Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Home Life Insurance Company Bldg - 256-257 Broadway


Founded in Brooklyn in 1860, the Home Life Insurance Company had moved several times by 1892 when construction was begun on a new headquarters at 256 Broadway.   Not long after construction began on November 2, serious problems arose.  Next door at 257 Broadway was the Merchants' Exchange National Bank building.  The excavations so compromised that building's foundations that it building listed a noticeable 18 inches.  Negotiations were completed in February 1893 for the Home Life Insurance Company to demolish the bank building, and enlarge its own structure to encompass the entire 55-wide plot.  In the deal, the Merchants' Exchange National Bank was provided a high-end banking facility on the ground floor and basement levels, and "favorable" rent rates.

A competition among architects had been held, which was won by Napoleon LeBrun & Sons, with Pierre Lassus LeBrun in charge.  Completed in August 1894, the structure rose 16 stories and faced City Hall Park.  Behind the stately, marble fa├žade was a framework of steel girders.  Lebrun embellished the richly ornamented building with Renaissance motifs--balconies, arcades, and elaborate carvings.

The often acerbic architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler lavished praise on the design, calling it "an impressive example of sumptuousness."  LeBrun had designed it in a "dumbell" configuration--with light courts on either side behind the wider front and rear portions of the building.  Care was taken to use only "fireproof" structural materials.

King's Views of New-York City, 1894 (copyright expired)

Among the early tenants were several lawyers and real estate agents.  The Rapid Transit Railway's offices were in the building upon its opening, as well.

Tragedy occurred four years later.  On the night of December 4, 1898 there was an explosion in the basement of the Rogers, Peet & Co. building next door at 268 Broadway.  The Illustrated American wrote, "In an incredibly short space of time the whole building was a seething mass of flames seeking fresh food.  They found it in the adjacent structure of sixteen stories, known as the Home Life Insurance Building."

The windows looking onto the side courts were not outfitted with iron shutters, "which should have been there according to law," according to The Illustrated American.  Driven by what the Real Estate Record & Guide called "fierce gale of wind," the blaze entered on the eighth floor and soon engulfed the entire upper section of the Home Life Insurance Company Building.  The Record & Guide said, "In addition to the furniture and other contents, the fire destroyed the window frames and sashes, the doors, trim, floor boards and the wooden floor sleepers."

This was the first time fire had broken out in a skyscraper and it proved to be a major problem.  "The Fire Department could obtain no water above the eighth floor...Higher, the firemen were helpless, and the fire had to burn itself out without let or hindrance," said the journal.  The eighth through the sixteenth floors were gutted, although the steel framework and the hard-burnt clay arches and columns left the building "structurally uninjured," according to the Record & Guide.

Pierre LeBrun filed plans for the reconstruction of the exterior and interior on December 19.  The Sun reported, "It is proposed to rebuild the ornamental white marble front from the eighth floor to the roof, and to replace all the damaged terra-cotta and steel work with new material."  The costs were estimated at between $60,000 and $70,000--about $2.3 million on the higher end today.

from King's Views of New York City, 1903, (copyright expired)

The Home Life Insurance Company's president announced, "We will run the place practically as a seven-story office building, and everything will be done to make the tenants on the lower floors comfortable while the construction above goes on.  Every part of the front that shows any sign of damage will be renewed, and the building will, after the repairs, look just as it did before the fire."

The inferno proved that the Home Life Insurance Company's building was both a success and a failure.  Its structural integrity held up as intended; however changes in the building laws were to follow because of its shortcomings.  Buildings Inspector S. M. Rutherford noted that the installation of iron shutters would be mandatory going forward and he anticipated the prohibition of wooden flooring.  "If there had been no wooden floors in the Home Life it would have escaped," he said.

Tenants in the refurbished structure included trial lawyer Ernest Snook; the real estate offices of Henry J. Hume, of McDonald & Wiggins, and of Wood, Harmon; the Anglo-American Savings & Loan Association; and the legal firm of Bookstaver & Norton.

Henry Weller Bookstaver, a member in Bookstaver & Norton, had been a State Supreme Court judge.  He and two others, attorney Louis B. Hasbrouck and physician Egbert Le Fevre, were approached by mining expert Charles M. Dobson in 1901 to invest in "the famous 'South Sea bubble," as reported by The New York Times on February 1, 1902.  They were induced to invest in Cuban mines with the promise that they would reap substantial profits within two months.

Dobson was to leave for the mines in December 1901.  When the three investors had heard nothing from him a month later, Hasbrouck traveled to Harlem where Dobson lived to check.  His wife confirmed that he was in Cuba.  Nevertheless, Hasbrouck was not so sure, and the following day sent an undercover messenger to the house.  Two of the Dobson children were in the yard playing and when asked where their father was, they told the man he was in bed.  On January 31 the investors had Hasbrouck arrested for fraud.  Nevertheless, they saved face, telling reporters that "they still maintain that 'there are millions in' the mining enterprise into which they were induced to launch."

