Saturday, September 6, 2014

The 1909 Manhattan Square Apts -- No. 44 West 77th Street

In 1904 architects Herbert Spencer Harde and Richard Thomas Short designed and built the sophisticated West 85th Street apartment building called Red House.  The upscale brick, stone and terra cotta structure was frosted with elaborate Gothic elements.  Three years later they would outdo themselves with the even grander Manhattan Square Apartments.

Portrait painter Walter Russell had by now added real estate development to his interests.  He formed the Walter Russel Bond & Realty Co. and before the outbreak of World War I would be responsible for what The Sun called in 1914 “several buildings notable for size and attractiveness.”  Among his first would be the lavish apartment building at Nos. 44 through 48 West 77th Street.

The site was exemplary.  It overlooked Manhattan Square where the New York Natural History Museum stood.  Next door was the fashionable Manhattan Square Hotel.  Russell, perhaps inspired by Red House, commissioned Harde & Short in 1907 to design his 14-story structure.

The results were stunning.  The architects created a soaring neo-Gothic fantasy of brick and terra cotta.  As they had done with Red House, they dropped Gothic screens along the tops of expanses of windows and lavished the faƧade with tracery, trefoil carved balconies and a French Gothic tower.  While Red House smacked of a great English estate; this new cooperative apartment building was cathedral-like.

On January 9, 1909 The New York Times remarked “In its architectural features the building represents a distinct departure from anything hitherto attempted in apartment house construction in this city.”  The Sun said it “is considered among the finest specimens of Gothic architecture among city apartments.”

A sketch appearing in The New York Times on January 9, 1909 included both a stylish carriage and an automobile.  (copyright expired)

There were just two apartments per floor, prompting The Times to say “It has been possible to provide rooms of a size seldom found outside of the largest private residences.”  The living rooms, or “salons,” measured 18.5 by 27.5 feet and dining rooms were 15 by 20 feet. Residents could choose between “studio suites” of ten rooms and three baths, or nine rooms and three baths.  In the basement, servants would find the “ironing room.”  The Edison Monthly noted that “an electric iron, with separate outlet and meter, are provided for each tenant.  Each outlet is provided with a lock and key, making it impossible for one tenant to make use of an outlet belonging to another.”

The New-York Tribune mentioned that budgetary overruns.  “The plans for the building were filed in March 1907, Harde & Short, the architects, estimating the cost at $750,000.  The building, however, cost considerably more than this.”  Even if it had come in on budget the expense would have topped $18.5 million in today’s dollars.

A postcard of the Manhattan Square Hotel (with red flag) also showed the Manhattan Square Apt.  Across the street is the red brick Natural History Museum.

Before the first brick was laid Russell had made an agreement to sell the finished building.  On November 19, 1909 the New-York Tribune reported that the title would be transferred “within a few days” to the Manhattan Square Apartment Association.  The building quickly filled with a broad array of well-to-do residents.  Because of their association with Walter Russell and the window-walled "studios," several well-known artists moved in.

The "ironing room" of the Manhattan Square Apartments was a major convenience.  Edison Monthly June 1909 (copyright expired)

Among these was eminent sculptor Karl Theodore Bitter who was one of the first residents.  Following Joseph Pulitzer’s death in 1911 a competition was held to design an ornamental fountain in the open area in front of the Plaza Hotel which the publisher had envisioned.  Bitter won the commission for the fountain’s figure of Pomona, while Thomas Hastings of Carerre & Hastings would design the basin.

The project stretched on for several years; but Bitter would never see it completed.  He finished his clay model of Pomona in 1915.  Only a few days later, on April 9, the 47-year old artist left the Metropolitan Opera House with his wife around 11:30 p.m.  They headed across Broadway to catch an uptown streetcar.

“The street was filled with automobiles, picking up owners in front of the opera house,” reported The New York Times, “and Mr. and Mrs. Bitter threaded a dangerous way across the thoroughfare to the northbound car tracks.”  Edward T. James was driving south and swerved to avoid a limousine turning away from the opera house.

"The sculptor saw the danger and threw his wife to one side.  He got her so far from the automobile’s path that, while she was struck, she was only tossed aside.”  Things did not fare so well for Bitter.

