Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Skinny 1865 Survivor at No. 19 West 46th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1864 the great marble St. Patrick’s Cathedral was rising on Fifth Avenue and the mammoth granite Croton Reservoir, at 42nd Street, was a favorite site for a Sunday afternoon stroll.   It would be a few years before the grand palaces of New York’s wealthiest citizens fully lined the avenue; but comfortable rowhouses had already begun filling the side streets.  Such was the case with West 46th Street which was already almost fully developed. 

One of the last plots still empty that year was a 25-foot wide site which the developer, in an attempt to squeeze out more profits, divided into two 12-1/2 foot sites—Nos. 17 and 19.  The architect maintained the proportions of a normal residence by designing two mirror-image houses that worked together visually as a single structure.   Completed in 1865 they were designed in the up-to-date French Second Empire style recently imported from Paris.  The houses, albeit narrow, were fashionably appropriate to the upscale neighborhood.

It appears that No. 19 was a high-end boarding house from the beginning, based the several residents here at the same times.   Throughout the 19th century the tenants were, at worst, upper-middle class. 

Among the boarders in the 1870s was Columbia-educated attorney Hugh R. Willson, who became Assistant United States District Attorney.  Willson’s finances were such that he traveled to Mexico to investigate real estate there.  Upon his return he supplied a New York Times reporter with a vivid description of the country and its natives.  

“Every one carries a revolver in open sight,” he said, for instance, “but no one ever uses one...The people are excessively polite.  They follow the old Spanish customs in this respect.  In traveling a man never takes out a single cigar; he always produces a box and invites each of his fellow-travelers to take one...You can’t overdraw the wretchedness of the roads.  They haven’t been repaired in 20 years.”

Willson was impressed with his inn-keeper in Guadalajara.  “The hotel is managed by a German, who can talk United States and can keep a hotel.”

The slender house was home to a succession of physicians.   Dr. George Shepard Southworth lived in the house for at least 15 years beginning around 1884.  Southworth wrote extensively on infant digestion as well as different types of pain and their causes.  The forward-thinking doctor sat on the board of the Indian Rights Association.

At the same time Dr. J. T. O’Connor lived here.  The Clinical Professor of Nervous Diseases at New York Homeopathic College he was a specialist in diseases of the nervous system and a pioneer in the use of medical electricity.   O’Connor’s research on brain activities resulted in advanced understanding of the functions of the left and right hemispheres, and brain injuries.

Perhaps the doctor’s most significant accomplishment, however, was a soluble powdered blood.  The innovation meant that injured patients, far from a hospital, could receive blood until they could be transported.

Louis Windmuller and his wife, Louise were here in November 1884 when they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with a party.  Windmuller was a partner in the importing and commission firm of Windmuller & Hoelker and treasurer of the Reform Club.  

A descendant of the couple feels that the 46th Street building was a secondary home and the Windmullers lived primarily in Woodside, New York.   However, the concept of a pied a terre in the 19th century was nearly unheard of.  Windmuller himself referred to the Queens home as a Summer house.  “In the Summer…I make my home at Woodside, Long Island,” he told a Times reporter in 1913.   

Whatever the case, Louis Windmuller was well off enough to maintain two homes.
Through neglect rather than compassion the original slate roof tiles amazingly survive -- photo by Alice Lum
In September 1887 Dr. Albert Heman Ely was living here when he married Helen M. Cox in an understated ceremony at St. Agnes Church.   Whether the marriage did not last or Helen Ely died is uncertain; but only three years later, on October 7, 1891, he married Maud L. Merchant in Rochester, New York. 

Dr. Albert Hemen Ely cut a dashing figure -- photo Quarter-Centenary Record of the Class of 1885 Yale University, 1910
Ely was called by the “Encyclopedia of Biography of New York,” “one of the most prominent physicians of New York City.”  Following their month-long honeymoon in the West, the couple received callers on West 46th Street. 

It was, no doubt, quite convenient for Drs. Ely and Southworth to live in the same building since they shared a practice for a short time.   The Elys owned a country home in Southampton, Long Island.

Another doctor, Mary L. Edwards moved in in 1899 and like the Southworths and Elys would stay for many years.   Dr. Edwards had at least one live-in servant and divided her working time between the Hospital for Woman and the New York Medical College.

Francis Rogers returned from a visit of Europe the same year that Mary Edwards moved in.  The Harvard newsletter noted that he “has settled for the winter in New York at 19 West 46th Street; letters addressed also to the Harvard Club will reach him.”  Later the magazine would announce that Rogers had entered “into the musical profession.”  One of his first professional concerts was staged at Boston Association Hall in December.

By now the skinny building at No. 19 West 46th Street was owned by a corporation, McVickar & Co., and was no longer referred to as a boarding house, but as “apartments.”   Yet the financial and social status of the residents continued to be upscale.  The Elys cruised off to England on the SS Oceanic in 1901 and the niece of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Mrs. George V. Root, was living here when she died at 81 years old in 1904.

Mrs. Anna Grau was running the house in 1904.  On February 26 Frank Holbrook knocked on the door and inquired about a room.  After looking at the vacant rooms, he told Mrs. Grau that nothing suited him and he left.  With him went Anna Grau’s $15 watch.

Mrs. Grau rushed out of the house and followed Holbrook until he reached 44th Street and Madison Avenue where Policeman Rathler was standing.    Anna Grau retrieved her watch and Frank Holbrook, “a man of good appearance,” according to The Sun, spent the night in jail.

Things were about to change for little No. 19 West 46th Street, however.

In August 1911 Royal Scott Gulden leased the building from the McVickar, Gaillard Realty Company.  The parlor floor was renovated for commercial purposes and became the hat store of Miss M. Gerity.  Two years later Gulden leased the building to the Frank Oilman Company.   The New York Sun announced that the new tenant planned to “alter the premises into stores and apartments.”

By 1912 the brownstone stoop had disappeared and the store of F. Haviland was on the ground floor, selling English Violet Cream and “perfumes designed to suit your personality.”

By now the block was radically changing.   On June 25, 1914 The New York Times remarked “The Forty-sixth Street block, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues,…has witnessed a rapid transformation from private residences to business within the past two years.”  The article went on to announce the sale of Nos. 15 and 17 to an investor who would erect a modern 10-story building.  Within months, No. 17 was gone.

By the 1930s the little house was vised between mammoth loft structures; the last remnant of residential West 46th Street -- photo by Alice Lum
Without its matching companion, the once-correct proportions were lost and No. 19 became an oddity; a quaint 19th century house squashed between two 20th century behemoths.

The Frank Oilman Company retained the lease on the property for several years, renting the commercial spaces to a variety of small businesses and leasing the upstairs apartments.  In 1919 Miss Gheen, Inc., an antiques dealer, announced that it had “taken over rooms at 19 West 46th Street…in which to show their finest pieces of old furniture.”  The firm had another store in Manhattan and one on Rush Street in Chicago.   In the 46th Street store it would offer “French table desks, small French tables, and crystal lights.”

By mid-century the block was a beehive of commercial activity.   A bartending school operated out of No. 19, now the sole survivor of the row of houses on the block.    
photo by Alice Lum
Today a Turkish restaurant is at street level behind a starkly modern storefront.  Above, the brownstone façade has been slathered in teal-colored paint.   That the rather humiliated little house at No. 19 West 46th Street survives at all is amazing—the lone reminder of a time when the block was residential.


  1. A wonderful little history on this equally wonderful LITTLE house. There are a few other holdout brownstones which can be spotted on some Manhattan blocks, you just have to look hard, but development has past them by.

  2. Love these stories about architectural survivors--how cool would it be to see it restored?