Monday, April 30, 2012

The Lost Barnum American Museum -- Broadway and Ann Street

P. T. Barnum created a gigantic billboard out of the facade with painted illustrations of the wonders inside -- sketch NYPL Collection
In 1810 John Scudder put on public display his collection of mounted animals, a live anaconda and alligator, and a gallery of paintings touted as “national portraits.”  A small room was used for lectures on various subjects.  Scudder devoted his life to his American Museum, which was housed in an old two-story structure on Chambers Street that had once been the city’s Almshouse.

The same year that the museum opened, a baby was born in Bethel, Connecticut.  Thirty-one years later that child and John Scudder would cross paths.

By 1835, when he was only 25 years old, P. T. Barnum ’s showmanship and marketing skills were becoming finely-honed.  He paid $1,000—an enormous sum—for the services of an elderly black woman, Joice Heth.   Handbills were printed calling her “Unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world.”

She was the "most interesting curiosity," said Barnum, because she was 161 years old and had been the nurse of George Washington.   The pair traveled through New York and New England and crowds jostled one another to see her.  Ticket sales amounted to approximately $1,500 per week.

Barnum was on his way.

In 1841 he purchased the contents of Scudder’s American Museum and moved the collection to Broadway in an impressive building at the corner of Ann Street.    Barnum negotiated a payment plan with Scudder.  He agreed to pay seven equal installments of $12,000.  Before the first year was out he had paid off the entire amount and grossed $400,000.

He painted the five-story façade, turning it into a gigantic gaudy advertisement with signs, banners and illustrations of the wonders inside.   Barnum continued Scudder’s educational exhibits; but he knew what would draw the public in huge numbers:  the strange and the spell-binding.   Little by little he created a small zoo, a museum of historical items (the authenticity of which might have been questionable) like the trunk of the tree that shaded Jesus’ disciples and a hat worn by U. S. Grant, new scientific instruments, a flea circus and a theater.

Well-dressed patrons stroll the among the cases in 1853 -- sketch NYPL Collection
A year after opening, in August of 1842, Barnum exhibited the immensely-popular Feejee Mermaid—what appeared to be a mummified or embalmed sea creature.   But it was young Charles Stratton who would make an even bigger impression.

That same year Barnum discovered the five-year old dwarf in Bridgeport, Connecticut.   He negotiated a deal with the boy’s parents for a four-week stint.  The boy was paid $3 per week along with board for the family.  Barnum taught him to dance a jig, recite poetry and perform scenes from popular plays.  If the four weeks were successful, promised Barnum, he would get an additional $7 per week.

Charles Stratton was advertised as being 11 years old and his name was changed to General Tom Thumb.  The public adored him and Barnum’s income rose substantially.  It was the beginning of a long-term business relationship and friendship.

Over the course of the next two decades Barnum would present Tom Thumb to President Lincoln, Queen Isabella of Spain, King Leopold of Belgium, Queen Victoria and other crowned heads.
In January 1843 he added to the museum by purchasing the collection of the New York Museum, popularly referred to as Peale’s Museum.    Five years later he added the collection of the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia.    The Barnum Museum was now a considerable collection.

 In addition to the museum space there was a “Moral Lecture Room”—a comfortable theater where dramatic performances were staged.  It was in this hall that Barnum created another sensation.

In 1849 he contacted the opera star Jenny Lind who was famous throughout Europe and well-known in the United States through newspaper accounts.   He offered the diva $1000 per concert if she would travel to New York and give 150 appearances at the Museum.  The singer asked Barnum how he could offer such a staggering amount to someone he had never heard sing.

“I have more faith in your reputation than in my musical judgment,” replied the showman.

When the Swedish Nightingale arrived in New York Harbor in September 1850 30,000 jammed the waterfront to meet the ship.  Barnum auctioned seats for the concerts.  Although she gave 93 concerts rather than the contracted 150, Barnum doubled her salary, paid all her expenses and still netted over $700,000.
In the Moral Lecture Room audiences saw Uncle Tom's Cabin and heard the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind -- sketch NYPL Collection
In the meantime, Barnum continued to lure the public with oddities and human curiosities—what 20th century carnival showmen would call a freak show.  For their 25-cent admission the public could gawk at Josephine Boisdechene, the original bearded lady (a card announced that “Visitors are allowed to touch the beard”);  William Henry Johnson whose abnormally-tapered head earned him the show name of Zip the Pinhead; the Quaker Giant and Giantess; and of course the conjoined brothers Chang and Eng for whom the term Siamese twins was coined.

Barnum convinced 17-year old Anna Swan, a Quaker girl from Nova Scotia to join his group of human curiosities.  She became half of "The Quaker Giant and Giantess" and a leading attraction -- poster, Library of Congress
On June 19, 1850 the New York Tribune reported on the opening play of the season at the Museum.   The theater had been closed for three months and the public was ready to be entertained.  “The opening of the American Museum,” said the article, “after being closed for nine weeks, was the signal for a rush, which crowded the new hall to its utmost capacity.  About three thousand persons were present, who witnessed the performance of the moral Drama of the Drunkard with repeated bursts of applause.”

Barnum addressed the audience after the play, explaining his museum and theater.  “I felt that this community needed and demanded at least one more place of public amusement, where we might take our children, and secure much rational enjoyment, as well as valuable instruction, without the risk of imbibing moral poisons in the chalice presented to our lips.”

In 1853 Barnum staged Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Lecture Room.  The ground-breaking play ran a full season and then was brought back the following April.    The plays presented in the Lecture Room most often had a moral or social lesson with titles like The Drunkard, The Sister’s Sacrifice and Joan of Arc.  In 1858 The Death of Eva was staged—a condensation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In 1854 Fanny Fern wrote in her “Shadows and Sunbeams” of the breadth of the museum’s collection.  “It is possible that every stranger may suppose, as I did, on first approaching Barnum’s Museum, that the greater part of its curiosities are on the outside, and have some fears that its internal will not equal its external appearance.  But, after crossing the threshold, he will soon discover his mistake.”

