Saturday, August 30, 2014

The 1904 Hotel Latham -- No. 4 East 28th Street

By the turn of the century Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens had all but abandoned Fifth Avenue south of 34th Street.  High end retailers like art galleries and dressmakers took over the mansions not yet razed and replaced by commercial structures.  The side streets—like 28th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues—rapidly saw the rise of high-end hotels.  These were as much apartment buildings as they were lodging houses for travelers.

In 1904 L. George Forgotston climbed on the bandwagon with plans for an upscale hotel stretching from No. 4 through 8 East 28th Street.  His would be just one of several Beaux Arts-style hotels lining the block opposite the still-fashionable St. Leo’s Church.

Forgotston commissioned architect Augustus N. Allen to design his Latham Hotel.  Twelve stories tall, it was surprisingly restrained at a time when hotel facades dripped with carved festoons and frothy ornaments.  Instead Allen’s two-story limestone base featured formal fluted Ionic pilasters.  The sole ornamentation of the brick façade above were the copper-clad bays which not only added dimension; but caught any wafting summer breeze.

Allen turned to an innovative building material for the upper floors.  Rather than the expected red or yellow clay brick his were a grayish color.  This was due to their composition—what the Real Estate Record & Builder’s Guide termed “sand-lime brick.”  A mixture of lime and sand, the bricks were pressed into shape by heavy machinery, then hardened under pressure in large cylinders.  The Guide noted “Its appearance is said to be very pleasing.”

As with all the hotels in the neighborhood, the Latham offered permanent and transient accommodations.  At lobby level was the Café Thomas and by 1907 it had become a destination spot.  What to Eat, in January 1907, said the café “is the headquarters of buyers for great mercantile houses in other parts of the country.  It has an interesting collection of prints and views reminiscent of old New York.  This restaurant is also a favorite resort of women shoppers.”
A postcard of the lobby showed marble walls and leather tufted furniture.
That year Mrs. J. P. Case was staying at the Latham and on April 11 her mother, Mrs. Sarah E. Anderson arrived from Baltimore to join her.  The following morning Mrs. Case woke after dreaming that something horrible had happened to her mother.  The Evening World reported later that day, “So strong was her premonition that Mrs. Case ran to her mother’s room and tried to arouse her.”

Tragically, Sarah Anderson had died of a heart attack.  “The shock undid the daughter,” said the newspaper.  Mrs. Case threw open a window and screamed for help.  Her shrieks caused guests in the nearby Prince George Hotel to flock to their windows.  She was put in the care of the Latham’s in-house physician, Dr. Bellamy.

“Mrs. Case was in a highly nervous state from her experience, and for a time it was feared she would be critically ill.  She responded to restoratives but Dr. Bellamy was obliged to remain by her for the rest for the night,” said The Evening World.

A 1909 advertisement lured tourists and businessmen -- New-York Tribune, June 6, 1909 (copyright expired)
A year later broker James R. Collins and his wife moved into the Latham.  They had previously been living in a suite of rooms at the Plaza where, according to the New-York Tribune “Collins spent his money lavishly.”

In May 1908 the Collins’ hotel bill there had risen to $250—in the neighborhood of $6,500 today.  The couple moved out, leaving a check for $125 as partial payment, and secured rooms in the Latham.  The problem was that the check was no good.

The New-York Tribune noted “Collins, it is said, was once wealthy.”  Apparently those days were over.  The Plaza management filed a complaint and on July 15, 1908 the Latham Hotel suffered an untidy scene when Collins was led out in handcuffs.

The Hotel Latham had much to offer.  As its advertisements boasted, it was just one block from Madison Square Garden, “one door from Fifth Avenue,” and was touted as fireproof.  There were 300 rooms which ranged in price from $1.50 a day and up, to $2.00 per day and up for rooms with private baths.

In the dining room a painted border depicts children in various seasons.

Perhaps the Latham’s most curious resident in the pre-World War I years was Marion Hamilton-Grey.  The young man “represented himself to be heir to the Dukedom of Hamilton in Scotland,” reported The New York Times on January 21, 1910. 

Police Inspector McCafferty received word that Hamilton-Grey, a suspected con artist, had recently come to New York.  McCafferty traced him to the Hotel Latham.  But the guest had recently left, leaving an outstanding bill of $10.50.  That bill was settled by the St. George’s Society, the inspector learned.  The Times explained that, according to E. D. Langley of the Society, “the young man represented himself as a nephew of Col. Hamilton-Grey of the British Army in India, and had declared that he had an allowance of $4,000 a year, but that this was being held up temporarily abroad because of trouble he had had with the executors of his father’s estate.”  The St. George’s Society paid the hotel bill and gave the man a furnished room on West 24th Street.

Inspector McCafferty now took Detectives McKenna and Cassassa to the 24th Street address where they found “their quarry” near 8th Avenue. When the detectives told Hamilton-Grey they wanted to talk to him, they were startled when they heard the response.

“Why, you’re no man.  You’re a girl!” Cassassa said after hearing the voice.

“Well, what’s the harm in that?  I never said I wasn’t.”

Now in custody, the 19-year old girl said she had been born in Punjab, India.  Her father had been Colonel Hamilton-Grey and she was orphaned at the age of four.  An “old friend in India had advised her to adopt men’s clothes as an easier means of making her living, and she had followed his advice for the last ten years,” said The Times.