On an upper floor of 256-257 Broadway was a restaurant which catered to the building's workers.  On November 3, 1909 Margaret Larty, a stenographer, and Irene Hamilton were there for lunch.  The women placed their handbags on the coat rack--something inconceivable today.  Irene happened to look up to see a "well dressed young man" take Margaret's handbag and start out of the restaurant.  The Sun reported, "When she screamed and started for him, he threw the bag at her and ran down several flights of stairs."

The women were not about to let the would-be crook escape.  They followed and saw him exit the staircase and take an elevator down.  "They took another elevator and reached the bottom in time to raise a cry as he ran from the building," said The Sun.  Margaret and Irene yelled "Stop thief!" and caught the attention of traffic officer Andy Nylander.  The Sun reported, "The shrieks conjured upon the spot a posse comitatus of a hundred persons or more with the policeman at its head."

The "vigilance committee," as described by the newspaper, chased 27-year-old Martin W. Payne for blocks until a West Broadway streetcar blocked his escape.  Officer Nylander nabbed him, telling the crowd, "All right, I got him."  The article noted, "He perspired freely and was roundly applauded."  The two women were late back to work that afternoon.  They appeared in Magistrate Kernochan's courtroom to testify about what had transpired.

The bank space on the ground floor was home to the Atlantic National Bank in the post-World War I years.  In July 1922 it merged with the Bank of America.  The New York Times reported, "The business of the Atlantic National Bank will be continued at 257 Broadway, opposite City Hall, as the Atlantic branch of the Bank of America.  The space was taken over by the First National City Bank in 1936.

In 1947 the Home Life Insurance Company purchased the Postal Telegraph Building next door.  Designed by George Edward Harding & Gooch, it had been built simultaneously with the Home Life Insurance Building.  The two architecturally different structures were joined internally, now jointly called the Home Life Insurance Building.

The Postal Telegraph Building was also completed in 1894 (original source unknown)

After having been home to banking firms for 70 years, the ground floor of 256-257 Broadway was leased to the Plymouth Shops, Inc. in July 1964 "for its largest downtown women's apparel shop," according to The New York Times.

The combined buildings were designated an individual New York City landmark in November 1991.  

non-credited photographs taken by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The 1889 Amzi L. Camp House - 37 West 95th Street


photograph by the author

On December 22, 1888 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that W. P. Anderson was preparing plans for "four first-class three-story" private residences to be built on the north side of 95th Street, just west of Central Park West.  "The fronts will be of Lake Superior red sandstone and Ohio greystone, carved, with Philadelphia, brick."  Three years later Walden Pell Anderson would both design and construct a row of 13 similar houses at block away, on West 94th Street.  In this case, however, the name of Henry J. Anderson, possibly a relative, was listed as developer.

The 16- and 17-foot-wide dwellings were completed within a year.  Anderson designed them in a quirky mix of Renaissance Revival and Queen Anne styles.  On September 27, 1889 the New York Herald announced that Walden P. Anderson had sold 37 West 95th Street to Amzi L. Camp "on private terms."

The parlor level of the Camps' new house was faced in planar stone with slightly projecting bands.  A single elliptically arched window sat above two ornately carved Renaissance Revival panels.  The entrance was topped with a similarly-decorated triangular pediment which overlapped an unexpected frieze of undressed stone.  Beige Roman brick faced the upper floors and the attic level took the form of a clay-tiled mansard.

A winged beast appears in the entranceway pediment and another fearsome creature lurked below the parlor window.

Camp was a partner in the provisions firm of F. Bechstein & Camp on West Street.  He and his wife, Antoinette, had three children, Antoinette L., Frederick A. and Kate Christine.

The family would not stay especially long.  In 1893 Camp purchased the three-story brick house at 556 West End Avenue and in March sold the 95th Street residence to Sarah E. Weight.

Sarah had been widowed for decades.  Her husband, Peter Dwight Weight, had died in 1847 at the age of just 23.   Moving in with her were her adult children, Robert, Christopher, Mary, Catherine, and Elizabeth.

The Weights, who were all single, seem to have lived an unusually reclusive existence.  Only three years after they moved in the first funeral was held in the house.  Robert died in December 1896.   Oddly, the family did not announce his death until the day of his funeral, to which no one was invited.

Sarah died on February 6, 1900 and her funeral, too, was held in the parlor.  It would be only a matter of weeks before the family held another funeral.  

On March 18 Catherine was struck by an electric car.  The 60-year-old died in the J. Hood Wright Hospital the following day.  Astoundingly, The New York Press reported that "money and jewelry worth $15,000 were in a handbag" she carried.  That amount would equal about $471,000 in today's money.  A family member told a reporter, "she carried her money and jewelry with her for fear of thieves."

