Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Joseph S Frelinghuysen House - 45 East 68th Street

The family of General Thomas H. Barber had lived in the old brownstone rowhouse at No. 45 East 68th Street for years when, following his death in 1910, the house was sold by his estate.  On January 18, 1911 The New York Times announced the buyer was State Senator Joseph S Frelinghuysen.

Frelinghuysen and his wife, the former Emily Macy Brewster, hired esteemed architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design a modern home on the site of the outdated Victorian.  The New York Times announced on March 14 that the 25-foot wide home "will be of the American basement type, five stories in height, thoroughly equipped with all the modern conveniences of first-class residences."

The completed structure cost $45,000--or about $1.2 million today.  Gilbert had turned away from the Beaux Arts confections he had designed for millionaires a decade earlier; creating instead a placid neo-Federal mansion.  Above the rusticated stone base a building-wide balconette fronted a trio of French windows, their stone tympani decorated with gloriously carved urns, roses and swirling ribbons.  The red field of the Flemish-bond brickwork was enlivened with beige colored headers.

Stone and iron balconettes graced the third floor French windows which, like those directly above, wore paneled stone lintels and splayed keystones.  Above the bracketed cornice a formal balustrade completed the Federal design.

The rooftop balustrade, seen here at the left in 1944, has been sadly lost.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Frelinghuysen had been elected to the Senate in 1905 and was elected its president in 1909.  He and Emily had two daughters, Victoria and Emily.  Not long after moving into their new home, a son, Joseph Jr. was born.

The family would not enjoy the 68th Street house for long.  In 1916 Frelinghuysen was elected to the United States Senate, prompting a move to Washington D. C.   On January 27, 1917 The Sun noted "William H. Porter of J. P. Morgan & Co. is negotiating for the purchase of the Frelinghuysen dwelling" and noted that it "is valued at more than $200,000."  The dollar figure agreed upon in the deal was kept private; and on February 5 title was transferred to Porter's wife, the former Esther Jackson.

The Porters had two children, Helen and James.  Their country estate, Bogheid, was in Glen Cove, Long Island.  It was there, on September 29 the same year the Porters bought the 68th Street house, that Helen married Richard L. Davisson.  The New York Times noted "The ceremony was performed in the sunken garden of the estate, which lies in front of the house."  The choir from the Cathedral of the Incarnation provided the music.

Helen's brother was not present.  In April that year the United States had entered World War I and James went off to fight in France.  He would never return.  A captain in the Army, he was killed in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne in the fall of 1918 while commanding a machine gun unit.

Although William H. Porter had grown up in comfortable surroundings, he was essentially a self-made man.  Born in 1861 in Middlebury, Vermont, he had been educated at the Middlebury Academy.  At just 17 years old he left home for New York City, intent on being a banker.  Decades later The New York Times remarked "he knew just what he wanted to do and his procedure showed that he also knew how to go about doing it."  He got a job with the Fifth Avenue Bank, well known as a "training bank."  There he worked in every department of the bank, learning the trade thoroughly.

Throughout the years he had held numerous high-powered banking jobs, finally becoming a partner in J. P. Morgan & Co. on New Year's Day 1911.  This accumulated wealth was evidenced in his exclusive club memberships--the Metropolitan, the Century, Union League, Piping Rock and the New York Yacht Clubs.  Now empty-nesters, he and Esther not only divided their time between the Glen Cove and Manhattan homes; but at fashionable resorts.  On March 22, 1920, for instance, The Times reported that they "have arrived for their customary early spring visit" to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

On November 30, 1926 William and Esther went on a drive.  When they reached Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, they decided to take a stroll.  The following day The Times reported "They had been motoring and had alighted from their car on the avenue to take a short walk.  After proceeding a few steps Mr. Porter was suddenly sized with an acute attack of heart disease, fell to the sidewalk and died almost immediately."

While Esther received about one-half of his $11 million estate, as well as "the pictures, library, silver and plate, furniture, automobiles, horses and carriages."  Helen received a $500,000 trust fund and her two children were provided $100,000 trust funds each.

Helen's marriage was soon in trouble.  She obtained a divorce from her husband on September 15, 1927.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Paul Pryibil divorced his wife five months later.  That match had been an unlikely one from the beginning.  Pryibil was earning $15 per week as a clerk when he married heiress Edmee Eloise Schaefer, who had inherited $11 million from the estate of her father, Rudolph Jay Schaefer.  In his divorce application, he claimed he "had tired of being supported by a wealthy woman whose interests in life centered on her apparel."

Not wanting to be supported by a wealthy woman did not stop him from marrying Helen Porter Davisson eight months later.  After a civil ceremony in Palm Beach, they had a religious ceremony in the East 68th Street house.  Nevertheless the entire affair was kept quiet.

Helen's mansion was just a block away from her mother's, at No. 25 East 69th Street.  On October 12, The New York Times reported "Mr. and Mrs. Pryibil left the East Sixty-ninth Street address at 4 o'clock, accompanied by a friend, and were driven to the Porter home where the religious ceremony was performed at 4:30."  The newspaper said that Helen's "second marriage will come as a surprise to society, which did not learn until last week that she had obtained a decree of divorce from Mr. Davisson."

Esther Porter may not have entirely given her blessings to the marriage.  The newspaper said "at the home of the bride's mother it was denied that the marriage had taken place."

Esther filled her time with philanthropies.  For over 15 years she served as treasurer of the Kittredge Club for Girls, which aided young business women; and in 1920 helped found the club's summer camp.  In the spring of 1934 she contracted influenza which, coupled with heart disease, proved fatal.  She died in the 68th Street house on May 24.

No. 45 was leased for more than a decade.  A long-term tenant was attorney John Gerdes and his family.  The senior member of Gerdes & Montgomery, he was appointed additionally as legal counsel to New York University in April 1940.  The Gerdes summer home was in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

The first of the Gerdes' two daughters to marry was Margery, who wed Army Lt. Dudley Livingston Miller on June 9, 1943.  Her sister, Janet, was her attendant.

In 1951 the house was sold to Michel Porges; who resold it two years later to Richard Tompkins Kollmar and his wife, Dorothy Kilgallen.  Although Kollmar was well-known as a stage, radio and television actor and producer; his fame was overshadowed by his television celebrity and columnist wife, whom he met while he was performing in the Broadway play Too Many Girls.

Dorothy's father, James L. Kilgallen, was a journalist with the International News Service.  During her freshman year at the College of New Rochelle, she took a summer job as a cub reporter with The New York Evening Journal.  But when her story about a hospitalized child earned her a by-line, she was hooked on journalism and by the time she was 20 her name was familiar to readers of that newspaper.

Her newspaper sent her on a round-the-world flight in 1936 in a competition with other papers.  The reporters used commercial flights, and Dorothy's 24-day excursion came in second to H. R. Ekins's 18-day trip.  It nevertheless gained the female reporter enormous publicity.  Her "The Voice of Broadway" column broke ground as theatrical critics up to then were exclusively male.

Since 1945 Dorothy and Richard had aired a radio program, "Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick," during which they chatted informally about family incidents, social engagements and such.  When they moved into No. 45 East 68th Street, they continued the program from the house.  While the clatter of dishes and the clink of silverware gave listeners the impression they were sitting at their breakfast table, it was in fact being broadcast from a studio on the fourth floor.  The show started each episode with "Good morning, darling--good morning, sweetie."

Dorothy and Dick at around the time they purchased the 68th Street house, from the Everett Collection via
Since 1949 Dorothy had been a regular panelist on the television quiz show "What's My Line?" making hers a household name.   And while she continued her somewhat gossipy columns like "Broadway Bulletin Board," she was a determined reporter who sometimes wove her own opinion into major news stories.