“The girl made a handsome youth in her boy’s clothing.  Her brown hair was clipped short like a man’s and she wore a gray suit, gray slouch hat, and gray overcoat with a gray stock.  She had black patent leather shoes and wore blue spats over them,” reported the newspaper.

The fine wardrobe resulted in her being charged with “masquerading in men’s clothing.”  She had her suspicions concerning who set the police on her trail.  “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a wealthy widow of Newark was behind this,” she said at the police station.  “She fell in love with me and never forgave me when I wouldn’t marry her.”

Despite down-on-their-luck guests like Collins and Hamilton-Grey, the Latham continued to see well-to-do residents.   Among them were John Gilbert Gulick, his wife, and their son Earl.  On October 19, 1913 the New-York Tribune’s society page noted that they “have returned to the city from their summer home at Lake Hopatcong and are at the Prince George.  They will take possession of their apartments at the Hotel Latham to-morrow for the winter.”

Charles Vail, Vice President of the Transcontinental Freight Company rented rooms here in 1913—but his purposes were less upstanding that those of the Gulicks.  On the evening of December 12 that year he entered the hotel with a suitcase.  When he appeared in the lobby half an hour later he was in “faultless evening dress and accompanied by a tall, blonde woman,” according to The Evening World nearly a year later on November 20.

What the wealthy executive did not realize was that his wife, Emma, had a private detective trailing him.  After the couple had dinner at the Hotel Imperial, they returned to the Latham.  

The detective had checked the register where they were signed in as “Mr. and Mrs. Vail, Chicago.”  With Vail and the blonde upstairs, he summoned Emma.  She brought several witnesses with her and they commenced a raid on Room No. 1102.

The detective testified in the subsequent divorce case, “The woman pulled the bedclothes over her face, but wasn’t quick enough for Mrs. Vail, who struck her.  Then she went after her husband.”

Caught red-handed—or red-faced, anyway—Vail was directed to pay his now-former wife $100 a month alimony. 

The protruding bays extended along the side wall.

By now World War I was raging in Europe.  Far from the fighting, the Hotel Latham felt the effects.  Many of the tourists who stopped at the hotel were European and a large percentage of those were German.  By the end of 1915 the hotel had to close.

On November 25, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported that the hotel “will close its doors at noon to-morrow, according to an announcement made last night by Albert Pratt, the manager…The European war is given as one of the contributing causes to the failure.  Many German patrons since the war started have failed to put up at the hotel.”

The same day The New York Times reported that “Guests were notified last night that they would have to seek other quarters, and all employes received notice that their service would terminate tomorrow.”

The extremely short notice given to hotel residents resulted in tragedy for one elderly man.  Lawrence Peterson had been living here for a year and a half.  His father had been the owner of Peterson’s Magazine of Philadelphia, by now out of publication.  Mary Casey, proprietress of the Hotel Latham, told a reporter “he was the sole heir to an estate amounting to about $10,000,000.”

Petersen’s finances, however, were tied up in a trust and its executor, G. F. Kean, gave him only a few dollars a week.  Now forced to find new accommodations, the old man was panic-stricken.  The stress of his situation finally became too much.

The Times reported on November 26 “An old man, well dressed, but penniless, stumbled into the lobby of the Home Club, an apartment house at 11 East Forty-fifth Street, last night and told an elevator boy to summon a doctor because he felt he was reaching his end.”  The newspaper said “As the Hotel Latham was about to close by order of a bankruptcy referee he said he did not know where to go.”

The elevator boy suggested calling a taxi, but Peterson said he did not have a penny to pay for one.  Before a doctor could arrive, Peterson had died of a heart attack. 

Peterson had earlier pleaded with Mary Casey.  “He said he was more than sixty years old and that nobody would give him a home if he were put out of the Latham…It is believed at the hotel that this circumstance aggravated the heart trouble which caused his sudden death,” said The Times.

Within a year the hotel was back on its feet.  Like every hotel, the Latham had its share of heartbreaking stories.  Around the first of November in 1916 Brooklyn Union Gas Company employee B. L. Graham checked in.

In the first years of the 20th century the leading cause of death in the United States was tuberculosis.  Around 110,000 Americans died each year from the disease, and those diagnosed were normally whisked away to be isolated in sanatoriums.  A few months earlier Graham had been diagnosed with the deadly illness.

Late on the night of November 2, when Graham had not been seen coming or going for some time, Manager Max Hoestmann sent a porter to check on him.

“The porter opened the door with his master-key,” reported The Evening World.  “On the bed he found Graham’s lifeless body.  He clasped tightly the picture of his wife.  By the bed was an automatic pistol with one chamber empty.”

Graham had shot a bullet into his head.  The newspaper described the photograph of “a remarkably handsome young woman in evening dress.  She was sitting.  A string of pearls hung gracefully about her neck.”  On the reverse Graham had written:

God keep and make happy this girl—the sweetest and most wonderful woman in all the world.

Following the war’s end the Latham remained a respectable hotel for years.  In 1920 Margaret Prescott Montague stayed here as her motion picture Uncle Sam of Freedom Ridge opened at the three Manhattan theaters.  Montague told reporters that the purpose of her film was “to express the idea of the League of Nations, and, more fundamentally, to impress upon all the ideas of atonement and resurrection.”