Following Elizabeth's death in August 1903, Christopher and Mary purchased the house from their mother's estate, splitting the $15,500 cost equally.  (Interestingly, the cost of the property was almost exactly what Catherine had carried in her handbag the night she was run over.)

After his last sibling's death Christopher sold 37 West 95th Street in 1908 to the A. B. C. Realty Company.  If the Weight family had been unusually private, the following occupants were no less so.  No weddings, funerals, engagements or dinner parties at the address appear in the newspapers throughout the subsequent decades.

The Travers family lived here in the World War II years.  They offered three furnished rooms to rent in December 1942, insisting that the tenants be a "Catholic family."  (The roomers were offered kitchen privileges.)

photograph via

After more than 130 years the house is still a single-family home.

photographs by the author
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Monday, August 2, 2021

The Lost Daly Theatre - 1221 Broadway


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

On June 13, 1867 The Brooklyn Union anticipated that the theater portion of the nearly-completed Banvard's Museum would be a failure.  "In the first place, the stage is altogether too small for any respectable scenic show, and the orchestra is perched up in the proscenium arch, facing the audience.  This is an obsolete French idea."  The article said, "If Mr. Banvard had a little more experience in the theatrical business he would know better than to waste his money in so foolish an experiment."

Banvard's double-purpose structure--a museum on the lower levels and a theater on the main floors--was a rather inelegant take on the recent French Second Empire style.  Shops occupied the ground floor on either side of the centered entrance doors.  Three stories of red brick supported a double-height mansard fronted by a cast iron balcony.

The museum section featured the expected curiosities like stuffed animals and exotic attractions of questionable origin.  Yet Banvard offered a feature that might today be considered a house of horrors.  The Buffalo Sunday Morning News described "a representation of an extremely orthodox and old-fashioned hell, with as many of the traditional horrors of eternal punishment as could be depicted in the space at command."  The article described "real flames" which erupted here and there as actors dressed as demons "made sport of as many tormented beings," and "nondescript animals crawled in and out of darksome grottoes, and pandemonic music mingled with human groans and yells."

Banvard's Museum opened in July 1867 with a variety show that did not especially please the critic of The New York Times.  He ended his column saying the acts were "not strictly entertaining."  Only a month, despite a hit play, a review in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle hinted that Banvard's Museum was closing under his ownership.  It said that Nobody's Daughter "has been so decided a success...that it seems a pity to withdraw it from the boards.  In fact, if the Museum were not about to pass into the hands of other parties...we have no doubt Nobody's Daughter would run to a paying business down to the holidays."

Banvard's failure was due not only to the lackluster theatrical performances, but disappointment in the museum.  The New York Times reported on March 18, 1868, "When Banvard's Museum was started a year or two ago, we were led to expect that it would become a repository for scientific collections and natural wonders, and a place which, while furnishing delight to our country cousins and our city juveniles, would also offer means for study, thought and observation...Those who entertained such ideas soon discovered that they were doomed to disappointment."

George Wood had taken over the establishment, which was closed "in order that it may be enlarged, restocked, and furnished with novelties for the entertainment of the curious," reported The New York Times.  Wood's Museum and Theatre opened for the 1868 fall season.  A 30-cent ticket admitted the buyer to "ALL the attractions," according to an advertisement on December 16, 1869.  Another ad on the same page note "all for One Admission, including the Wonderful Stone Giant."

That attraction was touted to be The Cardiff Giant--the 10-foot tall petrified body reputedly discovered on a farm in Cardiff, New York.  Almost immediately a letter to the editor signed by four gentlemen appeared in The New York Times.  It said in part, "We desire to inform the public through your columns that the statue now on exhibition at Wood's Museum is a plaster cast taken from the original by C. F. Otto, an artist of Syracuse, without our knowledge and consent."  The real giant, it said, was on display in the State Geological Hall in Albany.

George Wood's venture lasted a decade.  When veteran theater operator Augustin Daly took it over in 1879, he initiated a complete make-over.  The museum portion was eliminated ("except the Cardiff Giant," said The New York Times on September 16, 1879, "which, being an exceptionally ponderous wonder, still lies quietly inurned in some place in the building"), and the building renovated.  The New York Times said, "Mr. Augustin Daly having taken the old pile in hand, has wrought in it a wondrous transformation."

Augustin Daly -- original source unknown

Among the exterior changes was the addition of a two-story portico, "the pillars of which are a curious but very effective combination of the Egyptian and fluted Doric styles of art."  The interior renovations cost, according to The New York Times, $20,000--or about $529,000 today.  "It is the picture of a parlor in a gentleman's mansion," said the newspaper.  "There are mantlepieces, magnificent mirrors, a piano, rich tapestry, soft Persian carpets, to tread upon which is luxury, and a wall-paper of a most beautiful pattern."  The auditorium had been enlarged, now seating 1,400 persons.  "The general style of the house is a modification of the Elizabeth, the style of Queen Anne's time prevailing in the private boxes, which are unusually spacious and well appointed," said the article.