Such was the case in 1954 when she sat through the trial of Dr. Samuel Sheppard, the Cleveland osteopath who famously claimed a mysterious one-armed man, not he, had murdered his wife.  She strongly disagreed with the jury's guilty verdict, and the following day a banner headline on page 1 of the Hearst newspapers read "DOROTHY KILGALLEN SHOCKED!"  She maintained the prosecution's case had significant shortcomings.

It was rare that newspaper readers saw Dorothy referred to as Mrs. Richard Tompkins.  But such was the case in 1961 when she and Richard hosted daughter Jill Ellen's debutante supper dance in the St. Regis Roof; and on July 21, 1963 when society columnists reported on her wedding to Lawrence A. Grossman.  The New York Times made no mention of her famous mother, but added "She is a great-great-granddaughter of Daniel D. Tompkins, who was Governor of New York and Vice President under President James Monroe."

To this day there are those who believe that Dorothy's outspoken and sometimes controversial editorializing ended in her death.

In 1964 she interviewed Jack Ruby inside the Dallas courthouse where he was being tried for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald.  She never revealed what the two discussed.  Then she angered officials of the Warren Commission when she obtained a copy of his testimony and published it.

She deemed the Commission's conclusion that Oswald had acted alone "laughable" and continued her own investigation, compiling a mass of evidence, notes and interviews that she carefully guarded.

On the night of November 8, 1965 Kilgallen appeared on "What's My Line?" (incidentally correctly identifying the occupation of a contestant, a female dynamite merchant) and then returned home.  After writing her next day's column and sending it by messenger to The New York Journal-American, she went to bed.

The following afternoon at around 12:45 her hairdresser arrived for a scheduled appointment.  She found the 52-year-old Dorothy dead.  The Times reported "Miss Kilgallen's husband, Richard Kollmar, a former actor and producer, and their youngest child, Kerry Allen, 12, were asleep in other rooms when she died."  Strikingly missing was the entire file of her investigation into the assassination.

On November 11, the day before her funeral, an estimated 10,000 people filed past her mahogany coffin in the Abbey Funeral Home.  The following morning it was carried across the street to the St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church on Lexington Avenue at 66th Street.   Inside were 2,000 mourners, while another 1,000 packed the avenue.   The church was packed with famous names from the various media.  Honorary pallbearers included John Daly, Mark Goodson, and William Randolph Hearst.  Among the mourners were Ed Sullivan, Elaine Stritch, Allen Ludden, Jessica Dragonette, jazz pianist Bobby Short and former Postmaster General James A. Farley.  The New York Times made passing mention that dress designer Anne Fogarty was there.

Two years later, on June 22, 1967 the same newspaper announced "Anne Fogarty, the fashion designer, was married last evening to Richard Tompkins Kollmar, radio personality, former actor and now owner of Richard Kollmar's Pastiche Inc. dealers in baroque and whimsical art."  The newlyweds remained in the 68th Street house, and the fourth floor space where "Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick" had been aired, became Anne's design studio.

Richard died of a heart attack in the house in January 1971 at the age of 60.  His funeral was held in the St. Vincent Ferrer Church, where Dorothy's had been held six years earlier, on January 9.

Although No. 45 remained a single-family home, a doctor's office was installed in the ground floor two years later.  Today, while there are five apartments inside, the exterior of C. P. H. Gilbert's dignified neo-Federal residences is nearly unchanged.  Also unchanged is the speculation that continues to whirl around what many consider the mysterious death of Dorothy Kilgallen.

photographs by the author

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Dominick Neusch House - 15 Commerce Street

The cast iron areaway railing was updated in the 1840's or '50's with an anthemion-themed Greek Revival design.
Perhaps no one was more involved in Greenwich Village's building boom of the 1820's than Charles Oakley.  He constructed dozens of houses and shops, including a row of four Late Federal-style homes at Nos. 9 through 15 Commerce Street in 1826.  Two and a half stories tall and 21-feet wide, they featured brownstone stoops above English basements and graceful but unpretentious decorative details.

The openings wore simple brownstone sills and lintels.  The entrance of No. 15 featured paneled pilasters and narrow sidelights.  One or two dormers would have originally pierced the slightly-peaked roof.

Susan Henshaw lived at No. 15 by 1834.  The widow of William H. Henshaw, she would be the first of several widows to occupy the house.   She died on February 25, 1844 at the age of 75.  Interestingly, there was no mention in local newspapers of a funeral.  Instead, the New-York Daily Tribune said only "Her remains will be taken to Greenwood Cemetery for interment this (Tuesday) afternoon at 3 o'clock, from her late residence No. 15 Commerce street."

The next occupant was William F. Godfrey.  A city employee, he had the title of Superintendent of Carts.  He was, as well, highly involved in local politics and in 1853 was chairman of the 9th Ward 22nd Council District.  He held a meeting in the house on October 19 that year to nominate Aaron L. Deveau for the office of district councilman.

It was probably the last gathering in the Godfrey parlors.  A week earlier he had placed an advertisement in The New York Herald that read "A piano for sale--A very fine toned instrument, 6-3/4 octaves compass, rosewood case, with round corners, almost new."  The ad explained that the owner was moving and asked $175 for the instrument.  It hinted at the Godfreys' high-end furnishings, the price equal to about $5,730 today.

Another widow moved into No. 15.  As was common, she garnered extra money by renting out a room.  On June 28, 1859 she advertised "A young American widow, without family, will let a furnished room to a gentleman and lady, without board or with board for lady only, or would accommodate one young lady."

It would appear her tenant opted for board, because three months later an advertisement sought "An intelligent Protestant woman (widow preferred) to do the general housework" and stressed the applicant "must be a good plain cook and first rate washer."  Meals were the only amenity the boarder would received.  The ad mentioned that the applicant would have "only one to wash for."

In March 1861 she was looking for a new boarder.  "A young American widow, living alone and having more room than she requires, would let one Room or a Parlor and Bedroom, with breakfast if desired.  House neat and location convenient."

Whether the young widow remarried soon after that ad, or if the house was rented to Louise Mortimer is unclear.  In either case the Civil War would upend her domestic stability after her husband went off to fight, ending her income.  She looked for a job in January 1862 as she prepared to give up the Commerce Street house.

"A lady, who is about breaking up housekeeping and whose husband is at the seat of war, would like to procure a situation as housekeeper in a gentleman's family; widower or bachelor preferred."

A subsequent advertisement only three months later revealed that Louise had received tragic news.  "House wanted by a widow, without children."

The entrance is an understated example of the late Federal style.
Around the end of the war the house was procured by real estate operator John McClelland.   Following his death his estate sold the property on April 3, 1875 to Dominick Neusch.  He paid the equivalent of $132,000 today.  Exactly one week later he filed plans to alter the dwelling.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on April 10 that he had hired builders Steel & McLaughlin to add a full third story to the house.  The alterations cost him $650, or about $15,000 today.  The seamless addition copied the lower openings and featured an up-to-date Italianate cornice.

It may have been that John Laird was leasing the house when Neusch purchased it.  In any event, his family was living here on April 17, 1876 when his widowed mother died.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.

Before long, however, the Neusch family had moved in, including daughters Magdalena and Emma.  Dominick Neusch died in the house on New Year's Day, 1904 at the age of 77.  The house was left to his unmarried daughters.  Magdalena and Emma were still living here at late as 1917.

By the early 1920's Anthony DeVola leased the house from the Neusch family.  In March 1922 he rented a room to Salatil S. Gupge.  The 29-year old had left his native India about eight years earlier to pursue his education.  He had been studying at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

The New York Times would later remark "Gupge, always well dressed and polished of manner, became a part of the home life of the DeVola's.  Much of his time he spent in his room perusing books of a philosophical and religious nature.  He seldom sought the companionship of women, though he was courteous and conversational whenever he came in contact with them."

Gupge's father. Sirnker Sitarus, was chief engineer in the town of Kholatur, near Bombay.  The family was "distinguished" in the community.  Gupge did not take his father's surname according to Hindu custom.

