Monday, September 30, 2013

The Lost Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum -- 5th Avenue and 51st Street

The Male Orphan Asylum sat on rocky, ungraded ground where today Cartier Jewelers and the Olympic Towers stand. -- sketch from the Archdioces of New York Archives.
When the immense Croton Reservoir was opened in June 1842 on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street it stood atop Murray Hill well north of the developed city.    Fifth Avenue was graded and improved up to this point, allowing carriages of well-dressed citizens to travel back and forth for Sunday promenades on the reservoir's broad rim.

But above 42nd Street there was even less development.   A Potter’s Field was located just off Fifth Avenue, to the east, with irregular boundaries from about 48th to 50th Streets.  Years later when excavation of the land was done along Madison Avenue the remains of bodies, thrown without coffins into trenches were discovered.    John D. Crimmins would remember that “Hundreds of barrels of bones were removed from the field to Hart’s Island.”

The same year that the Croton Reservoir was opened, a little frame church—the Church of St. John the Evangelist—was erected on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 50th Street.   Later the magnificent white marble St.Patrick’s Cathedral would take its place.  But for now the area was bucolic and sparsely populated.

Nearly thirty years earlier, in 1817, the Roman Catholic Benevolent Society was organized.   Run by the Sisters of Charity, it guaranteed that Catholic foundlings and orphans would not be lost to the faith by being taken in by a Protestant organization.   The first building, at Prince and Mulberry Streets, had accommodations for 30 “inmates.”   The influx of children was such that a new building was quickly acquired on Prince Street, which then had to be enlarged.

Finally, in 1845, Archbishop John Hughes approached the city for a more permanent solution.   The rural and rolling meadows around St. John the Evangelist offered fresh air and hilltop breezes.  That, coupled with the location’s remoteness and low property value, created the perfect spot for an orphanage.  The city gave Hughes a lease on the block of land from Fifth to Madison Avenue, between 51st and 52nd Streets.  The agreement, dated August 1, 1846, stipulated that the land would be used only to shelter orphans, and rent would be one dollar per year. 

Although construction of the four-story brick-and-stone edifice was completed before 1851, it was not immediately utilized.  According to the Catholic World later, in 1886, “But Archbishop Hughes would not allow it to be occupied until it was entirely free from debt, which was fortunately accomplished through a legacy of $25,000 under the will of Peter Harmony, a wealthy Spanish merchant.”

Based on its similarities to buildings he designed on Blackwell’s Island—like the Gothic-style Small-Pox Hospital—it is highly possible that the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum (originally called the Male Orphan Asylum) was designed by James Renwick, Jr.     When it opened in 1851 the facility had accommodations for 500 boys. 

The boys-only institution would quickly see the neighborhood start to change.  A year later Archbishop Hughes acquired most of the block directly to the south of the orphanage and in 1853 bought the corner belonging to the Church of St. John the Evangelist.  The gears were now engaged; grinding into motion the archbishop’s monumental dream of erecting the most lavish and costly church in the city—St. Patrick’s Cathedral—designed by Renwick.

While Hughes’s dramatic cathedral rose, the boys next door received instruction in all the areas of education that the public schools covered.    But the Asylum educated its boys within a military structure.   The orphans were taught military drills, officers were promoted among them, and rigid military discipline was expected.

The Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum depended mostly on private donations to operate.  In order to prove to its benefactors that their money was well-spent, the facility hosted an “Annual Exhibition” during which the boys’ education and progress were proudly put on display.    On June 24, 1859 the exhibition, deemed by The New York Times to be “a pleasant entertainment,” was presented to a host of wealthy citizens, politicians and clergy. 

The Times said “The boys, to the number of some five hundred—clean, smart, sharp, lively lads, all—went through their annual exhibition in presence of a large and distinguished audience.”  The boys performed their lessons in the large auditorium in front of some of New York’s wealthiest and most influential citizens.

“The boys were exceedingly prompt and accurate in their answers, and exhibited an extent of information, a correctness of deportment, and a discipline so thorough, that they surprised their warmest and most indulgent friends.  There were songs, recitations, dialogues, literary exercises, questions in orthography, parsing, geography, history, arithmetic, algebra,--an opening address and valedictories,--which were each and all very cleverly done and immensely applauded.”

The boys closed the display with a “scene from the Revolution.”  The orphans dressed in Continental Army costumes and acted out a little drama.  “The rear of the troop was brought up by four little urchins—none of them over three years of age—who toddled along in a most uncertain manner, and whose movements excited more attention, and occasioned more laughter, than any other event of the day,” reported The Times.

In his remarks to the children, Archbishop Hughes touched upon the Victorian prejudice against orphans.   He said that certain people “even in this Christian community, and with the hearts of men beating in their bosoms, have indicated a certain amount of low jealousy in your regards;” but he said should they had seen the boys that day, “if they ever had enmity against the orphan, they would go away today converted.”

In 1862, while work on the Cathedral was grinding to a stop because of the Civil War, a “violent storm,” as described by The New York Times, savaged New York City on February 25.   The gale hit the harbor with the strength of a hurricane, sinking or damaging ships.   In the city chimneys and signboards were blown down and buildings were damaged—one five story building recently completed on Avenue A was demolished by the winds, burying a worker inside.  On Fifth Avenue the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum “was unroofed.”

