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


  1. I highly recommend to you and your readers Mervin Roseman's wonderful book, "Forgery, Perjury and an Enormous Fortune- 2,303 Claimants to the Ella Wendel Estate (1931)". The first few chapters which recount the history of the huge Wendel Fortune and the unbelievably odd lives of the last generation of the family are priceless.

  2. Looking back, whose to say the Wendel families lives were odd or not? Seems most of "society" outside the walls of their insulated family mansion has grown more and more disappointing, careless, disposable and reckless. Maybe their time capsule existencee is the one to be envious of after all? RT

  3. I married into the Shirk family and upon my husbands death realized I had never known why some of the family silver had a W rather than the Shirk monogram. Now the mystery is solved. Thank you.

    1. Hi Anonymous I am researching the Wendels and would love to talk to you about your family connection to them through the Shirks. please email me at Thanks!

  4. I was a tenant at 249 CPW from 1978 to 2000, in the top floor front apartment, which had a gorgeous mirrored manteled fireplace. and molding. I’m sorry to hear that the floor and the floor beneath it were gutted. John Herget sold the house in 2000, not 2006, to a buyer who paid all the tenants to leave. Presumably, it was resold in 2006, and again in 2013.

  5. PS To my comment, the story doesn’t mention that the houses in the row were designed to be replicas of each other from the corner houses at 249 and 241 in toward the center house, which was singular. And it may be apocryphal, but the story I heard when I lived there was that two of the Wendel sisters, and then one, lived in the house until the last one died in 1957, not that it was boarded up until then.