Tuesday, March 5, 2024

A Public Enemy #1's Last Stand - 304 West 102nd Street


photo by Anthony Bellov

The block of West 102nd Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue was declared a "private block" in the last decade of the 19th century.  The restriction meant that no commercial building could invade the upscale enclave.  In 1895, developer John F. Kohler hired architect Ralph S. Townsend to design an upscale, brick-and-stone-faced apartment building at 304 West 102 Street amid the rising mansions on the block.

Townsend placed the cost of construction at $30,000--just over $1 million in 2024.  On March 2, 1895, the Record & Guide listed the amenities included in his plans.  Among them were:

...electric wiring, steam-heating plant and apparatus, combination gas and electric fixtures, ranges, dumb-waiter, electric bells, speaking-tubes, cabinet mantles, annunciators, inside blinds, concrete, marble and pine flooring, hardwood interior trim.

Electric bells, speaking tubes and annunciators were all means of communication--both within the apartments (between residents and their servants)--and with the building staff.

Townsend's dignified Renaissance Revival design bespoke affluence.  The arched entrance sat within a portico supported by polished granite Scamozzi columns.  The second floor windows were flanked by carved, paneled pilasters and capped by arched Renaissance style pediments.  Molded intermediate cornices relieved the verticality of the five-story structure.

photo by Anthony Bellov

Construction was completed early in 1896.  An advertisement on March 8 touted the views from above the surrounding residences.

Strictly High-Class
New Single apartments; richly decorated; 25x90; overlooking Riverside Drive; surrounded by private dwellings; eight rooms and bath; containing every comfort and convenience, including polite attendance; open evenings.

The "polite attendance" referred to staff like the uniformed hallboys on hand to run errands and help in general.  The eight-room apartments leased for $500 a year--an affordable $1,500 per month by today's standards. 

One family was looking for a chamber maid in 1898, their advertisement in the New York Herald reading, "Wanted--girl for general housework; must live in neighborhood and sleep home."  (How they expected to find someone who could afford to live in the mansion-filled neighborhood willing to do domestic work is puzzling.)

The tenants of 304 West 102nd Street were, of course, professional.  Among the earliest were newlyweds Robert Leslie and Lillian Moffett, who were married on February 26, 1896.  Born in Mineral Point, Wisconsin in 1866, Moffett had graduated from Columbia in 1891, and then received his law degree from Columbia Law School. 

Living on the fifth floor in 1903 was the family of Louis H. Muller and his wife, the former Anna Kimmerli.  Born in 1856, Muller was a clerk in the Hall of Records downtown.  The couple had four children, Edith, Harry Louis, Albert Edward and Isabella.   

That year the youngest, Isabella (who was 12 years old), won a prize in the New York Herald's Higglety Pigglety Puzzle Contest for children, while her brother, Albert, was looking for a job.  His ad in the New York Herald on October 14 read, "Young man (22) desires position as salesman or outside man; references unquestionable.  A. E. Muller, 304 West 102d St."

Tragedy visited the Muller apartment four years later.  On Christmas Eve 1907, the family visited a relative in the Bronx and stayed over for the holiday.  For some reason, Harry and Albert remained home.  On Christmas night, Albert arose from bed up to get more ventilation into the room.  The New York Press reported, 

He tried to lower the upper section of a window, but failed.  Kneeling on a couch he lifted the lower part; then, reaching out, he clutched the upper part and tried to draw it down.  But his hand slipped and, as he was leaning too far out of the window, he plunged to the street.  The brother, hearing Albert scream, jumped out of bed and sprang to the window.  He saw his brother on the side walk.

Neighbors also heard Albert's scream and a crowd had gathered around his body by the time Harry got outside.  The New York Press reported, "The parents of the victim did not learn of the accident until they came home, and both collapsed when they heard the news."  Albert's funeral was held in the Muller apartment.

It was common for funerals to be held in the families' spacious apartments.  On March 30, 1909, for instance, the funeral of 20-year-old Ernest J. Lohsen was held in his family's apartment.  Following his family's period of morning, his sister reentered society.  On October 2, 1910, the New York Herald reported, "Eta Pi Club will hold its first meeting of the season at the home of Miss Stella Lohsen, No. 304 West 102d street, on Saturday evening."

In 1933 the floor-engulfing apartments were divided.  There were now three apartments per floor.  Three years later a young man and his girlfriend moved into a ground floor apartment, initiating the most sensational chapter in the building's history.

In July 1936, 25-year-old Harry Walter Brunette and 29-year-old Merle Vandenbush escaped from an Ohio state prison and embarked on an armed bank robbing spree from Ohio to New York.  On November 11, 1936, they kidnapped New Jersey state trooper William A. Tumbull.   The FBI listed both as "public enemies."

