Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The 1924 Chickering Hall -- No. 27-29 West 57th Street

The Chickering piano manufacturers may have added the enormous facsimiles of their 1867 Paris Exhibition medals simply to annoy the Steinway firm down the street -- photo by Alice Lum

In the last decade of the 19th century West 57th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues was a tony residential street with Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s massive chateau at the corner.  The brownstone-fronted residences were home to some of New York’s wealthiest citizens.   This was evident in 1893 when No. 29 West 57th Street sold for $120,000—about $3 million today. 

That house would be home to Howard Gould and his wife in 1899 and, by 1910, to Mr. and Mrs. John S. Rogers.  Mrs. Rogers had been Catherine A. C. Dodge prior to the wedding.

But by the time the Rogers were living here the neighborhood was drastically changing as the grand homes were sacrificed to commercial interests.   In 1919 a Department of Buildings law was passed that, according to The New York Times, “liberalized the restrictions that formerly obtained at the turning of private homes into apartment houses."  The houses at Nos. 27 and 29 were internally joined and converted to upscale “studio” apartments targeted for the growing population of artists in the area. 

On December 2, 1920 the joined houses were home to a variety of artistic tenants.  Mrs. Harold Boswell Reid lived here.  She was a concert operatic singer and the former wife of David Howard, “British peer.”  Her current husband was a Canadian manufacturer.  Art student Annette Bracy lived on the third floor.   There were theater people in the building like 20-year old motion picture actress Mrs. Victor Lescomb and Betty Jones, a actress formerly of the London stage who was also 20-years old.

Mrs. Lescomb had just arrived in New York on the Cunard steamer Aquitania from London where her husband, Victor Lescomb, was connected with Lloyd’s of London. 

On Sixth Avenue was the mammoth entertainment venue, The Hippodrome, and building resident Dr. Martin Potter was veterinarian there.  Potter had been with the Hippodrome for 15 years, beginning when he supplied the horses for the epic production of “Ben Hur” there.  When the show toured England, he appeared before the King.  Like Mrs. Reid, Dr. Potter was well-to-do and owned a stable of race horses and a country home in Stamford, Connecticut.

In May the year before, an application was made to the Building Department for interior alterations.  The once-imposing staircases in both houses were removed between the first and second floors to afford more living space.  A passageway between the two houses at the second floor enabled residents to access the automatic elevator in No. 27.  Without the staircases, the small elevator was the only way in or out.

It was a bad idea.

Around 5:30 on the morning of December 2, 1920 Annette Bracy awoke to find her room filled with smoke.  She hurled a book through the window glass and screamed “fire.”  Her screams awakened Mrs. Oceani Coyle who owned the buildings and the two women rushed through the hallways arousing the tenants.  In the meantime Irving Coyle, her husband, ran to Sixth Avenue and 57th Street and turned in the alarm.

The residents rushed to escape the burning building; but were trapped.   As the flames swept through the aged buildings, five residents were burned to death—Mrs. Harold Boswell Reid, the opera singer, and her 30-year old sister, Mrs. Jessie Jenkins; the silent film actress Mrs. Victor Lescomb; Betty Jones and Dr. Potter.

Firefighters found a grisly scene.  “The body of Mrs. Lescomb was the first discovered.  It was found, badly charred, lying on the third floor landing, which she had reached from her fourth floor suite in an effort to get to the fire door on the landing below.  The bodies of Mrs. Reid and her sister were found outside Mrs. Reid’s top-floor apartment.  Deputy Chief Ross found the body of Dr. Potter also just outside his door, while the badly burned body found on the third floor landing was identified as that of Miss Betty Jones, a friend of Mrs. Lescomb,” reported The New York Times.

Astonishingly, a few days later while searching through the debris police found Mrs. Reid’s jewelry in the ashes.  “Up to the time of the finding of the gems a theory had obtained the fatal fire had been started by a robbery to cover the theft of the jewels,” reported The Times.

“The jewels found included two large diamond rings, a pearl necklace, three pearl rings and two diamond-studded combs…The jewels were unharmed by the flames, and they will probably be turned over to Mrs. Reid’s daughter, Miss Helen Howard, who is a student in a private school at Fifth Avenue and Eighty-fifth Street.”   (That would have been the Marymount School in the Jonathon Thorne mansion, purchased by the school that same year.)

Further west on 57th Street at the time was the handsome Steinway Building which included Steinway Hall, a concert hall erected specifically to show off the manufacturer’s pianos.   Further south on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street was the competing Chickering Hall, a similar auditorium built in 1875 for performances flaunting the Chickering piano.

Over half a century earlier Chickering had been awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor at the Paris Exhibition of 1867.  It was an impressive feather in the Chickering cap and one the manufacturer would long bally-ho.

By the time of the tragic fire on West 57th Street, the entertainment district had moved far north of the 2,000-seat Chickering Hall.   The charred site of Nos. 27 and 29 West 57th Street was purchased and architects Cross & Cross were commissioned to design a new office and showroom building.

The 13-story building was completed in 1924.  What would have been a tepid design was heated up by ambitious ornamentation in the form of giant caryatids at the upper floors and, hiding the elevator housing, overblown bas relief reproductions of the 1867 medals.   In his New York From the Air, author John Tauranac suggests that the medals were used not only to beautify the water tower, but to nettle Steinway.
photo by Alice Lum

Unlike its former home or the Steinway Building down the street the new Chickering Hall would not contain a true concert venue.  Instead a suite of “model rooms” displayed pianos and allowed potential customers to hear them.