At around 11 on the morning of July 30, 1922, Gupge had not come down for breakfast.  DeVola went to check on him and smelled gas while going up the stairs.  The Times reported "His knock failed to bring a reply.  DeVola broke in the door and found the young student fully clothed on the bed, with the windows closed and two gas jets open."

DeVola turned off the gas and opened the windows, and then tried to rouse Gupge while his son ran for a policeman.  When an ambulance from St. Vincent's Hospital arrived, Gupge was pronounced dead.

Newspapers continually described Gupge as a "Hindu" and The New York Herald went even further by saying "a Hindu student of motion picture photography was found dead in bed yesterday in his room in a Hindu rooming house at 15 Commerce street."

An Urbana, Illinois newspaper was not glowing in its recollections of the dead man.  "He was not a brilliant scholar, but was considered a 'plodder,' somewhat handicapped by his lack of knowledge of this country.  There was nothing in his career here out of the ordinary.  He was not known to have any women friends and had very few friends among the male students."

A number of sealed letters, apparently written just before his death, were turned over to the police, who deemed it a suicide.  Others were not so sure.  The New York Herald reported "Anthony De Vala [sic]...and Hindu friends of the dead man expressed the belief that it was an accident, as the jet was not turned on fully."

The Commerce Street block saw an unusual amount of foot traffic the following day.  The New York Times reported on July 31, "The prominence of Gupge...among his own people was attested by the number of Hindu residents of the city who filed into the rooming house throughout the day and discussed the young man's death."

The last of the Neusch descendants to own No. 15 were Mrs. Beulah R. Morse and Mrs. Ida C. Nehb.  On May 13, 1946 The Times reported "A dwelling in Greenwich Village that had been in the family of the sellers for seventy-two years passed to new hands."  The women had sold it in an all-cash deal to "an investor."

Other than updating the plumbing that year, the new owner did not make any significant changes to the old house.  One of the two renovations in 1953 and 1968 included the stuccoing of the facade.  A gut renovation was begun in 2013 which resulted in what a realtor calls "a stylish, light and open plan."  No trace of the historic interiors remain.

photographs via DouglasElliman. com
photographs by the author

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Morrison & Boinest Co. Bldg - 413 Greenwich Street

As late as 1883 J. A. Pilkington operated his saloon from the old two-and-a-half story converted house on the southeast corner of Greenwich and Hubert Streets.  But the Tribeca neighborhood had been undergoing change for two decades and that Federal-style house was soon to go.

On February 16, 1889 Architecture & Building reported that A. A. Shaw had hired architect William B. Pope to replace the vintage structure with a five-story "brick store" to cost $25,000--just under $690,000 today.  Shaw was a minor operator in real estate circles, his name only occasionally appearing in the journals.

Completed later that same year, No. 413 Greenwich Street was unapologetically utilitarian.  Pope spent no unnecessary money on embellishments and focused on the functionality of his structure.  Nevertheless, the cast iron storefront, the dignified bracketed cornice and the contrast of red brick and stone created an attractive building.

Shaw put the title of the property into his wife's name.  So when renovations were necessary in September 1890, only a few months after the building was completed, the plans listed "Mrs. A. A. Shaw" as owner.  Pope was brought to install "new elevator shaft, elevator, and boiler."  It was a pricey upgrade--more than $97,000 today.

No. 413 got an unglamorous start.  For about a decade it was used as a carpet storage facility.  Next door at Nos. 407-411 was the W. & J. Sloane Company, one of the country's preeminent carpet manufacturers.

That all changed in 1901 when William J. Morrison and Walter B. Boinest formed the Morrison & Boinest Co.  The pair had been employed for years by Frederick Akers, the proprietor of New York's oldest and best known coffee roasting establishment.  Following Akers' death that year, they formed the new company to carry on the same type of business.

Morrison & Boinest Co. roasted imported coffee beans, and ground spices.  Interestingly, it did not involve itself in merchandising the products, providing the service instead for other firms.  A 1904 advertisement noted boldly "We Do Not Buy," "We Do Not Sell" The ad stressed "We Do Not Compete With Our Customers" adding "We Roast Coffee for the Trade Only."

As was customary in the early 20th century, the building's facade became a billboard of sorts.  Signage was painted across the brickwork that announced "Morrison & Boinest," "Coffee Roasting and Spice Grinding," and "For The Trade."  Ghosts of the signage survives.

The presence of moisture could have devastating consequences to freshly-ground coffee and spices.  In 1911 Morrison & Boinest had the "coffee warehouse" waterproofed by The Bitu-Mortar Company, manufacturers of "cement waterproofing."

It was not water, but fire that threatened the building in 1913.  At around 9:35 p.m. on February 10 fire was discovered on the third floor.  Before it was extinguished the firm suffered nearly $77,000 in losses by today's standards.

Four months later Walter B. Boinest resigned.  The industry journal Simmons' Spice Mill reported "On July 1 the partnership between Wm. J. Morrison and Walter B. Boinest, as Morrison &  Boinest, coffee roasters for the trade, 413 Greenwich St., New York, was dissolved by mutual consent, and the business is continued by Mr. Boinest under the old name."

The article explained that Boinest had stepped down "upon the advise of his physician.  He has been in poor health for fully a year."  Its writer added that Boinest was "one of the best liked men in the New York coffee business."

Although its clients probably saw no immediate change following Boinest's departure; William Morrison began to branch out.  He took on two new partners in 1916, M. W. Brown and J. A. Flagg, and incorporated as Morrison-Boinest Co., Inc.  The firm was now described as "planters, merchants and brokers in coffee, tea, cocoa, etc."  (Despite the legal name-change, the firm continued to operate as Morrison & Boinest Co.)

In the decades before sexual discrimination was an issue, Morrison & Boinest Co. hired only females in its packing department.  An advertisement on September 28, 1918 sought "Girls for Packing Coffee: Experience not necessary.  Hours 8 to 5; $10 start; half day Saturday."  The starting wages would be about $163 a week today.

Retirement apparently did not suit Walter B. Boinest.  The Iron Age announced on May 13, 1920 that he had partnered with P. J. Moe and K. Kiely to form The Dalyte Lamp Co. "to manufacture electric lamps, fixtures, etc."  The firm now shared space with Boinest's old firm in No. 413 Greenwich Street.

For nearly three decades the roasting kilns here had been fueled by smoke-belching coal.  In 1928 The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal announced that Morrison & Boinest had finally caught up with the times.  "One of the last wholesale roasting plants to employ coal fuel in New York City, has lately been torn out to make room for modern gas-fired roasters of the Jubilee Premix type.  The plant in question is that of Morrison & Boinest, situated at Greenwich and Hubert Streets."

Five years later Morrison & Boinest was gone, to be replaced, ironically, with a liquor firm.  Prohibition was officially repealed on December 5, 1933 and the Baltimore Club Distillers, Inc. was ready.  On November 17 The New York Times reported that firm had signed a long-term lease on the building.

Its occupancy would not be especially long, however.  By 1947 the Peerless Sample Card Co., Inc. and the Gander Printing Company were in the building.  The co-owners of Gander Printing were arrested on April 19 that year as part of what police called a massive "lottery ring" which took in $5 million a week.

The complex, illegal operation was based in Italy where the lotteries were drawn every Friday.  Saturday was "pay-off day," when the results were announced.  After weeks of investigation, the police had identified each of the locations where the winnings were distributed, and at 11:00 on that Saturday morning, 50 plainclothes officers "swooped down on earmarked establishments."  The article noted "In a raid on the Gander Printing Company at 413 Greenwich Street police took into custody seven men and confiscated 14,000 printed lottery results, plates and books."

