlie Greene, Charlie Dixon, Buster Bailey and Elmer Chalmers.  By April 1925, The New York Age referred to the group as "Fletcher Henderson and his Roseland Orchestra."

Given little credit today, Leora was an important part of the Henderson Orchestra.  A trumpeter, music copyist, and arranger, she also handled much of the business end.  She organized tours, arranged rehearsals and handled other details.

This photo of Fletcher Henderson was taken in 1926, two years after he purchased 228 West 139th Street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In April 1928 Fletcher's group appeared at the Lafayette Theatre in the revue Jazz Fantasy.   In reporting on the opening, the critic from The New York Age said in part:

There comes a time in every reviewer's life when the English language fails him in his efforts to do justice to a particularly inspiring show...And the trouble arises from the fact that the greatest of all bands--Fletcher Henderson's Roseland Orchestra--weaves such an entrancing spell about the revue that one feels as if he were treading on air and cannot adequately describe his feelings.

The Hendersons opened their home to musicians from time to time.  In his 1991 book Boy Meets Horn, jazz cornetist Rex Stewart wrote that shortly after Henderson asked him to join the band permanently, "both he and Miss Lee insisted that I come back to live with them at 228 West 139th Street."  He added elsewhere in the book, "Later I found out that Miss Lee (as we called Mrs. Henderson) had written my mother in Washington, telling her that she would keep an eye on me.  this she did, as much as possible."

And in 1934 saxophonist Lester "Prez" Young lived with the couple.  In this 1990 book The Imperfect Art, Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, Ted Gioia quote Young saying, "I was rooming at the Henderson's house, and Leora Henderson would wake me early in the morning and play [Coleman] Hawkins' records for me so I could play like he did."

In the meantime, the West 139th Street house was occasionally the scene of entertaining.  On August 22, 1931, for instance, The New York Age announced, "Miss Dorothy Phillips of Boston will visit her cousin, Mrs. Fletcher Henderson, 228 West 139th street."  And the following year, on May 21, the same newspaper wrote, "More than a hundred graduates of Atlanta University, former students and friends, attended a reception at the home of their fellow-alumnus Fletcher Henderson and Mrs. Henderson, 228 West 139th Street, New York City, on Sunday afternoon, May 15."

By 1937 the Hendersons had left 228 West 139th Street.  It was operated as a rooming house for decades.  Never converted to apartments, it is once again a single-family home.

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Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Thomas N. Dale & Co. Building - 18 Warren Street


image via

In 1794 Robert Harpur was Deputy Secretary of the State of New York.  He lived at 18 Warren Street, half a block from the City Commons (today's City Hall Park), where five years earlier George Washington had been named President of the United States of America.  By the 1850s the formerly residential neighborhood was rapidly being overtaken by commerce.  The last resident of the former Harpur house was tailor Benjamin M. Noe, here until 1854.

That year the vintage homes at 18 through 22 Warren Street were replaced by modern loft buildings.  The identical, Italianate style structures were five stories tall, their ground floor store spaces capped by a prominent cornice.  The elliptically-arched second and third floor openings were distinguished by robust cornices that sat upon scrolled brackets.  Matching scrolled keystones made the second floor windows slightly more ornate.  The openings of the topmost floors sat within architrave frames and wore slightly less pronounced lintels.  Handsome Italianate cornices upheld by paired, scrolled brackets completed the design.

On June 1, 1855 a notice appeared in the New York Herald that announced the dissolution of Thomas N. Dale & Co.  Having severed his business relations with his former partners, the notice said, "Thos. N. Dale has this day formed a copartnership with George Richmond, under the firm of Thos. N. Dale & Co., and will continued the business of the late firm at No. 18 Warren street."

Thomas N. Dale was born in Massachusetts and began his career as a clerk in a country store.  In his 1860 A History of American Manufacturers J. Leander Bishop said, "Mr. Dale, we believe, was the first to make the sale of Clothiers' and Tailors' Trimmings a specialty."  The company sold braiding, buttons, fabrics and such to garment makers.  By the time of the article, Thos. N. Dale & Co. was among largest such firms in the country, with branch offices in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Paris.

The reorganization of Dale's firm in 1855 may have had to do with a disagreement about domestic production.  It had previously imported silk ribbons and fabrics from Europe, but now operated a silk mill in Paterson, New Jersey and "a large and splendid factory," as described by Bishop.

A year after moving into the new building, the company was the victim of a bold forger.  On October 22, 1856 the New York Herald reported that in June a 9-month note for $2,313.41 had been presented to Sackett, Belcher & Co.  The fraud was discovered when that firm tried to liquidate the note.  It was a significant amount, more than $76,000 in 2023.