The roof was replaced in time for the annual exhibition.   The political mood of the day due to the War of Aggression raging in the South, was reflected in the boys’ offerings.  “A speech called ‘Union’ and also one entitled ‘Taxes,’ met with the most demonstrative appreciation from the loyal audience,” reported The Times.  The boys’ band, consisting of 60 pieces of brass and stringed instruments, led off “by playing some patriotic aims, and afterward accompanying the vocalization.”

The auditorium was patriotically-decorated in the height of mid-Victorian taste.  “The large exhibition hall was tastefully draped in hangings of red, white and blue, of light and tissue-like fabric.  The stage had heavier emblems of silk and gold, with stars and stripes unblemished by division.”  At the back was a heavy foliage of evergreens, against which were placed in vivid contrast, the field and garden flowers of the season.  About the hall were placed hot-house blooms and rarer growths, which made the atmosphere redolent with perfume.”

The newspaper commented on the condition of the facility.  “The Asylum is in a healthful condition, not overcrowded or at present subjected to any embarrassment in funds.”

In 1865 the Asylum received a large endowment in the will of Peter Boland for the establishment and maintenance of a farm/industrial school.  The Boland Farm was established near Peekskill under the operation of the Brothers of the Christian Schools where the orphaned boys learned trades that would enable them to survive in the world once they left.

Meanwhile, the military schooling of the boys was evident in the annual exhibition of 1866.  “After the exhibition the boys, who were tastily dressed, many of them in military fashion…marched around the ground reviewed by a large number of friends, who crowded the balconies and piazzas of the building, and by the good ladies who were pleasant spectators of the pleasing proof, in their crowded rooms and grounds of the public appreciation of their devotion, to these lonely little ones.”

In 1875 wealthy families came together to support the Asylum when two performances were staged at the Academy of Music for its benefit.   The entertainments were “largely attended” and around $6,000 was collected—around $115,000 in today’s dollars.

Renwick & Sands was commissioned to design a Girls Asylum on the eastern end of the block, fronting Madison Avenue, which was opened in 1886.   Between the two hulking buildings was the grassy lot and drill field.  The Catholic World noted that “The asylum now includes the Male Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, the Female Orphan Asylum on Madison Avenue, and the Boland Farm…Half-orphans as well as orphans are received in all three institutions.”   At the time there were a total of 964 inmates, “273 orphans and 691 half-orphans” being cared for.

Renwick & Sands designed the Madison Avenue-fronting Girls' Asylum -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
In 1889 $45,000 was spent in renovating the aging boys’ asylum.   The expensive repairs did not include vermin extermination, apparently, and on February 12, 1890 a rat busied itself “building a nest between the beams of the attic flooring and using matches in its construction,” according to Fire Department experts.  The result was a fire that broke out in the attic around 8:00 in the morning.

The military training of the boys proved valuable.  “In a few seconds nuns, servants, and children, thanks to instruction in fire drill and the drill of the cadet corps of 200 of the boys by gallant little “Colonel” Robert Johnson were doing precisely what they should do with the coolness and precision of automatons,” reported The New York Times.  The boys pushed beds and lugged bedding out of the building; while others helped the nuns in the chapel “completely dismantle the altar and carry all that could be moved from it to the rear of the parlor in the centre of the building."

When the Fire Patrol had the flames under control, “’Col.’ Johnson called a retreat, mustered all the boys on the playground, and marched them to the Female Orphan Asylum, where they formed in order and remained until told to return to their classrooms.”

The neighborhood was now lined with opulent mansions and concerned socialites rushed to the scene.  The wealthy women “remained and helped the nuns until studies were resumed in the classrooms.”  Fire damage amounted to between $8,000 to $9,000 to the building and $3,000 to $4,000 in property.

The cathedral was completed when this photograph was taken.  Trees line the grounds of the orphanage.   The high main exterior staircase can be seen.  photo from the Fifth Avenue Bank of New York's 1915 pamphlet "Fifth Avenue-Glances at the Vicissitudes and Roman of a World-Renowned Thoroughfare" (copyright expired)

The complex would be enlarged once again when on October 2, 1892 the cornerstone was laid for the Boland Trade School, an extension of the boys’ orphanage, on the opposite side of Madison Avenue.   “In the laying of this cornerstone the Board of Managers of the orphan asylum see the solution of a problem which has long perplexed them.  That problem has been what to do with boys when it was time to send them out into the world to earn their own livings,” said The Times.

The new $175,000 building and trade school would include dormitories for 200 more boys.  “Only the larger boys will study in the trade school, the younger ones being taught in the regular classes now.”

When the Constitutional Convention’s Sub-Committee on Charities and Education visited the orphanage on June 13, 1894 there were 52 Sisters of Charity manning the institutions—26 each at the Girls’ and Boys’ asylums.   The women were currently caring for 895 children.

“The committeemen were soon fascinated by the details of the management of the asylum and its school system,” said The Times, “and noted the clean floors, thorough arrangements for supplying provender for the young folks, the system of ablutions by which each child, to avoid ophthamalia, has a numbered towel, and the ample accommodation for the sick.”

That year at Christmas the orphans were treated to the fruits of kindly donations.  “An enormous chicken pie at either end of the table, a half score of gigantic turkeys placed at intervals, more chicken pies, and red pools of cranberry sauce, and mountains of bread and mounds of butter, cased round eyes to brighten, cheeks to flush to a shade rivaling the blush of the cranberry sauce, and little hearts to beat with unusual palpitations of joy at the Roman Catholic orphan asylum for little girls at Fiftieth Street and Madison Avenue,” reported The Times.  “The little ones in the institution for male orphans, at Fiftieth Street and Fifth Avenue, had dinner with the girls, and had an equally good time.”

