Friday, August 31, 2012

A Colorful Blending of Styles --154 West 14th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Leslie R. Palmer was a busy man in the first decade of the 20th century.  An attorney, he was also a banker and active real estate developer and sat on the Board of Directors of the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company.   In 1911, Palmer eyed the five old buildings of the Adams Express Company at the southeast corner of Seventh avenue and 14th Street as the site of a modern commercial building.

On New Years Eve of that year, The New York Times noted, “The plot is one of the choicest in the lower Seventh Avenue district, which is likely, in the next few years, to witness a marked business transformation due to the extension of the avenue south of Eleventh Street to Varick Street and the prospect of a subway improvement under Seventh Avenue.”

Indeed, scores of buildings were being razed as Seventh Avenue was being cut through Greenwich Village.   Additionally, discussions were underway for the Seventh Avenue subway which would transport thousands of workers and shoppers daily.

Palmer formed a syndicate called the Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue Construction Company and purchased the large plot from Adams Express Company for about $260,000.  Included in the sale was the old residence that survived at 51 Seventh Avenue.  The New York Times reported that Palmer intended “to tear down the present old structures and erect on the site a high-class twelve-story office and loft building.”

The developer would develop a close working relationship with architect Herman Lee Meader, who received the commission.    Meader would go on to design four more buildings for Palmer, who took advantage of this project to spotlight the work of the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Co.   And the architect did not disappoint.

In the last years of the 19th century, European designers and architects had revolted from traditional restraints.  By now, the ground-breaking styles had reached the United States.  For 154 West 14th Street, Meader created a taster’s menu of Arts & Crafts, Mission, Art Nouveau and Vienna Secessionist styles.

Completed in 1913 at a cost of approximately $350,000, the building was praised by The New York Times for its modern design as well as its bold use of color.  Meader used an aggressive palette of Arts & Crafts-inspired earthy tones—mustard, beige, white, celadon, green and cobalt—most noticeably in the sinuous Art Nouveau three-story base and in the eleventh-story Secessionist decoration.    The newspaper especially noted the expanses of glass and the absence of the customary cornice.

Sinuous, colorful art nouveau decoration covers the base -- photo by Alice Lum

The New York Times reported, “The corner of the ground floor will be a store, and the floor above will be planned as a showroom.  Both will have fronts mainly of glass.  The façade has been designed to supply all the light possible, and besides, making the windows as large as is practicable, the upper part will not depend upon the inevitable cornice to ornament the top story and cast dark shadows over the windows below.”

The 154 West 14th Street Building stood out among Manhattan structures.  While the modern architectural styles that Meader showcased here were embraced in other American cities such as Chicago, New York’s staid tastes still tended towards the accepted and safe.  

The 12th story with its intricate Mission-inspired motifs can be seen here in 1931 -- photo NYPL Collection

The nearby residential neighborhood had already been settled by Spanish-speaking immigrants, earning the designation of “Little Spain.”  In January 1918, just as the Seventh Avenue subway station opened at its front door, the retail space was leased to Jaime V. Lago.  Lago, whom The Sun referred to as a “Spanish banker,” opened his private bank to serve the Spanish-speaking residents.   The enterprising young man had started his bank only a year earlier while working as a bell boy in a local hotel.  A year later the Campania Hispano-Americana, a Spanish-language bookstore opened here.

In 1921, Lago, who by now had Anglicized his first name to Joseph, enlarged his banking space and the following year renewed his lease for 14 years at $3,600 a year.  Things were looking good for Joseph V. Lago.  That same year, the Corn Exchange Bank took the corner street level space, signing a lease of 21 years with an annual rent of $22,000.  

Vibrant Vienna Secessionist ornamentation wraps the facade beneath the ruined top floor -- photo by Alice Lum

Along with the banks were various tenants.  The Postal Telegraph Cable Co. took the eighth floor and in 1927 S. Bruner, Inc., jewelers was here.  June 21 would be a day long remembered by Max Wolf, one of Bruner’s salesmen.

Around 9:00 that morning, Wolf left the store with his sample case.  Inside were 192 gold wrist watches, 149 gold rings and 24 monogram button insets for the rings.  The goods were valued at around $4,000.  When he reached his car parked at the curb, he found it wedged in by a delivery truck.  Wolf sat the case on the sidewalk and worked his automobile little-by-little back and forth until he could finally pull out of the tight parking space.  And off he sped to New Rochelle to meet with buyers—leaving his case of gold watches and rings on the pavement.

Throughout the morning hundreds, if not thousands, of busy New Yorkers rushed past the case.  Finally, at approximately 2:00, George Bovens stopped to investigate what today would be called “an unaccompanied package.”  He immediately rushed the case to the Charles Street police station.

In the meantime, Max Wolf reached his first appointment.  Within minutes he was headed back to the city at a greater speed than he had left.  For his honesty, Boven received a gold watch from the jeweler.

In July of 1928, Jaime V. Lago’s streak of good fortune came to an end.  The 35-year-old banker was arrested and held on $5,000 bail for accepting deposits while knowing his bank was insolvent.  A shortage of $250,000 had been discovered by Superintendent of Banks Frank H. Warder.

Investigation found that Lago had skimmed the money to finance the maintenance of a “rooming house for fellow-countrymen at 317 West 14th Street and a bookstore,” said The Times, as well as stock transactions.