The building was home to the American Piano Company.  The firm not only produced its own pianos, but was the major stockholder in the piano firms of Foster Armstrong, Mason & Hamlin, Knabe and Chickering.   Also at No. 29 was a variety of tenants, including Dr. J. Roswell Hasbrouck, Dr. J. K. Hoornbeek and Dr. R. Salmon, dentists who occupied a suite of offices on the 12th floor.   In 1926 Dr. Hashbrouck hired 19-year old Gladys Richardson as a dental attendant.  The girl lived with her mother and sister at No. 22 East 89th Street in the fashionable neighborhood just off Central Park.
Giant golden caryatids, some winged, hold musical instruments--photo by Alice Lum

A year later, in January, Gladys’ co-workers noticed that she was “despondent;” possibly over their boss’s upcoming January 8 trip to Bermuda.  With the doctor gone, Gladys would be temporarily out of a job.

On Sunday morning January 30, three weeks after Hasbrouck left for his extended vacation, Gladys left her home with her pet bulldog, Bunny.  Before leaving she threatened suicide, according to her mother.

Gladys never returned home and that evening Mrs. Richardson went to the dentist office in the Chickering Building, but it was locked.  The following morning when Dr. Hoornbeck arrived shortly after 8 a.m., he smelled a strong odor of gas coming from the Hasbrouck offices.  Using surgical instruments he picked the lock. 

On the floor Gladys lay dead.  The Times reported that “Close to her face was the end of a tube hanging from a jet with the gas turned on full.  Lying near the body of his mistress was that of “Bunny” a brindle bulldog, its nose pressed against a crack in the door.”

Only four years after moving in the American Piano Company moved out.  The firm consolidated the retail departments of the four piano companies under its control and opened new showrooms on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street in the Ampico Tower Building.  “The change…involves the discontinuance of Chickering Hall erected four years ago,” said The Times.

The building was leased by The Curtiss Flying Service, Inc.   Suddenly the Chickering Hall became the Curtiss Building and the musical instrument industry was replaced with aviation.  The Curtiss group took up four floors in the building—three through five and the thirteenth.  Transcontinental Air Transport moved in as well, and the second floor was rented to WRNY radio station.
The sloping facade of the modern 9 West 57th Street building politely steps back to afford a better view of the Chickering structure -- photo by Alice Lum

The building had an unusual visitor on November 11, 1935.  Around 9 a.m. someone noticed a full-grown blue peacock feeding with the pigeons on the roof of a five-story building at No. 40 West 58th Street.  Police officer William Burke climbed to the roof and two other policemen, John Duffy and John Leonhardt went to nearby roofs.  The peacock was wise to the lurking cops.

It flew to the top of the Bergdorf-Goodman building, followed by the men in blue.  “The policemen climbed after it,” reported The New York Times, “but another flight took the peacock to a window sill on the thirteenth floor of the Chickering Building, 29 West Fifty-seventh Street.”

The wild goose chase—or in this case peacock chase—intensified.  “A full-grown, full-winged blue peacock flew over the fashionable shopping district at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street yesterday morning and started three patrolmen, three men from the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, two attendants from the Central Park Zoo and reporters and photographers on a chase that lasted three hours and ended on top of the Plaza Hotel,” reported The Times the following day.

After hours of being chased, the peacock solved its own problem.  It flew over Central Park and landed among the zoo’s peacocks—all females.   The bird was held there awaiting its owner—presumed to be a penthouse resident in the area.

In September 1936 WRNY was joined by two other radio stations—WHOM and WSAB, both owned by the New Jersey Broadcasting Company.  The stations spent $75,000 constructing and outfitting sound studios and equipping the two floors of space with new equipment.

The building earned a new name again in January 1938 when about half of it was leased to the Aeolian Company.  For over a decade it would be known as Aeolian Hall.

On November 1, 1942 Mayor Fiorella La Guardia was on air in the studio of WHOM urging Italian-Americans to vote for the American Labor Party candidate for Governor, Dean Alfange.  The mayor spoke in Italian and passionately defended the socialist-founded group.  “The American Labor Party is the party of protest.  We shall protest to protect our interests.  This is not an election of personalities.”

The building was sold in 1946 to the Roman Catholic Archbishopric of New York to house the offices of Catholic Charities.  The church resold it in 1950 to I. Jerome Riker for $1.3 million.   The British automobile manufacturer, Austin Company, moved into the ground floor and the structure once again was renamed: Austin House.   Riker resold it just two years later for $2.2, about double what he originally paid.

It was here in 1965 that Virginia Dwan opened her art gallery, one of Manhattan’s most progressive dealers in modern art at the time.  Two years later, in November, she launched the first private exhibition of Robert Smithson’s sculpture.
Some critics found the regilding a bit too glitzy -- photo by Alice Lum

During the latter part of the 20th century the spectacular horn-blowing caryatids and the window spandrels were regilded, prompting some critics to use words like “garish” and “gaudy.”   But Cross & Cross’s exuberant design, with the colossal Crosses of the Legion of Honor high above the street, is a conspicuous beauty on the block.

Little wonder a peacock would choose it as a place to roost.

UPDATE:  The building was demolished in 2016.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The 1892 Richard M. Hoe House -- No. 11 East 71st Street

photo by Alice Lum

The Gay ‘Nineties in New York City were gayer if one was a millionaire.  The dour brownstone houses on the streets branching off Fifth Avenue along Central Park were being replaced with white limestone or marble mansions.  Inside, pearl-draped socialites and gentlemen in evening dress politely chatted at glittering dances and dinners.

Although his family was entrenched in the publishing business, Richard March Hoe was a banker and grain merchant whose office was in the Produce Exchange Building.   The family’s fortune stemmed from the printing business, R. Hoe & Co., founded by his grandfather.