Thomas Dale's regard within the business community was evidenced when he was elected a member of the Chamber of Commerce in 1861.  That same year, the Civil War broke out.  Passionately patriotic, just days after the first shot was fired in April, Dale donated $300 to The Union Defence Fund.  Later that year he added another $500 to his contribution, the total amount equal to about $25,500 today.

Working for Thos. N. Dale & Co. at the time was David Kilmer, a clerk.  When what today would be called "inventory shortages" were discovered that year, the employees were closely watched.  On December 23, 1861, The New York Times reported, "David Kilmer, recently a clerk in the employ of Dale & Co., No. 18 Warren-street, was taken before Justice Connolly yesterday, charged with purloining from his employers, at various times, large quantities of sewing silk, buttons, braid, buckles, machine twist, &c. of the value of $500."  Also arrested was the Third Avenue retailer who purchased the stolen goods.

In 1863 Thos. N. Dale & Co. moved directly across the street to 17 Warren Street.  In its place, 18 Warren Street filled with apparel and drygoods firms.  Rosenheim Brothers, dealers in fancygoods was composed of Leopold, Meyer and Seligman Rosenheim.  Similar to Dale's items, "fancygoods" were trims and fabrics used by apparel makers.  Also in the building were the drygoods operation of Herman Bernheimer, who was also a banker on Broad Street; and Griessman Brothers & Hoffman, a clothing firm run by Charles and Joseph Griessman and Isaac Hoffman.

In 1867 a far different type of tenant arrived.  Onion, Haigh & Cornwall dealt in "all kinds of fire arms, gun materials, ammunition, fishing tackle and sporting goods."  It was operated by William M. Cornwall, John H. Bliss, William Haigh and William H. Onion.  As had been the case with Thomas N. Dale and his original partners, the firm was soon reorganized as Onion & Cornwall.   But troubles continued.

On October 10, 1877, the New York Herald reported, "The firm of Onion & Cornwall, dealers in guns, at No. 18 Warren street, have failed and have placed their property at the disposal of their creditors."  William M. Cornwall was resilient.  He managed to keep control of the business, now named William M. Cornwall, as the sole proprietor.

New York State Association for the Protection of Fish and Game, 1881 (copyright expired)

By the 1880s, drygoods firms at 18 Warren Street had been replaced by G. & D. Silver, boots and shoes; and Butler & Constant, hardware merchants.  In a now familiar scenario, John R Butler and John C. Constant found themselves in financial trouble in March 1886.   The firm was reorganized as Butler Hardware, with only John Butler now involved in its operation.

P. H. Bohner & Son manufactured "leather goods" (specifically harnesses and "harness specialties) here by 1894.  That year the firm employed 13 men and 12 girls under 16 years old who worked 59 hours per week.  The firm would remain through 1901.

In 1899 the store, basement and cellar levels of 18 Warren Street were rented by hardware dealers Neal & Brinker.  It had been established at 168 Church Street two years earlier where it employed "one salesman, stenographer, porter and boy," according to Hardware Dealers' Magazine later.  "Owing to the growth, they were compelled to seek larger quarters," said the article.  Neal & Brinker acted as agents for out-of-town hardware makers, like the Buffalo Manufacturing Co., which made items ranging from tea kettles to bathroom fixtures.

The Buffalo Manufacturing Co. was one of the firms represented by Neal & Brinker.  Hardware Dealers' Magazine, June 1907 (copyright expired)

The success of Neal & Brinker was such that on May 1, 1905, "they found it necessary to occupy the entire building," as reported by Hardware Dealers' Magazine.

The offices of the firm were located on the ground floor.  On May 3, 1908 The New York Times reported that at 7:00 on the previous evening, "Mr. [Edward B.] Brinker was at work in the office and was surprised to hear three engine companies come up to the front of the building.  He went to the window, looked out, and then ran to the street."

Several employees of the building next door had seen flames and smoke coming through the sidewalk and summoned firefighters.  By the time Brinker escaped to the street, the basement and cellar "were blazing like furnaces," according to The Sun.  The men battled the fire for an hour before it was subdued enough that they could go in.   The Sun reported, "The smoke was so stifling that the men had to work in relays, some coming to the surface for air while the others held the hose."

Then a near disaster occurred.  The New York Times said, "The fire had been so hot that the gas connections were melted."  When the gas pipes burst, the firefighters of Engine 7 had already reached the subcellar.  Miraculously, the release of gas did not result in a massive explosion, however the firefighters were put in imminent danger.  Deputy Chief Gooderson called out, "Back! Back out, men!"  The Sun reported that Lieutenant Charles McConnell replied, "I'm all in, Chief!" and "he dropped unconscious into the water that flooded the place."