Other tenants came and went, including the New York Globe Ticket Company which moved in in 1930.  The United States Treasury Department took three floors—about 33,000 square feet—in July 1937 for the WPA Cartographic and Map Making Project.  The concern produced relief maps of New York City, models of tunnels, and maps of foreign countries.

In the mid-1950s, Hugo Gernsback moved his several companies into the building.  Called the “father of modern science fiction,” his businesses included the Popular Book Corp., Gernsback Publications, Inc., and Hudson Specialties Company.  It was around this time that the top floor of the building was stripped of its wonderful Mission façade of curved gables, winged cobalt blue disks, brackets and floral bosses.

Other important tenants were the related Vanguard record companies.  From around 1959 through 1966, The Vanguard Recording Society, Vanguard Stereolab, Inc., Vanguard Record Sales Corp. and the Bach Guild were here; among the preeminent record labels representing folk, popular and classical music at the time.

photo by Alice Lum

Herman Lee Meader’s phenomenal and brashly colorful blending of early 20th century architectural trends is as striking today as it was in 1913.  Equally impressive is that little of the original design has been destroyed or seriously altered.  The building stands as a rare and wonderful example of cutting-edge building design in the years just prior to World War I.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Peerless Motor and Demarest Buildings -- Broadway and 57th Street

The A. T. Demarest Building occupied the corner site while the Peerless Motor Car building embraced it in an L-shape -- photo by Alice Lum

In the first decade of the 20th century what had been the carriage-making district of Broadway from Times Square to approximately 72nd Street was becoming known as “Automobile Row.”  The horseless carriage was rapidly taking over America’s roads with manufacturers cranking out around 200,000 automobiles a year.  By 1910 the industry-related buildings would stretch as far as 110th Street.

Among the smart carriage builders had been Demarest & Chevalier whose high-end showrooms were located in the fashionable 5th Avenue and 33rd Street neighborhood, across from the Waldorf Hotel.   Around 1902 the firm cautiously began manufacturing automobile bodies as well. 

The elderly Aaron T. Demarest died on July 13, 1908 after having eaten tainted clams.  His partner, Gabriel C. Chevalier, recognized that the age of the carriage was quickly passing away and that same year decided on a move to Automobile Row.

Simultaneously the Peerless Motor Car Co. of New York, a branch of the Cleveland automobile manufacturing firm, planned its new showroom and headquarters.  Peerless Motor Cars were the top of the line—luxury automobiles built for discriminating and wealthy consumers.

On December 8, 1908 The New York Times reported that A. T. Demarest & Co. had leased a nine-story building—yet to be erected—on the southeast corner of Broadway and 57th Street.  “The United States Realty and Improvement Company,” said the article, “will erect the building from plans by Francis H. Kimball.”  The New York Times remarked that “Originally in the carriage building business, the Demarest concern now finds it advantageous to locate in the new automobile district, north of Times Square.”

Demarest signed a 20-year lease with a staggering aggregate rent of $1 million.

In a somewhat “and by the way” note, article added that “An ‘L’ –shaped parcel adjoining this Broadway and Fifty-seventh Street corner was sold recently to the Peerless Motor Car Company through the same brokers.”

A month later Francis H. Kimball filed plans for the new building, a “nine-story garage,” for A. T. Demarest & Co.  The projected cost of the structure was $150,000.  The New York Times remarked in February 1909 on the rapid building along what it termed the “automobile belt.”    The newspaper remarked on the proposed buildings of Peerless and Demarest saying “the one to be built and owned by the future occupants, and the other controlled under a long lease that for all practical purposes amounts almost to ownership.” 

The automobile had changed the complexion of Broadway.  The article noted that developers, a decade earlier, had other plans for the real estate, “…but at just about that time came the remarkable expansion in the automobile industry, and these Broadway concerns have become the sites, not of apartment houses, but of salesrooms and garages…To-day the automobile business has become so firmly established in this section that it is not likely to be displaced easily.”

Architect Francis Kimball paid deference to the hulking Gothic-style Broadway Tabernacle adjacent to the building sites and planned both to complement it.   Designing the two structures so harmoniously that they are most often mistaken for a single building, he frosted the facades with Gothic- and Romanesque-inspired motifs.    Plans moved ahead in a blurring pace with construction on both structures commencing early in March 1909.  Within three months the Demarest was completed, followed by the Peerless building in September.    The remarkable façade, produced by the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Co., was praised by Architects’ & Builders’ Magazine.

A magnificent three-story bay continues the Gothic motif on the Peerless building -- photo by Alice Lum

“Carried out in white terra cotta, the Gothic treatment is suitable in keeping with the design of the church, and makes a bond between the business structure and the house of worship, which would hardly seem a possibility were it not before our eyes.”

Peerless immediately published a description of the showrooms as a reflection of its high-end product.  “The salesroom occupies the ground floor, and is designed to be in keeping with the Peerless cars, in dignity and richness.  The walls and columns are of Botticino marble.  The panels and side walls are of Greek Skyros, and the base of Pennsylvania Serpentine marble.  The border of the floor is in Verde Antique and Old Convent Sienna.  The Mosaic floor is of Sienna marble sawed in slabs and broken by hand, to get a novel effect. “

This 30-horsepower 1909 Peerless Landaulet sold for a jaw-dropping $5800 -- NYPL Collection

In order to prevent an unwanted glare of electric lights, the lamps were concealed behind marble caps to diffuse the light.  The entire ceiling of the showroom was gold leafed.    Two huge elevators moved automobiles between floors and a turntable at the 57th Street entrance easily changed the direction of the cars.

