Friday, July 31, 2015

The Alfred E. Smith House -- No. 25 Oliver Street

In the first years following the end of the Revolutionary War, the Rutgers and de Lancey estates abutted one another.  As the city encroached on their lands, the families named new streets for themselves, including Rutgers Street, Henry Street (for Henry Rutgers), and Catherine Street, for Catherine Rutgers.  Division Street marked the line between the two estates.  And little Oliver Street was named for Oliver de Lancey, brother of James de Lancey, for whom Delancey Street was named.

By the 1840s the streets were lined with what were mostly working class homes.   Among them was No. 25 Oliver Street, a 23-foot wide, two and a half story house clad in Flemish bond brick. The neighborhood was populated by Irish immigrants, and the Federal style house was owned by Thomas Coman.

Coman brought his family from Ireland to New York in 1838 when his son, also named Thomas, was just two years old.   He was determined that his son would succeed and while other boys in the neighborhood left school early to work, young Thomas not only stayed on but was later enrolled in the New York City College.

In 1847 Florence McCarthy was living across the street at No.22 Oliver Street when she fell behind in her personal taxes by $10.53.  By 1853 it appears she was renting a room from the Coman family.  She was, by now, a trustee in the Fourth Ward School District. Florence was still living here five years later when she had risen to the position of commissioner.

Young Thomas Coman graduated from City College in 1856.   That same year he joined the volunteer Eagle Engine Company No. 13.  He briefly worked for The New York Herald, and then at the age of 26 he took a job as clerk in the Post Office.

But Thomas Coman was politically motivated and in 1866 he was elected to the New York City Board of Alderman.  It was the beginning of a long political career marked by a meteoric rise.   Only two years later he became President of the Board of Alderman and, that same year, when Mayor Hoffman resigned, Thomas Coman stood in as Acting Mayor.  He held the position for about a year.

In 1871, the same year that Coman was re-elected to the Board of Alderman, he filed plans to enlarge the Oliver Street house by adding a third floor.  Although his intentions, as described in the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide on July 8, included a mansard roof; the completed renovations stopped short of that.  It was most likely at this time that up-to-date Italianate railings were added.

The Tammany Hall Democrat would sometimes find himself embroiled in the scandals that became the organization’s hallmark.   The New York Times—notoriously anti-Tammany—initiated an investigation regarding the $31,730.15 bill presented to the City in 1872 by the J. McBride Davidson safe company.

The Times insisted that the bills “were very heavy, and that the goods for which he charged could not be found in the public offices.”  The newspaper proclaimed “We have also intimated that many of the safes charged for were supplied to private persons!”

Thomas Coman -- Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York 1869 (copyright expired)
On February 1, 1872 the newspaper published a list of the safes, their costs and where they were delivered.  “This account is as clear a proof of barefaced swindling as any which could possibly be laid before the public.” Included in the list was the $650 “Secretary Safe” delivered to Thomas Coman at No. 25 Oliver Street on October 11, 1871.  The equivalent cost of the Coman’s safe today would be around $13,000.

In 1873 he was indicted, along with other Tweed Ring conspirators, for corruption in the construction of the Courthouse.

In 1881 Coman’s wife, Martha, sold No. 25 Oliver Street to the Church of St. James, located just a block away.    Almost simultaneously the Church purchased No. 21 Oliver Street for the same price.  Before long it would acquire No. 23 as well.

When St. James Church purchased No. 25 Mary and Sarah Corrigan were living at No. 135 Henry Street.  The sisters taught at Primary School No. 12 at No. 83 Roosevelt Street, along with Mary G. Meagher.  At the time Mary L. Corrigan was earning $600 per year and Sarah made $516.  Mary Meagher was earning $636 a year.   Even though she was earning more than the Corrigan sisters, it appears finances were tight.  That same year Mary Meaghan borrowed $327 from Jordan & Moriarty, using her furniture as collateral.

By 1883 all three women were living at No 25 Oliver Street, renting from the church.   The following year, in April, the church announced its intention of combining Nos 25 and 23 Oliver Street for use as its rectory.  Although the plan was never carried out, it was most likely at this time that the two houses acquired their matching cornices.