The foyer of the redecorated theater.  Memories of Daly's Theatres, 1897 (copyright expired)

Augustin Daly presented his own plays starring some of the best known and popular thespians of the day.  On October 1, 1879 The New York Times said his "well-known play, 'Divorce,' was revived last evening under pleasant circumstances, and was received with a good deal of favor...The drama is full of excellent theatrical material."  Clara Morris starred and the critic raved that her "genius...lit up the scenes of the drama."

President James A Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881 and died on September 19.  The entertainment industry nationwide shut down out of respect.  After his body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the President's funeral was held in Cleveland on September 26.  Daly's decision to open his theater that night caused some serious indignation.

Daly added the portico with its lacy cast iron railing overhead.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The New York Times reported that a man named Edward T. McDonald, "took his stand in front of the building, and by his vehement language and gesticulations soon caused a crowd of several hundred people to gather about him."  Cries of "Down with the theater!" "Burn the building!" erupted.  Barrels were rolled to the theater, one of them filled with tar, and McDonald attempted to set them on fire.  Luckily, police responded before any damage could occur.  "None of the people inside of the theatre were aware of the disturbance until it was all over," said the article.

Daly refurbished the theater again during the summer of 1885.  A new marble-tiled lobby floor was installed, new chandeliers brought in, new seating, and the entire interior redecorated.  In the auditorium, said The New York Times on September 6, "the same mahogany dado noticed in the rotunda has been carried around the whole interior of the house."  The redecorating cost Daly a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

Star actress Ada Rehan was appearing in The Taming of the Shrew in March 1889.  On March 20 a notable figure occupied a box during the matinee--Florence Cleveland whose husband's administration as President of the United States had ended only two weeks earlier.  In the decades before Secret Service men would have surrounded a former First Lady, she entered the theater with her friends like the other patrons.

The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Cleveland was among the leaders of the applause which was liberally showered on this excellent actress.  The wife of the ex-President apparently thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent performance given by Mr. Daly's company, and after the curtain had fallen she and her party lingered for some time in the foyer examining the collection of rare pictures."

Augustin Daly died unexpectedly on June 7, 1899.  Even before his funeral the fate of his theater was being discussed.  On June 9 The New York Times reported, "Mingled with the general sentiment of regret at Mr. Daily's sudden demise there was much anxiety and concern regarding the future of the theatre established by him.  Persons who for many years have regarded Daly's Theatre as one of the worthy institutions of New York were eager to learn whether there was any provision for its permanent continuant."

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

On July 23, 1899 The New York Times reported that the theatre was not sold yet, but offers to negotiate were flowing in.  Florenz Ziegfeld cabled the Daly estate's attorneys saying "Please inform executors I desire to negotiate."  Another article said, "Managers from all over the country and from abroad have been telegraphing and cabling their intentions to negotiate for the property."

The process proceeded with lightning speed.  On July 25 The New York Times reported, "Daly's Theatre passed yesterday into the hands of Charles Frohman."  The impresario paid "about $100,000" according to the article, over $3 million in today's money.  As part of the deal Ada Rehan "secures all the scenery, properties, and wardrobe of the Shakespearean repertoire and comedies of her selection."

Charles and Daniel Frohman retained the profitable Daly's Theatre name.  It opened under their management in September 1899 with The King's Musketeer starring the popular actor Edward Hugh Sothern.  

An elaborate stage set for The Cingalee in 1904.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Four years earlier Oscar Hammerstein had erected his massive Olympia Theatre on Longacre Square.  It had signaled the first step in the migration of the theater district to what would be renamed Times Square.   Daly's Theatre would hold on for several years even as newer, more elaborate venues opened ten blocks to the north.

A surprising actor appeared in George Bernard Shaw's Cashel Byron's Profession on January 8, 1906--prize fighter James J. Corbett.  Perhaps surprisingly, The New York Times theater critic was not totally negative, saying in part, "For a few moments--notably during the first act--there seemed to be some method in this madness."  Nevertheless, he concluded Corbett would be best advised to continue boxing.

The following year the Schuberts took over the theater, only to almost immediately pass its management to Henry Miller and Margaret Anglin before the 1907 season opened.  Once again the name remained Daly's Theatre.  The pair managed to provide legitimate theater until 1914, when Charles A. Taylor took over the lease.  The end of Shakespeare and Shaw was evident when, on January 12, 1915, The New York Times ran the headline "Alas, Poor Daly's! Burlesque Reigns."  The article began: 

Shades of Augustin Daly; shades of Ada Rehan's Katharine; shades of all the traditions of the spot where John Drew played when he was young and where Mrs. Gilbert played when she was old!  In streaming red letters a huge sign yesterday announced to Broadway, Daly's Theatre, The Home of Burlesque.

In the lobby, where once had hung photographs of famous actors in historic roles were now "garish pictures of 'queens' in fleshlings."