A Peerless automobile leaves the 57th Street entrance in 1910 -- from The New York Home of the Peerless (copyright expired)

Unlike its neighbor, Demarest & Co. did not manufacture complete automobiles, but luxury car bodies.  In 1911 The New York Times reported on the luxurious and colorful bodies being shown.

“Demarest & Co. will place the 38 horsepower English Daimler Silent Knight show chassis in the space this morning.  The other cars they are displaying are three Italas and three Renaults.  All the bodies having been built in their own shops.  One Itala is a 30 horse power with a green limousine body, another is a 20 horse power show chassis, and the third is a 15 horse power dark blue folding front landaulet.

“The Renaults shown in the Demarest space are a 12-16 horse maroon extension front landaulet, with one-fourth windows at each side in front; a 14-20 horse power green landaulet, with a detachable top over the driver’s seat and folding window pillars arranged so the body can be changed into an open one for touring, and a 20-30 horse power maroon limousine.”

To emphasize the exclusive nature of the Peerless automobile, the company would often advertise it parked in front of a mansion or other high-end setting, as in this 1909 ad -- NYPL Collection

Business in the upscale Peerless showrooms was upset just before noon on March 6, 1912 when a series of explosions sent six manhole covers, one-by-one, flying high into the air along Broadway from 57th to 54th Street.  The cast iron covers crashed down onto the pavement, shattering the concrete sidewalks, but amazingly no one was hurt.   The Peerless Motor Car windows were not so lucky.  Three of the large plate glass sheets were smashed.

photo by Alice Lum

Around 1915 Peerless Motor Car left its L-shaped building and two years later A. T. Demarest & Co. did the same.   In May 1917 Chevrolet Motor Co. of New York leased the Demarest building, only to purchase it the following year.   Chevrolet became a division of General Motors that year, in 1918, transferred the property to GM.   Almost simultaneously, General Motors purchased the Peerless building next door. 

Architect Henry J. Hardenbergh was commissioned to combine the two buildings into one.  While the exterior remained unchanged, the two structures became the headquarters of General Motors Corporation.    Although GM erected another headquarters building in Detroit in 1922, it retained the 57th Street building as its New York headquarters until 1927.  The street level showrooms continued to be used to showcase its many makes—Cadillac, LaSalle, Chevrolet and Pontiac among them—until the early 1970s.

Intricate terra cotta elements appear throughout the facade -- photo by Alice Lum

The Hearst Corporation had already leased offices in the building for several years when, in July 1977, it purchased the property.   From here some of America’s most popular periodicals would be published:  Town and Country, Esquire, Popular Mechanics, and Bazaar among them.   

After nearly three decades in the building, Hearst relocated in 2008.  After sitting mostly vacant for two years, it was sold by the publisher in 2010 to a Beirut-based investment group.   The investors, an affiliate of M1 Group, announced a $45 million renovation.   Today the exterior of the landmarked Peerless and Demarest buildings—now a single structure—is beautifully preserved; a reminder of the time when motorcars ruled this section of Broadway.

photo by Alice Lum

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Ralph Kramden Statue -- Port Authority Bus Terminal

photo by Alice Lum
For two centuries New York City erected statues and monuments to great achievers—poets like Milton and Shakespeare, millionaire philanthropists like Carnegie and Vanderbilt, statesmen, politicians and military figures.  The city became ornamented with bronze and marble tributes to men who had done great deeds.

But in 2000 the common guy would get his turn.

The American family depicted in 1950s television shows was an affluent suburban one.  Ozzie and Harriet, Ward and June Cleaver, and Jim and Margaret Anderson raised mostly well-behaved children in impeccably clean homes on manicured streets.  The housewives prepared breakfast wearing outfits appropriate for a garden party.

It was a lifestyle not shared by Ralph and Alice Kramden.  The Honeymooners premiered on CBS on October1, 1955 and introduced America to a New York City bus driver and his wife who lived in a Bensonhurst, Brooklyn tenement building.   The overweight Ralph, played by comedian Jackie Gleason, struggled to stretch the $62-a-week salary he earned on his Madison Avenue bus route.  Like normal, everyday married couples the Kramdens argued, were sarcastic to one another, and made up.

Unlike Beaver Cleaver’s or Ricky Nelson’s dads, Ralph shot pool, attended lodge meetings, drank beer and bowled.   The Kramdens’ best friends were upstairs neighbors, Norton, a sewer worker, and his wife Trixie.

Alice put up with Ralph’s repeated get-rich-quick schemes, making television viewers laugh with her mocking one-line comebacks.  When Ralph promised that “This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into,” Alice replied “The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants.”  Alice was played by Audrey Meadows and her deadpan delivery and timing were impeccable.

But despite their poverty (Alice once said “I’m the only girl in town with an atomic kitchen.  This place looks like Yucca Flats after the blast!”), their arguments and their back-and-forth insults, Ralph and Alice were visibly in love and most episodes ended with Ralph holding his wife and telling her “Baby, you’re the greatest.”

The true-to-life married couple was beloved by television audiences across America.  Despite the success, the show was canceled the following year after only 39 shows, the final episode airing on September 22, 1956.

Then as the century drew to a close TV Land began airing The Honeymooner reruns on cable television—introducing Ralph and Alice, Trixie and Norton to an entirely new generation.  In 1999 the TV cable channel came up with the idea to erect a statue to Ralph; a common guy who represented millions of Americans and who had become an icon of 1950s television.