“Many friends of the little orphans prepared for the day by contributing thousands of toys, articles for wear, hats, hoods, handkerchiefs, etc…[The orphans’] unhappiness was forgotten in the joy of the day’ their parentless condition was lost sight of in the kindly care of the sisters who are intrusted [sic] with their bringing up, and the cold and hunger of many in the recent past was not thought of.”

In 1896 St. Luke’s Hospital was demolished.  Like the orphanage, it took up an entire Fifth Avenue blockfront between 54th and 55th Streets.   The now-valuable real estate was quickly snatched up by millionaires and the exclusive University Club, which set McKim, Mead & White to work designing its new clubhouse on the site.   The potentially-lucrative real estate under the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum did not go unnoticed as well.

On April 5, 1896 The New York Times ran the headline “Blots on Fifth Avenue” with the sub-headline “Insignificant Buildings on Very Valuable Ground.”  The article complained “The antiquated buildings of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, on the block between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets, seem to be out of place after one has observed the stately proportions of the cathedral and the costly mansions of the Vanderbilts, near by, and most persons would have the impression that the children sheltered there would be happier on extensive grounds somewhere away from the noise and dust of the city.”

By now the Board of Managers of the asylum had acquired the land from the city; however the city’s consent was required before the property could be sold.   On March 16, 1897 the Board of Aldermen met to consider a petition for the consent of the city to sell the Asylum property.    John D. Crimmins, chairman of the committee in charge of dispensing of the land, told reporters “It is estimated that the block should bring $2,000,000.”

The drastic change in the neighborhood can be seen in this 1898 view taken from the Asylum's grounds.  Beyond the fence of the orphanage are seen the lavish mansions of the Vanderbilt families.  Note the elegant carriages passing by on Fifth Avenue -- photo by Byron Co., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
In January 1899 the trustees of the Orphan Asylum took title to property in Fordham Heights as the site of a new facility.   The news perked the attention of millionaires and developers alike.   But another incident at the orphanage grounds also caused a stir.

On March 29 that year a steer broke loose from one of the cattle transport boats docked at the piers around East 42nd Street.  The reddish-brown bull (“not any particular breed—just plain steer,” said The Times) ended up in the enclosed grounds between the Girls’ and Boys’ Asylums.  It resulted in an impromptu rodeo made up of policemen and “venturesome civilians” who tried to subdue the beast.

The gates to the Asylum grounds were closed “and the chase began, a sight to thrill the breasts of the romantic and recall the age of chivalry,” reported the newspaper.  “A crowd of many hundreds of people soon gathered outside the grounds and urged on the toreadors as madly as ever a Spanish crowd applauded their favorite bullfighter.”

The bull fought an admirable battle and several men were tossed off their feet.  “Whenever an unfortunate landed in the shrubbery and it was seen that he was not much hurt, the crowd was visibly amused.  Fortunately, the 550 orphan boys of the asylum were all in class at the rear rooms of the building and could not look on and add their voices to the chorus—‘Bully for the bull!’ on such occasions.  Indeed, they knew nothing of the tragedy in process of being enacted until the curtain had been rung down.”

The tragedy, at least for the bull, was the penalty of death for his escape from the cattle boat.  Although he, at first, was slated to become beef steaks for the orphans, police headquarters had the carcass held for its rightful claimant.

By October the orphanage trustees were being flooded with offers for the real estate.  “A matter of considerable interest to real estate men is the final disposition of the old Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum property at Fifth avenue and Fifty-first street,” noted The Sun on October 8.  “A number of offers have been made for the site, but the trustees have as yet accepted none of these.  The rumors which have been in circulation for several days regarding a sale of the property can be traced in all probability to a meeting of the trustees held yesterday afternoon when the offers so far received were discussed but not adopted.”

Finally as the 19th century turned into the 20th, the building plots were sold off.  The Vanderbilt family purchased the Fifth Avenue frontage, thereby ensuring their homes on the opposite side of the street would not be sullied by commercial structures.  Before long the elegant Morton Plant mansion would occupy the northern corner, the exclusive Union Club would rise on the southern end, and between them George W. Vanderbilt constructed two lavish white marble twin mansions.

Two mansions (at left), now converted for business, survive from the first period of construction following the demolition of the Asylum -- photo by Alice Lum
Today only the northern portion of the block survives from that early phase of construction.  The Morton Plant mansion houses Cartier jewelers and one of Vanderbilt’s marble twins remains as Versace’s flagship store.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

My SideTour Tours

The first two tours of the mansions of Midtown went great!  They were a lot of fun and the interaction among the groups was exciting.

I'll be repeating this tour next month, on October 19; and then I'll get working on putting together a new walking tour.

Thanks to everyone who joined in either of the two groups!  If you are interested in participating in the tour of the old Millionaire's Mile, visit this link:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Church of Notre Dame -- No. 405 West 114th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The tradition of New York City churches to establish “chapels of convenience” as the city expanded northward was more than a century old in 1910.  While the term chapel often brought to mind a small, quaint structure, these were often large and elegant structures. 

