Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Lost 1880 City Hall Post Office

The Post Office in 1910 -- photo NYPL Collection

As New York City rapidly grew so did its postal needs. In 1845 the post office was working out of the defunct Middle Dutch Church – a bleak structure already 200 years old at the time.

By the time of the Civil War, the old church building could no longer handle the increased mass of mail and the need for a new facility was obvious. A congressional investigation reported that “the present post office building was totally unfitted for an inadequate to the present wants of the postal business.”
The Middle Dutch Church building on Nassau Street was home to the post office in the early 19th Century -- NYPL Collection

In 1857 the President of the United States authorized Congress to purchase a site for a new post office in New York “at a cost not to exceed $500,000.”

The wheels of government turned slowly and eleven years later, on May 16, 1866 Congress resolved to appoint a commission to select a proper site for a multi-purpose structure. In the time between the President’s authorization and the formation of the congressional committee the average amount of mail processed in the old church had grown from 10 to 100 tons per day.

Congress envisioned a structure that would house the postal business of New York City as well as the United States Courts and would require “a space of land equal to from twenty-five to thirty city lots.” The spot selected was the tip of City Hall Park, directly in front of the elegant Federal-style City Hall.

The price tag place on the plot by the city was $500,000; perhaps not coincidentally exactly the maximum amount allowable. The New York Times offered its opinion, “We believe that, as the Government has got the ground so cheap, it will be inclined to act liberally as regards the structure.”

A contest among architects was held for a winning design. Sadly, there was no winner. So a committee of architectural firms was appointed to review all the plans and perfect a design from among them. Included in the committee were some of the most influential architects of the time including Richard Hunt and James Renwick, Jr. The result was a monumental French Second Empire pile that The Times called “pure French Renaissance style, and represents a chaste and harmonious combination and grouping of parts.”

Architect Alfred B. Mullett, who had submitted his own design in the competition, didn’t think so.

After he aggressively lobbied against the extravagant expense of the group design, he was handed the project to complete.

By early 1869 still little seemed to have been accomplished, other than plans for a “grand plaza” in the remainder of the park between City Hall and the proposed post office building. The editor of The Times recommended that the plaza “should be made as nearly like the Place de la Concorde in Paris as possible.”

Finally in August of that year ground was broken – while squabbling still continued over the intended site by groups opposed to the location. As excavation progressed, five human skeletons were discovered, remnants of a potter’s field, as well as several gold coins. The laborer who found the coins did not report back to work the following day.

As the Post Office rose, it was praised by the press. Readers were told it would be “renaissance, of the French school,” according to The Times in January 1870 and “The exterior will be treated in the Doric style, each story embracing an order which will be increased in richness from the ground to the cornice.”
By 1870 exterior construction was essentially completed -- NYPL Collection

Finally in 1880 the City Hall Post Office was completed. Conforming to the oddly-shaped plot, it faced down Broadway with, necessarily, its loading docks on the widest side fronting City Hall.
 1903 postcard from author's collection

Four stories of granite rose like a grey stone wedding cake to a bulbous mansard roof. The colossal edifice cost a staggering $8.5 million -- $5 million over the proposed cost and approximately $156 million in 2011 dollars.

The state-of-the-art sorting room -- NYPL collection
Up-to-the-minute innovations, like a system of pneumatic tubes that whisked mail to sub-stations and distribution points, improved delivery. The Federal Government rented the upper offices for judges and lawyers as well as for hearing rooms and court rooms. And it immediately became a must-see spot for tourists.

Looking back with a 21st Century viewpoint, we see Mullett’s grand edifice as a wonderful and splashy example of Victoriana at its best – a lush pile of ornament and shapes. The AIA Guide to New York City says it was “a rich building inspired by Napoleon III’s Paris.”
The rarely-photographed rear facade facing City Hall Park -- author's collection

Contemporary opinion was not so kind. By the time the eleven-year construction project was completed the style was already out of date. Almost immediately it was dubbed Mullett’s Monstrosity” and, in comparison to the tall buildings rising around it, was likened to a portly dowager squatting in the park. The Century Magazine called it “a showy granite building.”

Horse-drawn drays line up at the loading docks (far left) in 1909 -- photograph from author's collection

The New York Sun derided Mullett as “the most arrogant, pretentious, and preposterous little humbug in the United States.” In 1890 the architect ended his life in Washington DC.

By 1912 there were calls for the demolition of the giant building. The Times wrote “The Mullett Post Office has always been an architectural eyesore, and has, from the first, been unsatisfactory to the Postal Service and the Federal Courts beneath its roof.”

Trolley cars snarl in front of the post office building in 1905 -- NYPL Collection
Dissatisfaction grew and in 1921, only four decades after its opening, the reviled post office was deemed obsolete. Postmaster Edward M. Morgan stated that the facility was “totally inadequate” and noted that the Government spent about $900,000 in rent in the building; while Postmaster General Will H. Hays admitted “almost universal sentiment on the part of the people of this city is to have their old park restored to its original colonial form and beauty.”

The New York Times added its own brutal criticism. “The city spoiled the park for a mess of pottage,” it said, “Except for cheapness there is no merit in the present building.” Calling the Post Office “an architectural abomination,” the editorial quoted Postmasters Willcox, Patten and Morgan as deeming it “inconvenient, inadequate, unhealthful.”

