Friday, December 21, 2012

The Virginia O'Hanlon House -- 115 W. 95th Street

photo by Alice Lum

By the late 1880s the block along West 95th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues bore little resemblance to the Charles Ward Apthorp estate of a century earlier.   Now speculative rowhouses lined the streets, most designed by architects Charles T. Mott and William J. Merritt.

Among the Merritt-designed structures was 115 West 95th Street—one of a string of six somewhat boxy brick-and-brownstone homes that stretched from 111 to 121 West 95th Street built by developer Charles Bouton.   A rusticated, rough-cut brownstone first floor served as a base for two stories of red brick.   Brownstone quoins framed the paired, centered windows and each peaked, tiled roof was interrupted by a single dormer.

115 West 95th Street was near towards the center of the row, marked by the purple banner above -- photo by Alice Lum

The six harmonious homes were intended for middle class families, like that of Dennis Moloney, a meat merchant, who moved into 115. 

At the time, Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon was making a name for himself in the medical community.  O’Hanlon’s family had a medical tradition—both his father and grandfather had practiced medicine on East 18th Street.  Philip earned his medical degree from New York University in 1886 and immediately became House Surgeon at Gouverneur Hospital until 1887.  In 1891 he was appointed Medical Examiner in the Insurance Department of the State of New York.  But after 1895, when he became the City’s Coroner’s Physician, Philip F. O’Hanlon’s name became a household word.

The doctor and his wife, the former Laura Lincoln Plumb, had one daughter, Laura Virginia, who was born in 1889.  The year after receiving his position in the Coroner’s Office, he leased 115 West 95th Street.

photo by Alice Lum

The year 1896 was a busy one for Dr. O’Hanlon.  He performed the autopsy on Eveline M. Bliss, the victim in a notorious murder case, and testified at the trial of her daughter, Mary Alice A. Fleming.   Mary Fleming was charged with having put arsenic into the clam chowder she served her mother.

A headline in the New-York Tribune on May 29, 1896 read “DR. O’HANLON TESTIFIES,” and the article informed a shocked public that “Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon, who conducted the autopsy on Mrs. Bliss’s body, was the most important witness yesterday, and his testimony was that in his opinion death was caused by arsenical poisoning.”

The following year he broke the sensational Geldensuppe murder case by detecting an obscure clue that resulted in the unraveling of the murder mystery, leading to the conviction of the murderer.  The case had all the scintillating and gruesome trappings of a crime novel—a dismembered corpse, a menage-a-trois, and shocking extra-marital affairs.  The New York Journal called it “a murder, most foul, deliberate, mysterious and terrible.”  The case firmly established Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon’s reputation and renown.

The same year that O’Hanlon was instrumental in solving the Geldensuppe case, he was forced to tackle another difficult question.  Little 8-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon—known as Virginia to the family—faced a problem that summer.  Her school friends chided her for still believing in Santa Claus.

When she asked her father if, indeed, Santa existed, he deftly passed the onus of an answer to The New York Sun.   So, relying on her father’s professed unswerving faith in the veracity of the newspaper, little Virginia penned a letter to the editor:

Dear Editor:
I am 8 years old.  Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.  Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun it’s so.” Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
        Virginia O’Hanlon 115 West Ninety-Fifth Street

On September 21, 1897 a reply was printed to Virginia’s touching query.  In what was doubtlessly a carefully thought out response, the author—assumed today to be 58-year-old Francis P. Church—dexterously answered the question while avoiding the obvious pitfalls in his path.

Laura Virginia O'Hanlon in 1897 --

The editorial began “We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of THE SUN.”   In what would become the most famous and celebrated editorial in the history of newspaper journalism, Church wrote:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong.  They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.  They do not believe except they see.

You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove?  Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus.  The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see…Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

Church’s long and moving column ended “No Santa Claus!  Thank God!  He lives and he lives forever.  A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

Although Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon was a celebrated and well-known physician and nerve specialist; his little 8-year-old daughter’s heart-felt appeal to The New York Sun would eventually make her the famous member of the family.

A year later the country became embroiled in the bloody Spanish-American War.   Philip F. O’Hanlon, along with Hamilton Williams and Edward J. Donlin—also Deputy Coroners—applied to the War Department to go to war either as soldiers or physicians.    O’Hanlon became a lieutenant in the Medical Reserves Corps.

photo by Alice Lum

After four years of renting 115, Dr. O’Hanlon purchased the house across the street at 121 West 95th Street.   Later that year, on December 27, he nearly lost his life when a horse drawing a coach in which he was riding “took fright” and ran wildly down 42nd Street from Broadway.  The coach swayed from side to side, banging into other vehicles, until it struck an electric automobile at Tenth Avenue.  The collision caused the horses to pause just long enough for the doctor to jump from the coach.

