Saturday, August 31, 2013

Remarkable History in an Unremarkable Building -- No. 105 2nd Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
At the turn of the last century police were carefully watching the five-story building at No. 105 Second Avenue.  John Mikolaus had operated his restaurant, The Crystal Palace Café, from the ground floor since around 1895, renting the modest apartments upstairs.  But rumors of an illegal “gambling house” in the building keep detectives on alert. 

Traveling salesman Abraham Ginsberg gave credence to the allegations when he lodged a complaint in April 1903.  “He said he had made an engagement to meet a man in the café Thursay, and that while there he was induced to play stuss, a German card game.  His money, he said, was soon gone, and then he discovered that the cards had been marked.”

Despite the questionable goings-on, Mikolaus was a fair employer and when waiters across the city went on strike in 1915, his staff stood by him.  On December 14 a mob of several hundred strikers gathered outside the restaurant.  They pushed their way into the establishment, telling diners not to eat there and intimidating the waiters to join them.  Neither happened.

Angry, the rabble broke mirrors, overturned tables and hurled bricks through the windows.  The New York Times reported “Mikolaus was dragged onto the sidewalk, where the crowd fell upon and beat him.  In the scuffle his diamond pin worth $275 was removed from his tie and $40 was taken from a pocket.  In another pocket $900 escaped unnoticed.”

Apparently convinced that the best way to achieve fair working conditions was through violence and theft, the mob turned on John Mikolaus, Jr., a muscular, athletic young man whom The Times called “more than a match for all who could reach him.”

The younger Mikolaus “knocked down man after man until someone struck him on the head with a blackjack.  Although the wound required five stitches later to sew it up, it did not stop Mikolaus and he was still fighting when Policeman Doyle of the Fifth Street Station ran up, saw the mob now numbering nearly 1,000, and sent in a call for the reserves.”

The mob “slunk away” with the arrival of police back-up; but eight were arrested on charges of grand larceny.  There were, strangely enough, no arrests for assault or destruction of property.

The restaurant sat squarely in what was by now the epicenter of Jewish life.  New York City had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world.  Second Avenue around Mikolaus’ building became known as The Jewish Rialto--named for the string of Yiddish-language theaters that opened between Houston Street and 14th Streets.  By the early 1920s an entire star system had developed among the Yiddish actors.

After three decades of doing business here, John Mikolaus sold his building in October 1924.  The New York Times reported that the buyer would “improve the property.”   “Improving property” in the early decades of the last century translated into demolishing and replacing whatever stood on the site.  And, indeed, the M. & S. Circuit Company did just that.

The new owners commissioned architect Harrison G. Wiseman to design a five-story vaudeville theater-and-office building.  Completed within the year, it was a rather bland red brick structure trimmed in stone with tepid Moorish influence.  Any focus to ornamentation was reserved for the interiors.  Here Art Deco joined with classic, dramatic theater architecture—vaulted arches, gilded and polychrome pilasters and medallions, and chandeliers.

The 2,830-seat Commodore Theatre did not last long as a Yiddish playhouse, though.  Quickly it was taken over by the Loews motion picture chain.  Loews gently moved from live acts to movies, offering both during the first years of operation.  In a brilliant marketing move, the chain hired professional baseball players on the off-season of 1928 to lure customers.  The Times reported on October 5 “Andrew (Andy) Cohen and J. Francis (Shanty) Hogan, who during the baseball season are members of the New York Giants, have been engaged by the Loew Circuit, it is announced.  They will make their first appearances on Oct. 15 at Loew’s Commodore Theatre, Second Avenue and Sixth Street.”

Wiseman used Flemish-bond brick with charred ends and limited white limestone trim to distinguish the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
One year later the Great Depression hit and began a dismal period of unemployment.  Among the hardest hit were the already impoverished residents of the Lower East Side.  On November 26, 1931 the Commodore was the scene of a moving rally.

“More than 4,000 east side children attended a meeting and movie show at the Commodore Theatre,” said The Times.  The event signaled the end of a children-run campaign for unemployment relief.  “The pennies of all these children and many thousands more, pupils of Jewish schools and Jewish parochial schools, have gone to swell the unemployment relief fund, it was reported at the meeting.  In addition, the children visited 12,000 stores and 6,000 homes for contributions, as part of the block-to-block canvass being conducted by the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee.”

In 1936 the double-feature included Mae Clarke in "Hearts in Bondage" and Robert Young in "The Longest Night." photo NYPL Collection

In 1956 New York City police were confounded by a “Mad Bomber,” who kept the bomb squad rushing from one crowded building to another.  The bomber called in the locations of his devices—most just harmless facsimiles; others far too real.  A live pipe bomb was found in a telephone booth in the main New York Public Library and another in the Paramount Theatre on Broadway and 43rd Street.  They were detonated by the squad.

As reports were published in newspapers, hoaxers got in to the act.  The number of calls became so great that, in frustration, Chief of Detectives James B. Leggett ordered the bomb squad to cease responding to alarms unless a device was actually discovered.  It was, as described by The Times, “a field day for cranks, holiday-season pranksters, lunatic fringers and youths with a perverted sense of humor.”

On December 18, 1956 alone, telephoned threats were directed at “a church, a hospital, the new Coliseum, the new forty-five story Socony-Mobil Building, Grand Central Terminal, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Carnegie Hall Studios, a department store in Brooklyn, hotels, subway stations, and trains, bank buildings, newspaper offices, neighborhood movie theatres, and just plain buildings.”  The Commodore was not immune.  “Another dud that sent the police racing to the scene was found at the Commodore Theatre on Second Avenue near Sixth Street,” said The Times.