That year, in what now seems the pinnacle of irony, the New York Historical Society and the Sons of the Revolution garnered the assistance of “many persons and associations active in the conservation of historical landmarks and beauties of the city” to attack the problem of “ridding the park of what everybody regards as a nuisance.”

Although the dispute between the Federal government and the city over ownership of the land provided a temporary stay of execution for the post office; New York’s attempts to beautify the city for the upcoming 1939 World’s Fair hastened the end. In 1938 Mullett’s elaborate granite masterpiece with its columns and porches, mansards and iron cresting, was bulldozed to rubble.

Today the old City Hall Post Office is remembered as one of the best examples of monumental French Second Empire architecture in the United States – along with Mullett’s Old Executive Office Building in Washington DC.  However there are few who remember it at all.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Amory S. Carhart Mansion - 3 East 95th Street

photo by Traditional Building Magazine
As the summer of 2000 wound to an end, the Lycee Francaise de New York made a decision.  It would sell the six exquisite East Side mansions that it had used for decades as its “campus” and consolidate into a single, modern building.

Among the grand residences to be sold was the Amory S. Carhart mansion at 3 East 95th Street.

The Carharts had chosen a plot just off Fifth Avenue on East 95th Street in January 1913 as the site of their new home.  Twice the size of most Manhattan residential lots, it measured 50 feet wide.  A more fashionable neighborhood could not have been selected.  Next door Ernesto Fabbri and his wife Edith, a granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, were planning their new home as the block filled with elegant mansions.

As was often the case at the turn of the century, property was listed in the name of the wife; as so it would be with the Carhart house.  On August 4, 1913 the American Stone Trade newspaper casually mentioned that “Horace Trumbauer, 200 Fifth Ave., New York City, architect, has filed plans for a 4-story brick and stone residence to be erected at 3 East 95th St. for Mrs. Anthony [sic] S. Carhart, 52 Exchange Place.  Cost about $125,000.”

Although Trumbauer kept an office in New York, he is most often thought of as a Philadelphia architect.   Construction began that year on what Trumbauer designed as a Louis XVI Parisian townhouse – the architectural flavor of the month with New York’s millionaires at the time.

Work on the house progressed steadily and by May 31, 1914 a New York Times headline proclaimed “Expensive Home for Mrs. Amory S. Carhart Nearing Completion in Ninety-fifth Street.”  It would not be so, however.  The Carharts would never live in their grand home.

Work ground to a halt and the building sat uncompleted until 1919 when Mrs. Carhart died.

Millionaire Clarence H. Mackay purchased the unfinished house and construction was resumed.   While Mackay seemed to have every intention to live in the Carhart mansion, within the year he purchased “for his occupancy,” according to The Times, the Stuart Duncan house at 3 East 75th Street, next door to the opulent Edward Harkness mansion.
Clarence Mackay completed construction of the Carhart mansion then hung a FOR SALE sign on the balcony -- photo NYPL Collection

The Carhart mansion was completed in August 1921.  An outstanding example of French Classicism, it rose four stories above the sidewalk.  Above the rusticated base, a stone balcony with wrought iron railing extended the width of the home.    Here three sets of French doors in arched openings opened.  Decorative carved panels separated these from the third floor windows.  Above a bold cornice, a mansard roof was punctuated by three arched dormers.

Inside were wood-paneled rooms, marble fireplaces and a sweeping staircase.

The mansion became home to Mr. and Mrs.  Francis Saxham Elwes Drury.  The English-born Drury came from a noted family and Mabel Drury was the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Elbridge T. Gerry.  When Mabel died in the house in 1930, she left an estate of $7 million and the stipulation that her husband could continue to use her properties.

In 1935 the Lycee Francais de New York acquired the property and began careful renovations.  Three years later, on April 25, 1938, Count de Saint-Quentin, French Ambassador to the United States, dedicated the school.  While care was taken to preserve most of the interiors; renovation of a residence into a school necessarily requires changes – fire doors, exit signs, industrial lighting and communal bathrooms.  In addition, years of use by school-aged children typically wears heavily on any structure.

When the school decided to sell in 2000, it commissioned Zivkovic Connolly Architects to design a compatible structure to replace the uninspired school building next door at No. 5 in hopes of increasing the sale value.  The architects, working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, produced a striking, modern building drawing loosely on the designs of Trumbauer’s adjoining mansion.

The modern structure next door at No. 5 was build using 2-foot thick masonry construction and superbly-blending architecture -- photo Traditional Building Magazine

In the meantime, the Carhart mansion was renovated into four exclusive residential condominiums.  Among them was the 10,350 square foot duplex owned by executive Dennis Mehiel and his wife.  The five-bedroom unit with a 1,100 square foot living room was relisted by the couple in 2008 for $35 million.

The Carhart mansion was designated a New York City landmark in 1974, the Commission calling it “one of the finest examples” in New York City of 18th Century French Classicism.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The 1889 Schuetzen Hall -- 12 St. Mark's Place

The imposing terra cotta panel survives beneath a graffiti-slathered mansard -- photo by Schreibkraft
In the last half of the 19th Century, over a million and a half German immigrants poured into the Lower East Side neighborhood creating what came to be called “Kleindeutchland” or “Little Germany.”  The Bowery was lined with music halls and beer gardens where the locals could relax.