By 1920 the O’Hanlon’s former residence at 115 had become a boarding house, owned by Elizabeth Brogan.   Among the 11 residents was the 35-year-old motion picture actress Maude Wecherley.   In the winter of 1920, Patrolman John Delaney came across Wecherley “entertaining a crowd on the sidewalk at Eighty-ninth Street and Columbus Avenue by singing in the small hours” of December 21.  The singing actress was wearing glittering jewelry which concerned the policeman.  And so he arrested her.

Delaney testified in the West Side Court “On account of the crime wave I thought it would be best to take her in before somebody got her diamonds.”  Apparently the movie actress, who went by the screen name of Maude Vancott, was unperturbed by the temporary loss of her freedom.  According to the New-York Tribune the following day, she “thanked the patrolman for his thoughtfulness and Magistrate Mancuso suspended sentence.”

The house on West 95th Street went through a quick succession of female owners.  In 1920 Elizabeth Brogan sold it to Helen Egler.    Florence Hull purchased the property next while 35-year old Simon Sunarian, a Russian-born “lecturer” was living here.  Hull leased it in October 1927 to Helen Wandrie for five years.  In 1957 the property was converted to apartments—two per floor including the basement.

As the century progressed, the neighborhood noticeably declined.  In 1965, 115 West 95th Street was taken over by the City of New York as part of an urban renewal scheme intended to clean up the now-derelict homes along the block.

No. 115 and its reportedly "rat-infested" neighbors are boarded up in 1969 -- photo NYPL Collection

In the meantime, little Laura Virginia O’Hanlon was all grown up.  A retired teacher, now Mrs. Douglas, she granted repeated interviews regarding her now-famous letter and the responding editorial, and received hundreds of letters.   She never took credit for the iconic Santa Claus prose.  “All I did was ask the question,” she later told her nephew, James Temple.  “Mr. Church’s editorial was so beautiful…It was Mr. Church who did something wonderful.”  Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died on May 13, 1971 at the age of 81.

In 1974 a well-intentioned resident of the block, Jeanne Beaty, purchased five of the houses from the City for about $35,000 each.   Among the homes she intended to renovate as investment properties was 115.  Unfortunately Beaty’s ambitious plans never came to fruition and two decades later the structures had decayed to decrepit, vacant hulls.  Legal battles dragged on until, finally, the city repossessed the buildings in 1992.  The following year Moshe Shrem purchased three of the empty shells, including 115.  Shrem paid about $175,000 for the former O’Hanlon house.  The deal with the city required the buyer to reconstruct the property within six years.

In 2001, according to Department of Buildings records, 115  West 95th Street had been renovated to a single family residence with an apartment in the basement.  The house was put on the market that year for $2.7 million.

No. 115 lost its front door when it was combined with its neighbor to the left -- photo by Alice Lum

Then, in 2009, it and the matching house next door were purchased by The Studio School—a private institution for gifted students from kindergarten to adolescent ages.  The two houses were internally combined and converted to classrooms.  Although the original interiors are gone, the quirky Late Victorian fa├žade of 115 survives—a vestige of a time when a childless newspaper editor assured little girls and boys worldwide that, indeed, Santa Claus “exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”


  1. A great post on the history of the house and it's many owners, also the never to be topped Sun editorial response to Santa Claus and the incredible story of Manhattan real estate going from rat infested to $2.7 million. Wonderful story. NYarch

  2. This was a great read!!! Thanks for the site

    1. Heard this story today on the radio. Looked up 115 W 95 St NYC and enjoyed it again. FANTASTIC. TOM T. NEW BERLIN, WISC. GO PAK!

  3. I had just looked up the movie by the same name of the article, and discovered she had lived here. I lived nearby on W. 92nd years ago. To think that in 1974, one could've bought a whole townhouse for what's about $200,000 today. Or that in 1959, Andy Warhol paid what's worth about $600,000 today for the townhouse in Carnegie Hill. I wonder what Virginia's father paid for their house when they moved across the street on W. 95th. There was just boundless opportunity back then, helped perhaps by the much smaller population at the turn of the century, and much less competition. It would be a dream today.

  4. Really interesting to read this. I grew up in the 1950s at 172 West 97th, just two blocks away. I was aware of the “Yes Virginia” letter as a child but had absolutely no idea that I was only two blocks away! My house was demolished in the dreadful destruction of the West Side that took place in the 60s. I’m really thrilled to know that her house, at least, survived, despite some vicissitudes. It’s funny to think that our A&P supermarket, which was on the corner of Columbus Avenue and 95th was just a few yards from thi O’Hanlon house!

    1. This is such a beautiful comment. I am from the south and have never been to NY- and was also born in the early 2000's- so I only know about it from online friends, movies and writings like yours. But there must be so much culture and magic there. Of course, our world is small and everyone is connected in some way, but New York is like a world in itself. How magical to find that out. Such rich history.