Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The 1931 Majestic Apartments - 115 Central Park West


Jacob Rothschild's Hotel Majestic, which opened in 1894, spanned the blockfront from 71st to 72nd Street along Central Park West.  For years it catered to well-known residents and transients, like Gustav Mahler, Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso.  But on December 21, 1928 The New York Times reported that it had been sold and "the buyers will demolish the structure...and erect a tall apartment house."

The massive Hotel Majestic sat across 72nd Street from the Dakota.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

The new owners did not go ahead with their plans, but sold the venerable hotel to the Chanin Construction Company on April 25, 1929.  The firm immediately announced plans to replace it with "a 45-story hotel, to cost $16,000,000," as reported by The New York Times.  Irwin S. Chanin said, "The Hotel Majestic is soon to make way for a structure that will represent a new departure in hotel construction on the upper west side."

He explained, "About one-half of the new structure will be devoted to studio, maisonette and duplex apartments of six to fifteen rooms.  The balance will consist of kitchenette apartments of one to five rooms."  As with all grand residential buildings of the period, it had semi-public spaces--"large dining rooms, a grand ball room and smaller quarters for social activities," according to The New York Times.

Irwin S. Chanin would personally design the building.  He had been greatly influenced by his visit to the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris.  Now a devotee of "modernistic" architecture, the Majestic would be his first "experiment," as he told architectural historian Andrew Dolkart decades later on June 6, 1985.

The old Hotel Majestic was demolished and construction was underway when the Stock Market crashed.  It resulted in the height being scaled back to 31 floors.  Chanin's streamlined Art Deco building was designed around a central courtyard.  It rose 19 floors at which point it gave way to two soaring towers.  As the building rose, on September 20, 1931 The New York Times commented, "The exterior is of buff brick and stone and red marble.  Suites are from three to fourteen rooms."  The article quoted Irwin S. Chanin as estimating "the building has a life expectancy of at least fifty years."

At the time of the article, residents had been signing leases for months.  On April 26, 1931, for instance, The Times-Union of Albany, New York reported that playwright Harry Herschfield and impresario S. L. Rothafel "will live in the new Majestic apartments on West 72d st."

Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel was famous in theatrical circles for his sumptuous presentation of silent films and his magnificent theaters--most notably the Roxy Theatre on Times Square and Radio City Music Hall (still under construction at the time).  The New York Times described his new 16th-floor apartment as having 10 rooms, a 60-foot terrace, "and sixteen windows facing the park."

Early in 1932, as the building prepared to open, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was hired as the building's carpenter with a salary of $100 per month (about $1,870 today).  Surprising his employers, on April 2 he suddenly quit his job.   

As it turned out, April 2, 1932 was also the date that Dr. John F. Condon paid a kidnapper $50,000 ransom for the return of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh's baby.  The Majestic's management and its residents were no doubt shocked to read of Hauptmann's arrest in 1934 for the kidnapping and murder of the 20-month-old.

Bruno Richard Hauptmann's mugshot -- Fleming Police Department records

During the "trial of the century," Dr. Conlon positively identified Hauptmann as the man to whom he had handed over the ransom money.  Hauptman swore that he was at work at the Majestic Apartments on the day of and after the kidnapping, and that he and his wife had friends over on the night of the ransom transfer.

But on April 5, 1936 The Times-Union reported, "With swift, sure, swinging strokes, the Attorney General brought Hauptmann's elaborate, ornate alibi crashing to earth.  The carpenter asserted he was working in the Majestic apartments on the day before and after the baby was stolen and slain.  Records of the building proved him a liar."

Although Hauptmann professed his innocence to the end, he was convicted and on April 3, 1936 was executed in the electric chair.

In the meantime, the Majestic Apartments continued to attract both wealthy and well-known residents.  Comedian and actor Jimmy Durante signed a lease in 1933--the same year that a terrifying fire broke out in the 10-floor apartment of Dr. Edward Sanders.  Eleven fire fighters became trapped in the blazing apartment "when their escape was cut off," according to the New York Sun on March 6.  They were, thankfully, rescued by two other firemen.  The fire extended to an adjoining apartment and one on the 11th floor before being extinguished.

Residents routinely appeared in society columns for weddings, dinner parties and other entertainments.  Such was the case on October 31, 1935 when The New York Times reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Edward H. Davis gave a farewell dinner last night at their home, 115 Central Park West, for Mme. Alfredo Zayas, widow of the former President of Cuba."

In December 1938 architect Sylvan Bien was commissioned to make $30,000 in renovations to the Majestic.  The New York Sun explained "the number of apartments are to be increased from twenty-two to thirty-three on the nineteenth to twenty-ninth floors" and "eight apartments also are to be created on the thirtieth and thirty-first floors."

Screen and stage actor Victor Frederick Moore moved into the Majestic  in November 1938.  Another well-known resident at the time was Florentine Scholle Sutro, the widow of banker and philanthropist Lionel Sutro who had died in 1931.  Described by The New York Times, as "A leader, in many cases a pioneer, in a large number of important civic and culture movements," Sutro had been a member of the peace delegation in Buenos Aires, was the chairperson of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the New York chairperson of the League for a Woman for President.