With the cooperation of Jackie Gleason’s estate the plan went ahead.  New Jersey sculptor Lawrence J. Nowlan, Jr. was given the commission to design the statue.  The Philadelphia-born artist was known for his ability to capture moments in time—camera-like—in his stirring monuments.

The site chosen for the 4,000-pound bronze was inspired.  Ralph Kramden did not belong in Central Park with Giuseppe Mazzini or in Union Square with Abraham Lincoln.  He belonged at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.   

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey accepted the gift gladly.   Ken Philmus, director of tunnels, bridges, and terminals said “Who better Than Ralph Kramden to greet commuters and bus drivers in front of the place where more than 200,000 commuters and 7,000 buses pass through every day?”

photo by Alice Lum
On August 29, 2000 The Honeymooners theme drowned out the roar of taxicabs and buses as Joyce Randolph, who played Trixie, unveiled the statue.   Nowlan had captured Ralph happily strolling to work, his leather jacket zipped up nearly to the neck.  In his hand is his lunchbox which undoubtedly holds sandwiches wrapped in wax paper by Alice and a thermos of coffee.

The 8-foot statue did what it was intended to do:  it connected with the common Joe.  According to The Los Angeles Times, construction worker Tino Riveria commented “I like that guy Kramden.  He was a big mouth, but there are millions of big mouths in New York.  So naturally, people here are going to identify with him.”

Below the statue a plaque reads “Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden:  Bus Driver—Raccoon Lodge Treasure—Dreamer.  Presented by the People of TV Land.”

photo by Alice Lum
The statue stands not only as a memory to an iconic television character; it is a tribute to the hard-working, uncelebrated American workforce—the millions of Ralph Kramdens nationwide.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The 1850 Isaac Dayton House -- No. 459 West 24th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The 1811 Commissioners Plan that laid out on paper the grid of streets and avenues above 14th Street foreshadowed the end of the sprawling country estates like Chelsea Farm.    The estate was named after the London church, Chelsea Old Church, attended by Clement Clarke Moore’s grandfather, Thomas Clarke.

Now Moore began parceling off the family estate.   In 1818 he donated 66 tracts of land for the establishment of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church.   The rest, over a period of years, he would sell for development.

Beverly Robinson was the lawyer of the Clarke and Moore families as well as a close friend.   In 1820 he acquired the land stretching along the 24th street block from 10th to 9th Avenues. Robinson recognized the potential of the land as the city crept northward, and this was merely a portion of the former farmland that the shrewd attorney gradually bought up as investment.

In 1845 the magnificent row of Greek Revival townhouses, called London Terrace and designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, was completed on the corresponding block of 23rd Street as the Chelsea neighborhood rapidly developed.

Robinson sold the 24th Street land to George F. Talman on April 24, 1849; retaining an interest in the speculative homes to be built there.   Talman wasted no time.  The pair commissioned local builder Philo V. Beebe to erect a series of twelve paired brick homes that same year.    Completed in 1850, they sat back from the sidewalk behind a cast iron fence.   This gave the houses—like the elegant London Terrace homes—front yards; a luxury in Manhattan.

Among the series of mirror-image rowhouses was No. 459, at the left and now painted cream-colored -- photo by Alice Lum
The six pairs were constructed as mirror images, so each shared a stoop, divided by a centered common handrail.  Sitting above a rusticated brownstone English basement, the three-story homes were designed essentially in the widespread Greek Revival style; however there were touches of the new Italianate trend.

Isaac Dayton, a lawyer, purchased No. 459 nearly before the paint was dry, in March 1850.  Born in New York in 1819, the politically-active Dayton was also involved in the growing community.  He was at different times a school trustee of the 16th Ward, an Alderman, Assemblyman, a Public Administrator, and the Chairman of the Republican County Committee.

On April 3, 1856 he chaired a meeting at the 16th Ward Republic Hall at 8th Avenue and 16th Street.  The purpose of the meeting was to form an effective Republic Club to work for the upcoming political campaign.

But Dayton had other things on his mind as well.  The New York Tribune reported that “Mr. Dayton made a stirring and telling speech, bearing more particularly upon the Slavery question than upon any other of the party issues of the day.”   The newspaper said that Dayton gave “a brief and succinct history of the growth of the interest in that question from the time of its first agitation by party leaders to the present day.”

Dayton’s address was prompted by the debate on whether Kansas should be admitted into the Union as a free or slave-owning state.  The attorney was clear on his opinion that “the admission of Kansas as a Free State is imperatively demanded by every principle of right and justice, and that the Free State party in endeavoring to secure that object has entitled itself to the warmest sympathies of the freeman of the nation.”

The election that year was an extremely heated one.  Democrat James Buchanan condemned the Republicans as extremists and warned that their stand against slavery would end in Southern rebellion.  Republican John C. Fremont aggressively campaigned against the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska.   Isaac Dayton would attend the Republican State Convention that year as Secretary.

The successful attorney was a member of the Union, Manhattan, South Side Sportsmen’s, and the Olympic Clubs.  He lived in the house at No. 459 with his wife and two sons for about two decades before moving to No. 334 West 23rd Street.

Before long the house was updated with a new entrance door in the fashionable Queen Anne style.  Around this time it became a boarding house, home to school teachers like Miss Jane E. Hughes who lived here in 1888 while she taught in the primary department of Grammar School No. 33 at No. 428 West 28th Street.  In 1890 Margaret M. Hughes was living here.  She taught in the Boys’ Department of Grammar School No. 32 at No. 357 West 35th Street.