In October 1963 the Commodore became the Village Theatre when a syndicate run by Joseph R. Burstin, Milt Warner and Bernard Waltzer purchased the building.  The new owners told reporters it would be renovated into an off-Broadway live theater, stressing it “would not be burlesque,” according to The Times.  The renovated space opened in November 1964 and, despite the promise, offered burlesque. 

The venture failed.  On December 24 the following year The Times noted that the theater was “recently the scene of two ill-fated attempts to revive burlesque.”  Roger Euster purchased the Village Theater, hoping to develop it into “a prime showcase for Broadway productions.”

Theater would give way to concerts when in 1967 WOR-FM radio station staged a live music event here to celebrate its first anniversary.   The audience heard performances by Janis Ian, The Doors, Richie Havens, The Blue Project and other popular groups.  It was the beginning of a new period for the venue and musical history in America.

Bill Graham Presents purchased the building shortly afterwards.  On March 8, 1968 it reopened as the Fillmore East, the New York bookend to Graham’s San Francisco Fillmore West.  It quickly became the mecca of East Coast popular music lovers, staging several concerts a week.  The first year alone Big Brother & the Holding Company, The Doors; Richie Havens, The Who, Mothers of Invention, the James Cotton Band, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, the Byrds, Ravi Shankar, Moby Grape. The Grateful Dead, Steppenwolf, Joan Baez, Blood Sweat and Tears, the Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Moody Blues, and Fleetwood Mac played here.

Then, citing “changes in music” and saying “this is an industry we can no longer work in with integrity,” Graham closed down the Fillmore East on June 27, 1971.  The iconic venue which George Gent of The New York Times called “the best showplace for rock music in New York” sat dark for over three years; until Barry Stuart reopened it as the NFE Theatre with a concert by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.  The acronym stood for New Fillmore East and, reportedly, Bill Graham objected to the name, resulting in its being changed to Village East.

Stuart’s concert venue would survive for only four years.  After its 1975 closing, the building again sat dark until 1980 when entrepreneur Bruce Mailman and his partner, architectural designer Charles Terrell converted it to the country’s ultimate gay club—The Saint.  The $4.5 million renovation set the standard for disco-period nightclubs nationwide.  Thousands crowded onto a 5,000 square-foot circular dance floor below a domed planetarium ceiling.  The rotating, dual Spitz Space System hemisphere star projector was ten times more powerful than those used in planetariums.  Celebrity performers like Helen Reddy, Chita Rivera, the Weather Girls, Maureen McGovern and Melba Moore entertained the audiences.

But the lavish club that kept ahead of competition by annually remodeling itself had opened at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.  By the end of its second year, New York’s gay population was being decimated.  In 1987 the Saint, as iconic in its own sense as the Fillmore East, closed its doors for good.  A former patron said “The Saint was killed by AIDS.  Its clients were literally dying.”

photo by Alice Lum
Today the ground floor space is a disappointing denouement to a remarkable story.  Where Yiddish theater was followed by motion pictures, where burlesque was followed by Off-Broadway plays, where Janis Joplin entertained thousands before gay men danced below a gigantic planetarium is now a bland bank office.  The generations who remember No. 105 Second Avenue as the Village Theatre, the Fillmore East, or the Saint are fading and the history that played out inside the unremarkable building is mostly forgotten.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The 1887 Catholic Apostolic Church -- No. 417 W 57th St.

photo by Alice Lum

In the late 1820s the Reverend Edward Irving was pastor of the Scottish Church on Regent Square in London.  But Edward Irving had an epiphany and broke away from the church, founding the Catholic Apostolic Church.  Irving was “deposed” from the church and “the members are sometimes called Irvingites on this account,” explained The New York Times more than half a century later.

In 1887, Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine would call it “one of the oddest denominations in the world.”  The strongest belief of the new sect was that the Second Coming was right around the corner—precisely it would come about in 1835.

Twelve “apostles” were chosen and only they had the power to ordain priests and bishops, called “angels”.  When 1835 came and went without the Second Coming, the church simply revised its calculations and moved on; eventually branching out to New York City in 1848.

The small brick church in Greenwich Village that the new congregation took over was sufficient until 1885 when the growing membership necessitated a larger structure.   In 1885 the Catholic Apostolic Church sold its West 16th Street building to the Eglise Evangelique Francaise and laid plans for a new building further uptown.

On July 1 of that year The Sun reported on the planned structure.  “The Catholic Apostolic Church, which for thirty years has worshipped in a little building in Sixteenth street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, is building a new church on Fifty-seventh street, near Ninth avenue.  It will cost about $50,000.  The corner stone was laid yesterday.”
photo by Alice Lum

The newspaper made note that the sect was still not wide-spread.  “This is the only Catholic Apostolic church in the city.  There is one in Boston, and there are three in Connecticut and seven in London.”

Although the cornerstone was laid there was the matter of paying for the structure.   The $50,000 which The Sun predicted the church would cost equates to around $1 million today.  On November 12, 1886 The New York Times reported that “The Church Building Trust Association has been incorporated ‘to establish a place in this city for the purpose of enabling the ministers and baptized people acknowledging the ecclesiastical authority of the College of Apostles, heretofore having its headquarters at Albury, England, to conduct Christian worship according to the doctrine of the Catholic Apostolic church.”

