Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The 1819 Captain Wood House -- No. 310 Spring Street

photo by Alice Lum

On the south side of Spring Street near Greenwich Street an abused red brick building of little apparent interest sits among its industrial neighbors.    Just shy of two centuries old this former home of a sea captain has plenty of stories to tell.

The seafaring Dennison Wood married 17-year old Lydia McKildo in 1804 while he was still a ship’s mate working on vessels bringing sugar to New York.  By 1807 he had invested with at least one partner in his own sloop, the Cornelia, which sailed between New York City and St. Thomas.

Before long Trinity Church began development of what had been known as Trinity Farm—an expansive tract of land stretching north towards Greenwich Village.    Wood and his wife were living on Greenwich Street when, in October 1819, he purchased the nearby lot at No. 282 Spring Street from Trinity Church for $1,400—about $25,000 today.

The site was a logical choice for Wood.  It sat just a few blocks from the riverfront in a burgeoning area of new homes and businesses.  Their wide Federal-style home was completed within the year.

Like most others in the area, the two-story house was wood-framed and clad in Flemish-bond brick.  Paneled brownstone lintels capped the windows and prim dormers sat above a modest cornice.

Dennison Wood spent much of his time at sea.   He was captain of the brig Levant in 1819, owned by Hall & Hoyt.  The ship carried goods to and from Savannah.  By 1824 he captained a larger ship, the Louisa Matilda, after Hall & Hoyt partnered with James & Cornelius Seguine to form the Established Line.

He sailed from New York to Savannah for about two decades.  In the 1830's Wood commanded the Tybee which not only transported goods, but passengers.  An advertisement in the New-York Evening Post listed the Tybee among “vessels of the first class—their accommodations for passengers are extensive and well furnished; they sail very fast and their commanders are men of capability and experience.”

In 1837 he was captain of the Trenton, a 427-ton ship that also sailed between New York and Savannah.   His extensive time away from home did not deter Dennison from fathering no fewer than nine children who were raised in the house on Spring Street.

Esteemed artist Rembrandt Peale painted this portrait of Dennison Wood.  The catalogue of a 1920 exhibition at Madison Square Garden in which it was shown noted "Captain Wood was reputed the largest shipowner of his time...His descendants have continued to live in New York, his native city, and the portrait had never been out of New York." -- pamphlet of "The Widely Known Collection of the Connoisseur, the Late Frank Bulkeley Smith of Worcester, Mass." copyright expired

Upon his death, apparently in 1846, Wood had fallen on hard times.  That year creditors auctioned off the house but the family, unwilling to have Lydia removed from her home, pooled their money to save it.   Son-in-law Samuel C. Brown, a merchant, purchased the house and the following year transferred it to a trust of family members all of whom had contributed funds.

Lydia, now 60-years old, was given residential life rights while the family group rented out a portion of the structure to offset the expenses.  The trust's contract stipulated that upon Lydia’s death the house would be sold and the proceeds distributed among the partners:  George Bucknam, William A. Wood, Dennison B. Wood and Samuel C. Brown.

To accommodate the rental portion, a third floor was added in 1847, along with a storefront.  While the brickwork of the third story addition was not in Flemish bond; care was taken to sympathetically match the paneled lintels and other architectural elements so that the renovation was nearly seamless.   Along with Lydia and her son Dennison, boarders would occupy the upper floors.

The following year the address was renumbered to No. 310 Spring Street.

James Haydock opened his small dry goods store here and would remain for over two decades.    Among the boarders were Mary E. Wainwright and her husband William.  Mary earned $275 as a primary teacher at Public School No. 3 at Hudson and Grove Street.  The couple’s daughters Mary and Emma, also teachers, lived here as well.  Tragedy struck on May 1, 1865 when William committed suicide by “shooting himself through the head…in a room at his dwelling No. 310 Spring-street,” as reported in The New York Times the following day.

Fifty-four-year old Dennison B. Wood was appointed an election poll inspector in October of that year.  Ironically he died a few weeks later on Friday, November 3.   With no space in the converted Spring Street house for a funeral, it was held at the residence of a friend, W. S. Fogg at No. 431 West 22nd Street.

In 1869 Thomas Courtney’s dry goods store replaced James Haydock's.  Within the year Courtney, an Irish immigrant, moved his family in upstairs.  With him lived his wife Mary and their three children.

That same year John Coughlin was rooming here.  The unscrupulous boarder also went by the name of John Taylor.  Police arrested him after finding suitcases and trunks hidden in his room which he had stolen from city hotels. 

Lydia Wood died in 1873 at the age of 86 years old, bringing to a close 54 years of Wood family residency at No. 310 Spring Street.

The once mostly-residential neighborhood had greatly changed by now.  The streets were filled with shops catering to the shipping trade and near the waterfront disreputable saloons flourished.  In 1875 Courtney’s dry goods store caught fire, damaging the building and wiping out most of the merchant’s inventory.  Insurance covered the full $200 worth of damage to the structure and, most likely, the storefront that remains today was installed during the reparations.

As the repairs were being made, Samuel Brown, acting as trustee, sold the building to John H. Heaselden for $11,500.  Although Heaselden was a liquor dealer, he continued to lease the store to Courtney and rent out the rooms upstairs.

As was the case with John Taylor years earlier, not all of the boarders were upstanding.   On the cold winter morning of January 11, 1873 “at an early hour” according to The New York Times, roomer William Stanley was up to no good.

The 23-year old was a locomotive engineer who was lured by the goods in the shop below.  Courtney’s store was protected by an iron gate; but it would not be enough to stop Stanley.   He broke off the padlock, smashed a pane of glass and crawled in.

Perhaps a bit too greedy, the young thief gathered up “a large quantity of goods, consisting of 6 pairs of blankets, 36 shirts, 23 pairs of drawers, 1 cardigan jacket, 1 coat, 18 neck shawls, 10 skirts, and 23 pairs of woolen socks, altogether worth $93, and decamped with them,” reported the newspaper.