A less illustrious resident was Frank Costello.  Born Francesco Castiglia in Italy in 1891, he was an Italian-American crime boss and the head of the Luciano crime family.  

In 1944 he was subpoenaed to testify in the city's proceedings to revoke the cabaret license of the Copacabana Club.   On September 15 The New York Sun reported, "The service of the subpoena on Costello was not accomplished without a good deal of effort.  Detectives hovered around his home at 115 Central Park West throughout the night and also visited his favorite haunts, but without avail."  Finally, at 8:40 that morning detectives caught him as he was leaving the Majestic.

Costello spent extended periods away from his apartment here.  During the 1950-51 Senate Kefauver Hearings on organized crime, he was convicted of contempt and sentenced to 18 months in prison.  In 1952 the Government began proceedings to strip him of his U.S. citizenship and he was indicted for tax evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $20,000.  Between 1952 and 1961 he was imprisoned numerous times, always managing to be released on bail on appeal.

Frank Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee.  photograph by Al Aumuller from the collection of the Library of Congress

On the evening of May 2, 1957 Costello and his wife, Lauretta, had dinner at an Upper East Side restaurant with theatrical agent William Kennedy and Generoso Pope, owner of an Italian-language newspaper.  Lauretta and Generoso remained  behind while Costello and Kennedy left.  Kennedy dropped Costello off in front of the Majestic around 11:00 and he was just entering the lobby when, according to The Times Record, "a black sedan stopped at the curb."  According to the doorman, Pete Keith, "a heavy-set man about 6 feet tall rushed by him and into the lobby."  The article continued, "The gunman fired while about 15 feet from Costello, the doorman said, then dashed past him to the black sedan, which raced from the scene."

The 65-year-old gangster was shot in the head, but miraculously was not killed.  The bullet "furrowed under the scalp partway around the back of the head and emerged close to the right ear," said detectives.  Costello cried out, "Somebody tried to get me!" and later told reporters, "I don't know why I was shot.  I must have been mistaken for somebody else."

The hit had been ordered by mobster Vito Genovese and the gunman was Vincent Gigante.  Costello's close call convinced him to relinquish control to Genovese, although he remained influential in the New York City Mafia.  He and Lauretta continued to live on in their Majestic apartment. 

On February 8, 1973 Costello suffered a heart attack in the apartment and was taken to Doctors Hospital.  Eleven days later The New York Times reported, "Frank Costello, the racketeer who survived gang bullets and safely maneuvered himself through complex trials and deportation hearings, died yesterday morning of a heart attack.  He was 82 years old."

In November 1997 Ian Schrager, hotelier and former owner of Studio 54, purchased two apartments in the Majestic for a total of $9 million (more in the neighborhood of $14.3 million today).  The combined apartment engulfed 6,000-square-feet and had three terraces, one of which extended 75-feet along the living room.  According to The New York Times on November 27, "the 14-room combination has five bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms, a living room, a drawing room, two galleries, two dining rooms, two kitchens, two fireplaces and several servant's rooms."  Schrager hired French industrial architect and designer Philippe Starck to handle the interior design.  

After being married for two decades, billionaire financier George Soros and Susan Weber Soros divorced.  The founder and director of the Bard College Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, Susan Soros purchased the former Schrager apartment a year later, in June 2006.  The New York Times reported, "Ms. Soros said the apartment retained the interior design carried out for Mr. Schrager by Phlippe Starck.  She said she was not sure if she would leave it as is or do a renovation."

Another recognizable resident was television hose and comedian Conan O'Brien.  His duplex contained seven bedrooms, eight-and-a-half bathrooms and three terraces.  In 2010 his position as host of "The Tonight Show" came to an end, The New York Times reporting, "Mr. O'Brien walked away with a $45 million settlement, some $33 million for himself and the rest for his staff."  A few months later O'Brien sold his duplex to David M. Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Communications.  The price tag was $25 million.

Susan Weber Soros "is downsizing and making a clean break," said The New York Times on October 25, 2012.  She had sold her sprawling "elegantly appointed" apartment for $50 million.  As far as the Philippe Starck interiors, Soros "has made significant renovations and updates to the décor," said the article.

Irwin S. Chanin's striking, streamlined Art Deco Majestic Apartments--which he predicted would last 50 years--is as illustrious an address today as it was in 1932.  Its presence is an integral part of the cityscape of the western hem of Central Park.

photographs by the author
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Monday, May 17, 2021

The Lost Hotel Majestic - 115 Central Park West


When this photograph was taken in 1929, the monumental structure was scheduled for demolition.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Born in Rothenkirchen, Germany, Jacob Rothschild arrived in New York City at the age of 13 in 1856, "a fatherless boy," as The New York Times later commented.  The boy immediately went to work in a millinery store on Grand Street where he learned the business.  He saved his money for ten years, and then then struck out on his own, opening his own small shop.