After listing many of the exhibits—“A Chinese criminal, packed into a barrel, with a hole in the lid, from which his head protrudes, and two at the sides, from whence his helpless paws depend” and “snakes, insects, and reptiles of every description” along with stuffed birds, a “scaly set” of creatures and “hideous monsters”—the author claimed that the entire museum could not be seen in one visit.

“Time fails us to explore all the natural wonders gathered here, from all climes, and lands, and seas, by the enterprise of, perhaps, the only man who could have compassed it.  We turn away, leaving the greater portion unexamined, with an indistinct remembrance of what we have seen, but with a most distinct impression that the ‘getting up’ of Creation was no ordinary affair, and wondering how it could ever have been done in six days.”

Along with Fanny Fern, upwards of 15,000 visitors a day paid their quarter to see the museum.

The ultimate marketing genius, Barnum jumped upon the chance of a lifetime.  In 1864 a dozen native American chiefs were invited by the President of the United States to visit Washington.  Barnum spent an enormous amount of money to bring them to New York to spend time in the museum.

It was a delicate process.  If the proud chiefs of powerful tribes were to get the impression they were on display they would not agree.  The interpreter would not promise a definite time frame, saying “you can only keep them just so long as they suppose all your patrons come to pay them visits of honor.”

Barnum personally took them on stage and introduced them to the audience.  The chiefs had been informed that those in the audience were guests of an important man and that they themselves were the guests of honor.  The public, in the meantime, knew they were seeing real, authentic Indian chiefs and willingly paid for the chance.

Barnum took the chiefs around town in a carriage, visiting public schools and presenting them to the Mayor.   The native Americans were awed by Central Park and the rows of substantial houses that lined the streets.  The Indians got the better of Barnum, however; perhaps the only time in his life the showman was bested.

One chief took a liking to a colorful sea shell in a display case and offered to trade Barnum his shirt for it.  Barnum politely refused and handed the shell to the Indian as a gift.   Decades later Joel Benton in his “Life of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum” recalled “Immediately they all commenced to beg for everything in the vast collection which they happened to take a liking to.  This cost Barnum many valuable specimens and often ‘put him to his trumps’ for an excuse to avoid giving them things which he could not part with.”

By 1865 the museum was one of the foremost collections in the country.  While accounts of today focus on the outlandish and perverse, Barnum’s American Museum also contained scholarly natural history exhibits and was well-regarded by the educated community.    The New York Times remarked that “Those of our citizens who thronged the Lecture-room of the Museum, to the neglect of the well-filled shelves in the many rooms, knew nothing of the capacities of the place for instruction and genuine edification.”

But on the afternoon of July 13 that year it would all come to an end.  A defective furnace in the cellar of Groop’s restaurant, below the museum office, was discovered by an employee just after 12:30.   Within minutes flames reached the lower floors of the museum.  Terror-stricken visitors rushed for the exits while firefighters and policemen rushed in.    The firefighters broke the large panes of glass of the live whale tanks in an effort to slow the flames.   The cases of live anacondas, pythons and other reptiles were overturned so the animals could at least attempt escape.  In the end, all the live animals perished—alligators, a kangaroo, a platypus and other doomed creatures.

At 1:30 the Ann Street façade fall in with a thick cloud of dust and smoke that nearly blocked out the sunlight.  Fifteen minutes later the Broadway front collapsed in three sections, one after another.  By 2:00 the fire had spread to six other buildings.

The fire was finally extinguished by 3:00.  In only two and a half hours ten buildings were burned to the ground and the Barnum American Museum was no more.  Egyptian antiquities, portraits of American leaders by artists like Rembrandt Peale, and irreplaceable historical relics were incinerated.

Newspapers reported that the smoke and dust clouds darkened the midday sky -- NYPL Collection

The New York Times lamented the end of an incomparable collection.  “No public institution in the country pretended even to rival the geological collection of the museum either in extent or value.  The conchological and ornithological departments were likewise extended in range, infinite in variety, and full of interest.  Birds of rarest plumage, fish of most exquisite tint, animals peculiar to every section, minerals characteristic of every region, and peculiarities of all portions of the earth, costly, beautiful curious and strange, were crowded on the dusty shelves of room after room, where they attracted the earnest attention and studious regard of the scholar and the connoisseur.”

The article then added “All this has gone.”

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The 1901 Yale Club (now Penn Club) -- No. 30 West 44th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1900 the 44th Street block between 5th and 6th Avenues had become the epicenter of the exclusive men’s club district.  The New York Yacht Club, the St. Nicholas Club and the Harvard Club were here, along with the Royalton Hotel, a residence hotel for unmarried men of means.

That year, at Nos. 30 and 32, the burgeoning Yale Club of New York City chose to add its new clubhouse to the mix.  The membership of the club had doubled from 500 to 1,100 within the past three years and a new space was direly needed.  On March 31 the final contracts on the land were signed; The New York Times reporting the price being between $100,000 and $110,000.

The choice of architects, Tracy & Swartwout, was simple.  Egerton Swartwout and Evarts Tracy had both been employees of the esteemed firm of McKim, Mead & White; and both were graduates of Yale University and members of the Club.

A month before the purchase of the site was even completed, the architects had begun plans.   On February 17 The New York Times outlined the tentative designs, predicting “a fine towerlike structure for their new club home.”

“Towerlike” was an apt description because, unlike other clubhouses which were relatively low structures, this one would rise eleven stories.  The concept of a high-rise club provided for several floors of “sleeping apartments for members only,” with ten bedrooms per floor.

An entire floor was devoted to the main dining room, designed so it could be also used as a general meeting room.  On another floor were smaller “class dining rooms” and rooms for private parties.