In 1948 (possibly taking the space vacated by Gander Printing), Coignet Chemical Co., Inc. moved in.  Founded in the 1870's, it manufactured Coignet Gelatine, an emulsion used in photography.  It remained in the building at least through 1955, sharing space for part of that time with Stuart Aire, Inc., installers of air conditioning equipment,

The neighborhood after mid-century was dismal.  photograph by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The immediate neighborhood saw significant decline; yet the last decades of the 20th century saw change once again come to Tribeca.  It arrived at No. 413 Greenwich Street in the fall of 1972.  An advertisement in New York magazine on October 23 announced:

The Front Porch invites all our friends to join us at our new restaurant in the Butter and Egg District 413 Greenwich Street at the corner of Hubert Street...Meat pies and pastries for breakfast, our regular menu for lunch plus a Trucker's Special.

The "Trucker's Special" referenced the many trucking firms that still occupied the district.  A few months after the restaurant's opening New York magazine wrote "The new restaurant occupies the street-level floor of an old manufacturing plant.  The other floors are given over to a newly-equipped kitchen and bakery that produce soups, stews, breads and desserts."

photo by Bob Falter,
A series of restaurants would follow.  In 1983 Manhattan South opened.  Eight months later, on June 15, 1984, The New York Times food critic remarked that it "lends respect to that much-abused term 'home-style cooking.'"  Manhattan South was followed by Il Mattone Brick Oven & Grill, and finally by Sweetgreen Tribeca, which is still here.

As is the case with so many Tribeca factory buildings, the upper floors are now residential, with one apartment per floor.  And, somewhat miraculously, the signage of Morrison & Boinest Co. is still legible after nearly 120 years.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Noble Remnants - Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum - Amsterdam Ave and 112th Street

photo by Helena Kubicka de Braganca, via

When attorney John George Leake died on June 2, 1827 at the age of 75, he left a significant fortune (more than $9.75 million today).   With no children nor close relatives, Leake left the entire estate to Robert Watts, the son of his best friend, with the stipulation that the young man would change his surname to Leake.  He did so, but died intestate only a few months later.  The Leake inheritance now passed to Robert's father, John Watts, as next of kin.  However, given the circumstances, Watts was uncomfortable accepting the unintended windfall. 

Found among Leake's papers was an unsigned draft of an earlier will which left funds to create an orphanage.  John Watts was named in that draft as its administrator.  The courts granted Watts's petition to use Leake's estate to establish the institution, which was incorporated in 1831.

On January 16, 1838 the State Assembly unanimously pass a bill "to vest in the trustees of the Leake and Watt's Orphan House of New York, the escheated estate of Mr. Leake."   The state had liquidated 2,236 acres of Leake's real estate upstate, the $8,000 net (a little under a quarter of a million dollars today) being added to the coffers of the institution. 

According to the Morning Herald, during the process one Assemblyman, a Mr. Wardell, "showed himself the warm friend of the orphan and hoped that every man's feelings would prompt him to do at one an act of justice too long delayed."   He ended his speech saying "I am glad to see the Assembly awake to this subject.  Let it be our pride to verify the old Greek maxim: 'The Orphan--first and last in our hearts.'"

The trustees of the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum (or, sometimes, the Orphan House) chose Ithiel Town to design its facility, far north of the city in what was known as Manhattanville.  Among the preeminent architects of the period, Town was an early proponent of the Greek Revival style, as evidenced in his 1829 temple-like Church of the Ascension on Canal Street.

The grounds of the asylum engulfed 50-acres in the area that today would roughly be Amsterdam Avenue to Morningside Drive, and from 109th to 113th Street.  Even while the building rose, the orphanage began functioning.  Vegetable gardens not only taught boys important skills, but provided the institution with food.   The asylum's gardens got a surprise gift of fertilizer in November 1839.

In its meeting on November 18 the Board of Aldermen voted "In favor of giving 250 loads of street manure to the Leake and Watt Orphan Asylum."  It was, perhaps, not so gracious a gift as it might appear on the surface.  Thousands of horses filled New York City streets with manure, keeping cleaners busy all day, every day.  The Aldermen were no doubt happy to get rid of at least some of it.

The building was completed and formally opened in 1843.  Thiel had created a classic Greek temple faced in red brick, flanked by two projecting wings.  The monumental Ionic columns, which appeared to be marble, were in plaster-covered brick.  The majestic structure, which a traveler might mistake for a major civic building, commanded an imposing presence atop the hill in the rolling green countryside.

The resplendent structure appeared in a guidebook around 1861.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The dormitories were on the second and third floors.  Each bed in the second floor rooms were shared by two children.  "The others are not so greatly crowded," commented The Times.  The dining room was situated in one of the wings; school rooms were in another.  The facility admitted children between the ages of three and twelve only.

A one-line notice from Albany appeared in The New York Herald on March 21, 1847.  "The bill authorizing the Trustee of the Leaks and Watt Orphan House to bind out the orphans as apprentices in other States, was passed."  The innocuous-sounding practice would be heavily criticized decades later.

"Binding out" the boys was, in fact, indenturing them to farmers, factory owners, and the like.  Paid only in shelter and food, they were essentially slave workers.  While some boys were well taken care of a welcomed nearly as a family member; others were cruelly used.

Two weeks earlier the institution had proudly reported "There has been but one death in the Asylum during the last year."  That figure was, in fact, quite impressive among similar facilities in 1847.

Later that year President James K. Polk passed by the orphanage on his way to see the engineering marvel, the High Bridge aqueduct, which was nearing completion.  Word had reached the institution weeks earlier and the excited children were ready.  On June 27 a reporter  wrote "As we approached the Leake and Watts Orphan House, we observed about an hundred of the children, boys, awaiting our approach, and as the President's carriage came up, they raised their tiny voices in three cheers."   The President did not disappoint the boys.  He ordered his driver to stop, "and addressed a few words to them...and then we went again."

Eight years later 136 of the orphans got a special treat.  They went on what today would be termed a "field trip" to the nearly-opened Crystal Palace on the site of today's Bryant Park.  On September 25, 1855 the Crystal Palace was closed to the general public  A "special holiday" was held for 1,719 children from missions, orphanages, trade schools and similar institutions.  The New York Times reported "The Leake and Watts Orphans were nearly of a size--comely and well-behaved."

In 1892 the area around the former orphanage was still undeveloped.  The cross had been erected a year earlier when the Episcopal Church purchased the property.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1861 the orphanage was at the center of a horrifying tragedy and scandal.  In 1859 24-year old Mary Dunlop had arrived in New York from Scotland.  She was taken in by the family of her uncle, Hugh McAlpine, a blacksmith.  Six months later she was hired at the asylum as a seamstress, and, according to The New York Times, "her character for virtue does not seem to have been questioned."

On Friday, September 6, 1861 Mary fell ill.  After being sick for a few days, she confided in a co-worker that all was not well at home.  The Times said "she made confessions to one of her associates, charging her uncle with having abused her and caused her ruin."  Hugh McAlpine had not only sexually assaulted her, he had impregnated her.

Mary's sickness was the result of an attempted abortion.  The New-York Daily Tribune later reported "Mrs. Guest testified that she, having heard what was wrong with the girl, determined that she must leave the [asylum], and advised her to go to the Bellevue Hospital, but she preferred to go home to her uncle's house."   Mary died there on September 15.

The family made rapid preparations for a funeral to be held the following morning but officials stepped in.  "Just prior to the removal of the remains, some members of the Police took charge of them, by order of Coroner Schirmer," reported The Times.  Everyone involved scrambled to clear his name.

Dr. Norval, who had attended Mary in the Hudson Street house, had listed the cause of death as "disease of the heart," although the coroner's examiner "found undoubted evidence that death had resulted from the cause stated," reported The New York Times, delicately avoiding the term "abortion."