Francis Hatch Kimball was given the commission to design a new church building at No. 417 West 57th Street.  Actual construction began in 1886 and was completed a year later.   The architect created a singular design that refused to be categorized in any pre-existing architectural category.  Kimball mixed materials—orange brick, terra cotta, brownstone, and tile—and styles—Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival with a splash of Queen Anne.  The result was a hefty presence of arches and spires, textures and angles.  The Sun said there was “a touch of Byzantine style in its façade.”  Like its congregation, the church building was quite unlike any other in the city.
photo by Alice Lum

The Sun said “The interior has much in common with the early Christian basilicas.  Its seating capacity does not exceed four hundred…The low pulpit stands in the nave, while the chancel has many prie dieux.  The seats are high-backed.”

The congregation was worshiping in its new home by the beginning of the year.  The priests delivered morning and evening sermons every Sunday.  The topics are somewhat surprising to modern minds, like one on February 27, 1887—“Will Jesus Christ every really be King in the United States?”
Brick, brownstone and terra cotta work together in the eccentric design -- photo by Alice Lum

Two weeks earlier, Rev. Davenport had predicted the end of the world in his sermon “The Terrible Calamities which Threaten Europe and America.”  Using the fourth chapter of Matthew in which Christ lays out the steps to the world’s end, Davenport pointed out that they had all come to pass.

The Times recapped:  “The first age, that of persecution, when martyrs bore terrible witness to the faith that was in them; the second that of internal dissension, when the chiefs of the church were set against each other; the third when false prophets arose and preached liberty and equality and all manner of impossible things, and the fourth that of lawlessness, when in consequence of false teachers men had lost the fear of God—all these were exact verifications of the evil signs foretold by the great prophet, Christ.”

The evening services were deemed “special services for strangers,” and were perhaps a means of recruiting new members.  The subject of the special service on March 13, 1887 was “The End of the Age.”

As in 1835, neither the end of the world nor the Second Coming came to pass.

The Sun later noted that “That church is always open and rarely empty.  Men and women enter at all hours of the day, fall on their knees in one of the pews, remain immovable for a few minutes and depart quietly.  To the outsider it seems as if some kind of service was going on all the time.”

On December 4, 1893 The New York Times attempted to explain the functioning of the Catholic Apostolic Church. Of the twelve apostles Francis V. Woodhouse only was still living.  “Woodhouse is over eighty,” said the newspaper.  “The New-York church has at its head the Angel, and under him a long list of elders, priests, deacons, sub-deacons, a deaconesses.  The latter officiate in acts of charity and render assistance particularly to the women of the parish.”

The article described the service.  “It is impressive, not so ceremonious as in some of the ritualistic Episcopal churches, but requiring more assistants.  The vestments are very rich.  At one side of the chancel is the throne, which is the seat of the angel.  Angel is the old word, as used in the book of Revelation for the Bishop of a church, and throughout the Bible in the correct sense, of messenger, spiritual or otherwise.

“The Catholic Apostolic Church has also an order of Archangels, whose office is above that of the Angels.  They govern single churches.   Angel evangelists are visiting Angels…An ordination to the priesthood does not confer the title of Reverend upon the candidate unless it had previously belonged to him.  Thus, the angel of the New-York Church is Stephen Rintoul, while an assistant is the Rev. C. A. G. Bridgham.”

The newspaper brought up a question rarely spoken among congregants.  “What is to be done when this remaining head of the Church shall die has not been revealed, but there is no lack of faith that either the last days will come or new Apostles be appointed.”

The church in 1929 -- photo NYPL Collection
Six years later, with the last apostle Frances Vilton Woodhouse now 95 years old, six evangelists headed to New York City in anticipation of the Second Coming.   On November 19, 1899 The Sun wrote “It is difficult to connect this quiet, incense-filled church with the gigantic posters that appeared suddenly on all the signboards of this city about five weeks ago forcing upon the curious and the indifference alike an announcement of ‘the near coming of the Lord’ and noticed of a series of evangelistic meetings to be held every Sunday evening at six different places simultaneously.”

The newspaper said “The present activity, which has resulted in the dispatching of six evangelists to this country, seems to have been caused by the expectation that Christ’s promise to his first apostles must be fulfilled before the last member of the second apostleship passes away.”

The church was correct in anticipating Woodhouse’s passing—he died within the year—however once again neither the end of the world nor the Second Coming came to pass.   There was no longer anyone with the power to ordain priests or perform the duties of the head of the church.  Woodhouse’s death ushered in “the time of silence” during which congregants would wait for divine direction.
photo by Alice Lum

In 1942 attention was focused on a more earthly issue.  In the sweltering summer heat, city residents often sought relief by sleeping on fire escapes and rooftops.  On July 18 two girls—Ann Smith and Myrtle Rosengrants, aged 11 and 16 years old—went to the roof of their apartment building next door at No. 415 West 57th Street.  “Frightened by the appearance on the roof of a strange man, the girls…backed up to the edge of the building, stumbled over the one-foot safety wall and fell twenty-five feet from the roof of their home…to the church roof,” reported The Times.

The two terrified girls clung to the tiled roof of the Catholic Apostolic Church while neighbors called police.   Emergency squad detectives Thomas Childs and Joseph Demas donned safety belts on the apartment building roof.  “Demas lowered himself by Childs’s arms and dropped to the church roof.  The younger girl, Ann, fainted as he reached her,” said the newspaper.

After the girls were hoisted to the roof of their building, they were taken to Roosevelt Hospital.  They both had broken left arms.

The time of silence lasted throughout the 20th century.  By 1995 the decimated congregation realized it could no longer sustain the venerable edifice.  Fearful that the church building would be converted to a club or retail space, it offered it to the Lutheran Life’s Journey Ministries.