The unwieldy amount of goods caught the eye of Officer Kiernan of the 8th Precinct who promptly arrested the man.

In an attempt to prevent further burglaries in the now-edgy neighborhood, Courtney hired Charles Fistere to sleep in the store.    On a Sunday night in early November 1879 the watchman awoke to find he was not alone.  Two men were standing near his cot.  William Nickels, a machinist from Boston, and William Johnson, a New York boatman, had squeezed through the aperture for the fanlight over the front door.

Police heard Fistere’s calls before the men had a chance to make off with anything.

Despite the repeated attempts at theft, Courtney’s business thrived.  In 1884 he expanded the store space to the rear.  Architect L. Sibley designed a single-story addition that nearly doubled the commercial space.    Within four years Courtney brought his son, Thomas, Jr. into the business, proudly renaming the store Thomas Courtney & Son.

Courtney raised the wrath of eminent thread manufacturer George A. Clark & Brother when he began undercutting other retailers.   Courtney was selling Clark’s “O.N.T.” spool cotton at four cents per spool, or 48 cents per dozen; significantly lower than the market price.  Clark’s sent a letter to its distributors that read in part, “In the interest of trade prices, we urgently request that you decline to fill orders, either directly or indirectly, for Clark’s ‘O.N.T.’ spool cotton” from Thomas Courtney.

In 1897 The Times noted that “Mrs. Hannah Heaselden” had sold “a three-story brick tenement with store.”  The buyer was Thomas Courtney.   After nearly three decades of living and doing business from No. 310, the building was now his.  The merchant added a cast iron pediment above the cornice that announced “COURTNEY’S.”  The pediment would survive for nearly a century.

Although the Courtney family moved to West 11th Street within a few years, the business remained on Spring Street.  At the turn of the century, reflecting the change in the neighborhood, the former dry goods store was now listed as “working men’s clothes.”   Expanding the business, the Courtneys adapted a portion of the building as an apparel sewing room, listing “shirtmakers” in the telephone directory in 1904.

Part of the ground floor space was leased to John Gallagher who ran a small blacksmith shop here.  In the meantime, boarders continued to live in the upper floors.   Among them, in 1909, were 25-year old Mary H. E. Driscoll, who worked in the shirt making shop and was clerk “for a drygoods store,” most probably Courtney’s; and the McCarthy sisters Nora, the foreperson of a laundry; and Julia, who worked as clerk in a publishing firm.

On September 29, 1909 a small article in The New York Times probably raised more than a few eyebrows.  The blacksmith, John Gallagher, had died.  He left his entire estate, valued at $10,000, to Mary Driscoll, “a young woman employed by a firm of shirtmakers having a factory above his shop.”  The article made special note that “He makes no mention in his will of a sister, niece and other relatives.”

In 1928, while Driscoll and the McCarthy sisters lived on here, another shady tenant moved in.  Julian Alarciz was arrested on May 26 for attempting to pick the pockets of sleeping persons in the Interborough subway and elevated stations.

Courtney's was still here in 1939, advertising "Headlight Overalls."  The cast parapet is still in place -- photo NYC Dept. of Taxes

Decades later Charles McCarthy joined his female relatives here around 1947.  When Thomas Courtney, Jr. died the business was closed.  In 1950 No. 310 Spring Street was sold to Mary Driscoll and the McCarthys for $6,000.

The new owners found a tenant for the former retail space.  Bell Maintenance Company, designers and manufacturers of neon signs, moved in.  

Mary Driscoll, the same young woman who had made shirts for Thomas Courtney in 1909, was still living in the house a half century later in 1957.   That year on December 21 the 75-year old woman ventured out during a ferocious wind storm.  “Shortly before 8 P.M.—at the height of the storm,” reported The New York Times, she “was struck and killed by an automobile as she was crossing from the north to the south side of Canal Street at Greenwich Street.”

Handsome paneled lintels surmount the upper story windows. -- photo by Alice Lum

Nora McCarthy lived on here until her death in the 1960's.  Her executors sold the house to Bronx residents Theodore and Norma Mass for $25,000 in 1967.  Bell Maintenance Company moved out that year.  The commercial space on the ground floor remained vacant for nine years, while renters continued to live upstairs.

Unity Environmental Corp. purchased the building in 1998.   The first floor became a small restaurant for a period, the Bell Caffe, while the upper floors continued to be leased as residences.

Today Captain Dennison Wood’s 1819 home is more than a bit careworn.  The 19th century storefront of Thomas Courtney remains, slightly altered, and astoundingly the six-paneled entrance door survives.  

A industrial light has been plopped onto the brownstone lintel over the surviving six-panel door -- photo by Alice Lum

But with a little imagination one can easily imagine a time in the 1820s when a ship’s captain returned home to his family after weeks at sea.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Lost 1909 Cafe de l'Opera -- Broadway at 41st Street

Before the auction of the furniture of the Cafe de l'Opera Assyrian lions lined the 22-foot wide staircase.  By the time the Cafe de Paris opened mere planters had to suffice.

In 1908 the old Saranac Hotel, built in 1874, sat at the corner of Broadway and 41st Street, extending the full block to 7th Avenue.   That year architect and interior designer Henry Erkins and restaurateur John Murray came up with an idea.  They would transform the hotel into a showplace—an exotic Babylonian-inspired restaurant and night club like a silent movie set.

Erkins had already designed Murray’s elaborate Roman Gardens; but this project would go much farther.  Along with other investors, the pair spent millions of dollars to create the Café de l’Opera-- what would become the most lavish and visually-staggering restaurant in New York City.

Erkins oversaw work by Stern Brothers Department Store, which acted as general contractor, as the bills for interior decoration and renovations mounted to a staggering $1.25 million—nearly $30 million today.    Adding to the cost was the $250,000 worth of silverware and artwork like the immense painting of “The Fall of Babylon” by George Rochegrosse above the staircase.    Rochegrosse’s painting, measuring 110 feet wide and 65 feet high, had been shown at the Paris Salon and reportedly cost $80,000.