At the turn of the century French-speaking Roman Catholics had at least three churches in which to worship —the Eglise Evangelique Francaise de New-York on West 16th Street, the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste on 76th Street, and St. Vincent de Paul on West 23rd Street.   But farther north in the developing Morningside Heights neighborhood there was a need for a French-language place of worship.

On March 25, 1910 the Fathers of Mercy, a French community of priests, was given the task of establishing a “grotto chapel” of the Church of St. Vincent de Paul.  Land was acquired at the corner of Morningside Drive and West 114th Street.   Architects Dans and Otto was given the task of designing a chapel which would include a replica of the Lourdes grotto where St. Bernadette saw the vision of the Virgin Mary in 1858.

The modest church with its remarkable grotto was dedicated by Archbishop Farley on October 2, 1910, almost a year to the day before the structure was officially completed.     Then on October 29, 1911 there were “special services” marking the completion.  The Sun reported that “At the special vesper services at 3:30 P.M. the Rev. Victor Baron, S. P. M., will preach.  At the conclusion there will be a procession around the edifice, followed by benediction of the blessed sacrament.”

But for the building that would become L’Eglise de Notre-Dame, or the Church of Notre Dame, “completed” would never really come to pass.

Within four years the esteemed architectural firm of Cross & Cross was called in to enlarge the structure.   The Dans & Otto apse and grotto were left intact and the architects built around them;  drawing inspiration from Parisian churches like the Church of the Madeleine and L’Eglise des Invalides.
Cross & Cross prepared a pencil rendering of the completed design -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Construction on the new building began in 1914 and would continue for over a decade.   Cross & Cross had designed an imposing French neoclassic stone structure.  Despite its relatively small size, the effect was monumental.  A classic pedimented portico was supported by four fluted Corinthian columns; repeated on the sides as shallow pilasters.

Despite the continuing construction, the church carried on its work.  On June 13, 1926 its congregation buzzed with anticipation as Cardinal Charost, Archbishop of Rennes attended mass.   “On his way to the church, preceded from the rectory by a procession of priests, acolytes and a crossbearer, his right hand was extended to the men, women and children who lined his path and kissed his ring,” reported The New York Times.   “As he passed up the centre aisle to the altar others knelt before him to kiss this emblem of his rank and obtain the blessing it carried.”

The newspaper went on to say that “At the close of the service he conferred the Pontifical blessing on the congregation, then proceeded to the steps of the church where more than a thousand persons knelt before him to receive the blessing.”

Inside the church Dans & Otto's original grotto remained.

In the meantime work continued.  On February 15, 1925 the pipe organ was dedicated, while in Paris sculptor Edmond Becker was at work on the splendid marble main altar.  The sculptor simultaneously worked on a matching communion rail.  On January 24, 1927 a group of American Church officials and members of the Academy des Beaux Arts gathered to view the finished work.

A special cable to The New York Times described it.  “The altar is constructed of white Carrara marble and is 27 feet long.  The decorative scheme depicts the life of Christ, with pedestaled figures of St. John and the Virgin contemplating Christ in the centre.  The bas-reliefs on the lower panels represent the Annunciation and the crowning of the Virgin.”  The magnificent bas-reliefs were executed in bronze, affixed to the white marble.

The cable said “The inspection of the altar today resulted in a flood of congratulations for the artist.”  It was loaded on a steamer for New York City on February 6.  On April 24 the altar and communion rail were formally dedicated.

In 1928 work came to a halt before the grand design was completed.  As envisioned, the church would be crowned by a massive drum which would pour sunlight into the sanctuary, topped by a dome that would be seen for blocks.

photo by Alice Lum
Among the notable marriages and funerals conducted here one stood out in 1932.  Operatic and concert singer Renee Thornton was to be married to Duke Fabio Carafa d’Andria in St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 4:30 on January 27.  Suddenly “the plans of the couple were changed and the ceremony followed half an hour later at the Church of Notre Dame,” reported The Times.

Notwithstanding their individual celebrities, it was a peculiar occurrence in the Roman Catholic Church.   Ms. Thornton had converted to Catholicism for her new husband; but she was a divorcee.  She had been the wife of Richard Hageman, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Civic Opera Company and the Ravinia Opera Company.  “Four years ago she divorced Mr. Hageman, and the marriage was annulled recently, Miss Thornton renewing her maiden name,” said the newspaper.

The annulment took care of one problem; but the Duke, who “comes from an old and well-known family of Naples,” was also divorced.  “He was married on July 25, 1927, by civil ceremony in the chapel of the municipal Building to Mrs. Lucile Zehring of Hollywood, Cal.,” said The Times.  “He obtained a divorce a year ago, on the ground of desertion, in New Jersey.”

Sticky details or not, the wedding went on.  Acting as best man was Barone Luigi Filippo Marincola.  The reception was held at the home of John S. Keith at No. 1060 Fifth Avenue.

Decades before the Civil Rights Movement would take hold in America, the Notre Dame Study Club which met in the church stood up for social justice.  On March 26, 1936 the group passed a resolution “that the Negro, as a human being and as a citizen, is entitled to the rights, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” and called on Roman Catholics “to become increasingly interested in the welfare of the Negro; and to engage actively in some form of Catholic Action looking to the betterment of his condition, spiritually and materially.”

Somewhat surprised, George K. Hunton, editor of The Interracial Review, said “this is the first time a Catholic parish group in this country ever has taken such a stand.”  He said that the attitude of many Catholics towards African-Americans had been “heretofore one of indifference and apathy.”