In 1889 another gathering place appeared – the Deutsch-Amerikanische Schuetzen Gesellschaft, or the German-American Shooting Society at No. 12 St. Mark's Place.

The Hall as it appeared in 1893 - King's Handbook of New York (copyright expired)
More commonly referred to as Schuetzen Hall, it was designed by William C. Frohne for a conglomeration of two dozen shooting clubs. The Society’s main thrust was a yearly shooting contest, held normally in Queens or on Long Island, and the hall was used as a place for meetings and conviviality.

Frohne lived in the neighborhood at the time and the Hall was one of his first major commissions. He reflected the Society’s native roots by designing the building in an enthusiastic German Renaissance style. The architect lavished the limestone and brick façade with terra cotta ornamentation; the most pronounced being the enormous cast panel of the fourth floor depicting crossed rifles behind a target. Four flags, a spread-eagle and the motto in German “Unity Makes Strong” completed the elaborate panel. Above, a nearly-vertical slate-tiled mansard featured a severely angled mansard cap between two dormers.

photo by Alice Lum
Separating the second and third floors was a wide frieze announcing the name of the Society and between the third and fourth were decorative terra cotta panels of swags and a female face.

photo by Alice Lum
In the basement were a shooting gallery and a bowling alley. The street level housed a saloon, a large meeting room and a restaurant. The rest of the building was reserved for lodge rooms and an apartment for the caretaker on the fourth floor.

The lodge rooms were rented to a variety of union groups over the decades – the International Molders and Foundry Workers’ Union, The National Federation of Post Office Clerks, the Building Trades Council, and the Gas Workers Union among them.

Carved faces flank the date when construction commenced -- photo by Alice Lum
On the evening after Christmas in 1888 the hall was formally dedicated. The New York Times reported that “The entire building was handsomely draped and festooned with the national colors of Germany and America and with fancy banners.”

The annual shooting contest – called the Schuetzenfest – attracted competing clubs from around the country. The Society along boasted over 1400 members and the scope of the event was staggering. In 1891 as planning got underway, The Times noted that “The complete arrangements for the contest will involve an outlay of nearly $150,000. Fifty rifle ranges will be constructed and immense dancing, reception, and refreshment halls will be erected.”

Not all of the 24 shooting clubs were solely German. Among them were the Christopher Columbus Company, The Grenadier Company No. 11, the Washington Rifles of New Jersey and the Gotham Revolver Club.

With its strong ties to labor unions as well as shooting clubs, the Hall was the site of a reception and dance in December 1909 for the benefit of girl shirtwaist strikers who were arrested and sent to the workhouse for picketing.

On Wednesday, Jun 15, 1904 Little Germany experienced its most devastating tragedy when 1,031 women and children were drowned or burned to death in the fiery sinking of the paddle steamer, the General Slocum. The group, organized by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, was on a pleasure excursion for the day.

Three months later a group of 300 survivors and bereaved met at Schuetzen Hall to demand the punishment of the negligent ship owners and the Federal Inspectors who “willfully and dastardly permitted this unfit vessel to be in commission.”

Charles Dersch announced “While most of us are of German birth or descent, we are here to demand our rights as American citizens.”

The fight for those rights would go on for years.

The group was back at the Hall in August 1911 protesting the release of the boat’s Captain, William Van Schaick and again on December 21, 1912 when President Taft restored the captain’s citizenship.

The Slocum disaster eventually led to the end of Little Germany. The devastated community never really recovered and slowly the community dissolved as residents moved away. In 1920 the Society sold its headquarters to Anna M. Brindell.

In the late 1920s it became a homeless shelter called The Tub, run by Urbain Ledoux.  Ledoux, known to the men he helped as “Mr. Zero,” accommodated 135 homeless men on steamer chairs and advertised “auctions” of the men’s services in order to find them temporary work.

As the Great Depression hit New York, desperate men flocked to The Tub for a free meal and hopes of employment. On New Year’s Day 1929, over two thousand homeless men ate dinner here. The line outside was unbroken from early morning through the afternoon.

The financial burden of maintaining the facility became too much for Ledoux, however, and by the end of the year he owed Anna Brindell $7,345 in rent and was dispossessed.  She sold the building the following year.

In 1943, until 1962, it became the home of the Polish community group called the St. Mark’s Community Center. As the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood changed, it was the Ukrainian Culture Center during the 1960s, and became the original site of the St. Mark’s Bookshop. Today the ground floor is home to a restaurant. 

The vibrant neighborhood has greatly changed since the days when German was the dominant language. Yet scattered throughout there are reminders of Little Germany like William Frohne’s remarkable Schuetzen Hall. It survives in a state of remarkable preservation and was designated a New York City landmark in 2001.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Charming Houses at Nos. 4 through 10 Grove Street

Walking along this section of Grove Street is somewhat like stepping back in time.
The row of four Federal-style houses on the slightly-bending Grove Street, between Hudson and Bedford Streets, is perhaps the most astonishing architectural time-capsule in Manhattan.

In 1714 Queen Anne bestowed to Trinity Church land stretching along the Hudson River from Duane Street north to what would become Christopher Street in the Village of Greenwich. Called Trinity Church Farm, the rural land would eventually become highly valuable real estate.