While the houses were not combined; No. 25 did become the rectory of St. James Church and it was from here on April 6, 1902 that the Rev. James B. Curry described the gritty 5-Points neighborhood.  “This district is a very rotten one, and the people in it who are bad are about the vilest and most degraded in all the world.  At Chatham Square I was every day compelled to make my way through a crowd of bad women who infested the corners thereabouts.”

Little Oliver Street however, while humble, was respectable.  In 1904 an up-and-coming politician, Alfred E. Smith was elected to the State Assembly.   He and his family were living in a five-room, third-floor walk up at No. 28 Oliver Street.  By 1909 the apartment was too crowded for the family of seven.  When funeral director Henry McCaddin moved from the former rectory at No. 25 Oliver Street to No. 63 Madison nearby, Smith leased No. 25 from St. James Church.

Smith was wildly popular within the mostly Irish neighborhood.  He relentlessly worked for improvements of the Lower East Side, including rent control, tenant protection and low-cost housing.  In an effort to teach children to save money, he and Assembly Speaker Tom Foley (who also lived on the block) announced free gifts to neighborhood children.  On June 17, 1913 The New York Times reported that “Three thousand children gathered yesterday at the doorstep of 25 Oliver Street…The gifts were to be distributed at 4 o’clock, but the collection of humanity took so long to be sorted and squirmed and screamed so much and so mightily that it was an hour later before sufficient order prevailed to hand out the first present.”  Each child received a tin bank, painted red and green, with a key and a nickel to start their savings.

The ruckus was such that a passerby asked a policeman if a riot was happening.  He answered, “Naw, a nuisance!”

When Smith ran for sheriff in October 1915, the residents showed their support.  On October 28 The New York Times reported “The blocks bounded by Oliver, Henry, Catharine and Madison Streets were closed to traffic and the houses were festooned with Japanese lanterns, bunting and incandescent lights.  In front of 25 Oliver Street, the candidate’s home, there hung a great painting of Smith bordered with red, white, and blue lights.”

There were three bands in the street, and open-air movies.  Children, “some Greek, some Chinese and some Italian, but mostly Irish, in carnival costumes, performed folk dancing and sang.”

Alfred E. Smith and his wife, Catherine -- from the collection of the Library of Congress

By 1916 Oliver Street was popularly known as Politicians’ Row.   On April 21 The Evening World noted that in addition to Smith, “In the row are the homes of Clem Driscoll, Senator Reardon, Magistrate Nolan, Tom Foley and Former Coroner Hayes.”  But Alfred E. Smith was the most popular.  On November 7, 1917 The Sun called him the “idol of Oliver street” and said he was “pretty well liked wherever he is known, amateur actor, present Sheriff, and former leader of the Assembly.”  That same year Smith, like Thomas Coman before him, was elected President of the Board of Aldermen.

In 1918 he was elected Governor of New York—the first Roman Catholic to hold the office--and suddenly the Smith family was dividing its time between the Executive Mansion and Oliver Street.  The first rumors that Alfred E. Smith would abandon Oliver Street began to spread in 1922.   When a resident was asked about it, he said “He’d never leave here.  Why, the boys wouldn’t let him!”

But Smith did finally leave the Oliver Street house.  Somewhat ironically, it was leased by St. James Church to Henry McCaddin, who had preceded Smith here.   McCaddin moved his funeral home into the house once again.

In 1928, when Smith’s daughter, Catherine, was married, old Oliver Street neighbors were not forgotten. Among the 15 invitations to the Albany wedding that arrived at Oliver Street addresses was one for Mr. and Mrs. Henry McCaddin.

On March 30, 1937 Berenice Abbott photographed No 25 (middle). The pressed metal lintels on both No. 25 and 23 were still crisp.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Little by little the old Irish neighborhood changed.  In 1939 the Federal Works Project’s New York City Guide described the area around the old Smith residence.  “The population of this former Irish district is chiefly Italian and Russian; a Greek colony occupies the lower end of Madison Street, while a small group of Spaniards lives in the neighborhood of Roosevelt and Cherry Street.”

In 1941 the first of 18 American Liberty Ships was built.  The transport ships were initially intended to help replace the English ships torpedoed by German U-boats.   Construction on the SS Alfred E. Smith commenced on November 27, 1944.   Prior to its launch in 1945 a slab of the bluestone sidewalk in front of No. 25 Oliver Street was removed in an official ceremony.  The stone was placed within the new ship.