The Depression years saw a change to the Latham and to its neighborhood.  Called by Rider’s New York City Guide a “quiet family hotel” in 1923, by 1931 it attracted a more sordid clientele.  On the evening of March 31, 1931 several men including a former vice squad policeman, Richard E. Ganley, were playing poker in one of the rooms.  Suddenly three men broke into the room with drawn guns and ordered the poker players to line up against the wall.

Ganley, however, pulled his service pistol and fired at the leader of the gang, William Horowitz.  What ensued was described by the Brooklyn Standard Union on April 10 as “a gun battle.”  When it was over, 53-year old Albert Shaw, one of the card players, lay dead.  Howoritz, badly wounded, was captured in the hotel lobby and charged with murder.

One of the Latham’s most renowned residents was photographer William Henry Jackson.  He was 99 years old when he fell and hurt himself here on June 26, 1942.  He was highly responsible for the creation of Yellowstone National Park when his photographs of the magnificent landscapes were presented to Congress in 1872.  Four days after his fall he died in Midtown Hospital and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

But the most notorious guest of all would be Rudolf Abel who lived here in 1957.  FBI agents shadowed the man, finally knocking on his door at 7:02 on the morning of June 21.  In a search of the room the agents found a hollow shaving brush and hollow pencils, used for hiding microfilm; cameras for producing “microdots;” and other Cold War Era espionage paraphernalia.  He was arrested as a Soviet spy.

Five years later, in February 1962, the United States government exchanged Abel for Francis Gary Powers.  Powers had been shot down over Russian in a U-2 spy plane, creating an incident reported globally.

The respectable days of the Hotel Latham were already over and things would get worse before they got better.  By 1983 the city was using the building as a home for “displaced families.”  There were 25 homeless families living in the hotel that year.  On August 31 Philip Shenon of The New York Times described “At the Latham, in the light of bare bulbs and short white strands of neon lights, rats crawl across the floors, and paint peels on the walls.  Roaches, water bugs and ants crowd the sinks.  Toilets frequently do not work, and repairs are slow.  Halls and stairwells reek of mildew, urine, and marijuana.”

On January 25, 1988 one man was fatally shot and four others wounded in a gun battle over illegal drugs.  The bodies fell to the sidewalk directly in front of the Latham Hotel.

Two other hotels of the period survive alongside the Latham.
Today the once-proud Hotel Latham has been rescued by businessman and philanthropist Carl Celian Icahn.  Now called the Icahn House, East, the renovated facility houses the homeless and provides medical care.  Considering its sometimes harsh past, the exterior appearance of the Hotel Latham is astoundingly unchanged since 1904.

photographs taken by the author

Friday, August 29, 2014

The 1891 Chas. E. Campbell House -- No. 212 Lenox Avenue

No. 212 was one of a row of four dwellings designed as a whole.  photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
By the time developers John M. Woods & Co., of Boston, completed the four speculative mansions at No. 206 to 212 Lenox Avenue in 1892, Dr. Charles E. Campbell was well-established and highly regarded in the medical community.  Four years earlier when rumors of foul play surrounded the untimely death of actress Lilian Olcott, it was Campbell’s testimony regarding her demise that put reporters’ suspicions to rest.

Born in Canada, Campbell had come to New York in 1857 and studied medicine in the New York Homoeopathic Medical College.  During the Civil War he was stationed in Washington, serving as a surgeon.  Then in 1888, the same year that Lilian Olcott died, the physician purchased an idle factory in Dexter, New York.  As a drastically different second occupation, he established the Dexter Sulphite Pulp and Paper Company.

By now the Lenox Avenue neighborhood had developed a respectable reputation as well.   Grand residences replaced the farm houses and country estates that had populated the area only a few decades earlier.  Although the New York subway would not be extended into Harlem until 1900; the owners of these properties did not need it--they rode in carriages.  In 1886 The New York Times described the area as “particularly desirable and all the houses that have been put up in this neighborhood are handsome, well-built, elegant structures, and the locality is free from many objectionable features.”

The four homes erected by John M. Woods & Co. were designed to form a visual unit.  Nos. 206 and 212 at the ends were nearly matching, and with the two identical homes in between, the group resembled a single, grand estate.

No. 212 Lenox Avenue did not sit vacant for long.  In May 1892 Dr. Campbell purchased the house from John M. Woods & Co. for $35,250, according to the Record and Guide on May 28.  For the hefty price (about $871,000 today) Campbell received a stately brick and brownstone mansion that couldn't quite make up its mind architecturally.

The rough-cut parlor and basement floors smacked, mostly, of Renaissance Revival.  An especially quirky dog-leg stoop made several turns before depositing visitors onto the sidewalk.  Two walls of different heights at the property line protected the stoop and the English basement.  Somewhat unexpectedly, the architect installed a classical two-part window like a little Greek temple next to the arched doorway with its oversized, scrolled keystone.  Stained glass transoms flanked the centered Ionic pilaster, and the whole was capped by a formal closed pediment.

The formal window treatment contrasted with the rough-cut facade -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The architect switched gears for the second and third floor; although the rough-cut brownstone continued as quoins up the sides of the red brick façade.  Two-story Romanesque arches connected two of the three bays and handsome terra cotta panels embellished the brick.  Above what was most likely an ambitious cornice was an exuberant Second Empire pyramidal mansard with fish scale tiles boasting a triple-bay dormer with a broken pediment, a hooded bullseye window, and elaborate iron cresting.

