Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Rare Survivor of "Genteel" Apartment Living - No. 129 East 17th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1879 work was completed on an apartment building owned by Jane Scott, widow of the recently deceased Dr. J. Walter Scott.  Mrs. Scott’s project was a risky one.    Apartment living was a novel idea for upper middle-class families and one not being readily accepted.

After all, Mrs. Astor, who also refused to dine in public, derided apartment life as “living on a shelf.”

To ensure that her speculative investment succeeded, Mrs. Scott chose carefully.   To clearly distinguish her building from the more common tenements rising throughout the city that were intended for the lower classes, she built in a respectable neighborhood just three blocks south of fashionable Gramercy Park.  Hers would be a dignified building in which tenants would enjoy a full floor each, upscale touches like carved marble mantels and ornate plaster ceiling moldings. 

Scott commissioned Napoleon LeBrun to design it.  LeBrun had moved to New York just before the Civil War from Philadelphia where he had designed several noteworthy churches and civic buildings.  While he would become best known in New York for his elaborate fire houses mimicking French chateaux and Italian palazzos; for Mrs. Scott he produced a reserved five-story brick and brownstone structure with tantalizing touches of French Gothic.

Handsome French Gothic details enhance the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Among the first residents was the “Police President,” Stephen B. French.  On March 1, 1881 French, who was ill, summoned the Police Board to his bedside here to conduct its meeting.

Retired merchant Samuel Collins lived here in 1885 with his dog, a handsome but large St. Bernard, and in 1893 Dr. Pedro Jose Salicrup was among the first physicians to move in.

Other residents would include music publisher Leo Von Raven and Dr. Nan Gilbert Seymour.  Seymour was renowned as an expert on tuberculosis and was the author of several reports on its treatment.  Dr. Seymour’s apartment doubled as his office.

Tenants tended to be well-educated and successful.  Earle Rosman Crowe, who lived here in 1911 with his wife Kathleen and their son Phillip, had graduated Yale.  Florence M. Johnson was an alumna of Smith and H. J. Forman was a graduate of Harvard.

While the other apartments took up a full floor, with two bedrooms each, Oscar E. Stevens’ apartment was larger.  The New York Times described it in March 1911 as “a duplex apartment on the top floor of the old-fashioned dwelling in Seventeenth Street.  Its additional rooms are in a superimposed story, which extends over the rear of the house, and is occupied as a laundry and as living quarters for two maids.”

The “two maids” were Margaret Shevlin, “waitress and nurse,” and Mary Molloy, the cook.  Their living quarters were accessed from the kitchen through a private hall and stairs; essentially a separate apartment.

Stevens was an engineer with the Western Electric Company.  He lied here with his wife, Caroline Morgan Stevens, and their two year old daughter Caroline.  On March 10, 1911 while the couple was away, thieves entered the apartment by raising a ladder to the kitchen window from the roof of the building next door.  They escaped with over $10,000 worth of Caroline Stevens’ jewelry.

Through some miracle of oversight, No. 129 East 17th Street survived the 20th century with essentially no changes – inside or out.  That it managed to escape the 1960s when vintage buildings and dated interiors were considered expendable is astounding.  Andrew Alpern contends in his 1975 “Apartments for the Affluent: A Historical Survey of Buildings in New York,” that No. 129 is the oldest extant “genteel” apartment house in the city.

In 1990 two couples, George and Patricia Back and Jane and Richard Perin, commissioned preservation architect Joseph Pell Lombardi to renovate the structure.   While cautiously updating the building, its interior details – mahogany doors and marble-tiled foyer, for instance – were lovingly preserved.

Today there are only four units in the building:  a triplex running from the basement through second floor, a duplex on the third and fourth floor, and two floor-through apartments above.

photo by Alice Lum
A charming building, No. 129 East 17th Street survives intact as a page from the history of the development of apartment living in New York City.

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