Daly's Theatre (right) sat along a much-changed block in 1910.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

It may have been that article which prompted a raid on Daly's Theatre less than a month later, on March 3.  More than 1,000 men paid to see The Merry Maids followed by "a chorus girls' contest."  They would see only a portion of the first attraction.

Later that year the venerable theater was converted to a silent movie venue.  It opened on December 12 with a screening of Virtue (which had been banned by Philadelphia censors).   The theater lasted only five more years.  On July 3, 1920 The New York Times reported that the "famous home of the drama will soon be torn down for [an] eight-story structure."

The New York Times, July 11, 1920 (copyright expired)

That building, designed by Louis Allen Abramson, was recently demolished to make way for a glass and steel tower. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Oft-Remodeled Kennedy Roofing Shop--443 West 19th Street


As early as the mid-1850's a house stood at 303 West 19th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.  The owner took in boarders who (not surprisingly given the location near the Hudson River) were all laborers.  Whether the building was replaced, or simply heavily remodeled around 1860 is unclear.  Either way, the three-story, brick-faced house now had a cast iron commercial space at ground level.  The upper windows  were given handsome cast iron Italianate lintels and sills, and a pressed metal cornice with scrolled brackets was installed.

In 1861 the ground floor was home to John Kennedy's roofing business.  He lived next door at 305 West 19th Street, and had another stop nearby at 205 West 17th Street.  He seems to have done a variety of types of roofing.  An advertisement in the New York Herald in 1864 sought, "Two Tin and Four Slate Roofers.  Apply to John Kennedy, 303 West 19th st."

The block was renumbered in 1868, giving Kennedy's business the new address of 443 West 19th Street.  Rosanna Devlin, the widow of John Devlin, ran the upper two floors as a boarding house at the time.

That all changed in 1873 when the upper floors were converted for business, as well, and Kennedy moved his operation to Ninth Avenue.  An advertisement in April that year offered:  "To Let--The Second floor of 443 West Ninteenth street; size 25x75; well lighted, and suitable for a shop or light manufacturing business.  Apply to James Kennedy, 450 West Nineteenth street."  (Whether James and John Kennedy were related is unknown.)

There were soon three businesses in the building.  Furniture maker Philp Lahr was here by the end of 1873; Cable's piano factory occupied space by 1875; and John Sweeney's blacksmith shop was here in 1876.

Yet another renovation came in 1887 when the ground floor of the building was converted to a stable.  The upper portion continued to be used for small manufacturing.  A rental advertisement in the New York Herald on October 30, 1887 offered, "New Stable, 16 stalls and wagon room, also two Lofts."

One of the upper floors soon housed the a cabinetry shop which fabricated store fixtures.  An advertisement in June 1890 read, "Counters, shelving, partitions, refrigerators, ice-boxes; every kind of store fitted. Mills, 443 West 19th st."  One client seems to have defaulted on his order that year.  The following January an ad offered, "Butter Store; elegant upright refrigerator, marble counter, milk box, dirt cheap.  Fixture Factory, 443 West 19th st."

In the meantime the stable seems to have been thriving.  In 1891 the owner was looking for a stableman, as well as a carriage washer.  "The latter must understand cleaning harness," said the help wanted ad.

The owner leased the stable in 1892 to a man named Mulligan.  The ad he answered described the "stable, feed and wagon or truck room at $20 a month" (about $580 today).  It continued doing a successful business.  Later that year Mulligan offered for sale three hansoms at "$25 cash, balance weekly payments," and a coupe for $40.  He continued assisting his clients in selling their vehicles or horses.  In 1895, for instance, he advertisement a "black, gamey, spirited, fearless, sound Gelding; very fast; reliable; 15-1/2, $80."

The Mills cabinet shop remained upstairs at least through 1891.  Around 1892 Charles King moved his machine shop into one of the upper floors.  He listed his business as "manufacturer of triple expansion Engines."  He remained until around the turn of the century.

The stable changed hands in 1895, and again in 1905 when Couch & Davidson took over the lease.  It was described as accommodating "15 horses and wagons, [with] high ceiling, washstand, concrete floor."

As the days of horse-drawn vehicles gave way to automobiles, the building was yet again reconfigured in 1908.  When owner Victorine S. Cole leased the property to Thomas Ward & Co. that year, The Sun remarked, "The building will be used for storage purposes."

The Thomas Ward's Storage Warehouse housed all manner of goods.  That was reflected in his warning to patrons who were behind in storage fees in February 1919.  Listing each one by name in the New-York Tribune, he threatened to sell their things at public auction.  Included were, "Household furniture, personal effects, trunks, pianos, merchandise, office furniture."

The building seems to have been vacant in the post-Depression years.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

It was not an idle threat, as evidenced in a Sheriff's auction announcement in 1925.  On April 15 that year an on-site auction sold a "piano, three pieces of furniture, pictures, tables, electric lamp, stands, &c.  Terms cash.  Immediate removal."