Construction on the nearly $200,000 structure began in October 1900 and just over six months later, on May 1, the club celebrated its formal opening.   Above the door which was situated slightly above sidewalk level was a carved Yale University shield.  Two floors of rusticated limestone formed the base of the red brick building.  Restrained Beaux Arts terra cotta ornamentation and three balconies provided the only decoration of the main shaft of the structure.  But above the eighth floor, things changed.

In March 1901 Brickbuilder published a sketch of the structure, rising high above its neighbors (copyright expired)
Here a deeply-overhanging copper cornice was supported by long, paired foliate brackets.   Above, a stone-balustered balcony set the stage for a dramatic, oversized arched window, the frame of which nearly obscured the shallow mansard roof behind it.

The New York Times praised the building on its opening saying “Not a convenience is lacking.”  The main floor housed the grill room, billiard room, a café, a  bar, office and “strangers’ rooms.”  Lounging rooms and the library took up the second floor.   The entire ninth floor was the main dining room.  The newspaper called it “handsomely furnished, and among the more attractive fittings are pictures of the university athletes.”

The Grill Room, while rustic, still required proper attire.
On the roof was a garden which The Times felt would be a “most pleasing rendezvous in hot weather” for the Yale graduates.

Most unusual, however, were the six floors of bedrooms.  Originally conceived as sleeping rooms for members, they were now being marketed as bachelor accommodations rented by the week.  “There are accommodations for 85 tenants,” reported The Times, “and the rental of the rooms, with service, ranges from $6 to $15 per week.”  Patrons who wished to be fed as well could expect to “be boarded and lodged at from $12 to $15 per week.”

Hart Schaffner & Marx used the posh Yale Club Grill Room as the backdrop to advertise evening wear in 1911.
Many of the residents, however, made the building their permanent home.  In 1905 Albert Lee listed 30 West 44th Street as his address.  A Yale graduate, Lee was a successful author and editor, having already been on the editorial staff of the New York Sun, Harper’s Round Table, McClure’s Magazine and Harper’s Weekly.  By now he was the associate editor of Collier’s Weekly and had written five books.

Lounging rooms and the Library were located on the second floor.
Actor (John) Grant Mitchell lived here in 1914.  After practicing law in Ohio for three years he turned his attention to the stage, making his first professional appearance as Cicero in Julius Caesar, sharing the limelight with the famous actor Richard Mansfield.  His successful theatrical career, to date, included co-starting with Lillian Russell in The Butterfly in 1906 through 1907.

Originally the Yale University shield sat above the doorway -- Architecture July 15 1901 (copyright expired)
Bachelor attorney Edward John Redington lived here at the same time.  A man of wide interests, he had served in the Government Forest Service in 1906, had written illustrated articles for the New York Herald Magazine Section on “The Forest Ranger,” and traveled the fiords of Norway.

The Club continued to grow and, despite nay-sayers who fifteen years before had predicted the ambitious clubhouse project would fail, by 1915 the clubhouse was no longer large enough for its membership.  The Times remarked that constructing the towering building on 44th Street “was a move of no little importance and involved [a financial] extension which not a few predicted was doomed to failure.  However, results quickly confounded the prophets of evil, and it was not long before the club found its new house becoming entirely inadequate.”

In April 1916 the building was purchased by the newly-organized Delta Kappa Epsilon Club. A Yale University fraternity founded in 1844, Delta Kappa Epsilon had over 43 chapters and 13,000 members but, until now, no central headquarters.   The Times reported that the group intended to spend “about $100,000…in alterations and new equipment, bringing the total investment up to about $500,000.”

The club announced it would add a story and install squash courts and a swimming pool.

Oscald C. Hering and Douglas Fitch were commissioned to design the alternations.  Nine months later in January 1917 the club opened, with construction costs coming in under budget at $75,000.

Just four months later the United States entered World War I; a move many Americans had not foreseen.  Many of the young men of Delta Kappa Epsilon were among those most deeply affected by the war.  By December 26 fraternity members had been killed in combat and another 26 had received decorations for heroism presented by foreign governments.  That month club member Adjutant General Charles H. Sherrill addressed the group at a dinner in the clubhouse.

Predicting that the war would go on for another five or six years, the General remarked “many Americans who may not have thought up to the present they would be called upon to fight abroad might find themselves in France before the war is won.”

The fraternity continued to rent out the 70 bedrooms as bachelor quarters.  In 1922 Rutgers alumnus E. E. Van Cleef, a construction engineer with I. K. Comstock & Co., was living here.   

But nine years after taking over the old Yale Club, Delta Kappa Epsilon purchased a building at No. 5 East 51st Street in August 1925 and moved out. No. 30 West 44th Street was purchased by The Army & Navy Club of America in October; but it would not be a happy move.   Like other men’s clubs, its income was heavily affected by Prohibition.   The cash flow that came from groups of men discussing politics and business over cocktails abruptly dried up.  To worsen matters, the Stock Market crash in 1929 left many members with greatly reduced incomes.

By June 1933 membership in The Army & Navy Club had dwindled to 500 and it was unable to make its mortgage payments.   The United States Trust Company foreclosed and the club was closed.

The building sat empty while owners considered ways to utilize the once-chic clubhouse that had become a white elephant.  In 1935 an announcement was made that the building would be renovated to a mens’ and women’s club.   Nothing happened.  Then, on August 15, 1939, The New York Times reported that it would be converted to apartments.  The newspaper said architects Charles and Selig Whinston would remodel the former clubhouse “into a thirteen-story structure containing two stores and a restaurant on the street floor and nine suites of one room, bath and kitchenette on each of the twelve upper floors.”  That did not happen either.

Instead brothers Harry S. and Morris Ginsberg purchased the vacant building in November 1942.  Once again the United States was embroiled in a world war and the U.S. Government bought the building from the Ginsbergs a year later in December 1943.  After renovations, Rear Admiral Albert B. Randall, USNR, officially opened the headquarters of the U.S. Maritime Service Center Headquarters on June 25, 1944.

