Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Wm. Alciphon Boring House- No. 172 East 71st Street

In 1867 Dr. William S. Wood commissioned architect Frank S. Dwight to design three speculative rowhouses at Nos. 168 through 172 East 71st Street.  The neighborhood, two blocks east of Fourth (later renamed Park) Avenue was developing as one of middle-class homes far north of the bustling commercial area.  That Wood intended the houses for middle-income families is reflected in their surprisingly-narrow width.  At just 16 feet they were four to six feet narrower than the normal residential building plot.

Nevertheless, the completed Italianate-style homes were stylish, up-to-date, and highly unusual.  Three stories high over a rusticated English basement, they stepped away from the cookie-cutter design reflected in the scores of other speculative brownstones being erected at the time.  Dwight outlined each home with quoins and floated carved lintels over the elliptical-arched openings of the second and third floors.  The skinny doorways were flanked by paneled pilasters and framed in
stone carved to resemble blocks.  Despite their foliate brackets, the highly-unusual entrances were much sterner and geometric than the more common doorways in the neighborhood.

The three homes were originally identical.
By the turn of the century, as the neighborhood was becoming decidedly more upper class, No. 172 was home to architect William Alciphon Boring and his family.  Boring had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1889 through 1890.  He married Florence Kimball and in 1898 and the couple had one daughter, Louise.

Boring’s less-than-grand house did not necessarily reflect his professional acclaim.  In 1897 he and partner Lippincott Tilton (both had worked for McKim, Mead and White before striking out on their own) had won the competition to design the Ellis Island Immigrant Station.  The completed structure won them a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition.  Boring would become President of the Architectural League of New York and the Dean of the School of Architecture at Columbia University.

The house retains its interesting and unusual entrance doors.
The peaceful home life of No. 172 East 71st Street was shattered on Wednesday night, October 16, 1907 when 9-year old Louise died.  The little girl’s funeral was held in the house two days later.  In reporting her death the New-York Tribune mentioned “Mr. Boring has designed and erected buildings in the principal cities of the United States and Cuba.”

Boring’s career continued to expand and in 1910 he was appointed a member of the Board of Examiners.  The Board was responsible for passing on all building plans that were rejected by the Buildings Superintendent.  For every meeting attended, the Board members received $10 compensation.

Later that year, on November 3, William A. Boring sold the 71st Street house for $15,000—a little over $350,000 in today’s dollars.  It became home to 36-year old Dr. Thomas Wood Hastings and his wife, the former Athenia Belknap.  The couple was in their new home only a few weeks before a son was born on December 1.

Although he maintained a practice at No. 777 Madison Avenue, by now Wood was primarily an author and instructor.  A graduate of John Hopkins University, he had held the positions of house officer of Hopkins Hospital; surgeon of the Hospital Ship of Maine; instructor of clinical pathology in the Medical College of Cornell University; and since 1906 was a professor there.  Since 1908 he was the assistant visiting physician of Bellevue Hospital.  In addition, he was the author of Clinical Medicine, Feeding of Children, and other related works.

Athenia Wood and their young child would find themselves alone in the house when the United States entered World War I.  Dr. Hastings served abroad as a major in the U.S. Army medical corps.  Shortly after the war was ended the family left East 71st Street.

For a while the house was owned by Henry Thacher and his wife; but by 1930 it was home to the family of Dr. James W. Babcock.  Mrs. Babcock’s father was Robert Ralston Jones, an eminent civil engineer and author of books on history and engineering.  The elderly man moved in with the Babcocks and it was here, on October 20, 1930 that the 81-year old suffered a fatal heart attack.

Despite the Great Depression, the Babcocks, like most of residents in the now-affluent neighborhood, went on with their upscale lifestyle.  1937 was the year of daughter Virginia Ivins Babcock’s debut and her schedule was a whirlwind of glittering events.  On September 14 a local newspaper announced that “Dr. and Mrs. James Bloods Babcock 2d and members of their family have returned to 172 E. Seventy-first Street from Nantucket.”  As the height of the winter season came, The New York Times reported on December 27 “Miss Virginia Ivins Babcock gave an eggnog party yesterday afternoon at their home.”  She was home from Goucher College at the time.

The Babcock family still owned the house in the 1950s but was by now leasing it to upscale residents.  In 1953 Marguerite Lee Waterhouse was living here.  During World War II she had served as assistant field director in the Red Cross both in the United States and in India.  Marguerite’s mother lived in Beaufort, South Carolina.  When Marguerite and Edward Gideon Herendeen, an assistant vice president of the Hanover Bank, were married in April 1953, the ceremony took place in Beaufort.

Three years later, on April 24, 1956, The New York Times reported that the house “formerly the home of Dr. James W. Babcock,” had been sold to Judith Clark.  She would not retain possession extremely long and by the early 1960s it was home to the William H. Button family.  Mrs. Button regularly opened the gardens for the City Gardens Club’s annual Manhattan garden tours.  In 1962 The Times made special note of “the glassed-in terrace of Dr. and Mrs. William H. Button.”

Flat carved lintels float above the elliptical arched windows.

Throughout its near 150-years existence the narrow brownstone house has never been converted to apartments.  Alterations include early replacement windows, the smoothing over of the rusticated basement and installation of a professional office, and the loss of the carved frame of the parlor window.  And yet those remarkable entry doors of the architecturally-unusual house survive.

photographs by the author

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