Friday, April 22, 2011

The Remarkable House at No. 48 West 10th Street

No. 48 West 10th in 2011, with the still-standing livery stable next door that caused Sarah Charlotte Clarke great annoyance

Quiet West 10th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues was lined with handsome brick Federal homes throughout the 1830s and ‘40s. As the 1850s approached, Victorian homes -- wider, taller and more impressive-- began replacing existing structures.

Just after the Civil War, in 1871, Mrs. Sarah Charlotte Clarke owned the little house which was decidedly out of fashion, architecturally.  The socialite and dressmaker commissioned architect Daniell Tyrrell to renovate the out-of-date home. Stylish, paneled double entrance doors were added, the parlor floor windows were extended, the delicate Federal ironwork was replaced with heavier, more robust Victorian railings and a bracketed cornice was installed.

Most impressive, a fashionable mansard roof was added, bringing the structure up-to-the-minute in taste. Later, in the last quarter of the century, the lintel over the doorway was replaced with a modern late Victorian design.

Prior to 1880 Sarah Clarke moved two doors down to No. 52 and in 1880 Dr. Eben M. Flagg lived here with his wife Minnie. The doctor ran his practice from the first floor; the parlor used as the waiting room. It was the scene of an unfortunate incident when Mrs. Aimee Howard arrived to have a dental procedure performed. She brought with her an expensive umbrella with a carved, ebony handle.

After five hours in the dentist chair, Mrs. Howard prepared to leave, only to find her umbrella was gone. Minnie Flagg casually explained that her friend, Mrs. Stewart had taken it because it had begun raining while she visited to bring Mrs. Flagg tickets to the bal de l’opera. She provided Mrs. Howard a spare umbrella.

A week later, when Mrs. Howard returned to pay her bill, she inquired about her umbrella. “Oh, it’s been stolen,” lamented the dentist’s wife.

A scene ensued.

Mrs. Howard commenced legal proceedings and the press became involved. All parties appeared in court while, in the meantime, Mrs. Flagg penned an advertisement offering a $10 reward.

Mysteriously, on March 13, a boy knocked on the door of No. 48 around 6:00 in the evening delivering a parcel that “a man had just given him.” The boy said the man had given him 25 cents and directions to deliver the umbrella to Dr. Flagg. The case was dropped. And Dr. Flagg undoubtedly lost a patient.

Despite the rather high-tone residents of the block, a livery and boarding stables was erected next door to the doctor’s home in 1863 by Moses Devoe–despite limitations on the property that “no nuisance should ever be maintained on the lot.”

In 1887 it had become an annoyance to Sarah Charlotte Clarke who lived on the opposite side.

“She says that it is full of rats and cockroaches all the year round and that in Summer flies by the trillion breed there; that foul stenches are generated there and fast men congregate there,” reported The New York Times.

“The rats and the cockroaches and the flies in Summer are very, very neighborly,” the newspaper went on, “and so are the stenches which do not at all resemble the perfumes of Araby…The flies make the sweet afternoon sleep of Summer impossible, and pack the milk pitcher so full that in a few minutes after it is placed on the table the milk overflows and the puddle on the cloth is at once dried up by a new lot of flies.”

Worse, Mrs. Clarke admitted, were the fast men who sat around the sidewalk smoking cigars and “do not confine their wickedness to the stable.” She complained that they flirt with the servants and even “make eyes” at her. She sued Moses Devoe for $15,000 for the injuries the stable had done to her.

In 1901 the house was home to Japanese landscape painter Kikishi Yama, perhaps the sole Japanese landscape artist in the country who worked in oils. Mr. Yama maintained his studio across the street at No. 51, according to The New York Tribune.

By 1927 Romeyn Park Benjamin, the brother-in-law of Enrico Caruso was living here. He died in the house, aged 46, on December 7, 1939.

Perhaps no period in the long history of the house is more intriguing than when Marguerite Pumpelly Smyth lived here. A follower of the Eastern guru ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Marguerite (who called herself Daisy) had many long-term guests who were also involved in the spiritual movement. The house was a famous meeting place for people of all races and religions and “fireside meetings” were nearly constant. Upon entering the door, one often heard the guru’s voice in a spontaneous chant he had recorded in 1912. ‘Abdu’l-Baha personally blessed each room of the house.

Juliet Thompson, a cult figure of the movement, moved in. She would often entertain the author Kahlil Gibran who lived at No. 51 West 10th where Kikishi Yama had had his studio. The author would invite Thompson to his studio where he would read aloud the last chapter of whatever book he was writing.

By the late 1940s Daisy Smythe, Juliet Thompson and the colorful troupe of spiritual residents had moved on. Dr. Dimitri Marianoff , the son-in-law of Albert Einstein, was here in 1950 and by 1954 it was the home of Frank M. Didisheim and his wife, who annually turned the small rear garden into a free, modern sculpture exhibition for about a week at a time.

Divided into apartments, one family per floor, in 1962, No. 48 West 10th Street is a remarkable house with an equally remarkable past.

non-credited photographs were taken by the author


  1. Hello, while doing research on Daisy and Juliet Thompson I've found your nice article about their house. You might want to check into to learn more about Abdu'l-Baha, who certainly was not a "guru" as that a Hindu usage and not at all Baha'i.

    1. Thank you for the information. The terms used above were taken from contemporary sources who, apparently, were less exact in terminology, etc. I appreciate your input and will certainly follow up on your suggestion.

    2. Daisy Smyth was my grandmother.

  2. Is it still apartments? Who owns the building? In 1992, I was under the impression it was a private, family residence.

    1. DOB still shows two residences--an apartment and a triplex above.