Firefighters Robert Burnett and Frank Conroy bent down to pick him up, and "both fell over his body unconscious."  By now Gooderson and Battalion Chief Galvin were nearly overcome, and escaped only when fresh men carried them to the street.  Eventually, all the men were rescued, six of them brought unconscious to the street.  The Sun reported, "The fire was extinguished after two hours work with a loss of about $2,000."

A blade sign advertising Horrock-Ibbotson Company projected from the building when this photo was taken in 1941.  The storefront cornice and the window details were still intact.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

As had been the case so often at 18 Warren Street, in May 1912 Neal & Brinker first reported financial problems.  Three years later, on May 4, 1915, The Sun reported, "The five story loft building at 18 Warren street, the home for the last twenty years of the Neal & Brinker Company, hardware dealers, was sold yesterday for that firm to the M. Weiss Company."  The deal allowed Neal & Brinker to lease the store and basement for two years, while M. Weiss Company, importer of chemicals and hardware goods, would occupy the upper floors.

As it turned out, Neal & Brinker Company did not survive through its two-year lease.  In 1916 the store became home to the Baily Electrical Supply Co.  

In its November 1916 issue, Electrical Review illustrated the Baily Electrical Supply Co. store.  (copyright expired)

M. Weiss remained in the building through around 1922, after which the Horrock-Ibbotson Company moved in.  Like William M. Cornwall, it was a sporting goods firm.  Claiming to be "The Largest Manufacturer of Fishing Tackle in the World," it operated factories in Utica and Rome, New York.

This advertisement marketing fishing rods was published in 1953.

The Horrock-Ibbotson Company went out of business around mid-century.  In 1953 Rudge Cycles operated from 18 Warren Street.  The firm marketed "Britain's Best Bicycle."  For years, starting around 1969 through the 1980s, Leonard Radio occupied the ground floor.

Then, in 1989, the Tribeca renaissance caught up with the venerable building.  That year the upper portion was converted to apartments, one per floor.  Sadly, the striking 1855 architectural details have been shaved off, stripping the building of most of its personality.

photographs by the author
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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Rev. Richard W. Dickinson House - 19 West 16th Street


In 1644, freed slave Simon Congo received about 45 acres of land far north of New Amsterdam from William Kieft, the Director of New Netherland.  Two centuries later, the northward expansion of New York City was encroaching on his former farm.  

John Cowman acquired much of the former Congo property in 1825.  He died in 1832, leaving a stipulation in his will that his heirs must wait 10 years before inheriting the land.  In 1842 Cowman's son, Augustus T., and son-in-law, Edward Sebring Mesier, divided up the building plots along West 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Mesier took what would become Nos. 1 through 21 West 16th Street and in 1845 began selling the plots while maintaining careful control over what would be erected.

Restrictions were written into the deeds stipulating that no "stable, meat shop, slaughter house...or any base commercial establishment" could be built.   Instead, only "first-class" residences which sat back from the street six feet or more were allowed.

The restrictions resulted in a matching row of upscale Greek Revival homes.  Although individually owned, they were almost undoubtedly designed by the same architect.  Like its neighbors, No. 47 (renumbered 19 in 1868) was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  A wide stoop rose above the brownstone English basement to a double-doored entrance within an earred surround with entablature and cornice.  Two pairs of French doors opened onto an elegant cast iron balcony.   

The newly completed house was sold to Rev. Richard W. Dickinson in 1847.  Born on November 21, 1804, he had graduated Yale College in 1823 and entered the Theological Seminary at Princeton, New Jersey, graduating in 1826.  But frail health would be a constant obstacle to Dickinson's career throughout his life.

Forced to end a pastorship in Philadelphia in 1833, he relocated to New York around 1835, where he acted as a substitute pastor, preaching in various churches whose ministers were sick or traveling.  The minutes of the Presbytery of New York of 1874 would recall, "But failing health caused him again to relinquish his charge."

When Dickinson purchased the West 16th Street house he was without a church, living "for the most part, on his own abundant means," according to the minutes.  He occupied his time by writing and in 1848 published Religion Teaching By Example, and in 1851 Responses from the Sacred Oracles.

His health was restored enough by 1861 that he was made pastor of the Mt. Washington Church far north in the Inwood section of Manhattan.

It was no doubt the ponderous commute to Inwood that prompted Dickinson to leave West 16th Street in 1864.  He leased the house to the family of merchant William Turnbull in 1864.  The following year Dickinson's daughter Annie and her husband Granville Byam Smith moved in.  Reverend Dickinson had officiated at their wedding in 1863.  The couple would remain here through 1870.