Up to 200 seamen awaiting deployment were housed here, and from here the graduates of the Sheepshead Bay and Hoffman Island training centers were assigned to ships.

Then, with the war over, in 1947 Colonel S. L. Kiser of the New York-New Jersey-Delaware Military District of the First Army announced on that the building would become the headquarters for Manhattan units of the Organized Reserve Corps of the Army.   The military would install the Army Reserve School here, as well, by 1949; and in the mid-1960s John Lindsay’s congressional office was here.

In 1970, as the new Touro College was chartered by New York State, the government had no more need for No. 30 West 44th Street and the property was listed as “surplus property.”  The school, which was established by Dr. Bernard Lander to enrich Jewish heritage, humanities and the sciences, now needed a campus.  It was a convenient situation for both.

The Government donated the former clubhouse to the college in January 1971.  Considering the history of the building, it was perhaps appropriate that the college was originally for male students only. 

But problems for the institution came swiftly.  Investigation by state and federal agencies regarding fraudulent obtaining of tuition grants resulted ultimately in the school being forced to return $822,000 in aid.  In 1980 a former bursar was indicted for embezzlement.

The beleaguered school sold the building in 1988 to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania for $15 million.   Three years later, after a $25 million fund raising campaign, renovations were started that would convert the structure to the Penn Club of New York.

Included in the modernization, Helpern Architects were given the commission to add a three story addition.  Completed in 1994 it earned the firm a Preservation Award from the Municipal Art Society.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the building at No. 30 West 44th Street has come full-circle; once again the home to a university club.  It is not only a venerable piece of Manhattan architecture; it is as Gary Hack, professor in the Penn School of Design, said “an exquisite piece of history.”

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Fanciful Artists' Row at Nos. 4 to 26 East 8th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In the mid-1830s East 8th Street north of Washington Square was lined with comfortable brick and brownstone residences of the upper-middle classes built on land owned by Sailors’ Snug Harbor.  Here well-to-do bankers and merchants lived on what was sometimes referred to as “The Row.”   Designed in the ubiquitous Federal and newly-popular Greek Revival styles, they were dignified and proper; like the families within.

By 1916 the quiet residential character of the street had changed.  The Washington Square neighborhood was rapidly becoming Manhattan’s Bohemian section as artists, poets and writers sought the picturesque atmosphere of Greenwich Village. 

That year Sailors’ Snug Harbor trust commissioned 43-year old Harvey Wiley Corbett to renovate The Row in order to make the long line of outdated houses profitable properties again.  Corbett, a Beaux Arts trained architect, was changing his approach as the 20th century dawned.  He would go on to design large Art Deco buildings, but for now he would settle for quaint.

The old houses from No. 4 to 26 East 8th Street were not razed; they were remodeled into apartments intended to lure the artistic new residents of Greenwich Village.   Inside, the opulent, spacious parlors and the wide staircases were gutted.  In their place studios and spartan apartments were installed.

Iron balconies, inset tile and a variegated roof line created a quaint Don Quixote-type stage set -- photo by Alice Lum
But on the outside, Corbett transformed the twelve houses into a Mediterranean fantasy.  The stoops were removed and the brick and brownstone stuccoed over.  No trace of the venerable structures were discernible as arched windows, red tiled overhanging roofs, whimsical iron pseudo-balconies and inset tile work created a street scene more expected in Padua than Manhattan.

Part of the row shortly after completion.
The apartments did, indeed, attract writers and artists—Max Eastman who edited The Masses lived in No. 12 in 1917 and popular writer E. B. White who wrote for The New Yorker and was author of Charlotte’s Web had a duplex at No. 16 for five years starting in 1935.    In 1921, The Nation writer Harold deWolf Fuller, who wrote the scholarly work “Romeo and Juliette” lived at No. 8. 

In 1917 editor Max Eastman lived at No. 12, marked by Arts-and-Crafts hued tiles -- photo by Alice Lum
There were other, mainstream, tenants as well, of course.  Harmon Bushnell Craig was one of the first residents of No. 24.  A Harvard graduate, he joined the American Ambulance Corps during World War I.  On July 17, 1917 he was killed by a shell at Dombasle, Verdun.

Not all the tenants were working class, either.  The affluent Mrs. Gilman Robinson, widow of Dr. Robinson lived in No. 6 in 1922, the same year her daughter Barbara Paul was married in Brookline, Massachusetts.  And in No. 24 lived another wealthy widow, Mrs. Robert Hutsel whose daughter Hilda Emily married William Harold Bokum in a fashionable Grace Church wedding on October 23, 1937.

photo by Alice Lum
Of the artists who rented on The Row, perhaps the longest-lasting was abstract painter Manfred Schwartz.  The artist leased the top floor of No. 22 as his artist studio in 1948 (he lived at 555 Park Avenue).    In August 1968 Schwartz’s studio burned, destroying approximately six years of his paintings and causing what he termed “incalculable” damage.  

A row of colorful inset tiles contrasts with the white stucco -- photo by Alice Lum

Two years later, with his studio still at No. 22 after over two decades, the esteemed painter and lithographer died of cancer at University Hospital at the age of 60.

Artist and inventor Walter Houmere added to the list of celebrated tenants, living at No. 10 until his death at 82 years of age in 1977.

photo by Alice Lum

The amazing stretch of stuccoed buildings that the AIA Guide to New York City calls “a stage set” is remarkably intact nearly a century after the 1916 remodeling.  And buried deep inside are the walls of fashionable houses built nearly a century earlier.

Many thanks to reader Connie Allen for requesting this post.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The 1889 Gustavus Adolphus Swedish Lutheran Church -- No. 153 East 22nd Street

photo by Alice Lum
Along with the waves of German and Polish immigrants who were flooding the Lower East Side in the mid-19th century were the Swedes.   Unlike the former groups, the Swedish immigrants tended to be pioneers, pushing westward in search of prairie land that could be cultivated into prosperous farms.

