Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Dignified Survivor at No. 638 West End Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
In the last quarter of the 19th century the Upper West Side exploded with development as paved streets and public transportation made the neighborhoods west of the newly-created Central Park attractive to middle and upper class families.  While the New York’s aristocratic old guard remained on the east side of the park, those who had made their fortunes in fields like entertainment, for instance, mainly settled on the west.

Such was the case with Charles L. Lawrence.  Born in Scarborough, Scotland, he made his name in the theatrical and musical circles.  For years he was treasurer of the Academy of Music—the forerunner of the Metropolitan Opera House where owning a box was a reflection one’s social status.  Lawrence was also instrumental in organizing several theatrical companies.

Lawrence’s home at No. 638 West End Avenue stood apart from many of the mansions that rose along the avenue.  In a stark contrast to the gargoyles and towers of the eccentric West End architecture embraced by many of the builders, Lawrence’s mansion was prim and distinguished.  Smacking of London’s Georgian Mayfair District, it sat on a white stone base behind a proper cast iron fence.  The Ionic portico at street level supported a stone balcony.  Ruddy-colored brick contrasted with the white stone window frames and trim.  At the fourth floor, bands of stone alternated with brick to create a variegated striped effect.  Above, dormers with a broken, scrolled pediments crowned the roofline.

Only two bays wide on West End Avenue, the house stretched far back along West 91st Street.  Here a wide balcony with an elegant stone balustrade served as the focal point.  Far from the corner was the servants’ entrance.
photo by Alice Lum
Perhaps the most illustrious time in Lawrence’s career (and most profitable) was his management of the first two American tours of Adelaide Ristori .   The Italian tragedienne was a European sensation and, like Jenny Lind upon her first arrival in the U.S., she attracted huge crowds to her performances. 

The Italian actress Adelaide Ristori during her first New York appearance (the photographer artificially inserted the mirror "reflection") -- photo NYPL Collection

The New York Times would later report that “During [her first tour] she gave 349 performances, earning a fortune both for herself and her manager.”

On July 16, 1890, Lawrence died in the house at 57 years of age.

Lawrence’s widow sold the house to Lyman Horace Weeks, a prolific author of books of a wide-range of topics.  He penned travel books such as his “Along the Azores,” genealogical  works and books on social and economic topics like “The Other Side—A Brief Account of the Development of Industrial Organizations in the U.S.”  Later, as the motor car became increasingly popular, he turned his focus to writing about automobiles, including “The Origin and Development of the Automobile.”

Following Weeks, the former Civil War officer Louis E. Granger lived at No. 638.  Granger had started his military career as a second lieutenant in the 13th Massachusetts Infantry.   As the war progressed, he was made a captain in the 18th U.S. Colored Infantry.

Louis E. Granger -- photo courtesy of Ron Coddingham http://www.flickr.com/photos/8026096@N04/3400801809/
In 1897 he wrote a letter from his desk in the house on West End Avenue in memory of the recently deceased General Henry G. Thomas.  In it he reflected on his time under the general and the extra danger that commanding African American soldiers presented.

“It was my pleasure to serve with the General when it took moral as well as physical courage to command colored troops.  The Confederacy had issued orders not to treat officers of colored troops as prisoners of war if captured, but to shoot them down.”

In May 1903 attorney Orison B. Smith purchased the house.  The wealthy Smith was Vice President and General Counsel of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company; and a partner in J. Lee Smith & Co., importers and manufacturers of paint.  Although the Smiths could easily afford to maintain the mansion as a single-family home (both Orison and his wife, Jennie, were club members and Orison dabbled in real estate); he took in at least one boarder.

Living in the Smith home was prominent attorney William Sherman Jenney and his wife, Nina. Jenney served under Orison Smith as general attorney for the railroad which, no doubt, was no small factor in his living here.

The college-educated Jennie H. Smith was not one to stay at home.   She had accepted the position as a School Inspectress in 1894 (the second female in New York City to hold the position).  She was also an officer of the International Sunshine Society.

The goal of the International Sunshine Society, which had been formed half a century earlier, was “to incite its members to a performance of kind and helpful deeds and thus to bring the sunshine of happiness into the greatest possible number of hearts and homes.”   While it seemed frivolous on the surface, the Society established day nurseries, fresh air homes, lunch rooms and free libraries.

As for dues, the women members were required to donate “sunshine suggestions, kind deeds and good cheer.” 

As the United States entered World War I the Smith household included their two daughters and a son.  Margaret Foster Smith fell in love with the dashing Edwin Norton Moore and there were no doubt many tears from the young girl when he left town for training in 1918 with the artillery at Camp Upton, Long Island.  He then was deployed to France with the 305th Field Artillery.

But happier times were to come when the soldier returned the following year and on May 28, 1919 they were married in St. Andrew’s Church on Fifth Avenue at 127th Street.

Brothers Frank and Edwin Zittel purchased the house the next year, converting it to spacious, high-end apartments.  William F. Heide was a candy manufacturer who lived here at the time; his apartment consisted of ten rooms.
photo by Alice Lum
Throughout the rest of the 20th century the house would see numerous owners or leasers.  In April 1937 Max Berkowitz leased the building; in 1941 the lease and furnishings were sold by John Yezdimer to Louise Schwartz; and four years later the house was purchased by Elizabeth Wolfson.

In 1958 Ms. Wolfson sold the house to F. Morse Brown who converted it to one apartment on the first and second stories; three each on the third and fourth floor, and two apartments on the fifth floor.

The distinguished home at the corner of West End Avenue and West 91st Street is remarkably unchanged today—a dignified reminder of a time on the Upper West Side when capacious mansions sheltered wealthy urban pioneers.

Many thanks to reader Ashman for requesting this post.


  1. Nice posting. Beautiful and dignified looking building! Would luv to see what it is like inside.

  2. I lived in the center apt on the 4th floor from '77 through '82 or '83 -- Mrs. Joan Huppert was the landlady at the time -- she lived around the corner on 91st. She would only let men live in the building, but allowed women in one of her other buildings -- in a location she felt was safer for them. - MidC Frank

  3. This building just caught my eye on Saturday night as I drove by! Just beautiful. I was intrigued by it and this post was perfect.
    Thank you

  4. it's really chopped up now to accommodate multiple apartments. there's 14 units in all.

    can only imagine if there were 6! everyone would have a grand home.