A year later the group reached out to Holy Name Societies, study clubs and other Catholic groups nationwide “to cooperate in helping to end lynching.”  At a time when racist murders were rampant in the deep South, the Notre Dame Study Club called on Senators Wagner and Copeland “and every New York Representative to support anti-lynching legislation.”

In the 1960s the nagging issue of the uncompleted design was again addressed.  It was decided that the magnificent drum and dome of Cross & Cross would be abandoned in favor of a shallow dome.  With the finished dome artificial lighting was necessary to supplant the flood of the natural light anticipated by the architects.
The architects had completed a plaster model of the original design -- photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,
In 1965 the Second Vatican Council was closed by Pope Paul VI.  Among the changes to physical church arrangements that resulted was the repositioning of the altar so the priest faced the congregation. 

To comply with the edict the Church of Notre Dame erected a beige and gold wooden altar in front of Becker’s 1927 altar.  For over two decades the arrangement worked.  And then in 1988 the new pastor, J. Christopher Maloney, had a better idea.  The marble altar would be cut away from the ornate reredos and moved eight feet towards the congregation.

While Father Maloney held two meetings to tell to parishioners what he was planning, he had no intention of listening to their input.   Members sued under canon law to stop the desecration of the artwork, complained in a letter to Pope John Paul II and pleaded with the Department of Buildings to refuse to issue a building permit.

Supporters of Maloney called the protestors “meddlesome” and “hysterical.”  The pastor said “We’re just bringing the church up to date.”

Others, like Barbara Geach Liccione, said “They are destroying a work of art.  It’s like sawing a painting or a sculpture in half.”

One congregant, Helen McQuillan, threatened to change churches if the priceless reredos was cut apart.  She quoted the Gospel reading Father Maloney had used the previous day, “If any place will not receive you or hear you, shake its dust from your feet in testimony against them as you leave.”

Today the Church’s web page diplomatically skirts the issue of the vandalized art.  “In 1988, a renovation was made in the church which allowed the main church altar to be used for the celebration of Mass once again.”

Despite never having been completed, the wonderful Church of Notre Dame is a noble presence in Morningside Heights.   The “AIA Guide to New York City” calls it “classical and cool within and without.”
photo by Alice Lum

Friday, September 27, 2013

The 1888 Artist-Artisan Institute Bldg -- Nos. 136-140 West 23rd Street

By the mid-1880s, the once-refined neighborhood of 23rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues had changed.  Wide 23rd Street had become the center of New York’s entertainment district and theaters and musical halls dotted the thoroughfare from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue.  The brick and brownstone homes were seeing new lives as boarding houses or were converted for business purposes.

No. 138 West 23rd Street was among them.  On February 14, 1885 The New York Times described the changes to the old residence.  “A cheap eating house at No. 138 West Twenty-third street, is kept by Theodore Lichtwitz, who accommodated transient guests with lodging on the top floor.”  When fire broke out in the upper floor, the lost grandeur of the home was hinted at in the newspaper’s assessment that “the damage to the building and frescoes is from $700 to $800.”

Two years later the house would be used as a recruiting office for the First Regiment.  It was around this time that Mary Cook sold her house next door, at No. 136, for $29,500—a respectable $650,000 or so in today’s terms.

In 1888 both Nos 136 and 138 would be purchased, along with the abutting No. 140.  Within the year the three homes would be demolished and an up-to-date artists’ studio building erected.  Professor John Ward Stimson had big plans for the site.

Stimson resigned his position as Director of Art Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that year to devote himself to “artisan” arts.  Believing that America paled in the artistic nature of its manufactured arts—like wallpaper, book covers, stained glass windows, and such—he set off to establish the Artisan-Artist Institute.   The editor of the New York Times agreed with the concept, saying “Here in New-York we have Mr. John Ward Stimson, a voice crying in the desert, in season and out of season, with letters to the papers and lectures before Columbia College, that our industries must be made artistic, and that the way to make them so is to establish a system of instruction.”

Stimson’s goal was, in his words, “to build up a practical art school worthy of American spirit and taste.”  Unlike other academies, the Institute would teach art as a means to improve American industrial decoration and to instruct students to make a living through art as craft.  The Times said “Mr. Stimson’s idea in the establishment of the institute was…teaching principles instead of mere imitation, and developing the democratic American idea that art is not necessarily the mere foible of the foolish, the fad of new fashionables, or the monopoly of the speculator.”   At the Artisan-Artist Institute the focus of art was on its application to industry.

Where the three houses on West 23rd Street had stood rose the new Institute building.  Five stories tall, it blended red brick with terra cotta and traces of limestone trim in the latest Queen Anne style.  Great expanses of window openings provided natural, northern light to the studios.   The Artist-Artisan Institute took over the fourth floor.  The building’s exuberant terra cotta panels, bands and other decorations reflected the concept of the work going on inside: practical decorative arts.

By 1890 the Institute had 250 enrolled pupils for the fall term.  They were offered a staggering field of instruction: painting, sculpture, architecture, illustration, etching, “stain glass,” ceramics, carving, metal working jewelry, interior decoration and plastic modeling.  Well-known firms that relied on employees trained in the decorative arts were quick to support the school.  Patrons that year included Tiffany & Co., the Gorham Manufacturing Company, the Whiting Manufacturing Company, Herter Brothers, Lamb Brothers, the Phoenix Silk Company, and others from the “jewelry, wallpaper, stained glass, silk and other art industries,” according to The Times.  The newspaper deemed it “the most promising among the art educational institutions of the country.”

