Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Hallenbeck-Hungerford Bldg - 80 Lafayette St

photo by Alice Lum
U. T. Hungerford was the guest of honor at a banquet on Wednesday night, December 14, 1922 at New York City’s Hotel Biltmore.  It was a celebration of the metal mogul’s 80th birthday.  Hardware Dealers’ Magazine summed up the industry’s estimation of the man saying “Because of his prominence and years of uninterrupted service in his chosen field, Mr. Hungerford is by many called the ‘Dean of the Brass and Copper Industry.’”

photo Hardware Dealers' Magazine, January 1922 (copyright expired)

By the time of the dinner, Hungerford was also president of the Hungerford Securities Corporation, founder of the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Realty Corporation, and was involved with several other firms related to the copper industry.

Hungerford was born into the copper business.  One of 12 children of John and Charlotte Austin Hungerford, his father had built the first brass mill in Torrington, Connecticut in 1834.  U. T. Hungerford arrived in New York in 1865 as the representative and manager of Wallace & Sons, a brass and copper rolling mills in Ansonia, Connecticut; then established the U. T. Hungerford Brass & Copper Co. in 1895.

The firm’s success was unparalleled and by 1909.  Its 10-story building at the southeast corner of Park and Pearl Streets bordered on the area condemned for the construction of the new Court House.  The City tossed around the possibility of including the U. T. Hungerford building as part of an extended site.

Frustrated, Hungerford and his partner in the real estate firm of Hallenbeck-Hungerford took matters in their own hands.  They purchased land on the southwest corner of Lafayette and White Streets, extending through to Franklin Street, and began plans for a new structure.  “Harry C. Hallenbeck stated last week that he has waited upon the city for about four years to formulate a decision as to what it intended doing, and had become so tired of the delay that he proposed to begin the reconstruction of the lower portion of the Park and Pearl Streets building,” reported The New York Times on July 20, 1913.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide published a sketch of the proposed building on May 23, 1914 (copyright expired)

The plans for the new building were well underway by the time of The Times article.  In January that year The Bridgemen’s Magazine had announced that W. E. Austin had filed plans for a 17-story printing house with an estimated cost of $1.2 million—a jaw-dropping $27.5 million today.

On May 23, 1914 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the tenant list of the uncompleted building was already filling.  “U. T. Hungerford Brass & Copper Company will occupy the ground floor, basement and second floor.  The Wynkoop, Hallenbeck, Crawford Company will occupy about four floors.  Several leases will probably be signed with other tenants within the next few days, as the demand is heavy for space from lithographers, printers, publishers and the diamond trades.”

A real estate advertisement cautioned prospective tenants that space was almost gone -- New York American Real Estate Review and Forecast 1915 (copyright expired)
By now the cost of construction had risen to $2 million.  The Guide called William E. Austin’s design “the most modern building in all its appointments downtown, and is particularly adapted for tenants using heavy machinery, where strength is necessary.”

The New York Times anticipated on April 26, 1914 that the completed building “will be the finest manufacturing building down town.”  It mentioned modern conveniences like “fast contraction elevators, mail chutes, lowerators, ventilating system, etc.”

Architecture & Building published two views of the completed building in December 1915 (copyright expired

The new Hallenbeck-Hungerford building was completed before January 1915 when Architecture and Building reported on its structural integrity and mechanical operations.  It paused in its engineering report to notice that “The marble work, mosaic and tile work was done by D. H. McLaury Marble Company, the hallway on the Lafayette Street side being paneled in marble of rich appearance.”

The lobby was decidedly no-nonsense despite the gnome-shaped brackets and "marble of rich appearance" Architecture and Building December 1915 (copyright expired)
Austin had used granite for the three-story Gothic base.  Cast metal spandrels, two-story arches and carved stone details carried on the Gothic motif.  Above, nine stories of buff brick were barely ornamented; but were capped by three stories of exuberant terra cotta that picked up the Gothic theme.

High above the street whimsical gnomes and heraldic shields carry on the Gothic theme -- photo by Alice Lum

Like Architecture and Building, The Inland Printer, in March 1915, was most interested in the engineering aspects of the structure.  But it made special note of one innovative item.  “Rest-rooms have been provided for women employees.”

