Friday, October 18, 2013

The McBride Atelier -- No. 3 East 52nd Street

photo by Alice Lum

Proper society of Fifth Avenue was shocked to its foundations when the house of Charles and Ann Lohman at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street was raided in 1878.  Mrs. Lohman, who went by the pseudonym Madame Restell, marketed herself as a midwife; but many people were quietly aware that she was one of the city’s foremost birth control advocates and abortionists.
For well over a decade Anthony Comstock had made it his business to clear the city of all manner of vice.   On August 31, 1872 The New York Times mentioned that Comstock’s “raids on dealers in obscenity have of late been frequent.”   Comstock, who headed the Society for the Suppression of Vice, had gone undercover to the Lohman house—a tactic he often used to gather evidence against brothels, gambling dens and purveyors of French postcards.  He purchased a contraceptive device here and his subsequent complaint led to the police arresting Ann Lohman at her house at No. 1 East 52nd Street.

The embarrassment and stress of the publicity coupled with the possibility of imprisonment was too much for the well-heeled woman.  On April 2, 1878 the New-York Tribune reported “Madame Restell, otherwise known as Ann Lohman, cut her throat with a carving knife, and was found dead in her bath-tub early yesterday morning.  The act is supposed to have been the result of her brooding over her recent arrest and indictment, and her anxiety over her approaching trial.  The estate which she has left is estimated to be worth half a million of dollars.”

Three days later the newspaper noted that “Madame Restell’s will leaves most of her property to her grandchildren.”

Ann Lohman’s death brought an end to the era of notoriety for the lavish mansion.  The house survived until 1911 when it was demolished for a business structure.  Directly behind it, at No. 3 East 52nd Street, was the former Lohman private stables.  Change would come to that building two years later.  On March 27, 1913 The New York Times reported that “A new commercial structure in the upper Fifth Avenue district is about to be erected on the plot at 3 East Fifty-second Street.”

By now the once-exclusive neighborhood was being rapidly overtaken by commerce as its mansions fell to be replaced by business buildings, or were converted to high-end shops.   If the new owner, George Bovard McBride, intended to replace the old structure, he apparently changed his mind.  Department of Building records indicate that, instead, he renovated it beyond recognition.

Architect George Amouroux converted the old mansion for “McBride Atelier”—a high-end interior decorating firm.   It would seem that the quaint cottage fa├žade of No. 3 was added at this time. 

Buildings with an atmosphere of a Hansel and Gretel-type storybook were popping up around the country at the time; like the 1909 Whyte’s Restaurant on Fulton Street that pretended to be a Swiss chalet.  Three pointy-peeks with suggested half-timbering, tiny-paned oriels, and delightful bracketed windows beneath the cornice created a playful, charming illusion.
photo by Alice Lum
McBride landed some influential commissions, such as the decorating of Andrew Carnegie’s Skibo Castle in Scotland.  But to continue in his upscale business, he required additional financial backing.  He got it from Nova A. Brown in November 1915.

But it all ended in the courts.  When a wide-eyed McBride was arrested on July 23, 1917 he told Deputy Sheriff Eisenstein that he had “no idea why he should be arrested.”

The following day The Sun reported “How George Bovard McBride is alleged to have got a moneyed partner to back him in his interior decorating business at the McBride Atelier, 3 East Fifty-second street, by telling ‘hocus-pocus stories’ of exaggerated profits on home made Louis XIV chairs and on [decorating jobs] is told of in a suit the partner, Nova A Brown, has had prepared to file in the Supreme Court, claiming $25,000 in damages.”

The McBride Atelier would not survive much longer.  On May 6, 1920 The Sun and the New-York Herald reported that McBride had leased “the three story store and studio apartment…to the Elm Tree Tea Room.” 
photo by Alice Lum

Upstairs Primrose House opened its shop and offices.   Elsie Waterbury Morris ran the business which promised that “Here Dwells Youth.”   Selling “Face-Molding Cream,” “Balsam Astringent,” Primrose House Hair Tonic,” and “Primrose House Hand Cream,” a 1921 advertisement in Theatre Magazine questioned “Do you cover up the years—or take them off?  Are you young only when your maid gets through with you—or are you young from the inside out?”

The shop offered consultations by “the most experienced specialists” that included instruction in posture and face molding.