The use of crisp terra cotta extended to the engaged columns of the second floor.

The firms kept a close eye on the Institution, sometimes purchasing the rights to a silverware or wallpaper pattern, for instance, produced by a student for class; or sometimes simply offering a full-time position to a student before his class work was even completed.  In March 1889 one student nearly gave up.  His father died and, burdened with the support of his mother, he saw no way that he could continue his studies.  “Within a week thereafter one of his designs was sold to a large jewelry manufacturing firm in this city,” reported The New York Times, “and it was so well liked that he was sought out by the firm and given a lucrative position in their employ, with leisure to complete his studies at the institute.”

Even with the patronage of commercial firms, the school was not cheap.  Students paid $50 “in advance” for 8 months of day classes, about $1,000 today; and half that amount for night classes.

Women work in the modelling class in 1898 -- The New-York Tribune February 13, 1898 (copyright expired)

Space was available to other art-related organizations.  Madame S. E. Le Prince, who was also an instructor in the Institute, had a studio here in 1892.  On February 1 that year her studio became home to the New-York State Ceramic Club when “A number of ladies interested in the art of mineral painting” met and organized the club.  The Times noted that “Its object is to promote the interests of this branch of art, to form the nucleus of a school for mineral painting, and to take as active a part as possible in making a creditable exhibition at the World’s Fair.”  Mineral painting was a common pastime for respectable women at the time, resulting in homes filled with chocolate sets, china tea services and cup-and-saucer sets.
"The World’s Fair" mentioned by The Times was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, intended by organizers to show the world that the United States was on par with European industry.  In September 1893 The Evening World said of the Artisan-Artist Institute, “This institution is now practically at the head of the movement to raise American industry to a level of excellence, from the artistic point of view, that will enable American manufacturers to compete with the best foreign products of industry, not only in America, but abroad.

“This movement has received a great impetus since the opening of the World’s Fair.  The object of the Artist-Artisan Institute is national and American.”

At street level was retail space, rented in 1894 appropriately enough to art dealer Ernest Huber.  Huber dealt in high-end art, one piece of which would cause a sensation throughout the city in 1894.  George W. Simms was a wealthy cloak manufacturer and an old friend of Huber.   Simms stopped by the shop around June 14 and Huber showed him a valuable collection of etchings.  “After he had gone, an etching entitled ‘A Lecture,’ by Diderot, was missing,” said The New York Times.

A week later it showed up a block away at the Knoedler Art Gallery at 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue when it was offered for sale.  Knoedler turned down the etching and notified the police.  Two days later George Simms was arrested, charged with stealing the $300 artwork from his old and trusted friend.

Seven years after the inception of the Institute The New York Times reported that the school’s own success was its greatest problem.  On June 3, 1894 it wrote “The institute has no lack of pupils, but it does need more room and more teachers…Mr. Stimson is greatly hampered by lack of funds for additional teachers and lack of room for the accommodation of pupils.  He should have a series of buildings, with ateliers and shops, in some lively manufacturing centre, like certain parts of New-York, Brooklyn, and Jersey City.”

The newspaper also commented on the ongoing rivalry between American and Europe in decorative arts.  “In the main the goal of the institute is to furnish American factories, manufactures, trades, and industries with educated designers who shall act as captains in the silent conflict—the great ‘deaf war’—between modern nations at peace with each other, the war industrial, the war commercial.”

To prompt donations for the school, the newspaper appealed to its readers’ emotional and patriotic weaknesses, hinting that the stress was endangering Stimson.  “That work has told on his health.  He has been ill of late, and, while his friends have been reassured as the gravity of his illness, there could be no surer means of hastening his convalescence than the news that some benefactor of the Auchmuty stamp had decided to make the Artist Artisan Institute a school in which thousands rather than hundreds might prepare themselves to uphold the liberal arts and manufacturers of New-York and the Union.”

The drawing class -- New-York Tribune February 13, 1898 (copyright expired)

The stress was apparently not so great that Stimson could not interest himself in romantic dalliance.  In April 1898 his wife, Eleanor, moved to Europe and in divorce papers charged him with cruelty and with having an affair with Miss Martha L. Norton.  “The testimony brought out that Miss Norton was a pupil of the artist,” said The New York Times.

In the meantime, other art academies moved into the neighborhood around the Institute.  In 1895 the School of Applied Design for Women was just down the street, at the corner of 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue; The Associated Artists was at No. 115 East 23rd Street; a art school connected with the Academy of Design was at 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue; and in the building with the Artist-Artisan Institute was the School of Industrial Art and Technical Design for Women.  Also in the building was Mrs. Florence Cory’s School of Practical Design.

Perhaps as a means to expand its accommodations, in 1895 the Institute joined forces with Mrs. Cory’s School and the School of Industrial Art and Technical Design for Women.

In November 1897 the school came under new management.  The New-York Tribune noted that “The institution for artistic instruction, founded by Mr. John Ward Stimson, has passed into new hands and has been reorganized."  Among the new instructors were notable names in the decorative arts including Louis C. Tiffany, Frederick Crowninshield and Charles C. Curran.  The Tribune took it upon itself to advise the artists on their roles.  “If these gentlemen will so instruct their pupils that one of the latter for example, being a designer of wall paper, can go to a manufacturer and say: ‘This is what I can do.  I can draw designs like this, which will adapt themselves in such and such a manner to the purposes of your busines’; if, we say, the ‘Artist-Artisan Institute’ can fortify its pupils to plead their cause with employers in this practical way, its ministrations will be a boon.”  The newspaper admonished “Instruction that merely fits the student to paint the mediocre landscapes or flower pieces that thousands of young artists have painted before does more harm than good.”