As intended, the building’s ability to support massive loads drew lithographers, printers and related firms.  Among the first tenants was Craske-Felt Company, Inc., electrotypers.  “Curved lead mould a specialty,” announced an advertisement in 1917.

In January 1918 the United States Marine Corps took over the Ford Instrument Company when a strike got out of hand.  The plant was manufacturing wartime articles necessary for national defense which were deemed “highly confidential.”  When 250 men walked out because a foreman had fired a fellow employee, manufacturing could not cease.

According to The Sun on January 12, Ford Instrument officials called the police for protection.  “The dilemma was then referred to the Department of Justice, which in turn communicated with the Navy Department at Washington.

“As a result, for the first time since the beginning of the war a company of United States marines marched into the city last night and took charge of the plant.”  The presence of the military changed the minds of the strikers.  “At a later hour in the night Jules Breuchaud, president of the concern, and John B. Goldsborough, treasurer, said that the trouble had been adjusted.”

photo by Alice Lum

A month after the marines left Lafayette Street, the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building would have something even more serious to contend with.  As the structure was still rising Building Systems Design had reported on the innovative air cooling system that used cool water from a deep well in the building’s basement.  The water would also be used for “flushing purposes.”

But someone decided that the artesian well water could be used more generally.  The Sun, on February 20, 1918, wrote “the owners sank an artesian well on the premises in May, 1915.  Water was pumped to the roof and distributed to washrooms and drinking faucets.”

What seemed like an efficient use of free, clean water turned out to be disastrous.  Julia Healy was 24-years old in 1915.  She and her sister, May, were both employed by Lupton Press in the building.  In August that year the sisters and other girls employed in the firm began to notice a strange taste and color to the water.

Julia and May Healy died within 14 hours of each other on September 13, 1915.  A Board of Health inspector found colon bacilli in the water—the sisters had died of typhoid.  At least a dozen other girls working in the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building contracted the disease.

On February 19, 1918 a jury ruled in favor of Dennis Healy, the girls’ father, in a lawsuit against Hallenbeck-Hungerford Realty.  He was awarded $5,000 for Julia’s death.  A similar suit for May’s death was still pending.

The publicity of the tragic deaths may have discouraged some applicants when their former employer ran an advertisement in the New-York Tribune on September 14, 1919.  “Good pay, congenial surroundings, permanent positions, opportunity for rapid advancement for intelligent young ladies over 16 years…F. M. Lupton, Publisher, 80 Lafayette st. N.Y.”

The year 1919 was one of intense labor disputes within the printing industry and tenants of the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building had their hands full.  On October 1 The Evening World reported “Further walkouts of compositors were features of the day’s developments in the labor disturbances in New York’s printing industry.”  The workers demanded a 44-hour work week and $50 scale.

At some companies, workers walked out en masse; at others foremen were informed by workers one-by-one that they were “going on a vacation.”  Among the printing firms struck that day was that of Isaac Goldman in the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building.  Four days later the compositors of Lipschitz Press walked out, to be followed on October 9 by the workers at Bradstreet’s “in a demand for shorter hours,” explained The Sun.

The Hallenbeck-Hungerford monogram appears in the arch spandrels -- photo by Alice Lum

In the meantime U. T. Hungerford Brass Co. continued to prosper.  The successful operation demanded skilled office help and on March 14, 1920 an advertisement was placed in the New-York Tribune for a Dictaphone operator.  “Experienced, accurate transcriber, able to turn out neat, well-written work; hours 8:30 to 5; half day Saturday; state age, experience and salary desired.”  Five months later the firm was looking for typists.  “Experienced operators on Underwood machine.”  The hours were the same; but salary was “depending upon ability to produce.”

The building continued to attract large printing firms.  In August 1922 the Klim, Lindner & Bauer lithographer firm took the entire 15th floor, signing a 10-year lease at $200,000.  The same year McClure Publishing, producers of McClure’s Magazine, was in the building.

