Saturday, February 28, 2015

The N. L. McCready Mansion -- No. 4 East 75th Street

Dumpsters sit outside the mansion while "renovations" continue in early 2015.

Nathaniel L’Hommediue McCready died on October 3, 1887 at the age of 66.  The President of the Old Dominion Steamship Line, he had lived in a handsome brownstone rowhouse just off Fifth Avenue at No. 10 West 22nd Street.

After providing an annuity for his widow, Caroline, the will divided his vast fortune equally among his three children.  Son Nathaniel L. McCready Jr. was a stock broker; however his interest in work fell far short of that of his father.

On February 10, 1891 McCready married Jeanne Borrowe.  The New York Times called Grace Church “the scene of a brilliant wedding.”   The social status of the young couple was evident in the guests occupying the pews that afternoon—Manhattan aristocrats like the Cornelius Vanderbilts, the Cooper Hewitts, Mr. and Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Heyward Cutting, a host of Beekmans, and other names including Morgan, Rhinelander, Pyne, Post and Whitney.

Forum- The Monthly Magazine of Society said of them “Mrs. Nathaniel L. McCready is one of the most beautiful of young New York society matrons  She inherited a fortune from her father, the late Samuel Borrowe, and her husband has also a large fortune.  He is a member of the Union, Metropolitan, and any number of other fashionable clubs.”

Jeanne Borrowe McCready had a fortune in her own right.  Forum magazine February 1898 (copyright expired) 

The newlyweds purchased an estate in France where they spent most of their time until 1894 when they began plans for a Manhattan winter home.  In 1895 construction began on the mansion.  McCready’s building site engulfed two plots at Nos. 4 and 6 East 75th Street—a total of 50 feet in width.  He had engaged the architectural firm of Trowbridge, Colt & Livingston to design a mansion quite unlike any other in New York.

Completed in January 1896 the limestone-fronted mansion was a severe adaptation of French Renaissance domestic architecture.  Four stories tall, the dormered fourth floor displayed elements of Francois I, providing visual interest.  A delicately-designed iron balcony stretched the width of the second floor.

The New-York Tribune remarked on January 26 “Mr. and Mrs. McCready, who have lived abroad most of the time since their marriage, are the possessors of one of the most beautiful homes in New-York, and so thoroughly French that it looks as if it might have been brought over from Paris and set down in Seventy-fifth-st.  The furnishings are extremely rich and tasteful.”

Forum added “Young Mr. and Mrs. McCready have a fine residence abroad as well as here, and pass half their time on the other side.  Their large house here at 4 East Seventy-fifth street is one of the finest of the modern dwellings of that locality.  An attempt to depart from the conventional plans in vogue was made in its construction, and it has a porte cochere like foreign dwellings.

The magazine mentioned the “large salon, which is the ball room.  It is very foreign of aspect, has a ceiling and walls of crossed oak beams.  The walls are hung with old tapestries, and above the mantel over a painting hangs the motto of the Colonial Dames, ‘Colere Coloinarum Clorian’ cut in brass.”

As with all fashionable homes of the 1890s, there was an “Oriental room.”  Its walls were covered in heavy white silk embroidered in gold.

On Thursday, January 23, 1896, the McCreadys hosted a sort of house-warming, deemed by the New-York Tribune to be “one of the largest and most elaborate receptions of the week.”  But Manhattan society would see little of the couple that winter season.  The newspaper added “Mr. and Mrs. McCready, who returned from Europe only two months ago, will shortly close their house and go abroad, to remain at their place in France until next autumn.”

But before they left Jeanne Borrowe McCready managed to host several afternoon teas and a few dinner parties.   On February 21 The New York Times noted that she “has cards out for a dinner party at her new hone, 4 East Seventy-fifth Street, on Friday evening of next week, when the table will be decorated with ferns and American Beauty roses.”  (Perhaps out of spite for the newspaper’s spilling the beans ahead of time, she instead decorated the tables with lilacs and orchids.)

If the McCready home indeed once had a porte cochere as Forum reported, it was later removed.

Perhaps surprisingly, while the McCreadys only sporadically opened the house, they kept it for 21 years.   They sold the mansion to V. Everit Macy in May 1917.   Fabulously wealthy, Macy had inherited $20 million in 1876 at the age of 5 upon his father’s death.   He and his wife, the former Edith Carpenter, had two sons and were perhaps more interested in philanthropic causes than social activities.

In January 1919 the couple turned the 75th Street mansion over to the Salvation Army for the use of World War I soldiers.  The New-York Tribune, on January 27, reported that it was opened as Sunshine Rest House.  The newspaper said it “is the last word in luxury and comfort—high ceilings, dark carved panellings, inlaid floors, tiled baths and all the rest.”

For 25 cents dough boys slept on “white iron beds with fresh linen every day—and white spreads.”   The Army encouraged soldiers who had just been released from the hospital to check into the house for recuperation. 

As the men enjoyed a billiard room, a lounge, and a reading room; they could not help noticing that they were in the mansion of a millionaire.  “The carved panellings and wide fireplace, the long, deep sofas and broad chairs, the dark, narrow tables with magazines and low lamps—not the kind that grace a mission, but the sort that harmonize with a Seventy-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue residence—the window seat that fronts six windows, and all that—are great, but none too good for the men in service,” said The Tribune.

The Macys did not return to East 75th Street.    At the end of the war, the house was purchased by Stanley and Elizabeth Mortimer.   Before they moved in architect Rafael Guastavino made two drawings for the main stairs.  Whether the updated staircase was ever executed is unclear.

That same year the Mortimer’s daughter Edith was married to Count Mario di Zoppola at the family’s country estate at Wheatley Hills, Long Island.  The New York Times said “It was the first international wedding here of social importance following the World War, during which Count di Zoppola served with the Italian aviation corps.”

