Friday, July 1, 2022

Union Soldiers, Bentwood Chairs and Silent Movies--814 Broadway


Only a decade after James Renwick Jr.'s magnificent Grace Church was completed, the era of brick and stone mansions in its Broadway neighborhood was over.  In 1854, construction was begun on a five-story meeting hall just north of the church, at 814 Broadway.  The architect embellished the marble facade with cast iron elements-- a surprising mixture of materials.  The blend of the Second Empire and Italianate styles was on the cutting edge of commercial architecture.  The tall windows of the second floor were recessed behind alternating free-standing Corinthian columns and pilasters.  The lintels over the center windows of the upper floor were decorated with stylized anthemia, and above the bracketed cornice, a robust broken-arched pediment rose.

The ground floor was leased to James H. Perkins for his New York Billiard Rooms.  On opening day, June 19, 1856, the New York Herald said it was "all the talk up town," adding, "A perfect crowd of gentlemen will be present this evening, at the opening of four of the best bowling alleys ever laid in this city."  The following year, in April, an advertisement in the New York Herald read:

Billiards--This beautiful game taught without a book, by Professor Connor, at the New York billiard and bowling rooms, 814 Broadway.  Ten lessons for $5.  A fine club room to let, furnished with billiard table.

Perkins's mention of another club room being available reflected his management of the entire building.  A separate advertisement on the same day offered, "To Let--A large room, suitable for a drill or lodge room; also two rooms for club rooms, furnished or unfurnished.  Apply at 814 Broadway, at the New York billiard and bowling rooms.  J. H. Perkins, Manager."

The upper floors were leased to organizations like the New York Chess Club.  On November 10, 1858, The Family Herald reported that its members were preparing for a visit by chess master Paul Morphy.  At their meeting the previous night, it was decided "that, as the genius of Paul Morphy had done so much to advance the study of chess in this country, it was but meet and proper that some public manifestation of the admiration felt for his talents by the chess players of America should be made on his arrival in this city."

Other meeting rooms were leased to fraternal and political organizations.  One was the New York Grand Lodge of Perfection, and another was the secret society of the Sons of Malta.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper reported on the latter's "Festival of the Seven Cardinals" in 1860, saying that 500 Sons "clad in armor, with vari-colored robes and plumage" processed from their lodge rooms here to Union Square, "before retiring to the Malta Saloon for a private dinner."

The rumbles of Civil War were a grave issue for the Republican Central Club and its counterpart, the Democratic Mozart Hall, both of which were located in 814 Broadway in 1861.  During the Republican Central Club's meeting on January 3, 1861, a series of resolutions was adopted, including the "expressing a strong hope that the Republicans in Congress would yield nothing whatever to the impious demands of the Slave power."  And two weeks later it resolved that the members "view the criminal agitation of the dissolution of the a renewal of the detestable principles advocated by the Tories in the Rev0lution."

Simultaneously, the Mozart Hall members were hoping the Government would not push the South into war.  On April 6--less than a week before the first shot on Fort Sumter--The New York Times said the group opposed "every form of menace, restraint, or coercion, under any pretext of enforcing law, collecting revenue, or retaking property, which might lead to a conflict with the seceded States."

War was, of course, inevitable by now, and 814 Broadway soon became a center of recruitment and mustering volunteer groups.  On June 15, 1861 the New York Herald reported that former Congressman John Cochran had been commissioned a colonel and "it is his organize, equip and forward to the seat of war as many regiments as can be recruited by him.  Col. Cochrane's headquarters are located at No. 814 Broadway; and in two days, such is the patriotic ardor of the people, enough men have form two or three new regiments."

A second recruitment office, run by Colonel Gurney, operated from Mozart Hall by the summer of 1862.  Businessmen donated money to boost enlistments, placing an ad in the New York Herald that read:

Colonel Gurney's National Volunteers--Extra Bounty--The Produce Exchange Committee will pay an extra bounty of $10 to the first 300 men enlisting with this regiment.  The bounty will be paid at headquarters, No. 814 Broadway, Mozart Hall.

The incentive was the equivalent of $265 per man in today's money.

The Women's Central Association of Relief opened its New York headquarters here.  The group received donations of food and supplies to be sent to the front.  On December 22, 1861, The New York Times reported on the challenging work.  That week an urgent telegram had arrived from the South that read, "Send 2,500 each, sheets, shirts, drawers, socks, towels; and 1,260 each, blankets or quilts, bed and pillow ticks, handkerchiefs and flannels, with wine, starch and cocoa, by Government steam."  The women filled most of the order, but pleaded, "In consequence of this large demand, our stores are very much exhausted, [and] indeed we must again appeal to the benevolent for further supplies."

Recruitment for a new group of soldiers began early in 1863.  The New York Times reported that men were already being drilled at 814 Broadway, even before Congress had passed the bill to create the group.  "The corps is called the First Regiment Ambulance and Sanitary Troops, and the office is at No. 814 Broadway."