The house was gently updated with a new door.  A Oriental carved fan, all the vogue, and applied carving below the high window were the latest style -- photo by Alice Lum

A variety of respectable boarders lived here in the next few years.  Civil engineer Alexander Rice McKim was here in 1892; Dr. Louis Neumann, Assistant in Physiology at Cornell University lived here for around a decade starting in 1901; and sculptor Louis A. Gudebrod was here by 1904.

At the time Louis Alfred Gudebrod  was only 32 years old, but had studied under Augustus St. Gaudens, Jean Dampt and Mary Lawrence, as well as having had a studio in Paris where he modeled a statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman which was shown at the 1900 Paris Exhibition.  Louis Comfort Tiffany commissioned him to design the mermaid base for his Nautilus lamp. 

Early in his stay at No. 357 he sculpted a statue of the French explorer LaSalle which he entered in the St. Louis Exhibition.   The sculptor was serious about his art and, apparently, serious about his reputation as well.

In 1904 the city of Richmond, Virginia hosted a competition to design an equestrian statue of Confederate cavalryman General J. E. B. Stuart.   Gudebrod was among the top three finalists; however Fred Moynihan received the commission.     The competition became the topic of conversation at the Arts Club in June and artist Gutzon Borglum “made statements reflecting on Gudebrod personally and professionally,” said The New York Times.

Gudebrod filed suit for slander against his fellow artist for $50,000.

Louis Gudebrod would go on to design the monument at the site of the Civil War prison at Andersonville, Georgia, the Mayflower tablet at the Hartford State Capitol, the bas-relief of Governor Alfred E. Smith at the New York State Office Building in Buffalo and a tablet of Nathan Hale in Coventry, Connecticut among many other works.

Tragedy struck No. 459 on December 4, 1921 when 72-year old Madeline Holeyer was cooking in her apartment here.  The woman’s dress caught fire and she ran screaming into the hallway.  Although her husband and several neighbors smothered the flames, she was fatally burned and died at Bellevue Hospital later that night.

One of the familiar faces here at the time was Dr. William C. Gilley.  Dr. Gilley had earned his medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1885.  He lived quietly with his wife, collecting historical materials relating to New York City.   Mrs. Gilley died in 1923, leaving the doctor alone with his priceless collections and no relatives.

When Dr. Gilley died at the age of 81 on June 22, 1933, his apartment was filled with the irreplaceable collection of books, pamphlets, photographs and etchings he had accumulated over decades.   Having no family, he bequeathed the invaluable compilation to the Museum of the City of New York.

The handsome block of matching, paired homes sit reservedly back from the sidewalk.  Because the residential block is lightly-traveled, the houses are not widely known. -- photo by Alice Lum
Isaac Dayton’s house remains a multi-family residence today; but it is one of the least-changed of the original group.   Each of the houses along the charming set-back row was given individual landmark designation in September 1970.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission praised No. 459 and its neighbors saying that “the uniform setback behind planted front yards and the generally uniform cornice line provide a welcome sense of human scale in a streetscape dominated by large housing developments.”

thanks to reader Simone for suggesting this post.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Lost 1882 "Spite House" -- No. 1218 Lexington Avenue

Seven years after it was demolished, the New York Tribune published this photo -- New York Tribune, photo by Van der Wyde, December 17, 1922 (copyright expired)

When Joseph Richardson died on June 8, 1897 there was only one thing the public remembered about the eccentric millionaire, and it was not his vast wealth.  The English-born contractor had built the Bridgeport Water Works and, with the Gould family, constructed railroads including portions of the Union Pacific, the Missouri Pacific, Iron Mountain and Mexican Central Railroads.  Upon his death it was said he owned stock in nearly every railroad in the country and ran a fleet of boats between New York and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Although he was worth approximately $20 million at the time of his death, he had disdained the glitter of New York social life and shunned publicity. 

“His was a quiet, unostentatious life, devoted entirely to the making and saving of money,” said The Sun on the day following his death.  The newspaper went on to say:

He was tall and gaunt, and his clothes, always of the most ordinary make and material, hung from his body in a baggy way.  He was the last man any one would take for a millionaire, and in this he had taken a curious pride for years.  He liked to be mistaken for a poor man and despised publicity of any kind.  All he cared about was to be let alone, and the incident which made his existence known to more people than had ever known of it before was a sad blow to him.

The “incident” to which The Sun referred was the building of a house at the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 82nd Street.   The miserly man who often said he would rather throw away $10,000 than to see his name appear in the newspapers fell victim to his own bitter vengeance.  It resulted in his being thrust into what The Sun called “peculiar prominence.”

It all started when, in 1882, Patrick McQuade and Hyman Sarner laid plans to build an apartment house at the northwest corner of 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue in the quickly-developing Upper East Side neighborhood.  They purchased the necessary plots for the project—all except for a narrow strip of land extending along Lexington Avenue.

The odd little strip—102 feet long and 5 feet wide--was owned by Richardson’s wife, Emma, whom he had married just a year earlier.  When the city’s grid plan was laid out, it left anomalous scraps of property as the streets and avenues dissected large estates.  Della Richardson had inherited the sliver from her deceased first husband, Colonel Maclay.