The school continued in the 23rd Street building into the first years of the 20th century, when esteemed artists like William Merritt Chase were teaching here.  But by the end of World War I the studio building had been converted to loft spaces and offices.  In 1919 Bradford Sales Company took the third floor and L.W. Sweet & Co. leased the fourth.  A year later J. M. Harris, importer of lamps and art goods, leased the retail shop on sidewalk level.  Harris had been at No. 324 Fifth Avenue but The Pottery & Glass Salesman said “The new location will give Mr. Harris a considerably larger showroom and will him to carry stock for immediate delivery.”

Apparel-related firms moved in during the next few years.  In 1921 the Rome Embroider Company moved in and a year later the Riker Dress Company leased space.

In 1990 the building was converted to residential use.  A sixth floor and mezzanine was added; the architect closely matching the original brick color and adding a terra cotta medallion in a valiant attempt to tie in the 19th century detailing below.  Today Chelsea professionals live in the spaces where young women and men learned the crafts that would earn them livelihoods as illustrators and designers.
The three houses that stood on the site would have looked much like the one that survives to the left.

photographs taken by the author

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The 1889 Beck House -- No. 249 Central Park West

The fanciful house stretched 100 feet down the block -- photo

In 1887 both architect Edward Angell and developer William Noble were busy on the Upper West Side.  Following the Civil War and with the opening of Central Park, real estate developers speculated on the opportunities that the rocky, barren area held.  In place of the shanties and dirt roads, they envisioned a modern residential neighborhood.   By now development was going full-steam.  In 1885 The New York Times had noted “The west side of the city presents just now a scene of building activity such as was never before witnessed in that section, and which gives promise of the speedy disappearance of all the shanties in the neighborhood and the rapid population of this long neglected part of New York.”

Within two years Angell would be working on two rows of houses on West End Avenue and West 77th Street in the Romanesque Revival style and the Hotel Endicott.  In 1890 construction would begin on his San Remo Apartments.  But for now, in 1887, he was working with William Noble on a string of rowhouses on Central Park West from 84th to 85th Streets.

Angell used a full bag of architectural styles and the Upper West Side was a perfect canvas.  Here the latest trends were reflected in stained glass, gargoyles, dog-legged stoops, and eccentric turrets and balconies.  In writing about the Upper West Side in August 1890, the New-York Herald said “As the time of square brick and brown stone houses has gone by, so alas has the time when New York can afford to neglect her approach and her outward appearances.”

For Noble’s nine speculative residences Angell turned to the Queen Anne style.  Ground was broken in 1888 and construction was completed a year later.   For his upscale homes with Central Park views, Noble spared no expense—these were, after all, intended for well-to-do families.   Construction of each of the residences cost $37,000—about $850,000 today. 

The homes—running from No. 241 to 249 Central Park West—were a riot of gables, bays, chimneys and angles.  Each was individual; yet they flowed together as a harmonious whole.   The commodious houses were 100 feet deep and 25 feet wide.  The additional wall of windows of the two corner residences, Nos. 241 and 249, made these two especially desirable.

photo by Alice Lum

No. 249 blended brownstone and red brick into an architectural whimsy.  A corner faceted tower rose to a conical tiled cap and delightful pseudo balconies.   "The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide" thought the group perhaps too whimsical; criticizing their “giddiness.”

The house was purchased by wallpaper manufacturer Frederick Beck.  The principal of Frederick Beck & Co., he would sit on the Board of the National Wall Paper Company upon its founding in 1894.  That company was an amalgamation of 17 wall paper manufacturers; creating a gigantic business concern.

Around 200 guests filed into the house on October 15, 1890 for the wedding of daughter Frederica to Rudolph J. Schaefer.  “The parlors were decorated with palms and a profusion of cut flowers.  At one end of was bower of roses, under which the marriage ceremony was held,” reported The New York Times.

The newspaper made note that Frederica’s “ornaments were diamonds.”  Among the more celebrated guests was the newly-elected Governor of New Jersey Leon Abbett, Rudolph Guggenheimer, and display manufacturer J. R. Palmenberg and his family.

Beck would stay on in the house through the turn of the century.   By 1914 it was owned by clergyman Luther Albert Swope and his wife, the former Rebecca Wendel.  The Swope’s comfortable financial position came from mostly from Rebecca Wendel Swope.

Rebecca had grown up in the Wendel mansion at No. 442 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 39th Street.   The hulking brick and brownstone house was built by her grandfather around 1856.  John G. Wendel began as a fur merchant at the same time as John Jacob Astor; and like Astor he funneled his money into Manhattan real estate.  Despite his fortune, Wendel was notoriously frugal—The New York Times would later say he “let his contractor draw the plans [of his mansion] to save the architect’s fees.”

Along with Rebecca in the house were her brother, John Gottlieb Wendel and her four sisters.  Following their parents’ deaths the eccentric and controlling John ruled his sisters’ lives.  “Because of his aversion to automobiles and other modern improvements he became known as ‘The Hermit of Fifth Avenue,” said The New York Times.