The Lutheran Church initiated a restoration of the 110-year old church, cleaning the façade and replacing any missing terra cotta elements.  Architect Andrew Levenbaum spearheaded the renovation of the interior space.    A bizarre discovery was made in the basement when the original terra cotta cross from the roof was found buried below three feet of soil.
photo by Alice Lum

Restored, Kimball’s wonderful building was rededicated in 1997 as the Church for All Nations—a surprising gem on an otherwise mundane block.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Henry Street Settlement House -- No. 265 Henry Street

Above the exquisite doorway and molded metal lintel was applied to the original stone one -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1827 Henry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was undergoing rapid development.  Brick-clad Federal-style homes were erected for the city’s well-to-do merchant class.   No. 265 was completed that year, one of a row of elegant residences boasting costly touches.  At No. 265 these included Flemish-bond brickwork above a brownstone basement, an elaborate door frame with fluted Ionic colunnettes and intricate iron cage newels.

In the years just prior to the Civil War Alderman Thomas W. Adams lived in the house.   He was seriously ill at the start of his last term, which ended with his retirement on December 31, 1859.  At 2:00 on the afternoon of January 3, 1860 a group of citizens assembled at the Henry Street house.  The New York Times reported that “Mr. Wm. L. Ely, on their behalf, presented to Mr. Adams an elegant gold watch, with hunting-case, gold chains, pencil-case and key, all costing $363.”  The gifts represented a substantial testimonial worth about $7,000 today.

Ely told Adams that the assembled citizens “desire me to say, and I cheerfully and heartily indorse the sentiment, that they have tried you, both as a friend and a Democrat, and never found you wanting.  Your course has been consistent with right and with the principles of Democracy, and as such is approved.  This testimonial is presented by friends who claim a place in your memory.”

An emotional Thomas Adams told the crowd “I never have allowed myself to stoop to anything low or contemptible in the eyes of the public to subserve party ends, and as I am under many obligations to you, gentlemen, for attending to my interests at the last election, when I lay sick and disabled, and not able to attend to my own, receive my kind respects and my wishes through life for your future prosperity and happiness.  I accept this token of respect to me as a private citizen, which I am now, and wish you all a happy new year.”

Following his acceptance speech, Adams invited the group into another room “where refreshments were bounteously provided.”

Charles W. Moores was next to move into No. 265 Henry Street.    When Union soldier Charles T. Jenkins of Company D of the 40th Regiment Ohio Volunteers died in New York on Thursday, April 3, 1863, the Moores family offered the house for his funeral.    Only four months later, on August 27, Charles’ son William was drafted into the conflict.

William Moores would survive the Civil War and rise to the position of Dean of the Board of Directors of the Empire City Savings Bank.  When the Seventh Regiment staged a gala reception two decades later, on February 22, 1881, The Times noted that “The gentlemen wore the regulation evening dress, and the members of the regiment were only distinguishable from the civilians by their handsome regimental pins which they displayed upon the lapels of their vests.  Among those present were…A. H. T. Timpson and William Moores, two of the oldest members of the regiment, with their wives.”

By 1893 the Henry Street neighborhood was no longer the stylish enclave it had been during the Civil War.  Wealthy residents had moved away and tenement houses crowded with impoverished immigrants had replaced many of the homes.   That year Lillian Wald, a young graduate nurse from the New York Training School for Nurses, began teaching a class in home nursing and hygiene to immigrant women in the neighborhood.

One morning a little girl appeared, saying her mother could not attend the class because she was ill.  Wald followed the girl to her squalid tenement room.   She later wrote she traveled “over broken roadways…between tall, reeking houses…across a court where open and unscreened closets were promiscuously used by men and women, up into a rear tenement, by slimy steps…and finally into the sickroom.”  She said “that morning’s experience was a baptism of fire.  Deserted were the laboratory and academic work of college.  I never returned to them.”

With her friend, Mary Brewster, Lillian Wald established the Visiting Nurses Service using donated funds.  By January 1894 the pair had visited more than 125 families.    In the spring of 1895 German-Jewish banker Jacob Schiff purchased the house at No. 265 Henry Street to be used by fledgling organization.

The house was enlarged with a full third floor, its windows being carefully matched and a modest but architecturally-appropriate cornice installed.    Soon there were eleven residents in the house, including nurse Lavinia Dock, an ardent suffragist, feminist and union organizer.  A diverse group, the women lived and worked together, arising for the 7:30 breakfast followed by a meeting to discuss the day’s schedule and to address any problems or difficult situations.  The nurses went into the field, returning for lunch most often, and teaching in the afternoons. 

A cooking class, the Good Times Club, cost five cents per week and was a favorite in the neighborhood.  Immigrants could learn English here and study rooms were provided.  The residents of the area showed their gratitude however they could.

Tenement children play behind the Henry Street house at the turn of the century -- photograph by Jacob A. Riis, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York--
On June 8, 1902, the New-York Tribune reported “At the Nurses’ Settlement, No. 265 Henry-st., there is a small but good collection of brasses.  Miss Lillian D. Wald, the headworker, Miss Waters and others of the resident nurses are great admirers of foreign metals and…they often receive gifts from their Yiddish neighbors and patients.”  The article quoted Waters “We have two brass samovars—one very old and valuable.  We use one every day, while the other is kept in readiness for company or festive occasions.  The samovar is an ideal teapot, being clean, economical, convenient and decorative.”

The women of the Nurses’ Settlement were accustomed to speaking out against injustice and civil wrong.   When police allegedly over-reacted when the funeral of Rabbi Joseph erupted into a full-scale riot in the summer of 1902, one of the residents spoke out.  “Jane W. Hitchcock of 265 Henry Street, who is connected with the Mercy Settlement, declared that policemen had handled women with unnecessary force,” reported The Times on August 20.