The Fenian Brotherhood leased meeting rooms in 1865, calling the space Fenian Hall.  While the purpose of the group was to fight for Irish independence, its focus was much closer to home that year.  A schism among the working class members and the officers had reached a boiling point.   In an article titled "The Fenian Explosion" on December 12, 1865, The New York Times reported that the "malcontents" "allege that of those lavish contributions which the frugal and industrious Irish servant-girls in the United States have contributed with the expectation of liberating their native isle, no insignificant share has been squandered if not embezzled by the salaried officials who utter their edicts from the headquarters of the Fenian President in New-York."

With the war over, activities within the building returned to lodge meetings and lectures.  In 1866, the top floor room was operated as a lecture room by Richard D. Goodwin, who described himself, according to the New York Dispatch, as "a lecturer on several subjects of interest," a reformer, a politician and a spiritualist.  Audiences came to see appearances of Ella Vanwie, a medium.  An advertisement on June 8, 1866 said in part, "She is tied and untied by spirits; no lock or bolt can hold her; musical instruments of various kinds are played upon; hands, faces, feet, legs and arms are frequently shown to the audience; also feathers, flowers, ribbons, laces, jewelry, &c., are shown, and often presented to the mystified assembly."

The New York Dispatch was unflattering in its description of Ella Vanwie, saying "She appeared to be about seventeen years of age, was without bust, and was born, she said, in Michigan; was as thin as a rail, and fever and ague seemed to have shaken her out of shape."  At the time of the description, both Ella and Goodwin were appearing in court.  Female undercover investigators had raided Ella's dressing room after a performance.  On her they found not only keys to the locks that had bound her, but the ribbons and baubles that had mysteriously appeared.  More importantly, they found rings and jewelry that had been stolen from audience members.  In court Ella testified "that God or the spirits put things in her pockets after she had been searched."

The New York Dispatch reported, "Taken altogether, this was one of the most extraordinary expositions of humbuggery that has ever engaged the attention of the Court of Special Sessions.  Following the case Goodwin was arrested for perjury.

In 1866 the space ground floor became home to the decorating firm of Thomas Faye.  It decorated the walls and ceilings of homes and businesses with frescoes, paneling, fabrics and wallpaper.

Sadler's Catholic Almanac, 1866 (copyright expired)

Mozart Hall remained in the building at least through 1867, and the Republican group, now named the Liberal Republicans, were still here in 1873.  But gradually, 814 Broadway was becoming home to commercial tenants.

Perhaps the first was the drygoods firm of Reiman & Co., which moved into the building in December 1874.  An advertisement listed items like "dress goods, black and colored silks, laces and embroiders, hosiery, white goods cloths, cassimeres &c."

In 1876 music dealer and publisher Thomas J. Hall was listed here, joined by Beer Brothers, purveyors of "fine gold and bronze picture frames" in the 1880's.  Importantly, the store and basement were leased to Thonet Brothers of Vienna, Austria in September 1880.  The makers of bentwood furniture signed a lease at $4,500 per year--a significant $9,800 per month in today's money.

Customers at the Thonet shop browsed creative bentwood furniture like this.

On April 26, 1884 The Record & Guide commented:

The bent-wood furniture, which is very light and indestructible, is gaining rapidly in favor and popularity; one great merit it possesses is comfort, as the backs of the chairs are made to fit the body, a variety of graceful designs are shown at No. 814 Broadway.

Leasing space in the building by 1887 was another furniture maker, Sargent Manufacturing Company.  The firm made items for the elderly and disabled, as reflected in a blurb in The New York Times on December 11 that year.  "If you wish to remember your invalid friends with a sensible Christmas gift, examine the Sargent Manufacturing Company's stock, 814 Broadway, where are to be found all of the most approved styles of reclining, rolling, and carrying chairs, back rests, bed trays, commodes, and all sorts of book stands, and convenient reading appliances."

The Arena, 1890 (copyright expired)

Sargent would remain in the building at least through 1895.  By then apparel firms like Riess & Marcus, neckwear makers, and Joseph Yesky, were leasing space.  Joseph Yesky manufactured sportswear, like its "men's bicycle and golf suits," and "linen crash suits."  It made commercial uniforms as well, advertising "coats, jackets and aprons for waiters, cooks, bartenders and barbers," in 1895.

Amasa Lyon was first listed at 814 Broadway in 1899.  The firm manufactured umbrellas and canes, including parasols, gold and silver handled umbrellas, and children's carriage parasols.

Around this time, the store became home to C. G. Willoughby's camera and photographic supply stores.  It would remain in the space until the summer of 1916, when it moved just two doors to the south, at 810 Broadway.

The building continued to house apparel firms over the next decades, including the Manhattan Neckwear Co. following World War I, and the Boys' Clothing Company in 1921.

Two former homes, converted for business, survived to the north (left) of the building in 1941.  from the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The 1970's saw the U-P Screen at 814 Broadway.  The venue showed vintage films, like a marathon of Charlie Chaplin films in October 1975, and a series of animated silent films in 1978.  On February 24 that year, The New York Times said, "The antics of Gertie the Dinosaur, the Katzenjammer Kids and Happy Holligan can be seen tonight and tomorrow."