He was struck and dragged for 30 feet, “crushed between the pavement and the car.”  Bitter suffered a fatal skull fracture.

Marie Bitter’s grief was exacerbated when only a month later a 23-year old chauffeur objected to the probate of the will.  Carl Bitter claimed he was the artist’s son; the result of a common-law marriage with Adelaide Omar.  The untidy affair would play out in the courts for months.

The World's New York Apartment House Album published floor plans of the massive apartments in 1910 (copyright expired)

In the meantime another well-known resident found himself in the courts.  Dr. Otto G. T Kiliani, too, was one of the first owners.  Born in Germany, he was Professor of Clinical Surgery at Columbia University and a surgeon at the German Hospital.  Patients who could not afford to pay were offered free treatment at the hospital and such was the case in April 1912 when Jacob Weiss was operated on.

Two years later he sued Dr. Kiliani, charging “that after operating on him they had sewed up two sponges in his abdominal cavity,” explained The Times on January 23, 1914.  When the case went to trial, not only did Weiss produce “practically no evidence in support of his charge;” but “It was shown that Dr. Kiliani had not even been present at the operation.”

Dr. Kiliani later told reporters “Suits like these are being brought constantly against physicians and surgeons and the plaintiffs are usually those who have received free treatment.”

Also living in the Manhattan Square Apartment in 1915 was 70-year old former politician Theodore W. Myers.  Myers had served as City Controller, was former President of the National Democratic Club, a member of the Chamber of Commerce and a partner in a banking firm Arthur Lipper & Co.  The New-York Tribune estimated his worth at between $3 and $4 million.

The wealthy Myers held memberships to the New York Athletic Club and New York Yacht Club. He was apparently well-traveled for he also was a member of the Automobile Club of America, the Automobile Clubs of France and England, and the Travelers’ Club of Paris.

Several years earlier Rose Alixis Knight moved into the building with her mother.  Rose was about 30 years younger than the widowed Myers, so their sudden marriage on February 10, 1915 was a shock to political and social circles.  The New-York Tribune began its report of the wedding saying “Cupid has taken to politics and is playing queer pranks with the politicians.”

The couple remained in Myers’ apartment where his noted collection of paintings and engravings was hung.  They spent winters in Florida and on March 20, 1918 after just having returned to New York, Myers suffered a fatal heart attack in the apartment.  His funeral was held here two days later.  His young widow was left in grief; but considerably wealthy.

Another well-known artist in the building was Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt.  As war ravaged Europe and before the United States entered the conflict, wealthy New Yorkers often worked for war relief.  On Sunday, March 26, 1916 at 9 p.m. Roosevelt and his wife hosted a musical recital “to aid widows and orphans of French soldiers,” as noted in The Sun that afternoon.

Roosevelt would remain in the Manhattan Square Apartment for years.  The cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, he was as much a member of the artistic world as high society.  He was a member of the exclusive Knickerbocker, Lambs, Manhattan, New York Yacht, Tuxedo, and Larchmont Yacht Clubs, among others.  A close friend of John Singer Sargent and James A. McNeill Whistler, he too painted society portraits like that of Theodore Roosevelt, Bishop James H. Darlington, Oliver Belmont and the Earl of Kintore.

As with all wealthy New Yorkers, the newspapers followed the Roosevelts’ movements.  On June 10, 1919 The Sun mentioned “S. Montgomery Roosevelt, 44 West Seventy-seventh street, will leave New York to-day for the Grand Cascapedia, Canada, for salmon fishing, and will be gone a fortnight.”

A year later the coverage would be more shocking.  The headline in the New-York Tribune on August 20, 1920 read “Samuel M. Roosevelt Drops Dead in Club.”  The 64-year old artist collapsed on a staircase of the Knickerbocker Club.  Before a doctor could arrive, he was dead of a brain hemorrhage. 

Another portrait painter in the building was Italian-born Francesco Paolo Finocchiaro.  He had arrived in New York around the turn of the century and in 1910 was made a chevalier by the King of Italy.  The artist married widowed socialite Florence Angell Mason in her Madison Avenue home on October 30, 1918.  The Sun said “The bride has been identified with the summer life in Newport, where she has a home in Catherine street known as Wabun.”  The newspaper noted that the newlyweds would be living in Finocchiaro’s Manhattan Square apartment.