In 1871 John D. Prince, a broker, moved his family into 19 West 16th Street.  The 27-year-old was married to Anna Maria Morris (known familiarly as Mary).  The couple's son, John, Jr., was three years old.  In 1874 the Prince's second child, Mary, was born.

The family had just settled in when an unnerving event took place.  At around 5:00 on the morning of June 7, 1871, a foot patrolman discovered burglars in the house of John H. Gurley, across the street.  "As the officer entered the house, these men rapidly left the rear," reported The Evening Telegram.  One of them, William Demorest had been discharged from the State Prison just two months earlier.  He fled across the street and broke into the basement door of 19 West 16th Street.  Officer Mead was close on his heels.

At some point the Princes and their servants were doubtlessly awakened to the noises of the men struggling below.  The Evening Telegram reported, "Officer Mead captured him in the hallway and conveyed him to the station house in West Thirteenth Street."

Living with the family was Prince's unmarried sister, Ellen L.  The house was the scene of her marriage to John A. Lowrie on October 22, 1873.  The Evening Telegram commented that Lowrie was "well known in fashionable society and at the clubs."

The following year the Prince family moved to 41 East 34th Street.  John D. Prince, Jr. would go on to an impressive career.  He would become a professor at New York University and Columbia University, serve as the minister to Denmark and Yugoslavia, and as the leader of both houses of the New Jersey Legislature.

Rev. Richard W. Dickinson died on August 16, 1874.  He left 19 West 16th Street to Annie and Granville Smith.  At the time the renter was operating the residence as a boarding house.  It appears he vanished, leaving the Smiths with his boarders and furniture.  Their advertisement in the New York Herald on April 15, 1875 read: "To Let--19 West Sixteenth Street--Owner wishes to let the House and sell the Furniture; house full of boarders."

It was leased by Mary Timpson, the widow of John Timpson.  And while she was listed as running a boarding house, her own family filled much of the home.  Living with her were her sons, John H., Arthur T., and Thomas S. Timpson.  Arthur and Thomas were both real estate agents.  Boarding with the family in 1876 were attorney Frederick M. Littlefield and Henry Higbee, another agent.

The residence became a private home again in 1884 when the Smiths and their three children (two sons, and a daughter) moved back in.  Born on Bond Street on October 24, 1827, Granville Byam Smith had been "placed in charge of the factional currency bureau" in 1861, according to the New-York Tribune.  He continued working in the Treasury Department until 1866, after which he was secretary and treasurer of the American Savings Bank.  Son Augustus Coleman Smith was a student at Columbia University's School of Political Science when the family in 1884.

The Smiths' prominence in society was reflected in an entertainment given by Annie and her daughter, Anne Caroline, on April 19, 1887.  The New York Herald reported, "A small german was given last night by Mrs. Byam Smith [sic] and Miss Smith at No. 19 West Sixteenth street.  The leader was Mr. Alexander Hadden, who danced with Miss Smith."  A "german" was the popular name for a small cotillion.  The article noted that a supper followed the dance.  Some of the most elite surnames in Manhattan society were present, including Webb, Howland, Beekman, Delafield, Van Rensselaer and Lorillard.

Augustus Coleman Smith would be the first of the children to leave.  On February 6, 1894 the New York Herald reported on his engagement to May Irvin.  An orphan, the article noted that she "is now living with her brothers, Mssrs, John and James Irvin, on their ranch in California."  Augustus and his bride moved into the West 16th Street house.

Anne Caroline was the the next to wed.  She married Horace Green Grannis at the family's summer home on May 17, 1896.  The World reported, "A special train yesterday conveyed a number of society people from this city to Scarborough, N.Y." for the wedding.

And, finally, on June 5, 1898 The New York Times reported that Edgar M. Smith was engaged to "Miss Ingram of Nashville, Tenn."  Without giving her first name, the article noted, "Miss Ingram, who is now residing in Washington, is connected with the Ingram family of Pennsylvania on her father's side."

In the meantime, Anne Caroline and Horace Green Grannis had also moved into the family home.  Grannis was a partner in the real estate firm of W. de Lancey Grannis & Co., founded by his brother.  The Finance and Commerce of New York and United States called the firm "one of the most exclusively high-class real estate concerns in the metropolis."  At the turn of the century W. de Lancey Grannis & Co. "acquired interests in large tracts of timber lands in the Southern and Western States of the Union," said the article, "and these are under the special personal management of H. G. Grannis."

In 1903 the Smiths leased 19 West 16th Street to Mrs. Antha Minerva Virgil for five years.  The author of The Virgil Method, she was a composer, lecturer and the inventor of the Virgil Clavier, or Techniphone, a soundless keyboard.  