James N. Wells was among New York City’s earliest real estate developers. It would be Wells who was responsible for much of the development of Clement Moore’s family estate, Chelsea, north of Greenwich Village. But in 1825 he was concerned with church-owned property on the gently winding Grove Street.

Wells built five matching working-class houses here from 1825 to 1834. The clapboard houses were faced in Flemish bond red brick. Like most of the Federal period buildings in Greenwich Village, these were designed by the builder, using the popular style-books of the time. The relatively few trained architects of the period, like John McComb, were busy with grand downtown edifices like City Hall.
The row remains unchanged since this early 20th Century shot -- Museum of the City of New York
The result was a row of modest but charming residences, 18 to 21 feet wide. Nearly two centuries later the AIA Guide to New York City would comment on the copybook origins of this row saying “In translation, the detailing is less pretentious, adapting to the needs of American merchant and craftsman clients; nonetheless there is a faint, pleasant echo of London’s Bloomsbury.”

Paired dormers caped by classic pediments pierced the roofs and delicate wrought iron railings graced the English basements and stoops.
Interior details, impressive for modest homes, remained intact into the 20th Century -- Museum of the City of New York
The little houses were leased to families with moderate incomes throughout the 19th century. At some point mid-century, No. 2 was replaced with a larger, Victorian row house.
The deftly carved woodwork would, most likely, not have been originally painted -- Museum of the City of New York
John H. Matthews, an advertising agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad was living in No. 4 in 1893. The 55-year old Matthews enjoyed a drink, it seems, for on the morning of July 9 of that year he was already inebriated when he ordered a whiskey in a saloon at 39 Desbrosses Street. As the bartender turned to pour the drink, Matthews fell off his bar stool and fractured his skull.

Railroad advertiser John H. Matthews was living here in 1893 when he met an unexpected demise. 
It was around the same time that Trinity came under attack for the living conditions of its tenement buildings on Church Farm. An 1894 the Department of Buildings and the Board of Health conducted an investigation of Trinity’s properties – including the houses on Grove Street. Saying that the church’s tenements and houses “are unhealthful and that the death rate in them is high,” The New York Times reported “That Trinity’s houses are dilapidated and unsafe in many instances…is now officially confirmed by the investigation which has been and is now being carried on by the Department of Buildings.”

Yet the Grove Street houses passed the inspection fairly well, the only violation being “The metallic leader in front is not connected by a pipe or pipes with the sewer.”

Nevertheless, the unwanted expense and notoriety resulting from the investigation caused Trinity to rethink its holdings. In 1909 Rector William Manning swore to improve the situation and a Vestry study recommended that the residential buildings be torn down and replaced by large, commercial structures. Gradually the church began to divest itself of residential properties.

The Grove Street houses got their turn in June of 1920. Trinity sold a parcel to the syndicate Alentaur Realty Company which included the charismatic Grove Court – a hidden group of six houses tucked behind a wrought iron gate behind Grove Street – and the five three-story houses from No. 2 to 10 Grove Street.

Hidden and quaint, Grove Court can be seen behind the brick wall at No. 10.
The sale rescued the Grove Street group from demolition and commercial development. Alentaur Realty was interested in creating a “home colony” for artists and literary workers in Grove Court as well as remodeling the Grove Street houses as private homes. The firm had purchased, about a year earlier, six vintage houses on St. Luke’s Place that it successfully renovated and re-sold – an astoundingly early example of respect for historic structures and restoration.

The wooden door  frame of No. 4 pretends hard to be made of stone blocks.
A year later the houses were ready for sale. On April 28, 1921 Basil Mangone purchased No. 4 for $10,000, No. 8 for $10,500 and No. 10 for $11,250. W. A. C. Twitty bought No. 6 for $10,500.

When Berenice Abbott photographed this milk wagon in 1936, the dormer of No. 6 had already been long-altered  -- NYPL Collection
Today the charming row is among the most authentic Federal-style groupings in the country. The dormers of No. 6 have been altered long ago; but on the whole the buildings remain untouched. The little group exemplifies the charm attributed to Greenwich Village.

uncredited photographs taken by the author

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The 1901 Edward K. Dunham House -- No. 35 East 68th Street

The Dunham house in 1910.  A traditional brownstone still remains next door -- Architectural Record (copyright expired)
Early in his career, Edward Kellogg Dunham made his mark in the medical community. Having earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1886, he traveled to Berlin where he studied at Koch’s Laboratory and, while there, discovered the “cholera-red” reaction.

Having already established himself as a leading figure in the medical community, the 33-year old Dunham married Mary Dows in 1893. One of four daughters of the fabulously wealthy David Dows – the head of David Dows & Company, among the largest grain dealers in the United States—she had suffered from polio in her childhood and was still partially disabled.

The intrepid Mary, however, had traveled extensively and was an avid and competent amateur photographer.

The couple was residing in Litchfield, Connecticut with their baby daughter Theodora when Kellogg obtained the position of professor of pathology at New York University’s Bellevue Medical College. In 1898 they moved to New York and started plans for a new home.