The Campbells had two sons.  The year after moving in James E. Campbell graduated from Yale University, publishing his “future address: 212 Lenox Avenue.”  Both James and his brother Clarence would follow their father and become physicians; although James would also serve as Secretary of the Dexter paper mill.

Dr. Campbell strikes a rather jaunty pose.  The Paper Mill and  Wood Pulp News, February 15, 1902 (copyright expired)
Campbell was instrumental in establishing the high-end community on Block Island and the family maintained a summer residence there.  In 1898 Charles had the house enlarged--the same year that he found himself behind bars.  Campbell was not far from his home on August 7, driving a light wagon near along Lenox Avenue at 120th Street.  He suddenly collided with Japanese bicyclist Meta Sago.  The 21-year old was “knocked from his wheel and sustained a severe scalp wound,” reported The New York Times.  He was taken to Harlem Hospital.  Campbell was arrested and “later was bailed out.”

By 1894 the Campbells were renting a room in the house.  That year E. A. Maher was boarding here when he two other investors formed The Electric Illuminating and Power Company of Long Island City. 

Close inspection reveals delicate carving on either side of the scrolled keystone -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

For at least four years, from  1902 through 1906, Dr. Frank Clerk Yeomans practiced medicine from the house.  Somewhat of a prodigy, Yeomans had graduated from Cornell University Medical School in 1900 with “highest honors” and received the Harriet Crocker Alexander Prize of $150 for general proficiency.  He became a member of the surgical staff of New York Hospital.  “He completed his service there January, 1902, and since then has been practicing medicine at 212 Lenox Avenue,” reported Yale University’s Sexennial Record in 1905.   By the following year he had been made Clinical Assistant in Surgery in the Cornell University Hospital’s Genito-Urinary Diseases Department.

Dr. Yeoman was gone in October 1908 when the Campbells placed a new advertisement in the New-York Tribune.  “Large front room in private family; gentlemen only; reference.”

Dr. Chester Rutter Brown answered the ad and would be in the house for at least two years.  He advertised his office hours “Until 10 A.M., 12 to 1 P.M., excepting Sundays and Wednesdays 6 to 8 P.M.  telephone Harlem 276.”

It appears that the Campbells leased the room because of tenuous financial circumstances.  Despite his medical practice and the seemingly successful paper mill, Charles Campbell nearly lost the mansion in 1909.  A Sheriff’s Sale was scheduled for Tuesday, December 20 “of all rights, title, etc., which C. E. Campbell had on Oct 23, 1906 or since.”

Somehow Charles E. Campbell held on to the Lenox Avenue house; and his funeral would be held in the parlor four years later.  In September 1913 the 72-year old died in the Block Island house following an operation.  In reporting his death The New York Times called him “one of the oldest practicing physicians in the city.”

Campbell’s widow continued to live on in the Lenox Avenue house and was highly active in charitable causes.  In April 1917, for instance, she hosted the monthly meeting of the New York Fresh Air Fund for Adults and Elderly People.

She continued to lease a room and on Friday, July 16, 1920 Jane E. Sinakoss died in the house.  The woman known as “Poddie,” was given a requiem mass at the beautiful Church of St. Thomas the Apostle on West 118th Street.

Only three years later another roomer would die here.  Virginia W. Gillespie Baldwin, widow of Colonel W. E. Baldwin of Columbia, Mississippi, died on February 28, 1923.  The funeral services were held in the house on March 2.

Four months later, after occupying the mansion for three decades, the Campbell family sold No. 212 Lenox Avenue.  In reporting the sale, The Times noted “The property was held at $32,000 and the sale carries with it possession.  Alterations will be made for business purposes.”

It was the end of the line for the 20-foot wide home as a private family residence.  It was divided into apartments and became home to a variety of tenants, like Ralph Moragne and his wife who lived here during the 1940s.  Moragne was at the time a military policeman stationed at No. 31 West 110th Street.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
Despite the indignation suffered by many of the once-grand homes in Harlem during the 20th century, No. 212 Lenox Avenue escaped relatively intact on the outside.  The cornice and the detailing of the windows above the entrance most likely became victims of a legally-required fire escape.  Yet despite this (and unsympathetic replacement windows) the house with its charming mish-mash of styles manages to retain its 19th century dignity.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Calvert Vaux's Last Work--The Columbus Park

Jacob Riis proudly documented the park he had so long lobbied for.  The no-walking-on-the-grass rule was firmly in place.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Armed with a camera, social reformer Jacob Riis set out to change the condition of New York’s poorest citizens.  An area of his greatest focus was the notorious Mulberry Bend—a neighborhood so filthy and ridden with disease and crime that it shocked even Charles Dickens.

In 1842, Dickens wrote in his American Notes for General Circulation, “This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth.  Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere.  The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over.”

Riis photographed the wretched living conditions of the immigrants and nearly single-handedly pressed the city to improve their plights.  One of his ambitions was the demolition of the ramshackle wooden “rookeries” along the bend in Mulberry Street and erecting a park where children could breathe fresh air and play.