The sumptuous wedding and the title "Countess" helped to divert attention from Edith’s recent ugly press.  Three months earlier she had been acquitted of manslaughter after the “racing roadster” she was driving struck and killed two men.

Stanley Mortimer was born in 1853 to a prominent old New York family.  A privileged child, he was educated in Europe, then earned a law degree from Columbia University Law School.  But like Nathaniel McCready, he never really held a job.

Still young, he moved to Paris where he studied art.  The Times would later say “He became one of the best-known of the young, wealthy Americans in Paris and continued his painting for several years.  Some of his works were exhibited at the Paris Salon.”

But Mortimer wearied of painting and instead turned to collecting art.  He lined the walls of the 75th Street mansion with his large collection of which, according to The New York Times, “little concerning it was known to the public.”

A true gentleman of leisure, Mortimer filled his time with riding, fox hunting and polo playing.  He and his wife, the former Elizabeth Livingston Hall, had two children, Stanley Jr., who went on to be an artist; and of course, Edith.

Edith received a Reno divorce from the Count on February 4, 1929.  Otherwise, the Mortimer family garnered little press other than announcements of receptions, dinners and Stanley’s activities with horsey sports.    Stanley Mortimer contracted influenza in 1932 which, coupled with his existing heart disease, brought about his death in the house on March 24.  He was 79 years old.  Mortimer’s funeral was held in the mansion the following morning.

Elizabeth remained in the house for nearly eight more years, selling it in January 1940 to Thomas J. Watson.  A self-made millionaire, he had started out with National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio.  Here, as general sales manager, he impressed John H. Patterson, the firm’s head, when he coined the motto “THINK.”

In 1914 he assumed the presidency of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company.  In 1924, when his firm merged with the International Business Machines Company, he became president of the newly-named I.B.M.   The man who started out his business life with a salary of $6 a week was making $546,294 a year when he purchased the 75th Street house (a comfortable $9 million today).

In his The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making o IBM Kevin Maney describes the interiors during the Watson residency:

“All around Watson was a house that was serious and formal—and extremely white.  In the entrance way of the first floor, bright white marble walls surrounded a black-and-white marble-tiled floor.  A grand staircase of white marble edged by elaborate black iron railings rose to the second and third floors.  A great room opened up on brilliant marble that encased floor-to-ceiling windows.  The room was precisely furnished with couches, French-style chairs, and a baby grand piano.  In the dining room loomed a massive portrait of Watson, and near it hung smaller but still sizable portraits of Jeannette and of Tom Jr….In the home’s library, shelves along one wall held books stacked so neatly, they looked as if they were not supposed to be touched.”

Watson and his wife, the former Jeanette M. Kitredge, had two sons and two daughters.   While the house would be the scene of the expected social entertainments, it would also host some of the world’s most important figures.

On October 24, 1941 The New York Times reported that the Duke of Windsor, former King Edward VII “last night dined with the Duchess at the home of Thomas J. Watson.”   The following year, on June 19, King George of Greece was the guest of honor at a reception in the house.   In May 1949 the Watsons gave a reception for President Eurico Gaspar Dutra of Brazil; and a year later they entertained President Gonzales Videla, President of Chile.

In 1953 Queen Frederika and King Paul of Greece were the guests of honor in the Watson mansion.  Quietly, according to The New York Times the following day, “the Queen and a lady in waiting withdrew.  She went to LaGuardia Airport, boarded a Military Air Transport Service plane and took off for Washington.  There she was taken to Walter Reid Hospital where she spent an hour with General Marshall.  Aides explained that the King and Queen felt they could not leave without paying their respects to the author of the Marshall Plan.”

Two years later the Presidential Party of the President of Uruguay were entertained at luncheon in the mansion.  It would be the last international event attended by Thomas J. Watson.    He died of a heart attack at the age of 82 on June 19, 1956.  His death prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to say “In the passing of Thomas J. Watson, the nation has lost a truly fine American—an industrialist who was first of all a great citizen and a great humanitarian.”

The house was sold to Eva Fox, widow of the Twentieth-Century Fox film producer William Fox.   In March 1957 The New York Times remarked on the few private mansions left in New York.  It mentioned the house at 4 East 75th Street and said “few others are fully staffed.”

It seemed like the end of the line for the mansion as a private house when it was purchased by Rebeka West Harkness for use by the William Hale Harkness Foundation.   One of the wealthiest women in America, she was also a composer, philanthropist, sculptor and patron of the arts.

In reporting on the sale on June 11, 1964, The New York Times said “The interior has hand-carved walnut paneling and ornamental ceilings, a marble stairwell and massive marble mantels.”  Harkness converted the home for use as a cultural development center which included a school of ballet.  It became home of the Harkness Ballet Foundation.

It was here that Woody Allen hosted a lavish New Year’s Eve party in 1967.  Among the attendees were Mick Jagger, Lauren Bacall, Normal Mailer, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller, Bette Midler, Robert De Niro, Kurt Vonnegut and a host of other celebrities, authors, and socialites.  Gloria Vanderbilt showed up with her two sons.

When the mansion came back on the market in 2005 investor J. Christopher Flowers spent a staggering $53 million to buy it.  He spent another million on renovations which, sadly, meant a gut demolition.  He then sold it in 2011 for a huge loss.  Art dealer Larry Gagosian paid $36.5 million in August that year.

Gagosian embarked on a “renovation.”  While the landmarked façade was preserved, nothing was left of the interiors which the New-York Tribune had described as “rich and tasteful.”  The rooms where kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, and several presidents had been entertained had apparently already been bulldozed by Flowers.