By this time the streets stretching from Central Park eastward were lined with grand residences of the well-to-do. At 35 East 68th Street stood the brownstone mansion of Mr. and Mrs. John Wesley Love; a four-story structure above a traditional English basement.

photo by Alice Lum
The Dunhams were fond of the location, but not the outdated style of the house. In its place they commissioned renowned architects Carrere & Hastings to fashion a French townhouse in the very au currant Beaux Arts style. Erected between 1899 and 1901, it was a frothy confection dripping with carved garlands and extenuated brackets above the third floor. The house rose three floors over a rusticated base to a mansard roof with two projecting oculi – or round windows.

Two arched French windows at the second story sat behind stone balustrades. French doors opened to ornate bronze grills, creating pseudo-balconies, at the third floor, under an eye-catching stone balcony.

Details that the Architectural Record termed "florid" included elaborate carvings and French grills -- photo by Alice Lum

The Architectural Record tossed its expected jabs at the design, using terms like “florid” and “pretentiousness;” however it allowed that “the exuberance of ornament is handled with skill and discretion, and very clearly avoids defects of over-muchness inevitable in this sort of work produced by designers of less experience.”

Indeed, compared to the massive limestone or marble palaces the firm was producing on Fifth Avenue, this commission was rather modest, yet they managed to impart a richness of architecture here without appearing too grandiose.

photo by Alice Lum
Nearly a decade later, in 1910, the Architectural Record would revisit the Dunham house as an example of Carrere & Hastings' skill.  It urged young architects to follow the firm's lead when designing fashionable homes for the moderately wealthy.

“Yet, [the house] must not be planned on too grand a scale, because in that case it falsifies the lives of its inhabitants.” The magazine applauded the “distinction and style" of the Dunham residence, "without being pretentious or grandiose.”

Edward Dunham was not only a member of several medical associations, but belonged to the Century Club, the Harvard Club, and the University Club.  Yet, whether because of Mary’s partial physical disability or because of the doctor’s extensive research, the Dunhams never immersed themselves in the whirl of New York’s inner social circles.

That changed briefly, however, in 1914, Theodora’s debutante year. Mrs. Dunham hosted teas, dinners and receptions to “introduce” her daughter. And the following year, she gave “a large dinner” for the debut of Theodora’s friend Mary E. Opdycke.

During World War I Dr. Kellogg worked in U.S. Army hospitals, treating meningitis and researching the disease. Through this research he became involved with soldiers suffering from the lung disease empyema.

Kellogg died in the house on April 15, 1922 from heart disease. After his death Mary published his empyema research, with a group of his colleagues.

Mary Dunham remained at No. 35 East 68th until her death in 1936. The house was leased a year later to banker William A. Read by her estate.

By the time this photograph was taken in 1945, the neighboring brownstone was gone as were the delightful round windows in the mansard -- photo NYPL Collection
In 1977 the dignified home was converted into duplex apartments. 

Where once charming French round windows poked through the mansard roof, a clumsy and obtrusive addition destroys the design -- photo by Alice Lum

Today, at least from the exterior, No. 35 East 68th Street remains much as it was in 1901 – what the AIA Guide to New York City calls “extravagant ornament on a ‘modest’ Carrere & Hastings palace.”

Monday, July 25, 2011

Emery Roth's Art Nouveau No. 557 8th Avenue

The street level has been obliterated and the cornice has been shoddily repaired, however Emery Roth's stunning little building retains most of its decorative elements.

 On February 8, 1902 Matthew Hettrick sold the little one-story building at the southwest corner of 8th Avenue and 38th Street. Changes were happening in 1902 – motorcars were seen more frequently, more and more buildings were being illuminated by electric lights, and a new art form was taking hold: art nouveau.

While the sinuous, flowing lines of art nouveau--as reflected in Tiffany Studios lamps, silverware and stained glass-- challenged the staid, traditional Victorian styles; it was unable to get a foothold in Manhattan architecture.

Emery Roth’s refreshing confection that would replace Hettrick’s mundane building was an exception.

Roth was a member of the architectural firm Stein, Cohen and Roth. The first owner of the property for whom he designed the building is unclear; however Roth produced for him a dramatic and unconventional building that stood out among its drearier neighbors.

Plans were filed with the Department of Buildings for a three-story “dwelling and office” building. Completed in 1903, it was an modest structure with exuberant detailing. Cream-colored brick was trimmed in carved brownstone and pressed galvanized metal. To enhance its presence, Roth designed a bold and ambitious cornice that caught the eye of the passerby.

Surprisingly, Roth chose carved brownstone rather than opting for the versatile and relatively inexpensive terra cotta for the repeating elements.
 Two bay windows at the ends of the 38th Street facade, somewhat out of place by holding firmly to their Victorian roots, added dimension. The rest of the design gave in to the new age with abandon. The second story windows were framed in brownstone, capped with undulating, sensuous art nouveau swirls. Shallow brick pilasters rose between the windows to the third floor.

The decorative bays with pressed metal ornamentation added dimension to the long 38th Street facade.

Between the windows at the third floor were maidens’ heads in deep relief, each sheltered by a shell. Below the heads, brownstone garlands stretched from window to window in a continuous line.