By the time the restaurant was completed The New York Times reported that “Approximately $4,000,000 has been invested in the ground and building.”

All eight floors of the former hotel had been transformed into the restaurant.  A staff of 750 was hired, including the manager of London’s Hotel Savoy, Henri Pruger, who was lured with a $50,000 salary (the highest salary ever paid to a restaurant manager to date).  A month before opening he told the New York Tribune “Two of the best chefs in Europe have already been brought here by me to see that the culinary part of the restaurant begins operations as it should.”

On December 14, 1909, the eve of the opening, a private dinner was held for 150 invited guests.  A writer for the New York Tribune summed it up with a back-handed compliment.  “The Café de l’Opera is nearly barbaric in its lavishness.”

18,000 electric lights turned “night into day,” according to the New York Tribune.   The writer for The Times perhaps felt the lights were overkill, remarking that “Balustrades and pergolas of black marble in the glare of brilliant lights, statues and sculptures, winged bulls and other fantastic and artistic conceits contribute to the general scheme.”

The thousands of electric lights created what The Times called a "glare."
The Tribune described the main floor as “in Assyrian style, heavy gold and black marble being predominant.  A marble ‘palace of music’ on this floor is a feature.”    The palace of music was said to be modeled after a structure “of the time of Alexander the Great.”    It rose 50 feet and was entirely constructed of black marble.  “The pedestal is formed of one large solid block of marble, on which reclines an immense Assyrian lion,” said The Times.  “Bronze figures ornament the steps, and from the temple runs pergolas to the balconies, which are supported by Assyrian columns of black marble, the capitals being double griffins taken from casts of originals.”

A 22-foot wide staircase rose to the second floor, modeled after the great staircase of Persepolis.  It consisted of “broad but shallow steps, surmounting each other in perfect alignment and without apparent support, lending a mystifying aspect,” said The Times.

Along the staircase was a series of bronze Assyrian lions; each one supporting a flickering flame.   Along the balcony of the second floor eight life-sized bronze statues stared down on the diners.  From the third balcony hung what was reported to be the largest silk rug in existence, hand-embroidered in Assyria.

To facilitate the movement of waiters between all eight floors, escalators were installed—a highly forward-thinking innovation.  Miles of pneumatic tubes connected all sections of the restaurant.   Electric buttons at each table enable the guests to summon their steward or chef.

Perhaps an ominous sign of things to come, as the private dinner was coming to a close an employee threw a cigarette butt onto a pile of straw on the still-unfinished fourth floor.  The straw leapt into flames which, luckily, the restaurant staff extinguished quickly, limiting damage.

The Times noted that “the few guests remaining occupied themselves with looking at the unusual spectacle of firemen armed with axes and poles, marching through the gorgeous rooms.”

It seemed that everything that Erkins and Murray planned for the building was done to excess.   To direct the orchestra, which played from a balcony on the roof of the temple of music, the former concertmeister to the Emperor Franz Joseph was hired.  On the second floor an entire Japanese temple—the Temple of Nikko—was constructed.  In it were an embroidered peacock screen that took 18 years to complete and cost $8,000; a 10-foot bronze statue and a bronze “sacred” fountain.

Pruger's announcement of the opening of the "restaurant de luxe" included the caviat "Evening dress respectfully requested."  It would prove to be a bad decision.

Describing the Café de l’Opera meant using superlatives:  the restaurant contained the largest single carpet ever laid, the kitchen range was 60 feet wide, one million sheets of gold leaf were used in the decorations, and on the Japanese level 10 miles of wisteria twined and 5,000 chrysanthemum blooms lined the walls.  There were 200,000 pieces of silverware, 60,000 glasses, 250,000 pieces of linen and 100,000 pieces of china.

Two weeks after the opening the restaurant dazzled New York with its New Year’s Eve celebration.  “An aerial ballet, consisting of twenty women, descended from the dome of the restaurant at midnight,” reported The New York Tribune the following day.  Every table was booked and admission was by ticket only.

A month later the Grill Room was opened, adorned with mural paintings and an enormous panoramic scene of the Havana harbor.

To sustain its image as a high-class establishment, patrons were required to wear evening clothes.   Even for Edwardian New York, the stringent dress code was too much.    The lavish Babylonian surroundings were apparently not worth the bother for most patrons and the restaurant failed.  And it failed quickly.

Less than six months after opening the grand bubble burst.  On July 28, 1910 The New York Tribune reported on the auction of the furnishings.  “Everything goes at the Café de l’Opera,” said the auctioneer.  The list of items to be sold included linens, furniture, mirrors, silverware, china, glassware, paintings, draperies, Oriental rugs, carpets and even plumbing and electrical fixtures.

“Besides these,” said the newspaper, “more than fifty refrigerators, some as large as a good sized house, are going under the hammer.  Marble slabs, chandeliers and washstands are other things which may be had at the auction at a reasonable figure.”

Two months later restaurateur, Louis Martin, announced he would reopen the restaurant with substantial changes.   He reported that he intended to move the kitchens from the top floors to the basement, to ensure hot food arrived at the tables, to install a 75-foot bar on the main floor, and to have restaurant-owned taxicabs for the use of the patrons.

Very importantly, he intended to do away with the evening dress rule.  “My business,” he told reporters, is to serve the public and not to dictate its clothes.  That can safely be left to the people of New York to solve independently of any interference.”

Martin commissioned architect Henry Pelton to renovate the restaurant, reusing whatever interior elements had survived.   “The furnishings will be entirely of Circassian walnut, for which logs are now being collected and matched,” said The New York Times.  “Pictures to go behind the bar will cost $50,000.”

The restaurant pened as Café Louis Martin in December 1909.   Martin booked the dance sensations Irene and Vernon Castle as on-staff entertainment.  Here they invented dance steps like the Castle Walk. 