Minerva Virgil established the Vigil Piano School in the house.  Students who came from distant parts of the country could board here.  When The Musical Courier announced a recital of the school to be held in the Carnegie Lyceum on June 1, 1908, the article noted that performers came from towns as far away as Marietta, Ohio; Rutland, Vermont; Homesdale, Pennsylvania; and Bristol, Connecticut.

Granville B. Smith died in 1907, and Annie Dickinson Smith in 1913.  The Smith estate sold the 25-foot-wide house to William Lustgarten & Co. in November 1914.  The Sun noted that the property "has been owned by the selling family for about seventy-five years."

No. 19 West 16th Street once again became a boarding house, now operated by Jennie C. Wright.  Among her first boarders was the Bjorhland family.  Bjorhland lost his job in January 1915, resulting in desperate circumstances that prompted him and his wife to do an unthinkable act.

On February 15, 1915 The Sun reported, "A woman stepped from a limousine at the Cafe Boulevard, Broadway and Forty-first street, in the rain last evening and found Elizabeth Bjorhland, 3 years old, with a bundle of unsold newspapers under her arm and her eyes full of tears."  

The woman, Mrs. Archibald White, who lived in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, took the little girl into the grill room of the Cafe, and, after announcing the situation to the patrons, "auctioned the papers for $50."  She then bought the little girl a meal and took her home to 19 West 16th Street in her limo.  The Sun said, "Her father has been out of work for some weeks and the family was reduced to the verge of starvation."  Mrs. White gave the Bjorhlands the proceeds from the auction--nearly $1,400 in 2023 money.

Among Jennie Wright's other boarders that summer was Lou Cook.  The unmarried young woman was a probation officer for the Bedford Hill Reformatory.  Also living here was Charles W. Underhill, who, despite his English surname, had a decided German accent.  

On July 16, Lou Cook gave Underhill the check for a valise being held at Pennsylvania Station and asked if he would retrieve if for her.  The Evening World reported, "Neither he nor the valise showed up at the house."  Four days later the feisty Jennie C. Wright spotted her missing boarder in Times Square.  The Sun said, "He ran into the subway station, but Mrs. Wright caught him in a telephone booth."  She had him arrested for petty larceny.

The story turned bizarre when Underhill appeared before Judges Russell, Herman and Herbert in court and refused to give his real name.  On July 27, 1915, The Sun reported, "He said he was a secret agent and that the disclosure would interfere with an international business of great importance between this country and Germany."  

He told the judges he had come into the country by way of Canada under the alias Wolff Ulrich.  The Evening World added that he told his court-appointed attorney "that he was a graduate of a German university and a member of a high German family."  He was held on $500 bail--nearly $14,000 in 2023.  Lou Cook apparently never got her suitcase.  Underhill "denied taking the valise, saying he had given it to a messenger for delivery," said The Evening World.

In 1921 the house was converted to two- and four-room apartments.  Then, in 1972, the basement through second floor were remodeled as the offices of the American Foundation for the Blind.  There were still two apartments on the top floor.

The American Foundation for the Blind was replaced by Yeshe Nying Po, a Tibetan Buddhist group, around 1977.  The following year a one-apartment "attic" level was added.  The group remains in the house four decades later.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The 1899 Samuel McMillan House - 247 Central Park West


In 1887 architect Edward Angell designed a row of nine upscale homes along Central Park from 84th to 85th Street for developer William Noble.  Ground was broken in 1888 and construction was completed the following year.  Nobel had spared no expense.  Each cost him $37,000 to construct, or just over $1 million by 2023 terms.

While several of the Queen Anne style homes featured romantic gables and turrets, 247 Central Park West was noticeably formal.  Its basement and parlor levels were clad in stone, the second and third in beige brick, while the fourth floor took the form of a dormer-punctured slate mansard.  Angell designed the house to be perfectly symmetrical.  Above the dog-leg box stoop, the arched entrance was balanced by a parlor window with an exquisite stained glass fanlight.  Between them was a smaller arched opening.  A rounded oriel at the second floor provided a balcony to the third, where the arched windows were arranged in a Palladio inspired configuration.

Builder developer Samuel McMillan paid $60,000 for the 22-foot-wide house in July 1890.  The owner of the construction firm Samuel McMillan & Co., he focused on the upgrading of the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, buying ramshackle structures and replacing them with modern flats.  

Born in County Down, Ireland, McMillan was also a director in the Mutual Bank and the West Side Bank.  The New York Times reported, "Mr. Samuel McMillen expended about $10,000 in the interior decorations, which include such unusual features as tufted silk wall coverings.  The building is one of a row known as the Noble Houses, from the name of the builder."

His residency at 247 Central Park West would be cut tragically short.  On October 11, 1891 his wife, Elizabeth S. Short, died here after a brief illness.  Her funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.  The following September McMillan advertised the house for sale, describing it as "splendidly constructed and interior decorations unsurpassed."