Lillian Wald wrote of the myriad illnesses the nurses dealt with in the first years of the 20th century.

There were nursing infants, many of them with the summer bowel complaint that sent infant mortality soaring during the hot months; there were children with measles, not quarantined; there were children with opthalmia, a contagious eye disease; there were children scarred with vermin bites; there were adults with typhoid; there was a case of puerperal septicemia, lying on a vermin-infested bed without sheets or pillow cases; a family consisting of a pregnant mother, a crippled child and two others living on dry bread; a young girl dying of tuberculosis amid the very conditions that had produced the disease.

In 1903 Schiff donated the house to the Settlement.  Three years later the house next door, at No. 267, was donated by another German-Jewish philanthropist, Morris Loeb.  By now the settlement had expanded its services to offer a summer camp.  Camp Henry was located upstate near Peekskill and every summer around 45 boys, “all from the Ghetto,” as described by The Sun, enjoyed fresh air and escape from the city.

Tragedy struck Camp Henry in the summer of 1905 when the assistant director, 24-year old Arthur Sobel, drowned while swimming in the lake.   On July 24 The Sun reported “The boys of the camp and others dived into the lake hundreds of times to-day for the body, but were not successful.”

From its modest beginnings in the old house on Henry Street, Lillian Wald’s settlement had burgeoned by now.  A kindergarten had been established at No. 279 East Broadway (later moved to a house on Montgomery Street), additional residential space for two nurses was acquired on one floor at No. 52 Henry Street, dancing and gymnasium classes were conducted in the Children’s Aid Society building, and domestic science and home nursing classes were held at No. 226 Henry Street.  In 1905 the number of nurses had risen to twenty-four.

Operating the expanded Settlement was not inexpensive.  During the week of March 15 to 22, 1920 a fund drive sought to raise $1 million.   The Settlement, the largest visiting nurse service in the country, now had 185 nurses on staff.  In 1919 43,946 sick people received care.  An advertisement in The Survey noted that the nurses attended to 614 births in that year.  “In the entire city 4,418 little lives were watched over by the nurses during the first month of life with a loss of only 72 babies.”

When Lillian Wald retired in 1933 after four decades of service, her nursing staff had risen to 265.  They still climbed tenement stairs and rode subways to reach sick patients.  That year they would make 550,000 home visits.  Wald died in 1940 following a long illness and four years later the Settlement was reorganized.  The Visiting Nurses Service moved uptown while the Henry Street Settlement remained to focus on the needs of the immediate population.

A visiting nurse tends to an infant around 1940 -- photograph by Roy Perry, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York --
The Settlement’s administrative offices remain in the three old Federal-style homes at Nos. 263 through 267 Henry Street.  In 1966 the houses were designated New York City landmarks and in 1992 No. 265 was restored.  Amazingly, throughout its century of use by the Settlement, the exquisite doorway and the original ironwork of the stoop survive.   The handsome home endures not only as an rare architectural landmark, but as an important part in New York’s social history.
Close inspection of No. 265 at the center of the three Settlement houses reveals the line in the brickwork where the third floor was added -- photo by Alice Lum

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Henry Randel House -- No. 38 E.38th Street

photo by Alice Lum
As the Civil War drew to a close, the Murray Hill neighborhood attracted wealthy merchant class residents who moved into wide brownstone rowhouses.  The south side of East 38th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues was lined with four-story Italianate homes including No. 38, the home of Henry Randel and his wife, the former Caroline Malvina Perrine.

Earlier, in 1840, Randel had partnered with James Baremore to form the high-end jewelry company Randel & Baremore.  The pair opened their first store at No. 32 North Moore Street.  In 1851 they hired Chester Billings as a clerk.  Fifteen years later Billings became a partner and the firm was renamed Randel, Baremore &amp Billings; Co.

The firm would probably have been lost in the tangle of upscale jewelers at the time if it were not for a daring step Randel and Baremore took shortly after opening.  At a time when wealthy women were judged by their pearls, Randel and Baremore focused on diamonds.  Years later the New-York Tribune would remember “they determined to make diamonds their specialty, and in this they were pioneers, as no diamond specialists existed here at that time.”

It was a risky move.  Americans were largely disinterested in cut gemstones; however Randel,  Baremore & Billings now held a near-monopoly in the diamond trade in New York.  The partners amassed personal fortunes. 

James Baremore traveled to France in 1867.   New York was shocked to receive the news that the 48-year old died in Paris on Friday, September 27.   The body had to be transported home on a steamer, and almost a month later, on Friday October 18 at 2:00 in the afternoon, Baremore’s funeral was held in the parlor of the Randel home at 38 East 38th Street.

The home would be the scene of another unexpected funeral on Wednesday, January 28, 1874.  Caroline’s brother, Isaac C. Perrine, died near Omaha on January 23.  His body was brought back to New York for the 38th Street funeral.

Henry Randel and Chester Billings took another bold step in 1880.  The New-York Tribune said “they took up diamond cutting, and this they carried on in the American style…This method aims at producing effect rather than conserving the weight of the gems.”  Their pioneering method focused on brilliance rather than size.  Once again their daring paid off; prompting the Tribune to say their “enterprise was most successful.”

The successful firm owned its own building -- King's Views of New York (copyright expired)

By now the firm now had two branches overseas.  The Tribune noted that “But, besides diamonds, this house deals largely through its London and Amsterdam offices in rubies, sapphires, opals, emeralds and pearls and their designs for the settings and arrangements of these gems give them high rank as manufacturers of jewelry.”