Despite everything, however, the restaurant plodded along only until February 1913 when Martin withdrew from the business.   The restaurant was taken over by the Times Square Hotel Company, which renamed it the Café de Paris.  But the restaurant’s reputation could not be overcome.

With an ad in The Sun on January 3, 1914, the new management tried valiantly to distance itself from the former owner, to no avail. (copyright expired)
The Café de Paris was put into receivers’ hands in January 1914.  The Sun reported that “The 1 o’clock closing order and the idea persisting from its first opening that only those in evening clothes were welcome are given as reasons for the failure.”  The fact that wealthy patrons including William K. Vanderbilt and H. C. Phipps had accumulated unpaid tabs that totaled $31,101 did not help the restaurant’s financial stability, either.

On March 7, 1915 The New York Times announced that “Housewreckers are tearing down the old Saranac Hotel, one of the landmarks of Times Square.”

In its place an 11-story office building was constructed, eradicating memory of the short-lived but dazzling restaurant.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Henry Ives Cobb's 1903 No. 42 Broadway

photo by Alice Lum
By 1902 Henry Ives Cobb had established himself as one of the foremost architects in Chicago.  His Romanesque, Gothic and Shingle style works had prompted Montgomery Schuyler to comment that he worked “in styles.”    He pioneered steel-framed construction with his 1889 Ownes Building and designed multiple structures for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

But 1902 would mark a major change in the life and career of Henry Ives Cobb.  That year he moved from the Midwest to New York City.  With money fronted by the construction firm, George A. Fuller Company, Cobb formed the Forty-two Broadway Company and proceeded to build a skyscraper.

The old structures at the lower end of Broadway, nos. 36 through 42, were demolished and in July Building Age noted that “an important building improvement in the financial district of this city is a 20-story structure to be erected…running through to New Street.”  The $2.25 million structure was forecast to be completed by May of the following year.

A 1903 postcard clearly shows the banded columns of the portico and Cobb's intricate decoration above.
When the 21-story, 243-foot tall building was completed it was one of the largest office buildings in Lower Manhattan.  Cobb’s skyscraper sat on two floors of rusticated stone.  The rustication blended into the third floor, then slowly melted away, becoming quoins along the upper piers.  The top-most floors were ornamented with lavish terra cotta decoration manufactured by the Excelsior Terra Cotta Company. 

The elaborate terra cotta detailing of the upper floors.  photo Architectural Record, January 1906 (copyright expired)
But it was the six-story treatment of the façade above the entrance that was most remarkable.  Called at the time “Jacobethan,” the ornament hinted at the stepped gables of the houses and halls that had lined Broadway in Dutch Colonial days.   The pyramidal lines created a refreshing contrast to the regimented grid of horizontal and vertical lines.

Six floors of ornate decoration above the entrance suggested the stepped gables of early Dutch architecture -- photo by Alice Lum
Cobb immediately installed his office in the new building and, perhaps through his influence, many of the earliest tenants were related to the construction industry.    The Concrete Steel Company, manufacturers of steel and wire products; the Industrial Paint and Roofing Company; the American Bridge Co. of New York; and the American Steel Foundries, among them. 

Also here were steamship firms:  the Cosmopolitan Shipping Company, agents for the Cosmopolitan Line which sailed to France and Holland; the Union Transport Company; and the Anglo-Oriental Shipping Co., Inc.; and the E. M. Ferm & Co. were all in the building.

photo by Alice Lum
On New Year’s Day in 1911 The New York Times reported on the sale of No. 42 Broadway; one that would grab the attention of real estate investors city-wide.    The New York Real Estate Security Company of No. 7 Pine Street paid Henry Ives Cobb and his partners the staggering sum of $7.5 million for the building.   The price, which averaged $341 per square foot, was the fourth highest sum ever paid for New York property to date.

By now more and more financial firms were moving in—stock brokerage houses, mortgage concerns and insurance companies.    The new owners joined them, establishing what The Sun referred to as “elaborate offices.”  Within two years of the purchase, however, the firm was in trouble.

In 1913 the New York Real Estate Security Company borrowed $450,000 from the Carnegie Trust Company.  Two weeks later it declared bankruptcy, much to the displeasure of Carnegie Trust.   No. 42 would change hands rapidly over the next few years.

In 1904 when Irving Underhill captured No. 42 Broadway, it was still the highest structure in the area -- photo Library of Congress.
In December 1916 Kennedy, Mitchell & Co., Inc. purchased the building, only to sell it the following August to the Lower Broadway Realty Company.  Four years later that company would sell it for $6 million—a million dollars less than Henry Cobb had received in 1911—to the Standard Oil Company.

A rash of small burglaries baffled police in 1927.   When office workers arrived in the morning, they often found cash missing.   In March two detectives, McGann and McIver, who worked out of the Old Slip Station hid in the building for several nights and waited.

Finally the thief appeared.  16-year old high school student Morris Ray of Brooklyn slipped into the office of David Siegel, former Assistant United States Attorney, and pocketed $20.  It was the end of his criminal career.

The boy, who worked as a nighttime messenger for the Radio Corporation of America at No. 64 Broad Street, pleaded guilty in the Tombs Court and was held without bail.

Real estate operator Frederick Brown made a profitable investment when he bought the building in May 1929 for $8 million.  At the time the annual rental income was around $1 million.  Brown held the property for a little over a week then sold it to Manhattan Properties, Inc. earning himself a quick $1 million profit.

William Backer, president of Manhattan Properties, most likely regretted the expensive investment when the Stock Market crashed a few months later.  In 1934 the building was sold at foreclosure auction, and then on September 29, 1938 it was auctioned in foreclosure again.  This time Alvin Untermyer bought No. 42 Broadway for just under $4 million, adding one more curve to the roller-coaster graph of the property’s resale amounts.