The store space was home to the Bodega Wine Bar starting around 2013.  In 2015 the upper floors, where Union soldiers had enlisted to fight the rebels in 1861, were converted to residential use, one apartment per floor.

photographs by the author
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Thursday, June 30, 2022

The 1842 James W. Hale House - 132 West 13th Street


A row of 12 handsome Greek Revival homes was completed in 1842 by the estate of John Remsen, on West 13th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  At three stories tall and 22-feet wide, they were intended for financially comfortable families, and exhibited the expected elements of the style--beefy stone pilasters upholding a corniced entablature framing the doorway, brownstone sills and lintels, and simple modillioned cornices.

James W. Hale moved into 108 West 13th Street (renumbered 132 in 1868).  His business address was listed as "letter office, 70 Wall Street" and he was making major changes in the way Americans communicated.  Writing in the Express Gazette on February 10, 1893, a journalist named Macauly recalled:

He was indeed not only the first to use [postage] stamps in America, but was the originator of our cheap postage and the promoter of the express system, both at home and for foreign lands.  He also originated the money order system, and, in fact, was the prime mover in the great progress which characterizes the postal and express system.

Born in Boston in 1801, Hale had early in his career recognized problems in the postal system.  Macauly reminded his readers, "This [problem was] of its costing as much to send a letter from Buffalo to New York as it did a barrel of flour."  In 1843, the year after the West 13th was completed, Hale advertised in the Boston newspapers:  "Cheap postage.  I shall leave Boston on Thursday, the 15th, for New York, and will carry all letters which may be left at No. 13 Court Street before 4 P.M. at six cents each.  James W. Hale"

Hale also made his mark by originating the express system.  Macaulty said, "Prior to 1837 there was no way of sending a package from this city to Boston except as freight, which might take a week."  Hale hired an acquaintance, William F. Harnden, to make three trips per week back-and-forth to Boston carrying small packages--starting out with only a carpet bag to hold them. 

Despite the "grand results" of his businesses, as Macaulay described them, and the fine home in which his family resided, James W. Hale seems to have closely watched his finances.  He was shocked by the Tax Assessors' valuing his personal estate in 1846 at $2,000.  The minutes of the Board of Aldermen for December 22 noted he petitioned "That the valuation of the personal estate of James W. Hall [sic], at 108 West Thirteenth Street, for 1846, be reduced from two thousands dollars to one thousands dollars, he having sworn that he was not worth that sum."  (It is highly doubtful that Hale was not worth $2,000, its equivalent amount being just $70,000 today.)

Another hint at Hale's parsimoniousness can be seen in an advertisement in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer on April 27, 1847:

Wanted--An American woman, or a German who speaks good English, as cook in a private family, and to do the washing and ironing.

The cook was the most highly paid of a domestic staff, and to ask one to double as a laundress was a rather surprising (and to a veteran cook, offensive) cost-savings move.

The Hale family left West 13th Street in 1860, followed in the house by Rev. William Allen Hallock and his family.  Born on June 2, 1794, he had married Fannie Leffingwell Lathrop in 1833.  The couple had three daughters, Martha, Harriet Joanna, and Frances Elizabeth; and a son, William, Jr.  

Rev. Hallock had founded the American Tract Society in 1825 and had been its secretary since 1826.  He came from an old American family, his first ancestor, Peter Hallock, having arrived at Southold, Long Island, around 1640.  While living here, Hallock would begin work on an exhaustive family genealogy.

from The Hallock-Holyoke Pedigree and Collateral Branches in the United States, 1906 (copyright expired)

Frances (known as Fanny) and her husband, John Edgar Johnson, had moved into the house with her parents.  They had hardly settled in when the population of the West 13th house increased by one.  On December 14, 1860, John and Fannie had a son, William Edgar Johnson.  Sadly, he would have a short life.  He died five months later on April 21, 1861, and his funeral was held in the parlor on April 23.  

There would be another funeral there five years later.  Fannie Leffington Lathrop died on March 10, 1866.   Rev. Hallock was remarried in 1868 to Mary A. R. Lathrop (possibly a relative of his first wife.).

It was around that time that the Johnsons moved into their own home.  (It was most likely somewhat of a relief to the aging Rev. Hallock, since the couple had seven children.)  It was common for even well-to-do families to take in respectable boarders and by 1870 the Hallocks were offering to "give a similar family a good and permanent home; Christian people preferred."

Rev. William A. Hallock died at the age of 86 on October 2, 1880.  His funeral was held in the University Place Presbyterian Church on October 5. 

It is unclear whether Mary Hallock sold or leased the house to the widow of Rev. Samuel Seabury, who had died in 1872.  Seabury was the grandson of Bishop Samuel Seabury, the first American Episcopal bishop.  On January 11, 1882, The Evening Telegram noted, "Mrs. Samuel Seabury and Miss Seabury of No. 132 West Thirteenth street, will receive on Monday next."

Benjamin D. Smith purchased 132 West 13th Street by 1886.  His residency should be cut short when the 59-year-old died in the house on January 17, 1867.  It was purchased next by Edward Mitchell LeMoyne.