Gardiner Binding was also here in 1922--a long term tenant -- American Printer and Lithographer December 20, 1921 (copyright expired)

Around 1970 the tenant list changed from printers and publishers to governmental offices.  The Department of Consumer Affairs, the Union Dental Center and the Child Welfare Administration all had their offices in the building until 1998.

photo by Alice Lum
Then, in 1999, New York University converted the massive structure to Lafayette Hall, a residence building housing nearly 1,100 upperclass students.  It was the scene of a bizarre accident in November 2013 when student Asher Vongtau, 19 years old, went missing for two days.  He was found wedged at the bottom of a 2-foot wide shaft between the building and a parking garage.  Somehow Vongtau had fallen off the roof and become stuck between the buildings where he was trapped for 36 hours before being discovered.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Lost Union League Clubhouse -- 5th Ave and 39th St

When this photograph was taken in 1898 traffic was non-existent on Fifth Avenue -- photograph by Arthur Vitols, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWH0Q0Q0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

In 1876, only a few blocks north of the Astor mansions, Dickel’s Riding Academy sat at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street.  When James Gordon Bennett, Jr. returned from England that year he brought back a newly-found love for polo.  Bennett soon organized indoor polo games in the Academy.

But the riding academy would not last many years longer.  Over a decade earlier the Union Club was the most exclusive men’s club in Manhattan, if not the nation.  But trouble arose over a single member, Judah P. Benjamin.

When the War of Rebellion broke out, Benjamin accepted the post of Confederate Attorney General, and later became Secretary of War of the Southern Confederacy.  The New-York Tribune later explained “He was in the Southern States with which we had no communication; to prevent his name from being stricken from the roll of members for non-payment of dues three members, Augustus Schell, Samuel Barlow and William Travers, paid the amount due the club and retained Benjamin’s name on the list of members in good standing.”

The newspaper said “This act of friendship for a rebel in arms produced great indignation, and the contributors to the Benjamin dues fund were severely and unsparingly criticised.”  As a matter of fact, the heated differences between the pro- and anti-Benjamin factions were such that repeated threats of duels arose—although none came to pass.  The great irony, of course, was the name of the club itself—The Union.

The rift was resolved when 70 members resigned and formed a new club, The Union League Club.  “The only requisite for membership, besides unblemished reputation, should be an uncompromising and unconditional loyalty to Nation and a complete subordination thereto of all other political ideas,” said the New-York Tribune.

Perhaps to make its disdain of the Union Club clear, within 15 days of its organization on February 6 1863 the Union League Club raised a regiment of black troops.  “After the presentation of the colors the troops started for the wharf where they were to embark for Florida, and 350 members of the Union League marched at the head of the column,” reported the Tribune.

The club’s ardent patriotism would remain a vital element throughout the decades.  Starting out in rented rooms, it moved to the former Leonard Jerome mansion on Madison Square in 1868.  Within a decade the club was looking for a new headquarters.  It would be the end of the line for Dickel’s Riding Academy.

In 1879 the Union League Club held a competition for the design of a clubhouse appropriate for one of the wealthiest and most exclusive clubs in the city.  The commission went to Peabody & Stearns.  By February 1881 the building that replaced the old riding academy was nearly completed and no detail had been overlooked.  On February 3 the Gorham Manufacturing Company announced that the silver service for the club was on exhibition in its rooms.  A day later the New-York Tribune commented on it.

“Nearly 700 pieces of silver plate have been completed recently by the Gorham Manufacturing Company for the new house of the Union League Club…The material is a heavy silver plating upon hard metal.  The same design, which is remarkable for its simplicity, is followed throughout.”  The newspaper noted that instead of the shiny, polished finish expected on most tables, the Union League Club silver had “what is called a satin finish, giving a richer appearance than the ordinary polished shining silverware.”  The article listed “soup tureen; large plates with covers, for fish, game and roasts; tea, coffee and chocolate pots, and receptacles for butter, sugar and condiments.”

The expected date for the clubhouse opening was February 22; but a day after that the New-York Tribune noted that work was not yet completed.  Although the construction was done, “the building is overrun with joiners, finishers and varnishers, who are putting on the last touches.  The furnishers and upholsterers are already in the building, and a large part of the furniture of the club has been placed in the rooms.  Yesterday the heavy curtains were being hung in the library.  The shelves were ready for the books, and much of the furniture was in the room.  The billiard tables were in the billiard room, but were unpacked.”  Most of the rooms were in the same condition—just needing unpacking and decorating.  “The stained glass has not yet been placed in the sashes of the window at the head of the first landing of the main stairway, but it is in readiness.”  The newspaper now said that “unless something unforeseen happens,” the clubhouse would be ready in a few days.