In the meantime, the 22nd floor became home to 42 Broadway Gymnasium, Inc. in January 1931.  High above Broadway indoor squash racquets courts were installed and the 42 Broadway Club was soon competing in tennis tournaments.   In the late 1930s and early 1940s, member Stanley Galowin became a star of the sport, along with his long-time partner Joe Wiener.  Galowin won several state single championships and the pair repeatedly took the doubles title.

After many years as the ground floor tenant, stock brokerage firm J. S. Bache Co., left in 1942, to be replaced in December of that year by the Clark-Robinson Corporation, dealers in first mortgages.  A little over a decade later, in 1957, the New York Produce Exchange moved its operations to the building.

At some point in the latter part of the 20th century a misguided modernization ripped off Henry Ives Cobb’s distinctive banded-columned portico to be replaced by shiny slabs of polished black granite.   The surviving carved arch, without its corresponding triple arched entranceway, looks sadly anachronistic and out of place.
The sole remaining elements of Cobb's entrance--this arch with its spandrels and brackets--hover awkwardly from behind a brutish granite veneer -- photo by Alice Lum
Thankfully, the wonderful ornamentation above remains; among the most interesting decorative treatment of early 20th century facades in the Financial District and most often not noticed at all.

many thanks to reader Marlon Bunck for requesting this post.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The 1860 T. S. Berry & Co. Bldg. -- No. 593 Broadway

Broadway between Prince Street and West Houston Street in 1860 was not the neighborhood it was a generation earlier.  Commercial buildings replaced the fashionable residences that had lined the thoroughfare for two decades.  But Broadway retained its high-end reputation, as reflected in the upscale businesses.

In 1860 two striking five-story marble buildings were erected at Nos. 591 and 593 Broadway.   Reflecting the taste in residential architecture at the time, they featured arched windows with handsome foliate keystones at the second and third floors.     The center windows were capped by robust arched pediments supported by scrolled brackets.  At the fourth and fifth floors the center windows were replaced by smaller, paired windows.  Above it all was a restrained, bracketed cornice.

It was a time when a piano was expected in the parlor of any well-cultivated and respectable family.  Keyboard lessons for young girls were often considered as important as needlework instruction.

The area became home to several piano and organ merchants.  At No. 596 was the showroom of Mason & Hamlin Organ Co. where handsome ”cabinet organs” graced the show windows.    Hall & Son’s Music Store at No. 543 sold piano fortes, cabinet organs and melodeons manufactured by Sherwin & Herbert ; and Chickering & Sons piano fortes were shown at No. 694.

T. S. Berry moved into No. 593.  The firm’s high-end showrooms boasted a variety of instruments: piano fortes, grand pianos, parlor grands and square grands, parlor organs and melodeons.  The company would be here for years, selling instruments made by other firms, like Hallet, Davis Company, as well as its own “choral organs,” manufactured under the names Berry & Thompson and A. E. Thompson.

T. S. Berry & Co. were the agents for Hallet, Davis & Co. pianos -- Atlantic Monthly, July 1864 (copyright expired)

Competition was keen among the musical instrument sellers and Berry promised, in an 1865 advertisement, “great bargains…sold on monthly payments.”   Customers could also find deals on second-hand pianos “at $60, $150 to $300” or they could lease the instruments.

Berry promised “A liberal discount made to Clergymen or Sabbath Schools” who purchased a reed organ.

The firm advertised this organ in The American Farmer in 1865 for $160. -- (copyright expired)
In the meantime, further downtown, D. Morley decided to give up his long-established antique furniture business.  He sold the business in 1865 to an employee, Obadiah L. Sypher and a partner, H. R. Treadwell, who renamed it Sypher & Co.  The new owners moved the highly-respected store to No. 593 that year.

While T. S. Berry sold parlor instruments from the ground floor showrooms, Sypher & Co. served the carriage trade from upper floors.   The New York Times said of Syphyer, “He has been a large importer of [antiques] for some of the wealthiest and most fashionable families of New York, and some of his importations of reproductions of famous works in the palaces of Europe brought large prices.”

The time-stained stone could easily be mistaken for brownstone today.
As the Civil War ended and the city’s wealthy moved further uptown, the upscale businesses followed.  Broadway slowly became the center of the dry goods and millinery trades.   In 1878 Sypher & Co. relocated to No. 739 Broadway, the same year that T. S. Berry left No. 593.

By now the Metropolitan Hotel had replaced the smaller buildings on the opposite side of the block.   As early as 1872 the high-end men’s furnishings importers and manufacturers, Topham, Weld & Co. was doing business from No. 593.  The firm dealt in “tie silks,” and were the sole agents for “Puchene Kid Gloves and Reveil Dogskin Gloves.”

Similarly, George Sloane ran his silk and satin importing company here until building his own building at 32nd Street and Broadway in 1879.  The fourth floor housed Meltsner Brothers, dealers in feathers for the millinery manufacturers, and Weld, Coburn & Wilckens made scarves and suspenders here.  “They are the best made,” guaranteed the firm’s advertisements.

Around 10:00 pm on the night of June 1, 1891 fire broke out in Meltsner Brother’s loft.  Before it was extinguished $2,750 worth of damage was inflicted on Meltsner’s business as well as S. Schlesinger downstairs and Weld, Colburn & Wilckens.

No. 591, to the left, perfectly matched No. 593 before a 1900 makeover.
Weld, Colburn & Wilckens had moved into the building in the mid-1880s and would stay well into the 1890s.  Among the employees here was John A. Bradley.  The head of the manufacturing department, he had been with the company for ten years when he and his wife Caroline left for vacation in June 1891.  (Mrs. Bradley had been an employee of the company when John was first hired.)

While the couple was enjoying their vacation, management was looking closely at Bradley’s expenses.  $2000 worth of vouchers were discovered for purchases that had apparently never been made.  When the Bradleys returned on June 27 they discovered that their bank accounts had been attached.  John Bradley, according to The Sun, “expressed great surprise at the news.”