To McQuade and Sarner, the five-foot-wide piece of land was worthless to Richardson.  To Richardson, whom The New York Times later described as “eccentric, strong-willed, and thrifty,” it was a valuable piece of real estate that the developers desperately needed to complete their plans.   It was a difference of opinion that would result in “the incident.”

Patrick McQuade and Hyman Sarner approached Richardson and offered him $1,000 for the lot.   Richardson countered with his own valuation: $5,000.   The developers balked.  Rather than being railroaded, they proceeded to build their apartments.

As ground was broken in May 1882, Sarner went back to Richardson, according to The Sun, and offered to give the full $5,000.  But it was now Richardson who refused.  Sarner “was considerably taken back when Richardson informed him that he never gave a man more than one opportunity to buy anything from him, and that the strip was no longer for sale,” said the newspaper.

A month later Richardson broke ground himself.

Joseph Richardson told his daughter by his previous marriage, Dellarifa (known familiarly as Della), that he intended to build “a couple of tall houses” that would block the light to the apartment building.  Although both Dellarifa and Emma tried to dissuade him, he was steadfast.  “Not only will I build the houses, but I will live in one of them,” he insisted.

And so he did.

Richardson’s houses were completed in November, five months before the McQuade and Sarner project was finished.  Only five feet wide and 100 feet long, the pair matched the apartment building in height—four floors.    Constructed of red brick with white marble trim they appeared to be a single residence, causing the press to quickly dub it “The Spite House.”

Scientific American published this sketch in January 1897.   Within five months Joseph Richardson, who lived in the house in the foreground, would be dead (copyright expired)

The New York Times described the house.  “Its narrow front is broken by deep bay windows, its small rooms are reached by a spiral staircase and supplied with furniture constructed especially to fit them.  Every room is less than five feet wide, and the dining table is only eighteen inches wide.  Gas is unknown above the first floor, and water has to be carried by hand all over the building.”

The Sun added that the front doors of the two houses were close together and “are very narrow doors and lead to an interior hall 8 feet 6 inches long by 9 feet 8 inches deep.  One-half of this hall is taken up by a semi-circular stairway, which runs to the top floor.  From the hall a passageway 14 feet long and 3 feet 8 inches wide leads to the one room on each floor, which room, about 18 feet long by 9 feet 8 inches wide, is formed by the expansion of the second bay.”  It was by the use of bay windows—allowed on corner houses by building code—that Richardson was able to expand the size of the rooms.

Emma Richardson would describe the house as "comfortable."  The artist perhaps purposely omitted the dining table in the above sketch -- New York Journal, June 5, 1897 (copyright expired)

There were five “fair-sized rooms” in each house, said The Sun, with five large closets, five passageways and five halls.  Astonishingly, Richardson managed to fit a lot into the constricted space.  “The dining room is on the first floor,” explained The Sun, “and in it there is a table, a sofa, a sideboard, and several chairs.  Built against the wall on one side is an ornate mantelpiece.  The rooms on the upper floors are bedrooms, and each contains a folding bed, besides other furniture.  It is this adaptation of the furnishing to the conditions that changes the appearance of things.  You do not notice anything very odd once you get into the rooms.  There is perhaps a sense of being cramped, but that is principally because you know what a box-like structure you are in.”

Richardson and his wife moved into the corner house and he rented the other.  Daughter Della, a grown woman who matched her father in eccentricity and avariciousness, moved to East Houston Street where she was rarely seen by neighbors and refused to accept visitors.  The New York Tribune later remarked “Notwithstanding her wealth, she prefers to live in East Houston Street over a store, and it is an undertaking involving much persistent effort to get her to answer a ring at the doorbell.”

A year after moving in, Emma Richardson told a reporter from The Sun that the house was “as comfortable as any she had ever lived in, and that there was more room in it than she and her husband needed.”  The only drawback, she mused, “was the absence of backyards; but then, she declared, one couldn’t have everything on a five-foot lot.”

Fifteen years after moving in, the 84-year old Richardson was gravely ill.  A harsh headline in the New York Tribune mocked “His Grave to Be as Wide as His Home.”  He died on June 8, 1897 and his obituaries, rather than relive his accomplishments in the railroad and transportation industry, dwelled on his vindictive erection of The Spite House.

In 1865 Richardson had had a wooden coffin made to his specifications from timber cut from his own property in New England and stored in his barn there.  Either the primitive coffin was built too small, or Richardson had grown in the ensuing 32 years.  At any rate he did not fit.  The predicament would have puzzled the dead man, for he expected it to be too large.

The New York Times recalled, “'I am a working man,' he used to say. 'I want no fuss either in life or death.  If my coffin is too large, fill in the empty space with sawdust.’”

The sawdust was unnecessary.  Instead, to allow Richardson’s body to fit, the coffin was disassembled.  “The sides, top and bottom were screwed to the interior of the more modern casket,” reported The New York Times, “thereby carrying out the wishes of the dead man to the letter.”  Now the problem was getting the casket, laden with Joseph Richardson, out of the confined Spite House by way of the spiral staircase.

While the casket was being wrangled down the staircase, the street outside filled with gawkers.  “Unusual public and neighborly interest was awakened by the funeral of Joseph Richardson, the venerable and eccentric millionaire,” reported The New York Times.  "Several hundred persons assembled near the unique home of the dead man—the noted five-foot-wide 'spite house'…and watched with much curiosity for the appearance of the funeral party.”