The metal window lintels and Italianate ironwork are gone.  The remaining lintel over the doorway is seriously rusting.

Although the house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and a plaque applied to its brick façade; the Alfred E. Smith residence is a bit worse for the wear.   The house that one of New York State’s most popular called home, and where throngs of New Yorkers and children forced the closing of streets, goes mostly unnoticed and shows serious signs of neglect.

photographs by the author

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The 1820s No. 11 Bleecker Street

In the early 1820s the exclusive Bond Street neighborhood which was becoming home to eminent New Yorkers with names like Roosevelt and Astor.  Just one block south, in 1822, a two-and-a-half story Federal home was constructed for Stephen J. Brinkerhoff.  Located at No. 11 Bleecker Street it was clad in Flemish-bond red brick trimmed with modest brownstone lintels and sills. 

The project was apparently purely speculative, for in 1823 the property was transferred to Henry Remsen.  Remsen was well-known in New York as a wealthy merchant from a long-established family.  He quickly turned it over within the year to John Culbert, who took title in 1824.

The Culbert family would retain possession of the house for years.  The title was passed to William A. M. Culbert in 1862,.  It appears that they leased the residence rather than living there.  In 1837 physician Abraham D. Clement was listed in New York City directories as living here.  By 1841 another doctor, Joel Foster, had taken occupancy.

A fascinating double portrait of Charles Henry Augustus Carter and his wife by Nicholas Biddle Kittell in the Museum of the City of New York suggests that they were leasing the house at the end of the 1840s.  The painting is temptingly described as depicting the couple “in their living room at 11 Bleecker St.”

The museum describes the painting as depicting "Mr. and Mrs. Carter in their living room at 11 Bleecker St.  Pendant portraits of their 1845 wedding, ornament the parlor walls behind them."

Carter was born in France on March 25, 1819 and married Elizabeth Perces Brooks around 1845.  The couple moved to New York City by 1848, around the time the painting was executed.  The Carters’ address was on Carroll Place (a one-block section of Bleecker Street further west at Thompson Street) in the 1853; then at No. 123 Bleecker Street.  There is the possibility that the painting does depict Charles’ and Elizabeth’s first residence at No. 11 Bleecker Street.

Perhaps the Culberts' last tenants were the Sturges family.  On September 4, 1864 young J. T. Sturges was drafted into service of the Union Army.  William Culbert, a doctor, sold No. 11 Bleecker to Ludwig Anger two years later, in 1866.  A Prussian immigrant, Anger had the building updated by raising the roof to a full three stories and adding trendy Italianate elements.

While the Angers lived in the house; the renovation included rented rooms in the upper stories.  The neighborhood was already seeing the influx of immigrants and commerce--making it far grittier than it had been when respected physicians had lived at No. 11 Bleecker.   Although Ludwig Anger was gone from the building in 1880; the family retained possession.

The decline of the area was evidenced on June 13, 1894 when Samuel Deutsch appeared in court to transfer his saloon license from No. 170 Suffolk Street to No. 11 Bleecker.  The establishment of a saloon here was objected to by the Florence Crittenden Mission at No. 23 Bleecker Street.   The Mission pointed out the law “prohibiting saloons from being located within a certain distance of a church,” reported The Evening World.  “Deutsch’s counsel contended that the Mission is not a church.”

The following day The Sun reported that Judge Bischoff was still undecided on the case.  “Deutsch wants to open a liquor saloon at 11 Bleecker street,” said the newspaper.  “The Judge reserved his decision.”

Judge Bischoff’s decision finally came and no doubt was unwelcome news to the Florence Crittenden Mission.  On July 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide listed Samuel Deutsch’s saloon and restaurant as operating here.

While Deutsch served lager and beer downstairs, families continued to live upstairs.  In August 1895 four children living here set out to aid The World’s Sick Babies Fund.  Moe and Tillie Manisof, ages 11 and 9 respectively; and Kattie Rosenberg, 6 years old, and her 3-year old sister Fannie set up business at the corner of Bowery and Bleecker streets.  The philanthropic urchins sent a letter to the newspaper which appeared on August 20.