Looking like college boys, Harry Brunette (left) and Merle Vandenbush (right) were the the targets of a nationwide FBI search.  The Rhinelander Daily News, November 11, 1936

Early in December New York detectives staked out 304 West 102nd Street, then notified the FBI that Brunette was holed up there.  Like a scene from a gangster movie, on December 15, 1936, The New York Times reported that Harry Brunette "stood off twenty-five G-men under the personal command of J. Edgar Hoover, their chief, and 100 patrolmen and detectives surrounding the flat at 304 West 102d Street early this morning."   The army of FBI and police officers tossed tear gas cannisters into the apartment, which inadvertently started a fire.  "Brunette exchanged shots from a hall closet with the Federal men, armed with submachine guns, and the police, while the flames roared from furniture and draperies in the room in which he had been trapped."

The entire block essentially became a battle zone, while neighbors huddled in their homes cringing in fear.  "Bullets tore at the wall surrounding the closet from the stairway above and from the stoops of apartment houses across the street, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had outposts," said the article.  "Smoke poured from the room."

Buffalo Evening News, December 16, 1936

At one point, Arlene LeBeau, Brunette's 25-year-old girlfriend, "staggered into the hallway, her face grimacing in pain," said the article.  An FBI agent "darted into the hall, caught up the girl, and carried her to an upstairs apartment."  Finally, at 2:05 a.m., Brunette ran out of ammunition after having fired more than fifty rounds.  He stepped into the hallway with his hands raised, sneering, "What a brave bunch of guys."

Four days later, on December 19, 1936, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, 

Harry Brunette, Wisconsin bad man, was taken to the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., today to begin a life sentence for kidnaping.  Later, it was said, he will be transferred to bleak Alcatraz Island in San Francisco bay.  There he will join others (among them Al Capone), who, like himself, have had fleeting notoriety as public enemy No. 1 in their day.

The article noted, "He received the life sentence in bored silence just 62 hours and 40 minutes after his arrest by Federal agents in a spectacular raid on his apartment at 304 West 102d street."

photo by Anthony Bellov

With the drama over, 304 West 102nd Street returned to normal.  There are three apartments per floor today, just as when Public Enemy No. 1 fought it out with machine gun wielding FBI agents nearly 90 years ago. 

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to LaptrinhX.com

Monday, March 4, 2024

The Lost Lutheran Emigrant House - 12 State Street


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In the first decades following the American Revolution, State Street was lined with elegant mansions, the owners of which enjoyed harbor views across the Battery and cooling breezes.  One such residence, at 12 State Street, was described in 1820 merely as a "four-story house fronting the Battery."  It was offered for rent four years later at $300, or about $7,700 per month by today's conversion.

State Street in 1859.  No. 12 would have been further up the block, behind the trees.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

No. 12 State Street was leased to a succession of well-heeled merchants.  Living here in 1848 was the family of S. H. Russ, whose 15-year-old son William H. Russ went missing that year.  He left for school on November 16 and did not return.  His parents' detailed description in the New York Herald on December 1 said:

He is a smart, active, intelligent boy; has a good education--is a good penman.  He is fifteen years of age, five feet two inches in height, brown hair, a cowlick on right side, dark blue eyes, a little near sighted, (but so little that it is hardly perceptible), light complexion, square face, dimples in his cheeks when he talks or laughs, wore away a black cloth cap, black alpaca roundabout, clouded blue and white vest, striped with one thread of black, black woollen pants, black silk neck handkerchief; but had sufficient means of his own to purchase other clothes as well as to pay his expense to any neighboring city or port.

The family's fears were evident toward the end of the notice.  "If this should meet the eye of said William, his father entreats him to return home, or if he is in business and does not wish to return, to write and let him know where he is, so that he can communicate with him and there shall be no obstacle put in his way to prevent his staying."

The teen was eventually found, and 12 years later, on December 23, 1865, the now 27-year-old shot the woman he loved in a jealous fit then jumped in the East River to drown himself.  The New York Dispatch reported, "Owing to the low tide, he could not accomplish his purpose, and, extricating himself from the mud, made his way to shore."  There he shot himself.  The murder-suicide did not succeed and both parties survived.

In the years between William Russ's disappearance and the murder-suicide attempt, the State Street neighborhood had changed.  In 1851, No. 12 was the home of Henry Lubs, who ran a porterhouse on Coenties Slip.  Living with his family was Oliver D. Vandenburg, a barkeeper.  Two years later the Lubs family had three blue collar boarders.  According to the Evening Post, in 1855 Lubs and his wife occupied the first and second floors, a family named Vandenburg lived on the third, and the Brown family on the fourth.  Another tenant, a 35-year-old dressmaker from Germany named Harmonia Baker lived in a room, as well.

