Saturday, April 27, 2013

An Improbable Survivor -- No. 11 East 11th St.

photo by Alice Lum

As the Fifth Avenue district just north of Washington Square developed, wealthy attorney and property owner George Wood joined the trend.  Henry Brevoort, Jr. had built his grand, free-standing Greek Revival mansion at the corner of 9th Street in 1834.  The avenue at the time was barren, but the presence of the socially prominent Brevoorts would soon change that.

Within a decade, the blocks of lower Fifth Avenue filled with the homes and churches of New York’s wealthiest citizens.  George Wood built his mansion just north of East 11th Street.  The attorney held vast amounts of real estate—including no fewer than 39 houses in Brooklyn, most along Sidney Place, State Street and Joralemon Street; vacant building lots and docks in Brooklyn; 340 acres in Minnesota; a 30-acre farm in Rye, New York; and land in Walde, Texas.

To accommodate his vehicles and horses, Wood acquired the building lots stretching through the block from 11th to 12th Streets behind his mansion.  His “carriage house and stable” was set far back from East 11th Street, possibly to relieve his fashionable neighbors of the unpleasant odors. 

The Wood family included five daughters—Catharine, Anna, Mary, Julia, Louisa—and two sons Frederick and George.   As the threat of civil war rumbled, George Wood would make his opinions on slavery vividly apparent.   W. M. Evarts diplomatically called him “a man who loved the Union and the whole Union.”  However his comments that the slaves were of an “inferior” race would bristle the ire of many.

In 1858, at the age of 69, Wood was afflicted with paralysis.  Two years later, at round 1:00 in the morning on Saturday March 17, 1860, he woke with a pain in his arm.  Mrs. Wood attempted to help by rubbing his arm; but he broke out in a cold sweat on his forehead and soon after died.  A century and a half later, the symptoms point to a heart attack.

Wood’s vast estate was divided among his children, now grown and married, and his wife.  Mrs. Wood kept the Fifth Avenue mansion, “his plate and household furniture,” along with other property in Brooklyn.  Apparently well aware of the plights of many women at the time, the astute attorney noted in his will “The devises to his daughters are to be free from the control of their husbands.”

Wood’s funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion, attended by the members of the bar who announced the “by the death of George Wood, the New-York Bar has been deprived of one of its most distinguished ornaments.”

The family's carriage house somehow became part of an shockingly unexpected scandal within seven years of Wood’s passing.  At 11:00 on the night of July 20, 1867, “Sergeant Haggerty, Roundsman Rae, and Officers Barker and Inman, of the Fifteenth Precinct, made a descent upon the disorderly house No. 11 East Eleventh-street,” according to The New York Times the following morning.

Somehow George Wood’s carriage house had been transformed into a brothel, squarely in the center of Manhattan’s most exclusive residential neighborhood.  Five women, aged 18 to 28, and two men, Marshall Allan, 21 and Robert Baer, 18, were arrested.  “The prisoners were all marched off to the Mercer-street Station-house and locked up for examination,” said the article.

By the end of World War I, most of the millionaires of lower Fifth Avenue had migrated northward.  The Hotel Van Rensselaer now abutted the carriage house on the 11th Street side, with the 11-story apartment building, 43 Fifth Avenue, on the other.  Somehow George Wood’s carriage house with its deep grassy approach still clung on.  With the disappearance of horses as motorcars took over, the little two-story building was converted to a garage.

David H. Nott who owned the hotel was rightfully concerned about the future of the little garage.  Were it to be leveled and a tall building erected, his hotel would lose air and light.  And so he bought it.