The newspaper later said that he “taught them they must not marry or dissipate their stewardship and that publicity was demeaning.”   While Rebecca “resisted this training,” according to the newspaper, her sisters lived in a time capsule, insulated from the changing world outside the old mansion.   The New York Times said “The sisters dressed in styles of many years ago, lived frugally and simply, and persisted in hanging the family washing in the back yard in defiance of neighbors’ protests.”
In 1934 the Wendel mansion still sat at 39th Street and Fifth Avenue.  Note the wall extending to the right and the handsome old carriage house to the rear of the house.  photograph by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

John Wendel died in 1914 leaving Rebecca in charge of managing the family estate—worth at the time around $60 million.  On February 28, 1915 The New York Times noted “The sisters never ride in a street car and never in their lives have they been in an automobile.  They never shop in the fashionable district, for things are too expensive there.  They buy all their groceries and supplies in the inexpensive little shops over on Sixth Avenue and make their purchases personally, seldom letting them be delivered but carrying them home themselves and paying for them with cash.  They are quick to see bargains and watch for them like the poorest housewife.”

In order to prevent the State from receiving what had been estimated at between $3 or $4 million in estate taxes, John had quietly and quickly transferred the Wendel real estate into the names of his sisters during the last two years of his life.  “It had been done in such a gradual way that it will probably be impossible for the State to show that it was done with the purpose of evading the inheritance tax,” reported The New York Times.

The block was still intact when the Swopes were living here.  No. 249 sits at the far end.  photo NYPL Collection

Although Rebecca escaped the house and her brother, the Wendel family values were deeply instilled.   “Twice a week Mrs. Swope and her husband dare the wild adventure of the elevated to the downtown offices of the Wendel estate at 175 Broadway  They do not own a car and taxicabs are so expensive!” reported The New York Times, somewhat mockingly.

There, surrounded by twenty or more ancient safes containing the deeds to the Wendel properties, they discuss with the manager the details of their affairs.

Luther Swope had graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor’s degree in 1868 and a Masters in 1871.  Upon his death in 1924, he added to Rebecca’s personal fortune by leaving her $90,000.  She was now widowed, childless and fantastically wealthy.  Public speculation focused on the aging Wendel sisters who had no direct heirs.

There were only three sisters left now, and the following year Rebecca’s 79-year old sister Georgiana died of influenza which had developed into pneumonia.  (At the time of her death newspapers noted that the house, built at a cost of $5,000 was now valued at $2 million).   The family’s attorney, Charles G. Koss, was deluged with calls regarding the Fifth Avenue house which, said The New York Times, “has never been changed.  The dining room, parlor and library, it is said, are scrupulously kept in the exact condition in which they were left by the builder of the house, John Wendel, at his death in 1859.”

Developers were disheartened when it was announced that “Miss Ella V. von E. Wendel, an elderly woman and worth many millions, will live alone with the old family servants and carry on the traditions of the Wendel family in the old rusty brick mansion at Thirty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue.” 

On July 20, 1930 Rebecca A. D. Wendel Swope died, leaving Ella the sole surviving sister and the end of the Wendel line.    Readers were somewhat shocked, although surprisingly so, when her entire estate was left to the 80-year old Ella.  Following the filing of the will, The New York Times noted that “about $100,000,000, representing real estate accumulated by two centuries of the Wendel family, was not left to charity after all.”  Among the few items not left to her sister was the house on Central Park West.

“Mrs. Swope’s nearest relative after her sister was her husband’s nephew, George Stanley Shirk of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to whom she left a house at 249 Central Park West, as well as cash deposited in various banks and personal and household effects.”

Eight months after Rebecca’s death, Ella died in the house at Fifth Avenue and 39th Street, ending a most peculiar New York social story.  George Stanley Shirk maintained ownership of the Central Park West house for years; however he and his family never moved in.  Instead, before long, it sat uninhabited.  According to historian Andrew Alpern, by World War II it was "boarded up, with the doors very neatly covered in painted boards carefully set into the enframement (just as many other large houses on the East Side were similarly boarded up.)"
Then in 1957 the house was converted to apartments and the exterior modernized to comply with mid-century distaste for overblown ornamentation.   In a further attempt to update the old Victorian, it was slathered in white paint.

No. 249 lost its carved ornamentation, still evident next door at No. 247 (which also endured a coat of paint) -- photo by Alice Lum

One of the tenants, John Herget, purchased the house in 1974.  The former mansion would probably have remained a bit beat up if a chunk of the fa├žade had not crashed to the sidewalk in 1989.  In order to repair the masonry, Herget had to strip off the paint and eventually the facade was somewhat unintentionally restored.
The magnificent woodwork of the dining room is unbelievably intact -- photo

Around 2006 the mansion was purchased for $14.4 million and a conversion was begun to bring it back to a single-family home.   A real estate agent put a happy face on the gutting of the top two floors saying “most of the demolition work has been completed in preparation for the building’s metamorphosis.”

Exquisite stained glass survives throughout the lower floors.  photo

Despite the outrage committed upstairs, the interiors of the lower floors are astoundingly intact.   The oak-paneled dining room with stained glass and coffered ceiling; the pocket doors and eccentric nooks all survive.   Relisted and sold in 2013 for just under $20 million, the once-abused dowager has reclaimed her position as grand dame of the block.
photo by Alice Lum