Riis photographed this down-and-out man on Mulberry Street around 1890 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1893, the city agreed to look into the project.  The Board of Street Opening and Improvement agreed that the city would pay 70 percent of the cost, passing the remainder to the property holders.  Understandably, the owners of worthless slum property had no intention of paying for a park.  And so on May 19, 1893, the Legislature begrudgingly agreed that the city would shoulder the entire cost.  City officials protested to the Governor, no doubt influenced by the amount of funds that would be spent for a park in the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhood.

Worse, the politics of the Mulberry Bend Park project became tarnished when graft was uncovered.  On July 17, 1894, the New-York Tribune complained “The whole history of this Mulberry Bend Park has been full of Tammany scandals…In many ways Mulberry Bend Park has been made to yield handsome revenues for Tammany pets.”  And yet, so far, nothing more than talk had been done to start the project.

Residents were skeptical that they would get a park at all.  On September 29, 1895, The Sun wrote, “’It looks as if the park will never be completed,’ said one of the old-time residents yesterday. ‘It is as it was months ago.  I expected to see it by this time laid out with fine walks and green lawns, but the only thing green about it to-day is one poor lone tree, that grew there when the Reform baby was in its cradle.’”

The newspaper described the site.  “The property acquired for the proposed park extends from Park to Bayard streets, and from Baxter to Mulberry streets, and takes in about three square blocks.  Words can scarcely describe its present condition.

“Shortly after the city took title the authorities found they had 130 buildings on their hands.  The buildings were of all shapes and conditions.  There were six-story double-deckers of brick and one-story frame shanties.  There were dwelling houses, dance halls, and horse sheds.”

Finally, the buildings were demolished.  The residents—men, women, and children alike—turned out with anything they could find to dig in the dirt, becoming “brick miners.”  Throughout the three-block site the financially-desperate neighbors scraped and dug, finding loose bricks which they cleaned and sold for extra money.

After years of planning, Mulberry Bend Park was finally opened on June 15, 1897.  It had been designed by New York’s preeminent park architect—Calvert Vaux.  He laid out wide, sinuous paths that encompassed swards of green sod—something none of the immigrant children had seen before.  The intersections of the paths created broad areas where children could play away from the dangers of the streets.  (These sections were necessary since the grass was strictly off limits.) 

Vaux created a focal point in the Pavilion, designed by John Galen Howard and Samuel Milbank Cauldwell.  The airy, stucco-covered, multi-use structure smacked of the Italians' homeland.  Newspapers would also refer to the building as the band-stand, the shelter house, and the summer-house.  Calvert Vaux would not see the neighbors enjoy it nor his park.  He died on November 19, 1895 before Mulberry Bend Park was completed.

Reportedly, Jacob Riis waited for an invitation to the opening of the park he had so long lobbied for.  It never came.  He did, however, attend as a spectator and received a whack across the back from a policeman’s billy club for walking on the new sod.

The Sun published a sketch of the Pavilion in its June 16, 1897 report of the park's opening (copyright expired)

The New York Times reported on the fanfare of the park’s opening, including F. W. Bent’s brass band.  “This band soon began a series of polyglot tunes, which were appropriate to the babel of tongues and races in the park below.”  Mayor William Lafayette Strong, Park Commission President Samuel McMillan and other officials presided from the Pavilion.

The newspaper commented on the neighborhood residents.  “It was as motley an assemblage as could be got together in any place in the world.  Costumes have almost disappeared, but there were still to be seen, the robes of China, the loose blouselike shirts of Italy and Sicily, and the gaudy colors of the women of the South of Europe; and everywhere, at every pause in the music could be heard a medley of tongues that ran the lingual gamut from English to Yiddish.”

The Sun spoke of the many children in the crowd.  “From the crowded tenements about what used to be Mulberry Bend there trooped last night children by scores, and by hundreds, and by thousands to attend the opening exercises of Mulberry Bend Park.  So many of them were there that little room was left for their elders; but this was as it should be, for the park was made for the children.”

The bend of Mulberry Street is evident in this photo, with the Pavilion prominent in the background.  To the right, one of the last of the old Mulberry Bend buildings still stands -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

The New York Times reminded readers of what had previously been here.  “It formed a striking antithesis to the picture of the old Mulberry Bend, reeking in filth, where men too often met for dark deeds instead of mirth.  The wide space and the grass and the open air had banished crime, and let in sunlight and open, cheerful life.”

Although Jacob Riis was not invited to speak, Commissioner Waring called for three cheers for the reformer “to whom, he declared, the chief credit for getting the park was due,” reported The Sun.  The newspaper estimated that 5,000 persons were present for the ceremonies.

The new park had cost the city about $1.5 million—nearly $41 million today.  The New-York Tribune praised the project.  “With the sunlight shining brightly upon its sweep of green, its well-washed asphalt, and its glistening white pavilion, Mulberry Bend Park, a breathing place these days for thousands of Italians, is a remarkable change from the old ‘Bend’ that was the abode of vileness.  Not an iota of picturesqueness has been sacrificed, for the scene now reminds one irresistibly of a bit of an Italian city.”

