Thursday, June 7, 2012

The 1895 Ardea Apartments -- Nos. 31-33 West 12th Street

On November 6, 1894 New York City residents crowded into the election polls.   To the surprise of Tammany Hall's powerful and corrupt leaders, the party was soundly defeated.  The election results caused The Review of Reviews and World's Work to exclaim "The result was even more sweeping than the reformers had dared to anticipate.  Tammany's overthrow is complete, in so far as a verdict at the polls can accomplish it."

Not everyone was as thrilled with the party's defeat as was The Review of Reviews.  At his job site, one construction worker was still troubled nearly a full week later.  He penciled his thoughts on a wooden casing which he then sealed up within the wall on the second floor.

The building had been under construction for a year now.  It was the Ardea Apartments.

The year construction started, in 1893, the West 12th Street block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was a dignified collection of family residences.   Wide brownstone-faced Anglo-Italianate mansions like the Winfield Scott house shared the block with three-story brick Greek Revival homes of a generation earlier.   The looming Ardea would be something entirely different. 

Rough-cut stone forms a substantial base to the looming building.
The apartment building was the brainchild of George A. Hearn.  Hearn was the principal owner of the James A. Hearn & Sons Dry Goods on 14th Street on the south end of the Ladies’ Mile.  Years of providing expensive fabrics and apparel to New York’s carriage trade had garnered Hearn a fortune.   He used it to add to his extensive art collection and to buy real estate.

By the time architect John B. Snook filed his plans for the “hotel and boarding house” at No. 33 West 12th Street, Hearn had accumulated 31 other plots in the two-block rectangle from 12th to 14th streets, between Fifth and 6th Avenues.   The Ardea, Latin for "heron," would rise 10 floors above West 12th Street—towering above the homes below.
The magnificent iron balconies lighten the otherwise ponderous facade.
The brooding structure was completed in 1895.  Snook produced an imposing brick-and-brownstone structure that over a century later the AIA Guide to New York City would call “this dark crusty façade.”   Two substantial stories of rough-cut brownstone served as the base for the brown-brick mass that was rhythmically broken by graceful cast iron balconies—three that stretched the width of the structure at every third floor, and smaller ones that bounced along the façade in between.

There were originally just one apartment per floor, each with seven rooms plus a bath—two bedrooms, a library, dining room, servants room with its own bathroom, and a 30-foot long “gallery” (actually a hallway).

The double doors opened into the apartments of the original section; single doors accessed the smaller 1900 side.
Of the seven apartments, three were occupied by partners in Hearn’s business:  George E. Schanck (who married Hearn’s daughter, Alice), Clarkson Cowl (who married another daughter, Caroline), and Herbert Spencer Greims.  The men were well-compensated in their work—Schanck alone was a member of the St. Nicholas Society, the Apawamis and Fairfield County Golf Clubs, the Lotos Club, the New York Athletic Club, and the Salmagundi Club.

 The staircase features a carved newel, iron and bronze balusters, white marble treads and mahogany handrails.
In 1896 the congregation of St. Ann’s, which had just sold its church on West 18th Street, leased an apartment here for its rector, the Reverend Edward H. Krans.

Charles Marchand lived in the Ardea in 1900 when misfortune befell him.  The chemist, whom The New York Times called “a good-looking Frenchman,” had come to the United States in 1879.  A graduate of the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures de Paris, he was the general manager of the Drevet Manufacturing Company, manufacturers of peroxide of hydrogen compounds.  By now he had written at least one scientific book, “The Therapeutical Applications of Peroxide of Hydrogen and Glycozone.”

That year he was forced to declare bankruptcy when the company became insolvent.

But Marchand was resilient.  He turned again to writing and published books on French--“A Careful Selection of Modern Parisian Slang: With Explanatory Notes,” in 1914; “French Grammar and Conversation” and the cumbersomely-titled “Five Thousand French Idioms, Gallicisms, Proverbs, Idiomatic Adjectives, Idiomatic Comparisons for Advanced French Students,” in 1918.

The same year that Marchand suffered his financial embarrassment, John B. Snook was back, adding a nearly-seamless two-bay extension to the east (the seam is there if you look closely).  The result was one additional apartment per floor.
Snook's custom detailing included this door to a maid's room, curved to conform to the bending hallway.
Among the tenants here now, paying up to $100 per month, were Orville Oddie, Jr. and his wife.  Oddie was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and partner in the Albert D. Smith Co.  He came from a solid background and was a member of the New York Society of the Order of the Founders and Patriots of America.  But his passion was billiards.