In 1891 Hoe and his wife, the former Annie Dows, commissioned Carrere & Hastings to design their mansion at No. 11 East 71st Street.   The house, completed a year later, stood in stark contrast to the neighboring brownstones.

Three stories of ebullient limestone sat upon a rusticated base just above the sidewalk level.  Here a shallow flight of steps led to a portico upheld by columns and pilasters of swirling veined stone.  A petite balcony with French doors and ornate metal railing topped the portico.
photo by Alice Lum

Annie was wealthy in her own right.  She was the daughter of millionaire David Dows who was an associate of Jay Gould in Civil War Union Army contracts.  Annie grew up in the family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and 69th Street, and their summer estate, Charlton Hall, at Irvington.   Among her many personal philanthropies would be the gift of a new school building to the Westchester Temporary Home at White Plains in 1902.

In 1897 a daughter, Margaret, was born to the Hoes.  While the little girl enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, she suffered from a weak heart.   In 1916, as the date for her debut into society neared, the 19-year-old went off to summer at The Emergency Service Corps, a camp for girls on the country estate of Edward R. Hewitt.

With the war in Europe threatening to involve Americans, the encampment trained young women in nursing, camping and other preparation for women’s auxiliary service.   On June 3 Margaret was standing waist deep in the lake, preparing to take a swim with her friends when her heart gave out.

Despite the immediate attention of the other girls and Miss Baelen, the war nurse in charge of the hospital tent on the grounds, Margaret died.  Richard Hoe arrived at the camp the following day and, although deeply grieving, was rational regarding the cause of his daughter’s death.

He told reporters that he was aware of his daughter’s heart trouble “and assumed the excitement of the camp had occasioned the attack.  He realized, as did all the other parents, that his daughter’s death could not be attributed to any lack of care on the part of those having the welfare of the girls in charge,” said The Times.

Nine years later, on December 22, 1925, Richard Marsh Hoe died suddenly in the mansion he had built over three decades earlier.   Annie stayed on in the house, giving generously to her various charities.  The year following Richard's death she gave $100,000 to Columbia University’s Teachers College to establish the Richard March Hoe Professorship.  In 1929 she gave $25,000 to Mount Holyoke College.

As the years passed, Annie developed arterial sclerosis.   She became ill in May 1940 and two weeks later, on June 11 the 87-year old died in the house on East 71st Street where she had lived for nearly half a century.

In 1945 the mansion was divided into apartments, two per floor.   The lavish accommodations drew upscale tenants.  Among the first were Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth H. Sheldon who also maintained a summer estate in Old Brookville, Long Island.  Society received engagement and wedding announcements mailed from this address, and debutante receptions were a common event.

Little out of the ordinary occurred at No. 11 East 71st Street--at least not until just before midnight on Thursday, September 27, 1951.  That was when 28-year old Charles Clingenpeel answered his doorbell.  As he opened his door, three men pounced on him.  After “pummeling” him, as The New York Times reported, two of the men held him down while the other ransacked the apartment, taking silverware, suitcases, a record player and coats.  Clingenpeel valued the stolen articles at $1,000—about seven times that much by today’s standards.

A sharp-eyed neighbor furnished police with a description of the getaway car.  Exactly a week later 18-year old Joseph Marsala pulled up to a stop light in the vehicle and was quickly arrested.  “The police said they found the loot in the basement of his home,” reported The Times.

Before long Edward Alonzo, 20 years old, Richard Egan, 19, and 18-year old William Rosello were also behind bars.  “The police described the first two as soldiers absent without leave,” said the newspaper.

Neighbors and tenants were no doubt shocked and scandalized when a photograph of the building was published in The New York Times on March 26, 1979 with the caption “An illegal gambling casino allegedly operates in apartment 2A in town house at 11 East 71st Street and has a particularly affluent group of patrons.”  The make-shift casino, called the V.I.P., was “one of the more richly appointed clubs,” said The Times.

“The club, decorated to look like an elegant library—with books, antique furniture, bronze Grecian busts, formal oil portraits, and fresh-cut flowers in every room—attracts a particularly affluent group of faithful patrons.  On a recent night women glittering with diamond jewelry filled the seats at the V.I.P.’s three blackjack tables, while men gambled away thousands of dollars at the crowded craps table beneath a candle-laden chandelier.”

Harry, a blackjack dealer at the club told the reporter “On a good night, it’s not hard to get 50 customers losing $5,000 to $10,000 each.”  Harry also spilled the beans regarding how the management of the four-year old operation guaranteed that it was paid.

The V.I.P. employed ten “collectors” to pick up money owed the house.  The Times reported “Thugs recruited from the ranks of organized crime—to which the house must pay ‘protection’ money, he said—visit gamblers’ homes and dole out ‘punishment.’”

Harry explained “If someone has no money, they take whatever they can find—jewelry, stereo, furs.  And they come every weekend.  People get beat up.  They are given time to get the money, but if they don’t, they die, they die.”

How long the V.I.P. club remained in business after The Times’ expose is uncertain.

The beautifully-veined columns draw the eye's attention -- photo by Alice Lum

In May of 2001 Howard Lutnick was busy renovating the Hoe mansion.  Chairman of the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, Lutnick told a reporter that nothing of the original interiors had survived and he was “starting from scratch.”

Four months later Lutnick’s world would be shattered when terrorists slammed two airliners into the World Trade Center buildings where Canter Fitzgerald was headquartered.  The firm suffered the greatest loss of life of any other tenant—658 of its 960 workers were murdered that morning.