The Randel family received a scare on March 30, 1885.  While traveling in Washington DC the 68-year old Henry Randel “was suddenly prostrated at dinner,” as reported in The Sun.  The resilient jeweler recovered however and it would be another twelve years before he finally retired.

On February 23, 1897 Henry Randel and Chester Billings issued a Notice of Dissolution.  The partnership was dissolved “by mutual consent” and continued business under the name of Chester Billings & Son.  Ironically, it was Billings who died later that same year.

The Randel’s daughter, Emelie, was no longer in the house by now.  Divorced, she married the staggeringly-wealthy director of the Standard Oil Company, Henry Huttleston Rogers, in 1896.  Her aging parents kept up their annual pilgrimages to various summer resorts, along with the rest of New York’s wealthy citizens.  For the summer season of 1900 they took “the Hathorn Cottage” in Saratoga and the following year leased the William Kent Cottage in Tuxedo, New York.

But Henry’s age was showing.  In 1900, on the advice of H. H. Rogers, he traveled to Georgia for medical attention.  It was an idea that annoyed Samuel Clemens.  On April 8 of that year the author wrote a fiery letter to Rogers from London which said in part:

"Now you get some Plasmon of Butters, and give it to Mrs. Rogers and her father, and you will find good results.  In any case it will do away with indigestions, and that is something. Why did you send Mr. Randel to Georgia?  There was no use in it.  You should have sent him to Dr. Helmer, corner of 36th and Madison avenue—osteopath.  Can’t I beat it into your head that physicians are only useful up to a certain point?  There their art fails, and then one osteopath is worth two of them.”

While the Randels were in Tuxedo Park the following year, Henry fell ill again.  The New York Times reported on July 28, 1901 that “Mr. Henry Randel, who occupies the William Kent cottage, lies seriously ill at Tuxedo, having suffered a stroke of apoplexy last week.  Fears are entertained for his recovery and the family have been sent for, and are now constantly with him.”

The Times was a bit tardy in its reporting.  Henry Randel had been dead for two days when the article came out.  The body of the 84-year old was brought back to the house on 38th Street, where his funeral was held on Monday, July 29 at 10:30 a.m.

Within the year Caroline Randel left the house she and her husband had shared for over half a century.  She moved to No. 667 Madison Avenue and the 38th Street house was offered for sale.  It was undoubtedly no coincidence that the buyer of the family home was Emelie Rogers’ step-son, H. H. Rogers, Jr.

photo by Alice Lum

Rogers lost no time in updating the architecturally out-of-fashion home.  Like other wealthy homeowners in the still-upscale neighborhood, he gave the old house a facelift.  Rogers commissioned architect Charles Brigham to design an entirely new façade.  What resulted was an imposing limestone mansion overflowing with classical details—scrolled broken pediments embracing carved urns over the parlor windows, two-story fluted pilasters at the upper floors, menacing carved lions heads in the brackets of the limestone balcony and elaborate oversized volutes that rolled away from the free-standing Corinthian entrance columns.

photo by Alice Lum

Unusual for the East Side of Manhattan, Brigham used a dog-leg stoop.  But unlike its West Side counterparts, he treated it imperiously.  Squared columns with Ionic pilasters supported four classical urns.  Ornate ironwork provided a screen and regal iron gates protected the service entrance.

The handsome treatment of the dog-leg stoop created an even more regal appearance -- photo by Alice Lum

As 38 East 38th Street was receiving its make-over, Hugo Baring was arriving in New York.  On May 18, 1902 The New York Times reported that “Hugo Baring, a brother of Lord Revelstoke and Cecil Baring, will take the latter’s place in the banking house in this city.  Cecil Baring returns to England.”

The 26-year old was already a member of the firm Baring & Co. at No. 15 Wall Street and before long would hold memberships in New York’s most exclusive clubs—The Union, Racquet and Riding, and Tuxedo Clubs among them.  He was quickly established as one of society’s most eligible bachelors.

That bachelorship ended in March 1905 when he married.  The renovated house on 38th Street was now worthy of titled British and the following year The Times noted that “Hugo Baring and his wife, Lady Evelyn Baring, are at 38 East Thirty-eighth Street for the Winter.”

Following the Barings, the family of Winthrop Burr took the house.  1907 was an important year for the Burrs as daughter Rosamond was being introduced to society.  On December 5 Mrs. Burr hosted an afternoon tea for Rosamond, followed by a dinner “of fourteen covers.”  Helping Rosamond and her mother receive were six other young socialites.

The following evening twenty-eight guests dined in the Burr mansion.  Afterward Mrs. Burr gave a dance in the Assembly Room of the Colony Club.  The impressive guest list included the top names in New York society:  Fish, Roosevelt, Harriman, Gould, Morgan, Sloane, Townsend among them.   Guests expected favors and Mrs. Burr’s seem somewhat surprising to modern minds.  “There were four sets of favors, including fancy lace bags and jardinières of ferns, assorted baskets trimmed with roses, toy monkeys holding ferns, carved Japanese daggers, hand mirrors tied with ribbons, velvet cat pin cushions and shaving pads,” noted The Times.

After the cotillion supper was served for the 210 guests.

In 1909 the Burrs moved to No. 20 West 58th Street for the winter season.  Before long the magnificent house would be leased as upscale furnished apartments.  In 1919 Walter Franklin took an apartment here and a year later newspapers reported that “William Alpheus Nettleton has taken an apartment for the Winter at 38 East Thirty-eighth Street.”