At the coroner's inquest Mary's co-workers told everything they knew about sordid circumstances leading up to Mary's death.  Shockingly today, no one was held responsible.  The Times described McAlpine as "bearing a good reputation," and The New-York Daily Tribune reported "A strong effort was made by way of hearsay testimony, on the part of the Orphan School witnesses, to prove that the uncle of the deceased had seduced her, but there being no testimony bearing on the abortion, the Jury rendered the following verdict: 'Metro-peritonitis supervening upon abortion, induced in a manner unknown to this Jury.'"

Around 1869 the Asylum sold off a large part of its property, realizing $1 million in the sale, more than 18 times that much today.  Although it foreshadowed the development of Morningside Heights; there were still only three major structures in the area at the time.  As late as 1879 The Sun wrote "That large columned building on the heights at 110th street is the Leak [sic] & Watts Orphan Asylum.  North from it that spacious and well-preserved frame, buff-colored, old, but comely fashioned, is the 'De Puyster Mansion.'  Over the heights, at about 114th street, is a glimpse of the Bloomingdale Asylum."

photo by E. P. MacFarland, May 10, 1934, from the collection of the Library of Congress.
One of the indentured orphans was Charlie Harper.  He had been sent here by his relatives following his parents' death in the mid 1870's.  In August 1878 the asylum "bound him out to David Terry, a farmer at Southampton, Long Island," according to The New York Times.  But in December the 13-year old escaped, hopping a freight train back to the city.  He made his way back to the asylum, and hid in a barn.

"There he lay concealed for two weeks," reported The Times on January 25, "and was supplied with food by the other inmates of the institution.  This would not last long, however, and yesterday afternoon Charlie was handed over to Officer Connolly, who took him to the Harlem Police Court."

A glimmer of hope was sparked when Judge Bixby listened to the boy's story and seemed genuinely interested.  He asked Charlie if he had any relatives, and was told that he had an uncle and two sisters in New York City.  Bixby next asked if they "took any interest in his welfare."  Charlie admitted that he doubted they did.  It was not the answer the judge hoped for and the boy was, at least temporarily, jailed.  "The magistrate locked him up until he could have an opportunity of communicating with them."

When a scourge of typhoid fever broke out in the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in Washington Heights in the winter of 1879, the Sanitary Committee made an inspection of similar institutions.  They were not pleased with the results of their December 1 visit to the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum.  On one hand, the facility was well run; on the other, its outdated sanitary conditions were deplorable.

The New York Times reported "Only full orphans are admitted to its benefits and there are at the present time 160 children within its walls, all of them apparently well fed and cared for in every particular, save a sanitary one.  The Asylum having stood for twenty-seven years utterly lacks all the modern appliances for ventilation, sewerage, &c., and though it has a magnificent annual income, no effort has been made during those years to improve the sanitary condition of the place."

On each end of the building were two water closets for the little children.  The raw sewage emptied directly into the street.  The article explained "the urine and all the waste water of the house passes into a sink, or cistern, from which it soaks or escapes through a half-choked sewer to One Hundred and Tenth-street, and thence finds its way along the gutter down to the low ground at Eighth-avenue, where it becomes a stagnant pool, or else is gathered into the numerous shallow wells dug about there by the squatters."

Outhouses (or "night-soil closets") for the older orphans were no less offensive.  The Times said they were "of the rudest description--mere surface pits, half the time choked up...They are emptied about every two years, and the excrement made into compost for the adjoining gardens.  They were in a pretty bad condition yesterday, and the effluvia from the stream of sewerage on One Hundred and Tenth-street, was anything but pleasant."

As the city pushed northward in the 1880's it slowly engulfed the once-bucolic district, making it less agreeable as the site of an orphanage.  Simultaneously the Episcopal Church was searching for a site for its proposed cathedral--one that would outdo even the Catholic Church's majestic marble St. Patrick's Cathedral.  On October 15, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Church had made an "offer of purchase, more or less formal," for the orphanage land.

On April 22, 1888 the New-York Tribune wrote "Building a cathedral worthy of the site at Morningside Park, and worthy of the city as it will be fifty years from now, is a great project and the trustees are wisely anxious to do nothing in a hurry...The Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum will keep possession of the Morningside Park grounds until the summer of 1889."

The orphanage acquired 33 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Yonkers in 1888 and in 1891 the Episcopal Church purchased the Morningside Heights property for $850,000--about $23.6 million today.  The Real Estate Record & Guide pronounced it a "very low price" owing, in part to the trustees being "affiliated with the Episcopal Church."

Construction began on the massive Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, directly behind the orphanage structure.  Over the decades the cathedral grew, eventually butting up against the rear portico.
In October 1924 the wall of the Cathedral edged just feet away from the orphanage's rear portico. from the collection of the New York Public Library
As mid-century approached, it became evident to all that the 1843 structure sat directly in the path of construction.  In 1950 the east wing was demolished.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
On December 9, 2004 The New York Times architectural journalist David W. Dunlap called the former orphanage "a landmark in the way of a landmark" and noted "Wary that Leake & Watts would jeopardize their ability to build the south transept, cathedral officials once resisted any talk of preservation.  The columns, stucco over brick, crumbled.  Column capitals and other woodwork rotted away.  The roof leaked.  A lot."

The church was engaging in what preservationists call "demolition by neglect."  But then it changed its mind.  In 2006 it embarked on a $1.5 million restoration which was completed six years later.  Renamed the Town Building in honor of its architect, it currently houses the Cathedral's Textile Conservation Lab and its social service arm, Cathedral Community Cares.

Nevertheless, it does not have landmark designation and sits directly on the intended site of the South Transept.  And in speaking to David Dunlap in 2004 the cathedral dean, the Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski pointed out that "the investment in the Town Building does not signify a retreat from the hope that one day St. John will be completed."

In the meantime, the 175-year-old Greek temple nudges up against the Romanesque-Gothic behemoth; the two architectural masterworks coexisting as uneasy bedfellows.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Hotel Willard (aka Churchill) - 252 West 76th Street

By the turn of the last century architect Ralph S. Townsend had designed a wide variety of buildings--small flats, private homes and hotels (including the elegant Savoy Hotel on Fifth Avenue).   In 1902 he began work on an "apartment hotel" for developer Alexander McDowell on West 76th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.

Called the Hotel Willard, the 10-story structure was completed in 1903.  Faced in limestone and red brick, Townsend turned, not unexpectedly, to the Beaux Arts style, especially fashionable in apartments and hotels at the time.   A three story base of rusticated stone featured a bracketed balconette above the centered entrance.  Two smaller versions made their appearance at the fourth floor, fronting stone-framed openings with effusive pediments.  A pair of three-story angled bays sat upon ornately carved bowls.  Townsend frosted the facade with swags and festoons, lions' heads, and leafy stone brackets.  The mansard roof wore an ornate copper crown.

An early postcard reveals the stunning views that guests enjoyed above the still mostly low-level structures.  Close inspection reveals that the ninth floor cornice once had railings--originally a balcony.
The Hotel Willard offered accommodations to both permanent and transient guests.  They had their choice of either two rooms and a bath, or four rooms and two baths.  Transient rooms, or course, were furnished.  McDowell leased the Willard to hotelier Arthur T. Hardy, whose opening advertisement in November 1903 called it "The finest apartment hotel of the West End."

The ad boasted "The apartments are luxuriously furnished.  The rooms are large and sunny, and command extensive views of the Hudson from the upper floors."  Both permanent and transient tenants took their meals in the Willard's dining room, "conducted both on the American and European plans."

Annual leases were offered at $600 for the two-room apartments, and $1,600 for the larger suites.  (The rents were not cheap--the more expensive equaling about $3,400 per month today.)   The weekly rates for the unfurnished rooms were between $16 to $22 for the smaller suits, depending on the floor or view; and $40 to $50 for the larger.

An advertisement a month after the opening listed only one apartment still available.  Hardy noted "Cuisine and Service Calculated to Please the Most Fastidious" and promised that the "appointments and conveniences not excelled by any hotel on the West Side."