Today the Hoe mansion is once again a single-family home.   Other than the replacement windows, the spotlessly-clean stone façade is unchanged since Robert and Annie Hoe walked in the door in 1892—a time when being a millionaire made the Gay Nineties just a little gayer.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Lost New York Club -- No. 370 5th Avenue

Shortly after the New York Club purchased the mansion, the Caswell family erected a small building (left) for a commercial art gallery on the site of the former gardens--photographer C. C. Langill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York --

In 1859 the Fifth Avenue Hotel was among the most fashionable in the city.  Its rooms and restaurants saw the comings and goings of foreign heads of state, U.S. Presidents, famous writers, artists and actors.  The wealthiest and most powerful New Yorkers met here to draft deals, nominate candidates for office and—in today’s terms--network.  Merchants fortunate enough to lease space in the upscale hotel were assured a most lucrative business.

That year Philip and John Rose Caswell opened their pharmacy in the hotel; the same year that John built his magnificent mansion at No. 370 Fifth Avenue.  The house sat in the most prestigious residential neighborhood of Manhattan; a block north of the brownstone residences of John Jacob and William Astor.   The New York Times described it as “of brick, with brownstone facings, four stories high, and a piazza at the rear.”

The southern half of the block was developed in 1870 when the magnificent Alexander Turney Stewart house was completed.  The white marble palace, the showplace of Fifth Avenue at the time, gleamed among the brownstone mansions around it.  The two houses were separated by thirty-three feet of lush lawns and gardens owned by Caswell.

The Caswell brothers’ highly successful drugstore would stay in the Fifth Avenue Hotel until 1876, when the partnership was dissolved.  Within three years John teamed with William R. Massey to take over the apothecary business started by Scottish doctor William Hunter in Newport in 1752, a New York branch of which had already been established in 1833.  The pair agreed that Caswell would oversee the Newport store while Massey ran the New York branch.

The new operation, Caswell-Massey, flourished and the already-wealthy druggists became even more so.   With John Caswell now living in Newport, the Fifth Avenue mansion was superfluous.  The pharmacist struck a deal with the exclusive University Club to convert his residence into its newest clubhouse.

The University Club had been organized in 1861 when a group of wealthy college alumni sought to form a social club that would keep old school friends intact.  Now, in April 1879, it listed 325 members on its rolls and fully expected to expand that number to 400 before moving into the Caswell mansion a month later.

In 1879 the Caswell mansion retained its brick and brownstone exterior and classical Fifth Avenue entrance.  Next door, separated by a wide garden, is the white marble Stewart mansion.  One block south are the brownstone residences of William and John Jacob Astor.  A horse-drawn omnibus heads south down the quiet avenue.  -- photographer unknown; from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York --

The club would be the first incursion of a non-private residence into the area.  But the upscale organization and its pedigreed members posed little threat to its surrounding neighbors.   The New York Times made note of the mansion’s excellent adaptability to its new function.  It “is considered a admirable location as a rendezvous for the gentlemen composing the club,” it said on April 11, 1879.  The newspaper mentioned that the piazza in the rear “affords space for a promenade and an after-dinner smoke.  The grounds are in good order, and allow sufficient room for croquet, tennis, or, as one of the members suggested yesterday, a game of ‘I spy.’”

Club officials told reporters that very few alterations would need to be made.  “There are stairways at the front and rear, extending from the first floor to the attic.  The halls are wide and roomy, and a good wine-cellar occupies part of the basement.  The heating apparatus is in a good condition, and the kitchen, while being well-adapted for culinary purposes, affords room for an additional range.”

The club would stay on in the house for less than a decade.  The Caswell family more than doubled the rent in 1886, causing no small amount of ill-will and a search for a new location.  The following year the club moved on to the old Union League clubhouse on Madison Square. 

While the Caswell family and the University Club were bickering,  fire swept through another prestigious clubhouse—the New York Club at West 25th Street and Fifth Avenue.  Chartered in 1845, it was the oldest men’s club in the city.  The club had moved several times in its three decades of existence, the last time only a year earlier to its present location.  A day after the fire, on April 3, 1876, The Times said “The building burned last night was one of the most prominent in the City.  It is a brown-stone five-story edifice filling the delta formed by the junction of Broadway and Fifth avenue.  In former years it was known as the Worth House, a first-class family hotel, and a favorite resort for Southerners, and the private residence of Edward S. Stokes.”

The blaze had started below ground in the kitchen “by the overboiling of some fat on the range,” reported newspapers.  The Times reported that “As in the case of the Fifth Avenue Hotel fire, the mischief was done by a dumb-waiter or elevator running from the kitchen to the top of the house.  Up this wooden shaft the fire sped with startling rapidity, and seized upon the servants’ quarters in the attic of the building.” 

The frescoed ceilings, the fine furnishings and paintings, everything on the upper floors were all destroyed. A day after the fire damages were estimated at $30,000—a hefty $600,000 by today’s standards.

The New York Club, perhaps not wanting to fall victim to suddenly-ballooning rents as had the University Club, negotiated the purchase of the old mansion.  A price of $242,000 was arrived at; but the cagey Caswells did not include the surrounding L-shaped gardens—only the building was included in the sale.

Before moving in, the club extensively updated the old pre-Civil War mansion.  The renovations would nearly double the cost of the property.  "King’s Handbook of New York City" wrote of the resultant transformation.  “The club-house is the Caswell house, the former home of the University Club, remodeled into a graceful building of the Queen Anne style.”   Red brick and white limestone were used to create an entertaining façade with a balcony above clustered windows on the Fifth Avenue side, and a split entrance staircase at the new main entrance on 35th Street.  Inside detailing was updated with the latest in Eastlake and Queen Anne influences.