Born was born in 1834.  His father, Adolphe Desire Joseph LeMoyne had come to America from France in 1829 and founded one of the oldest cotton commission firms in New York, LeMoyne & Bell.  When Edward was taken into the firm, the name was changed to LeMoyne & Sons.  The Yonkers Statesman said, "Their principal business was shipping cotton to France."  He and his wife, Josephine Maria, had four daughters.

As had been the case with Smith, LeMoyne would not live in his new home for long.  According to the Yonkers Statesman, on May 22, 1889 "he was on his way downstairs to go to business when the fatal seizure took place, and his death occurred within a few minutes."  The 55-year-old had suffered a heart attack.  As had been the case so many times before, his funeral was held in the parlor on May 25.

The house was sold to John J. Budd and his wife, Mary A. Budd.  They paid $18,000, or about $522,000 in today's money.  Living with them was their daughter, Almira, and their granddaughter, Julia Alice Budd.  Julia was the orphaned daughter of the Budds' only other child, John J. Budd, Jr.  He had died from pneumonia after having been caught in the blizzard of 1888.

The scene of so many funerals over the years, the parlor was the setting of a joyous event on the evening of December 23, 1896, when Almira Budd was married to Abraham Slaight.  The Sun reported that the ceremony took place in "the front drawing room, decked in Yuletide fashion," and noted "A reception for relatives and intimate friends and a supper followed the ceremony."

The newlyweds remained in the house with the Budds.  On March 7, 1902, Almira hosted a reception for her parents' 50th wedding anniversary.  The house was well-populated by now.  The New York Herald said, "The aged couple were assisted in receiving by their only daughter, Mrs. Slaight, and by their five granddaughters."  The article said, "Following the reception there was a supper served by Mazetti and later informal dancing."

Two months earlier, the house had been the scene of another happy event.  On January 8, 1902, Julia Alice Budd was married to Harvey Millington Ridabock in St. John the Evangelist Church on West 11th Street and Waverly Place.  

The New York Herald reported, "Invitations have been issued by Mr. and Mrs. John J. Budd for the marriage of their granddaughter, Miss Julia Alice Budd, to Mr. Harvey."  The New York Herald added, "The wedding reception will be held at the residence of the bride's grandparents, No. 132 West Thirteenth street."

The Budd house was inherited in equal shares by Almira's five daughters.   They sold it in April 1920 to Henry C. Davidson, who resold it to Joseph Ettlinger.   Upon his death on September 25, 1934, the house was assessed at $25,000--approximately $483,000 today.

At some point the cornice was removed and a brick parapet installed.  Although the architect used brownstone trim, the addition was otherwise architecturally inappropriate.

In the third quarter of the 20th century, Stephanie Hawthorn lived here.  She was involved with the New York Mycological Society, which held weekly field trips during the warm months.  The New York Times described them on October 15, 1977, as being "held within a 60-mile radius of New York City and usually include about a five-mild walk, informal lectures and mushroom 'show and tell' sessions."

The venerable residence managed to remain a single family home until 1997, when it was converted to two duplex apartments.

photographs by the author
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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The 1875 Van Tassell & Kearney Building - 110-112 East 13th Street

The horse auction firm of Johnston & Van Tassell was established in 1864 at 110 and 112 East 13th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenue.  In 1874, William Van Tassell partnered with Edward W. Kearney, changing the firm's name to Van Tassell & Kearney.  They wasted no time in upgrading their auction house.

On June 26, 1874, architect Joseph M. Dunn filed plans for a four-story "brick stable and auction mart."  Construction was completed the following year.  Dunn's neo-Grec design featured a cast iron base that supported four floors of red-orange brick trimmed in limestone.  Stone bandcourses connected the segmentally arched lintels and (originally) the bracketed sills of the openings.  A complex metal cornice with small and large brackets and a frieze of shell-filled corbels crowned the design.

Van Tassell & Kearney sold both horses and vehicles in its massive auctions every Tuesday and Friday at 10:00 a.m.  The business was vital to businesses and private citizens alike, with more than 100,000 horses in New York City at the time.  In 1878, The American Gentlemen's Newspaper called Van Tassell & Kearney, "One of the largest and most reliable auction and commission houses in this city, for the sale of horses, carriages, etc."  It employed a staff of between 40 and 50 men.

In at last one instance, a special Van Tassell & Kearney auction included unexpected items--dogs.  An advertisement for the June 22, 1875 sale listed "the entire establishment of  private family going abroad."  The wealthy clients were disposing of three vehicles and teams of horses.  But they also needed to see "two imported hunting dogs from the best Scotch stock, and well broken on all kinds of game."

The 1888 Illustrated New York, The Metropolis of To-day said the firm "handle[s] an average of 10,000 horses and from 12,000 to 15,000 wagons, carriages, harnesses, etc., at private sales."  The article also mentioned, "the firm are now engaged in the erection of a new building in the same block."  The Sun chimed in on August 24, saying that Van Tassell & Kearney "has been so successful that it was seek a location for entirely new quarters."  At the time of the articles, their new home at 130-132 East 13th Street was nearly completed.