A corner entrance would have served the shop; the hotel entrance was at the western-most end of the 38th Street side.
Roth beveled the corner, allowing for a more dramatic entrance way while providing extra sunlight to the rooms above. In all, it was a architecturally theatrical treatment of what normally would be a commonplace commercial building.

Inland Architect reflected “In a district of dry loft buildings, this little building calls out for attention like a scoop of ice cream on a hot summer sidewalk.”

Sadly abused, the hotel entrance still shows touches of both art nouveau and Victorian detailing.
The “dwelling” Roth’s plans called for was most likely a hotel from the onset; certainly it was run as one soon after completion. Managed as a residential hotel, its tenants were for the most part long-term. The commercial space at street level was originally a jewelry store, run by Emil Moescher who lived with his wife in the rear.

In 1906 the building was sold and would remain in the same hands for nearly half a century.

On August 15, 1908, the distraught Moescher, who was suffer from stomach cancer, struggled with his wife in their apartment. He managed to get control long enough to shoot himself in the mouth, ending his miseries.

Moescher’s jewelry store soon after was converted to a saloon.

Because of its proximity to the theatre district, the little hotel quickly became a favorite among actors. Among them was Charles Hendrix who was living here in 1908 when he got into a dispute over a glass of beer with Patrick McCafferty, the bartender at a Third Avenue saloon near 22nd Street. To settle the argument, McCafferty drew a knife and fatally stabbed the actor in the stomach and slashed the back of his head.

The carved brownstone beauties stare down from under their protecting seashells
Among the 14 residents in 1910 were shoe salesman Philip Blass, married acting couple Phyllis and John Ellis, and 49-year old London McCormack listed simply as “widower.” Among the thespians who often called No. 557 home were, reportedly, Buster Keaton and his family.

Until 1919 John J. Quigley held the liquor license at No. 557. That came to a halt on October 28 of that year when the Volstead Act ushered in the age of Prohibition. Apparently believing that if you can’t beat them, join them, Quigley became a Prohibition Agent.

While ownership did not change, the United Cigar Stores Co., leased the building for a period of ten years, from April 11, 1930 through December 30, 1940.  Understandably the commercial space during this time was a tobacco shop.

Three years after the end of World War II the little building changed ownership for the first time since 1906 when the Lenger Realty Corporation purchased it.

The flashy little building had a moment in the spotlight when in 1951 the exterior was used as the fictional Actors’ Hotel in the short-lived ABC series “Actors Hotel.”

Today Emery Roth’s marvelous, showy building at No. 557 8th Avenue has lost its sidewalk level. A modern brick renovation erased any traces of the architect’s original storefront. Above, the metal cornice is patched and dented. Yet, despite its unfortunate treatment, the ostentatious building still retains the bulk of its original design and still outshines its neighbors at it did in 1903.

Although Mary Beth Betts of the Landmarks Preservation Commission once said “it’s the kind of building we would take a serious look at,” it remains unprotected and under-appreciated.

 A pizza shop and a DVD store occupy the space where Emil Moescher's jewelry store was.  The elaborate metal cornice has lost much of its detail and suffered shoddy repairs.
One of only a handful of art nouveau structures in Manhattan, it is a rare and wonderful example in a desperately tenuous situation.

photographs taken by the author

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The 1902 Kaskel & Kaskel Building - No. 316 Fifth Avenue

Two years after the end of the Civil War, Jacob Michaelis and Caesar Kaskel opened clothing store, Michaelis & Kaskel, on Bond Street and Broadway.  Catering to the carriage trade, the firm produced its own high-quality custom-made apparel.

In 1881 the Michaelis & Kaskel moved to 20 West 23rd Street in the fashionable shopping district where they plied their business for four years before it was reorganized as Kaskel & Kaskel.  Now operated by brothers Albert and Max Kaskel, it sold only high-end menswear.

By the turn of the century Kaskel & Kaskel Co. was one of New York’s leading haberdasheries, providing shirts for the city’s wealthiest gentlemen, including the President of the United States. In 1902 the firm commissioned architect Charles L. Berg to design a new headquarters and retail space at 316 Fifth Avenue at the southwest corner of 32nd Street, just south of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

In 1911 Kaskel & Kaskel's white marble building stood out on Fifth Avenue-- photo NYPL Collection 
The neighborhood had changed from one of Victorian mansions to a mix of residential and exclusive retail buildings. In keeping with the area, Berg created a white marble Beaux Arts palace. Two great arched openings spanned three floors on the Fifth Avenue and easternmost 32nd Street sides. A stone cornice supported by ornate brackets separated the rusticated piers below and the sixth story and above, a massive copper-trimmed mansard roof erupted bold copper dormers.

Above the two arches, large marble cartouches were emblazoned with carved K’s. The impressive structure was not to be overlooked and shouted the firm’s high-class status.
Ornate cartouches were emblazoned with the letter K - photo by Alice Lum
 The 1902 issue of The Electrical World and Engineer magazine was impressed with Kaskel & Kaskel’s forward-thinking use of electric lighting in its show windows. The writer complimented the firm on using artificial lighting to illuminate the windows at night to attract customers – an innovative marketing tool at the time.

