Wednesday, September 3, 2014

C.P.H. Gilbert's Queen Anne Row at 122-140 Manhattan Ave

  photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
In 1886 the 25-year old architect Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert began his career in New York City.  Among his first commissions was a row of ten row houses in the developing area known as Manhattan Valley, on the northwestern edge of Central Park.

Following the extension of elevated railway service as far north as 104th Street in 1879 speculative developers lured potential homeowners with comfortable, affordable homes in up-to-date styles.  Among them was John Brown of Hoboken, New Jersey who commissioned Gilbert to design the three-story homes stretching from No. 120 to 140 Manhattan Avenue (the street had been known as New Avenue until two years earlier), from 104th to 105th Streets. At some point the street numbers changed to 122 to 142.

Before the end of the century, C. P. H. Gilbert would be responsible for designing some of the most lavish mansions of New York.  But for this early project he turned to stone, terra cotta and pressed metal to produce a charming row of middle class Queen Anne homes.  Harmonious yet individual, the houses offered a variety of oriels, dog-leg and straight stoops, stained glass and a block-long serrated roofline of angles and points and pretend towers.

Behind the tree limbs, pressed metal parapets coexist with brick cornices.   photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

Construction began in April 1886 and was completed in August the following year.  Most of the homes cost $8,000 to build with the most expensive costing Brown $12,000 ($190,000 and $285,000 in today’s dollars).

The houses sold to working class families.  Albert H. Kohn purchased No. 132.  He ran a jewelry shop downtown.  Paris Fletcher, an electrician, moved into No. 138 and would stay well past the turn of the century.  In 1888 “John and James Brown” sold No. 136 to real estate man Grenville R. Benson

Five years later Benson had a house guest, Helen M. Walter, whom The Sun said “has been connected with the business department of the Century Magazine and was also a writer.”  On April 6, 1893 she died in the house “of grip.”  About 60 years old, she was well known and highly-involved with Mrs. Russell Sage in charities.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
John Brown died shortly after his Manhattan Avenue row was completed.  In June 1889 his estate sold two of the homes to real estate operator F. S. Ferguson—No. 120 at the southern corner went for $20,000 and No. 130 sold for $16,000.  Ferguson held No. 130 for nearly a year before selling it at a loss.  On March 8, 1890 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that he sold “to Albert A. Wiegand, the three-story Queen Anne dwelling…No. 130 Manhattan avenue, for $15,500."

Four years later the Wiegand household would be tinged with scandal.  Nellie Fitzsimmons arrived in New York  in 1894 and was employed as a servant at No. 130.  The 22-year old woman quickly found herself in trouble—she was pregnant.  In August she paid Dr. Edward E. Conrad the hefty fee of $50 to perform an abortion.  The act landed both of them in jail.

On August 13, 1894 The Evening World reported that the physician was being held without bail for “having performed a criminal operation” on Nellie.  “The young woman, who has been in this country only a few months, is a prisoner in Bellevue Hospital, held as an accessory to the crime.”

Nellie Fitzsimmons refused to expose her lover.  “The Fitzsimmon woman, while giving the name of the doctor, declined to name the author of her trouble,” said The Evening World.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
The houses held their value and the same year that Nellie Fitzsimmons was in trouble, Mary Norton sold No. 134 to Charles Simpson and his wife, Julie, for $15,500 (The Simpsons would still be in the house well into the first decade of the new century).  A year later, in March 1895, John Yule sold No. 140 to “Mrs. Bartlett” for $16,000.

As the turn of the century arrived, the quaint residences remained home to comfortable, middle-class families.  In 1900 John T. Fisher lived next door to the Simpsons, at No. 136.  He was a member of the Robert C Fisher & Co. granite and marble firm; and held memberships in the Larchmont Yacht Club, the Mendelssohn Glee Club, the St. Anthony and New York Athletic Clubs.

Interestingly, Dr. James H. McInery was living in the corner house at No. 140 at the time; but a year later he sold it and purchased John Fisher’s house at No. 136.  The good doctor would find himself at odds with the law in 1905 when he was arrested for “speeding along Pelham Parkway at the rate of twenty-four miles an hour,” according to the New York Athletic Club Journal.  He admitted to the judge that it was true, he had been speeding, but said he was in a hurry to reach a patient in New Rochelle.

“Laudable risking your neck,” said the judge as he dismissed the charges.

Dr. McInery would still be living in the house over a decade later.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The house next door to the doctor, No. 134, was vacant during the summer of 1905.  Its porch was an inviting place for neighborhood children to play.  However across the street at No. 139 lived John M. Dyer and according to The New York Times for ten years a war had been played out between the old man and the neighborhood children.

“There the children play, and there Mr. Dyer, a little old man, with fierce gray mustachios, sallies out to stop the noise, calling to his assistance the police, the Board of Health, and other representatives of the might and majesty of the law.”