Van Tassell & Kearney had been leasing the building from Andrew S. Garvey.  William T. A. Hart, who briefly rented it next, made minor interior alterations in October 1889.

Alfred Dolge & Son moved into the building in 1893.  Alfred Dolge was born in Chemnitz, Germany in 1848.  His father, August Dolge, was the head of the piano-making firm in Leipsic, A. Dolge & Co.  Alfred came alone to America as a teen "with little or no money," according to The Engineering Magazine in April 1897.  After working in a piano factory for a year, he struck out on his own in 1869 at the age of 19.  It was a remarkably bold move, considering that the teen had just married "an estimable young lady without fortune."  Using the $500 he had saved, he started manufacturing piano felt in a small shop on Amity Street (later West 3rd Street) in Greenwich Village.

His success was phenomenal.   Now 43 years old, he had essentially created a town out of the little village of Brockett's Bridge, New York--which had been renamed Dolgeville.  The Engineer Magazine wrote, "a railway was constructed...fine stores, magnificent schools, an elegant Turn Halle, and other accessories of Civilized existence sprang into being under the magical wand of the Dolge management."

His factories in Dolgeville manufactured "felt shoes and sounding-boards"  The magazine noted, "The Dolgeville productions are recognized the world over as the best of their class, having taken first premiums at the world's fair at Vienna in 1873, at Philadelphia in 1876, at Paris in 1879, and at Chicago in 1893."

The Music Trade Review, 1897 (copyright expired)

The East 13th Street held the offices and showrooms of Alfred Dolge & Sons.  The firm employed 70 clerks at this location, and about 1,000 workers in Dolgeville.

Despite his firm's rapid expansion, or perhaps because of it, Alfred Dolge was in trouble in the summer of 1898.  On June 17, The New York Times reported on a judgment against him for two demand notes held by the Exchange National Bank totaling $30,108--just under $970,000 in today's money.  

The company blamed the difficulties on what today we would call supply chain issues, telling The New York Times"The trouble is only temporary and was due to the war scare, which stopped the placing of commercial paper.  The firm had to use considerable paper in the business, and inability to raise money in this way brought matters to a crisis."  The statement added, "Mr. Dolge is a man of such ability, energy, and resources that it is only a question of a little time when his affairs will come out all right."

Unfortunately, they did not.  The firm failed, not only devastating Alfred Dolge and his son, Rudolph, but the entire town of Dolgeville.  The Johnstown Daily Republican said the news "caused universal surprise and regret throughout this section of the state."  The article noted, "When verified...the news elicited many expressions of sympathy for the people of Dolgeville and especially for the man who has spent the best years of his life in establishing the immense business which he controlled and in upbuilding and improving the handsome little village."

In February 1899, Andrew S. Garvey hired architect H. A. Hausenstein to make interior renovations for his new tenant, the American Felt Company.  The firm manufactured "felt of every description," according to one advertisement.

In 1901, following Garvey's death, his wife, Helene B. Garvey, sold the building to the American Felt Company for $55,000 (about $1.73 million today).  It made subsequent renovations in January 1910 when architect Earl H. Syall replaced the windows.

The firm remained for over a decade.  On June 30, 1925, the New York Evening Post reported that the American Piano Supply Company had "leased the entire building."  Its stay would be relatively short-lived.  

On June 17, 1927, the D. A. Schulte Retail Stores Corporation purchased the Huyler's chocolate and candy company, founded in 1846.  Headed by David Arthur Schulte, the firm operated "5¢-to-$1" shops across the nation.  Schulte now established the Huyler's Luncheonettes, Inc., and in March 1928 rented 110-112 East 13th Street.  Once again, renovations were made, this time by architect Frederick J. Berger.  The New York Times advised, "The space will be used for offices, a showroom and the manufacture of ice-cream, candy and bakery products."

The Great Depression had cataclysmic effects on the Huyler's candy portion of the firm, but the luncheonettes limped along until 1964 when the last of them was closed.

On October 7, 1981 The New York Times writer Alan S. Oser reported on the city's new loft law.  "A building that may provide the first test of how this system will work is a loft building at 110 East 13th Street," said the article.  The intention was to convert the structure to office space, but that never came to be.  Instead, a renovation completed the following year resulted in residences above the ground floor retail space, including two additional stories, set back from street view.

Unfortunately, over decades of renovations, the openings of the upper floors were brutally disfigured.  Only the top floor gives an idea of their original appearance.  Hints of the cast iron storefront remain, and yet Joseph M. Dunn's impressive neo-Grec design manages to endure.

photographs by the author
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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The 1894 James G. and Georgie Wentz House - 312 West 82nd Street


In 1893 builders Albert C. Squier and William E. Lanchantin acquired a 48-foot-wide plot of vacant land on the south side of West 82nd Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.  Somewhat surprisingly, instead of instructing prolific architect Clarence Fagan True to design two 24-foot-wide residences on the parcel, in keeping with the mansions that were rising in the neighborhood, they asked for three.

