Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Unexpected Holdout at No. 41 East 41st Street

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

The block of East 41st Street between Madison and Park Avenues is walled by soaring brick and stone commercial buildings.  At No. 41, on the north side of the street, a weary relic breaks the rule—looking part haunted house and part squalid store space.

The building had dignified beginnings.  As the grand mansions of New York’s wealthiest citizens crept up Fifth Avenue in the years following the Civil War, the fashionable tone of the neighborhood spilled onto the side streets.  No. 41 was on the cutting edge of residential style; clad in brownstone it rose three stories over a high English basement.  A wide brownstone stoop would have led from the sidewalk to the parlor level and a handsome mansard roof capped the design.

In 1876 Edward Livermore constructed the high-end Devonshire Hotel on 42st Street that stretched through the block next door to No. 41.  Livermore had purchased the house with his building plot and leased it to moneyed tenants.  Two years later Livermore and his wife, Ann, sold the hotel and house as a package to Wright E. Post, who continued to lease out the home.  According to the New York State Reporter, the annual rent on the house in 1884 was $1,500; or about $3,000 per month today.

Adolphus F. Warburton, his wife and five children lived in the house at the time.  When his father died in 1840, the 12-year old Irish immigrant boy had been forced to leave school and find work in a printing office.  He worked on a newspaper and became interested in a new process of court reporting, “Moot’s stenography.”  While he still toyed with the process, he moved to New York City in 1851 and landed a job setting type for The New York Times. 

In 1854 he started his own law reporting company and nine years later was appointed the official stenographer of the Superior Court, Part I.  The young Irish boy who had to drop out of school became well-known, well-respected and wealthy.  Not forgetting his meager background, he was highly involved with the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, the Protestant Episcopal Church Missionary Society for Seamen, and the Society for Improving Workingmen’s Homes.

While the Warburtons went about their day-to-day life in the house, paying rent to Post, a vicious court battle went on for years.  Edward and Ann Livermore contended that the house was accidentally included in the sale and that Post had no claim to the title.  Post fought back presenting the vaguely-worded terms of sale.  It would be twenty years before the case was settled in favor of Post in 1907.

In the meantime, during the first days of January 1888 Warburton was busy at work in the Superior Court.  But he caught cold and stayed home in bed a few days.  The cold worsened to pneumonia and he died in the house on January 10.

The residence became home to retired merchant William H. Morrell who owned “considerable real estate in the city,” according to The New York Times in 1896.  In February that year the Supreme Court Commission held a hearing to consider the proposal by the Rapid Transit Board to build an “underground railroad” William Morrell was there to voice his strong opinion.

Morrell told the committee that he had studied rapid transit for over 25 five years.  “I have studied underground railroads in London, and while it is practicable there I think it is utterly unsuited for this city,” he said.

The New York Times reported “The underground road, he declared, would never pay, and he asked the commission to report against the scheme.”  Morrell, in the end, did not get his way.

By the turn of the century the neighborhood was greatly changing.  Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Augustus Sherman, who owned the house by 1906, however, stayed on.  In fact, that year when they returned home for the winter season, The Times noted that the house “has been greatly altered during the Summer.”

Herbert Sherman was a well-heeled real estate broker, auctioneer and appraiser.  He was a great-grandson of Roger Sherman, signer of the Declaration of Independence.  It was Sherman who negotiated the massive real estate deal for Andrew Carnegie’s property at Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. 

In August 1913 it was obvious that the once-gracious residential block was doomed to commerce.  Herbert Sherman hired J. Odell Whitenack to convert his house “into a business structure, the three upper floors to be remodeled into non-housekeeping apartments,” said The Times on August 6.  Sherman retained the parlor floor for his real estate business.  In reporting on the planned conversion, the newspaper noted “The district is becoming quite a real estate centre…The entire block has gone into business.”

With the transformation complete the stoop was gone, a retail store was installed at sidewalk level and show windows spread across the former parlor level.  Cresta Blanca Wine Company leased the new store from Sherman on March 14, 1914.  The Times again noted “The building was formerly the residence of Mr. Sherman, and has been altered for business.”
Sherman heavily altered the basement and parlor floors while leaving the upper stories essentially intact. photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

Actually, the family continued to live in one of the apartments in the house.  Four years later on February 24, 1918 Sherman and his wife said good-bye to their daughter Rosamond as she set out for Yokohama, Japan.  Rosamond was to be married to Edward F. Verplanck who was associated with the Standard Oil Company there.  Oddly enough, the Shermans remained in New York and Rosamond was accompanied by her cousin, Mary Evarts Benjamin.

On January 14, 1919 the prominent real estate man died in the house on East 41st Street at the age of 56.  The Sherman estate would hold the property for several years to come.

Throughout the next two decades the upper floors would continue to be residential.  In 1922 Charles Henry was living here when he passed his bar exams and in 1934 Herbert J. Slingo rented an apartment while his wife, Helen, sued for divorce for desertion.  Helen was the daughter of Daniel T. Pierce, executive assistant to the head of the Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation,Harry F. Sinclair.  Slingo was a decorated World War I veteran.

By mid-century, however, the former house was completely commercial.  In 1946 the Real Estate Board of New York had its offices here, and in 1950 the Republican State Committee’s headquarters were in the building.  That same year former Billboard staffer, Ben Smith, opened his own advertising agency at No. 41 under the name of Ben Smith Advertising, Inc.

Then in 1955 residential tenants were back in the building.  The structure was converted to a restaurant and bar at sidewalk level, and offices and a showroom on the second floor.  Upstairs were a huge duplex apartment on the third and fourth floors and a single apartment on the top floor.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
When the building was sold in 2008 for $4.5 million there were three apartments on the upper floors—one per floor.  Today the unexpected holdout is a much-abused version of Herbert Sherman’s 1913 renovation.  With little imagination, however, one can envision the house as it was when the block was lined with handsome brownstone homes of New York’s moneyed citizens.


  1. Wow.......this one makes me want to go right out and rent a pressure washer!


  2. My Grandfather owned the bar on the street level from about 1965 through the early 1980's. It was called O'Brien's Café. His name was Randolph Hoag. If anyone can find older pictures of this property that would be cool. I loss the few the family had in a flood.

    1. My grandmother Catherine O'Brien was the owner of O'Briens Bar & Grill from the death of my grandfather in 1942...she did sell the building but later than 1965...may have leased to your father...

    2. I think I recall eating there. Burgers and chili. Waitress became an actress

  3. We were 4 stewardesses living in the flat on the top floor -yes, that haunted looking portion! (far right window was the kitchen). Ahhh to be young and climb stairs in high heels with luggage!

  4. I currently live in the third floor apartment 10/10 but trash landlord...