Harper's Weekly published sketches of the Library and Dining Room in February 1881 (copyright expired)
Finally on March 5, 1881 the club opened its doors.  The Tribune reported that “The general room and private rooms were taxed to their utmost capacity, and the servants were continually running to and fro to supply the wants of the guests.”

There was no formal reception; but the open house lasted well into the night.  The young bachelor members found the view onto Fifth Avenue stimulating—due to the parade of feminine beauty.  “The windows fronting Fifth-ave. were occupied during the afternoon by the younger members, who received many bows and smiles of recognition from ladies on the sidewalks.”

Guests assemble in the lavish entrance hall during the reception for the Pan-American Delegates in 1889 -- Harper's Weekly, December 1889 (copyright expired)
The newspaper commented on the interior spaces, designed by Louis Tiffany, John LaFarge and Franklin Smith.  “The interior presented a gorgeous spectacle in the evening.  All the lights were burning.  The library, billiard hall and numerous reading and sitting-rooms were much admired and closely inspected.”  On the walls hung about 100 portraits of “men of eminence” painted by well-known artists.  The art collection included bronze and marble busts and statues, engravings and oil paintings. 

Peabody & Stearns had created a $400,000 hulking pile of brick and brownstone born of the unexpected marriage of Italian Renaissance and Queen Anne.  Variously shaped gables and chimneys poked through the high hipped roof, while balconies, pilasters, columns and carved panels created a visual overload.

Newspapers called the new building “impressive” and “greatly admired.”  The Sun said “The building itself is  in every way worthy of so costly a site.  There are few more luxurious clubhouses in the world.”  Century Magazine was a bit slower to applaud.  In March 1882 it wrote “The Union League Club House (Fifth Avenue, New York) has, it is hardly fanciful to say, the qualities of its defects.  The latter have been frequently pointed out in detail since the completion of the building, but so far as they strike the ordinary eye, they may be pretty sufficiently summed up in saying that the edifice seems an architectural negation of repose.”

A turn-of-the-century postcard provides a glimpse at the contrast in materials.

The magazine stressed that “repose” was an important quality of monumental architecture.  And despite that fact that the critic felt that the Union League Club had an “absence of architectural dignity as a prominent element;” it found Peabody & Stearns’ fanciful approach a bit refreshing.  He admitted that there was “a certain animation and sprightliness, which in themselves are by no means displeasing.”

Nevertheless, he summed up his evaluation sarcastically.  Any one “who has reached it after a walk of five miles up Broadway from the Battery… may be able cordially to admire only its large red mass and the unusual circumstance that it has a visible, instead of merely an inferable, roof.”

Not forgetting its roots, on April 17, 1890 the Union League Club gave a glittering reception for General William Tecumseh Sherman.  The Union general had just turned 70 years old.

Fifth Avenue Events, published in 1916, remembered the event. “The club-house was beautifully decorated.  American flags bedecked the entrance lobby and main stairway; everywhere were streamers, banners and festoons of bunting; before the library windows were banks of flowers, and ferns and geraniums covered the mantel.  Red, white, and blue flowers were banked before the stage, which was draped with the Stars and Stripes.  A portrait of General Sherman in uniform, painted by Daniel Huntington in 1875, occupied a place of honor, draped with flags and a victor’s wreath.”

The importance of the event was evidenced by some of the guests: Secretary of the Interior John W. Nobel, Vice President Levi P. Morton, senators, generals and foreign diplomats from Russia, Chili, Brazil and Peru.

The Sherman reception was but one of many held for men of importance.  On February 10, 1913 The Sun said “Its receptions and banquets have been famous for half a century, and among its guests of honor have been some of the most prominent men in the history of their day.  Beginning with the name of Abraham Lincoln, the list embraces hundreds.”  The newspaper listed names like General U. S. Grant, Major-General Philip H. Sheridan, Edward M. Stanton, Rutherford B. Hayes, James G. Blaine, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, Prince Henry of Prussia and many others.