While the Hotel Willard did not offer the sprawling apartments of some other buildings, it nevertheless drew an upscale clientele.  Among the first to move in was Dr. Frederick S. Howard, a retired dentist and vice-president of the Fourteenth Street Bank.  The 61-year old was a charter member of the Colonial Club, the Upper West Side's exclusive men's social club.  Shockingly, only about two weeks after the Willard opened, he suffered a fatal heart attack in his apartment.

Arthur T. Hardy carefully chose his service staff.  He was especially impressed with the refined demeanor  of 25-year old applicant Agnes Pemberton.  Although he suspected she came from "a better family than her position would imply," he hired her as a chambermaid, hoping she would be a good influence on the other staff members.

Agnes started work on New Year's Day, 1904.  The New-York Tribune noted "She had a large quantity of clothing of fine material, most of it several seasons old.  Her manners were above reproach, and, although she did it faithfully, her work seemed foreign to her nature."  Agnes "held aloof from the other servants," but was friendly nonetheless.

Beginning the first week of April there were clues that Agnes was unhappy.  One day a maid admired her silk shirtwaist.  Agnes told her "I am going to leave all of my clothing to you girls when I go."  Servants later recalled that "she frequently commented on the easiest manner of death when reading stories of suicides in the newspapers."

On April 6 a wedding took place in the house directly across the street.  A few of the maids watched while the carriages came and went.  After it was over, Agnes said flatly, "Well, God bless them; I suppose they are happy now."  The New-York Tribune remarked "There was just the suspicion of a tear in her eye as she turned away, with the remark that she was going to her room."

Servants lived in the 10th floor mansard.  As she had indicated, Agnes went to her room.  It overlooked the back of the building, above the two-story extension where a stained glass dome illuminated the hotel's offices.  Half an hour later a porter named James was at work cleaning the dome when Agnes's body smashed onto it and landed at his side.

On April 7 the New-York Tribune reported "several guests whose rooms faced on the courtyard saw Miss Pemberton's body falling through the air.  It turned only once."  A clerk who heard the crash and ran to the second floor found the dazed porter "sitting on the dome and staring wildly at the form of the young woman."

The New York Times quoted Coroner Jackson. "I am very anxious to learn the actual identify of he young woman, for I firmly believe that she came from an excellent family.  From what I can learn, she was too dainty and refined for her position."  But her true identity was never discovered.  Investigators could find no trace of relatives.  As she had promised, her clothing and the $70 in her purse--around $2,000 today--were distributed among the other servants.

Although theatrical people were not welcomed in many parts of the city, such was not the case on the Upper West Side.  The Hotel Willard became home to several.  Among them was actress Maude Harrison, an early resident.

Maude Harrison was a favorite of American audiences for decades.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Maude was a New York City native, born in 1854.  She had long been popular with audiences and had created the part of Mrs. Brown in Bronson Howard's long-running 1878 play The Banker's Daughter.  For years she was a member of A. M. Palmer's Union Square Theatre Company and had played opposite stars like Richard Mansfield.

After a semi-retirement, Maude returned to the stage as a vaudeville actress in 1905.  In April 1907 the 53-year old actress mentioned to other guests that she had not been feeling well for several days.  A Christian Scientist, she refused to consult a doctor.   Then, on the morning of April 28 a maid found her unconscious on the floor of her apartment.  She died that afternoon without ever regaining consciousness.

Another well-known name in the theater living here at the time was Alice Nielsen along with her husband, Benjamin Nentwig.  An actress and singer, Alice's rise to fame was the stuff of fable.  As a child in Kansas City she sang on the street corner.  Wealthy meat packer Jakob Dold invited her to sing at his daughter's birthday party.  Dold was so pleased he sent her to the White House to represent Missouri at a musicale.  By 1900 at the age of 28 she was America's biggest box office draw.

Alice Nielsen - from the collection of the New York Public Library
In January 1911 two well dressed women checked into Suite 44.  The names they used were aliases.  They were, in fact, the notorious Poillon sisters, Katherine and Charlotte, who first attracted attention when Katherine sued W. Gould Brokaw for $250,000 for breach of promise in 1905.  She received a settlement of $17,500 (almost half a million today); then claimed she received only a fraction and sued her lawyers for $11,500.

Later they had a man arrested claiming he was spying on them for attorney Carl Fischer-Hansen.  And then, according to the New-York Tribune "they had a fight in City Hall Park with three lawyers, one of whom had pushed a suit against Katherine for a department store claim of $800."

The pair continued to appear in newspapers.  In March 1906 the Hotel Barstow tried to evict them for non payment.  The management turned off their electricity, but they burned candles.  An elevator boy claimed Charlotte punched him in the ribs and the jaw.   Their bad reputations grew as they moved from one residence hotel to another, never paying rent.  In February 1908 five hotels--the Bristol, the St. Francis, and Albany, the King Edward, and the Grenoble--filed suit against the women.  They were sent to Blackwell's Island for three months "for trying to beat hotel bills."

Three weeks after the sisters checked into Hotel Willard, Arthur Hardy realized their true identity and asked them to vacate.  But they were slow to do so.  He appeared before Magistrate Herbert on February 6 saying "I have two guests in my house.  I understand they are the Poillon sisters.  They have promised me to get out, but I want to know what to do if they don't carry out their promise."

The judge told him "Well, if you don't want a guest in your house, you should put him out by force."

Charlotte Poillon the New-York Tribune, April 2, 1915 (copyright expired)
Katherine Poillon.  The sisters appeared refined and well-bred but were notorious scam artists.  The Evening World, July 24 1903 (copyright expired)

A reporter from the New-York Tribune immediately telephoned Suite 44 to get the sisters' reaction.  Charlotte reminded him that "the laying on of hands" constituted assault and said "Now, do you think the manager of this very exclusive hotel would try to come up here and put my sister and myself out by force--and say, even if he tried, it do you think he'd get away with it?"

Hardy again asked the women to leave.  They promised both to go and to pay their bill.  Then they again delayed their departure.  And then again.  Finally, a policeman was called to escort the deadbeat guests out.  He was successful, but was sued by the Poillon sisters who charged he "had unlawfully entered their rooms at the Hotel Willard."

The Hotel Willard continued to appear in society columns as its well-to-do residents held benefit teas, wedding breakfasts, and announced engagements.   In 1918, during a brutal cold wave, Mrs. James Selvin, Jr.'s name appeared in print for a far different reason.   On January 5 the New-York Tribune ran the headline "100,000 Thrown Out Of Work by Cold Wave," and reported that record low temperature had forced hundreds of loft buildings to shut down after being "deprived successively of heat, of water and finally of power."

A day earlier Mayor Hyland had announced that Mrs. Selvin, along with three other well-to-do women "had volunteered to raise a fund of $50,000 for the purchase and distribution of coal to the poor of the city."

Among the more celebrated tenants two yeas later were Dorothy and Eddie Parker.  Dorothy Parker had by now achieved national renown as a drama critic; her husband was a broker.  They were no longer getting along.  As a matter of fact, Dorothy lived in apartment 834 and Eddie in 704.   Not long after the couple appeared in the February 1920 census records as living here, they moved to No. 57 West 57th Street.  Their marriage did not survive much longer.

Vacationers in the summer months understandably preferred the seashore or mountains to the heat of the city.  In in June 1921 Hardy advertised "Special Summer Rates" of $2.50 and up for a single room and bath, and $5 and up for a "parlor, bedroom & bath."  (The more expensive rate would equal about $60 a night today.)

James Slevin, Jr. and his wife were still in the building at the time.  And Mrs. Slevin was still involved in charitable causes.   On February 14 that year the European Relief Council held a benefit in the Hotel Bilmore "to save the lives of 3,500,000 children in central and eastern Europe," according to the New-York Tribune.  Stage and opera stars performed and luncheon was served.  The newspaper announced that tickets could be obtained from Mrs. Slevin.