At 2:00 on the morning of October 19, 1855, the occupants were awakened by smoke filling their rooms.  Fire had broken out in the basement and had "completely enveloped the stairways to the third story," according to the Evening Post.  The article said, "The firemen were quickly on the spot, but before the fire was subdued, so that assistance could be rendered to those in the upper stories, five persons lost their lives."

Henry Lubs and his wife made it out safely, although Mrs. Lubs broke her arm in a fall.  Tragically, the 50-year-old mother of Mrs. Vandenburg, Mary Ann Peacock, was burned to death as was the Vanderburgs' 5-year-old daughter Amanda.  Mrs. Catharine Brown, who was 26 years old, and her 9-year-old nephew died of smoke inhalation.  The Lubses' German servant girl named Frederica was also burned to death.  Harmonia Baker, according to the Evening Post, "was so severely burned that no hopes were entertained of her recovery."  Three days later, the New-York Tribune reported on her death.

The house, now owned by Thomas Cotton, was repaired and leased to Henry Mulholland, who operated it as a boardinghouse.  The basement level was then renovated to accommodate the porterhouse of Michael Quigley, who lived in the upper portion.  Just after midnight on August 12, 1861, fire broke out again.  The New York Times reported, "it was extinguished by firemen before it had extended to any other building."  There was little damage other than Quigley's loss of furniture worth about $3,000 in today's money.

Michael Quigley lost more furniture through a much different incident four years later.  On July 23, 1865, the New York Dispatch reported, "At about 11 o'clock A. M. yesterday a party of soldiers belonging to the Ninth Maine Regiment, stationed on the Battery, entered the saloon No. 12 State Street, became involved in a difficulty, and commenced breaking the furniture in the place."  When Officer Romer arrived to to quell the disturbance, "one of the number broke a musket over his head."  The mini-riot was soon suppressed by a "section of men" from the nearby station house.

Further up the block at the corner of Bowling Green, a group of similar formerly aristocratic homes were slated for demolition in 1899, to make way for the U.S. Customs House.  One of them had been home to the American Lutheran Emigrant House for years.  On October 7, The Evening Post reported that the organization had obtained quarters at 12 State Street.  A month later, The New York Times reported that plans had been filed for renovations to the vintage building.

The remodeling left no trace of the Federal style mansion.  Now five stories tall, a centered, single-doored entrance sat above a high stoop.  A parapet above the neo-Grec cornice announced The German Emigrant House in German.  (Newspapers would alternatively call it the Lutheran Immigrant Mission or the Lutheran Emigrant Mission.)

In 1920 the building (behind the cart) looked little different than when renovated in 1899.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  

The facility had not been open especially long when it had a most interesting visitor.  On June 18, 1900, The Sun began an article saying, "A queer-looking little German woman, broad-hipped and short, in a black dress, walked into Battery Park yesterday afternoon from the Lutheran Immigrant Mission...at 12 State street.  She wore the headdress of a Hanoverian peasant, and under the loose sleeves of her waist, just below the elbow, wore big bunches of silver bangles.  Her headdress resembled a silk skullcap, with a sort of veil dangling at either side."

As it turned out, the woman in the traditional dress of a peasant was Katherina Ibens who, according to The Sun, "owns one of the largest cherry orchards in Hanover, consisting of 500 trees."  Following her husband's death in December 1899, her health inexplicitly failed.  Finally, her doctor suggested a change in scenery and a trip to New York.  The frugal woman rode in steerage "that she might live afloat thus nearly as cheaply as it would cost her, with doctor's bills, to live in Hanover," said the article.

The 55-year-old Mrs. Ibens told a reporter she intended to see Coney Island and the places of interest in New York, but wanted to be home within two weeks for the cherry harvest.  The Sun noted, "she is not going to spend any money buying new-fangled American dresses."  She further saved money by staying in the Lutheran Emigrant Mission.

The mission was hit with scandal in the fall of 1902.  On November 10, the Commissioner of Immigration, William Williams, issued an order that barred Rev. H. J. Berkemeier, the head of the Lutheran Immigrant Home, and his assistant Daniel Dagen from entering Ellis Island.  Williams accused Berkemeier of, instead of assisting arriving immigrants, "you are in the habit of actually preventing recently arrived girls from meeting their friends and of compelling them to accept employment against their will with people who have previously directed you to look up servants for them at Ellis Island."  Williams ended his letter with a slap to Berkemeier's ministerial face.  "Your action is more reprehensible because you have prefixed to your name the word 'pastor.'"

Berkemeier was replaced by the Rev. Mr. Doering.  On June  15, 1904, his wife Ida, took some of the immigrant children on a boat excursion sponsored by the German language St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church.  The outing turned into a nightmare when the pleasure boat, the S.S. General Slocum, caught fire in the East River and burned to the water line within 15 minutes.  It resulted in the greatest loss of life in New York City history prior to the attack on the World Trade Center.