On October 21, 1903, a year after Kaskel & Kaskel's new building was completed, well-dressed New Yorkers strolled along Fifth Avenue.   A few fashionable brownstone dwellings still clung on and the imposing Waldorf-Astoria hotel loomed two blocks to the north, where the Empire State Building would later rise -- NYPL Collection
Although Kaskel & Kaskel catered mainly to the masculine customer – arguing in one advertisement that “bright silks and satins are not for the fair sex alone – they accommodated female customers as well. The New York Times, in reporting on the opening of the Fall line early in the century called the company “the arbiters of fashion in haberdashery, not only for the male sex, but also for their feminine imitators, as fully one-half of the customers there were ladies.”

Shoddy signs are slathered across the facade today.

An often-repeated gag was that upon being introduced to President Theodore Roosevelt, Max Kaskel proudly announced, “I made your shirts.”

The President immediately replied, “Oh yes, Major Schurtz, I’d have known you anywhere.”

Staunchly following the traditional and conservative rules of men’s attire, Kaskel & Kaskel maintained its well-bred customer base by ignoring fashion trends. In 1905, the Kaskels were interviewed by a reporter for Men’s Wear, a newspaper for apparel retailers, concerning a new trend in colored collars. The company position was clear: “We don’t want colored collars, as they would be a nuisance, either attached or detached. We will never try to encourage the sale of them, and, should people ask for them, which is not likely, we will discourage them.”

In 1915 as commercial concerns moved further northward on Fifth Avenue, Kaskel opened a second store at 535 Fifth Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets. Six years later, in March of 1922 the firm consolidated the stores into a single location at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, occupying 5,200 square feet of floor space.

The days of elegance and style for No. 316 Fifth Avenue were over.

Ornate brackets once held a stone cornice below the mansard roof, replaced by a gaping scar

Throughout the 20th Century the white marble palace where Astors and Vanderbilts shopped for shirts became home to tawdry shops hawking souvenirs and electronics. The stone cornice beneath the mansard roof was stripped off and grime and rust stained the façade.

The AIA Guide to New York City summed up the condition of the once-proud building. “Crusty old Beaux Arts, in the process of being devoured by its crummy commercial occupants. But a copper-clad mansard roof keeps a hat on what is deteriorating at street level.”

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Friday, July 22, 2011

The 1903 Isaac L. Rice Home -- 346 West 89th Street

photo by

Twenty-five years after Frederick Law Olmsted had planned the idyllic Riverside Park along Riverside Drive, it was finally completed.  Imposing views of the Hudson River and New Jersey palisades, along with the pleasant green park made residential lots desirable.

By the turn of the century, Riverside Drive was the Upper West Side’s answer to Fifth Avenue.  Here millionaire builders were less restricted and, along with the many upper-class row houses, were no fewer than thirty free-standing mansions with lawns and gardens.

In 1899 the site for the planned Soldiers and Sailors Monument was chosen in the park at 89th Street.  That same year real estate developer William W. Hall sold the plot of land directly across from it to Isaac L. Rice for $225,000.  The lot carried the restriction that anything built here must “be a high class private dwelling house, not less than four stories, and designed for the use of one family only.”

The New York Times chimed in on the purchase noting that it “doubtless means the construction of a mansion that will be a fitting companion to the Clark residence on the opposite corner.”

Rice made a surprising choice of architects for his new residence, selecting Herts & Tallant, a firm that was making its mark as theater designers.  Rice was familiar with their abilities, however, having seen their renovations of the Harmonie Club–actually their first commission—of which he was a member.


The German-born Rice had wide interests.  While he made his fortune as legal counsel to railroad companies, most notably the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, he recognized the potential in electrical inventions and founded the Electric Vehicle Co., the Electric Boat Co., and was president of the Electric Storage Battery Co.

Rice founded the magazine Forum.  It published insights, reviews and comments on political and literary issues.  He was, as well, highly regarded nation-wide as a proficient chess player, Rice invented an opening move known as the “Rice gambit.”

If Rice’s choice of architects was unexpected, it was not regrettable.  As plans were filed with the Department of Buildings in August 1900, The New York Times wrote “Isaac L.Rice will build one of the finest mansions in the city…The French villa style of architecture will be followed…The exterior will be of brick and granite, with marble trimmings.  In the centre of the structure an observatory tower will rise to a height of ninety-six feet above the curb.”

Deftly combining Neo-Georgian and Beaux-Arts styles, Herts & Tallant produced a red brick mansion trimmed in white marble, as The New York Times predicted.   Four stories tall, it was accessed on the Riverside Drive side through a dramatic stone arch that rose through the third floor.   Between the openings of the porte cochere a carved bas-relief depicted six children with symbols of the Liberal Arts–possibly portraits of the six Rice children.

The bowed porte cochere would later be mirrored in the elliptical bay on the opposite side -- photo by Alice Lum

The mansion was completed in 1903 and the Rices entertained sumptuously.  In keeping with their passionate interest in the arts, they held a dinner party for the French writer and lecturer M. Yves Guyot on December 27, 1904.

The luxurious mansion, named Villa Julia by Rice, and its beautiful setting, however, were not without problems.  Tugboats passing on the Hudson below disturbed Julia Barnett Rice with their incessant horns and whistles.  One purpose of the whistles was to summon crews from their late-night saloon visits.   The intrepid Mrs. Rice would not stand for it.