A clandestine photograph taken in 2013 shows the heart-breaking condition behind the facade.  photograph
From the street, however, the house that “looks as if it might have been brought over from Paris and set down in Seventy-fifth-st.” is essentially unchanged.

exterior photographs taken by the author

Friday, February 27, 2015

An Arts & Crafts Surprise -- No. 6 West 24th Street

Restoration of the street level was underway in 2014.

In the years just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, elegant mansions rose along Fifth Avenue north of 23rd Street.  Madison Square had been officially completed on May 10, 1847 and quickly high-end homes began surrounding the park.  On August 23, 1859 developer Amos Eno opened his lavish Fifth Avenue Hotel at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.

About this same time Phillips Phoenix had his wide, two-story private stable constructed directly behind the hotel at No. 6 West 24th Street.  Wealthy and a touch flamboyant, Phoenix was well-known in society.  His keen ability to sense financial opportunity and his willingness to adapt would serve him well as the exclusive residential neighborhood was taken over by commercial interests following the war.

By 1879 23rd Street was seeing the first hints of the entertainment district which would transform it by the end of the century.  That year Phillips Phoenix joined with Amos Eno to erect the Madison Square Theatre at No. 4 West 24th Street, abutting the stable.  He also commissioned the architectural firm of Kimball & Wisedell to convert the stable, adding a third story.  Instead of horses and carriages, the building now housed theater offices and dressing rooms for the thespians.  One year later the architects obliterated the utilitarian roots of the structure by designing a commercial façade.

The former stable (right) had received an additional floor when this photo was published in 1893.  A Trip To Chinatown, which was playing at the time, would run for over 700 performances.  Kings Views of New York City 1893 (copyright expired)

Sharing space in the 25-foot wide building, at least for one year in 1882, was the publishing firm of G. P. Putnam & Sons.   In the meantime, Phillips Phoenix enjoyed his wealth and social status, maintaining a country home in Tuxedo.   It was there on December 3, 1886 that Phoenix took possession of his new 31-foot ice yacht “to be used this Winter on Tuxedo Lake,” reported The New York Times.
Kimball & Wisedell's new facade for No. 6 can be seen at the far right of this postcard.

Built in Poughkeepsie by ice yacht builder Jacob Buckhout, it was constructed of oak and mahogany with spruce spars.  The Times deemed it “one of the handsomest yachts ever sent out of Mr. Buckhout’s shop.”

Starting around 1891 the Madison Square Theatre was operated by playwright Charles H. Hoyt and manager Frank McKee, known professionally as Hoyt & McKee.  In January 1894 the pair happily announced “that they have succeeded in renewing their lease of the Madison Square Theatre for a term of nine years, beginning the 1st of October.  From that time the theatre will be leased directly from the owners, Amos R. Eno and Phillips Phoenix.”
The ornate auditorium of the Madison Square Theatre was depicted in an 1886 program. (copyright expired)
Charles Hoyt told reporters “The theatre will be kept open until the 1st of October.  The theatre will be closed for a thorough overhauling.  I shall spend a large amount of money in refitting it.  I expect to make it as handsome as any theatre in New-York.”

Hoyt’s plans hit a snag, though.  Two months later The New York Times announced “Hoyt and McKee have decided to close their season at the Madison Square Theatre March 31.”  Hoyt’s hit A Trip to Chinatown had already run for 700 performances and the house was still packed.  But the duo could make more money putting the show on the road than keeping it in New York.  And they did not yet have a “proper class of attraction” to replace it. 

“This will be the first time the pretty little theatre has been closed to the Hoyt plays since Hoyt and Thomas assumed the management,” noted The Times on March 19, 1894.

Within only a few years the theater district would move northward to Longacre Square, later renamed Times Square.    The Madison Square Theatre hung on; but as early as 1903 was renting space to at least one small business, S. B. Goodale & Son real estate, in No. 6 West 24th Street.  In 1906 Walter N. Lawrence ran the theater and that year he paid the $500 fee for a one-year amusement license.  The license covered both No. 4 and No. 6 West 24th Street.

But the days of light theater here were quickly drawing to an end.   In 1909 the aging Phillip Phoenix, always willing to adapt to changing times and neighborhoods, commissioned the well-known architects Maynicke & Franke to renovate No. 6 into a restaurant with an apartment on the top floor.

The architects turned to the Arts & Crafts style which rejected the busy, over-decorated designs of the Victorian era.  More visible in suburban residential structures, the Arts & Crafts style arrived on West 24th Street as a delightful surprise.

The gape-mouthed lions' heads originally held the supports of a canopy.

Brick side piers with recessed panels rose to a deeply overhanging cornice supported by truss-like brackets.  They embraced a cast metal façade enhanced by plain, geometric recessed panels.  The openings, three to a floor, were nearly floor-to-ceiling and flooded both the upstairs apartment and the second floor dining room with daylight.  Two snarling lion heads originally upheld a marquee or canopy that sheltered patrons from direct sunlight or bad weather.

William H. Lubold’s restaurant took over the two lower floors.  Variously listed as “Lubold’s Café & Restaurant” and “Barbers Café & Grill” over the years, it was a favorite luncheon destination for the businessmen now working in the bustling Madison Square neighborhood. 

The second floor dining room was rented out for special parties and groups.  One of these was the Lumbermen’s Club.  The club called itself “strictly a dining and social organization.”  Dues were $50 a year for New Yorkers and $20 for non-residents--rather steep $100 per month expense for the city dwellers by today’s standards.  Although supposedly social, officers admitted that the club helped men in the lumber industry “meet and transact business.”

Although the Lumbermen’s Club moved to the nearby Hoffman House Hotel a year later, other organizations made ample use of the dining room in Lubold’s.   On March 16, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported on the first anniversary celebration of the Erie Club held here.