By the time he retired from the millinery business around 1880, he had amassed a fortune.  He now turned his attention to real estate and in 1890 began what would be his crowning achievement in that field.   He started buying up the vacant plots along Central Park West between 71st and 72nd Street.  Finally, on January 24, 1891, the Record & Guide reported that he had acquired the last of the 12 lots.  "By these purchases, Mr. Rothschild secures the block front of 500 feet by a depth on each street of 150 feet.  On the plot Mr. Rothschild will erect, it is said, a fourteen-story hotel."

If Rothschild's grandiose plan seemed far-fetched to some, it did not phase him.  In May the Record & Guide updated its readers, saying that Alfred Zucker had filed plans for the $1 million "family hotel"--the staggering cost around 29 times that much today.  "It will be the most important improvement of years on the west side," said the article.

Construction on the Hotel Majestic took three years.  Guests entered the 30-foot wide main entrance on 72nd Street into a marble-lined lobby, or "main hall."  The 10,000-square-foot main dining room was on the 71st Street side of the first floor.   Also on the first floor were "the usual parlor, drawing-rooms, reception and billiard-rooms, with private dining-room and ball-room," according to the Record & Guide.

The main hall included a stained glass skylight, marble walls, a frescoed ceiling and grand marble staircase.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Its 12 stories were the equivalent of 14 floors in height.  That, of course, required elevators and there were seven of them--four for passengers and three for freight.   The Record & Guide described the finishes as being "of the finest description, marbles, hardwoods, bronze, brass and metal work of other kinds."  Architecture and Building applauded the arrival of a "first-class family hotel for the upper west side."  The article said, "The rooms in most cases will be rented in suites of drawing-room, bed-r0om and bath-room, or of five rooms, as the case may be."  In all there were 560 rooms and 268 bath-rooms.

On December 27, 1894 the Hotel Majestic was formally opened with, as reported by The New York Times, "a ball, for which 1,000 invitations were sent out by the guests and management of the hotel."  The article said, "The Colonial drawing room, the Empire room, and the large open hall were thrown open for the ball.  Music was furnished by the regular hotel orchestra in the conservatory.  Supper was served in the Winter garden from 10 o'clock until the end of the dance."

Munsey's Magazine described the massive hotel saying it "is certainly big enough to quarter a regiment."  The New York Times suggested that Rothschild intended for the Hotel Majestic to rival "in appointments and appearance" the Dakota Apartments directly across the street.  True or not, the two substantial structures formed an imposing gateway to Central Park.

In the background of this postcard of Central Park skaters the Hotel Majestic and Dakota Apartments vie for attention.

The Hotel Majestic accepted both transient and permanent guests.  Mrs. Horace Chenery took a suite here in the summer of 1899 on the advice of her doctor, William B. Pritchard, who lived nearby on West 73rd Street.

The 25-year-old's husband worked downtown in the Havemeyer Building.  They had been married for three years and "established themselves in a handsome home on Beach Avenue, Larchmont, where they entertained a great deal."  In March 1891 Mrs. Chenery had a baby daughter and developed what today we recognize as postpartum depression.  The New York Times said, "her illness developed into melancholia in an aggravated form, among the symptoms being a suicidal mania."

Dr. Pritchard recommended she be moved into a suite in the Hotel Majestic "where she could be under his constant care."  Two live-in nurses were on constant duty.   Each took an eight-hour shift.  

from the collection of the Library of Congress

At 3:30 on the morning of September 23 Mary Arbuckle was sitting in her patient's room, watching over her.  The other nurse, Miss Cox, was asleep.  "Miss Arbuckle left the bedside for a moment and stepped into an adjoining room for a glass of water...When the nurse returned to the room a moment later she was horrified to see Mrs. Chenery's bed empty and the window open," reported the New York Herald.  She looked out the window to see Mrs. Chenery's body, clad in her nightgown, on the sidewalk.

The tragedy of Mrs. Chenery was, indeed, an exception to the goings-on in the upscale hotel.  It was a favorite among the artistic community--most notably musicians.  On February 9, 1902, Jacob Rothschild hosted a dinner for the "artists of the Metropolitan Opera Company and several dramatic artists and their friends who are staying at the Majestic," according to The New York Times.  It placed the cost of the dinner at more than $61,000 by today's terms.  "Favors for the ladies consisted of bouquets of violets and orchids, each bouquet costing $20.  The souvenirs were miniature grand pianos, and the menus were of pink satin caught up with pearl tops."

The main dining room.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The great Austrian conductor and composer Felix Mottl was a guest of the hotel the following year.  He had just finished dinner in the grill room in the lower level on the evening of November 13, 1903 when, according to The New York Times, "he heard a burst of sound that made the walls of the spacious lobby echo."  Heinrich Conreid, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, had brought the entire opera orchestra into the lobby as a surprise reception.  

"The lobby, with the musicians sitting on one side, and gaily-dressed guests almost surrounding them, presented a brilliant sight.  Many eminent operatic stars were present, among them Mme. Gadski, Anton Von Rooy, Alfred Hertz, and Andreas Dipple," said the article.

An advertisement in 1904 boasted, "this hotel is singularly blessed with light and air...Every window offers a new panorama of delightful vistas."  It noted, "When the Hotel Majestic was erected men said the owner must be crazy to go so far up town.  It was the wisest forethought possible.  To-day this is the choicest residential spot in America."