On June 21, 1900 Governor Theodore Roosevelt arrived in New York City from Philadelphia where his name was presented as running mate for William McKinley.  Reporters thronged around him as he stepped off the train.

“Please don’t ask me any questions.  I have nothing to say, absolutely nothing upon any subject,” he announced.  When asked about his plans, he replied “My plans as yet are not fixed very far ahead.  Tonight I shall stay at the Union League Club and tomorrow I intend to go to Oyster Bay, where I will rest for a few days.”

No reporters would get through the Union League Club doors to accost the esteemed politician.

Ever-patriotic, the Union League Club is decked out for McKinley and Hobard in 1896 photograph by Robt. L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWH0Q0Q0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
The tradition of supporting black soldiers continued into the 20th century.  When the United States entered World War I, the Buffaloes—a regiment composed entirely of black soldiers—prepared to fight.  On March 24, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported that the regiment “marched up Fifth Avenue yesterday afternoon to the stirring strains of ‘Dixie’ and received its colors, the gift of the Union League Club, from the hand of Governor Whitman.  Since ‘Dixie’ first was a tune to live or die by the Union League Club has presented the stands of colors to negro regiments, and in times less stressful than these those regiments have made enviable records.”

A decade later, as the Great Depression cast a pall over the country, the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around the Union League Club had been engulfed by business buildings.  On August 28, 1929 the club announced its plans to erect a $1 million clubhouse on Park Avenue at 37th Street.

Two years later, on January 24, 1931, the clubhouse closed its doors.  The New York Times remarked the following day on the changes along the avenue.  “The empty windows now look down on an avenue completely changed during the fifty years the club has maintained its position as one of the city’s landmarks.  Quiet homes and the horse-drawn, rubber-tired traffic are gone…Traffic snarls stayed downtown on Fulton and neighboring streets.  Shrill whistles of the ‘police control’ did not pierce the ears of club members.  Bearded young men with stove pipe hats and congress gaiters escorted young ladies with enormous bustles and trailing skirts on strolls down Fifth Avenue.  That era of club life and observation has become history.”

In 1931 the club was vacant.  Traffic has increased.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWH0Q0Q0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

Plans were filed soon after for the erection of a 47-story office building on the site.  The grand clubhouse sat empty and silent for a year—until 1:00 in the morning on January 26, 1932.  Somehow a fire started in the basement.  Within an hour and a half “the entire structure was a raging furnace that seemingly defied the efforts of a small army of firemen to put it out,” reported The Times.

The newspaper said “Among the 300 spectators who gathered to watch the destruction of the historic old Fifth Avenue building were a handful of elderly gentlemen who are members of the club that was founded Feb 6, 1863.”

By morning the Union League Clubhouse was a gutted shell.  On its site today stands a soaring black glass office tower.  That the monumental and quirky clubhouse stood here for half a century is generally forgotten.

photograph by the author

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The 1902 Gotham Apts. No. 242 West 49th Street

By the turn of the last century the entertainment district had been gaining a foothold in the Times Square area for seven years—since Charles Frohman built his Empire Theater at Broadway and 41st Street in 1893.  In 1901 the flurry of real estate activity in the area was dizzying as developers and investors with plans for theaters, hotels and apartment buildings in mind purchased old buildings

On March 8, 1901 alone The New York Times reported on real estate deals involving Nos. 10 through 14 West 44th Street, Nos. 215 through 221 West 40th Street, and Nos. 240 and 242 West 49th Street.  The 49th Street properties were two “three-story brownstone-front dwellings” sold by John Totten and Marcella O’Neil.  They were purchased by the City Mortgage Company.  The end of the line for the 20-foot wide houses was on the near horizon.

Before the year was out the homes were gone, replaced by what The New York Times called a “seven-story brick flat.”  The brick and limestone apartment building boasted all the Beaux Arts bells and whistles found in moderate to upscale residence hotels at the time.  Carved French ornamentation and delicate balconies distinguished the “flats” from a tenement.