But for those who remained in Manhattan and established the Swedish community, a native-language church was needed.   In September 1865 the Reverend A. Andreen organized the Gustavus Adolphus Swedish Lutheran Church.   The small group worshiped for a time in St. James’ Evangelical Lutheran Church on 16th Street before purchasing the Bethesda Baptist Church at Nos. 151 and 153 East 22nd Street for $17,000 on July 29, 1866.

In the mid-1880s Swedish immigration was at its peak and the once-small congregation continued to grow.  In 1887, with membership at around 800 and attendance topping 1,500 at some services, a new church structure was planned. 

The 22nd Street building was razed in May of that year and architects J. C. Cady & Co. were commissioned to design the new structure.  J. Cleaveland Cady had recently distinguished himself by designing the Metropolitan Opera House and the hulking Romanesque-revival wing of the American Museum of Natural History.  For the new church, Cady would again turn to Romanesque-revival; but his design would have a decidedly Gothic touch.

Cady clad the entire structure in rough-cut stone -- photo by Alice Lum
Five hundred people attended the laying of the cornerstone on December 11.  Within the cornerstone were placed a copy of Nordsijernan (the city’s Swedish language newspaper), The New York Times, and other newspapers from around the country.  Swedish and American coins were included as well.

On the left side of the cornerstone was the founding date, 1865, on the left a reference to 1st Peter 2:6 (See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame)-- photo by Alice Lum
The New York Times promised that “The new building will be a handsome structure” costing around $60,000.    Dedicted two years later on May 12, 1889, it was just that.

Called a “solid-looking structure of gray stone” by The Times, it was clad in rough-cut Amherst Ohio stone.  The entrance doors sat within a dramatic and deep arched portico over which the rose window was centered.  It was the copper-clad steeple, however, that stole the show.

One hundred and fifty-five feet above the sidewalk, the tall, gaunt spire was visible for blocks away.   The steeple and the angular copper-trimmed dormer that pierced the pyramidal roof were evocative of the churches in the congregation’s homeland.

Inside, the church stretched 94 feet from the door to the altar, capable of accommodating 1,000 worshipers.   The New York Times commented that “The furnishings are all substantial and comfortable, and the decorations in good taste.”  Behind the pulpit was a painting of the Ascension.

photo by Alice Lum
By 1905 Gustavus Adolphhus Lutheran was among the leading Swedish churches in New York.   There were now 1,200 members and the two Sunday schools had an average attendance of 300.  A new organ had been recently installed and historian William Smith Pelletreau complimented the church that year saying “The mixed choir furnishes excellent music.”

The church offered social gatherings and help to the congregants with two Sewing Societies, a Young People’s Society, the Sick and Benefit Society and an Aid Society.  Once monthly a service was performed in English.

On September 1, 1907 the pastor of the church, Reverend Dr. Mauritz Stolpe, had the honor of conducting worship services aboard the Swedish warship Fylgia for Prince Wilhelm.  The arrival of the prince had already caused quite a stir among the Swedish-American population.  Over 6,000 crowded the pier at 86th Street when the ship steamed in.  It was, after all, a rare opportunity said The New York Tribune for “these descendants of the Vikings to greet their ‘sailor prince.’”

photo by Alice Lum
Only three months later Reverend Stolpe announced to his congregation that King Oscar had died.  The entire Swedish community was plunged into mourning.  Although they were now Americans, the love and respect the Swedish-Americans held for the deceased monarch was deep.   Although there would be an official memorial by the Swedish Consul, Reverend Stolpe announced that “whatever was decided on later by prominent Swedish people, there would be a special service at his church.”

Stolpe would head the congregation of Gustavus Adolphus for 47 years, until 1937.  During this time the church experienced its grandest moment.  On May 27, 1926 the Crown Prince Gustav Adolf and Crown Princess Louise arrived in New York for a three-month visit of the United States.  While in Manhattan the royal couple attended services here on June 6.   They presented the church with a signed Bible and a chasuble—the outermost vestment worn by the clergy.

As the 20th century progressed, the area changed from one of German, Polish and Swedish immigrants to a culturally and ethnically-mixed neighborhood.  In the 1970s the basement of the church became the Basement Coffee House where young locals could enjoy amateur performances.  New York Magazine remarked in 1972 “The Basement Coffee House at Gustavus Adophus Lutheran Church is usually jammed on Saturday nights.  Young folk singers trying to get a start in New York are the most frequent performers, and the shows are often excellent.  It’s mostly a student audience from all over the city.”

Today the sturdy stone church is notably unaltered; although services are no longer solely in German.  It is a striking remnant of an immigrant group that is often forgotten or overlooked.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Adolph A. Weinman's Colossal "Civic Fame"

photo by Stig Nygaard
In 1898 the five boroughs—Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx—were consolidated into the City of New York.   The move necessitated a number of strategic and drastic changes such as unified police and fire departments.  It would also required a new municipal headquarters building to house the many civic departments required to run the massive city.

In a remarkably early example of architectural preservation and awareness, Mayor Franklin Edson rebuffed suggestions to enlarge the exquisite 1812 Federal Style City Hall.  The mayor said that its “style of architecture was such that without marring its present symmetry, it couldn’t be enlarged to the required extent.”

“The required extent” was, indeed, immense.  All the municipal agencies of the newly-consolidated city needed to be housed in one location.   The esteemed architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White was given the commission to design the new structure.  It would be at once beautiful and colossal.

Construction began in 1907 on the 40-story building.  Designed during the City Beautiful movement that proposed that monumental buildings prompted civic pride and civilized behavior, it would be soaring Beaux Arts monument to New York City.