Anna Mildred Traitel, the daughter of Nathan E. Franklin and his wife, the former Ada Keller, returned to live with her parents in the fall of 1921.  Known as Mildred, she had been educated at exclusive Semple School for Girls, but eloped in 1913 with David S. Traitel, the head of Traitel Marble Company.  The couple seemed to have a stories marriage, dividing their time between their New York apartment on East 54th Street and their Belle Harbor summer home.

But the 19-year old bride had quickly realized her mistake.  On their honeymoon Traitel became drunk and physically abusive and the behavior continued.  Over the years he "repeatedly" held a gun to her head, and struck her.  Mildred endured eight years of abuse before filing for separation and temporarily moving into the Franklins' Hotel Willard apartment.

The Franklin family experienced tragedy in the 1940 after Nathan was scheduled to undergo an operation.  He was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital on February 27.  The 69-year old was excessively apprehensive about the procedure.  At 7:00 on the night of March 1 he jumped to his death from the window of his hospital room.

In the meantime, a colorful resident of the Willard was "Uncle Robert" Spero, a manufacturer of willow ware.  He and his wife, the former Ray Maibrun, were married in 1893.  With no children of their own, the couple began hosting large parties for underprivileged children in 1919.  Little by little their charitable outreach extended other overlooked groups, like aged women.  Robert Spero established the unofficial Parents' Day.

The New York Times reported on May 14, 1923 that Spero held a Mothers' Day celebration for "900 woman inmates of the Home for the Aged on Welfare Island."  In addition, all the children in the hospital wards on the island were brought into the assembly hall with the elderly widows "where Spero distributed 2,000 packages of animal crackers, 2000 lollypops [sic] and 1000 flags."

Spero refused to take donations for his parties, paying all expenses personally.  His devotion to the children led him to found the SOS, or "Stay On Sidewalk," program, aimed at reducing traffic accidents involving children.  He additionally started a children's radio program and organized his own group of child entertainers.

The Speros maintained a summer house in Deal, New Jersey.  Finally in November 1939 they left the Willard and moved there permanently.   Ray died there a few months later.  Robert lived on until December 13, 1948.

The Hotel Willard was the scene of a large bridge tournament on the night of October 19, 1932.  Sometime after midnight, while 40 persons played in the dining room, two armed robbers entered the lobby.  One forced the night clerk, Edgar Simmons, into the office while the other stood guard.  When a female guest walked in, he greeted her graciously, handed her her mail and room key and said goodnight.

In the meantime, the other gunman was trying to force Simmons to open the safe.  The clerk insisted he did not know the combination.  The thug finally gave up.  The pair took $80, $42 of which came from Simmons' pockets, and shoved him into the elevator.  They ordered the operator to take it up and warned both not to come back down.  The New York Times said "The bridge players learned of the robbery when the police arrived."

The only manager the Hotel Willard ever had hard, Arthur T. Hardy retired in 1936 after 33 years service.  Before long the property was taken over by the Bank for Savings which made renovations.  In announcing on September 3, 1941 that the 252 West Seventy-sixth Street Management Corporation had leased the building for 10 years, The New York Times remarked "Recently modernized by the bank, the hostelry contains 126 rooms and two stores."   Included in the changes was the building's name.  It was now known as the Hotel Churchill.

The following year the bank sold the property to the Seventy-sixth Street Hotel Corporation (most likely a reorganization of the lessor).   The new owners quickly remodeled the building into seven apartments per floor above the ground level.

Uncharacteristically, the building never experienced a significant downturn as did so many of the turn of the century apartment buildings, especially following the onset of the Depression.  Typical of the tenants in the newly-renovated Hotel Churchill was James Wilson Wenman and his wife, the former Carrie Byrd.  Now retired, Wenman had been a member of the Cotton Exchange and sat on its board of governors for 40 years.

There would be two more renovations.  In 1952 a penthouse level "with three hotel rooms" was added; and a 1960 makeover resulted in six apartments per floor, and now just one in the penthouse.  The restoration of the facade brought the building back to its 1903 appearance when it was touted as "the finest apartment hotel on the West End."

photographs by the author

Monday, October 15, 2018

Scandal & Scoundrels - The Lost 1887 208 West 54th Street

By the time this shot was taken on March 19, 1916, the block had significantly changed.  from the collection of the New York Historical Society
In the spring of 1887 Samuel McMillan, a prolific developer in the 1880's and '90's, commissioned architect F. A. Minuth to design a flat building at No. 208 West 54th Street.  It was not the first time the two had worked together.  Minuth, as a matter of fact, had designed an apartment building on the same block just a year earlier.

Minuth filed plans for the 25-foot wide structure on March 25.  They were vague, calling only for a "five-story flat" with a tin roof to cost $26,000 (just over $691,000 today).  The results were much more exciting.

Minuth's design had all the bells and whistles of the Queen Anne movement.  The understated brownstone basement and first floor upheld four stories of red brick, ruddy terra cotta and stone.  The artistic stoop "floated" from the sidewalk to the entrance.

The entire plan was (typically Queen Anne) asymmetrical.  Instead of being executed in cast metal, as would be expected,the four-story angled bay was of brownstone.  It encompassed a riot of giddy decorations--polished granite columns at the second floor, carved pediments and panels, a make-believe roof, complete with carved shingles, above the fifth floor openings.  Not to be outdone, the single windows to the side grew progressively showier with each subsequent floor, until the topmost wore a terra cotta seashell.   The third, fourth and fifth floors openings sat above half-bowl Juliette balconies with swirling iron railings.

Topping it all off was a steep gable and ornate terra cotta rondel.  The elaborate pressed metal cornice upheld a tall parapet.

Somewhat unexpectedly, McMillan retained possession of the building for several years.  Apartment buildings, or flats, of this type were operated nearly as boarding houses, with a proprietor keeping close watch on things.  McMillan leased No. 208 to a proprietor, or manager.

Among the first tenants were actress Maude Granger and her husband, playwright Alfred Cecil Calmour.  Born as Anna E. Brainard on Christmas Day 1849, she was highly popular with theater audiences and would eventually appear in several silent films.

In addition to her beauty, Maude Granger was among the the top box office draws of her day.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Like most other women in the building, Maude a maid.  She was wealthy enough to own her own carriage, a team of horses, and to employ a full-time groom.  It may be that she was leaving New York on an extended tour in the fall of 1889 that prompted her to sell her horses.

On October 11 that year she instructed the groom, Edward R. Lloyd, to go to "Van Tassell & Kearney' sell a team of brougham horses," according to The New York Times a few days later.  Van Tassell & Kearney's was Manhattan's premier horse and carriage auction house.  Lloyd did what he was told, received a check for nearly $9,000 today, but then forged her name and disappeared.  Five days later he was tracked down by detectives and arrested in Ontario, Canada.

Living in the building about the same time was stock broker Charles T. Schlesinger.  The well-to-do bachelor was a man's man, or as The Sun described him, "a well-known athlete of the New York Athletic Club."  Schlesinger was a member of that club's water polo team and its football team.

At noon on October 30, 1891, he left his apartment and walked down Broadway to meet his two sisters who were out shopping.   The women had previously mentioned to Schlesinger that a man had harassed them on the street.  He no sooner met them, than they told him the same man had been trying to "force himself on their attention."  They pointed out John F. Walker.  Schlesinger told his sisters to continue their walk and that he would follow discreetly.

Sure enough, Walker "again made himself obnoxious to the ladies," as described by The Sun.  Schlesinger caught up with them, told his sisters to keep walking, and demanded an explanation from the cad.  Walker delivered "an insulting response" which earned him a punch in the face from Schlesinger.  Walker retaliated with his heavy cane.

A well-known lacrosse player, Lionel Moses, was passing by and jumped in.  He advised Schlesinger to move along before things got out of hand while he detained Walker.  He rejoined his sisters and at 33rd Street they boarded a Sixth Avenue streetcar.  But Walker did the same.