The man who shunned publicity was, even in death, the center of it—all owing to an act of vengeance.  “The few blocks through which the funeral procession passed were crowded with spectators,” recounted the newspaper.  “Every doorway was filled with people, and eager faces peered from every window.  The demeanor of the on-lookers, however, was noticeably quiet and respectful.  At the church, where there also was a large crowd, the ingenuity of the undertaker’s aids was taxed to a greater extent than at the house, in lifting the coffin up the narrow, bended stairway, by which the audience room of the church was reached.”

Ironically, Reverend Harry M. Warren, the pastor of the Central Park Baptist Church, noted in his address that one of the last requests made by Richardson was “that there should be as little ostentation as possible about his burial.”

Richardson’s son and daughter, George and Della, immediately set about overturning his will which left about one-third of his $20 million estate to Emma.   Justice Ingraham remarked that the action of his children against their step mother made evident “considerable antagonism.”  George and Della sought to have Emma evicted from the skinny Lexington Avenue house and to receive nothing.  Not until May 25, 1900, after George had died, was the will admitted to probate much to the disappointment of Della (who received nearly $13.5 million—almost $300 million today).

Emma did not stay in the Lexington Avenue house for long.  The Richardson heirs sold the house in 1902 to Charles Reckling and James Varnum Graham.  The corner house where Emma and Joseph had lived was now home to 46-year old Henry Kral, a Danish musician.  Although the new owners reported they “have not yet decided just how they will finally utilize it,” they suggested that the ground floor would be converted to offices “which could be readily rented, and to which tenants who need but little space would be attracted through the novelty of the building,” said The New York Times.

Within only two years the house was boarded up and vacant, owned now by Edward A. Boyd.  The upper floors had been converted to a single residence and the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide reported that Boyd had filed plans to install six stores at ground level.  Later that year he sold the building to C. A. Stein.

By the time this side view was taken, stores had already been installed at street level.  The Sun had said of it "the building has a rather imposing front; it is when you get around the corner that you discover how deceiving appearances may be."  Sarner's and McQuade's apartment houses appear at left.  --photo New York Public Service Commission

The Spite House was back in the news on November 5, 1911 as the Lexington Avenue subway line was being built.  The excavations endangered the slender structure and The New York Times reported “It’s going to cost the Bradley Contracting Company, however, $15,000 to shore up one building, which is hardly worth the money.  That is the famous Richardson ‘Spite House’ at Eighty-second Street.”

On August 19, 1915 Stein sold the building to real estate developers Bing & Bing.  It was the end of the road for the five-foot-wide architectural anomaly.

Just two days later the New-York Tribune announced that “the spite house…one of the structural curios of the city” was to come down.  Bing & Bing commissioned architect Emery Roth to design a modern apartment house on the site of the Sarner and McQuade building—which had started the entire affair—and the Spite House.   A year later there was no trace of one of New York City’s most unusual buildings and eccentric characters.  And had Joseph Richardson not given in to spite and revenge, his name would be forgotten today—the one thing he most wished for and never got.

Emory Roth's 1915 apartment house still stands on the site of Richardson's "Spite House" -- photo by Alice Lum

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The St. Vincent Ferrer Priory -- Lexington Avenue and 65th Street

photo by Alice Lum
As the Civil War raged to the south, the Father Preachers of the West sent representatives to New York.  Among the first was French-born Father Thomas Martin, who moved into a brownstone on Lexington Avenue and 62nd Street in the Upper East Side where similar rowhouses were quickly lining the streets.   Before long more Dominican priests followed and Archbishop John McCloskey encouraged the group to establish a parish in the area.   Urban pioneers who ventured north into what had a generation earlier been sprawling country estates of the wealthy needed a convenient place of worship. 

The “fathers of the white-robed order,” as described in The Evening World, borrowed $10,000 to purchase land at Lexington Avenue and 65th Street.   Plans were drawn for a brick chapel and school, and on November 10, 1867 the cornerstone was laid by Archbishop McCloskey.  Two years later the chapel was completed as well as a simple convent to the rear of the church.  The parish of St. Vincent Ferrer was now established.

As the war came to a close and the workforce marched back home, the area developed at a greater pace.  The Lexington Avenue block between 65th and 66th Streets was soon surrounded by brownstone houses and the accompanying commercial concerns like dry goods stores and groceries.  St. Vincent Ferrer’s membership and religious staff burgeoned and in 1879 the chapel was replaced by a substantial church.  That same year plans were laid for a New York City provincial headquarters, or “convent.”

The Fathers commissioned German-born architect William Schickel to design the new convent.  After studying architecture in his homeland, he had immigrated to New York around 1870, landing a job with Richard Morris Hunt as a draftsman.  Within three years Schickel ventured out on his own.  He would go on to design multiple structures for the German community, as well as several buildings for the Catholic Church.

For the convent, Schickel worked in the appropriate Victorian Gothic style; but also drew from his German training.   Reflecting the building’s purpose—a home and workplace of Catholic priests—the design is restrained and dignified.  There was a decidedly ecclesiastical air to the Gothic arches, the split entrance staircase and deeply recessed entrance.  Schickel masterfully blended materials—brownstone, orange-red brick and slate--to create a polychromatic façade sitting aloofly above street level on a deep brownstone basement.
photo by Alice Lum
Taking advantage of the commodious lot, the architect sat the building back from the property line, affording a grassy lawn and garden space protected by a cast iron fence.  The convent was completed in 1881, deemed by The Evening World as “a large and commodious structure.”  A gallery connected the church with the convent’s private chapel.