The architects drew on classical models to incite pride—the central arch, built to accommodate motorcar traffic, was copied from the Arch of Constantine and an arcade of Guastavino-tiled vaults harkened to the Palazzo Farnese.  High above Centre Street, atop it all, a Roman columned temple would complete the structure.   And perched upon it would be a golden statue—Civic Fame.

Construction on the Municipal Building continued for seven years.  While it rose, German-born sculptor Adolph A. Weinman worked on the bas-reliefs for the façade including “Guidance,” “Executive Power,” Civic Duty,” “Civic Pride,” “Progress,” and “Prudence.”

He also began work on the enormous statue for the pinnacle.   For his model he turned, perhaps expectedly, to Audrey Munson.   The young woman who had grown up in Mexico, New York, was the darling of architectural sculptors.  She would pose for Karl Bitter’s Pulitzer Fountain, Augustus Lukeman’s “Memory” as part of the memorial to Titanic victims Isadore and Ida Straus, Attilio Piccirilli’s Maine Memorial at the entrance to Central Park and literally scores of other monuments and statues. 

In keeping with the classical theme of the building, Weinman dressed Civic Fame in the garb of a Roman goddess.  Her stance is strikingly similar to the more robust figure of Liberty in New York Harbor to which Civic Fame would turn her back.

To reflect her role as representative of New York City she has a shield with the City Seal slung over one arm.  She holds a branch of laurel symbolic of victory in one hand and a “mural crown” in the other.  The crown consists of five slightly separated crenelations representing the five newly-consolidated boroughs.  Decorating the crown are dolphins to symbolize the city’s close relationship with the ocean.

Not that anyone could ever see them.

The rising Municipal Building dwarfed the civic buildings around it -- photo Library of Congress
Despite the statue's hollow core covered with gilded copper sheets, the nearly 30-foot tall statue would be a challenge to install 582 feet above the sidewalk.  On February 8, 1913, The New York Tribune reported that the figure was currently in 500 pieces, being assembled by Aschworer & Sons.  The newspaper noted that the size of the statue and the height of the building “makes the setting of the statue a ticklish matter.”

Workers would wait until there was virtually no wind before attempting the installation.  A wooden platform was erected around the steel rod that would hold the statue and the ball on which she stands in place.  Christian Broschart, of Broschart & Braun, the firm that cast the sculpture, explained “It will have to be placed in position in sections.  One section will reach up to the knees and the rest of the body will be divided up into three or four sections.”

Finally, on May 8, 1913, the statue was firmly in place atop the Municipal Building.   Civic Fame had added $5,000 to the cost of the building and her gilding another $1000.  As the wooden scaffolding was removed and her golden form revealed for the first time, The New York Tribune (while getting the name of the statue wrong) made a tongue-in-cheek announcement.

“Miss Civic Pride took off her kimono yesterday.  Six steeplejack tailors assisted her in casting off her garment of wood and displaying her clinging gown of gold to the Manhattanese.”  The writer made reference to the soaring height.  “She carries a globular object of golden hue.  From the street level it is impossible to make out just what the spheroid may be, but it looks suspiciously like a bomb.  It is to be hoped, however, that she is not of that pestiferous, nihilistic persuasion, as the trip to the summit would be a nuisance to Sheriff Harburger and his trained exterminators.”

Boys in knee pants and men in straw boaters busy themselves far below the gilded statue -- photo from author's collection

As it turned out, the effects of wind and weather just off the harbor were extreme.  Just 25 years after she was unveiled, repair work was done on the statue in 1928.  Passersby stopped and craned their necks as steeplejack E. J. Stanley stabilized Civic Fame’s cracked left arm with a rope tether.  A few days later he placed a bronze ring 8” in diameter on the arm, in preparation for its being soldered and fastened with steel rods to the shoulders.  The repair work cost the City about $650.

While he was at it, Stanley perhaps should have stabilized the right arm as well.

On Saturday afternoon, February 23, 1935, the 150-pound right arm broke loose and fell eight stories to the skylight above the kitchen of the employee restaurant.  Because the skylight was constructed of wired-glass it held, but the kitchen was showered with glass shards.

Police roped off all surrounding streets and closed the subway stations below the Municipal Building.  The New York Times reported that “It is believed that if the whole statue falls its weight of several tons would crash through the street and into the B.M.T. and I.R.T. subways.”

All pedestrian and motor traffic around the Municipal Building was diverted awaiting investigation of the condition of the statue.  Frederick C. Kuehnle, Chief Inspector of the Manhattan Department of Buildings ordered a careful examination to determine whether it could be repaired in place, or would have to be dismantled and removed.

After four decades of pollution, acid rain, wind and sleet, Civic Fame received 2,800 square feet of new gold leaf in December 1974.  The make-over cost the City $42,000.

Then in 1991, as the façade of the Municipal Building was undergoing restoration, Les Metalliers Champenois was given the job of restoring Civic Fame.  The French design firm had previously undertaken the restoration of the Statue of Liberty torch.   The golden statue was dismantled and hoisted down to be cleaned and refurbished. 

While the workers were cleaning the enormous statue they found “L. Conroy” carved into the metal—a memento of the 1936 reparations.  114 days after she had left home, Civic Fame returned to the pinnacle of the Municipal Building in October 1991.  Necks on the ground craned again as she dangled from a helicopter to be reinstalled.

Civic Fame stands high above the heads of busy New Yorkers, the second largest statue in Manhattan and largely overlooked.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The 1810 Robert Dickey Mansion -- No. 67 Greenwich Street

Until 2010 the 200-year old house was hidden behind fire escapes, metal signs and security gates -- photo
For the pedestrian passing the corner of Greenwich Street and Edgar Street in 2010, it was difficult if not impossible to imagine that the old gray-painted brick building with roll-down security gates and metal signs was once among the proudest Federal mansions in the Manhattan.