The interiors were outfitted in the latest taste.  Show above is the main staircase--Harper's Weekly, March 15, 1890, NYPL Collection
The sale on behalf of the club was handled by attorney and club member Edward Gebhard.  But trouble soon arose.  In the fall of 1886 Gebhard submitted his bill of $1,022.50 covering his legal services; an amount he asserted was “about one-third what he would have charged any other client,” as reported in The Sun.

Just prior to this, Nathaniel Whitman was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Board of Directors.  Whitman and Gebhard had long been personal enemies because Gebhard “had detected and exposed him (Whitman) for cheating at cards,” reported The Sun.  Whitman retaliated by inducing the board to turn down a gentleman whom Gebhard had proposed for membership.

Enraged, Edward Gebhard tendered his resignation from the club on October 26, shortly after his invoice had been paid.  The lawyer was infuriated when six months later he received a letter demanding that he return the $1,022.50 “paid by this Board under a misapprehension.”  The ugly matter resulted in a public court battle and much unwanted press.

As the old mansion was being renovated, Fifth Avenue homeowners were concerned that the Caswell family might have unfriendly plans for the garden plot between the club and the Stewart mansion--ample space for  commercial structure.  On May 17, 1887 Charles S. Smith, the executor of the Caswell estate, was questions regarding the report that a business building might be erected on the lot.

“The report is not without foundation,” he replied smugly.  “My wife, who is a Caswell, and myself think of putting up a building that will be a credit to the location.  Our plans have not yet materialized.  When they do it will give me pleasure to make public the details.  We have obtained a permit to erect a building, and in all probability will carry out the idea some day.”

The idea of a commercial building in the midst of their respectable mansions did not sit well with the likes of Caroline Astor and other millionaires on the avenue.  But The New York Times said flatly “Fifth-avenue residents in the vicinity look with intense disfavor upon the idea of the Caswell heirs, but however disagreeable a business building in that neighborhood would be to them they have no power to prevent its erection except by purchasing the plot.”  The plot was not purchased and, indeed, before long the L-shaped garden was filled with a small, tasteful commercial building that housed an upscale art gallery.

The renovated mansion bore little resemblance to its former brownstone embodiment -- photographer unknown; from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York --

The club finally occupied the house in May 1888 and by November the clubhouse was ready for public inspection.  On November 10 a day-long reception was held and “hundreds” of guests filed through the newly-refurbished halls.  “The result, judging from the exclamations of admiration and congratulation which escaped from the visitors after an inspection of the various apartments, must have been highly satisfactory to the promoters of the reception and an ample reward for all their trouble and pains,” reported The New York Times.  It was a rare opportunity for New York’s female population to see inside the male-only domain.

“Probably more than 1,000 people, a large number of whom were ladies, were the club’s guests between 3 o’clock in the afternoon and 10 o’clock at night.  By far the larger number attended in the evening, when ladies in full costume and gentlemen in evening dress presented a brilliant sight as they promenaded to the enlivening music of Lander over softly carpeted floors, through spacious rooms made doubly beautiful by rich hangings and profuse floral decorations.”

The first floor contained the main sitting room paneled in cherry wainscoting.  The furniture here was cherry to match and the “curtains in this room are very beautiful, being of silk grand Italian tapestry, having a rich copper hue.”  Also on the first floor were the office, a small reception room “richly furnished,” and a billiard room.

The second floor dining room offered “delicacies of a most tempting nature prepared solely by the club chef.”  The room was paneled in dark oak and featured a large fireplace opposite the entrance doors.  The costly interior decoration included Axminister carpets and Italian draperies.  Also on this floor was a card room and a library, both paneled in antique oak, and a private drawing room.  The upper floors were relegated to sleeping rooms for members.

By the turn of the century, the Astor mansions had been replaced with the hulking Waldorf-Astoria Hotel--commerce was creeping up Fifth Avenue.-- photo NYPL Collection

New members paid an entrance fee of $300 and yearly dues of $75 for the privilege of using the clubhouse and claiming its prestige.  Out-of-towners, called “non resident members,” enjoyed fees and dues of exactly one-half that amount. 

One of the “non-resident members” in 1901 was millionaire Bostonian Frederick A. Gilbert.  Gilbert was the President and General Manager of the Boston Electric Light Company.  He often traveled to New York on business, and was well-known at the Waldorf-Astoria where he always stayed (that hotel by now occupied the former site of the Astor mansions between 33rd and 34th Streets).

In January that year Gilbert arrived in New York to attempt to consolidate the Edison Company, New York City’s major electric concern, with his own.  On the 18th of January he spent most of the day in the Wall Street area then returned to the hotel before going to the New York Club where he was to dine with friends.

The 54-year old Gilbert, whom The New York Times described as “very corpulent,” was seated at his table in the main dining room around 8:45.  The newspaper said “The room was well filled.  Mr. Gilbert was quite jovial and was telling a story to his companions when he suddenly paled and, clutching his throat and his breast at the same time, exclaimed, ‘I am ill!’”

Staff ran to summon doctors, but before they had even left the room, Gilbert lurched forward “and in a few moments life was extinct,” said The Times.  Polite dinner conversation was over among the other members in the room.  “The incident created much excitement, and the diners gathered about the table at which Mr. Gilbert had been eating.”

The newspaper somewhat bluntly ran the headline “Dropped Dead At A Club.”

Later that year the glorious marble A. T. Stewart mansion was razed.  The New York Club was little-by-little being engulfed by commerce.  In February 1905 club members were embroiled in heated discussions; not about whether to leave the clubhouse, but where to go.  In January the club had sold the old mansion to Boehm & Coon for $1,100,000.  The developers simultaneously bought the L-shaped Caswell property that embraced it.  There was little doubt now that the end of the road for the venerable Caswell mansion was near.