Around this time the ground floor of No. 593 was updated.   A cast iron façade supported by fluted pilasters at the sides framed a slightly-projecting show window.  A door to the retail space at the southern end was balanced by an entrance to the upper floors on the opposite side.

The tenants at No. 593 tended to stay on for a decade or more.  In 1893 Hodgman Rubber Company established its showroom here and five years later moved its headquarters into the building.  The firm manufactured an exhausting list of rubber merchandise that included “bed pans, water bottles, bicycle tires, bathing apparatus, sponge bags, ice bags, gas bags, face bags, confectioners’ bags, air cushions, air pillows, air beds, furniture fenders, life preservers, teething pads” and more.  The company remained in the building for exactly ten years, moving on to Nos. 806-808 Broadway in 1903.

That year Joseph Schultz & Co., makers of hats, moved in.   Joseph Schultz’s business was successful enough for him to afford a home at 77 West 85th Street.  It was there in 1913 that the 66-year old committed suicide in the bathroom by opening the gas jets.

Apparel and millinery firms continued to fill the building.  In 1907 Leumann, Boesch & Weingart, a Switzerland-based embroidery company marketed its “Lily-White Semi-Finished Embroidered Corset-Covers” here.  The New York Tribune assured that it was “an article which is admired by women.”

Ideal Supply Co. sold its “high grade hosiery, underwear and knitted neckwear” directly to consumers through traveling salesmen, while Hirsch & Park manufactured hats.

The ground floor and basement were taken by J. Sinsheimer & Sons, manufacturers of hosiery and underwear, on February 1, 1907.   Joseph Sinsheimer not only established his sewing rooms here, but ran a wholesale business from the store level.  The maker paid an annual rent of $7,500 for the expansive space.  But trouble was on the horizon.

After Sinsheimer had been doing business here for five years, the Public Service Commission began construction of the subway, a portion of which would run directly in front of No. 593 Broadway.  In March 1912, as part of the street excavation, a sidewalk bridge was erected which blocked the sunlight from the store windows.  The structure remained in place from March 1912 until December 1913.

An irate Joseph Sinsheimer sued the contractor, the Underpinning & Foundation Company. 

“Before the operations in question,” read the court documents, “the light entering plaintiff’s premises was sufficient to enable business to be done therein during the spring and summer months until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, without artificial light.”

Now, Sinsheimer complained, he had to keep lamps lit in the store all day long and “the light was insufficient to properly show goods to customers within the store.”  In order for “the color and texture of the goods to be discerned,” he had to take them onto the sidewalk.

Proving that you actually can fight City Hall, Joseph Sinsheimer, the small underwear and sock maker, won his court battle against the New York City subway contractor.

Apparel firms, like Simon Goodman’s men’s tailoring establishment, continued on in No. 593 throughout the first half of the 20th century.    After a period of neglect, the SoHo district was rediscovered and in 1993 No. 593 became home to the Museum for African American Art. 

Established in 1976 by the artist and art historian Dr. Samella Lewis and others, the museum’s goal was to “to increase public awareness of and support for the artistic expression of African Americans and other African descendant people.”   The museum stayed on here until 2002.

Today—in what would be a shock to the Victorian customers—posters of scantily clad models grace the windows of a Victoria’s Secret store in the space where T. S. Berry sold parlor organs.  

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The 1933 Herbert Straus Mansion -- No. 9 East 71st Street

Photo by Alice Lum
When Therese Kuhn married Herbert Nathan Straus on July 15, 1907, she became part of one of New York’s wealthiest merchant families.  Herbert and his brother Percy were the sons of Isidor and Ida Straus of the R. H. Macy & Co. department store and the young men already had fortunes of their own.  The following year Herbert purchased the first parcel of land in New Jersey which would grow into their sprawling 100-acre country estate, Middleton Farm.

Tragedy would strike in April four years later when Isidor and Ida Strauss set sail for New York upon the H.M.S. Titanic.    As the ship slowly began to sank, the elderly Ida withdrew her foot from the lifeboat and turned to her husband.  “Where you go I will go,” she said.

Ida’s maid took her seat in the lifeboat as the aged couple sat quietly on deck chairs holding hands.

As the years passed Herbert Straus and his wife spent happy days in Middleton Farm; but what they lacked was a substantial Manhattan residence.   Herbert began thinking about building a showplace.

East 71st Street just off Central Park in 1928 was lined with grand mansions.   But it was also a time when most wealthy New Yorkers were giving up huge private homes in favor of luxurious apartments in modern buildings without the cost and bother of maintaining the houses .

On February 3 of that year it was announced that a syndicate had purchased six houses along East 71st to be replaced by a $5 million apartment building.  Among them was the Edward H. Van Ingen mansion at No. 9.  The Van Ingens had owned the house for decades.

When the ambitious apartment building plan fell through and the property became available once again, Herbert Straus snatched it up.  He commissioned architect Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia to design a 40-room French Renaissance palace.  A few other millionaires were building new mansions simultaneously—Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt, William Goadby Loew and George F. Baker, for instance.

It was a carefree time when money flowed freely and every common Joe played the stock market.  But those times were about to come crashing down.

The Straus home was meant to reflect taste, elegance and wealth.   Europe was swept for antiques and fixtures.  Entire 18th-century rooms were purchased to be shipped to New York and installed in the new mansion.

The 6-story French limestone mansion rose quickly but then, on October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed.  The good times were over and the Great Depression changed the faces of Americans.

Herbert Straus pressed on, however, and construction workers were retained for three more years.  Then in 1931 he gave in, ordering work on the mansion—now 90 percent completed—stopped.  To date he had spent approximately $600,000 on the project.

Herbert Straus would never see his dream home completed.  Still living in the commodious apartment at 1144 Park Avenue he died in 1933 leaving an estate of just under $12 million.