With the Revolutionary War over and the British occupation ended, the Common Council in 1787 ordered that the shoreline be extended with landfill 65 feet into the Hudson River.  Seven years later the Council passed an ordinance to create Greenwich Street, stretching from the Battery to Rector Street.  The new street, completed by 1797, gently followed the shoreline and the views it offered along with the cooling river breezes in summer attracted wealthy homeowners.

Before long graceful brick mansions lined the street, creating one of the most fashionable residential areas in the city.  Wealthy merchant Robert Dickey spent $11,017 on three lots in 1809 and by November construction was underway on two houses at Nos. 69 and 71.  Dickey dealt in imported goods including tea, spices, coffee rice and “Japan wood.” 

The beautiful Anne Brown Dickey would have chosen the rich furnishings of No. 67  
A grassy yard separated the homes from their outbuildings that faced Lumber Street to the rear—two stables, a coach house and a storehouse.  In 1810 the Dickeys were living in the larger home, No. 71, while construction was still being completed and Dickey ran his trade from a little building in the rear at No. 8 Lumber Street.

Dickey and his wife, the former Anne Brown, lived here until 1820.  The successful importer was one of the richest men in New York with an estate of approximately $20,000 in 1815.  As did most of Manhattan’s wealthy citizens, they owned a sprawling country estate far north of the city—a 43-acre property overlooking the Hudson near the Jumel manor.

Financial problems befell Dickey when a ship was lost in a storm at sea in 1819.  Insurance company lawsuits and outstanding loans and mortgages forced him to sell his Greenwich Street properties.

In March of 1822 the Common Council renumbered the addresses and the Dickey mansion became No. 67.  Two years later Peter Schmerhorn took title of the house.   With his brother, Abraham, he was a partner in Schermerhorn, Banker & Co. and Shermerhorn, Willis & Co., as well as a director of the Bank of New York.

At the time Schermerhorn took possession of the house, William Bayard Jr. had been living in it since 1821.  Highly prominent, Bayard was a successful merchant with LeRoy, Bayard & Co., a director of the Bank of America, President of the Chamber of Commerce, President of the Savings Bank and a partner in the Tontine Coffee House.

With the knowledge the Bayard would be leaving in 1824, Schermerhorn advertised the house in the New York Evening Post in 1823:

FOR SALE, OR TO LET, The house at No. 67 Greenwich street, with the stable and coach house on Lumber street, in the rear, as now occupied by William Bayard, Jun. Esq.  The house is about 40 feet front on Greenwich street and has every requisite for an elegant and convenient establishment.  ALSO—The large fireproof Store in the rear of the above, on Lumber street, having double spacious cellars, and is well calculated for a wine or importing merchant.

The ad worked.  Equally prominent banker and merchant Nicholas Low moved in, staying from 1824 to 1826.

When dry goods merchant John C. Henderson leased the house beginning in 1827 he and his wife took boarders, including the imminent philanthropist and politician Theodore Lyman, Jr.   On February 25, 1827 Lyman wrote to Henry Clay, a portion of which read:

“Whenever you happen to have a moment of leizure [sic], may I beg you to do me the favor to address a letter to me to the care of Mrs. Henderson No. 67 Greenwich Street, New York.  Have the goodness, also, to accept my most sincere and particular acknowledgments for your very obliging and valuable attentions to me at Washington, which I shall, ever, remember with the greatest satisfaction.”

At the time lower Manhattan was changing as businesses overtook residential areas.  In 1828 James Fenimore Cooper noted with some melancholy “commerce is gradually taking possession of the whole of the lower extremity of the island, though the Bay, the battery, and the charming Broadway, still cause many of the affluent to depart with reluctance.”  Yet No. 67 continued to attract well-to-do boarders, including merchants Henry Butler, Minot C. Morgan, Daniel C. Eaton, Edward Bill.

The Schermerhorn family retained possession of the property as “Mrs. Ludlow” ran her boarding house here in 1837.  That year New-York As It Is described it as a “Principal Private Boarding House for the accommodation of transient boarders.”  Elisha Foot took over operation of the boarding house from 1842 through 1844.   But by now the neighborhood was noticeably changing.

In 1851 there were fifteen boarders living in No. 67.  All were working class men like James Dooley who, on December 22, 1852, was drinking at a porter-house down the street at No. 18 Greenwich Street.  Dooley got into what The New York Times described as “a wrangling dispute…about some trifling matter” with Henry L. Petesch.   After “hard words passed,” Petesch drew a pistol from his pocket and shot Dooley.  In particularly eloquent Victorian prose the newspaper described the attack.

“A portion of the contents of the weapon took effect in the left breast of Dooley, and seriously injured him.”

Petesch was arrested, charged with attempted murder.  It was the sort of affair that never happened to residents of No. 67 during Robert Dickey’s time.

The house served, as well, as a polling place for the Second Election District of the First Ward in 1854 and as the office of the American Industrial Association.  The purpose of the Association was “to provide for an obtain employment for farmers and laborers” and it would be here for at least a decade.

In July 1856 the British ship the Orient docked in New York, carrying the first of 3,800 English laborers from the Crimea.  The men had been employed as excavators, or “navies,” for two or three years.  Now referred to as the “Army work corps,” they crowded into the office of the American Industrial Association seeking work.  The Secretary of the Association promised that “no difficulty will be found in giving profitable employment to all who may seek our shores with the intention of becoming industrious and peaceful citizens.”

Frederick L. Seeley ran his business from No. 67 at the same time, a “licensed keeper of intelligence offices.”

Three years later, in 1860, things continued to go downhill for the once-proud mansion which was still owned by the Schermerhorn family.  Herman H. Stollmeyer ran an “emigrant boarding house” and when German immigrant John Rutman arrived from Bremen on July 16, Stollmeyer hatched a scheme.

He managed to get the new arrival drunk on his first night in the boarding house, then convinced him to take an interest in the business.  Rutman agreed and gave Stollmeyer $100 in cash and a note for $50 payable in sixty days.  The following evening Mrs. Stollmeyer, an attractive young woman, requested the German to escort her on a stroll.  