Founded in 1917 out of a rather odd concept, it was formed “by New Yorkers who came here from that bustling little Pennsylvania city,” explained the Tribune.   “The club meets on the first Saturday of each month.  The next meeting is to be known as ‘Ladies Night,’ and the club wants as many Erie girls as it can locate to be present.”

William Lubold died in July 1920 “quite suddenly…from diabetes.”  His obituary noted “The restaurant was patronized quite extensively by members of the trade in the Fifth Avenue Building and that vicinity, all of whom will regret to learn of Bill Lubold’s passing.”  The article mentioned that the business would be continued by Lubold’s sons, Howard and Wilbur.

The remarkable little building continue to house a restaurant on the first floor throughout the rest of the century.  In the 1970s the two upper floors were used as a photo studio.   A some point the street level was obliterated through misguided modernization.

Somewhat surprisingly, a 2013 renovation resulted in the sympathetic reconstruction of the lost architectural details of the first floor.   A restaurant continues to operate here.  The Arts & Crafts building with its long and varied past, nearly lost among the tall loft buildings on the block, is a delightful architectural surprise.

photographs by the author

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Forensic History -- No. 35 West 10th Street

In 1831 John Brown began construction on his wide brick-faced home at No. 35 West 10th Street.   Two stories tall with a dormered attic, it boasted a few extras—Flemish bond brickwork and a sweeping stone stoop above the brick basement level, for instance—that marked the house as a step above normal.  But, unlike the lavish Henry Brevoort mansion that would soon rise nearby on Fifth Avenue and 9th Street and set the bar for Fifth Avenue residences, Brown’s was a merchant class house.

Within a few years of the completion of Brown house in 1832 other homes along the block would appear.   The family retained possession for years, with Dorcas Brown (possibly the wife or daughter) listed as living here.

In 1871 it appears that a room was rented out.  Elmer Poulsen was a senior studying at Columbia College.  The young man was from Cameron, Missouri; but listed his New York address as No. 35 West 10th Street.

Interestingly, when real estate operator Alida Van Schaick sold the house to Isaac E. Wright (another property buyer and seller) on February 1, 1881 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide still described it was a “two-story brick dwelling.”   Yet the alterations that resulted in the full three floors we see today reflect architectural trends popular around the beginning of the Civil War—the leafy, scrolled brackets of the paneled cornice, the mid-Victorian double doors, and the extended parlor floor windows.

The renovations that resulted in a full third floor are evident in the change of Flemish bond brickwork to American bond.

In 1898 Philip Webb lived here.  Webb was employed by the Lehigh Valley Railroad in the freight department.  In December that year he and two coworkers planned a night of debauchery in Manhattan’s notorious Tenderloin District.  It did not play out well.

One of the men, named Hammond, backed out at the last minute; but 31-year old Thomas McKeever came into the city on Saturday morning December 10 and met Webb.  A married man living in Roselle, New Jersey, he told his family he would not be home until Sunday “as he intended to go shopping,” reported The Sun two days later.

The newspaper said “He intended purchasing gifts for his four small children.”  But the well-to-do man and his cohort, Philip Webb, had carousing in mind as well.

The Sun said McKeever “lived in good style, became quite popular and was admitted to the best society in the village.  Some time ago he joined the Roselle Casino, the leading club of the place, and became an active member.”

With his excuse in place, Thomas McKeever set off with Philip Webb on a night of eating and drinking that ended up “in the apartments occupied by Sadie Williams and Maggie Winnie” at No. 257 West 39th Street in the seedy neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen.

Not long after the men arrived, McKeever complained of feeling ill.  As Webb and the two disreputable women looked on, his condition worsened and he died.   It was not until nearly 10:00 on Sunday morning that the death was reported.   The women were questioned by police and released.

While the Coroners’ Physician Philip O’Hanlon conducted an autopsy, Philip Webb had the uncomfortable task of notifying McKeever’s family.  (On a side note, it was O'Hanlon's daughter who, two years earlier, had inspired the New-York Tribune’s famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause” editorial.)

Webb first arranged to have the body removed to James Winterbottom’s undertaking business at No. 638 Sixth Avenue.   Then in the afternoon he telephoned New Jersey, and friends broke the news to his wife. 

The Sun described her as “prostrated” and said “She is in a delicate condition and it is feared that the shock of her husband’s death may prove fatal.”

Although the autopsy found that the death was caused by liver and kidney disease, the family would have to suffer the humiliation of the respected man’s corpse being found in the bed of a prostitute.  Philip Webb’s public embarrassment was no less severe.

Although No. 35 West 10th Street was relatively small; it sat on a well-respected block where millionaires still lived in mansions built a generation later.  On February 5, 1903 Harry Horton Benkard married Bertha King Barlett in a sumptuous ceremony in Grace Church.    The pews were packed with the upper echelon of Manhattan society—Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, the Robert Livingstons, Reginald C. Vanderbilt, Isaac Townsend and his daughter, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt and her sister Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, and the Stephen Van Rensselaers among the virtual Who’s Who of society.

The New-York Tribune reported, the following day, “On their return from their honeymoon they will live at No. 35 West Tenth-st.”

The newlyweds’ choice of the quaint Federal-style house was perhaps prompted by Bertha’s intense interest in the past.  She was among the first to collect American furniture and a period drawing room from the Benkard’s Long Island estate was later installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   They barely had time to move their things in following their honeymoon trip, before they were off to Newport In July 1903.

By 1910 high-profile attorney John G. Milburn, Jr. owned the house.   On the afternoon of November 8 that year burglars broke in.  They made off with a small iron safe but inadvertently left behind a bag of loot including a clock.  Their mistake would change the direction of American forensic investigations forever.