There would be another renovation to the building in the late 20th century.  Although no Certificate of Occupancy has ever been issued, there are two apartments in the building.  The upper floors are essentially unchanged since the 1860 make-over, and the cast iron piers of the ground floor reflect the configuration of a single door to the left and a centered carriage bay.

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Friday, July 30, 2021

The Samuel Mendel Phillips House - 62 East 83rd Street


In 1875 leather merchant Samuel Phillip Mendel and his family were living at 402 East 52nd Street.  Mendel and his wife, the former Julia Seckelman, had two children--four-year old Jennie and one-year-old Sarah.  He submitted a petition to the city in January that year which said in part, "They wish to change their names legally to Samuel Mendel Phillips, Julia Mendel Phillips, Jennie Mendel Phillips, and Sarah Mendel Phillips."   

The reason behind the name change is intriguing, but seemingly lost.  It would cause confusion in newspapers, books and various organizations for years with the names Mendel and Phillips haphazardly being swapped back and forth.

By the early 1890's there was a third daughter, Paula.  By now the had family had moved to 62 East 83rd Street, one of a row of high-stooped Italianate brownstones erected around the time of Samuel's petition.

Notable New Yorkers of 1896-1899 erroneously used Phillips's former surname, (copyright expired)

Phillips was born in Elmshorn, Germany in 1844 and arrived in New York City in 1866.  He was a partner with B. J. Salomon in the leather firm of Salomon & Phillips, founded by Salomon in 1867, and in the Armstrong Leather Company established by both men in 1890.  New York-1894 said the latter "manufactures colored calf, goat and sheep skins, and the products of their factory at Peabody, Mass.,...have at once taken a prominent position in the market."  The book described Phillips as "an active and enterprising man."  He was, as well, a director in the Hide and Leather National Bank.

Phillips was strongly attached to his German heritage (making his switching to an English surname puzzling).  He was an active member of the Freundschaft Club, the oldest German men's club in the city.  And the domestic staff of the Phillips house were seemingly all German.  An advertisement in the New York Journal & Advertiser on September 18, 1899 sought someone to "Cook, wash, iron; German girl."

The Phillips women, too, were involved in things German.  On November 3, 1895, for instance, The New York Times reported, "To the untiring efforts of a number of enthusiastic German women of this city is to be accredited the assurance of the erection of the beautiful Heine Memorial Fountain upon some suitable site in New-York."  The article noted that one of the three women forming the Committee on Decorations and Space was "Miss Jennie Mendel."  (Once again showing that Phillips was not always recognized as the family's name.)

By the turn of the century, Julia had died and Jennie and Sarah had married.  Jennie and her husband, Pertz Rosenberg, lived in the 83rd Street house with her father and Paula (who was an instructor of English at Dr. Sach's School for Girls).  Sarah and her husband, Ludwig Harberger, lived elsewhere.

On the morning of March 24, 1905 Phillips was preparing to leave the house when he suffered "apoplexy"--a term which today refers to a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage.  Despite his legal name change and the fact that his firm was clearly Salomon & Phillips, not Salomon & Mendel, his obituaries all referred to him as Samuel Phillips Mendel.  His funeral was held in the drawing room on March 26.

The 83rd Street house was bequeathed to the three daughters.  On May 4 Jennie purchased her sisters' shares for a total of about $974,000 in today's money.

Peretz Rosenberg was affiliated with Felix Salomon & Co., a German-based company which dealt in paper and paper stock.  He and Jennie had two children, Julian Dellevie and Rosalie.

When Julian graduated from Columbia University in 1917, war was raging in Europe.  He put off his career to join the army and served as a corporal in France.  At the end of the war he returned to 62 East 83rd Street and re-enrolled at Columbia, earning his graduate degree in law in 1921.

Both Julian and his sister were interested in nature.  Rosalie was a long-term member of the Torrey Botanical Club and her brother would later be highly involved in environmental causes like the preservation of the Connecticut River Valley.

Julian Rosenberg became a well-respected attorney.   But another world war would again interrupt his career.  He served as a lieutenant commander in Naval Intelligence during World War II.

The 83rd Street house was sold after the war and in 1950 was converted to apartments, one per floor.  A subsequent renovation completed in 1962 removed the stoop and lowered the entrance to the English basement level.  The building now held two duplex apartments.  That configuration lasted until 2006 when an extensive renovation was initiated to return the house to a single-family dwelling.

Despite the fact that the house was neither landmarked nor sat within a historic district, the architectural firm of Anita Bartholin Brandt Architect painstakingly refabricated the lost stoop, and replicated the original cornice and other missing details.  Completed in 2009, the superb restoration resulted in the Phillips house again looking as it did in the 19th century.

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Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Robert Rutter House - 152 West 13th Street


In 1846 a row of five brick-faced homes were built by the heirs of Peter Remsen along the south side of West 13th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  Their Greek Revival design included rusticated brownstone basements, floor-to-ceiling parlor windows, and a dentiled cornice above the squat third floor.