That afternoon, The Evening World reported that six-year-old Edna Dahrens, from the Immigrant House, had survived and was in Lincoln Hospital.  Ida D. Doering, too, was rescued, but died, according to The New York Times, "from pneumonia brought on by shock."  Her funeral was held on June 25.

On June 14, 1919, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide titled an article, "Downtown Landmarks Sold," and reported that 9 through 12 State Street, "originally erected as private houses...all well-known landmarks, have been placed under a contract of sale."  The article noted that the purchasers "are acquiring the site for commercial purposes."  A 44-story tower was erected on the site in 1991.

image via WikiArquitectura

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Saturday, March 2, 2024

The 1941 Revere - 130 West 12th Street

image via streeteasy.com

In 1940, the Village Construction Corporation broke ground for the Revere Apartments, described by the New York Sun as being "designed for the occupancy of 118 families in suites of 1-1/2 to 4-1/2 rooms."  Architect Hyman Isaac Feldman designed the 12-story-and-penthouse structure with a cast stone base.  Clad in variegated brown brick, the upper floors were given verticality with piers of fluted brick, while bands of stone and brick on the upper floors stressed the horizontal.  Fenestration was highly important in Feldman's design, his wide groups of casement windows, some of which wrapped the corner of the projecting wing, acting as near-sculptural elements.
photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

With the Great Depression behind them, New Yorkers happily looked for new living accommodations.  On October 22, 1941, The Sun reported that eight apartments had been leased "in the Revere, 130 West 12th street, now under construction."

Among the initial residents were newlyweds William Rose Benét and Marjorie Flack Benét.  Born in 1886, Benét received his Ph.B. from Yale University in 1907.  A poet, writer and editor, he had edited and written for the Saturday Review of Literature since 1924. 

William Rose Benét (original source unknown)

William and Marjorie married in 1941, just before moving in.  The Benéts were a sort of literary dynasty.  Marjorie, who was his fourth wife, was a children's author; William's son, James Walker Benét, was a journalist and novelist; and his sister Laura Benéand his younger brother Stephen Vincent Benét were both poets.  A year after moving into the Revere, William Rose Benét was awarded the Pulitzer Price for Poetry for his book The Dust Which is God.

Another journalist in the building was Carlo Tresca, editor of the Italian-American newspaper Il Martello (The Hammer), who lived here with his domestic partner Margaret De Silver.  According to Nunzio Pernicone in his 2010 Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel, they moved into the Revere from Brooklyn "at the insistence of Margaret, who feared for his safety traveling back and forth to Brooklyn."  Margaret had good reason to be nervous.

Carlo Tresca in 1910.  

Born in Sulmona, Italy in 1879, Tresca arrived in the United States in 1904.  He almost immediately became involved in the labor movement and headed the socialist newspaper Il Proletario.  By the time he and Margaret moved into the Revere, he was a known anti-Fascist, using his newspaper to denounce Fascism.  In 1926, he had been named by Mussolini as one of the top three Italians the dictator wanted deported back to Italy.  Tresca added to his growing list of enemies in 1938 by accusing the Soviet Union of kidnapping a dissident, Juliet Stuart Poyntz.

On at 8:40 on the night of January 11, 1943, Tresca was crossing Fifth Avenue at 15th Street when a black automobile pulled up next to him.  An assassin, rumored by some to have been Carmine Galante of the Bonanno crime family, shot Tresca in the back of the head, killing him instantly.  (The murderer was never found.)

On January 13, 1943, The New York Times opined, "The murder of Carlo Tresca removes a man who was capable of expressing and inspiring violent disagreement, but whom only an embittered fanatic could have hated."  Four days later, a memorial service was held in the Manhattan Center on 34th Street.  The New York Times reported, "Five thousand persons paid tribute to the memory of Carlo Tresca, 68-year-old Italian-born radical editor of Il Martell0."  Fifteen carloads of flowers and ten cars of police and journalists accompanied the hearse to the Fresh Pond Crematory in Queens.  "The procession passed the Tresca home at 130 West Twelfth Street and through the Italian district on the way to [the] Williamsburg Bridge," said the article.

A typical apartment in 1941.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Living in the Revere at the time was attorney and politician James A. Hatch.  Born in 1881, he had been an assemblyman and from 1934 to 1936 was a Deputy Dock Commissioner.  He was a partner in the legal firm of Hatch and Wolfe.

Resident Genevieve M. Raffe was a pioneering female in the retail business.  Born in Glasgow, Scotland, she arrived in America in 1930 and joined the Wanamaker Department Store firm that year.  Within four years she rose to buyer for the fur department of the Wanamaker's New York store, and a few years later added the Philadelphia flagship store to her buying duties.  The prominent retailer, who never married, died while living here on April 7, 1947.