New York detectives were just beginning to use a new system for identifying criminals—the fingerprint.  When police opened the bag of valuables left behind, they pulled out a clock and on its glass face was a clear fingerprint.  Since 1903 the New York State Prison system had been fingerprinting prisoners and other states followed suit.

Detectives compared the print with those of Harry Peck, a criminal recently released from the Charlestown, Massachusetts prison.  The prints matched.

They went to the apartment of Harry Peck on November 18.  As he “pushed his way” into the apartment, Detective O’Farrell noticed a small photograph on the floor.  He remembered that the list of stolen items included a gold locket with Mrs. Milburn’s photo inside.  “It was that of Mrs. Milburn, he says,” reported The New York Times the following day.

A suitcase in the apartment held many of the articles taken from the 10th Street house.  Milburn and his roommate, Joseph Cohen, were arrested.  Both men, it was reported, had prison records for burglary, robbery and other offenses.

Three days later the crooks appeared in court for the setting of their bail.  A stage actor was there as well, studying for a role.  The New-York Tribune explained “Sitting with Magistrate Barlow during the hearing was H. B. Warner, the actor, who last year created the part of the safebreaker in the play ‘Alias Jimmy Valentine’”  When their trial date rolled around on January 12, “The prisoners broke down…and pleaded to burglary in the third degree.”  The Sun noted “It was the first conviction by the finger print method obtained in this country.”

The very wealthy Milburns spent much of their time at their country estate near Great Neck, Long Island and in Europe.  John G. Milburn, Jr. was a well-known polo player who repeatedly appeared in the social pages playing with partners like Raymond Belmont or H. C. Phipps.

In the meantime Anne Goldthwaite was making a name for herself in the art world.   Born in the South to a former Confederate Army captain, she had studied in New York’s National Academy of Design.  She briefly studied in Paris beginning in 1907, where she met Gertrude Stein.  As war clouds developed over Europe, she returned to the States.

On October 24, 1915 The Sun remarked “If Meier-Graefe should ever revise his ‘Modern Art’ he ought certainly to devote a dignified chapter to Anne Goldthwaite, by the side of the most gifted men.”

A month before that article, John G. Milburn, Jr. had leased the West 10th Street house to the artist.  It was the perfect location for her.  By now Greenwich Village was established as the center of Manhattan’s artistic community and the West 10th Street block not only housed artists like Kikishi Yama, sculptor Charles Keck, and D. Maitland Armstrong; but the famous 10th Street Studios building was just three houses away.

Like many Greenwich Village denizens of the period, Anne Goldthwaite was actively involved in social issues.  Among her most passionate causes was women’s suffrage.   On June 3, 1916, when the New York Giants met the Cincinnati Reds on the field of the Polo Grounds, Anne Goldthwaite was there.  It was Suffrage Day at the ballpark.

Self-Portrait Anne Godthwaite, Smithsonian American Art Museum

“A hand-made New York State silk suffrage banner, designed by Anne Goldthwaite, an artist, will be unfurled for the first time at the game,” reported The New York Times that morning.  “It was made to carry at the head of the New York State division of the suffrage parade to be held in Chicago on June 7.”

The suffragist leaders had fashionably coordinated Anne’s banner with the uniforms of the fund-raising vendors.  “The colors in the banner will be shown in the costumes of the girl candy sellers, who will wear blue smocked frocks, with blue money bags and yellow sashes.”

Anne Goldthwaite remained in the house at least into the 1920s.  Around 1940 it was acquired by attorney Philip Wittenberg and his wife.  For years Mrs. Wittenberg would open the rear garden for the Little Garden Clubs of New York’s annual tours.   In June 1946 the tours started again after being halted by World War II.    That year The New York Times wrote “A home which carried out the same verdant restfulness of the church garden was the brick house of Mr. and Mrs. Philip Wittenberg at 35 West Tenth Street, where a blue-tiled circular fountain with four fish designed by the late Vally Viselthier offset the solemnity of a square ivy-bed.”

When the magnificent Jefferson Market Courthouse a block away on Sixth Avenue was threatened in 1961, Philip Wittenberg led the crusade to save it, along with Margot Gayle, Democratic district leader.  President of the Committee For a Library in the Jefferson Market Courthouse,” Wittenberg hosted its first meeting here on February 18.

“Mr. Wittenberg pointed out that real estate men had been eyeing the sites of both the jail and the courthouse as ‘a nice piece of property’ for a new apartment house,” reported The Times

“And when real estate people decide something is a nice piece of property you might as well go home unless you are prepared to stand up and fight,” he told the assembled “Village community leaders, artists, writers, realtors and architects.”

The Committee triumphed and in 1967 restoration and renovation efforts began on the New York landmark.

The charming brick house remains a single family home after nearly 200 years; an important tile in the fascinating mosaic that makes up this block of West 10th Street.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The 1903 Hudson Theatre -- No 139 W 44th Street

photo by Andreas Praefcke
At the turn of the last century the migration of the theater district from 23rd Street to Longacre Square began in earnest.  On a single day, January 18, 1902, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on two planned theaters in the area that would soon be renamed Times Square.  Klaw & Erlanger had purchased two 5-story apartment buildings on 42nd Street “and will erect a theatre on the site;” and George G. Heye purchased the five three story houses at Nos. 136 to 144 West 45th Street, as well as No. 139 West 44th Street, to the rear.  The periodical noted that Heye “will erect on the site a theatre, which has been leased for twenty-one years to Henry H. Harris.”