“One night the stoop of 134 Manhattan Avenue, at that time unoccupied and therefore a favorite playground, was found thick with a coat of cayenne pepper,” reported The Times on September 1, 1905.  “And so the neighbors think that this contest must come to a head.  They summoned John M. Dyer before Magistrate Mayo in the West Side Court yesterday on a charge of assault in the second degree—the red pepper charge.”

Louise A. Hopf and her husband, Max, were living at No. 140 at the time.  Max was a banker with Speyer & Co. and was active in the management of the Provident Loan Society.  Louise showed her feisty personality on July 3, 1905 when her letter to editor John Ames Mitchell appeared in Life.  Louise complained that the S.P.C.A. was not vigilant in the Manhattan Valley area.  “Within two weeks I have seen, in the neighborhood of 96th and 106th Streets and Columbus Avenue, three cases of apparently much abused horses…I wondered whether the officers of the S.P.C.A. were busy in other parts of the town, as we never see any of them around here; but perhaps they were at headquarters writing reports of what they were not doing, and winding red tape generally.”

Just as Dr. McInery had done, the Hopfs left No. 140 for another house on the row.  They were living at No. 128 when Max died in the house on August 18, 1909 after a brief illness.  Louise would retain possession of the home until March 1920.

By the time Louise sold No. 128, Susie May was been living in No. 122; the house she and her stock broker husband, Lewis A. May, had purchased before the turn of the century.  In December 1900 May’s firm, Lewis A. May & Co. went bankrupt, and in 1912 Susie obtained a divorce.  Although she was granted $3,600 alimony, she agreed to $600 a year if Lewis would pay off the mortgage.

Susie and her son lived on at No. 122 while little by little the alimony payments dried up.  Finally in June 1921 Susie had her former husband jailed in a contempt action “saying he was in arrears of $27,655,” said the New-York Tribune.

The 1920s brought change including jazz music, bobbed hair and a startling dance called the Charleston.  Mildred Alonzo lived at No. 132 in 1926 when, on the night of June 12, she was involved in a “small riot.”

Mildred and a friend Jennie Cardona met outside a radio supply store on Rockaway Avenue.  Jennie had her 8-year old daughter, Denora, with her, and Anna Zalezo, whom The New York Times described as “12 years old, a gipsy girl.”

According to the newspaper, “It all started while Mrs. Cardona and the Alonzo woman were talking in front of the radio store. ‘A-r-kk,’ said the loud speaker, ‘Charleston, Charleston!’  Denora began to step.  Back and forth, she strutted, over the sidewalk.  Pedestrians stopped to watch her.  A crowd gathered, and each minute saw it swell in numbers.  Someone tossed a handful of coins.”

Before long the little girls were dancing away to “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” and the crowd was loving it.  Coins were tossed and the crowd swelled for half an hour.  Then two policewomen came to break up the congregation.

The crowd revolted while the officers attempted to take the children into custody “for improper guardianship.”  “The two policewomen moved forward with the children in their grasp.  The crowd presented a solid wall.  Some one struck a policewoman.  Other women followed her example.  The dancers were in tears.  Mrs. Cardona was screaming: ‘Let go my child.’”

Before the night was over Mildred Alonzo would be under arrest “for interfering with an officer in the performance of her duty.”

In the meantime landscape artist Charles Gruppe had lived at No. 138 Manhattan Avenue since July 1912 when he bought it from the estate of Sarah A. Wilcox.  Gruppe had returned to New York from the Netherlands when the rumblings of war began.   Along with his wife, Gruppe’s equally-talented sons moved in—Paulo was a concert cellist who appeared with leading orchestra in Europe and America; Karl was an academic sculptor who worked in bronze and marble; and Emile Albert Gruppe was a painter.  Virginia Gruppe, Charles and Helen’s daughter, became a watercolorist.

The Gruppes would be the longest surviving owners along the Manhattan Avenue row—Charles sold it to Ella S. McDonald in 1972.  The Gruppe family had seen tremendous—and not always welcome—change over the decades.

In 1956 No. 134 was termed a “three-story rooming house.”  But the street was infested with drug dealers and crime.  It was a situation that would begin turning around in the 1970s when pioneers from other neighborhoods began purchasing the dilapidated homes and refurbishing them.  On November 29, 1986 Winston Williams of The New York Times reported on the new residents’ push to regain the houses from drug addicts.

“In an unusual ruling, a Manhattan Housing Court judge has ordered the eviction of tenants of a reputed West Side ‘crack house’ at the request of neighboring homeowners and tenants.”  The house was No. 124 Manhattan Avenue and Williams explained “The decision to dislodge the dozen or so residents was ‘based on the testimony of police officers and tenants and owners who live in the area,’ according to the judge.”

The result was remarkable.  When the house that Charles Gruppe lived in for six decades, still retaining its original details, sold in 2003 after five weeks on the market, it brought $950,000.  No. 134 was offered for sale in 2014 for $4.575 million—with no original details other than two stained glass panels.

No. 134 received what was most likely an unavoidable gut renovation -- photo
Except for the corner house at 105th Street which was demolished and replaced by a brick box, C. P. H. Gilbert’s delightful string of Queen Anne homes survived mostly intact; an architectural treasure.

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