Herman Stollmeyer then “discovered” the two, flew into a rage and “thrust him from the house,” according to The Times, canceling the business deal.  The immigrant was not so naïve, however, and before long Stollmeyer was arrested for conspiracy to defraud.

Stollmeyer’s problems did not end there.   The same year the Sanitary Police, saying that the property “required cleansing,” gave him three days to clean up the premises.  Otherwise it would be cleaned at public expense, “the cost to be a lien on the property until paid.”

In 1869 Trinity Place (Lumber Street had been renamed in 1843) was widened and the house lost the outbuildings and most of the rear yard.    In the meantime, the Greenwich Street Elevated railroad had been built in 1868.  Before long a second elevated train would be running behind the house as well.  The neighborhood declined even more.

The New York Times noted on April 9, 1871 that “For several years past the lower half of the City has been infested with basement houses of prostitution of the lowest character.”  Among these was No. 67 Greenwich Street.  On April 8 detectives and police simultaneously raided 29 disorderly houses.  “From these places thirty men and ninety-two women and girls, of the most degraded and homely description, were taken into custody, but the male proprietors of the places, by some strange mischance, were nearly all absent at the time of the raid, and so escape arrest.” 

Although he slipped through the fingers of police, a warrant was issued for Charles Iker, the proprietor of the vile den at No. 67.

A year later Edmond H. Schermerhorn commissioned architect Detlef Lienau to remodel the house.  He removed the pitched roof which most likely had dormers; raising the fourth floor to a full story.  The original splayed lintels on the second and third floors were replaced with plain stone lintels and he added a modern pedimented hood above the entrance door.  The renovations cost Schermerhorn $10,000.

As the century progressed, however, the make-up of the tenants improved.  Mary A. Hendricks, an elementary school teachers was here in 1875 and Fitzhue Smith, a bail bondsman, lived here in 1895.  The 1890 census listed fifty-seven residents in No. 67—all of them Irish.

In 1900 A. McRoberts obtained permission from the city “to maintain a wagon for the sale of milk, milk shakes, etc., in Printing House Square, at a point near the Franklin Statue…on the condition that no horse shall be attached to the wagon…and that the street shall be kept free from dirt and refuse from the same.”

Nineteen-year old Leslie Garcia was working as a clerk in the ground floor business here in 1902 when she got involved in an arson-burglary scheme.   A 74-year old second-hand book dealer, Andrew M. Copeland, convinced a group of youngsters to set fire to Public School No. 67 during school hours.  When the children and teachers all filed out of the building, the youths hurriedly gathered up books and small valuables, like one teacher’s gold watch and chain valued at $60.  They were able to make off with $700 worth of Latin and Greek “grammars.”

Hugh Brosman, a laborer, brought more positive publicity to No. 67 Greenwich Street when he lived here on January 17, 1909.  On that day a young manicurist, Albertine Dequer, was walking along the icy edge of the river in Battery Park.  Suddenly she was in the frigid water.

Private F. H. Crane of the Signal Corps was on the second deck of the Bedlow’s Island steamer Herman Caswell speaking to the captain when he heard shouts.   He plunged into the river but, according to The New York Tribune, “the woman became frightened and struggled with the soldier, and for a few minutes it looked as if both would sink.”

But Hugh Brosman had also dived into the river and managed to help Crane pull the girl to the seawall.  Four firemen from the fireboat fleet dragged the three to the top of the wall.

For several years around this time builder Charles Parkinson ran his business from here.  The esteemed contractor was responsible for major Manhattan structures including the Potter Building, the New York Stock Exchange and 41 Park Row.

After owning the house for nearly a century, the Schermerhorn family sold it as part of “the Carpenter estate” in October, 1919 to Rose A. McGuigan.  McGuigan’s family and partners would retain the property until 1960.

The Robert Dickey House is the last surviving Federal style building with a bowed rear facade -- photo by Alice Lum
The long-term ownership nearly did not happen, however.  In 1920 The New York Tribune reported that Rose McGuigman had filed plans for renovating the buildings at Nos. 65 and 67 Greenwich Street “into a six-story office building, with stores” at a cost of $25,000.  The newspaper named C. B. Meyers as architect.

For some reason the transformation was never done.  In 1922 McGuigman did, however, add a one-story commercial addition to the building facing Trinity Place, designed by architects Zipkes, Wolff & Kudroff.

In 1940 the city began preparations for the mammoth construction project, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.  Dozens of the still-surviving Federal houses like No. 67 were demolished, many of them very similar, including the bowed rear façade.   One by one they fell until only No. 67, miraculously, remained.
In 1965 the bowed rear facade rises above the Trinity Place extension--home to a cigar store and 5-and-10-cent shop -- photo Library of Congress
The old house was purchased by Irving Schacter and Eli Goldhagen, brothers-in-law, in 1960 and remained in the family for decades.  Throughout the 20th century the somewhat abused building has been home to everything from a luncheonette to a cigar shop, a messenger service to a barber shop.

Today the Robert Dickey house is all that remains of the once elegant and fashionable residential district of Greenwich Street.  It is one of only seven houses built before 1810 south of Chambers Street and is the last remaining Federal house with a bowed façade.

photo by Alice Lum
The AIA Guide to New York City called it “A shadow of once gracious architecture, it would be nicer stripped of its layers of gray paint.”  Possibly the Guide is getting its wish.  In 2012 two-century old Dickey House is shrouded in scaffolding.

UPDATE:  In 2019 work is underway to incorporate the shell of the two-century-old mansion into the base of the rising 42-story residential building.  The Dickey mansion will be part of a school within its lower floors.

The gutted exterior walls will be incorporated into the 42-story 77 Greenwich Street being erected next door. photo by Pam Frederick of Tribeca Citizen