Instead, McMillan leased it briefly to the James W. Quintard family.  A member of the Quintard Iron Works and a director in the Pacific Steamship Company, he and his wife Hedwig had four children, Frances Adele, Florence Estelle, Maude Louisa and George W.  (Hedwig, somewhat scandalously, was James's fourth wife and had previously been the children's governess.)

The family lived here long enough to see Frances Adele married to Louis Lanier Safford in the Church of All Angels on West End Avenue on April 12, 1893.  The New-York Tribune noted, "A small wedding breakfast followed at the home of the bride's parents, No. 247 Central Park West."

Five months later, on September 13, 1893, The New York Times reported that former Mayor Frederick Edson had traded his three-acre country home at Morris Heights to Samuel McMillan for the Central Park West residence.

Franklin Edson, from Notable New Yorkers of 1896-1899 (copyright expired)

Like McMillan, Edson may have been changing his residence because of grief.  His wife, Frances "Fannie" Wood, had died less then three months earlier, on June 18, at the age of 53.  The couple had had seven children, two of whom were still in their teens when he purchased the house.  Robert S. was 19 and Ethel Townsend Edson was 16 years old.

Born in Chester, Vermont in 1832, Edson had left his father's farm at the age of 20 to work in his brother's distillery in Albany.  In 1866 he relocated to New York City where he became a wealthy and successful produce merchant.  He was appointed president of the New York Produce Exchange in 1873, a highly important and respected position.

Edson was elected mayor in 1883.  During his term in office the Brooklyn Bridge was dedicated, the Croton Aqueduct was fully completed, and the Manhattan Municipal Building was erected.  He retired from politics at the end of his term and returned to his grain business.

Franklin Edson remained in the Central Park West house only six years.  On October 7, 1899 an advertisement in The Evening Post offered the house for sale, noting "A house [the] same size as 247 Central Park West on the other side of [Central] Park would cost from $170,000 to $200,000."  While the ad did not give the asking price, it suggested it would be a relative bargain.

The for-sale advertisement featured a glimpse of the interior.  The Evening Post, October 7, 1899 (copyright expired)

The property was sold and resold twice before being purchased by George Frederick Brooks his wife, the former Eva Leverich.  A well-known physician, Brooks was also a director in the Casualty Company of America.  He was the son of another prominent doctor, George Washington Brooks who, according to The Globe and Commercial Advertiser "had among his patients some of the most noted residents of New York," following the Civil War.

Shortly after moving in, Brooks hired contractor Joseph Martin to clean the facade.  The Sun noted that Martin "employs members of two [labor] organizations."  That proved to be a problem.  On April 15, 1903 the newspaper reported, "They began to fight among themselves and finally one union declared a strike."

The striking faction was composed of Italian immigrants.  The article said, "There has been a reign of terror about Dr. Brooks's house since.  The physician and family have scarcely dared to leave the house.  Stones have been thrown at the house and the workers accuse the strikers of throwing acids upon the ropes holding up the scaffolds."

At one point, Dr. Brooks appeared at the door pretending to be armed "to prevent the strikers invading his home," said The Sun.  Despite repeated police calls, a month later the siege was still underway.  On May 14, The Evening Telegram reported that Joseph Martin "said that a crowd of about fifty strikers surrounded his workmen while they were eating their noonday meal.  Various threats were made against the workmen by the strikers, and finally some were struck by stones."  Eventually the cleaning was completed and the drama came to an end.  

In 1909 the couple made the bold decision to change from their carriages to an automobile.  Eva placed an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 27 that read, "Coachman--A lady, giving up horses, desires to place her exceptionally competent coachman.  E. B. 247 Central Park West."

The World War brought upheaval to Dr. Brooks's office in the basement of the house.  The fifty regional draft boards within the city were tasked with giving medical examinations to each of the draftees.  Brooks was appointed the medical supervisor of Draft Board 130, and on August 3, 1917 the New-York Tribune reported, "This board has for its headquarters the home of Dr. G. Frederick Brooks."  The article explained Brooks's highly organized process:

In issuing the call Dr. Brooks specified not only the day for the registrant to appear, but also the house.  With three other physicians assisting, he was able to maintain his schedule of fifteen examinations to the hour, and for the registrants there were only a few minutes of dead time each.

Only eight months after that article, on April 26, 1918, George Frederick Brooks died in the Central Park West house.  His funeral was held in St. Matthew's Church on West 84th Street three days later.