The house on East 71st Street sat empty for over a decade.  The New York Times would later report that “His heirs…never saw fit to spend the additional money necessary to put the finishing touches on this lavishly appointed home.”  But there was the issue of real estate taxes.

Beautiful carvings decorate the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
On March 30, 1944 newspaper said “Mr. Straus and his estate had spent a sizable fortune in recent years in tax payments on the house.  The taxes have amounted to as much as $17,000 in some years.”

To get rid of what they undoubtedly considered a white elephant, the Straus family donated the house to the Roman Catholic Archbishopric of New York in 1944.  Now the Church had a problem:  what to do with a lavish, uncompleted mansion on an exclusive Upper East Side block.

There was no need for another school or convent facility in the neighborhood and the residential needs of church executives was fully taken care of.  But at least now the Catholic Church-owned property was tax-exempt; affording the Archdiocese time to think.
photo by Alice Lum
The solution was to convert the mansion into an extension of St. Clare’s Hospital…what The Times would call a “sumptuous fifty-bed convalescent institution.”  Between $250,000 and $300,000 was spent on the renovation by architect Robert J. Reiley and the equipping of the new hospital.  Thankfully, at least two of the 200-year old interiors from France were removed and reinstalled in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s period room collection.

The facility was opened on September 8, 1945.  The ground floor now housed a Romanesque-style chapel hung with 16th century Genovese red velvet donated by staff member Dr. John Morrisey.  The Louis XV reception room remained as did the dining room and library.  Administrative offices were also on the first floor.  In the basement were a modern kitchen and the nurses’ dining room.

Gleaming white tiles now lined the walls of the upstairs rooms.  Two elevators carried patients to the new roof terrace where they could look out at Central Park.   

The sumptuous French interiors were replaced by white tile.  Above is the laundry on October 8, 1943 prior to opening -- photo NYPL Collection
The patients' rooms retained the dimensions of those of the former mansion---some as long as 24 feet with ceilings from nine to twelve feet high.  The Franciscan Sisters made floral draperies and pastel bedspreads for the rooms, which were furnished in Early American-style furniture donated by Mrs. John H. Rogan II of No. 145 Central Park South—a former patient of St. Clare’s.

One of the most touching moments at St. Clare’s Extension came about when an 82-year old homeless man was brought here.  The blind man repeatedly attempted to sit on the floor—in the elevator and in his assigned room, No. 203.  A welfare worker explained to the nurses “He has lived a long time in Bowery flophouses.  When there are no seats in flophouses, the men sit on the floor.”

Laurence Stroetz was bathed, given clean pajamas and a shave and little by little the nuns learned of his life.  He had been born in Little Germany on the Lower East Side in 1877.  His family owned a grocery store at No. 165 2nd Avenue.  But by now his entire family was gone.

The old man’s memory would come and go, but as time passed he told the nuns that when he was in his 20s he played violin professionally.  For two years he had been with Victor Herbert in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he had played in the old Academy of Music on 14th Street and he played at the Savoy and in the Lyceum Theatre when Billie Burke performed in “Mrs. Dot.”

When Stroetz’s eyesight began fading he began sleeping in the Bowery lodging houses.  Around that time another Bowery resident named Charlie, pawned Stroetz’s violin for him for spending money.  The old blind man had not held a violin in the decades since.

One evening after dinner, around 8:00, the staff brought in an old violin that had belonged to a deceased nun.  Laurence Stroetz felt the instrument, ran his fingers along the strings, then carefully tuned the violin and tightened the old bow.

While the nuns stood hushed in the white tiled room, the old blind man began playing.  His first song, “Sidewalks of New York,” was a bit shaky; but then he regained his self-assurance.   He played Handel’s “Largo,” then “Humoresque” and “The Blue Danube.

A group of listeners gathered in the hallway outside Room 203, lured by the violin strains.  Stroetz had rediscovered his touch and the music flowed from the old violin.  Then, as if he understood how the piece would affect his audience, the old man finished his recital with Gounod’s “Ave Maria.”

The old ragged man bowed to the applause he heard.  But his blindness prevented his seeing the tears that streamed down the cheeks of the assembled nuns.

The following week eye surgeons removed the cataracts that had prevented Laurence Stroetz from seeing.  The Welfare Department placed him in a nursing home so he could stay out of the Bowery flophouses.  And he received a new violin.
photo by Alice Lum
After 16 years in the Straus mansion, St. Clare’s closed the doors on July 24, 1961.  The building was purchased by the Birch Wathen School, a college preparatory day school for well-to-do boys and girls from kindergarten through grade 12.

The school would remain here for over two decades before moving uptown.  In 1989 retail mogul Leslie H. Wexner, founder of The Limited purchased No. 9 East 71st Street for $13.2 million.  Wexner spent tens of millions of dollars in restoration, decoration and artwork to reconvert the 21,000 square foot mansion into a private home.

For the first time in half a century the magnificent French Renaissance mansion would be a home.  Except Wexner never lived here.  An advisor to the millionaire told The New York Times in 1996 that he spent no more than two months in the house.

Herbert Straus never had a chance to enjoy his glorious showplace.  But after a long history of institutional use, it is unexpectedly a private family home today; home to disgraced financier billionaire Jeffrey Edward Epstein.  Following his arrest on July 6, 2019, the magnificent oak entrance doors were crowbarred open by investigators seeking evidence of Epstein's alleged sexual abuse of underage girls.  Otherwise the mansion externally shows little change from 1933.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The James V. Forrestal House -- No. 17 Beekman Place

photo by Alice Lum
Like most of the wealthy 18th century New Yorker families, the Beekmans built a lavish country house north of the city where they could escape to the cooling river breezes and open countryside.  James Beekman erected Mount Pleasant in 1765 near the East River.

