Friday, February 13, 2015

The May King Van Rensselaer House -- No. 134 E 95th Street

In the first decades following the Civil War, Manhattan’s wealthiest residents commissioned custom built mansions along or near Fifth Avenue.  Recognizing their prospective customers, even speculative developers were more likely to erect single lavish homes here than rows of identical structures.

But on the east side of Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park) things were different.  As was the case on the opposite side of Central Park, developers snatched up stretches of real estate and erected rows of homes—and while they were not always carbon copies; they were nonetheless harmonious.  Such was the case with John and William Walsh.

On January 29, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that “William J. and John P. C. Walsh intend to erect twelve homes on the south side of Ninety-fifth street, 100 feet east of Fourth avenue, from plans by C. Abbot French.”  The newspaper added that they would be “Queen Anne private residences.”

And indeed they were.  Stretching from No. 116 to 138 East 95th Street, French’s fanciful homes included all the expected bells and whistles of the Queen Anne style—offset entrances, stained glass, carved decoration, creative brickwork and projecting bays.  Like so many of the architects working on the opposite side of the island, French created a unified set of structures related by visual similarities; yet no two identical.

Among the row was No. 134.  While it lacked some of the more exuberant decoration of its neighbors, it was nonetheless eye-catching, mostly because of the oval hallway window above the doorway.  Outlined in skinny brick, it featured the many panes of the Queen Anne style and rested comfortably in a carved brownstone stand. 

French’s use of brownstone and red brick resulted in a subtle two-tone scheme.  His playful treatment of the stoop resulted in the entrance stairs spilling down to a porch two steps above the sidewalk, then sweeping to the side in a gentle curve.

The row was completed in 1888 and real estate operator Martin Disken was quick to swoop in.  In July 1889 he purchased No. 132 for $14,400—about $365,000 today—and in October he bought up 134, 136 and 138, each for $14,000.

By the turn of the century No. 134 was home to Adell Hartman.  The enterprising woman ran a hotel and on Sunday, September 1, 1901 her troubles with the liquor authorities started.  Five plain-clothed special agents entered the barroom and ordered drinks.  According to court documents, “but, before reaching the bar, they were directed to leave the room, and to go out upon the veranda, where their orders would be taken.”

Excise laws in 1901 permitted patrons who ordered a meal to have a drink.  According to Adell’s waiter, one of the men ordered a porterhouse steak.  But when the steak was brought out to the veranda, the men had consumed their five whiskeys and left.  The agents, on the other hand, “all deny that they ordered anything to eat, or that anything to eat was delivered to them.”

The State Commissioner of Excise ordered the revoking of Adell Hartman’s liquor license.  After hearing the testimony, however, the judge highly suspected that the agents were being underhanded.  He dismissed the case against Adell Hartman saying there was not enough evidence.

Despite her legal victory, Adell Hartman would not be in business much longer.  On February 1, 1904 newspapers announced that she had filed for bankruptcy “as a poor person” with liabilities of $4,504 and no assets.

At the time Simon Kayton was living at No. 125 East 80th Street.  He sold that house in November 1908 and leased No. 134 East 95th Street from the current owner, William M. Leslie.  Listed as a “liveryman” Kayton operated a high-end stable far downtown on Chambers Street, where vehicles were leased and private carriages were garaged.  Simon’s income was enough to afford the rent for the upscale home.  His wife, Bella, busied herself with benevolent causes such as the Emanuel Sisterhood of Personal Services.

One of Kayton’s wealthy clients was Mrs. Jeannette P. Goin of No. 4 West 55th Street.  Years earlier, in April 1902, she took her carriage to Kayton’s stable for storage.  Hers was an unusual style for New York, called a vis-à-vis in which the passengers sit facing one another, and was therefore easily identified.

Now, on May 24, 1909 she was riding in Central Park in an electric cab with her daughter, Ellen, and Mrs. Thomas H. Baskerville.  According to Mrs. Goin, she was shocked when the cab was passed by her own carriage with three occupants.

She had the driver follow the carriage for a short distance, then ordered him to drive to Kayton’s stable where she demanded to see her carriage.  The New York Times later reported “Kayton first said that the elevator was out of order.  The woman said they would walk to where the vehicle was.  According to Mrs. Goin, Kayton then told her that a lamp had been broken and he had sent the carriage to be repaired.”

Not believing that an entire carriage would have to be sent away to repair a lamp, the three women went back to Central Park “to see if they could get another look at the vehicle.   A little later it passed.”  The amateur detectives tried to tail the carriage.  “The women attempted to follow, but the power in their automobile gave out.  Miss Goin and Mrs. Baskerville returned home and Mrs. Goin went back to the stable to see Kayton, but did not find him.”

A week later Mrs. Goin’s attorney, Ernest G. Stevens, appeared at the Kayton livery stable.  It was all too much for Simon Kayton and he sent a letter to James D. Goin, Jeannette’s husband saying that the carriage was taking up too much space and requesting him to remove it.  The Goins responded by suing Kayton for $1,400, saying the carriage “had been used and badly worn, instead of being kept in careful storage.”