Eva sold the house to William Gedney Beatty in July the following year for $40,000 (about $627,000 today).   Born in New York City on June 27, 1869, Beatty was somewhat of a Renaissance man.  The son of stockbroker John Cuming Beatty and Hetty Bull Beatty, he was a trained architect, an early aviator (he flew the Wright Brothers' plane in 1911), an accomplished artist, and an important collector of rare architectural books and antique building hardware such as hinges, locks, knockers and door handles.  (His collection of manuscripts would become an important part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Print Room collection.)

Beatty's mother had died in 1906.  His father moved into the Central Park West house with him.  The 85-year-old died here on March 10, 1922.  

In 1930, as the private mansions of Central Park West were being rapidly razed to make way for modern Art Deco apartment buildings, developers Earle & Calhoun began buying up the mansions along William Noble's row.  They hit a snag when they approached W. Gedney Beatty.  He refused to sell.  Faced with the stubborn holdout, their 251 Central Park West, completed in 1931, fell short of engulfing the entire blockfront.

Beatty died on July 1, 1941 at the age of 72.  His estate sold 247 Central Park West in October 1943.  Three years later a renovation resulted in one apartment on each floor.  It was purchased in 1947 by Beatrice and Cost Vendramis, who were soon sued by a tenant because of the constant piano playing of another resident, Lydia Frankfurt, who taught in her apartment.  In court, Cost Vendramis dismissed the complaint, saying "I no give attention to it that somebody was playing the piano."  He had noise complaints of his own.  He testified in part:

July and August [1948] the place is quiet.  After September it started to get crazy--not the noise from the piano, but this stamping nine hours of a day, sometimes eight or nine hours a day.  they do it with the foot on the floor with no covering.  You hear this, and it makes anybody crazy.  I get nervous and crazy.  If it stay longer, I have to go in the crazy house.  I fight with my wife every day.

The problem of noisy tenants was apparently solved.  

Half a century later, in 2000, Abigail Disney initiated a two-year renovation which restored 247 Central Park West to a single-family home.  She lived here for five years, selling the home in 2006 to then-President and COO of Coach, Keith Monda for $15.5 million.

photo via

Monda did a renovation of his own, one that prompted journalist Aisha Carter to write in 6sqft on September 19, 2014, "William Noble would roll over in his grave if he knew the fate of his beloved private residence."  Monda's gut renovation left no hint of the interiors that Samuel McMillan had spent a fortune to enhance.  The carved wooden staircases were replaced by glass and steel.  The basement level where World War I Army inductees were examined by Dr. Brooks now held a workout space and a 60-foot lap pool.  

But the exterior, happily, remained untouched--one of the three surviving houses of William Noble's 1899 row.

photographs by the author
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Monday, March 20, 2023

The Lost William W. Scrugham House - 308 West 103rd Street


When this photograph was taken in 1941, a Gothic synagogue entrance had been erected at street level.   image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

John H. Steinmetz arrived in New York City from Germany at the age of 16 in 1841.  In 1868 he opened a woodworking shop on East 39th Street and soon turned his attention to building and development.  Decades later, on February 17, 1917, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide would recall, "He became one of the pioneer builders in the Murray Hill, Upper West Side and Harlem sections of Manhattan, where he built hundreds of private dwellings."

Steinmetz increased his profits by cutting out the middlemen.  He purchased the vacant tracts directly, sometimes putting the titles in the name of his wife, Elizabeth, and he acted as his own architect.  The Record & Guide said "on account of his unusual activity in the building lines for so many years, [he] was one of the best known men in the construction field."

The couple initiated an ambitious project in May 1890 when Steinmetz filed plans for nine upscale homes that wrapped the southwest corner of West End Avenue and 103rd Street.  He gave each an individual personality, with little attempt to blend their architecture.  Among them was 308 West 103rd Street, which vied for attention.

Costing $12,500 to construct (about $385,000 in 2023 terms), it rose three floors above a high English basement.  Faced in undressed stone, its Romanesque Revival design featured a three-sided bay that terminated in a Corinthian arcade upholding a witches cap roof.  Clinging to the side was a turret with lancet windows, atop which was a romantic, Rapunzel-ready widow's watch.  For the stoop, Steinmetz stepped away from the fortress-like style by giving it sinuous, flowing wing walls.

As the row neared completion in 1891, Elizabeth Steinmetz transferred title to the homes to the couple's son, Welcome (who was also an architect).  On September 15 he sold the 103rd Street houses to real estate operator Wilbur F. Washburn, who paid $25,000 for each of them, or about $768,000 today.

No. 308 became home to the family of attorney William W. Scrugham.  Like their neighbors, the Scrughams maintained a domestic staff, as reflected in a position-wanted ad placed by a young servant in April 1896:

Second Man or Valet--By young Englishman; under a butler; age 23; good references.  Williams.