In the warm months, guests and New Yorkers in general enjoyed the roof garden.  In its November 1899 issue, Munsey's Magazine recalled, "The Majestic was the first hotel to inaugurate a roof garden."

Munsey's Magazine, November 1899 (copyright expired)

On December 21, 1907 Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma, checked in.  The hotel provided two grand pianos for their 11th-floor suite where they remained for more than a year.   According to the Mahler Foundation's website, "It was from this apartment that Mahler [in February 1908] heard the muffled drum strokes of a funeral cortege that he later used in Symphony No. 10."

The Mahlers would be among many distinguished company in the Hotel Majestic.  Other well-known guests over the years included actress Sarah Bernhardt, operatic tenor Enrico Caruso and novelist Edna Ferber.  Lesser-known today were residents like actress Fanny Ward, a sensation on both the New York and London stages at the time.

Jacob Rothschild died on April 4, 1911.  In reporting his death The New York Times commented, "The Majestic Hotel was probably the greatest of his building undertakings."

The proprietorship was taken over by Copeland Townsend who made a few, subtle changes.  He renovated the roof garden, naming it the Hurricane Deck.  It opened on June 18, 1917 and The Hotel Monthly noted, "The Majestic Hotel in New York City employs a social censor to free its dancing floor of undesirables."

The war that was spreading across Europe in 1917 had effects on the Hotel Majestic.  On March 12 The New York Times reported, "Declaring that the tense situation between Germany and America makes it imperative that no society of Teutonic origin hold meetings of any nature at this time, Copeland Townsend, owner of the Hotel Majestic, yesterday asked Friedrich Michel, head of the German Society, to cancel reservations for the ballroom of the hotel, where the society has been holding its meetings."

At an earlier meeting in the hotel, Maria A. Stappert, a former Bryn Mawr student, criticized the current German "economic, social and moral conditions."  Dr. John A. Mandel, who was in the audience, wrote to the Ministerial Director in Berlin, according to The New York Times, "asking that she be suppressed."

Townsend wanted no more political controversy in his hotel.  He mentioned to a reporter, "It strikes me, that if every member of the society is an American, the name of the society should be changed to the 'American Society.'"

He was understandably more welcoming to The American Defense Rifle Club--an organization of women formed to defend the city while its men were away at war.  On April 7, 1917 work on installing a gun range on the roof began.  The New York Times explained, "The club was organized by Mrs. June Haughton, an expert rifle shot, and it is planned to teach women how to use rifles expertly."

Life returned to normal after the war and the Hurricane Roof was open for dancing again in the summers.   The unused southern rooftop gained new life in 1920 when it became an artists colony.  On April 18 The New York Times reported, "A group of New York artists are going to establish a 'Bohemia-in-the-Clouds,' and plans and specifications have been drawn up and contracts let for a group of skylight bungalows on the roof of the Hotel Majestic."

Copeland Townsend confirmed the rumors.  The article said the "aerial Macdougal Alley will consist of a series of fireproof studios, some to be used only for working purposes and others for homes."  Some of the artists who had already signed leases were relocating for the project.  Sculptor Prince Paul Troubetzkoy was currently in California, artists Frank Godwin and Ray Rohn were both living in Philadelphia, and illustrator Dean Cornwell was moving in from Leonia, New Jersey.  The New York Times noted, "Brinkerhoff, Webster and Briggs will have studio room there, but will live elsewhere."

Guests to the hotel in 1925 would have enjoyed the latest in decorative style.  
photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A significant transformation to Central Park West began in 1928 as plans were begun for no fewer than four massive Art Deco Apartment buildings facing Central Park.  On December 21, 1928 The New York Times reported, "Negotiations are reported to be well advanced for the sale of the Hotel Majestic."  The article added, "the buyers will demolish the structure, which was one of the first hotels erected in Central Park West."

Four months later the Chanin Construction Company announced plans for a 45-story replacement building to cost the equivalent of $239 million today.  Designed by Irwin S. Chanin and Jacques Delamarre, the twin-towered Art Deco structure was named The Majestic as a nod to its illustrious predecessor.

photograph by David Shankbone

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Edmund L. Baylies Mansion - 10 East 62nd Street


The family of Isaac S. Platt had lived in the 25-foot wide brownstone house at No. 10 East 62nd Street since its construction in 1880.  The president of Adriance, Platt & Co., manufacturers of harvesting machines, he and his wife, the former Mary jane Redfield, had two sons and two daughters.  Platt died in the house on November 15, 1904 at the age of 70.

At the time of Platt's death, the high-stooped brownstones along the block had become architecturally outdated.  In May the following year Edmund Lincoln Baylies purchased No. 10, demolished it, and hired the firm of Hoppin, Koen & Huntington to design a modern mansion on the site.

Two years after construction began the house was completed.  The architects had created a six-story, limestone-faced Beaux Arts palace.  Above the rusticated base three sets of tall, French windows opened onto a full-width iron-railed balcony.  Each of their frothy keystones took the form of a carved face.  An almost identical balcony graced the fifth floor.  The design was capped by a slate-shingled mansard with copper-clad dormers.