Two immigrant women tend for a child in a rather romanticized Victorian depictionThe Pavilion can be seen in the background -- Harper's Weekly July 1897 (copyright expired)

The park's Pavilion would serve as a neighborhood gathering place.  Once a week, on Tuesday evenings at 8:00, free band concerts were held.  The overworked women brought their children and enjoyed a rare respite in the park.  “Before 9 o’clock all the walks were crowded with tired mothers and babies, who were willing to stand in order to hear the band play,” described The New York Times on July 7, 1897.  “The park policemen and officers from the Elizabeth Street Station specially detailed had no trouble in keeping order, as the crowd seemed too tired to be demonstrative even when the band played popular airs.”

Reformers and politicians alike closely watched the experiment of Mulberry Bend Park.  Five years later, on September 11, 1903, The Evening World felt that the results were in.  “Since the day Mulberry Bend Park was opened the death rate in that section has gone down steadily.  The people no longer live on the fire-escapes in summer.  There is a bit of green in front of the doors of the tenements, and a place for the children to romp and play without fear of the heavy trucks.”

As it did at the turn of the century, the Pavilion serves the neighborhood -- photo by Alice Lum

The mere presence of a handsome park in the midst of the slum did not eradicate poverty and crime, of course.  During the severe winter of 1903 residents sought out the warmth of the park’s Pavilion.  “Men and boys sun themselves all morning against the wall of the shelter pavilion in Mulberry Bend Park, and have to be driven from the heated basement of the pavilion,” said The Sun on December 20.

The homeless used the Pavilion as shelter.  Later, in 1913, The Missionary Review related the story of a reformed alcoholic who said in part “But there came a time when I flung the whole thing up.  Hope died right out in my life and I loafed about the city, and slept in the Mulberry Bend Park pavilion—down on the stone floor.  I was beaten at last.”

In 1914, the New-York Tribune wrote a human interest story about a neighborhood character named Giuseppe.  “In the meantime he lived on bread and onions begged from the kitchen doors of the tiny restaurants and slept beneath the bandstand in Mulberry Bend Park.”

The Pavilion narrowly missed being renovated as a school building annex in 1904.  Although Public School 23, which stood across from the park, held 1,800 pupils, it was overcrowded.  On March 12 that year The New York Times reported “The large Summer house in Mulberry Bend Park may soon be converted into a temporary school structure.”  But many of the Board of Education commissioners were opposed to Mayor McClellan’s plan, telling reporters “the preservation of this park was particularly desired because of the squalid conditions of the surrounding buildings.”

For the impoverished residents of Mulberry Bend it took little to bring a glimmer of joy.  This was illustrated on May 25, 1907 when the Moderation Society distributed flowers from the Pavilion.  A sign was posted earlier announcing that the flowers would be given out at 2:00.

“Long before that time a line of pretty young Italian girls and noisy boys had formed,” said The New York Times the following day.  “A howl from several hundred throats announced the approach of the truck of flowers.  One crate, two barrels, and three boxes, filled with flowers, were quickly emptied of their contents [by the Society workers].”

The girls took home dogwoods and violets and other flowers—simple niceties that were so rare in their tenement homes.  The New York Times headline read, “Mulberry Bend Made Happy.”

photo by Alice Lum

In 1911 Mulberry Bend Park was renamed.  Once again Jacob Riis was snubbed.  Instead of naming the park in his honor; commissioners dubbed it Columbus Park in deference to the Italian community which by now made up the majority of the residents.

Nine years later the neighborhood was still predominately Italian, although nearby Chinatown was growing steadily closer.  On September 13, 1920, a group of Mulberry Bend boys went on a mischievous escapade to snatch and stomp the highly-popular boaters men were wearing.

The straw boater on the man at lower left would be fair game on Sept 13, 1920  photo by Louis H. Deyer from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Evening World reported the following day, “A gang of boys from ten to twenty years old went from the Mulberry Bend Park Italian section through Chinatown last night to put all the straw hats they encountered out of business.  Chinese, lobbygows and loafers disappeared after the first onslaught had left many straw wrecks on the streets and sidewalks.”

When a sightseeing bus deposited its passengers the boys descended.   “The minute they piled into the streets of Chinatown the horde was upon them.  They didn’t know whether it was murder or mere robbery, but the men fought valiantly and the women used their umbrellas to good purpose.”

By the second half of the 20th century Chinatown had engulfed the Mulberry Bend section.  In 2006 Calvert Vaux’s expanses of grass and his serpentine pathway were paved over.  A $900,000 playing field for both basketball and volleyball was installed which incorporated synthetic turf with asphalt.  Happily the Pavilion not only survived, but was given a restoration as part of the $3.5 million park renovation.

photo by Alice Lum

The Pavilion survives charmingly intact within the last public work of Calvert Vaux—best known for designing Central Park with Frederick Olmsted—and in a much changed Mulberry Bend neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The 1902 Automobile Stables on East 75th Street

On November 24, 1899 The New York Times reported that the McKenny estate “has sold the five three-story dwellings 168 to 176 East Seventy-fifth Street.”  The rowhouses had been built in 1880 and their impending demolition was sparked as much by the change in the neighborhood as by a revolution in transportation.

Fifteen months later, on February 22, 1902, Western Electrician reported that “Edmund C. Stout of the firm of Hill & Stout, architects, will undertake the erection of five automobile stables on the lots 168 to 176 East Seventy-fifth Street, New York.”  There were wealthy New Yorkers who adamantly argued that the horseless carriage was simply a fad; one that would never replace the dependable horse.  Others disagreed.