As expected, the couple remained socially active and hosted entertainments like the “reception with music” in the apartment on May 8 1920.

Not involved in the arts was Robert Reis, the head of the underwear firm Robert Reis & Co.  The wealthy businessman lived here with his wife, Sarah—their three children were all grown by now.  In 1918, the same year that Finocchiaro and his new bride were getting settled, Robert Reis died leaving an estate of about half a million dollars.  Sarah remained on in the apartment, enjoying her summers at Loon Lake in the Adirondacs through the 1920s.

By the time of Reis’s death the United State was firmly entrenched in the European war.  It would shape the lives of several residents, such as German exporter Engen Schwerdt whose offices were at No. 79 Wall Street.  On Tuesday February 26, 1918 The Sun ran the headline “Wool Exporter Held as Leader in German Plot.”  The newspaper explained that Schwerdt had been arrested for master-minding a plot to divert wool to the German army.

“For the purpose of hoodwinking the Textile Alliance, which was organized for the purpose of preventing wool from falling into German hands, dummy concerns appear to have been employed by the plotters, and from evidence in the hands of the authorities it has been learned that the schemers became so bold as to store their wares in London.”

The newspaper said “Schwerdt’s American wife is at her residence, 44 West Seventy-seventh street.”  She pleaded to reporters “We are both for the Allies.  I am as good an American as can be found.”

At the other end of the spectrum was Marjorie Snare Mason.  Her husband, Colonel Charles W. Mason, Jr., was in France with the 30th Infantry; her brother, Frederick Snare, Jr. was also in France with the 305th Machine Gun Battalion; and her father, Frederick Snare was commander of the Red Cross Base Hospital No. 6 at Bordeaux, France.  With the men in her life fighting abroad, the 36-year old woman was alone in her Manhattan Square apartment.  On January 19, 1919, she died in her home of heart disease.

The building would become home to members of the theater, as well.  Actress Selma Paley was living here in 1920 when she was sued by the wife of Oliver Morosco for, according to the New York Clipper on June 30, “alienating the theatrical man’s affections.”

Modernization streamlined the facade, removed the pinnacle and Gothic screens, and enlarged the upper floor openings.
Samuel Goldwyn had an apartment here at the same time, and throughout the decades it would become home to Erica Jong in the 1940s, and to actress Patricial Neal and her new husband Roald Dahl in 1954. 

At some point before mid-century the building lost the name Manhattan Square Apartment (possibly because of the 1922 building on West 81st Street that took the same name) and became known as The Studio Building.

On September 28, 1939 The New York Times reported that “A forty-five foot studio living room is being constructed for the special use of Paul Trebilcock, portrait painter, in the building at 44 West Seventy-seventh Street.”  It is possibly at this time that the windows of the top floor were stripped of their mullions and plate glass installed.  Tragically, at some point a misguided attempt at modernization resulted in much of the Gothic ornamentation of the upper floors being stripped away and the marvelous gables, parapets and pinnacle were destroyed.  The dripping Gothic screens, as well, were trashed.

The building would make a brief appearance in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel in the line “Kramer had that vision comfortable in place when just up ahead, from the swell-looking doorway of 44 West Seventy-seventh Street emerged a figure that startled him.”

Despite the vandalism of the upper stories, the building still has, for the most part, only two apartments per floor.  Even in its decimated state, Harde & Short’s “distinct departure from anything hitherto attempted” is still an eye-catcher.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. Hi Tom, I'm trying to research an artist who I think resided there around 1915...W.V. Schevill. Any tips on getting info on him or where he resided there. I have a painting by him, which he shipped to an art show in London. A sticker on back reads:
    Return to 44 W. 77 St., NYC

    1. Please drop me a line at my email address (above left)

  2. I happened to witness the gutting of the penthouse of this building. I had no idea about it’s existence or history, and this page taught me a lot. I was working with two others tasked with saving what features we could, and we did manage to extract some columns and mantels. But there was a great deal of beautiful woodwork and features that I saw destroyed. It seems like these apartments have passed hands many times and will continue to do so, but this was a complete gutting of what was left. Very sad.