On November 25, 1907, the New York Herald announced, "Mr. and Mrs. Edmund L. Baylies have taken possession of their new residence, No. 10 East Sixty-second street," noting that it "is one of the finest in that section of the city."

The Baylies' American pedigree was impressive.  Thomas Baylies arrived in America in 1737 and Edmund's relatives included Livingstons and Hamiltons.  His wife was the former Louisa Van Rensselaer, whose family was among the oldest and most prominent in New York.

The ballroom -- photo via zillow.com

A partner in the legal firm of Carter, Ledyard & Millburn, Baylies focused on real estate.  Soon after moving into his new house he began remodeling brownstones along the block into mansions as lavish as his own.

Louisa's entertainments were lavish.  On February 19, 1915, for instance, the New York Press reported, "Mrs. Edmund L. Baylies entertained forty guests at dinner last evening in her home, No. 10 East Sixty-second street."  But her attention soon turned from dinner parties and receptions to relief work as World War I devastated France.

European soldiers lost limbs, were blinded, and otherwise disabled in battle.  Louisa set out to provide them with a means of income after the war.  She organized the American Committee for Training in Suitable Trades the Maimed Soldiers of France and served as its chairman.  Her work for the cause was indefatigable.  The Sun reported on November 1, 1917, "To this one organization Mrs. Baylies has devoted all of her time since soon after the beginning of the war and has raised large amounts of money, with which schools have been established in Paris and other French cities.  There French soldiers are taught trades that will enable them to support themselves and their families."  In appreciation, on October 31, 1917 the French Government honored Louisa with the Legion of Honor.

The end of the war did not mean the end of Louisa's work.  On November 15, 1919, the New-York Tribune reported that she and Edmund had sailed for Europe "to spend three months abroad."  It was not totally a pleasure trip.  "She will inspect five new trade schools which her committee has established in and near the French capital," said the article.

Edmund and Louisa were snapped at the pier on January 22, 1922 as they returned to New York after a two-months trip through England.  Daily News (copyright expired)

Edmund Baylies's first health scare happened in 1918 when it appeared he may not recover from pneumonia.  Newspapers published regular updates on his condition.  Then, on January 5, 1919, The New York Times reported, "Edmund L. Baylies, who has been critically ill with double pneumonia at his home, 10 East Sixty-second Street, is slowly recovering.  Yesterday he and Mrs. Baylies left for the Virginia Hot Springs."

In 1931 Edmund began experiencing what The New York Times described at the time as "a general decline in health."  He and Louisa spent that winter season in Cannes, France "in the hope of improving his condition," according to the newspaper.  On April 29, 1932, two weeks after they returned, Baylies died in the 62nd Street mansion at the age of 74.  Within two weeks the New York Evening Post reported, "He left all his personal effects outright to his wife, Mrs. Louisa Van Rensselaer Baylies...and the remainder of his estate to her in trust."

photos via zillow.com

Louisa did not remain in the 62nd Street mansion for long, selling it to George Washington Kavanaugh and his wife, the former Maria Miller Haberle.  The couple's summer home, Ocean Edge, was in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

Ocean Edge was built in 1910.  original source unknown

Maria was the widow of brewer William Henry Haberle and had two daughters, Virginia and Leonora, from that marriage.  Although Kavanaugh was a millionaire businessman and former politician (he served in the State Assembly in 1897-98), it was Maria who stole the social spotlight.

On October 17, 1936 Maria returned home to discover a $10,000 pearl necklace was missing.  (The value would be closer to $135,000 today.)  It was the first of a nine-day period during which "she found some other article missing almost every day."  She reported the missing items--now amounting to $25,000--to the insurance company and an investigation was begun.  Maria launched her own probe and on November 27 The New York Times reported, "she found many missing articles, including silver, a valuable gold seal and clothing, hidden in closets."  As was the case in so many paperback mystery novels, the butler did it.

Maria's closest friend was Lady Decies, the twice-widowed "penny princess" born Elizabeth Drexel in Philadelphia.  She married John Beresford, the 5th Baron Decies in 1936.  When Lady Decies was in town, the two were nearly inseparable.

On February 5, 1938 the New York Post reported that Lady Decies had arrived on the Normandie the previous morning.  "With her French maid she went immediately to the residence of Colonel and Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh at 10 East Sixty-second Street, where she will make her home during her brief say in New York."  The following day The New York Times reported "Mr. and Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh gave a large reception yesterday afternoon at their home...for their house guest, Lady Decies," and on February 11 the newspaper wrote, "Mrs. Leonara H. Warner gave a dinner last night at the home of her mother, Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh, 10 Eat Sixty-Second Street, for Lady Decies, the house guest of Mr. and Mrs. Kavanaugh.  Later the party went to the El Morocco."  The whirlwind continued the next day when Maria hosted a luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton.

Maria Kavanaugh and Lady Decies arrive at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night 1943.  photograph from The Critic

On May 1, 1942, the Detroit Evening Times hinted that the Kavanaughs were considering moving to Beverly Hills.  "For several years past Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh has passed up the mid-winter social season on Manhattan Isle in favor of a holiday in the vicinity of Los Angeles."  The writer noted, "It would be a suitable background for Mrs. Kavanaugh, who has a showplace at Spring Lake, N.J., and who, several years ago, purchased the stately mansion at 10 East Sixty-second street for her metropolitan headquarters."