Through the 1920s well-to-do tenants included Mrs. F. Stanhope Philips, who also lived in Santa Barbara, California; Dr. John P. A. Lang, and Dr. Samuel Gottesman.  Dr. Gottesman was living here in 1925 when he married Lillie Simmonds and the couple was still here in 1929 when they announced the arrival of their baby daughter on January 28.

In 1936 the house was structurally converted to apartments—just two per floor with a doctor’s office in the basement level.   Among the tenants was Leonard M. Holland who had been wine steward at the Waldorf-Astoria for 12 years when he died in his sleep in his apartment in 1945.

In 2006 the house was renovated once again.  The doctor’s office remains in the basement level; but now the house is divided into a triplex stretching from the parlor through the third floor, and three apartments above.  Today the exterior of the imposing house is little changed from the 1902 renovation.
No. 38 sits among other turn-of-the-century updates.  Down the street an Italianate survivor from the 1860s is a reminder of how No. 38 appeared when Henry Randel lived here. -- photo by Alice Lum

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The 1888 Jackson Square Library -- No. 251 W. 13th Street

Unlike some privileged boys George Washington Vanderbilt was intrigued by books.  When only 12 years old he began cataloguing each book he read.   A series of small notebooks, entitled Books I Have Read, recorded each title, numbered consecutively, along with the author.  His affection for reading and books got him in trouble with his mothing, Maria Louise Kissam Vanderbilt that same year.  On May 27, 1875 he wrote in his dairy

“I have been way down town today and have displeased Mother, she gave me two dollars to buy a sketch book with which I went to four stores but could not get one so I spent it on books, besides $2.65 of my own money which Mother did not like…I got two volumes of the Young American Abroad.  And the last volume of the Yacht Club.”

Vanderbilt kept his list current and when he died on March 6, 1914 at the age of 51 following an appendectomy, his last entry was No. 3159—Volume III of Henry Adams’ “History of the United States.”  George Vanderbilt was reading an average of 81 books a year at the time of his death.

Few New Yorkers had the money or leisure time that enabled George Vanderbilt to pursue reading.  The few libraries that existed prior to 1880 were not open to the general public.  But that year the Free Circulating Library was incorporated.   The response was so great that the sidewalks around the first library—a single room in a building on 13th Street near Fourth Avenue—were blocked.  At closing time on one occasion, of the 500 books only two were left on the shelves.

George W. Vanderbilt - from the collection of the Library of Congress.

It was the sort of worthy project that caught the attention of the bibliophile Vanderbilt and he decided to fund a branch of the Lending Library in Greenwich Village, opposite Jackson Square. 

In 1887 Vanderbilt was no stranger to Richard Morris Hunt.  Work was underway that year on George’s stable on Staten Island and on the Vanderbilt Family Mausoleum, both designed by Hunt.  Ten years earlier the esteemed architect had designed the massive William K. Vanderbilt chateau on Fifth Avenue and within a year he would begin work on the palatial Marble House in Newport, also for William.

George’s library would be less grandiose, but no less enchanting.  In 1887, two years before Andrew Carnegie donated his first library in the United States; the first bricks were laid for George Vanderbilt’s.  There was no fanfare associated with the opening of the library on July 5, 1888.  A small listing in the New-York Tribune that day with the heading “What Is Going On To-Day” simply noted “Opening new Vanderbilt Library, Jackson Square.”

New-York Tribune, March 24, 1901 (copyright expired)
The handsome new building was, nevertheless, an “ornament” to the neighborhood.   Unlike the frothy confections that characterized some of the other Vanderbilt projects; the library was a take on a Flemish guildhall.  It was a very early example of the architectural fad that would sweep the city in the next decade recalling Manhattan’s Dutch roots.  A red-tiled roof hid behind a curving Flemish Renaissance gable and wrought iron strapwork decorated the red brick façade.   Wrought iron numerals on the four piers, just above the first floor, gave the date of construction: 1887.  A touch of Gothic was introduced by the trefoil decorations in the blind arches of the window openings.

Wrought iron numbers spell out the date of construction.

Vanderbilt’s completed gift to the city cost him $40,000—about $900,000 in today’s dollars.  By 1892 the Free Circulating Library consisted of four buildings, including Vanderbilt’s.  “The Memorial History of the City of New-York” that year said “Wealthy citizens have contributed generously to this admirable free library, and its benefit to the community at large is evident from its circulation of nearly half a million of volumes in 1892.”

Old rowhouses still abut the library in this stereopticon view -- NYPL Collection

In 1899 the chief librarian, J. Norris Wing instituted a innovation nearly unheard of in public libraries:  the “Open Shelf” system.  Until now, the books were kept under the safeguard of librarians.   The concept of allowing the public to run free among the inventory of books was unheard of.  But Wing insisted that “The only proper way to manage a circulating library so as to avoid all unnecessary delay and friction in the bringing together of book and reader, is to run it upon the open-shelf system.”

The Children's Reading Room -- photo NYPL Collection

Until that year, readers looked over the library’s catalog of books, noted the number of the volume he wanted, filled out a call slip and waited until the librarian returned “after a weary search to inform him that the book is out,” said The Sun.  Under Wing’s system, the reader simply wandered the shelves, chose his book and checked it out.

The Sun was impressed.  “From 1880, when the first branch was opened, up to about eighteen months ago the public was excluded from the places where the books were kept, and when the proposition was made to give the readers free access to all books in the library many of the attendants shook their heads.”  The experiment was tried with one branch, then two, and by August 1899 all the libraries were on board.