The investors, apparently, gambled too heavily on the project, for only months after its completion it was sold at a foreclosure auction.  N. D. Stillwell purchased the building on Wednesday, June 25, 1902 for $85,002—around $2.25 million today. 

Originally French-inspired iron railings would have embellished the balconies, like this one over the entrance.  Most likely stone ornaments, like urns or stylized pineapples, perched on the stone bases directly above.

Known as The Gotham, the building initially drew respectable residents.  In 1905 real estate developer Clarence L. Sefert lived here while he made plans for a 6-story, 35-family flat on Manhattan Avenue in Harlem.  But before long a more nefarious element would infiltrate the Gotham.

In the fall of 1911 the Police Commissioner received a letter that began “This of necessity must be anonymous.”  The writer complained about the opium dens operating around Times Square and the corrupt police who enabled the activity.  His letter added:

And while we are on the subject why are placed like the White House, The Gotham and the one near Churchill’s allowed to exist?  They all violate the excise law.  After seeing the fairyes flit in and out it wouldn’t take an Anthony Comstock to understand the nature of the house.”

Within two years the name was changed to the Hotel Van Courtlandt, although it still offered apartments for long-term residents.  The New York Hotel Record reported on September 30, 1913 that E. R. Hart, a veteran of three hotels, had been hired as room clerk here.

Less than two weeks later, on October 10, three residents, E. J. Winn, Celia Jackson and Delia Bates, decided to take a joy ride in Winn’s touring car.  They picked up George C. Lee, who lived on West 95th Street, and headed to Yonkers. 

As Winn headed along Central Avenue, one of the women decided she wanted to drive and tried to grasp the steering wheel.  Winn struggled for control of the car and, according to witnesses “The car served so sharply that both the wheels on the right side collapsed against the curb, and all the occupants of the car were thrown out.”  The New York Times reported that Lee suffered a broken right leg, Celia Jackson’s arm was broken, and Delia Bates suffered “from shock and bruises.”

Operating the building as a hotel did not work out and when it was leased to Hugo J. Hunt on May 8, 1915 the Record & Guide again called it the “Gotham, a 7-story apartment house.”  Just a year earlier, on July 20, 1914, one apartment in the building was raided by vice detectives who suspected prostitution. 

A detective named Chultz later testified about his visit to the “disorderly house” in court.  He described the parlor and the women lounging there.  He was served wine, then ushered into a bedroom where a woman named Camille met him.

“We entered the bedroom, and she took this kimono off, or night gown, and asked me how long I wanted to stay.  I said, ‘For a short time.’  She said, ‘A short time is $10.’  I then placed her under arrest.”

Camille’s attorney argued that there was “no proof that the defendant had any knowledge that the apartment was conducted as a house of prostitution.”  Rather surprisingly, the judge ordered a new trial.

Considering its location, it is not surprising that by 1920 the Gotham was attracting residents in the theatrical field.  Motion picture actor Stephen Grattan lived here in 1920.  He had already played in movies like the Fox productions of The Ruling Passion, The Spider and the Fly, A Tortured Heart and Should a Mother Tell; and a role for Brennan Selznick in The Lone Wolf.   Also living here that year was Laura Baresch, whom the Evening Public Ledger of Philadelphia described as a “pretty New York model or chorus girl" (for there was some uncertainty as to which she was).  The uncertainty regarding Laura’s profession was the result of her sudden attack of amnesia on March 2, 1920.

She was shopping on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia when “she felt faint and her head ‘went queer.”  She told police that she couldn’t remember where she was going or what she had intended to do.  The newspaper seemed to be more interested in Laura’s physical charms than her medical condition.

“Her brown bobbed hair, dark eyes and piquant face, as well as the temporary amnesia that caused her to be taken to Hahnemann Hospital, made Miss Laura Baresch a person of interest there today,” said the reporter.  By the following day, Laura’s memory was improving.  A card in her purse gave her address at 242 West 49th Street and she remembered that she had relatives in New Jersey.

Violet Lorring was another resident.  She was 22 years old in 1921 and described herself as a vaudeville actress.  Violet’s theatrical income was not sufficient, it would seem, to keep her in the style she aspired to.  But Helen Shipman, a musical comedy headliner, was doing quite well for herself.  She had a suite on the fourth floor of the Hotel Thoradyke and the wardrobe of a star.