In a catty aside, the journalist took a swipe at Louisa Baylies.  "The East Sixty-second street house formerly belonged to the once social Mrs. Edmund L. Baylies, born to superior New York social prestige as Louisa Van Rensselaer, and who now, late in life, is in what is politely known as 'reduced circumstances.'"

The Kavanaughs, along with Leonora and her family, remained in New York, however.  The wedding of Leonora's son, William Whiteside Warner, to Kathleen Berryman McMahon took place in the Church of St. Thomas More on June 14, 1951.  

Three months later, on September 6, 1951 George Washington Kavanaugh died at the age of 89.   Maria survived him by three years, dying in January 1954 at the age of 87.  The Miami News noted, "she attended at least 30 openings of Metropolitan Opera seasons."

photo via zillow.com

In 1973 the Fleming School purchased the mansion for $4 million.  Alterations, completed in 1974, converted the interiors to classrooms.  As was the case with other exclusive private girls' schools, however, much of the opulence of the former mansion was carefully preserved.  The school remained until 1994 after which the house was converted to three apartments, a triplex and two duplexes.  The triplex was put on the market in 2020 for $55 million.

photographs by the author
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Friday, May 14, 2021

From Shirtwaists to Genomics - 14-16 Waverly Place


photo by Beyond My Ken

On February 11, 1892 Isabel Lathrop sold the old three-story house at 14 Waverly Place to Frank A. Seitz.   The president of the Frank A. Seitz Realty & Construction Co., he was on a mission.  The following month he spent $21,667 (about $628,000 today) for the similar house next door at 16 Waverly Place.

Prior to the Civil War years the area had been one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in Manhattan.  But now its once-elegant homes were being rapidly replaced with loft buildings.  Seitz demolished the two structures and hired the architectural firm of Cleverdon & Putzel to design two identical structures.  Each would be 25-feet wide, six-stories tall, and cost the equivalent of $2 million today to construct.

Completed early in 1893, the architects had created two imposing tripartite structures in a modern take on the Romanesque Revival style.  The piers of the cast iron storefronts upheld faux balustraded balconies that fronted an arcade of deeply-recessed windows.  The engaged brick columns that separated them wore carved medieval-style capitals which were echoed in the massive capitals of the three piers that flanked the stores.

The mid-sections were faced in beige brick encrusted with stylized chain bands of terra cotta.  Energetic brick-and-terra cotta voussoirs capped each opening like sunbursts.  The sixth floors sat above a common cornice, each window separated by engaged columns.

Seitz seems to have hoped to quickly liquidate his investment.  On March 16, 1893 the Record & Guide reported he had sold the structures $250,000--a satisfying $7.3 million in today's money.   If so, the deal fell through and it was not until 1898 that Seitz sold the buildings to William Lauterbach.  

Lauterbach moved his clothing firm, Andur & Goodman Co., into one of the buildings.  Other millinery and apparel firms leased space, as well.  Among them in 1897 were clothiers S. Beller & Co., L. Herschfield & Brother and Max Hurvick, and "hats and caps" manufacturers Philip W. Crawford, E. E. Francis & Co., J. Rowland & Co., the Pioneer Hat Works, and T. C. Millard & Co.

At the time, both industries were experiencing pushback from employees, prompted by the new labor organizations.  Apparel workers labored in oppressive conditions, normally working six days per week for low wages.  On September 2, 1897 The Standard Union reported, "Over 2,600 cloak makers quit work in shops working for six manufacturers of cloaks in New York City, yesterday evening and this morning."  Among those was the entire staff of S. Beller & Co. 

In a related matter, the article noted that women garment workers were "agitating" for a separate union.  "They are mostly, it is said, of Hebrew, Italian and Irish origin.  A mass meeting of the women for organization purposes is to be held later on."

At the turn of the century the "waist," or "shirtwaist," was the most popular women's garment in America.   The tailored blouse was originally modeled on men's shirts.

Despite the tortuous corsets required to maintain the hourglass figure, the shirtwaist was touted as "liberating."  original source unknown
The Danzig Waist Co. operated from 14 Waverly Place in 1901 and, as is the case with fashion companies today, used live models when working on designs and patterns.  On July 23, 1901 the firm advertised in the New York Herald for a "Stylish 36 figure for shirt waists."

Until the last quarter of the 20th century employees were paid in cash.  It was a practice that routinely made clerks carrying the payroll from the bank a target of robbers.  But it was not street thugs who were the threat on September 17, 1906, but an insider.

The Success Publishing Company was one tenant here not involved in millinery or clothing.  On that afternoon Kenneth McKenzie left the office with a $1,900 payroll check  to cash at the bank.   The amount would be nearly $56,000 today.  The Standard Union reported, "As McKenzie did not return the police were notified."