In 1890 the clubhouse and the Silo Gallery building next door are festooned with patriotic flags and bunting; possibly to celebrate the end of the Spanish-American War -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York --
In March 1907 the New York Club moved into its new nine-story home on West 40th Street.  The New York Times called it “a bachelor’s heaven.”   Within months the Caswell mansion was demolished and in its place was rising the eleven-story commercial building designed by Clinton & Russell, with George A. Boehm as associate architect.  The building survives today.
The view down 5th Avenue today is unrecognizable from the days when the Caswell, Stewart and Astor mansions lined up along its western side.  photograph taken by the author

The passing of New York Club building was indeed the end of an era--the last vestige of the elite residential neighborhood in this section of Fifth Avenue.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The 1855 Price House -- No. 17 West 9th Street

By 1854 the Fifth Avenue blocks just above Washington Square were home to New York’s wealthiest citizens.  As more mansions were built along the genteel thoroughfare, the streets immediately off the avenue took on its chic character.  West 9th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues saw the rise of imposing residences where a generation earlier only modest Federal homes had sat.

In 1854 wealthy warehouse operator Thompson Price laid plans for his new home at No. 17 West 9th Street.  Completed a year later it was a prim Italianate residence of red brick.  A steep brownstone stoop led from the sidewalk to the parlor floor and an eye-catching three-sided bay rose from the basement level through the second floor. 

Price spared no expense in the details, as evident in the richly-ornamented window crowns and the elaborate cornice.

By 1874 George Adrian Iselin was living here.  A graduate of Cornell University's class of 1872, Iselin never married.   At a time when most millionaires at least pretended to work—choosing finance, law or real estate as a respectable profession—young Iselin preferred the life of a club man.  The New York Times would diplomatically say he led “a retired student’s life.”

Among George’s friends was William W. Sabin.  Like his father, the well-known book seller and bibliophile J. Sabin, William ran a bookstore at No. 64 Nassau Street.  Unlike his father, he dabbled in risque French publications.  In March 18, 1880 he found himself in hot water when undercover detectives Anthony Comstock and Joseph A. Britton walked into his store.

Sabin sold the pair “an improper book and picture” and Comstock returned with a search warrant.  The New York Times reported that “390 pictures and 25 books were seized,” although Sabin denied his guilt.

The bookseller was arrested as Anthony Comstock told the press that “the collection surpassed in absolute filth that of any previous lot he had ever seized.”  The judge, Justice Duffy, “gave very emphatic utterance to his disapproval of the dissemination of such matter,” reported The Times.

George Iselin came to his friend’s assistance and provided bail.  His action was a daring proof of friendship when Victorian judgment would most certainly have quickly connected him with the pornographer.
The stunning cast iron fence of stylized lyres survives.
Iselin’s residency in the house was followed by the esteemed attorney Julien Tappan Davis and his family.  Davies’ wife was the former Alice Martin.  He was “for many years one of the leaders of the New York Bar,” according to The Times.  The Davies children grew to adulthood in the house—Julien Townsend Davies, Frederic Martin Davies and sisters Ethel and Cornelia Sherman Davies. 

On November 27, 1894 young Julien was married to Marie Rose de Garmendia.  The wedding was a somewhat somber affair, however.  The bride’s father, Carlos G. de Garmendia, was in failing health.  Called by The New York Times “one of the most prominent Spaniards in the city, both in social and business life,” he was so ill that the wedding took place at his bedside.  He died six days later.

The newlyweds stayed on in the family home on West 9th Street. 

In the meantime Julien’s parents continued to give noteworthy entertainments here and at the family’s Newport cottage, Pine Croft, on Pugatory road. 

1900 was the year of the coming out of Julien’s younger twin sisters.  On February 15 their mother gave a dinner deemed by The Times to be “notable” and five days later hosted “a large reception and musicale at her residence…Miss Putnam, the harpist, will play,” announced the newspaper.

Then something went awry.  In November the society pages reported that only Ethel would be coming out.  “Despite numerous reports to the contrary, Miss Cornelia Sherman Davies…is not to have a coming-out tea given for her, and she will probably not be ‘out’ at all this Winter—certainly not until after the holidays,” said The New York Times.

The debut of only one of the twins was socially awkward and unexplained.  The following April their brother Frederic married “Miss O’Neill of Pittsburgh” and little more was mentioned of Cornelia’s aborted debut.

Cornelia’s first social appearance was in her sister’s wedding at Newport on August 9, 1902.  Ethel’s marriage to Archibald Gourlay Thacher of Boston was called by The Times “the most notable event of the Newport season, and the largest of several weddings that have occurred.”

The church was packed with “people prominent in the social world,” including names like Oelrichs, Vanderbilt, Berwind, Grosvenor, Gould and Carnegie.  Ethel’s bridesmaids reflected the family’s social status—included in the bridal party were the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mr. and Mrs. John Sloane and Mr. and Mrs. George J. Gould.

While his children had been demanding the bulk of the social spotlight, Julien Tappan Davies hosted a dinner in the 9th Street house on April 3, 1903 that would steal attention back.   Davies had been for several years the counsel for the Manhattan Elevated Railroad.  In celebration of the transfer of the railroad to the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the attorney invited the executives of the companies—including August Belmont and George J. Gould--to dinner. 

“Around the dinner table was built a miniature elevated railway of steel, and as the diners exchanged congratulations over the event they were gathered to celebrate, a small train of cars ran around the track.  Inside the loop of track heaps of flowers decorated the table, and each guest had a big bouquet directly in front of him,” reported The Times.