“Inclosed find $4, which we collected in three days at a lemonade stand, corner Bowery and Bleecker streets.”

Another tenant was Augusta Lagrand.  The following summer she traveled to Brooklyn to visit her married daughter at No. 232 Henry Street.  There, on August 11, 1896, the 53-year old woman died of the insufferable heat.

By 1897 the Record & Guide listed the Manisof children’s mother, Rosa, as the proprietor of the saloon formerly run by Samuel Deutsch.  It would remain in her name at least until 1902 when a notorious gangster, Abraham Kutner, took over the operation.

Kutner would not run the saloon long before he was in deep trouble.   On March 11, 1902 The New York Times reported “Kutner, it was said last night, had been under arrest for illegal [voter] registration.  He is well known on the east side, and during the election was known as a worker for the politicians who control the neighborhood.”

Lester Bennett managed a nearby saloon and worked as an undercover informant.  He was “one of the most efficient agents of John McCullagh, the State Superintendent of Elections,” said the New-York Tribune on March 12, 1902.  According to the newspaper, he “had been active in getting evidence against Kutner and several members of notorious gangs who perpetrated election frauds.  His life had been threatened.”

On March 11 several men came into the Bleecker Street saloon and told Kutner that Bennett had “put up a job” to have a fight take place the day before, which led to Kutner’s arrest.  The Tribune reported that the men “worked upon Kutner until he became enraged.”  The saloon-keeper stormed out of his bar and heeded to Hatch’s Saloon, at No. 311 Bowery, where Bennett worked. 

Kutner threatened Bennett with a revolver.  Bennett offered to go back to Kutner’s saloon to prove he had nothing to do with the fight.  As they started for the door, “Paul McCarthy, ‘Flatnose Denny’ Sullivan and ‘Beansey’ Rosenthal, members of the ‘Hoop gang’ of repeaters, left a nearby hallway and followed.  A little later Bennett was shot by Kutner.”

A witness told investigators that Kutner “whipped out a pistol and, pressing it close to Bennett’s abdomen, fire.  Bennett sank to the sidewalk with a groan.  Kutner then started to run across the Bowery.”

The shot attracted a large crowd, including police.  Detective Binnings joined in the chase “and shouted to Kutner to stop, but the man ran, and was not caught until he reached Fourth Street, when the detective hit him on the head with his billy.”

It was the sort of neighborhood where criminals were held in higher esteem than police and Detective Binnings was temporarily in a threatening situation.  “Many of Kutner’s friends were in the neighborhood and were plainly in sympathy with him,” reported The Times.  “But the sight of nearly a score of policemen from Headquarters prevented any demonstration in his favor.”

Things in the neighborhood were gradually improving by the turn of the century when apparel manufacturing firms began taking lofts and office space.  On April 4, 1903 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the Estate of Ludwig Anger had leased No. 11 Bleecker Street “for a term of 5 years at a rental of $6,000.”

Among the new tenants were Henry Kalb and Abraham Goldsmith who ran Kalb & Goldsmith.  Listed as “dealers in fur skins,” they were in financial difficulty by 1908 when a petition in bankruptcy was filed against them.  Nevertheless, the company was still operating here a year later, now with Charles Kalb as a partner.

At the same time the Fur Dealers Directory listed Londner & Birnberg in the building.  Following the Angers’ sale of the property in 1914, the property underwent a relatively rapid succession of owners.  Finally, in 1923, Benjamin Trachtenberg of Trachtenberg & Sons, purchased the building and held it for more than a decade.  In 1931 the owners initiated a formal conversion of the property to factory and store space, including law-required fire escapes.

Apparel related firms, like the S. S. Hat Frame Co., here, in 1918, continued to lease space.   As the 20th century progressed, the little buildings along Bleecker Street suffered neglect.  But the revival of the area known as Noho resulted in renewed interest.   In 2004 the upper floors were converted to a single triplex apartment and today the ground floor—where gangster Abraham Kutner ran a saloon—is home to an organic Italian vegetarian restaurant.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Schneider & Herter's 1894 No. 251 East Broadway

In 1843 the house at No. 251 East Broadway was being used by two German-born piano-makers, John Ruck and Henry Reichard, as their instrument shops.  It was here that year that Reichard changed the piano forever when he invented the “pedal pianoforte.”