Completed in 1894, the trio were luxurious, despite their narrow, 16-foot widths.   True designed the group in his own take on the Romanesque Revival style.  The center house, 312 West 82nd Street, was an American basement residence, meaning it was entered almost directly at street level.  Clad in undressed brownstone, it rose four stories to a slate-shingled mansard with a prominent, peaked-roofed dormer.  At the second floor a faceted bay provided a balcony to the third floor.

On June 30, 1894, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Squier and Lanchantin "have sold to a Mr. Martin No. 312 West 82d street, one of a row of newly-erected three-story [sic] stone front dwellings."  The use of pseudonyms when purchasing property was not uncommon, and as it turned out, "Mr. Martin" was, in fact, James Griswold Wentz.

An attorney with Sweetser, Pembroke & Co., Wentz was just beginning to deal in real estate, himself.  He and his wife, the former Georgie Banyer Nichols, had been married four years earlier.  Despite his significant wealth, it was his wife who drew the social attention.

Georgie's earliest American ancestor, Sergeant Francis Nicol, arrived in America in 1660 with his uncle, Richard Nicol, who later became Colonial Governor of New York.  Her great-grandfathers on both sides fought in the American Revolution.  Included in her pedigree were elite names like Ogden, Whitney and Bulkley.

Like all socialites, Georgie was involved in charity work.  On February 1, 1896, for instance, The Sun reported that she "will throw open her house to-day for the benefit of the Ladies' Domestic Missionary Society, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, in West Eighty-fourth street."  That afternoon the ladies enjoyed a musicale.

During their early married years, the Wentzes traveled extensively, especially during the summer months.  On July 2, 1897, The Evening Telegram announced that the couple "will pass the month of July making a trip through the St. Lawrence River to the Thousand Islands.  In August they will go to the White Mountains."

At the turn of the century, Georgie turned her attention to politics.  On November 5, 1900, the Woman's Republican Club was organized in her parlor.  The power of Georgie Wentz's name was reflected in the appearance of Senator Chauncey M. Depew, who spoke for an hour at that meeting.  Georgie would be the club's president for years, and when a reporter asked her "for her own special reason for being a politician" in October 1904, she replied in part:

Because I believe that it is in the home that the incorruptible politician is made.  When you see a man lax in his duties in this respect, dishonest, unscrupulous, you will find either that he left home too early or that when he was there his duty was not made clear to him.

The mother has in her hands the molding of the child's morals.  If she neglects it, the fault is here.  If the voters of the coming generation are started right in the home they will continue on the right path.

In the meantime, the Wentzes continued their travels.  On May 28, 1901, The Evening Telegram reported that they would "visit the Pan-American Exposition, at Buffalo, in June.  Later in the summer they will go to Maine to remain until September."  And in July the following year, the New York Herald announced that they had sailed for Europe for the season.

The couple's summer seasons became more predictable after 1903 when they acquired a Newport cottage, Beaumaris, at the junction of Brenton and Wickham Roads over looking the ocean.  It was in Newport that Georgie's and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont's mutual cause, Women's Suffrage, coincided.  By 1914 Georgie was hosting the Newport County Woman Suffrage League meetings at Beaumaris; and in 1915 she aided Alva Belmont with a suffrage event at Marble House.

It is unclear when Georgie's widowed mother, Georgiana Bulkley Nichols, first moved in with the couple.  She died in the Manhattan house at the age of 70 on May 27, 1908.  The social prominence of the family demanded two funerals, one in the West 82nd Street house at 10 a.m. on May 30, and a second "at the homestead, in Southport, Connecticut," four hours later. 

In 1910 Wentz purchased the residence at 335 West End Avenue and the following year sold 312 West 82nd Street to Isaac Steigerwald, a partner in The Machine Metals Products Company of New York.  

Steigerwald was the first of a succession of owners.  He sold it in 1917, and it was resold in 1919, and again in 1922 to Ferdinand B. Minrath and his wife Anna.   Minrath was the head of the George Minrath Pharmacy.   Living with the couple were Scott Minrath, his wife Gertrude, and their children.  The adopted son of Ferdinand's and Anna's daughter, Scott Minrath was a 1918 graduate of Princeton University and worked with the Guaranty Trust Co. of New York.

The family was clear on their preferences in domestic help.  An advertisement in September 1922 sought, "Chambermaid-Waitress, small private house; only white need apply; German preferred."

Ferdinand Minrath did not enjoy his new home for long.  On April 21, 1923 he died in the house.  His will suggests that there may have been tensions between him and his adopted grandson.  Scott Minrath received $1,000 (about $15,000 today), and Gertrude and the children received the "right to occupy house at 312 West 82d Street."

Once again the house went through a succession of buyers, until 1958, when it was purchased by H. Edwin and Mildred Cason Smith as headquarters for their Group Relations Ongoing Workshops, Inc. (GROW).   The building remained little changed inside until 1970 when the Smiths converted the first through fourth floors to offices and classrooms.   

On July 14, 1972, Iver Peterson of The New York Times explained that the group-therapy school "uses the group-discussion method to teach paying students how to conduct their own 'behavioral sciences' programs dealing with the emotional and social problems of their clients."  He described GROW as "One of the largest group therapy training schools in the city."