With the death of Alice, the Davies family's life in the house came to an end.  In October 1906 the estate sold the house.  Clendenin J. Ryan owned the house in 1909 when he leased it “for a term of years.”   It would appear that around this time the house had become a rooming house.  Santo Cerilli was living here when he became the victim of a burglary on May 3, 1911.  William Kupferschmidt, who lived nearby at No. 61 West 11th Street, made off with $1,000 worth of jewelry from Cerilli’s rooms.

Christian M. W. Valentine, a clerk on the night shift in the registry department of the Main Post Office, was here with his wife and one-year old child in 1914.   The German-born Mrs. Valentine and the baby left to visit her parents Germany that year.  Her timing could not have been worse.  In June the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and Europe was thrown into conflict.

Mother and baby were trapped, unable to return home.  With the war raging, they only narrowly escape the bombing of Karlsruhe on June 19, 1915.  Mrs. Valentine wrote to her husband telling him she intended to stay with her parents “indefinitely.”  Not needing the more expensive rooms, Christian moved out shortly afterward to a single room on West 18th Street.

Living in the house on 9th Street at the same time were Mr. and Mrs. Edward Butts.  Their daughter, Edith, was “well known as an interpreter of classic dancing,” according to The Times and in the spring of 1915 completed a tour with the famous actress Maude Adams.

Greenwich Village had become well-established in the first decade of the century as the haunt of artists, writers and musicians.  The Sun reported on the sale of the house on January 3, 1917.  “Next May the house will be altered into studios of two, four and five rooms,” it said.  The New York Times chimed in adding “the buyers represent a corporation which intends to operate largely in that section in remodeling buildings into the studio apartment type.”

Within the year the rooming house had been converted to art studio-apartments and, sadly, the elegant stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the basement level.

In 1922 Harold H. Armstrong lived here, whom The Evening World called “the brilliant young author.”  While here he wrote “For Richer, For Poorer” and “Zell.”    Despite living in a former mansion, the opinionated writer held the wealthy in low esteem.

“Rich people,” he told The Evening World, “unless they have made their money themselves, are not likely to be as well endowed with character as poor people.  It isn’t altogether the fault of the second and third generation rich, although it is certainly their misfortune.  From childhood they have been kept in cotton wool.  They haven’t had any chance to develop the qualities which would enable them either to make a living successfully, or to make marriage a success.”

Award-winning sculptor William Zorach was living here in April 1937 when his “Fountain of Horses,” designed as a possible project for the World’s Fair, was given first honorable mention by the Architectural League of New York.  The Russian-born artist also maintained a summer home in Robinwood, Maine. 

It was at his Maine cottage that Zorach found a red cat that became his pet.  Tooky, according to The New York Times “had no more distinguished career than many other Maine pet.  But it had the good fortune to be born with a good figure and to develop winning ways.  It also happened to be adopted as a kitten in the household of a sculptor who enjoys making studies of animals.”

When Tooky died, the sculptor decided to memorialize him in red granite.  Zorach titled the completed 20-inch statue “Granite Cat” and exhibited it at the Second National Exhibition of American Art in 1937.  The statue caught the eye of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which purchased the work on the spot.

In 1948 the house was renovated once again; this time to accommodate a doctor’s office and apartment in the basement level and a total of six apartments above.  Despite the disappointing loss of its stoop, No. 17 West 9th Street retains most of its original exterior elements.   As it did in 1855, it refuses to simply blend in to the streetscape—instead standing out as “among the best of its type,” in the words of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

photographs taken by the author

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fouchaux's 1900 No. 39 East 19th Street

The brownstone-wide structure overshadows its next-door neighbors -- photo by Alice Lum
As the 20th century approached the glory days of Union Square as a fashionable residential neighborhood were gone.    Mansions circling the park were demolished to build tall commercial buildings and along the side streets residences were razed or converted for business purposes.
Already, in the 1880s, Dr. Lewis T. Warner had joined the trend when he converted his residence at No. 39 East 19th Street to a store and apartment building.  Following his death in 1898, the house—sitting squarely in one of the most exciting real estate districts for speculators and developers—was offered for sale.

In October 1898 “the old four-story house 39 East Nineteenth Street” was purchased by Jacob D. Butler, then quickly resold to John F. Scannell.   The brownstone home which had shared the block with the likes of Horace Greeley at No. 35 had come to the end of its road.  A week after the purchase, on November 5, the New York Daily Tribune reported that Scannell “will erect an eight-story fireproof building,” on the site.   The New York Times noted that the sale exhibited “a favorite field for improvement buying in the section just north of Union Square, between Broadway and Fourth Avenues.”

The district had good cause to be a “favorite field for improvement.”  Even before the old brownstone at No. 39 East 19th Street was demolished Scannell had “already leased the basement, ground and first floors to a restaurant for twenty years,” according to the New York Daily Tribune.  He commissioned architect Henri Fouchaux to design the new structure.

Unlike many Europe-trained New York City architects, Fouchaux had attended night classes at Cooper Union.  His diploma, signed by Peter Cooper, was one of his most cherished possessions.  The architect was busy at the time designing scores of houses in the burgeoning Hamilton Heights neighborhood far uptown, but added the 19th Street project to his workload.

Fouchaux’s limestone-clad neo-Renaissance loft and retail building edged up to the property line—a potential problem with city officials.  Every possible inch of rentable space was optimized, so when decorative elements were added they overstepped the boundaries.

On January 24, 1899 The Committee on Streets and Highways considered Scannell’s proposal to erect “two stone pilasters projecting three inches beyond the building-line” and “on the third story of the front thereof to erect, place and keep four stone columns, eleven inches in diameter, and six pilasters, eleven inches in diameter, all resting on a stone corbel and capped with a stone cornice, and not to project more than eleven inches beyond the building-line.”