When the car was about at 42nd Street, Walker sat down opposite Schlesinger and pulled out a "large self-cocking revolver" and said "I'll finish you right here."  The athletic broker balanced himself on the seat with his palms and thrust his feet into Walker's stomach.  "Then he sprang upon Walker and they fought for possession of the pistol."

Understandable chaos and panic ensued.  The Sun reported "The car stopped and conductor, driver, and all the passengers deserted it, leaving the two men struggling...A colored boy, who sat next to Schlesinger, holding in his arms an immense floral horseshoe, dropped the flowers like a hot potato, and jumped out the window, carrying the sash with him."

Policeman Farley jumped onto the stopped streetcar and tried to disarm Walker, "but had to use his club before Walker would drop the weapon."  At the police station, Walker said he was a graduate of West Point and former officer of an Ohio regiment.  Insisting he had acted in self-defense, he demanded that a letter be send on his behalf to Grover Cleveland.

The case took a surprising turn when it came to court on December 7.  As it turned out John Walker was indeed a former captain in the U.S. Army.  The New York Times reported "It was shown in the Court of General Sessions yesterday that he was subject to fits of insanity, and had often annoyed women."   Judge Cowing dismissed all charges providing that the United States Army would take charge of him.  Walker was taken to the Military Insane Asylum in Washington D.C.

Not long after McMillan sold the building to Mary G. Barrymore Valentin in January 1892, a shadier type of tenant began taking flats.  Falling into that category was former actress Lilyon Beardsley.  Minnie C. Warren's suit for absolute divorce from her husband, attorney Lyman E. Warren, landed in Superior Court on January 10, 1894.  In addressing the jury, Judge Dugro said that the only question they needed to decide upon was:

Did defendant at any time between Oct 30, 1890, and May 27, 1893, live in improper relations with Lilyon Beardsley, otherwise Lilyon Daniels, otherwise Donna Madixxa, otherwise Mrs. Smith, otherwise Mrs. Abbot?

The jury apparently decided that Lilyon and the attorney had, indeed, had improper relations.  Minnie was granted her divorce.

In 1905 Susan Merrill took over the operation of the building.  She had earlier run a boarding house where, in 1902, she had a terrifying roomer--Harry Kendall Thaw.  Susan later testified that repeatedly girls would call, thinking they were to audition for a stage play.  After Thaw took them to his rooms, the landlady would hear screams as Thaw took a whip to the bound girls.  She tried to evict him, but he threatened her, promising to kill her if she said anything about his behavior.

Susan was horrified when Thaw appeared at No. 208 West 54th Street and rented a three-room apartment.  She testified at his trial for murdering Stanford White, "In West Fifty-fourth street I heard the same screams and when I ran up to Thaw's three rooms I found him with two girls.   The back of one of the girls was all black and blue and her arms bleeding.  Thaw's face was red, as I have described.  She told me she was twenty-two years old."  Thaw was already married to Evelyn Nesbitt at the time.

In April 1916 the estate of Mary Valentin sold the property to Mary I. Smith.  She immediately made improvements, including a new bathroom.  But modern plumbing did not improve the respectability of the tenants.

Mrs. Margaret Hill lived here at the time.  Although born of a good family, according to newspapers, she had nefarious leanings.  It seems that she was expecting an influx of cash in the beginning of June 1916, when, according to The New York Times, she arranged "for an elaborate renovation of her apartment."

But two weeks later she was nowhere to be found.  Police descended on her apartment on June 22 to find only her maid, Frida Johnson, who said she did not know where Margaret had gone, and only that "before leaving had ordered her furniture to be put into storage."

Margaret, as it turned out, had gained the trust of the multi-millionaire spinster Gertrude Claypool, the niece of former Governor Bookwalter of Ohio.   Over a period of days she drugged the elderly woman, hoping that she would not notice the increased doses.  Then, when Gertrude was essentially incapable of reason, Margaret and her cohorts abducted her to a Newark hotel where they had her rewrite her will.  Included in Margaret's share would be $4,000 outright (around $120,000 today).

But the scheme fell apart when Gertrude later realized what had happened and notified police,  Now they were on the trail of all the participants.  Detectives carefully combed through Margaret's belongings, finding the same drugs that were used on the victim, photographs and other evidence.

Gertrude had named names and identified Margaret Hill as one of the main figures.  Assistant District Attorney Dooling, did not hold back, saying, according to the New-York Tribune, "this band of blackmailers, card swindlers, opium users and smugglers lies at the end of so many lanes of evidence that he is not sure yet just which of these crimes will form the basis of the indictments."

Louis Levy was a tenant in the 1920's.  His motives were, perhaps, well intended, but his means of resolving a problem were more than questionable.  On February 13, 1922 he and another man strode into the office of theatrical booking agent Walter B. Sheridan in the Gaiety Theater Building on Broadway and 46th Street.   According to Sheridan, they accused him of putting "scantily draped women on the stage" at a show he was arranging in the Bronx.  Sheridan assured them everything would be according to the law.

Both men reacted by pummeling Sheridan, breaking his nose.  With blood pouring from his face, Sheridan followed the fleeing duo down the stairs, hollering for help.  According to The New York Herald, "with the memory of the recent holdup in the office of the Morrison Pen Company fresh in their minds, occupants of the other offices began running into the corridors shouting for the police."

On the street things got chaotic.  As workers from the building shouted that robbers were at work, the crowd on Broadway stopped and jammed the street.  Traffic could no longer move and the tie-up lasted until police could finally restore order.

Levy had been seen running from the building and was arrested for felonious assault.  His alibi was not convincing.  "He said he had gone into the building with a friend whose name he could not recall and that he had run because he saw everyone else running," reported the article.

The building, now owned by Margaret Mills, was described as "furnished-room house."  Among her tenants in 1924 was 35-year-old divorcee Susie Nelson.  Susie was carrying on a sexual affair with 29-year-old married police officer James J. Sullivan.  The dead-end romance not only nearly ended her life, but landed Officer Sullivan in more than his share of hot water.

Sullivan worked nights and on December 8 at about 3:40 in the morning, he reported sick at the station house.  He then went to Susie's apartment at No. 208 West 54th Street.  Five hours later he went into the hallway to use the restroom and, while there, heard a gunshot.

Susie had taken his service revolver and shot herself in the chest.  The wound was not fatal and she told police at the West 68th Street Station that she was "discouraged with life."  James J. Sullivan was suspended from the force pending an inquiry, and had much explaining to do when he got home to Queens.

The old apartment building was convenient for Thomas Healey, who lived here in 1926.  Although he worked as a finance company collector, he was also part-owner of the nightclub next door at No. 210, the Club Biarritz.   During Prohibition, questionable activities went on in such places, and the Club Biarritz was no exception.

In December that year McKewn Whitcomb came into Manhattan from his home in South Orange, New Jersey for a night on the town.  According to his complaint later, he "bought three bottles of ginger ale and received a bill for $21, which he protested."  (The ginger ale was admittedly pricey, the three bottles equal more than $290 today.)

He went on to claim that the waiter directed him to Healey's partner, Frank Timpone, who "beat him."  Then both Healey and Timpone took Whitcomb "to a room on the floor below the club, which was on the third, and beat and robbed him of $42, all he had."

Before they released him, according to Whitcomb's testimony, "Timpone seized me by the throat and threatened to crush in my skull.  Healey told me he was a detective and threatened to him me on the head with a blackjack."  They put him in a taxicab and "Healey told me if I made a complaint it would go hard with me."  He made a complaint.  The men appeared in court on December 16.

Dr. Alvin Bakst owned the building in 1967 when it was eyed along with other surrounding properties as the site for a major structure.  Bakst sold and the following year the massive 42-floor 1700 Broadway was completed; ending a rather sordid history for the 25-foot wide slice of West 54th Street.

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