But Ivers was concerned about the faculty's credentials.  He pointed to five members with Ph.D's from Philathea College, "a former Bible school in London, Ontario, which is not accredited in Canada and is not recognized by any accredited American college or university."  He noted, as well, "GROW's founder and executive director, H. Edwin Smith, is listed as having a doctorate from an unaccredited college in Florida."

Dr. Edward F. Carr, director of the State Division of Higher Education, said, "It's pretty difficult to tell here where the charlatanism ends and the integrity begins."

In 1985 Paul Plassan hired architect Douglas P. Herrlin to return the property to a single family home.  He shared it with his partner, motion picture and Broadway hair stylist and wig designer Paul Huntley.  The house also served as Huntley's work studio.  Upon Plassan's death in 1991, title to the property was transferred to Huntley.

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Huntley's work was epochal in the theater.  He was responsible for Carol Channing's trademark bouffant in Hello Dolly!, the wigs for Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 motion picture Cleopatra, and for the 2014 play Bullets Over Broadway, alone, worked on 48 wigs.  In his 60-year career he styled hair and created wigs for more than 200 Broadway shows.

Huntley sold 312 West 82nd Street in January 2021.  The following month he flew to London to work on Diana: The Musical.  He died there on July 13 at the age of 88.

photograph by the author
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Monday, June 27, 2022

The Lost Irving Place Theatre - 11-13 Irving Place


from the collection of the New York Public Library

On December 20, 1860 Irving Hall opened with a grand ball.  Situated on the southwest corner of Irving Place and East 15th Street, one block east of fashionable Union Square, it would be the scene of concerts and balls for years.  But despite the famous performers who appeared here--George Christy's Minstrels, Madame Parepa-Rosa and Artemus Ward among them--the opening of Steinway Hall a block away in 1864 brought unwanted and intense competition.   In his 1903 A History of the New York Stage, historian T. Allston Brown wrote, "As a concert hall this place lost caste as soon as Steinway Hall was opened, and Irving Hall gradually fell into disuse."

On January 22, 1887, The Real Estate Record & Guide reported, "Gustav Amberg, manager of the Thalia Theatre on the Bowery, has leased Irving Hall" and an adjoining house, and "will so alter and remodel both buildings as to convert them into an opera house."  The article noted that architect G. B. Pelham was drawing the plans, which placed the cost at $65,000 (about $1.8 million in today's money).

"Mr. Amberg says he was induced to take hold of this project by the very general wish expressed by the better class of the German population for some up-town theatre where opera might be rendered in German," said the article.  Prominent German citizens had financially backed Amberg's project, guaranteeing him $45,000 to stage 120 performances.

Irving Hall was not remodeled, but demolished in July 1888.  The new structure was completed before the end of the year.  It was, perhaps, G. B. Pelham's last work.  He died of a stroke on May 2, 1889.

The three-story Amberg Theatre was Pelham's take on Spanish Moorish architecture.  The Evening World called it "one of the handsomest houses in the city."  Patrons passed through two grand arches framed in carved stone.  A romantic cast iron balcony at the third floor was roofed in Spanish tiles, and two picturesque faux bell towers perched upon the corners.  Capable of seating 1,528 people, the Amberg Theatre boasted "thirty proscenium boxes," according to the Record & Guide, and was electrically lighted.  The curtain had been designed by artist Karl Geiger of Vienna, Austria.

The venue opened on December 1, 1888 with the operetta Fortunio's Lied.  The Evening World reported, "The new house is said to be absolutely fireproof.  The staircases are of iron and stone, and the walls of fireproof brick.  Then there are fire-escapes on each side of the house, and twenty-one exits.  Mr. Amberg says that an audience can leave the building in from three to five minutes."

The Sun anticipated success for Amberg.  "The large company has been carefully picked, and the repertory of plays embraces the best German things to be had in this country."   But the newspaper was wrong.

Less than three years later, on June 4, 1891, a "stormy" meeting of Amberg's backers was held.  Three, William Steinway, William H. Jackson and John Weber, were infuriated about the net losses of $75,000 since the opening.  The Sun reported that a "new syndicate of prominent and public-spirited German-American citizens" had been formed to run the theater, including wealthy Germans like Steinway, Theodore A. Havemeyer, Jacob  H. Schiff and George Ehret.  At least for now, Gustav Amberg was retained as the salaried manager.  The Sun said, "The house will open in September, and there will be no lowering of its old standard of meritorious and diversified performances of operas and plays in the German language."

Under Amberg's management the venue continued to flounder financially.  So, in 1892 William Steinway met with Austrian-born theater manager Heinrich Conried, and convinced him to take control.  The following year, on May 1, the name of the venue was changed to the Irving Place Theatre.

Under Conreid's management, things turned around.  Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide of 1897 called the Irving Place Theatre, "the most prominent German theatre that the city boasts of...where the best German company in the United States can be seen."  Ticket prices ranged from 35 cents general admission, to $1.50 orchestra seats (the most expensive being about $50 today).