For several decades already he had won amateur championships, accumulating trophies and diamond tie pins year after year in championships hosted by the New York Racquet Club and other organizations.  On October 27, 1900 when the National Association of Amateur Billiard Players was organized, Oliver Oddie was made its first president.

Doorways into the 1900 addition are deep-set, cut through the original exterior masonry walls.
In the meantime, Herbert Greims completed the partner-marries-boss’s-daughter tradition in 1902 by marrying Mary Hearn.   The new Mrs. Greims was a landscape and portrait artist, educated at the Philadelphia School of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  Her works were exhibited in the National Academy of Design, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, the Lotos Club and the Philadelphia Art Club, among others.

The high-class list of residents in the first years of the 20th century included civil engineer Arthur Mortimer Day; the elderly retired leather merchant Thomas Keck; W. T. Aldrich who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while living here; and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Livingston Delafield.

The Delafields were married in 1906 and on January 20, 1910 their son Joseph Livingston Delafield, Jr., was born in the Ardea.   An attorney, Delafield was descended from an old colonial family and had a deep interest in family history.   He wrote “Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York and His Family” and “Notes on the Woods Family” in Genealogies.    In 1912 he penned “Notes on the Life and Work of Robert Coleman” for The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

In 1913 resident George F. Herriman found himself in the newspapers.  Herriman was a well-known broker in mahogany and foreign hardwoods imported from countries like Africa and Mexico.  On September 28 a coroner’s jury was subpoenaed for the inquest into the murder of Anna Aumuller.

The list of jury members hand-chosen by the Coroner, Israel L. Feinberg, infuriated the District Attorney’s office.  Although the priest of St. Joseph’s Church on West 125th Street had already confessed to the murder, Feinberg picked only the most noted men in the city.  Along with George Herriman were Vincent Astor, George Gould, J. D. Rockefeller, William Rhinelander Stewart, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Harry Payne Whitney and E. E. Loomis among others.

The DA’s office complained “The inquest need not last more than five minutes, and an ordinary Coroner’s jury would do very well.  The idea of calling only rich and widely known men to act on the jury is extremely ridiculous.  The inquest will serve practically no purpose except to please the Coroner.”

George Brooke Tucker brought his new bride, Grace Hollingsworth, to the Ardea in 1916.  Following their fashionable May 27 wedding in Trinity Church, they went on a two-week trout fishing honeymoon.  The Dallas-born Tucker was Commissioner of the Board of Assessors and Assistant Treasurer of the Guarantee Trust Company of New York.

At the same time the very busy Richard R. Bowker lived here.    In addition to running his publishing firm, the R. R. Bowker Company, he was a Trustee of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences; Trustee of Brooklyn Public Library, President and Director of De Laval Separator Co.; and Director De Laval Steam Turbine Co.  In his free time he wrote for various magazines and newspapers and had written at least two legal books, “Copyright, Its Law and Its Literature:” and “The Question of Copyright.”

There was an odd turnover of apartments in July 1920.  Three of the 7-room flats were leased at the same time; to George E. Warren, A. Stanley Dell and Robert B. Meyer.

It was at this time, though, that the Ardea saw two of its most remarkable residents.

Marie Mattingly was a reporter for The Sun, (a newspaper notoriously cool to female journalists) when she married one of its editors, William Brown Meloney on June 6, 1904.  For a decade she stayed home, concentrating on her family and home.

But in 1914 she returned to journalism, now using the name Mrs. William B. Meloney, and editing the Women’s Magazine and Everybody’s.    Her life changed when she took the post of editor of another women’s magazine, the Delineator.  Along with fashion and fiction, it contained serialized autobiographies of women like Kathleen Norris, Marie Curie and Ethel Barrymore.    And in addition to giving household tips and recipes, it promoted women’s causes, improved children’s health and nutrition, and teaching methods.

For her work helping war-ravaged Europe she was decorated three times by the country of Belgium and another three times by France.  She launched the Better Homes in America movement which was incorporated as a public service organization by Herbert Hoover.

Through her work she became friends with the now-ailing Madame Marie Curie, who was suffering after years of working with radioactive materials.   In May 1921 the distinguished scientist traveled to New York with her two daughters on the liner Olympic to receive degrees from several colleges, awards from scientific organizations and be honored at numerous receptions throughout the New York and Washington DC areas.

Marie Meloney instigated a fund drive to collect $100,000 from American women to acquire one gram of radium to present to the scientist.