Some of that wardrobe went missing after Helen’s rooms were looted on October 8.  She reported that her $4,000 mink coat, $400 squirrel coat and a $600 pearl necklace were stolen.  Then, on Tuesday November 15 vaudeville comedian Sam LeMaire “became an accidental detective in the case,” according to the New-York Tribune.  He noticed Violet Lorring walking with a female companion on the street and wearing a fur coat.  He followed her for 15 minutes until he was convinced it was Helen Shipman’s missing coat.

LeMaire brought it to the attention of two detectives, who took Violet and her friend to Helen’s suite.  “Brought face to face with her accuser at the hotel, Miss Lorring was obliged to admit that the mink coat wasn’t hers.  The girl who accompanied her, Miss Shipman says, was wearing the collar and cuffs of the squirrel coat, which she said Miss Lorring had given to her.”

To make matters worse for Violet, the pearl necklace was found in her apartment in the Gotham.  Despite the overwhelming evidence against her, she pleaded not guilty to the charge of burglary.

Another showgirl who landed in the newspapers was Clara, a “blond, and of Scandinavian descent,” according to The Pittsburgh Press on June 19, 1921.  The woman with the unknown last name would flee to Minnesota when she found herself involved in an ugly divorce case.’

Florence Leeds, described by the same newspaper as “the former Century Roof beauty” had began a romance with the already-married banker James A. Stillman several years earlier while she was still a chorus girl.  Their fling grew to the point that Stillman and Florence lived together. 

Florence became incensed when, during the divorce proceedings imitated by Mrs. Stillman, “a woman high in society,” it was revealed that Stillman had another girlfriend on the side—Clara.  Thinking herself the sole object of the banker’s attentions, Florence flew into a fury.

“Inflamed with jealousy, it is reported, Mrs. Leeds now is bitterly anxious to do all in her power against the man with whom she is said to have lived for years,” said The Pittsburgh Press.  It added “The former chorus girl is said to be determined that Stillman shall be made to pay in full for his alleged philandering.”

The defense was happy to have Florence Leeds on its side and would have liked to find Clara as well.  The charges against the cheating millionaire seemed, nevertheless, to be obvious.  “It is known that if they appear they will be but two of 50 or more witnesses for the defense,” said the newspaper.

When he was put on the stand on June 29, 1921 James Stillman refused to answer questions—including “Were you ever at 242 West Forty-ninth Street?”

In July 1922 the Gotham was sold for $180,000 to an Oscar B. Pipes.  The New York Times mentioned that “It contains twenty-one apartments and yields an aggregate rental of $55,000 per annum.”  One of the selling features was the building’s elevator.

The Gotham would never be a truly respectable address.  Forty-year old Irving Becker lived here in May 1937 when he was arrested as part a “hold-up gang” and charged with assault and robbery.  It was Becker’s fifth arrest.

Twenty years later former model Judith Morgan lived here.  Several years earlier she had brought a $1.5 million suit against the city and four psychiatrists, saying that she had been mistreated at Bellevue Hospital.  Judge Edward Weinfeld dismissed her case.

Now, on May 13, 1957, Morgan’s anger against the judge reached the breaking point.  She took a 12-inch carving knife from her room and went looking for Weinfeld.  When she found him on the Lower East Side, she plunged the knife into his back crying “You ruined my life!”

In fact, her victim was Sam Smith, a 57-year old garment salesman who happened to live in the same building as Judge Weinfeld.  Police tracked the middle-aged woman to her apartment in the Gotham.  She told the detectives, “I’m sorry I hit the wrong man.”

She was charged with felonious assault.

By 1960 the Gotham was renamed the Mayfair Hotel.  Pat Rodgers, a 27-year old showgirl, was found dead in her room here on April 23 that year.

Today, still called the Mayfair Hotel, the building has received a bit of a brushing up.  Called by Travelweekly.com a “European-style boutique hotel,” its renovated rooms and lobby disguise its somewhat seedy past.  The fa├žade has lost its balcony railings and decorative urns; yet it survives surprisingly intact; and its history, now forgotten, is colorful at best.

photographs by the author