In July 1921, he hired architect C. F. Winkelman to convert the garage into a one-family dwelling, “forming an annex to the Hotel Van Rensselaer,” reported the New-York Tribune on July 28.  The architect estimated the renovations would cost about $10,000.

photo NYPL Collection

A year later, in its February 1922 issue, Popular Mechanics marveled at the concept.  “A novel extension of the Hotel Van Rensselaer, in New York City, is just being completed,” it announced.  “In order to protect the hotel’s light, the company decided to take over and improve this property by building a two-story seven-room house.  This house, of distinctive Moorish architecture, is set back 50 ft. from the sidewalk, with a picturesque formal garden, laid out with a flagstone walk and low brick walls in front of it.  Tucked away between its tall neighbors, it is almost lost to the view of the casual passer-by.”

Because Knott Realty Company owned both the “apartment hotel” at No. 43 Fifth Avenue and the Hotel Van Rensselaer, it had a vested interest In keeping the little house intact.  The New York Times made special note of the charming condition of the house on April 16, 1930.

Winkleman deftly transformed the carriage entrance and the hay loft opening into expansive windows -- photo by Alice Lum

The newspaper said it “has been famous for many years in the lower Fifth Avenue area as the only house in that locality with an ample front yard…The front yard is laid out with paths and a wide garden plot which is now being prepared for Summer flowers.  The yard is protected by a low wooden fence with a neat gate typically suggestive of a well-kept place in the country.  It is one of the very few small houses on Manhattan Island with a front garden plot.”

That same month William Simmons, “a steamship man,” leased the house; but it appears the deal fell through.  A month later stock broker Arthur L. Selig and his family were living here.  Selig was a member of the firm Perez F. Huff & Co., Inc. at 75 Maiden Lane.

Selig, his wife and daughter, settled in to the comfortable home.  “Mr. Selig was a familiar figure in the neighborhood,” noted The New York Times.  “His constant companion was an Irish terrier, which he took out for a walk on Fifth Avenue every evening.”

But the Great Depression, with its haunting images of stock brokers flinging themselves from office windows, visited the little house on East 11th Street.  Family friends reported that Selig “worried over losses in the stock market” and only weeks after moving in, Selig committed suicide by shooting himself with a pistol.

The New York Times reported, “His body, clad in pajamas and a bathrobe, was found in his library…Mrs. Selig and her daughter discovered the body soon after they awakened yesterday morning.  It was slumped in an arm chair, the pistol grasped in his right hand.  The bullet had entered the right temple, passed through the head, and embedded itself in the library wall.”

The broker had carefully planned his death, leaving a note for his wife containing information regarding his insurance and other pertinent details, ending with the words, “My thoughts are all for you.”

The tragedy of Selig’s violent death shared the newspaper’s spotlight with its unusual setting.  The New York Times could not resist mentioning the quaint little residence.  “The house has been something of a curiosity to passers-by, for it is one of the few with a front garden in downtown Manhattan.  It was well kept, and during the Summer months, was always blooming with flowers.”

The original gates and posts (left) survive.  The low brick garden wall has been replaced with a more secure fence --photo by Alice Lum

In 1951 the Hotel Van Rensselaer, the apartment building at 43 Fifth Avenue, and the house at 11 East 11th Street were sold to Samuel D. Bierman as a package. 

As the trio of buildings continued to survive with little change, a small Jewish congregation was formed in 1959, Congregation Etz Chaim, the “Tree of Life.”  As it gained its bearings, the fledgling congregation held services in the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

A year later, Bierman was ready to dispose of his holdings “as part of a plan to reduce his holdings,” said The New York Times.  On October 30, 1960, Freedman & Melcer, Inc. purchased 43 Fifth Avenue for about $1 million.  Parenthetically, The New York Times noted, “The purchases included a one-story dwelling on a lot 25 by 100 feet at 11 East Eleventh Street.  The house, now vacant, adjoins the apartment house.”

The house would not remain vacant for long.  Congregation Etz Chaim found a permanent home and renamed itself The Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue.  Half a century later, little has changed to C. F. Winkleman’s Mediterranean remake.  And, as was true in 1922, “tucked away between its tall neighbors, it is almost lost to the view of the casual passer-by.”

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