Librarians were pleased--instead of running back and forth all day with stacks of books they were giving recommendations and advice.  “Now we are fresh when our day’s work is done,” said one.  “Moreover, we know that we can and do help the people who use the library to an extent not one of us thought possible under the old system.  Before we mostly only carried books; now we advise about books.”

The newspaper pointed out the two drawbacks:  wear and tear on the books and theft.  Nevertheless, the advantages outweighed the negatives.  “I do not know how many books were stolen elsewhere,” said one librarian, “but in my branch the thefts do not amount to anything worth speaking about, and even if they’d steal much more, I would still prefer the open shelf.”

There was one other problem that some associated with the open shelf system—the transfer of communicable disease.  On November 11, 1897 Dr. John S. Billings, the director of the New York Public Library spoke in the Jackson Square Library regarding “The Disinfection of Books.”   Among his comments he said “At an investigation made by the State Board in Iowa three years ago it was found that six cases of scarlet fever were undoubtedly communicated through circulating library books.  Other diseases may be communicated in the same way.  There is not much danger o this from the edges of cards, although they are foul and filthy, and undoubtedly filled with bacteria.”

Dr. Billings presented the problem of disinfecting books.  Heat could not be used, since sufficient heat would destroy the bindings and pages; and applying chemicals was equally counter-productive.  “We cannot apply a solution of corrosive sublimate or zinc chloride.  The fumes of burning sulphur are both inadequate and undesireable.”

Instead he suggested placing the contaminated book under a bell jar with a saucer of formaline.  Although apparently effective it was a labor- and time-consuming process.  Nevertheless, nearly a decade later the fears of Dr. Billings would manifest themselves at the Jackson Square Library.  The janitor and his family lived in the building and in January 1908 his son fell ill with scarlet fever.

The library was shut down indefinitely.  When asked how long the building would be closed, Dr. Billings told reporters “That depends on the physician in charge of the case.  As soon as he orders the patient removed the building will be fumigated and opened.”  The New-York Tribune sympathized with the neighborhood readers.  “In the mean time the book lovers who patronize that institution will have to walk a half-mile or more to the nearest branches of the New York Library, on Leroy and West 23d streets.”

A few years earlier, in 1904, William Howe Tolman in his “The Better New York” praised the Jackson Square Library.  “It circulates about 126,00 volumes a year, and its cheerful reading room is filled day and evening with more than a hundred readers.  An interesting feature to be noticed upon entering the main library is the glass-covered cases against the wall, where are placed clippings from the illustrated papers of the day, depicting subjects which are interesting to people of New York at the time.  This is done weekly to create interest in current events, and after looking at the pictures anyone can consult the librarians as to proper reading in connection with each subject.  To help the musically inclined in the study of operas presented at the Metropolitan Opera House during the season, scores are lent for a period of three days each.”

The effectiveness of the library was in part enough to prompt a Department of Finance investigative committee to push for discontinuance of city support of a nearby recreation center.  That same year it reported “As to the library feature, there is no reason whatever for its existence in this centre, as the Jackson Square Branch of the New York Public Library…is in the same block and meets all the needs of the community in this respect.  This library is open in the evening until 9 o’clock and is well patronized by the young people.”

By the Great Depression the Library had lost its ornamental weathervane -- photograph NYPL Collection
The innovative programs, like the current events boards, continued throughout first half of the 20th century.  Art displays were a regular event.  In 1951 there were an exhibition of drawings of pre-war Korea by a young Korean student and artist, Sam-Kih Min; and another of artwork by Turkish school children.  In the 1950s “story-hour” entranced children as story books were read aloud.

The library building gained a replacement weather vane in the renovations.

Then in 1961 in order to save the marvelous Jefferson Market Courthouse, plans were laid restore and convert that building to a library.  While the proposal would save the threatened landmark, it would mark the end of the line for the Jackson Square Library.   Richard Morris Hunt’s Dutch fantasy sat empty until artist Robert Delford Brown purchased it in 1967 for $125,000 as his residence and headquarters for his First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc.   In 1970 an interior renovation by Paul Marvin Rudolph, among the world’s preeminent modernist architects, was completed.   “The AIA Guide to New York City” said of the completed project, “Brown and Rudolph’s conversion was a thoughtful, subtle endeavor, carving light-filled spaces from the dark masonry rooms within the old library.”

The New York Times was less appreciative.  Nancy Hass, thirty years later on March 2, 2000, said “The formal front doors and a chunk of the ground floor had been hacked away in a renovation of shocking proportions.  In their place was a rubble-strewn gated courtyard that dropped off sharply in the center, where a metal stairway led to an exposed basement.  The house seemed to cantilever precariously above the sidewalk.”

Brown affixed a plaque to the façade “The Great Building Crack-Up.”  Inside, Rudolph’s interiors reflected his genius at melding light and lines into spacial geometry and visual cohesion.  (Nancy Hass preferred the term “zany pad.”)

It would not last all that long, however.  Around 1995 television writer Tom Fontana discovered and purchased the now-available building.   Having paid about just under $2 million for the structure, he then nearly doubled the cost by having Paul Rudolph’s work obliterated.  New York Magazine, in 1997, called the process “de-geniusing it.”

The vaulted glass ceiling, seen above in the Adult Reading Room, was painting over during WWII.  Bentley painstakingly removed the paint and restored the ceiling.  photo NYPL Collection

Fontana, who told The Times “the place was ridiculous,” commissioned architect Ron Bentley to redesign the interiors.  In the annihilation of the Rudolph design, Bentley fashioned an upscale single family residence on the two upper floors.  Fontana’s offices were installed in the lower two stories where Rudolph’s single surviving feature, the entrance, remains.

non-historic photographs taken by the author