On January 25, 1909, seven years after the vehicle had been dropped off, jurors heard testimony from the involved parties.   Ellen corroborated the story of her mother, and James Goin swore that the carriage had been repaired “and was as good as new in 1902 when taken to the livery stable.”  Kayton testified that on the day Mrs. Goin had demanded to see her carriage, it was out for repair.  “It had not been outside the stable up to that time.”  He said the damage to the lamp was through a collision with another vehicle while in the stable.

The judge gathered up the court and they went to the Chambers Street stable to inspect the Goin carriage.  An “expert” witness, carriage dealer Donald Dyer looked over the vehicle.  On January 26 The Sun reported on his testimony, which was devastating to the Goin case.  He said “the Goin coach to-day, in view of the rapid inroads automobiles had made, was worthless.  He said that the signs of wear the vehicle showed were due to its being stored.  He said that the damage had come from the ammonia fumes in the livery stable.  Vehicles which get washed regularly, the witness testified, don’t suffer that sort of damage.”
The jury was convinced that the carriage had been used for a “joy ride” but felt that the $1,400 value the Goins placed on it was excessive.  They delivered a verdict of $275 against Kayton.
French capped the upper stair hall window with a hefty terra cotta eyebrow.

As Donald Dyer had pointed out in court, the automobile was rapidly overtaking the horse as the preferred means of transportation.  By 1911 Simon Kayton had established the Kayton Taxicab and Garage Company.  His 40 smart taxis were black “with a maroon running gear and a “K” on the right side of the radiator,” according to The Sun.  Kayton set up stands at the Metropolitan Club, the Savoy Hotel, and other hotels and restaurants.  But even with his cabs transporting wealthy riders, Kayton and other taxi companies were in trouble.

The cost of running motorized cabs was high, they quickly depreciated, and companies paid for “dead mileage”—traveling to pick up passengers and returning empty.  Kayton’s payment to the Savoy alone was $3,000 a year for the privilege of parking there.  The overhead was reflected in high fares.  Customers paid 80 cents for the first mile—over $20 today.  Kayton told reporters on December 22, 1911 “The taxicab condition in New York is abominable.  Out of the twenty hours we keep cabs on the street we get pay for an average of only four hours actual work.” 

When one of the Kayton Taxicab Company’s directors took one of the cabs to Brooklyn for business, spending about three hours, his fare was $16.  “He sent for me and told me if that was the regular rate it was no wonder people did not use taxis more and why the companies were losing business,” said Kayton.

So the Kayton Taxicab Company embarked on a risky experiment.  Between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. the fare was reduced to half price.  Other cab companies warned him “that it would end disastrously,” according to The Sun on December 22, 1909.  Kayton partially agreed.  “If it doesn’t work out all right we are in for an enormous loss.”

It did not work out all right.  On June 29, 1912 Kayton filed for bankruptcy.   He blamed the problem on the dead mileage and the hotel stand privileges; the latter costing him $22,000 a year.  Even with the night fares remaining at 80 cents a mile, the dead mileage was fatal to the firm.  “For instance,” he told a special committee of the Board of Aldermen, “at 10:30 at night there are about 1,000 calls for cabs at theatres and these all go to Harlem pretty nearly without return fares for 75 per cent of them.”

The Kayton family was able to stay on in the 95th Street house for another year; then in March 1914 it was leased to Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer “of Philadelphia.”  Mrs. Van Rensselaer was born Maria Denning King, although she later changed her name to May.  The daughter of Archibald Gracie King, both her husband’s family and hers traced their American lineage back two centuries.   She disdained the flashy ostentation of the nouveau riche and was the author of what The Pittsburgh Press in 1915 called “that disturbing genealogical study, ‘New Yorkers of the Nineteenth Century,’ which caused a panic in the ranks of the Four Hundred.”  She wrote in her The Social Ladder “Society once connoted, first of all, family; its primary meaning at present is fortune.  Years ago, it stood for breeding; now it represents, instead, self-advertisement.”

With the arrival of Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer to New York, society was about to deal with a formidable force.  While she was deeply rooted in social tradition—in 1905 she had written Newport—Our Social Capital—she was at the same time concerned with the women’s movement and with the underprivileged.

A year after moving into the house, on Saturday, January 17, 1915 Mrs. Van Rensselaer hosted “an evening of Oriental Divination” in the house; exemplifying her up-to-date interests.  As the summer season approached that year, her health failed and she was unable to open her Newport cottage.  On November 7, 1915 The Pittsburgh Press noted “Mrs. Van Rensselaer was forced to stay in town this summer.  Illness kept her from the country and chained her to her home at No. 134 East Ninety-fifth Street.  It proved a bad hospital.”

The problem was children.  “All day long there was noise, shouting, cat-calling, roller-skating.”  Her nerves frayed, May Van Rensselaer “issued a courteous call for calm” and the street noise abated.  But as she thought about her new-found peace, she was disturbed.  Obviously the children had no playground other than the street and she had taken that from them.  From her window she could see the children busily playing on various stoops.  Then she had an idea.