Detectives learned that the 24-year-old was seen at Coney Island that same night during the Mardi Gras festivities.  (The annual event had nothing to do with the Lenten celebrations held in New Orleans every spring.)  The Standard Union reported that the detectives "went to the big health resort last evening armed with a bench warrant in the hope of arresting him."  Unable to find him among the throng, undercover officers then "shadowed McKenzie's home."  Finally, just after midnight on September 20, he was seen sneaking out of the basement door.

McKenzie was arrested, but the money was gone.  The article in The Standard Union was entitled "Think Man Spent Firm's Money At Mardi Gras."

In 1918 William Lauterbach joined the two buildings internally.  His company was still operating here and in June the following year it was looking for a "boy as learner in shipping room."  The pay was $150 per week in today's money, and the company wanted to ensure that the applicants were both literate and neat.  The ad insisted that applications be addressed "in own handwriting."

Following William Lauterbach's death, his widow, Mattie, sold the buildings in 1945 to the Eastern Control Corporation.  While a few apparel-related tenants, like Service Wear, Inc., were still in the buildings, the garment center had moved north of 34th Street.  More typical of the firms in the buildings now was the Howard Adams Brush Co.

A horrifying incident occurred on January 8, 1952 while a team of five workmen were installing a 5,000-gallon oil tank in the sub-basement.  While four of the men were working on the tank, welder John Nagy was using an acetylene torch on the iron grating at street level to create an opening for a vent pipe.  Sparks fell to the basement, igniting cardboard cartons.  By the time the workers noticed the fire it was out of control.

One of them rushed to the street to tell Nagy to stop work while the others tried to fight the blaze.  The flames and thick smoke eventually forced them out, but two had been overcome by smoke.  It was not until the three men reached the sidewalk that they realized that Seymour Washowski and Raleigh Jordan, both 25-years-old, were missing.

The New York Times reported, "The rescuers went down and were able to penetrate only a short distance before the intense smoke and flames drove them back.  It was not until two hours later that the bodies were found in the sub-basement."

The second half of the 20th century saw major change come to the Noho neighborhood.  In 1961 the Young Concert Artists Recital Hall was in the building and in 1967 the Playwright's Workshop Club operated here.  It staged off-Broadway productions like Clyde Ellsworth's 1967 The Sleeping Beauty or Can A Call Girl Find True Love and Happiness.

The upper floors were converted to nine sprawling residential lofts.  Moving in in 1964, for instance, were artist Dan Christensen, his wife, and their two sons.  Their 4,o00-square-foot space accommodated Christensen's studio and the family's residence.  (His paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum.)

At the time Harouts Greek restaurant was a favorite gathering spot for New York University students.  The restaurant closed in 1969 and was unofficially taken over by a campus group, Transendental Students, described by The New York Times on September 22 that year as "a party-throwing organization of hedonists."  They held parties called "freak-outs" in empty classrooms and study halls, and in the now-vacant restaurant.

The New York Times said "The freak-outs were billed as attempted to 'make N.Y.U. livable'" and "usually featured wine, marijuana, movies, political satire, and acid-rock music."  Uninvited attendees were often the New York City Police Department who were called to end the festivities.  The article noted, "Even the N.Y.U. administration has acknowledge the group's influence.  This term the administration allocated $5,000 for the group to renovate Harouts."

After living in their third-floor loft for three decades, the Christensens and the other tenants were told to leave by New York University in June 1998.  A spokesperson for the school explained "various university departments need space for their programs."  Although the tenants, described by The New York Times as "four painters, a sculptor, a filmmaker, a food designer, a martial-arts teacher and a furniture marker" hired a lawyer, they were unsuccessful.

A subsequent renovation, completed in 2010, resulted in the building's being home to New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology.

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

The 1913 Hamilton Theatre - 3560-3568 Broadway


photo by Jim Henderson

Both Benjamin S. Moss and Solomon Brill were major players in the New York City vaudeville theater industry in the early years of the 20th century.  Moss had begun his career with William Fox and Marcus Loew before striking out on his own, and Brill was among the first to establish theaters specifically for motion pictures.  The two entered a short-lived partnership around 1910 and on February 27, 1912 broke ground for a combination vaudeville-motion picture theater on the northwest corner of Broadway and 146th Street.

Moss and Brill commissioned one of the foremost theater architects of the time, Thomas W. Lamb, to design what they intended to call the Lafayette Theatre.  Before the doors opened they would rename it the Hamilton.  Construction was completed by the year's end and the opening was scheduled for January 23, 1913.

Lamb had created an imposing three story structure clad in gleaming white terra cotta atop a polished granite water table.  A grand bronze and glass marquee stretched over the Broadway sidewalk and a smaller version covered the 146th Street exit.  Majestic windows within two-story arches dominated the design, the spandrels of which were upheld by cast iron caryatids painted to mimic patinaed bronze.  The terra cotta cornice was topped with theatrical masks.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

It appears that Benjamin Moss was the driving force behind the 1,857-seat Hamilton Theatre.  Two years after its opening The Evening World said, "Mr. Moss, with business sagacity and common sense, placed his houses where theatre-going is not regarded as a luxury, but rather a part of the regular life of the community--people who look upon the theatre with clean amusements as one of the necessities of life because of the rest and recreation it gives them...It was when Mr. Moss realized the growth as a neighborhood of the Washington Heights section that he built his first theatre, the Hamilton, at One Hundred and Forty-sixth Street and Broadway, which proved successful from the beginning."