No. 128 (renumbered 152 in 1868) first became home to the family of Henry Seaton, then by 1852 to Samuel Roosevelt and his wife, the former Mary Jane Horton.  

Roosevelt was a prominent businessman.  His father, Nicholas Roosevelt, was an inventor who had been involved with Robert Fulton in developing the steamboat.  Samuel's mother, Lydia Selton Latrobe, was the daughter of Nicholas's business partner, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

The couple suffered tragedy on February 7, 1853 when their youngest son, Frank, died three months before his second birthday.  The little boy's funeral was held in the parlor.

Mary was pregnant at the time.  Ellen Lydia was born later that year.  The couple had two other children, six-year-old Nicholas Latrobe and three-year-old Laura Gertrude.  They would have four more children by 1860, when little Virginia was born.

By then the Roosevelt family had been gone from the 13th Street house for about two years.  It was now home to banker Samuel R. Jacobs and his wife, Jane, at least by 1858.  

A son was born in January 1865 and, tragically, as the Roosevelts had done, his parents had to hold a funeral in the house just eight months later.

Jane was looking for two servant girls later that year.  In December she advertised for "one as a cook and to assist with washing, the other as laundress and chambermaid."  

The Jacobs family remained until 1867 when the house was sold to well-known bookbinder Robert Rutter and his wife, Frances.  Born in Canada in 1828, Robert had come to America at the age of 21.  The couple was married in 1852, two years after Robert opened his bookbindery.  The would have four daughters and a son.

Robert Rutter as he appeared in 1889.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

It was most likely the Rutters who raised the third floor to full height, and updated the entrance with an Italianate surround, rope molding, and up-to-date paneled double doors.

Late in 1879 Rutter discovered that a burglar had entered the house and stolen some of his clothing.  None of Frances's jewelry nor other valuables had been taken.  On the night of December 29 two policemen noticed a man on Waverly Place carrying two overcoats.  When he refused to say where he obtained them, he was arrested.

Police were well-acquainted with Dominick Kilogan.  A few years earlier he had snatched the pocketbook of actress Ada Dyas and was sent to prison.  While serving his term, he inherited $50,000--a fortune of about $1.3 million today.  But, as reported by The New York Times, "on being released he spent it in dissipation, and soon found himself without a cent."

As investigators searched his room, the list of robberies grew.  On January 9, 1880 The New York Times entitled an article "A Sneak-Thief On Trial" and noted that among the items produced as evidence were property belonging to Robert Rutter.

The Rutters experienced a scare on May 18, 1882 when Robert took Frances for a drive in Central Park.   The New York Herald reported that "his team became unmanageable and shortly ran into a T cart, in which Mr. William Fahnestock, the Wall street broker, was driving with a lady and a coachman."  Both carriages were upset and all the passengers thrown out.  

The chaos continued when Frahnestock's horse "took fright" and ran into the carriage of General N. Gano Dunn, oversetting that vehicle as well.  Dunn's horse, in turn, was spooked and ran into a carriage being driven by the son of Judge Hilton, who was thrown to the ground.

The article noted "Mr. Rutter was the only one whose injuries were at all serious.  He was taken to the Presbyterian Hospital."

After having lived at 152 West 13th Street for three decades, the Rutters sold it in February 1899 to Annie Smith for $18,000--about $572,000 in today's money.

Smith operated the property as a rooming house (meaning she did not offer meals as boarding houses did).  Among the residents in 1911 was Hermina Schmitz, an early animal rights supporter.  She railed against the popular Edwardian fashion of decorating women's hats with egret, pheasant and other bird feathers (and at times, entire stuffed birds).  She wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Herald on May 18 that year that read in part:

Since all efforts to successfully suppress this cruel practice have been fruitless thus far, may I suggest one that would be successful?

Let all men show distinctly their distaste for women who wear aigrettes, and let women who wear them and shopkeepers who sell them be arrested and either heavily fined or imprisoned.

The house was initially offered for sale in 1918, described as "12 furnished rooms, full; good condition."  But, instead, Annie K. Smith leased the property to the radical political bi-weekly, The Dial, as its headquartersIn its August 1, 1918 edition, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods reported "The Dial announced that it 'is now established in its New York offices, at 152 West Thirteenth Street."

Poet Marianne C. Moore would later describe the magazine's new home as a "three story brick building with carpeted stairs, fireplace, and white mantelpiece rooms."  In 1919 Harvard graduates James Sibley Watson and Scofield Thayer, purchased the periodical, became its editors, and changed its course from politics to literature.

They made The Dial a vehicle to introduce young, mostly unknown American writers to the public.  In a 1920 press release, Watson's laid out the magazine's new mission, saying in part:

[The editors] believe that the American people really have minds and use them to better purpose than the popular magazines admit.  [We] think that Americans, in every part of America want to know what the finest minds of the world are about, what they are thinking and what they are creating.