In the meantime, William Rose Benét was a member of the National Institute for Arts and Letters, founded in 1898.  The exclusive organization was limited to 250 members "qualified by notable achievements in art, music and literature."  On May 16, 1947, as the venerable institution faced a crisis, members assembled at the Benét apartment.

Sculptor William Hunt Diederich's works were in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum.  But, according to The New York Age on May 17, "Unlike many of his profession, Mr. Diederich to all indications is a rabid bigot."  Antisemitic pamphlets had been discovered by postal workers that were traced back to Diederich.  

At the Benét apartment, said the article, "Mr. Diedrich was asked to explain."  He gave "somewhat incoherent acknowledgements of his guilt."  William Rose Benét stressed, "It is the kind of thing that Fascist-minded people take up and use."  A press conference was immediately called "and exposed the whole dirty mess," said The New York Age, which added, "It is reassuring to find upstanding men and women like [Diedrich's] associates who hesitated not one minute in revealing him in his shameful conniving."

On May 4, 1950, Benét left the Revere to attend a meeting of the council of the National Institute of Arts and Letters at its headquarters at 633 West 155th Street.  He was walking along Broadway after leaving the meeting at 6:20 when he collapsed to the sidewalk with a heart attack.  A passerby rushed to his assistance, and he was taken to Mother Cabrini Memorial Hospital where he died.  In reporting his death, The New York Times mentioned, "Mr. Benét was the author of dozens of books of poetry, including several anthologies and novels."

A fascinating resident at the time was Dr. Hulda E. Burger, whose country home was in Sag Habor, New York.  Although she was a dentist, the Minnesota native was better known for her figure skating.  The former president of the Great Neck Figure Staking Club, she represented the United States in the Women's Singles for the North American Championship.

On October 10, 1958, The Advocate reported, "St. Vincent's Hospital has purchased The Revere, a 12-story penthouse, 125-unit apartment building."  The article noted, "The two-to-four-and-a-half room suites in the building will be used as a residence for the medical and nursing staff of the hospital."

The Revere was renamed the Martin Payne Building.  A summary of the facilities on March 10, 1982 listed 18 "on-call dormitories," 35 residential apartments for staff, one guest suite, and 64 offices.

Half a century after it acquired the property, on April 6, 2010 The New York Times reported that St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers had voted to close the Greenwich Village hospital.  With the facility vacated, the Martin Payne Building was no longer viable.

Rudin Management Company purchased 130 West 12th Street.  On September 25, 2011, The New York Times reported the firm had "gutted it, reducing the number of units to 43 from 100."  The article added, "The building...will have a rooftop terrace and garden, and units ranging from one-bedrooms of 869 square feet to four-bedrooms of 2,837 square feet.  There will also be three duplex penthouses, starting at 3,202 square feet."

A month later, the newspaper reported, "The last of the sought-after trio of penthouse sponsor units at One Thirty West 12, the wildly popular (and sold-out) luxury condominium conversion...sold for $8,422,899, the most expensive sale of the week."  The buyer wished to remain nameless, but the other two penthouse owners were Rosie O'Donnell (who beat out actress Cameron Diaz, according to The New York Times, for her unit), and fashion mogul Andrew Rosen.

many thanks to reader Lowell Cochran for suggesting this post
photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to LaptrinhX.com

Friday, March 1, 2024

The New York Mills Building - 458 Greenwich Street


In the mid-1860s, the two-and-a-half-story Federal style house at 458 Greenwich Street was home to the Bailey family.  At the time, commerce had already been invading the neighborhood for years.  On April 1, 1873, Isaac Dixon purchased the 25-foot-wide property for $16,000 (just over $400,000 in 2024).  Two decades later, he testified, "There was an old dwelling-house on it when I bought it."

Dixon owned a coffee and spice business, the New York Mills.  Initially, he ran it from the former residence.  In February 1874, he hired builder Peter McManus to make "front and interior alterations" to the building; and in 1880 he added an extension to the rear.

The success of the New York Mills was such that in 1883 Dixon demolished the old structure and hired architect James S. Wightman to design what his plans described as a "five-story brick and Ohio stone trimmed warehouse" on the site.  Wightman clad his neo-Grec style structure in red brick above the cast iron storefront.  Each of the identical floors included recessed, vertical panels between the openings and horizonal panels between floors.  Stone bandcourses connected the sills and a single lintel with delicate, incised carved vines served all four windows on each floor.  

The neo-Grec style forewent the curvy Italianate decorations in favor of more geometric lines, and Wightman pulled out the stops with his cornice.  It rested upon brick, stair-stepped corbels atop a row of saw-tooth brick.  Between each bracket were recessed panels below brick dentils.  