Along with classic plays, Conreid staged works of playwrights unknown in America.  Years later The Argonaut would recall, "He was ever vigilant in search for new material.  The new playwrights--Sudermann, Fulda, Bleihtren and Hauptmann--were made familiar at the Irving Place Theatre before they known to the English stage."  It was here where several of Henrik Ibsen's plays were first staged in America.  On April 12, 1896, for instance, his The Doll House opened here.

The Argonaut said:

From the very outset, therefore, the Irving Place Theatre became unique and synonymous with all that was artistic.  People knew that they could depend on seeing really noteworthy plays.  An evening spent there was in the way of an intellectual treat.  And more than that, Conried succeeded in unifying his German audiences.  Night after night they came, until they began to regard themselves as one big family.  They visited each other between the acts, and when the play was over they went to Luchow's for supper and to exchange opinions.  Over the beer, of an evening, one could see the critic, the actor, and those interested in the welfare of the German Theatre.  It was as near the Continental idea as one could get in New York.

In 1903 Heinrich Conried was recruited to succeed Maurice Grau as the manager of the Metropolitan Opera.  Otto Weil took over as manager of the Irving Place Theatre.  His views could not have been more different than those of his predecessor.  Sweeping changes soon came.  In its September 1908 issue, The Theatre noted, "Realizing that the German-speaking public in this city is more keenly interested in the lighter forms of art than in the works of the more tragic and classic repertory, Mr. Weill has announced his intention of confining his productions to comedy and farce."  The article added, "He has completely reorganized the Irving Place company.

Famed Art Nouveau artist Mucha designed the cover of this 1907 playbill.  

Real trouble came with America's entry into World War I.  Anti-German sentiment swept over the country and German businesses and citizens with German surnames became targets of vitriol.   On June 6, 1918, the New-York Tribune reported, "Preliminary steps to stop the production of plays in German theatres of New York were taken yesterday by members of the Intimate Committee for the Severance of Enemy relationship."  A letter had been sent to the Irving Place Theatre "to cease further productions in the enemy tongue."

Two months later, on August 21, the New-York Tribune reported, "The Irving Place Theatre, once the home of German drama, has been leased by Maurice Schwartz, and will be devoted hereafter to Yiddish plays."  Some of the most recognized names in the Yiddish theater appeared on its stage over the next few years.  In October 1920 the play Hard To Be a Jew by humorist Scholem Aleichem, called the "Jewish Mark Twain," was staged here, for instance.

A stark change came in 1922 when the Irving Place Theatre was converted to a burlesque venue, although Yiddish plays were still staged at least through 1927 (Dostoyevsky's The Idiot opened on March 25 that year in Yiddish, for instance).

Reginald Marsh depicted a scene titled Irving Place Burlesque in 1930.  from the collection of the Whitney Museum.

By 1934, motion pictures were being screened here along with live performances.  That summer a strike of the "film employees" of the Theatrical Protective Union was held.  Then, on April 16, 1938, The New York Times reported that owner Judge Thomas C. T. Crain had leased the building to a new tenant, mentioning "it has been in the Crain family for more than a century and one time was one of the finest legitimate houses in the city."  The article noted that the renters "intend to modernize the building for motion pictures and stage shows."

The theater in 1938.  photograph by Berenice Abbott, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Almost a year to the day later, on April 11, 1939, The New York Times reported on the screening of Il Grande Appello (The Last Roll-Call), "with which the old Irving Place Theatre is beginning what Clemente Giglio hopes will be a series of first-run Italian films."  His hopes were not to be.  In 1940 the venue was converted to the New Irving Place Theatre, a cooperative theater.  The venture by the Merely Players, described by The New York Times as "a group of youthful actors," drew the wrath of unions, who picketed outside.  In response, a placard was posted that read:

We are a young cooperative group, pro-labor to a man, anxious to create jobs for ourselves and the union.  Because our ideas and talent are worthy, we are working on a cooperative basis to get your support.  By helping us you will make jobs for the union as well as for all of us.

By the onset of World War II the Irving Place Theatre was exclusively a motion picture theater.  Many of the films were war-related propaganda.  On January 3, 1942, for instance, The New York Times reported, "Revivals of Wings of Victory and Edge of the World, have started a week's engagement at the Irving Place Theatre."  And on September 12, the newspaper reviewed Scorched Earth, saying "it gives a harrowing impression of Japanese depredations in China."

Renovations that transformed the theater into a warehouse made in 1962 included the boxing-in of the towers.  photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon

On January 21, 1962, The New York Times reported, "The Irving Place Theatre, where Ibsen's plays were introduced to New York, will become an adjunct of S. Klein on the Square."  The article explained, "It is being converted into a warehouse."  The auditorium, "which until recently had been nearly intact, is being stripped of its boxes, balcony, gallery, ornate plasterwork and ornamental molded metal ceiling."  Architect Fred L. Liebmann was responsible for the renovations, which included 
dissecting the auditorium to three floors.

photo by Jim Henderson

The structure survived until 1984, demolished for the block-engulfing Zeckendorf Towers, completed in 1987. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog