Friday, February 17, 2012

Hidden Faces, Dancing Cherubs and Monsters -- No. 151-155 W. 22nd St.

The architect playfully used a variety of treatments-- a planar basement, rough-cut stone first floor, rusticated second, ornamented third and fourth, rising to an Italian-inspired fifth floor.
The West 22nd Street block between 6th and 7th Avenues was still lined with comfortable brownstone homes in 1890, like that of surgeon William O. Cutliffe.  But the development of 6th Avenue with its grand, block-wide emporiums and the commercial growth along 7th Avenue would soon change all that.

Residential hotels were coming into favor among the upper-middle class as a means to avoid the expense and bother of maintaining a private home.  On the site of Dr. Cutliffe’s home and its matching neighbor, one such hotel rose at Nos. 151 and 153 West 22nd Street.  Developer Henry Meinken commissioned his architect of choice, James W. Cole, to design the new structure which was completed in the spring of 1891.

The five story hotel sat above a deep English basement which was protected by a wrought iron fence.   A mixture of Italian Renaissance and the highly-popular Romanesque Revival styles, it featured a medley of ornamental details.  The arched entrance ways with clustered medieval columns sat above broad stoops.  The stairs were flanked by heavy brownstone walls that cascaded onto miniature colunettes under foliage carvings.

The Romanesque-revival stoop, now painted, echoes the entrance with colunettes and foliate carving.
The brownstone of the first floor was carved to simulate rough-cut blocks.   Heavy lintels were carved in foliage designs, under an intricate frieze.  And here we begin to see the stone carver’s playful treatment of the decoration.
Within the ornate, tangled foliage of the frieze are hidden faces—women, a king and an impish creature—along with a salamander, a dragon and a unicorn.  The heavily-carved keystone of the entrance arch presumes to be an abstract, leafy design, but upon inspection is a grotesque face.

Like a stone carver's tongue-in-cheek double entendre, the face in the keystone is camouflaged by foliage.

The third and fourth floors explode in hidden images.  Rows of square floral tiles adorn the piers, each one a fantastic face in every manner of expression.   From the midst of elaborate panels peeked infant faces, mustached visages and one dancing nude child.   It was a 19th century version of Where’s Waldo in stone—a delightful testament to the wit, whimsy and talent of the architectural stone cutter.

A close inspection of the carved tiles between the windows reveals elaborately disguised faces.  Above, a handsome pressed cornice tops an series of arched windows with face-carved keystones.

The humorous and quirky details of the façade would be equaled by the remarkable lives of the building’s residents.    While those living here were not of the upper class, they were distinctly colorful.
Jeannette Neal Horton was living here with her mother in 1905.  There were rumors that Ms. Horton made her living as an actress; but her vocation was not discussed.  Seven months earlier she had met Herbert V. Croker through his brother, Frank, who was a long-time friend.  Herbert And Jeannette fell in love and made plans to go West.

Paneled carvings which at a glance appear to be merely swirling foliate designs, hide faces, birds and animals.
On May 4 Croker asked Mrs. Horton for her daughter’s hand in marriage and received her consent.  The next morning the young man boarded a train for Bliss, Oklahoma with his intended wife and her mother to follow in two weeks.

Croker never made it to Ranch 101 in Oklahoma where the two had planned to be married.  On May 13, as the train approached Newton, Kansas, he was found dead in his seat.  The unexpected death set off a volley of accusations and slanderous remarks.

Children throughout the decades have delighted in finding carvings like birds, faces and snarling monsters.
Printed articles that Croker had been in an opium den the night before his death incensed Jeannette.  “It’s a libel on Herbert’s memory,” she asserted.  “He did not smoke opium; of that I am certain.”  She did concede that “He may have taken a little too much drink, and this may have affected his heart.  He told me several times that he had a weak heart.”

In the meantime, Croker’s mother denied that her son had anything to do with the actress.  She authorized a formal statement to the press that she “did not believe Miss Horton’s assertion.”

Although Jeannette admitted Herbert had told her his mother was against the marriage, she told reporters, “I had never met his mother, but I knew Flossie, his sister.  I could not see why Mrs. Croker should object.”

When Mrs. Horton met with reporters, she brought along a clergyman.  When she was asked if her daughter worked, he answered for her.  “She does work,” then turning to Mrs. Horton added, “You’d better tell, it will get out anyway.”

The New York Times reported that “Mrs. Horton denied that Miss Horton was an actress, but refused to tell her daughter’s vocation.”
A scary demon peers from among the foliage of a pilaster capital.
The hotel was in the newspapers again when Mrs. Grace Clarke Sutter was arrested.  The 33-year old resident devised a scheme to collect charity money to supplement her income.  She would approach a florist stand, order flowers to be sent to a particular address C.O.D., then as the transaction was being completed, casually ask if the vendor cared to contribute to her non-existent cause.

In January 1915 she ordered $11 worth of flowers from Stephen Massas, a florist at 129th Street and Lexington Avenue.  The arrangement was to be delivered to Mrs. Philip Case nearby at 245 West 128th Street.  “The woman pleaded for 25 cents to add to a subscription for a cork leg for some child in the hospital,” according to the Harlem Court.

Mrs. Sutter knew that anyone with a heart could not refuse the request of a quarter towards a child’s cork leg.

Having collected her 25 cents, she moved on to another stand, also owned by Massas, at 2548 8th Avenue, where she ordered more flowers for Mrs. Philip Case at a different address.  There was, it turned out, no Mrs. Philip Case and no legless child.

Following her arrest, The New  York Times reported that “Investigation by Joseph McKay, probation officer, showed that many tradesmen had contributed to the alleged charity.  The goods Mrs. Sutter ordered were always returned.”

McKay revealed that the woman had “in Providence, R. I., practiced the same tricks and was convicted three months ago of being a common cheat and put on parole.”

Howard Seip was living here when he took a job as concessionaire at the Seneca County Fair in Upstate New York during the summer of 1924.  One of Seip’s duties was to mesmerize the fair-goers by handling a giant rattlesnake.   On August 20 the city boy, believing that the fangs of the big snake had been removed, grabbed the reptile—only to discover the fangs were quite intact.  The snake sank both fangs into Siep’s left hand.

Although he quickly applied a tourniquet and removed the snake from his hand; his condition became grave.  His mother, Mrs. Carrie Seip, received a telegram from the Waterloo Memorial Hospital “to come at once if she wishes to see her son alive.”

By the 1930s the building was being run as an apartment house and continued to house a wide variety of tenants.  Vaudeville actor Benjamin Bernon Noyes died in his apartment here in 1930 at the age of 65.  Known as “The Man of Many Characters,” he had played opposite popular actors of the day like Richard Mansfield and Nancy O’Neill.

In February 1933, 54-year old resident Paul Stevens apparently felt his income as a timekeeper for Roosevelt’s Civil Works Administration was insufficient.   At the time gangsters made illegal money through “policy rackets,” a sort of numbers game.  Twice during the week of February 3 Stevens was arrested for possession of policy slips, resulting in his admission to being a collector “for the Schultz gang,” according to arresting officers.

The same year resident William Dooley came to an unglamorous end.  The 45-year old was a shipping clerk in a Brooklyn proprietary medicine company.  On September 15 he took his landlady, Irene Casey, and a friend, Else Powers, to the cafeteria just around the corner at 168 23rd Street. 

After a single bite of his sirloin steak, he began choking.

Although a doctor from St. Vincent’s Hospital arrived and removed the steak, and the Emergency Square 3 from the W. 13th Street Station treated the man from 7:30 to 10:30; he never regained consciousness.

The owners of the building, George Gottlieb & Co., commissioned architect Samuel Roth to update the apartment house in April 1938.  The modernization cost around $35,000 and luckily, did not involve the remarkable brownstone façade.

The building continued to attract middle-class residents through World War II, like Edward Dondero, a newspaper delivery truck driver.  But by the 1980s the aging structure had become a single-room occupancy flophouse.

Change came in 1982 when the Franciscan friars purchased the building.  Beginning in 1970s the friars from St. Francis Church near Penn Station had been working with the mentally ill homeless.  They converted the old apartment house into a 115-room residence where the otherwise homeless receive psychiatric and social services.

Father Tom Walters explains that “Every tenant lives in his or her own room, sharing a bathroom down the hall with four others.  The rooms are, like everything else in the residence, bright and clean.”

Sadly the western portion lost its original ground level facade in the renovation.

The delightful building with its tongue-in-cheek decoration can be found in no guidebooks, but its unique architecture and quirky history are worth a notice.


  1. Hey Tom! Can you tell a little more about 151 West 22rd street building during the 1916/ and the late 1917. is there a tennenment list of people who once lived their if that possible! I would like to know! Cordially Phil

    1. If you check through the census records of the dates you're interested in you should find information.