The Hamilton Theatre, like all the great silent picture houses, was fitted with an organ, this one manufactured by the M. P. Moller Pipe Organ Company.  But motion pictures were not the only thing audiences came for--it was vaudeville that took center stage at the Hamilton in the beginning.  And for that purpose the Hamilton Theatre had an in-house orchestra.    

Two days after the theater's opening The Evening World reported on the next week's acts, "May Elinore, the Clemenzo Brothers, Klein Brothers and Schall, Benson and Bell and others."

Spacious theaters were often leased for benefit performances and such was the case in December that year when a fund-raising drive was initiated to erect a new building for the Washington Heights Hospital.  On December 11 a buffet supper at Healy's restaurant a block to the south was held, during which Anna K. Silverstein announced "that she had secured the Hamilton Theatre...for Saturday matinee and that all receipts would go to the fund," according to The Sun.

Moss and Brill went separate ways in 1915.  Brill was no longer interested in vaudeville entertainment and wanted to focus solely on films.  Benjamin Moss continued his successful blend at the Hamilton Theatre.  On February 9, 1917 The Evening World reported that "Pride," the second in the series of McClure Pictures "Seven Deadly Sins," would begin the following Monday, and that on Wednesday night, "Shirley Mason will appear in person."

Motion Picture News, November 11, 1916 (copyright expired)

In 1920 Benjamin Moss partnered with E. F. Albee of the Keith & Proctor chain of vaudeville theaters to form the Greater New York Vaudeville Theaters Corp.  The Hamilton was renamed B. F. Keith's Hamilton Theater, although the mix of live vaudeville and "photo-plays" continued here until Moss's retirement in 1928.  Thereafter the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Radio Pictures (RKO) leased the venue and eliminated live acts.  A sound system was installed, making the RKO Hamilton Theater one of the first real "talking picture" theaters in New York City.  The organ was removed in 1940.

An electric blade sign announces "Vaudeville - Photo Plays."  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1947 RKO redecorated the interior.  The Foot-Rite shoe store was operating from the commercial space at 3560 Broadway in April that year.  By the summer of 1951 Wafex, Inc., makers of diet pills, and the Cushman Bakery operated from the location.  Thomas Lamb's ornate lobby was modernized in 1954, when the end of the line for the motion picture theater was on the near horizon.  The curtain closed for the last time in 1958.

RKO first leased the venue for sporting events like boxing, and later as a discotheque.  The building was purchased by a church in 1965 which used the auditorium continuing to lease the storefronts.  In 1985, for instance, the Broadway Fried Chicken was in 3560 Broadway.  The church left around 1989, selling the property to real estate mogul Alex DiLorenzo.

According to the Daily News on March 29, 1990, "DiLorenzo is the heir to one of the city's biggest family real estate fortunes.  Real estate records show that he owns scores of buildings."  The spotlight was focused on him that year because of the fatal fire that broke out in the illegal Happy Land social club in one of his buildings, killing 87 people.  Investigators probed into his holdings and found other illegal nightclubs, including one in the former Hamilton Theater building.  DiLorenzo was served with a vacate order from the Buildings Department in March 1990.

DiLorenzo sold the building to investors who walled off the auditorium.  In 1995 the grand marquees were taken down.  At some point the ornate cornice was removed and a brick parapet installed.  The auditorium has sat empty since then, its paint peeling and dust settling on the plush chairs.

In July 1998 the Hamilton Palacio opened in the front section of the building.  The New York Times reported, "Signs written in English and Spanish direct shoppers to discounted toiletries, clothing, luggage and furniture.  Bedframes with mattresses begin at $250, briefcases $10 and T-shirts 3 for $5."  The 2008 book Broke-Ass Stuart's Guide to Living Cheaply in New York City was more direct, saying, "this ornately designed building now houses a three-story compound of cheap stuff.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen, wouldn't you agree Mr. Hamilton Theatre?...It's like Kmart, but shittier."

Topless caryatids pose below a rusting spandrel panel at the second floor.

The property was purchased in November 2012 by the 146th Upper Broadway Holdings LLC, putting the fate of the relatively intact auditorium in question.  (The exterior was given individual landmark status in 2000.)  In 2014 The New York Times columnist Christopher Gray mused, "It might become a big box store or a...well, it is hard to imagine what might pay the taxes, let alone the rent."

In 2020 developers Omni New York and Brisa Builders announced competing plans for the property.  Omni proposed to demolish the theater while leaving the façade intact (a practice known as facadism), and erecting two 14-story buildings on the site which would include around 200 affordable housing apartments.  Brisa's proposal called for an 18-story tower and a 10-building on the adjoining vacant lot.  The two structures would include 250 affordable housing apartments.

photo via loopnet.com

Both developers had decided that rehabilitating Thomas W. Lamb's auditorium--still largely intact--was not cost efficient.  The fate of the historic structure has apparently not been decided.

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