On March 26 Heye’s architects, J. B. McElpatrick & Sons filed plans for the new structure.  They estimated the cost on filing at $175,000.  But that would soon change.  Within a month the old buildings were being demolished and Heye was receiving bids for contractors.  On April 5 the Record & Guide noted “The theatre will seat 1,400 persons and be fitted with tile, mosaic, marble, brasswork, etc., electric light, steam heat, ventilators, plumbing, etc.”  Along with the electric lighting, Heye wanted all the modern conveniences, including electric elevators.  The estimated cost of the theater had now risen to $250,000.

Construction was underway in October that year; but something seems to have gone awry between Heyes and his architects.  Before the building was completed the following year, Israels & Harder were the architects of record.

Producer Henry Birkhardt Harris had signed the long-term lease on the theater even before the land was acquired.  And so now, as the building rose, George Heye wisely stepped back and let Harris take the publicity reins.  At 9 a.m. on March 30, 1903 Harris hosted a splashy event to name the theater and to garner newspaper attention.  He assembled his business staff and stage celebrities, including stars Alice Fischer and Robert Edeson at the construction site.

“Miss Fischer and Mr. Edeson scaled ladders to the roof, where a large white flat bearing the insignia of the company and the words ‘Hudson Theatre,’ in green letters, was adjusted ready for the raising.  As Miss Fischer smashed a bottle of champagne against the flagstaff, saying ‘I christen thee Hudson,’ Mr. Edeson hauled the flag into place.  Three cheers and a tiger were given, and then the companies assembled in the theatre and partook of luncheon,” reported The New York Times the following day.

It would still be months before the theater was ready to open.  The newspaper said “The Hudson will be opened on Sept. 7 by Ethel Barrymore in a new play, to be followed by Marie Tempest in ‘The Marriage of Kitty,’ and then by Mr. Edeson in a new play of American life.”

The projected opening date came and went.  The Times explained “the labor unions decided that the completion of the theatre was not as important as their disputes.”  Finally, over a month later on October 15, the theater announced that “The sale of seats for Ethel Barrymore’s ‘Cousin Kate’ will begin at the New Hudson Theatre this morning at 9 o’clock.  Miss Barrymore will give only Saturday matinees.”

The curtain finally rose on Ethel Barrymore and Cousin Kate on October 19, 1903.  The drama critic for The Times was tepid in his assessment of her performance, saying “What might have been a moment of strong and varied and dramatic acting failed really to convince.”  But, he added, “It was only a moment, and Miss Barrymore glided speedily back into the part again; but it was the supreme moment, and the defect converted what might have been a triumph into a success.”

The newspapers were as interested in critiquing the new building as they were the performance.  The Times was especially taken with the Tiffany art glass used in the ceilings.  “It is impossible to close without a word of rapture on the new playhouse.  Its verd-antique, in Graeco Roman marble, silk plush and metal trimmings, harmonizes admirably with the dull old ivory of the proscenium arch, tricked out with the iridescence of favrile glass.  The masked lights in the golden house coffers and the moons of opalescent luminaries of the foyer ceiling, the constellations of dull incandescence in the ceiling of the auditorium, all combined to suffuce [sic] the house with a rich brilliancy never to be forgotten.”

The decorative elements of the auditorium were Roman-inspired.  The ceiling lighting in the promenade (below) were by Tiffany -- photos by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The writer gushed “No richer and more tasteful auditorium is to be found short of the splendid Hofburg Theater in Vienna, with its old crimson, ivory, and gold.”

The architects made full use of electrical lighting.  Each of the 264 coffers in the ceiling “modeled after a design suggested by an old ruin in Rome” contained an electric light.  Around the domed ceiling were lights hidden behind a frieze.

The lobby was separated from the foyer by massive bronze doors.   The lobby ceiling was triple-domed, supported by arches and pilasters.  “These arches have subdivided mirrors in the style of the famed salon of glass at Versailles,” reported The Times.   But the domes were by no means ordinary.  “The triple-domed ceiling of Tiffany glass and bronze, framed by conventional ivy bands, gives and effect of airiness and height,” said the newspaper.  The Tiffany ceiling was back lit by concealed electric lights.

The ladies' lounge was likened to Versailles -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the promenade at the rear of the auditorium were classical sculptures.  The area was lighted “by disks of Tiffany glass set in the paneled squares of the ceiling.”  To the right was the “ladies’ reception room” which was deemed a “copy of the boudoirs of the Louise XVI.”  The Times said its walls were “of mirrors, in which the feminine theatergoers may gaze at themselves from head to foot between every act, if they so wish.  The furniture is decorated with French tapestry.”

In stark contrast to the French-style ladies’ room was the men’s smoking room.  Exposed beams of Flemish oak matched the paneled walls and a masculine chandelier of iron and copper was inlaid with art glass.

Much was made of the fact that there were no obstructive columns in the auditorium.   The Greco-Roman motif was carried on in the proscenium vault which sat on “Roman columns.”  The decorated panels of the vault were said to be “copied from those in the Golden House of Nero.”

The lavish interiors were not particularly reflected in the restrained classical Beaux Arts façade.   The New York Times was seemingly unimpressed.  “As to the outside of the Hudson there is nothing very unusual, as Mr. Harris, according to his statement, thought the inside of much more importance to the public…The façade of the front of the building is four stories high and is simply treated.  The design of the façade in the rear is carried out in severely classic lines.”

When Ethel Barrymore opened in Cousin Kate in October 1903, the theater was flanked by brownstone houses -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

New York drama critics then, as now, relished their power to decide the success of a play.  In April 1904 actor Henry Miller was starring with Margaret Anglin in Camille at the Hudson when he reached his breaking point.  Following the third act on April 30 the audience applauded so vigorously and continuously, that Miller stepped on stage before the curtain to address them.