By the first years of the 20th century, millionaires added automobiles as an alternative means of getting about.  Hill & Stout’s “automobile stables” would take care of that new-found problem of where to house the expensive contraptions.

Three days before Western Electrician’s article, The Horseless Age described the new buildings, mentioning “we have never heard of any being built solely for the use of automobiles.”  The magazine assumed that a new word would be coined for such buildings.  “Whether the term ‘automobile stables’ is correct or whether some word suitable to the keeping of automobiles should be coined to take the place of the word stables will develop with the extensive use of automobiles, which is sure to come.

“It seems rather incongruous to call buildings in which horseless carriages are kept stables.”

The magazine felt “This novel departure in the method of keeping motor vehicles should certainly appeal to anyone who has two or more machines, for the disadvantages and annoyances to an owner of several machines of being compelled to keep them in a public repair station is well known, and it is equally disagreeable to keep them in the same stable with horses.”

Stout & Hill's draughtsman H. W. Dyer produced a detailed drawing in 1902 -- The Horseless Age, February 19, 1902 (copyright expired)

Edmund C. Stout’s automobile stables followed closely the traditional layout of a carriage house:  Centered double bay doors were flanked by an entrance and a window.  A large arched window over the bay doors harkened to the hay loft of many stables.  Like the carriage houses of Manhattan’s millionaires, these garages would be architecturally appealing and upscale.

The first floor of each garage was capable of housing up to five automobiles.  Industrial-type elevators would lower the cars to the cellar “which is entirely open, well ventilated and dry, thus adapted for storage of machines not in constant use.”   The rear portion of the ground level contained a washing station, a repair pit so mechanics could easily get under the cars, a fully-equipped work bench, and an “electric charging board.”

Floor plans show handsome, octagonal rooms with fireplaces on the second floor of Nos. 168 and 176 The Horseless Age, February 19, 1902 (copyright expired)

The second floor was elegantly outfitted for the owner’s use “or for the family of the chauffeur or machinist, as the owner may elect.”  The wealthy owner who elected to turn this level over to a worker and his family would be generous.  There was a billiard room with fireplace at the rear, and a 17-foot square room to the front with another fireplace where the spacious arched window overlooked the street.  The Horseless Carriage noted “This room may be used as a stitting room or dining room, and off of it is an alcove of generous proportions in which a bed or a lounge can be placed.”

Next to the alcove was a modern bathroom that included a “shower bath.”  There was also a kitchen on this floor.

Stout used blackened bricks to create designs in the facades, as seen in No. 176 here.

The third floor was designated as the “chauffeur’s apartments.”  Here were a large living room, three bedrooms, a “commodious bath,” and a gas range, pantry closet, washtubs, and other conveniences.   The top floor contained two bedrooms to the rear, a water closet, and a large living room with a fireplace.  “Thus the floor can be used for storage or for spare bedrooms, or for anything that odd rooms in a house would be ordinarily used for,” said the magazine.

Stout’s charming string of garages, called “in the modern French style of architecture,” by The Horseless Age, were faced in brownish-red Harvard brick with touches of blackened brick used as quoins and highlights.  The architect alternated the roofline with gables and dormers so that the five structures were, as described by Horseless Age, “each separate and distinct, yet are treated as a whole.”

No. 174, above, was owned by millionaire Mortimer Leo Schiff.

The row was completed before the end of 1902 and The New York Times deemed it “a row of five ornate structures.”  The newspaper said “Inside they are luxuriously fitted up, containing on the upper floors a living room, which the owner may use if he feels so disposed, a dining room, and small kitchen, in which suppers or light meals may be prepared, and a billiard room.”

Among the first purchasers was millionaire C. G. K. Billings, who bought No. 172 in April 1903.  The Times said “Mr. Billings’s horses, for which he recently completed a fine stable on Washington Heights, will, it is said, engage less of his attention in the future, and his friends say that his automobile house will contain one of the most imposing assortments of motor vehicles to be found in the city.”

One of the first cars Billings would drive into the garage was his new Mors limousine he had imported from France in October.  The Motor World said “It is an imposing looking car.  It is rated at 45 horsepower, and contains the new features that are directly traceable to the influence of the Mercedes of French construction…The body is of the limousine pattern, roomy and exceedingly comfortable…The appointments are most complete and luxurious.  There is a speaking tube, by means of which the chauffeur can be communicated with, and two electric lights.  The interior is furnished in fawn colored cloth, and the body is finished in a rich cream color, with dark trimmings.”

The garage next door, No. 170, was purchased by financier Hamilton McKown Twombly.  Twombly was a director in several railroads and other firms.  Twombly housed five high-end automobiles in the garage, one of which was destroyed on November 17, 1904.

The following day The New York Times reported on the fire “caused by the explosion of a five-gallon can of gasoline” which did about $500 damage to the building.  “The firemen had considerable trouble in extinguishing the flames,” said the newspaper.  Touring cars and limousines were rapidly removed from the garages; but Twombly’s Mercedes did not make it out.

Motor Age reported “During a fire in the garage of H. McK. Twombly, 170 East Seventy-fifth street, New York, a 60-horsepower Mercedes car, valued at $27,000…was destroyed.”  The loss would amount to about $685,000 today.