As the century drew to a close No. 251 was once again being used as a private home.  Brothers Francis Thomas J. and James J. Nealis lived here in a neighborhood that was seeing immense change.  The wide Greek Revival homes on East Broadway had been built for financially-comfortable families.   By the 1870s the neighborhood had filled with Irish immigrants, who were now being pushed out by the throngs of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.

Following the death of Francis Nealis in the house on October 20, 1891, his brothers made a decision to leave.   On June 4, 1892 American Architect and Architecture reported that James Nealis had hired architects Graul & Frohme to design a five-story “brick and stone flat” on the site.  The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide was less complementary, calling the proposed building a “tenement.”

But the plans of Graul & Frohme lay on the drafting table unused.  Nealis sold the property to Simon Liboritz, his neighbor next door at No. 253.  On June 9, 1894 The Record and Guide reported that Liboritz was going ahead with plans to replace the house with a five-story apartment building; but he had changed architects.  Plans for the $20,000 structure were now underway, it said, by Schneider & Herter.

The architects were among the favorites of the German-Jewish property owners in the Lower East Side.  Ernest W. Schneider and Henry Herter would eventually design more than a hundred tenement buildings as well as commercial structures and two synagogues.

Their resulting five-story building would have been just another brick tenement had it not been for their exuberant terra cotta ornamentation.  Each red brick story was delineated by a contrasting stone course.  But elaborate terra cotta in the form of portrait panels, pediments and an explosive tympanum with a full-relief winged bust were more expected in a social or music hall than in an apartment building.

The overblown ornamentation disguised the meager means of the residents inside.  One of these in particular, however, would rise above his humble beginnings.

Rudolph Marks Rodkinson was born in Odessa, Russia in 1866.   At the age of 15 he moved to London and joined the Jewish theater, using the stage name Rudolph Marks.  The boy played with such famed Yiddish actors a Jacob Adler and Abraham Goldfaden.  Possibly through their encouragement—both of whom had found great success in New York—Marks arrived in the city four years later.

Now 19 years old, Marks succeeded.  The New York Times would later remember that he “appeared in productions in the old Bowery theatres with Max and Sophie Karp, Thomashefsky, Adler and Bertha Kalisch.”  He tried his hand at producing, as well, staging The Bowery Tramp at the Oriental Opera House.

But Marks felt he could better himself in his adopted country.   The year before Simon Liboritz completed his East Broadway apartment building Marks was studying law at the University of the City of New York.

In December 1893 the law student initiated his own legal battle—one which would result in a ground-breaking precedent.  Publisher Joseph Jaffa came up with a marketing ploy whereby he printed the photographs of university students then initiated a “voting contest to decide whether Marks was the most popular student.”

Marks, whom The New York Times described as “a Hebrew actor, at present studying law,” sued, saying that he had not consented to having his photograph published.   The Superior Court agreed.  Judge McAdam’s decision on December 29 ruled “No newspaper or institution, no matter how worthy, has the right to use the name or picture of any one for such purpose without his consent.”

Rudolph Marks was one of the first residents in No. 251 East Broadway.  In 1898 he was admitted to the bar.   His theater background proved advantageous to his new career.   Within months he was representing David Kessler, manager of the Thalia Theatre in his divorce case, and throughout the next decades many of his clients would come from the entertainment industry.

Marks’ hard work and determination resulted in an iconic American dream story.  Specializing in corporate law, he built up a sizable practice at No. 1440 Broadway.   By the time of his death in 1930 he and his family, including two daughters and a son, lived not in a five-story walk-up; but in a comfortable home in Cedarhurst, Long Island.  His son was studying medicine at Cornell University and one of his daughters had recently graduated from Barnard College.

Even the smaller panels were highly decorated.

Another Russian Jewish resident living at No. 251 when Marks first moved in was Dr. H. Solotaroff.   Many of the residents of the neighboring tenements were poor and ill-educated; a condition worsened by their inability to understand or speak English.

