Saturday, April 27, 2013

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

photo by Alice Lum
As the Fifth Avenue blocks 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 desolate, but the presence of the powerful and wealthy Breevorts would soon change that.

Within a decade the lower blocks of Fifth Avenue filled with the homes and churches of New York’s richest citizens.  George Wood built his mansion, No. 45, at the corner 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 carriages 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.  She kept the Fifth Avenue mansion, “his plate and household furniture,” along with other property in Brooklyn.  Apparently well aware of the plights of many Victorian heiresses, the skilled attorney added 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.”

When Wood’s widow left No. 45 Fifth Avenue is unclear; however the 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.

Respectability came back to the little building when H. Van Rensselaer Kennedy moved into No. 45 Fifth Avenue.  His purchase of the house increased the Kennedy presence in the neighborhood, which was already substantial.   Robert L. Kennedy lived at No. 99, Rachel L. Kennedy at No. 41 and Mary L. Kennedy lived around the corner at No. 10 East 11th Street.

Change comes quickly to New York City neighborhoods and by World War I most of the lower Fifth Avenue mansions, including No. 45, were mere memories.  Around the corner on East 11th Street was the Hotel Van Rensselaer and on the corner of Fifth Avenue No. 43 was now an 11-story apartment building.  But sitting smugly between the two towering buildings 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 had been 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 No. 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 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 Times reported that “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 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 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 No. 43 Fifth Avenue, and the house at No. 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 buildings “as part of a plan to reduce his holdings,” said The Times.  On October 30, 1960 Freedman & Melcer, Inc. purchased No. 43 Fifth Avenue for about $1 million.  Parenthetically, The 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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