Judging by his age, Williams was most likely the Scrughams' second man--the servant who assisted the butler and stepped into that position on the butler's days off.  A valet was essentially the male equivalent of a lady's maid, a highly responsible and trusted position.  The valet maintained his employer's wardrobe, drew his bath and performed personal duties like shaving him.

Because the Scrughams had a second man, their staff would necessarily have at least included a butler, cook, chambermaid, and waitress (a polished servant who served in the dining and drawing rooms).

In 1899 William W. Scrugham relocated his family to Yonkers, selling 308 West 103rd Street to Henry Steers, president of a contracting firm, the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers Company.

Steers was described by the New-York Tribune as being a "large dock contractor" and "closely affiliated with Tammany Hall."  He proposed what the newspaper termed a "subway scheme" early in 1909.  On March 19 the it reported that the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers Company offered "to build a new subway under Lexington avenue from The Bronx to a junction with the bridge loop subway."  (The "loop" connected the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges.)  Steers's proposition, as viewed by the editors, was "a radical one in subway development."

He proposed to build the subway extension at his company's expense.  While the equipment and railway would belong to the city, "the possession and the right to operate remain with the contracting company...until the cost, plus 15 per cent as an engineering profit and 5 per cent interest a year on the money invested, has been repair to the company."  

The New-York Tribune was not the only newspaper to view the proposal with suspicion.  An editorial in The Wall Street Journal on July 20, 1909 insisted, "The more the Bradley-Gaffney-Steers combination is looked into the less it will stand the light of day."

In July 1910, before construction of the subway project began, Steers sold 308 West 103rd Street to another contractor, Archibald Charles Heaphy.  The Heaphys immediately hired architect J. Juch to install an elevator in the house.  

Born in Chipping Norton, England in 1866, Heaphy had come to the United States in 1880, settling as a farmer in Sioux Falls (then in the Territory of Dakota).  There, in 1895 he married Florence May Wise.  When they moved into the 103rd Street house they had three children, 12-year-old Arthur, nine-year-old Dorothy, and six-year-old Mary.

Archibald became active in his newly-adopted neighborhood, as evidenced when Dr. Friedrich Franz Friedmann opened the nearby Friedmann Institute.  On May 16, 1913 The New York Times reported, "A meeting of householders having property near West End Avenue and 103d Street, where the Friedmann Institute is located, held a meeting last night at the home of A. C. Heaphy, 308 West 103d Street."

Friedmann treated victims of tuberculosis with what he promoted as the "turtle cure."  Among those speaking at the meeting was Dr. H. C. Frauenthal, who said, "what promised to be a great discovery was assuming the aspects of a joke."  A committee was formed "to observe what takes place at the institute when it begins receiving tuberculosis patients, and if conditions prove to be a nuisance the householders will complain to the proper authorities."

When Archibald Heaphy attempted to vote in 1915, he received disturbing news.  The Government listed him as an alien and, as such, he was not eligible.  The confusion stemmed from Heaphy's citizenship papers issued in 1886 when Sioux Falls was under territorial law.  Happily for Heaphy, a previous suit had set a precedent and on October 29, 1915 a judge ordered the Naturalization Bureau to issue him citizenship papers.   

The Heaphy summer home was in Dutchess County, where Archibald was an active sportsman.  On February 15, 1916 the Poughkeepsie newspaper The Evening Enterprise reported, "many enthusiastic sportsmen gathered last evening in the Union League Club, New York city, for the annual meeting of the Clove Valley Road and Gun Club."  At the meeting, Archibald C. Heaphy was elected a director.  (The success of the 12-year-old club was touted in the "club bag" of the previous season--1,336 wild ducks, 2,133 pheasants, "more than 200 partridges and woodcock, in addition to many hares and rabbits.")

In February 1923 the Heaphys announced Mary's engagement to Lieutenant Paschal Neilson Strong, Jr.   The groom-to-be was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers.  Dorothy, unmarried, still lived with her parents.  Ten months later, on December 19, 1923, The Sun and The Globe reported that Heaphy had sold 308 West 103rd Street for the equivalent of $603,000 in today's money.

It was the end of the line for 308 West 103rd Street as a private home.  A renovation completed in 1924 resulted in apartments.  It was just the beginning of rapid-fire remodeling.  Two years later the former mansion was converted to furnished rooms, and in 1928 it became an Orthodox synagogue.  A Gothic-style entrance was erected at street level and the parlor windows were given pointed Gothic arches filled with stained glass.

The picturesque building survived until 1963 when Rabbi Bernard Bergman, head of Congregation Kehilath Israel, purchased the building and demolished it, erecting a 13-story apartment building on the site with a synagogue on the ground floor.

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
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