“He said that critics in this city did not take a serious actor seriously, and that, as a rule, they had shown themselves to be ignoramuses,” reported The Times the next day.  In a follow-up interview he complained that critics were tasked by their editors to write something witty rather than to seriously critique the performance.  “In their ignorance they do not understand that Miss Anglin’s ‘Camille’ is not a lady of the Tenderloin.  They wanted to write something funny—and some of them succeeded.”

As with other theaters, the Hudson was also a venue for political and social meetings.  On November 4, 1905 Dr. Edward Everett Hale of Boston addressed an audience of women on “Moral Forces.”  The issue was universal suffrage.  He told the women “It will succeed, not by its intellectual force, nor its physical force, nor its aesthetic force, but by its moral force…Universal suffrage must rely on the average citizen.”

Clara Bloodgood stars in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman here in 1905 -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In March 1906 the pioneering modern dancer Ruth Saint Denis first appeared here.  It was the first of her long succession of appearances on the Hudson Theatre stage.  Around the same time the Actors’ Society laid plans for a benefit performance at the Hudson on May 4 for the society’s building fund.   Then, on Wednesday April 18 at 5:12 am California was struck with an earthquake that devastated the city and set off gas-fueled fires that raged for several days.  More than 3,000 people perished and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed.  Five days later the Actors’ Society voted to donate the proceeds of its upcoming benefit to the “theatrical sufferers” in San Francisco.

Throughout the next few years the Hudson would host lectures and meetings in addition to the plays.  Repeatedly the venue for suffragist meetings, it was also used for church services.  Groups as diverse as the New York County Medical Society and the Elks New York Lodge No. 1 used the space.

In March 1908 Henry B. Harris purchased the theater from George B. Heye for a reported $700,000—a staggering $18.3 million in today’s dollars.  He continued his formula for drawing audiences by booking stage celebrities in plays by well-known writers.  On December 23, 1908 alone it was announced that he had acquired the rights for Channing Pollock’s Such a Little Queen; had extended Ethel Barrymore’s engagement in Lady Frederick until February; and that L. Frank Baum, forever remembered as the author of The Wizard of Oz would give a special matinee on Christmas Day.

Ethel Barrymore’s extended appearance in Lady Frederick was almost cut short the following month.   During the January 9 performance some in the audience were concerned.  “Those who sat in the boxes and the front rows of the orchestra had noticed that Miss Barrymore looked ill, and that she grew more pallid as the play proceeded,” reported The Times.  Nevertheless, the valiant actress completed the play.  The audience enthusiastically applauded and demanded a curtain call.

“The people in front noticed that she clung to the side of the proscenium arch as if for support when she bowed her acknowledgments,” said the newspaper.  “When the curtain was about to descend again she fell backward in a faint.”

The actress was carried to her dressing room, and then sent home in her carriage.  Her co-star Bruce McRae brushed it off, assuring reporters that she was suffering from a cold and that he did not think her “slight indisposition would interfere with the continuance of the play on Monday.”

Apparently the old imperative “the show must go on” was strictly followed by Henry Harris.  “It came out last night that Miss Barrymore fainted on Wednesday night at the end of the performance, but few in the audience knew about it,” noted The Times.

The beautiful Ethel Barrymore in her role as Lady Frederick in 1910 -- photo by Pach Brothers, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Not content with his Hudson Theatre, Henry B. Harris opened the Harris Theater in 1906 and the magnificent Folies Bergere in 1911.  The year after the opening of the Folies, Harris and his wife traveled to Europe.  They headed back to New York from Southampton, England, on April 10, taking Cabin C-83 on the luxury steamship the RMS Titanic.

While at sea three days later Irene Harris had an accident and fractured her shoulder blade.  The following night, April 14, the couple was shaken when the ocean liner struck an iceberg.   With panicked passengers crowding the deck, Henry Harris carried his wife to a lifeboat.  She later recounted that she asked the ship’s officers if her husband could join her in the lifeboat to attend to her.  She was told he could not.

Mrs. Harris said her husband stepped aside, saying “I understand.  The women must go first.”  Billboard Magazine, on April 27, 1912, wrote “When Mrs. Harris saw her husband last, he was calmly waving goodbye to her from the deck of the Titanic.

“Henry B. Harris died like a brave man.”

On April 19 both the Hudson and the Harris Theatres were closed as a gesture of respect; and on April 28 a memorial service was held in the Hudson Theatre.  The Sun reported that “The foyer and lobby of the theatre were filled with floral offerings from the theatrical profession and personal friends.”  Mrs. Harris sat in a box and the New-York Tribune said “the audience…filled every seat and even stood, unmolested on this occasion, six or more deep behind the last row in the orchestra circle.

The New York Tribune reported that during the ceremony August Thomas, speaking for the Lambs, mentioned “the manager’s production and reproduction of ‘The Scarecrow,’ in spite of its failure, ‘for the poetry that is in it.’”  What no one in the theater that night, most likely including Mrs. Harris, knew, was that the string of failures had serious repercussions. 

Harris died with an estate of $368,443; but his debts totaled over $400,000.  General Manager F. Howard Schnabbe explained to Percival Nagle, who appraised the estate, that Harris lost “about $360,000 in the Folies Bergere venture, which was a music hall built to emulate the Paris idea of vaudeville entertainment.”

His equity in the Hudson Theatre was $168,232; but it was appraised at only $84,710.  He had lost heavily on several productions, including The Quaker Girl, which lost $10,000; Sham which lost $9,000; and An American Widow, which lost $12,000.
Another problem was Harris’s insistence on booking big name stars even at extravagant salaries. Schnabbe pointed out Rose Stahl who was appearing in Maggie Pepper.  “It isn’t a bit of good without Rose Stahl.  In other words, if we wanted to sell the play we would have to sell Rose Stahl with it.  She receives 33 1-3 per cent of the profits of the play and a big salary.”