Over the coming years contributors to the magazine included E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, Marianne C. Moore, John Dos Passos, Kenneth Burke, and William Slater Brown.

The Dial remained at No. 152 until 1938, when Annie Smith again leased it to John and Bridget Cullen.  On May 17, The New York Sun reported that they "will improve and occupy the premises."  

After having leased the house for decades, Annie K. Smith occupied it in the 1940's.  Throughout the subsequent decades it was never converted to apartments and remains a single family home today.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The 1831 James N. Wells House - 183 Ninth Avenue


James N. Wells was a carpenter-builder in Greenwich Village, responsible for the construction of St. Luke's Church on Hudson Street.  But when Clement Clarke Moore decided to parcel off his family's summer estate, Chelsea, in the late 1820's, Wells became his property manager.

In 1831 construction began on a house and store at the northwest corner of Ninth Avenue and West 21st Street for a "Mr. Royer."  Completed the following year, it was two-and-a-half stories tall and faced in red Flemish bond brick.  In the rear was an ample yard with a small wooden house.

Wells purchased the property soon afterward and is listed as living here with his family in 1833.  It was a temporary arrangement while he constructed a grand brick residence nearby at 414 West 22nd Street.   When he moved out in 1835, he leased the street level shop to Theodore Martine's feed and grocery store.   Wells did not totally leave the building.  City directories indicate that Wells moved his real estate office into the upper portion, above the store.

Theodore Martine had entered the grocery, flour and feed business in 1826.  In the mid-1840's the Board of Aldermen relied on his expertise to examine the goods provided to the Alms House and other institutions.  On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, 1845, for example, he looked over 20 chests of tea (finding that "one fell short two pounds"), "several hogsheads" of molasses, a delivery of muslins, and 20 boxes of soap.  He found soap missing from some of the boxes, tampering of the molasses barrels, and a portion of the tea "worthless."

Martine operated his store from 159 Ninth Avenue (renumbered 183 in 1868) until 1850.  His son Randolph B. Martine would go on to become the new District Attorney in 1885.  In reporting on his new position Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper would comment, "His father, Theodore Martine, will be remembered by old citizens of the West Side as an extensive grocer and real estate dealer."

The store next became home to the Vanvalkenburgh & Martin grocery store.  John A. Vanvalkenburgh and his family lived above the store while his partner Joseph T. Martin lived nearby at No. 147 West 21st Street.

In 1856 John A. Vanvalkenburgh and moved his produce business to Washington Market and his son, John J. Vanvalkenburgh partnered with Benjamin Haviland to continue the store here.  They operated it as Vanvalkenburgh & Haviland grocers.  That partnership lasted until 1860 when Haviland opened his own store on Fourth Avenue.  John Pierson ran the grocery here until at least 1862.

The grocery store continued to change hands.  In 1864 and '65 it was run by George A. and Joseph T. McDowell, and beginning in 1867 it was called the Browning & Berry grocery, run by Lewis F. Browning and James E. Berry.  Interestingly, the partners lived next door to one another at 160 and 162 Ninth Avenue.

Households in the middle of the 19th century depended heavily on lighting oils like kerosene for lamps.  These were generally a staple found in neighborhood grocery stores like Browning & Berry.  In the winter of 1869 proprietors were surprised by agents of the Metropolitan Board of Health who took samples of the kerosene-oil as well as lamps they were selling for testing.  Unfortunately for Browning & Berry, their kerosene was deemed "below Legal Standard."

James N. Wells died in 1860 and in 1865 his family sold the property.  It was purchased by Levi L. Livingston.  He was a decorative painter, responsible for murals and painted interior decorations of public and private buildings, including the Masonic Temple on 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue. Instrumental in organizing the Association of Master Painters of which he was president several times, Livingston had “heavy contracts for painting the North River steamers and the elevated railroads,” according to The New York Times.

After his death in 1882, his estate continued to maintain the property until finally selling it in 1910; advertising the house as a “three story tenement and store.”

In the meantime, as had been the case with Vanvalkenburgh & Haviland, Browning & Berry dissolved in 1871 when James Berry opened a store on Fourth Avenue.  Lewis F. Browning took in a new partner, Albert H. Siemers, who lived next door at No. 185.  They would operate the grocery here until at least through 1880.

By 1889 the store was run by Clamor L. Magna.  He lived upstairs, taking in three grocery clerks as boarders at the turn of the century.    He would remain in the space into the early years of the 20th century.

Most of the 20th century was unkind to this section of Ninth Avenue, with the clattering elevated train running down its center.  At one point 183 Ninth Avenue was divided into apartments, but in 1993 as Chelsea was rediscovered, it was purchased by attorney Steven Shore.  He hired architect Stephen B. Jacobs who restored the storefront and created a single residence on the upper floors.  The Wells house is the second oldest house in Chelsea.

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