When the Olympic docked, Madame Curie, her daughters and Marie Meloney were “whisked away in the automobile of Mrs. Andrew Carnegie” said the New York Tribune, to the Ardea “which is to be her headquarters during her stay in New York.”  While Madame Curie was here, the sidewalks outside were banked with flowers from various delegations.

Mrs. William Brown Meloney -- The New York Tribune May 8, 1921 (copyright expired)
On May 20, Marie Meloney was with Marie Curie when President Harding presented her with the gram of radium made possible by Meloney.

The indefatigable Mrs. William Brown Meloney would become a frequent guest at the White House during the Hoover administration and in European chancelleries.  Later she would interview Mussolini four times and, when Adolph Hitler failed to keep an appointment for an interview, she refused to acknowledge the Chancellor.

While Madame Curie was sleeping at the Ardea, another resident, Charles Richard Crane, was in Asia as United States Minister to China.   But the diplomat caused political waves a year later, in 1922; not in his official capacity to China, but through his stand regarding the turmoil between Syria and France.

President Wilson had sent Crane to Turkey as Chairman of the Mandates Commission during the peace conference.  The accusatory findings of the commission against the French were never published.

The Syrian Nationalists, thinking that Crane was in Turkey as a U.S. representative aired their grievances against the French occupiers.   Violent demonstrations in Syria were blamed by the French Government on Crane and when he  arrived in Paris he was notified that he had been tried in absentia in Damascus for inciting rebellion and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

Minister to China and Ardea resident Charles Richard Crane -- photo Library of Congress
Crane made it home to the Ardea without being imprisoned; however before he left he irritated the government one more time with his unmasked sympathy for the Syrian people. 

"The French have a vicious chief of police, a native who has been terrorizing meetings in Damascus since the French occupation.  He made capital of such demonstrations after I left, used machine guns on unarmed people, and some of the finest men in Damascus were given long terms of imprisonment without trial.  All these incidents were foreseen and indicated in the report of the Mandates Commission, and great injustice has been done to Syrians and conservative French people by its suppression by our State Department."

A 1949 floorplan showing the larger 1895 apartment (left) and the added 1900 apartment --graciously provided by resident Ellen Williams

The Ardea was converted to a co-op in 1977, yet the spacious apartments, two to a floor as they were in 1901, remain; never broken up.   And then, as workmen were doing renovations on the 2nd floor apartment of Dave Bagan, they uncovered a wooden casing with a penciled message:

"This casing was put in on Monday morning Nov. 12th 1894 6 days after the terrible Defeat of Tammany Hall by one who knows his business.  Who it was is none of your business."

This astounding artifact from the Ardea's construction was found during renovations -- many thanks to resident David Bagan for this photograph.

Throughout the 20th century an amazing thing happened to the Ardea apartment building—almost nothing.  The exterior remains unchanged as does much of the interior.  The original staircase and newel post survive, the oaken built-in ice boxes in the tile-lined back halls, and the marble stair landings.  Inside and out the building is a time capsule that somehow (mostly) escaped the ravages of well-intentioned modernization.

Many thanks to reader and resident Ellen Williams for suggesting this post.  Thanks to Ms. Williams and resident Dave Bagan for showing me through the Ardea and their apartments.

Non-credited photographs taken by the author.


  1. Fascinating posting! Thanks for putting this up, complete with the interior shots and endless historical intrigue.

    1. Thanks. I was unbelievably lucky to receive the invitations to tour the building and write about it. An entire book could be written about this amazing building.

    2. Hello,
      I found this article while trying to research a painting. I have an early century ordinal painting that was giving to me. The canvas feels kind of like cloth with heavy texture. because the wooden frame is thick and nailed to the canvas I cannot find the artist name. the only information i have is this address written on the frame 31 W 12 st NY. There is a name on it that is VERY VERY hard to read because its faded. this is what I made out but i sure its wrong "MS R. Blohrm".

  2. Very nice posting. Thanks for sharing your information.
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  3. I have long admired this handsome building. The exterior is seen briefly in the 1997 film "As Good As It Gets" as the residence of Jack Nicholson and Greg Kinnear.

  4. Thank you for your interesting information and photos about 31 West 12th St. My family moved into Apt 2E in 1950. We lived for there for about five years. My father did some beautiful oil paintings during those years.
    It has just sold:

  5. Fantastic read! I stumbled upon your post because a relative used this address on her Ellis Island immigration document in 1913 - she was going to stay with a friend. I'm guessing the friend was working for one of the families. Would you know if there is a way for me to find out who was living in each apartment?

  6. I love it! I was curious, the door trim in most of the pictures is the same as what I have in my house, do you know what it is called? Thank you