Despite occupying the entire building, Dixon ran his operation with a bare-bones staff.  In 1895, he employed just six men who worked 59 hours per week.  The ground floor held the firm's office which was "visited from time to time for the purposes of placing or removing merchandise," according to the Board of Standards.  The fifth floor was used for coffee roasting, and the second through fourth were used for storage of coffee and spices.  In 1901, the New York Mills still operated successfully with the same number of employees.

Isaac Dixon died in 1897 and his widow Agnes transferred title to the building to Frederick J. Dixon (presumably a son), who took over the business.  While coffee and spices were the company's mainstay, a mention in The Spice Mill in April 1910 noted that the "New York Mills, 458 Greenwich street, New York, also roast wheat, etc., besides coffee."

An ad shows that the building originally had a triangular pediment on the roof.  The Brewers' Journal, October 1, 1915 (copyright expired).

The firm remained at 458 Greenwich Street until around 1931 when it moved a block to the south.  It was replaced by the Fred W. Lange Trucking Co., which altered the ground floor by adding a loading platform in the southern bay.  It was apparently at this time that the pediment was removed from the roof.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Tribeca district saw striking changes in the last decades of the 20th century, as industrial tenants were replaced by galleries, restaurants and residences.  The lofts at 458 Greenwich Street were among the earliest to be unofficially renovated for residential use.   Living here in the early 1970s was C. John Kingston and his wife, the former Emily Rutgers Fuller.  He was a vice president of the S. D. Fuller & Co. investment firm.

The ground floor where the Fred W. Lange Trucking Co. had loaded and unloaded freight, became a Closet King store in the 1980s.   An official renovation of the upper floors to apartments--one per floor--was completed in 2001.  The transformation of 458 Greenwich Street into a trendy Tribeca spot was complete in 2006 when the Mediterranean restaurant Turks & Frogs Tribeca opened.  It was described by The New York Times food critique Florence Fabricant as "an antiques shop and wine bar."  In 2009, Inside New York reported it was now "a full-fledged restaurant."

The eatery remained until 2013 when it was replaced by The Greek, which Florence Fabricant said was "a gastro-taverna offering dishes from northern Greece."  It remains in the space.

photographs by the author
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Thursday, February 29, 2024

The 1926 Ritz Tower - 465 Park Avenue


photo by the author

In 1920, newspaper columnist and editor Arthur Brisbane purchased his first property on Park Avenue near 57th Street.  Little by little over the next four years, he quietly bought up former mansions, assembling a significant corner site.  Brisbane had worked for William Randolph Hearst since 1897.  The publishing mogul had been developing Manhattan real estate for years, and now Brisbane followed his lead.  In 1925, he broke ground for a high-class residential hotel, The Ritz Tower, designed by architect Emery Roth.  (Roth brought in Thomas Hastings, formerly of Carrère and Hastings, to collaborate after his preliminary designs were completed.)

Construction had barely started when Brisbane began marketing his building.  An advertisement in The Spur on September 1, 1925 said in part:

The Ritz Tower, when it is completed in the Summer of 1926, will be forty stories in height, containing four hundred rooms.  It will embody the last word in architecture, in construction and in appointments.

The ad predicted The Ritz Tower would be "The largest and most perfectly appointed Apartment Hotel in the world."

On November 17, 1926, The New York Times reported, "The Ritz Tower, the new forty-story apartment hotel at Park Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, was formally opened last night with a dinner.  The hotel is under the management of the Ritz-Carlton Restaurant and Hotel Company, and with the exception of two floors which will be reserved for transient guests, the building is devoted to apartments which are leased for extended periods."

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

Brisbane had created what The Edison Monthly called "the tallest apartment house in the world."  Costing him $6 million to construct (closer to $100 million in 2024), its Italian Renaissance design included a three-story limestone base designed by Hastings.  The beige brick-clad upper floors were almost entirely Roth's design.  The slender profile with subtle setbacks was described by Arthur T. North, writing in The Western Architect, as "skypuncture" architecture.

Critic Fiske Kimball approved of the silhouette, writing, "The Ritz Tower shoots upward like a slender arrow.  On one of the most valuable sites in the world, its area has been voluntarily constructed immediately above the ground stories with a preference for going high rather than spreading out."  Writing in Buildings and Building Management on June 21, 1926, Emery Roth noted, "In the design, the rather narrow plot one way was utilized to advantage architecturally in producing a distinct tower effect in sixteenth century period architecture."