Scannell’s request stressed that the columns and pilasters were “for ornament only, and in no way to increase the floor space of the building.”  Thankfully, for our later visual enjoyment, the offending projections were approved.
The first two floors were designed for Childs Restaurant, whose name was originally displayed between the intricate cast iron knots between floors -- photo by Alice Lum

Completed in 1900, Fouchaux’s building blended function with handsome design.  The two-story restaurant space was framed in cast iron, affording spacious window openings.  Two highly unusual cast iron brackets supported the second story lintel.  Above the entrance a cast panel originally advertised the Childs Restaurant, flanked by creative cast iron rope work that included intricate decorative knots.  The limestone façade included elaborately carved cartouches and an arched pediment (supported by the four projecting columns the Street Commission mulled over) that gave a pseudo-Palladian feel to the second story windows.

The slightly-projecting courses that provided rustication of sorts to the third through seventh floors performed cartwheels over the fourth openings, transforming into radiating voussoirs.

photo by Alice Lum
The new building filled with a variety of tenants:  P. F. Collier & Sons, publishers; cloakmaker Harris Blumenfield; Jalliet, “ladies tailoring; and E. de Grandemont, sellers of corset materials among them.   In June 1900 Luyties Homeopathic Pharmacy Company, headquartered in St. Louis, announced it had opened a “branch house” in New York here.   The company was experiencing heightened prosperity partly because of a mail-order tonic.

“The one thing that bids strongest to be a big factor in the earning of good dividends is our wonderful tonic-reconstructive, Manola,” a letter to stockholders reported.  “The sales of this excellent preparation have been something wonderful, considering the short time it has been on the market.  This splendid showing is due to its true value as a tonic reconstructive.”

Not all the customers of Manola used it as a reconstructive tonic.  When Daniel Coit Campbell, a farmer of Chesterfield, South Carolina was involved in a runaway wagon accident it triggered a court case and investigation.   Dr. Newsom testified on May 22, 1916 that, despite South Carolina's being a “dry territory,” “on the day of the runaway [Campbell] was mighty near drunk and had been drunk about all day.”
If the cod liver oil and Mani Nut extract did not make the user feel better, the 18% alcohol content almost surely would -- Homeopathic News, June 1900 (copyright expired)
Druggist W. G. White testified that Manola “contains 18 percent alcohol” and that Campbell had purchased a quantity of it that morning.  “When Campbell bought the Manola the witness had an idea what he wanted to do with it,” said court documents.

On March 15, 1906 Harry Blemenfield’s cloak and suit factory on the seventh floor caught fire around 4:45 a.m.  Fire engines rushed to the scene where, according to The Evening World, “fire was raging.”

The house of Dr. Warner, which No. 39 replaced, would have been similar to the brownstone that survives next door --photo by Alice Lum

The blaze caused consternation to the guests of the two nearby hotels.  “Next to this building is a Japanese boarding house and also the Continental Hotel.  The engines frightened the Japanese from their beds and they fled to the streets in Oriental costumes.  The guests of the Continental Hotel were also aroused.” 

Damage to the building was assessed at approximately $1,500.

By 1919 the Childs Restaurant’s lease ran out and Wilbur Veitch rented the store and basement level.  The Volunteers of America had been in the building for several years now, providing bread and coffee to impoverished New Yorkers.  The lines of desperate men, women and children gave rise to the well-known term “bread line.”

On February 24 1915 the Connecticut newspaper The Day reported “The bread line wends it way slowly into the zone of bread and coffee every evening from 5 to 7 o’clock.  Six hundred men and 40 women are fed each night.  Occasionally small children are brought with their parents.”

Especially heart-breaking was the 70-year old woman who had stood in line the night before.  “She said she had had nothing to eat for four days,” said The Day.  Rev. Alton M. Young, who ran the facility, gave her three cups of coffee, “all the bread she could eat and two loaves to take home.”

Sadly, the minister said the old woman’s plight was not unusual.  “Why, one day this week a refined, well dressed young woman came in here.  She said that she had come to this city from Philadelphia with $50, but her money was spent before she could find any work.  She was a milliner.  For nearly a week she had been walking around the city in search of employment.  We found a room for her and soon arranged to get her work.”

Various small manufacturers, like the Atlas Yarn Manufacturing Company which was here in the 1930s, came and went.   The building changed hands infrequently; once in 1920 when the Goroka Realty Company purchased it, and again in 1945 when William B. Cravis, manufacturer of washing machines, bought it.

Just as the Union Square neighborhood had changed a century earlier, it changed again by the end of the 20th century.   By the 1990s old loft and office buildings were being recycled as trendy restaurants and shops.   Young couples dined in the grand spaces of former banks and emporiums while factory space was renovated to luxurious apartments.

In 1990 No. 39 East 19th Street was converted to one spacious apartment per floor above street level.  Café Beulah opened in the former Childs Restaurant space.   Opened by former baritone opera singer Alexander Smalls, the restaurant quickly caught on.   Smalls called the food “Southern revival cuisine based on traditional low-country cooking” and Monte Williams of The New York Times said “The food is so highfalutin that the term ‘soul food’ isn’t even used.”

Café Beulah remained for nearly a decade, replaced in November 1999 by Caffe Adulis, a branch of the popular Eritean restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut.  The restaurant was redecorated and renamed Lumu three years later; to be replaced in 2004 by ORA, a Mediterranean-American restaurant.

Through it all most of Henri Fouchaux’s handsome neo-Renaissance design survives.   The cast iron ground floor entrance area has been replaced, but happily those carved pilasters that project three inches over the property line are intact.