Irene Harris, faced with her husband’s debts, took on the management of the Hudson Theater.  She successfully turned the fortunes of the theater around.  In January 1915 The Theatre gave a rave review of The Show Shop, saying that on opening night the “audience roared with delight at Mr. James Forbes’ latest farce and if all signs go not awry it will be one of the laughing successes of the season.”

As the U.S. entered World War I, actresses in New York sought a way to help.  On April 9, 1917 The Evening World reported that “An organization known as the War Relief of the Women of the American Theatre, the aim of which is to give every woman of the stage a chance to do her ‘bit’ for her country, will meet at the Hudson Theatre next Friday at 3 P.M.”

Irene Harris continued to stage successful plays, including Booth Tarkington’s World War I comedy Clarence, about an American family and a “slowgoing, philosophic doughboy.”  Helen Hayes was back to play Cora Wheeler in the cast.  The same year W. Somerset Maugham’s Too Many Husbands was staged here.

In the 1920s Irene booked Barbara Stanwyck and Judith Anderson for their first New York appearances; and throughout the next decade audiences would see Dorothy Gish, Edward G. Robinson, William Holden and Douglas Fairbanks.  Irene Harris took a gamble in 1927 when she booked The Irish Players in The Plough and the Stars.  Irish plays with Irish actors had a bad history on the New York stage; with audiences sometimes degrading into vegetable-throwing rioters.  But when the play opened on November 28, 1927 there was, according to Dawson Byrne in his The Story of Ireland’s National Theatre, “a little hissing, but on the whole…an enthusiastic audience who applauded them so insistently at the end that the entire company took ten curtain calls.”

In 1929 Irene took another risky step when she staged the all-black production of Hot Chocolates.  The production featured Fats Waller’s song Ain’t Misbehavin’, sung by Cab Calloway which became a hit.  The same year Irene was reportedly refused an offer of $1 million for the theater.  Had she seen the onset of the Great Depression coming later that year, she most likely would have reconsidered.

Among the first of the luxuries that cash-strapped New Yorkers cut out of their budgets was the theater.  Managers scrambled for ways to keep their theaters afloat—some turning to the motion pictures, others to live events like boxing—but many were simply boarded up.  Irene Harris lost the Hudson Theatre to foreclosure in 1933.  It was sold at auction for $100,000; one tenth of what she had been offered.

The following year the Hudson became a CBS radio studio, housing the CBS Radio Playhouse.  By 1943 it was returned to legitimate theater. 

That year on December 12 the Professional Children’s School presented a juvenile cast production of Arsenic and Old Lace.  It was not well-received by the acerbic drama critic George Jean Nathan.

“The presently considered exhibit was drolly acted by the little boys and girls bent on future histrionic careers in some of its roles; but travesty melodrama nevertheless offers difficulties that straight melodrama does not, and some of the children found it beyond their resources.”  He offered “I like children myself; I think that some of them are cute; I even think that some of them are peculiarly very good in the acting craft.”  But not these.

Nathan had been no less critical of the all-black production of Run, Little Chillun produced in part by George Jessel.  “The struggle between Good and Evil for the soul of man, a theme favorite of contemporary Negro drama and even musical comedy, provides the evening’s sub-stratum, superimposed upon which is a folk song festival, choreography of a sexual pattern hardly exceeded by the late Nazi Strength Through Joy exercises even when under the supervision and encouragement of Julius Streicher, and a Baptist revival meeting so equally ecstatic that the difference between its religious fervor and the sexual fervor of the opposing pagan church is indeterminable.”

In 1945 Ralph Bellamy (left), Herbert Hayes and Edith Atwater played in State of the Union, from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1950 NBC purchased the theater, and in 1956 aired the first nationwide broadcast of The Tonight Show with Steve Allen.    On the stage of the Hudson Theatre Allen would greet guests like Milton Berle, Elvis Presley and Ernie Kovacs.  The theater was shared by the Jack Paar Show, which gave Barbra Streisand her television debut.

In February 1960 legitimate theater returned to the Hudson with Lillian Hellman’s masterful Toys in the Attic starring Maureen Stapleton and Jason Robards, Jr.  The play ran for 556 performances and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1960.  A year later readers of The New York Times, on December 8, were shocked to read “The Hudson Theatre has been sold to a garage-builder and operator who plans to have it razed as soon as its last tenant, Robert Breen, moves.”

The negotiations apparently fell through; but on May 18, 1962 The Times reported that the deal seemed to have been cemented.  It said that the National Broadcasting Company had sold the theater “for about $1,250,000” to the Sommer Brothers Construction Company.  “It was learned that N.B.C. had given orders yesterday to board all doors, remove telephones, turn off steam connections and drain the air conditioning system,” said the newspaper.  The sub-headline read “Buyer is Said to Plan Offices and Garage—N.B.C. Silent.”

The Times’ “reliable Broadway sources” were half correct.  Negotiations were underway; but the resulting public outcry and demonstrations by Actor’s Equity changed the minds of NBC executives.  But the Hudson Theatre would never return to its glory days.  For a while it was operated as a burlesque theater, briefly as a legitimate theater, then in 1968 a motion picture house.

The lavish interiors are creatively used today for special events -- photo

After sitting vacant for five years the Hudson Theatre was bought by Ron Delsner, a rock music promoter. He established the Savoy Rock Club here; but that, too, was a failure.  Harry Macklowe, who planned his 52-story Macklowe Hotel and Conference Center, purchased the old theater from Delsner.  The complex opened in 1989 with the Hudson Theatre as an architecturally fascinating special events space.