While most critics applauded the design, one was notably less impressed.  Arthur T. North felt the tower "approaches the stage of painful attenuation."  He diplomatically added, "Perhaps the architect is not altogether at fault; the owner might have had ideas of his own.  We are told that the owner, Arthur Brisbane, whose writings we religiously avoid reading, has ideas and opinion on every subject and thing in the Universe."  He compared the obelisks on the setbacks to gravestones, adding, "What do gravestones think of being hoisted heavenward and placed on parapet and crest?"

The Edison Monthly explained, "On the ground floor, besides the bank space and several shops, are the main entrance halls, a tea room and a restaurant.  The promenade from Park Avenue is handsomely finished in French walnut, with a roman travertine floor and a ceiling of ornamental plaster in Italian Renaissance design."  A second "promenade" from 57th Street was "Pompeiian" in design, with bronze and crystal chandeliers.

The Edison Monthly, March 1927 

Because The Ritz Tower was a residential hotel, there were no kitchens in the suites.  Tenants could take their meals in the residents' dining room, or have them delivered via heated dumb waiters to the service pantries (which were "connected with automatic refrigeration," according to Roth).

Roth described the residents' dining room as "high-ceilinged--a formal room, executed in the French period, with soft tints of burnished gold.  The room has large wall mirrors and rare tapestry.  Large crystal fixtures add to the air of formal elegance which forms the dominating note."

Residents dined within a decidedly French atmosphere.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

There were also a tea room on the ground floor and a grill room in the basement level.

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

The Grill, The Edison Monthly, March 1927 

Emery Roth wrote that the "living rooms, libraries, dining rooms, chambers and halls in the suites have parquet floors, laid in fire-proofed red oak." 

Arthur Brisbane had reserved the 19th and 20th floors for his own 18-room duplex apartment.  Unlike the other apartments in the building, this one had a full kitchen and servants' rooms.  (Because The Ritz Tower was a residential hotel, the other residents did not need staff.)  He enjoyed three terraces, a leaded glass solarium and Renaissance palazzo décor.

Not long after opening, The Ritz Tower had unwanted publicity.  Among the initial residents was Captain Alfred Graham Miles.  He was recently divorced from Clover Louise Boldt, whose father had owned the Waldorf-Astoria.  On November 5, 1927, Miles returned home to find the locks had been changed on his apartment.  The New York Times reported, "He asked the manager why this had been done and was told that he was no longer wanted as a tenant."  (Further investigation by the newspaper revealed that he owed $759 in back rent and "was responsible for numerous unpleasant and disagreeable incidents about the hotel.")

Buildings and Building Management, June 21, 1926

Miles convinced his next-door neighbor to allow him to use his apartment to access the window ledge.  He then crawled along the ledge and into his own suite.  Certain that if he left his apartment he would never be allowed to return, he barricaded himself inside.  Eleven days later, The New York Times reported that his attorney, Aaron H. Kaufman, "has been acting as the Captain's Quartermaster Corps, bringing apples, sandwiches and other food to the beleaguered garrison."  In the meantime, Kaufman had initiated a $250,000 suit for damages for his client.

The hotel's attorney told The New York Times, "At all times he has been at liberty to leave, and the hotel has been willing to have him leave.  In fact, so eager is the hotel in the latter respect that it would gladly waive any indebtedness that may be charged against him."  Miles was unmoved.  On November 23, the newspaper titled an article "Siege Still On, Says Miles / Ritz Tower 'Prisoner' Says He Will Stay and Press Damage Suit."

Miles finally left on November 25, but the incident would not be over for years.  On August 3, 1929, The Ritz Tower, Inc. answered his suit--now for $50,000--which asserted "the manager of the hotel insulted him in the presence of guests," and cut off his mail and telephone delivery.  The Ritz's attorneys countered that his services were discontinued because he had not paid his rent and was no longer a tenant.

In the meantime, an impressive list of residents took apartments.  On May 29, 1928, for instance, The New York Times reported that Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., had leased the 37th floor.  "The apartment consists of four rooms and occupies the entire floor," said the article.

Hays was not the only tenant involved in the entertainment industry.  Actress Greta Garbo was an early resident, followed by Paulette Goddard, Deborah Kerr, and Kitty Carlisle.  

Unfortunately for Arthur Brisbane, his $4 million mortgage proved impossible to manage and on January 17, 1928 The New York Times reported that he had sold The Ritz Tower to his close friend and employer, William Randolph Hearst.  Taking an apartment in the building now owned by his father was George Hearst and his wife, the former Blanche Wilbur.

By now, William Randolph Hearst and his wife, Millicent, were living separately.  (Hearst was carrying on an open affair with motion picture actress Marion Davies.)  Nevertheless, Millicent occasionally took advantage of her husband's property.  On April 16, 1931, for instance, The New York Times reported, "Mrs. William Randolph Hearst gave a supper-party last night at the Ritz Tower for the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, who are on a brief visit here.  The rooms given over to the entertainment were decorated with Spring flowers."  Included on the extensive guests lists were society names like the Vincent Astors and Hermann Oelrichs, along with titled guests like Countess di Zoppola, Countess de Malroy, and Prince Serge Obolensky.