The doyen of New York and Philadelphia society invited the children to her library.  She intended to teach them about American history.  “You have a picture of these youngsters entering that library, every book and ornament of which breathes association with the past…And there sits that erect and white-haired gentlewomen ready to mould them for her country,” said The Pittsburgh Press.

It was the beginning of a long series of classes in the house.  Mrs. Van Rensselaer's instructions were not stuffy or boring; including, for instance, historic tableaux in which the children dressed in period costumes and played out important American events.

Along with the weekly group of children in Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer’s library, the house was the scene of events both social and otherwise.  On a Sunday afternoon in November 1916 she hosted a reception “for Miss Sylvia Van Rensselaer;” and on April 9 the following year a meeting of the First National Scientific Registration Society was held here.  Brooklyn Life pointed out “This society was organized for the protection of the life and property of individuals by means of Sir Edward Henry’s system of finger printing.”

It was that sort of forward thinking that brought May Van Rensselaer to her feet at a meeting of the New York Historical Society on January 2, 1917 and caused many gasps among the exulted group.  The following day The New York Times reported that “Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer, member of one of the oldest Knickerbocker families, rose unexpectedly at the annual meeting of the New York Historical Society last night” and addressed “its staid, and afterward startled, representatives.”

She told the Society that in the past three years she had “not heard one new or advanced scientific thought, although many distinguished scholars have visited the city.”  She said that as a life member she should be proud of the organization, but was ashamed of it.

“Mrs. Van Rensselaer, who has snow-white hair and looks like a Duchess of the Victorian period, paused to scan the paper from which she was reading and to permit the full meaning of her words to sink in on her audience.”  Having accused the Society of no new ideas and of being “in the rear” of similar organizations in the United States, she dropped what The Times called “a verbal bomb.”

“And instead of an imposing edifice filled with treasure from old New York what do we find?  Only a deformed monstrosity filled with curiosities, ill arranged and badly assorted.”

Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer’s tirade was the first step in a reorganization of the displays and a rethinking of the operation of the New York Historical Society.

Two weeks later Admiral George Dewey died, triggering a wave of tribute nationwide.  On January 20 The New York Times reported on the activities in the Van Rensselaer house.  “Commemoration exercises for Admiral Dewey were held yesterday afternoon at the home of Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer, the author, 134 East Ninety-fifth Street.  She is the member of the New York Historical Society who…told the society it lacked animation.  The principal participants were a dozen boys and girls of 12 and 15 years of age, members of Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s city history classes.

“The idea of the exercises occurred to her when the children requested that they be permitted to drape with mourning and flags the photograph of the Admiral hung at the head of the stairway in Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s home.  They did this, after which Mrs. Van Rensselaer told several anecdotes in which the Admiral figured and which, she said, had escaped the biographers.”

The vibrant author and socialite left East 95th Street in 1918 and the house was leased to Mrs. Morton Taylor.  Unlike many of the homes in the area, it managed to survive through as a single family home through even the Depression years.  In 1954 it was purchased by Harley Rogers, who sold it in 1958 to architect David Todd and his wife Suzanne.  In reporting on the sale The Times noted “He plans to alter and occupy the house.”

And alter the house he did.  While Todd later said there was not much woodwork left in the house, he removed walls to create a mid-century version of what designers today call “an open concept.”  Sleekly modern, it reflected the tastes of the 1950s and of an architect who thought forward rather than back.  One wonders, however, if May Denning King Van Rensselaer would have approved.

The former library, where May Van Rensselaer instructed neighborhood children (above) retains its fireplace, now painted.  photographs

Born in Middletown, Ohio in 1915, David Fenton Michie Todd would go on to design several university buildings and, beginning around 1965, became an advocate for improving conditions in public housing.  In 1967 his architectural firm became David Todd & Associates.  His most memorable creation was the Manhattan Plaza complex, constructed in the 1970s.  He served as chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1989 to 1990.

Todd’s chairmanship was controversial and he admitted he was not an “ardent preservationist” by the common definition.  Focusing on what he termed “architectural quality,” he was less interested in the historical importance of a structure.  “The historical or cultural sides can be stretched, strained and rationalized.  To my mind, too many things can fit under those headings,” he told reporters in a 1989 interview.  That attitude was perhaps reflected in his interior renovations of his own home on East 95th Street.

As Todd aged, he and his wife spent about half of each year in Venasque, a village in Southern France.  When in town, he loved puttering in his garden, described by The New York Times as “of his own design.”

The 93-year old architect died on March 31, 2008.  Nineteen years earlier, when he was named landmarks chairman, he had remarked “One thing that concerns me now is, who is going to keep up the house?”

Still a private home, the house was placed on the market in 2014 and reduced in price in 2015 to just under $6.4 million.  

non-credited photographs taken by the author

1 comment:

  1. Hi from Singapore! The Google rabbithole led me here while I was searching for information on Mrs. Van Rensselaer. The little biographies of these people's lives in relation to their environment were so interesting and well-written. Thanks for putting this on the Internet!