In the meantime the Elm Tree Tearoom became a favorite for women’s society functions.   On January 28, 1921 The League of American Pen Women, New York Auxiliary, hosted its dinner here, followed by a business meeting and election of officers.

By 1926 the ground floor was home to a store called Anna Stabler, Inc., run by Miss C. A. McCann.  On February 13 that year Ruth Ruickholdt entered the store and began selecting expensive items of clothing.  The wife of Dr. William Ruickholdt of New Haven, Connecticut, she settled on “the purchase of gowns, slippers and other articles,” according to The New York Times.  She handed over a check in the amount of $153 as payment (about $1500 today).

Unfortunately for both Mrs. Ruickholdt and the store, she had no account at the First National Bank of San Francisco where the check was drawn.   Mrs. Ruickholdt, it turned out, had recently been released from Auburn prison after a six-year term for grand larceny.

“The devil took me by the hand,” she cried, “and walked me into that store.  What is a woman to do when she comes out of prison…My clothes were all worn out—like my heart.”   Ruth Ruickholdt’s period of freedom came to an abrupt end when she was taken away to the Women’s Prison at Jefferson Market.

Anna Stabler, Inc. was gone by 1940 and a nightclub, the Whirling Top, was in the ground floor.  Its operators, the 3 East Fifty-second Street Corporation, were indicted on June 4 that year for collecting $5,000 in Federal tax from its patrons, but never turning the funds over to the government.

It was perhaps that financial difficulty that ended the life of the Whirling Top; but within the year the nightclub had become La Vie Parisienne.    The new club soon experienced similar troubles.

In July 1944 the city charged that the nightclub owed $13,000 in sales taxes.   The government placed “watch dogs” at the club and two others, the Copacabana and the Stork Club, to review the evening’s receipts and taxes due.

Club owner Arthur Lesser was irate.  “He said his place seated only 75 persons,” said The Times, “that he had been in business only two years and it would take at least six years to take in the $1,300,000 receipts indicated by the city’s sales tax claim of $13,000.”

Despite Lesser’s protests, a month later on August 15 Edward G. Elkins, a personal property custodian for the city, was on hand at the club’s 4:00 a.m. closing.  He appropriated the evening’s receipts as partial payment against the city’s claim.

It was the last straw for La Vie Parisienne, up to now one of the city’s most glamorous nightclubs.  The Treasury Department and the city had scheduled a public sale of the club's assets for later that week.   The city foreclosed on the “club’s fixtures, furniture and equipment” and ordered the club closed.

While the drama was playing out on the ground floor, upstairs Bernard Lamotte had taken the upper floors as his art studio.  Lamotte, a painter, had studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  Reportedly his studio was the gathering place of motion picture stars like Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and French actor Jean Gabin. 
photo by Alice Lum

In the early 1960s the quaint cottage-style building became home to La Grenouille, opened by Charles Masson and his wife, Gisele.   Masson, who was also an part-time artist, already knew Bernard Lamotte’s work through his murals at the 1939 World’s Fair restaurant Le Pavillon where Masson had worked.    The two often worked together in Lamotte’s studio creating paintings. 

Following Charles Masson’s death in 1975, his son, also named Charles, took over La Grenoille. The walls of the main dining room exhibit works by both his father and Lamotte.  The restaurant is renowned among New Yorkers for its fine French cuisine.  Its elegant interiors successfully hide any hint of the nightclubs, exclusive women’s store, and interior decorating shop that shared the space since 1913.

The storybook building stands in stark contrast to its ultra-modern Midtown neighbors -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. I thought that Mme. Restell's house was a very large brownstone fronting Fifth Avenue at the corner and running East along fifty-second street, with the entrance of her office on the fifty-second street side of the house with its own address of #3. The photographs I have seen have always led me to believe that #3 was one in the same as the house that fronted Fifth. Am I wrong?

  2. Watching yet again the 1948 film “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” and this time noticed in the opening street scenes of Manhattan a canopy sign for the “Whirling Top.” Quick Google and there were old nightclub matchbooks (on eBay) and this fascinating article detailing the incredible history of this building! Traditional French restaurant La Grenouille has been there since 1962 and I will most definitely stop in on my next NYC trip. Thank you!