The Fathers used the building, as well, for its missionary work.   “At the Convent of St. Vincent Ferrer there are several who are set apart for this particular department of religious work,” reported The Evening World

Then in 1888 an new “parish school-house” addition was erected to the rear at a cost of $80,000, capable of accommodating 1,200 students.   48-year old Father Raphael Ferrari was curate of the St. Vincent Ferrer Convent in 1931 when he had an inspired idea.  The priest began plans for a summer pilgrimage for the school children to Vatican City.

One week before Christmas Day, on December 17, he visited the steamship ticket office of Gaetano La Loggia at 191 Sullivan Street to begin arranging details for the trip.  Suddenly five hold-up men rushed into the office brandishing guns and demanding money.  Hoping that his clerical attire might deter the robbers from harming the two clerks of La Loggia, Father Ferrari rose from his chair and moved towards one of the men.

Two of the hold-up men fired at the priest, wounding him in the stomach and arm.  The would-be robbers then fled without the $500 dollars in cash they sought, leaving Father Ferrari to die on the office floor.

photo by Alice Lum
By the time Father Urban Nagle was transferred to the convent in 1940, it was more often called the “priory.”  Father Nagle was sent here to edit the Holy Name Journal, the official publication of the Holy Name Society.  But the priest was more well-known for his involvement with the Blackfriars—the theatrical group that took its name from the Blackfriars Theatre in London that sat on the site of a 13th century Dominican monastery.   Working with Brother Fabian Carey, he quickly established the Blackfriars Theatre here that year and staged its first production in the fall of 1941.

Father Nagle described the group saying “The professional stage is too dependent on box office receipts.  Accordingly, it is of amateurs that our Guild is composed, men and women who understand the great and inherent power of a National Catholic theatre, and are willing to sacrifice personal comfort and remuneration to the attainment of an ideal.”

photo by Alice Lum
Theater, traditionally considered a harbor of sin and corruption by some, had its detractors within the Church.  Nagle argued, “Today there is no reason why the church and the theatre should fight against each other.  The dramatic instinct in all of us is too strong to be suppressed.  Cannot the theatre be used as a medium to bring beauty and high idealism into the lives of everyone?”

While Broadway drew audiences with renowned actors with names like Barrymore, Lunt and Fontaine; Nagle presented unknown performers and new writers. 

Among the amateur playwrights was another resident of the priory, the Rev. Thomas M. McGlynn.   Father McGlynn had already caught the attention of the Church for his astounding sculptural talents.  He had designed and sculpted the baptismal font in the St. Vincent Ferrer Church in 1932.  He was also responsible for a marble statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the Basilica of Fatima in Portugal.

But in 1944 he turned his attention to script writing.  For the Blackfriars he wrote Caukey.  The play addressed racial issues decades ahead of its time.  In it, blacks were the majority and whites a minority.

By 1948 Nagle estimated that more than 100 actors who started out on the Blackfriars stage were now professionals.  And the priest himself had become a household name.  He made regular appearances on the “Hour of Faith” national radio show, frequently appeared on television and wrote several popular books.  In January 1952, after an apparent rift with the Provincial, Father McDermott, Nagle was assigned as chaplain at the Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse of Saint Mary of the Springs in Columbus, Ohio.

Tragedy struck around 10:00 on the night of July 29, 1974.  Father Fu opened the door of his room to discover smoke pouring into the hallway from the main staircase.  He pushed the fire alarm button, and rushed back to his room where he was joined by two other priests.  As fire trucks roared up Lexington Avenue, the fire and smoke made escape through the main entrance impossible.

Brother Mark Schratz was in his room watching the Yankees-Red Sox game.  A polio victim, he grasped  his crutches upon hearing the alarm and started down the smoke-filled corridor.  Unable to see through the smoke, he fell down a flight of stairs.

When the fire fighters arrived, they “found priests at many of the windows of the second, third and fourth floors, shouting for help, their escape cut off by the fire and intense heat, which swept up the main stairway of the five-story brick building, trapping the priests in their rooms,” reported The New York Times.

Fire fighters raised a ladder to the window of Father Fu’s room, rescuing the three priests.  Another ladder reached the room of the 65-year old pastor, the Very Rev. Paul C. McKenna.  With singed hair and eyebrows, he was lowered to the street in his red bathrobe.

As the firemen battled the blaze, the United Press International received a disturbing phone call.  The caller said he had set the fire and “would ‘bomb’ it next time.”   Later the caller telephoned again, threatening to bomb the church within two months.  “I’m letting loose a tirade against the Catholic Church,” he said, “They’ve buffaloed people since the Spanish Inquisition.”

Indeed the New York Fire Department indicated that the presence of gasoline or other flammable material was discovered where the fire started in the first floor hallway.

Before it was over, 67-year old priest Father Thomas Smith was dead and more than a dozen others had to be rescued from their rooms.

photo by Alice Lum
Three years later, sculptor and playwright priest Thomas M. McGlynn died at the age of 71.  In addition to his Blackfriars play, he had written “Vision of Fatima,” published in 1948, and sculpted busts of Popes Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI.

Today there is little change to the handsome brick and stone convent.  Its silent walls have sheltered missionaries, playwrights and artists.   Sitting somewhat reservedly on its lawn, arm’s length from the passerby, it is a delightful piece of Victoriana amid the hubbub of Lexington Avenue.