The next century would see the city gradually creep northwards, engulfing the sprawling estates as streets and avenues criss-crossed the land and homes and commercial buildings sprung up.  Mount Pleasant was demolished in 1874 to be replaced by brownstones and tenements populated for the most part by the impoverished immigrants working in the coal yards and shipyards that lined the riverbank.   New York’s millionaires clustered at the center of the island, around 5th Avenue, far from the soot and dust of Manhattan’s margins.

Then something happened.

Elisabeth Marbury hired society architect Mott Schmidt to remodel an old rowhouse on an extension of Avenue A into a high-end neo-Georgian residence.  She soon persuaded friends, including Anne Vanderbilt, recent widow of William K. Vanderbilt; and Anne Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, to do the same.  The avant-garde women thumbed their noses at social traditions and walked away from the accepted Fifth Avenue.   Before long an enclave of mansions, many of them in the Georgian style like Marbury's, had developed--now called Sutton Place.

The trend spilled over as millionaires began converting or razing tenements on the nearby two-block long street that would become known as Beekman Place.   The reputation of Beekman Place as the sanctuary for wealthy free-thinkers from Fifth Avenue’s restrictions later placed the character Auntie Mame at No. 23 Beekman Place.

In 1920 a temporary shelter for delinquent women stood at No. 17 Beekman Place.  Known simply as Number Seventeen Beeckman Place, Inc., it housed up to 25 women and 6 babies.  The purpose of the shelter was “to provide a temporary refuge and home for delinquent and friendless women and girls, and for unmarried and homeless mothers with their babies, where they  may be reclaimed and assisted in becoming self-supporting.”

In the meantime James Vincent Forrestal had been making a name for himself.  The son of an Irish immigrant  he worked as a reporter for the Matteawan Journal at the age of 16.  In 1912 he entered Princeton University, but left after three years to work for the New York World.  Four years later he changed careers to sell bonds.

When war broke out he moved to Canada to join the Royal Flying Corps, then returned to the city after the war to rejoin the banking firm of Dillon, Read & Company as a bond salesman.  He quickly rose within the firm to department manager, then partner in 1923, then vice-president in 1926.

Forrestal had done well for himself and it was time for a house that reflected it.  On May 12, 1928 Forrestal joined the “colony” of wealthy New Yorkers who thought outside of the Fifth Avenue box.   The New York Times announced that “Beekman Place Corporation disposed of the four-story house…at 17 Beekman Place to a banker.”     Forrestal commissioned architect Harold Sterner to design a distinguished Georgian-inspired brick-and-stone residence that stretched back 100 feet to the end of 50th Street where the land dropped off to the river.  

James V. Forrestal would eventually rise to the position of Secretary of Defense -- photo Library of Congress
Despite the ongoing Great Depression the five-story mansion was completed in 1932.  The white marble base, punctured by unadorned, rectangular openings, supported three stories of red brick and a copper-sheathed mansard.   The subdued entrance was flanked by two plain, Corinthian columns and surrounded by a simple stone frame.

photo by Alice Lum
Shallow brick pilasters, two stories tall at the second and third floor were capped by carved Ionic capitals.   The home was both restrained and imposing.  But the understated exterior disguised the sumptuous interiors.

The wealthy residents of quiet Beekman Place hired a private special patrolman, Joseph Roy, to ensure their safety.  The arrangement worked well until the pre-dawn hours of July 2, 1937.  Mrs. Josephine Ogden Forrestal was arriving home in the car of a friend, Richard Hall around 2:00 a.m.  Knowing Mrs. Forrestal was soon to arrive, Roy had just asked a parked sedan to move.  As Hall’s chauffeur pulled the car up to the Forrestal house, six men jumped from the sedan with pistols drawn and surrounded the limousine.    Moments later they sped away with $48,000 worth of Mrs. Forrestal’s jewels.

Fanciful, decorative portholes are interspersed between the ground floor openings -- photo by Alice Lum

Six years after moving in, at only 46 years old, Forrestal was named President of Dillon, Read & Company.    The banker caught the eye of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1940 the President appointed him as liaison officer between the Oval Office and the Treasury Department as well as other financial agencies of the government.  The Forrestals moved to Washington D.C. and within a few months he was appointed Undersecretary of the Navy, responsible for production and procurement.

That the Forrestals would not be returning to Manhattan became evident.

In January 1942 the house, complete with all the Forrestal furnishings, was leased to Daniel G. Arnstein, the head of the Terminal Taxicab Company.  Arnstein had just returned to New York from China where he “was engaged in organizing traffic on the Burma Road,” according to The Times.

While Arnstein was in the house, Forrestal rose to Secretary of the Navy in 1944 and was in Europe to personally see the D-Day landings in June.

Sterner added occasional carved ornaments, like the architectural equivalent of a printer's dingbats, to the staid cornice -- photo by Alice Lum
Finally, in June 1946, James Forrestal sold the house at No. 17 Beekman Place.   The buyer was song-writer Irving Berlin.

The arcane location was perfect for the celebrity composer who, like Forrestal, had raised himself from an impoverished childhood to enormous wealth.   By now had added motion picture musicals to his successes with hits like Top Hat, Follow the Fleet and Carefree.  The immortal song "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat had earned Berlin an Academy Award.

From No. 17 Beekman Place the composer would pen masterpieces including Annie Get Your Gun in 1946, Call Me Madam in 1950, There’s No Business Like Show Business in 1954 and Sayonara in 1957. 

Irving Berlin and his wife, Ellen -- photo Library of Congress
The beloved composer would live on in the mansion until his death here on September 12, 1989 at the age of 101.
The plot of Call Me Madam, for which Irving Berlin wrote both the words and music, was based on Perle Mesta’s appointment as Ambassador to Luxembourg by President Harry S. Truman. In a coincidental twist of fate, two years after Berlin’s death the government of Luxembourg bought the building for $5.7 million.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the James Forrestal mansion, home to one of America’s most beloved composers for more than four decades, remains the Consulate of Luxembourg and its Mission to the United States.  The house is pristinely preserved on the hidden little enclave where millionaires sought refuge from stuffy social obligations.