A well-dressed gentleman stands in the bay of No. 168 in 1906.  Architectural Record, February 1906 (copyright expired)

Billings’s chauffeur, Harry Cornell who had once been employed by Mayor Hugh j. Grant, lived upstairs at No. 172.  The 35-year old was arrested on the evening of June 15, 1904 and charged “with having in his possession an auto gasoline generator and an electric lamp which were stolen from the Smith & Mayberry automobile sheds at 513 Seventh Avenue,” as reported in The Times the following day.  Billings, it may be assumed, soon searched for a new chauffeur.

The indecision regarding the proper terms to apply to the new automobile age went beyond “automobile stables.”  In 1905 the owner of No. 176 advertised in the newspapers for a “coachman wanted.”

The single garage not purchased by a wealthy auto owner was No. 168.  Instead it became the Continental Automobile School where one could learn to drive for $25 payable in installments.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on March 13, 1906 offered "Come and see our practical school; disappointed scholars from other schools come to us to become competent chauffeurs; foreign and American cars for road work; day and evening classes; no limit to course; French, German and American instructors."

On the other side of Billings’s garage No. 174 was owned by banker Mortimer Leo Schiff.  When his fleet of automobiles outgrew the building by 1909, he commissioned the eminent architect C. P. H. Gilbert to enlarge it.  On July 4 that year The Times reported that the architect had filed plans for the renovations.  (The enlarged facility was still not sufficient and Schiff would eventually purchase a second private garage at No. 212 East 74th Street.)

The quaint garages would not house automobiles for very long.  Billings had sold No. 172 to Robert Schnaier by 1914.  That year, in March, Schnaier leased the upper floors to the Herter Looms.  It was the first hint of changes to come.

In the meantime, Mortimer Schiff maintained his private garage and wealthy Felix Warburg took over No. 170 from Twombly.  No. 168 was owned by another millionaire banker, George F. Baker, First National Bank President.  On September 15, 1916 Warburg found himself in court defending himself for his chauffeur’s reckless driving.  When Edward Mehl was arrested and charged $25 for driving in excess of the speed limit, he explained that he was doing so “under the explicit direction of his employer.”

Judge Beal told Warburg “My object in having you brought here this morning was that I do not approve of the noticeable reticence of employers in cases where chauffeurs get into trouble through following the employer’s instructions.”

Warburg explained that the reason his limousine was speeding (although he maintained he did not direct his chauffeur to speed) was that “he was on his way to Dobb’s Ferry Hospital with a friend, the father of Albert Stern, Jr., who had been shot accidentally,” according to The New York Times.

The Judge accepted Warburg’s explanation, saying “in view of this morning’s developments we’ll forget all about it.”

In 1920 a group of investors formed the Seventy-Fifth Street Syndicate to improve the block.  They purchased more than a dozen buildings and upgraded them to high-end residences.  Among the first of the garages they converted was No. 176.  On September 13, 1920 The New York Times reported “Clara W. M. Tailer is the buyer of the dwelling at 176 East Seventy-fifth Street, sold recently by the Seventy-fifth Street Syndicate.”  The New-York Tribune added “She will alter the house and occupy.”

Clara would not enjoy her new home for long.  On April 29, 1921 she died "suddenly" in the residence.

One by one the other garages were renovated.  In 1921 artist Lawrence Maldarelli was living in No. 172 and Emily Vanderbilt Thayer had taken over No. 176.  The former wife of William H. Vanderbilt, she leased “her house for the season” in September 1930 to banker Maurice Wertheim.  “The season” dragged on for two years with Wertheim leasing the residence through 1932.

By now it appears that only two of the five buildings were still being used as private garages—Mortimer Schiff died in 1931 but No. 174 was still owned by his estate; and No. 168 was still being used by George Baker.  When Schiff’s estate was settled in 1933 the garage was assessed at $46,000; a substantial $775,000 in today’s dollars.

That same year on July 20 The New York Times announced that Emily Vanderbilt Thayer “is married again.”  In what the newspaper called “a quiet home ceremony,” she married writer Raoul Whitfield in the No. 176 East 75th Street house.  The newspaper added that the marriage would be “a surprise to their friends as there had been no announcement of engagement.”

The newlyweds’ blissful lives on East 75th Street would be short lived.  On February 22, 1935 a Times headline read “Emily Whitfield Sues; Former Mrs. Vanderbilt Seeks to Divorce Third Husband.”

No. 176 soon became home to Mr. and Mrs. John A Woodbridge, whose baby daughter was born in 1935.  The Schiff garage, No. 174, was home to Arthur Gray, Jr. and family by the 1940s.  They welcomed their third child in 1948.

The ground floor of two of the garages became commercial spaces.  By the mid-1950s the studio-gallery of sculptress Maria Clapp was in No. 170, and the interior design/antiques business of Gertrude B. Jarvis—called the Jarvis Carriage House—was at No. 172.

The Schiff garage at No. 174 was listed as a five-bedroom single-family home when it went on the market for $6.8 million in August 2008.  Six years later it was back on the market for $14.75 million.

No. 170 is hidden behind construction netting in 2014.
Today two of the former garages, Nos. 174 and 176, are private homes.  The others have been converted to apartments.  The alterations to the charming string have not spoiled their charm and few passersby today realize that a little over a century ago the expensive limousines and “pleasure cars” of Manhattan’s wealthy drove through their doors.

non-historic photographs taken by the author