Thursday, May 14, 2015

Charles Mott's No. 325 West 76th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Architect Charles T. Mott was a busy man in the 1880s and ‘90s as the Upper West Side saw a frenzy of development.  Mott was among the most prolific of the architects working in the area as speculative builders threw up full blocks of rowhouses  In 1888 alone one such builder, William & Merrit & Co., advertised 38 new houses designed by Mott in the West End Avenue and 73rd Street neighborhood.

In 1891 he designed five upscale townhouses for developers William Jacob and Reuben Skinner on West 76th Street—Nos. 323 through 331.  Mott, like most of the architects working on the West Side at the time, dipped freely into the grab bag of historic styles.  His designs for these five homes were a Victorian take on the Renaissance.  They were designed in a symmetrical A-B-C-B-A pattern, with the end houses matching one another; Nos. 325 and 329 matching; and the center home, No. 327, standing out on its own right down to the brick color.

Nos. 323 (right) and 325 were similar; but not quite matching.  photo by Alice Lum

The houses were completed in 1892.  Like its neighbors, No. 325 rose four stories above an English basement.  While using only sparse ornamentation, Mott created a romantic, attractive façade.  He provided a visually-sturdy base by using brownstone for the basement and parlor levels—rough-cut stone for the basement where the entrance was accessed below the stoop; and smooth planed stone for the floor above.  The eye was drawn upward by the lighter color of the Roman brick used on the upper three stories.  Here a two-story oriel provided the focal point with a delightful arcaded porch; its brick columns capped by Medieval-style carved capitals.  Mott’s minimal decoration at this level included the creative use of chevron-patterned brick to outline the openings and trace the edges of the structure.  Above it all, a line of lions’ heads stared down from the brackets of the pressed metal cornice.
Lions gaze down from the end of each cornice bracket.  Mott's creative brickwork is reflected in the intricate knot.  photo by Alice Lum

On October 7, 1892, shortly after the home’s completion, it was sold to Helen D. Burnett.  She was relatively active in New York real estate and it is unclear whether she actually lived in the home.  Certainly by the turn of the century No. 325 was being leased to Edward D. Jones, secretary of the J. Hood Wright Memorial Hospital on 131st Street and Amsterdam Avenue.  He was most likey the same Edward D. Jones who partnered with Charles Dow and Charles Bergstresser in 1882 to form Dow Jones & Company.

On September 20, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Helen D. Burnett had sold the house to William H. Parsons, Jr. and his wife, Laura.  The couple took out a mortgage of $26,000 on the property.  The mortgage would amount to about $680,000 today. 

It was customary for the title of residential property to be put in the name of one's wife; and Laura W. Parsons was reported as the purchaser.  Parsons's father was head of paper manufacturers W. H. Parsons & Co. at No. 66 Broadway. 
photo by Alice Lum
The Parsons family would not remain long in the West 76th Street house.  Only a year and a half later, on May 4, 1904, The New York Times reported that William H. Parsons, Jr. had sold the property through Horace S. Ely & Co.  The same article noted that the firm had also sold Edward L. Shipman’s three-story house at No. 1 West 128th Street.  It did not mention that Shipman would be moving into the Parsons house.

Shipman and his brother, James, were stationers at No. 10 Murray Street.  Sixteen years earlier they were tasked with the uncomfortable job of having their wealthy father declared insane.  Wealthy and retired in 1888, Asa L. Shipman had been in the bookbinding business.  For years he lived at Ocean Grove, New Jersey in the summer and wintered in Florida.

In June 1887 he fell and struck the back of his head.  Family members noticed that his mind deteriorated after that.  James and Edward found themselves in court on July 24, 1888 where their father was unable to understand simple questions.  The New York Times reported the following day that a sheriff’s jury found him insane.  “Mr. Shipman is 74 years old, and quite imbecile,” it said.

Now, Edward Shipman’s family moved into the 19-room house, just months before a crime spree hit the neighborhood.  The New-York Tribune said that the “long series of bold hold-ups and burglaries” had “caused terror” and the newspaper belittled the police force.  “Conditions in this neighborhood as regards protection of property, or, rather, the lack of protection, have aroused the indignation of all the residents.  Some of the patrolmen on the upper West Side have posts ten blocks long, and while they are patrolling one end of them the thieves are industrious at the other.”

photo by Alice Lum
Shipman’s daughter found herself the terrified victim of an armed robber when she opened the door in December 1904.  “Miss Eva Shipman, who was held up at the point of a pistol, described the robber as being about twenty-five years old, tall and slender.  He backed up his demand for money with threats to shoot to kill until Mr. Shipman threw a $5 bill to him and he left the house.”

Within the month police had arrested Owen Smith and charged him not only with the Shipman burglary; but with the armed robbery of brewer Ernest G. W. Woers; of S. Barclay Latimer; and of Dr. Talbot of West 68th Street.  In the latter case, Smith reportedly held Dr. Talbot’s son and a servant, Lena Johnson at gunpoint.  All of the victims “identified Smith as the footpad,” said The Evening World.

Unfortunately when the group entered the courtroom on January 24, 1905, each one identified Henry Smith, the accused’s look-alike brother as the robber.  “When they found out that they were in error, they all refused to make a complaint against the prisoner,” reported The Evening World that afternoon.

“This aroused Magistrate Ommen, who declared that something ought to be done to rid the city of thugs who have recently terrorized the upper west side.  No one would take the initiative.”

Detectives went undercover and haunted pool rooms and bars to get evidence against Smith.  Finally one man, a former schoolmate of Smith’s, talked.  “Collins said he heard Smyth [sic] call up a maid in the Shipman house and tell her that he was the man who had robbed the place; that he was sorry, but, needing the money, he had to do it.”  On Saturday, February 4 Smith was back behind bars.

Things in the neighborhood returned to normal and Edward L. Shipman and his wife, the former Mary Smyth, lived on here for years.  Mary died in the house on December 7, 1923.

Two decades later, in 1944, the house was converted to apartments—two per floor.  In 2002 it sold for $3.5 million and five years later was reconverted to a single family home.   The new owners, Rick and Jennifer Nelson, worked with architect Jeffrey Langsam to restore the building.  Work on the exterior included replacing weather-worn stone elements with hand-carved copies.

Approximately 20 layers of paint were carefully removed from the Renaissance Revival-carved oak mantel.
Surviving details were used to fashion replacements.  A section of wainscoting found in the basement served as a model for the upstairs finishes.  Approximately 20 staircase spindles were reproduced to seamlessly match the originals.

Today the exterior of Charles T. Mott’s neo-Renaissance fantasy is barely changed after nearly 125 years.  And thanks to the loving and sympathetic attention of the Nelsons the formerly brutalized interiors have been brought resuscitated.

The original entrance door features wonderful heavy strap hardware -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. This must have been a very comfortable house to live in – and fun, with its quirky balcony. Are the windows original and typical of the period in New York?

    1. Those are replacement windows. The originals would have had several panes.

    2. I lived here during the nineties in one of the top floor apartments and had my first child at the nearby Roosevelt Hospital. The landlord at that time was a Mr Ward - a very interesting man who had worked in publishing before retiring.