On the morning of August 1, 1932, a fire broke out in the basement.  About 30 fire fighters were "groping through the smoke-filled subcellar," as reported by The New York Times, when paint fumes in the cellar ignited, resulting in an immense explosion.  Two fire fighters were killed instantly.  "As survivors, shaken and bewildered, choked by the fumes and with blood streaming from cut hands and faces, tried to drag the dead and dying up stairways and ladders to the street, a second blast occurred," said the article.

The brick walls of the sub-basement were blown apart, the hotel switchboard was "wrecked," as worded by The New York Times, and electricity in the building was knocked out.  On the ground floor were the Double-Day Doran bookshop and the Thomas Kirkpatrick, Inc. jewelry store.  When the blast occurred, the plate glass window of Thomas Kirkpatrick was blown out, spewing $100,000 worth of jewelry onto the sidewalk and street.  The only customer in the Double-Day Doran bookshop fell behind a heavy chair, which prevented a portion of the ceiling that collapsed from injuring her.

Chaos reigned outside the blast area.  The New York Times, August 2, 1932

Pedestrians were thrown into the street or knocked to the sidewalk.  Residents on the upper floors, whose apartments had been rocked by the explosion, were trapped with no elevator nor telephone service.

Although the three clerks in the jewelry store were cut and bruised, they rushed to the street to gather up the jewelry (including a $65,000 emerald ring),  Passersby assisted them in sorting through the rubble.  All the items were recovered and taken to the bank across the street.  The blast initially killed seven fire fighters, and injured dozens of civilians and fire fighters.  An eighth firefighter, Edward R. Maloney, died at Bellevue Hospital on August 18.

The marriage of George and Blanche Hearst ended in divorce, with Blanche retaining the Ritz Tower apartment.  On the afternoon of March 31, 1934, it was the scene of Blanche's marriage to Cortlandt T. Hill.

The Ritz Tower continued to attract well-heeled tenants.  In November 1942, Benjamin F. Fairless, president of the United State Steel Corporation took an apartment, for instance.  And James Seligman of the famous banking family lived here at the time.

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

Living here in 1949 were Mr. and Mrs. Barry Thomson.  Mrs. Thomson was better known as the stage and screen actress Ruth Chatterton.  The celebrity broke the hotel's rules by sneaking in a hotplate and cooking in her apartment.  The aromas caught the attention of another resident, Wallace C. Strauss, who sued in March that year.  His complaint was not about the threat of fire, but of the "noxious odors."

On March 18, The New York Times said, "The odors that proved so noxious to the guests of the Ritz Towers Hotel have ceased and Ruth Chatterton, former star of 'Come Out the Kitchen,' who caused all the fuss, will come out the kitchen and stay out the kitchen."

In December 1955, The Ritz Tower was converted to cooperative apartments.  The hotel amenities, however, were retained.  Three decades later, on August 28, 1985, The New York Times noted, "When the Ritz Tower opened in 1956 [as co-ops], it provided room service and maids who changed the sheets and put out soap daily, and it still does."

Actor, director and producer Martin Gable and his actress wife Arlene Francis moved in around 1959.  They left their former Manhattan apartment, according to Francis, after "she was thrown out of her own kitchen by her cook."  The New York Times reported, "Mr. Gabel happily went along with the suggestion to try hotel life."

Tragedy occurred on June 23, 1960.  The Gabels were not home that afternoon when a dumbbell that had been propping open a window fell from their eighth floor apartment.  Alvin Rodecker, a visitor from Detroit, had been celebrating his 60th birthday with his wife in the Le Pavillon restaurant on the ground floor.  As they stepped out of the restaurant, the dumbbell fatally hit Rodecker on the head.  The Gabels later paid $185,000 in damages.

Among the Gabels neighbors in the building were radio personalities Goodman and Jane Ace.  During the 1930s and '40s their radio program Easy Aces kept audiences howling at Jane's famous malapropisms like "you could have knocked me down with a fender," and "The Ten Amendments."  

Among the Aces' visitors was playwright Neal Simon, who, after his visit, reportedly vowed to live in The Ritz Tower someday.  In the 1980s, he and his wife Marsha Mason moved in.  Other celebrated tenants have been fashion designer Valentino, author Elinor Glyn, and socialite Amalie Baruch Banks.

photo by Epicgenius

On September 16, 1984, The New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger countered Arthur T. North's assessment of the upper portion's "painful attenuation."  He described the "rich, rusticated limestone base on which was set a gracious and elegant tower, its setback profile a lively element on the skyline."

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