Julia Rice held an medical degree from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, an unusual accomplishment for someone of her sex and social stature at the time.   In 1905 she rallied the neighbors in a campaign to regulate the whistle blowing.  Armed with petitions signed by hundreds of residents as well as the heads of several hospitals, she called upon Health Commissioner Darlington (claiming the noise “shattered nerves”), Police Commissioner McAdoo, Collector Stranahan, and other city officials.

The porte cochere sculpture possibly represents the Rice children -- photo by Alice Lum

The New York Times reported that ‘Mrs. Rice is prepared to lay the matter before Secretary Shaw of the Treasury Department if the city authorities find themselves powerless to remedy the matter.”

“Shattered nerves cannot be repaired,” she complained.  “No reasonable person objects to the orderly use of whistles on the river or to continuous whistling on foggy nights when there is danger of a collision.  However there is no justification for the almost continuous blowing of tugboat whistles every night, which makes sleep impossible for hours at a time.  It is a situation which rightly calls for protest, and the protest is not confined to the wealthy residents of Riverside Drive.”

photo by Alice Lum

The tugboat officers retaliated.  Each night a group of tugs would gather within range of Villa Julia, directing spotlights into the windows and blowing their steam whistles.  It only steeled Julia Rice in her mission.

By November 1906 she had won her battle.  “Unnecessary tooting” became a violation of the navigation laws.  But Julia Rice was not done yet.   Within a month she had organized the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise and lashed out against noise in the vicinity of hospitals.  “I have been informed that in some instances patients have been driven insane by these unnecessary noises,” she claimed.

Armed with a gramophone and recordings of street noise, she invited reporters into her library to listen to what The New York Times called “the whirr and bang of flat-wheeled surface cars, the shriek and rumble of the elevated expresses, the honk of the automobile, and the various discordant street cries, tooting of whistles, yell of street vendors, etc.”

Today’s quiet zones around hospitals owe their existence to the fervent struggles of Julia Rice.

In February 1906 Mrs. Rice hired a young servant girl, Hortense Uzac, who had just arrived in New York from her native France.  Three weeks after the maid had begun work, Julie Rice left her bedroom around 10:00 at night to attend to a reception downstairs.  She failed to lock the bedroom door.

Half an hour later she returned and noticed a ring that had been on her dresser was missing.  A few days later, as Detective Moran was questioning the servants one-by-one in the parlor, the girl bolted from the house and threw herself into the icy Hudson River.  She was pulled out and arrested for attempted suicide.  Juila Rice reacted with kindness and sympathy.

“There was no accusation of any sort against the Uzac  girl,” she insisted, “unless the police may charge her with attempting to take her life.”  The ring was found in a search of the house.  “Nothing else is missing and no accusations of any sort are made by us,” she said.

Isaac Rice, by 1907, was president of the Holland Torpedo Boat Company, a position that required him, along with Julia, to spend extended periods of time in Europe.  They decided to sell Villa Julia.

In December 1907 it was sold to cigarette manufacturer Solomon Schinasi for $600,000.  In reporting the sale, The New York Times noted “The Rice house, with its grounds, modeled after an Italian villa, has long been one of the show places along Riverside Drive.”

Schinasi, said The New York Times, “will occupy the house as soon as extensive alterations can be completed.”  The “extensive alterations” included an extension at the southeast corner and a semicircular bay.  Mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert designed the renovations, melding them seamlessly with the Herts & Tallant architecture.

In 1912 Gilbert was brought back to design a new brick and marble wall around the property–the original having been ordered demolished as it extended beyond the property wall.  Gilbert mimicked the balustrades of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial across the street, creating a harmonious flow.

Schinasi died in the house of heart disease on October 4, 1919.  Eight years later his son Leon added a garage and an additional story to the bay extension, all in keeping with the original architectural design.

Ruby Schinasi remained in the house after Leon’s death.  In 1935 the wealthy widow reported spending $30,000 annually on each of her two children, Solomon, then eight years old, and Betty, six.

Change came in 1954 when the yeshiva Chofetz Chaim acquired the mansion.  The building was a blessing and a curse to the cash-strapped religious school for Jewish children.   While the yeshiva attempted to maintain the structure, costs were always an issue.

So when, in 1980, a developer offered between $1.5 and $2 million for the property as the site of a 30-story tower-plaza building, good fortune seemed to shine on the school.  A battle between the school and preservationists quickly developed.  Facing the school across the battle lines were high-powered names like Jacqueline Onassis and Itzhak Perlman.  It would be one of the fiercest and most harrowing landmark battles in the city.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was charged with proving that the mansion possessed special character, special historical or aesthetic interest, or value.”  Rabbi Feigelstock of the yeshiva didn’t think it did.  “By me, Isaac Rice is not anybody,” he said

Whether Rice was anybody or not, the house was determined to be a landmark and the yeshiva was stuck with it.

By 2005 it was becoming degraded.  Now home to Yeshiva Ketana, its decorative copper was falling away, the balustrade wall was cracked and deteriorating and neighbors complained regularly that Julia Rice’s Italian gardens were now a dust bowl, filling their homes with dirt on windy days.

The mansion remains in the hands of the yeshiva, which tries valiantly to keep the property in repair.  It is one of two surviving freestanding mansions on Riverside Drive and a lovely, if tattered reminder of better days.