As the summer of 1894 approached, the Hebrew Institute at the corner of Jefferson Street and East Broadway initiated a program to educate mothers on the dangers of summer heat.  Thousands of circulars with the headline “Mothers!  It Concerns The Health of Your Children!  Come!” printed in English, Hebrew and Russian were circulated.   The fliers advertised upcoming bi-weekly meetings which, according to Leo Kohn, one of the association’s directors, are “to give the mothers of that neighborhood a general course of instruction upon the care and feeding of children during the warm weather, and particularly on the uses of sterilized milk and barley water.”

In order to communicate with the mothers physicians of various backgrounds were solicited.  Dr Solotaroff volunteered his time to instruct the Russian-speaking women. The first meeting, held on July 2, was a success.  The New York Times related that “the mothers listened intently to every word.  They crowded around the doctor after the lecture was over, and asked him a hundred questions.”  The newspaper projected that at the next meeting “there will be twice as many picturesque mothers and bareheaded babies present as there were yesterday.”

Despite Solotaroff’s selfless work among the impoverished community; his political bent may have alienated many.   An anarchist and sympathizer of the Russian Nihilists, he was active in the extremist political group.   Dr. Solotaroff was among the speakers at an Anarchist meeting on January 27, 1904 in New Irving Hall on Broome Street. 

The Sun described the crowd of more than 500 saying “There were Russian Nihilists—several who have seen the inside of Siberian prisons—and there were Germans and Poles and Swiss and Jews, mostly be-spectacled, serious and grave, with not a single red shirt or cravat visible.”

Why the ideals of the group were distasteful to most New Yorkers was evident in the opening remarks of Johann Most, publisher of Die Freiheit, a revolutionary newspaper.  “In corrupt, degenerate America, I have suffered more than in Europe, and here it is necessary to keep up the fight even more than abroad, and it is in America that a paper like Freidheit is needed.”

The East Broadway apartment building continued to house immigrant families for decades.  In 1931 40-year old Louis Wolkofsky’s family lived in a first floor apartment.  With him, along with his wife, were 12-year old Anna; Esther, 9; Aaron, who was 8; and 4-year old Miriam.

The Wolkofsky apartment was located directly above the basement boiler room.   On March 17 that year Anna was sick in bed.  Suddenly the apartment was rocked by a tremendous blast.  The boiler below had exploded and a fire ensued.

Anna was thrown from the bed onto the floor and Esther was burned. When the police arrived they found Louis Wolkofsky on the floor unconscious and bleeding.   The entire family was removed the Broad Street Hospital for shock and injuries.

Although ten families were driven from their homes, badly shaken, the fire was extinguished and they were permitted to return later that day.  The Times reported “Little damage was done to the building other than the shattering of glass in the lower rooms”

Sadly during the latter 20th century the stoop and entrance were removed, replaced by a half-hearted attempt to disguise the alteration.  An industrial-type doorway was installed at the basement level.

In 2002 and 2003 repair of the façade resulted in the extraordinary terra cotta work gleaming once again.   It unavoidably highlighted the lost entranceway and ungainly patching, as well; and included encasing the stone base in hideous faux-stone.   But despite the losses, Schneider & Herter’s design survives—a reminder of a time when some architects strove to give residential dignity even to those of meager means.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Lamb & Rich's Nos. 26-30 West 71st Street

In 1887 architect Hugh Lamb joined with speculator J. H. Andrew to erect three high-end homes on West 71st Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  Of course Lamb, with his partner Charles Rich, would design the row.

Lamb & Rich produced three delightful Queen Anne style homes which they splashed with touches of Renaissance Revival.  The A-B-A plan, along with the balanced openings and decorative elements flew in the face of the asymmetry expected in the Queen Anne style.  The balance was, however, thrown off with the paired stoops of Nos. 26 and 28 that left the entrance to No. 30 sitting alone.

The architects provided subtle differences between the two end homes.  The second floor cornices were slightly different—one bracketed, the other not.  The projecting bay of No. 26 was clad in metal; that of No. 30 was faced in brownstone.  Fishscale tiles covered the gable at No. 26, while No. 30’s was clad in brick.

In the middle, No. 28 featured blocky brownstone quoins and lintels around the second floor openings.  At the fourth floor an enchanting brick balcony serviced a columned loggia.  The trio fully represented the edgy domestic architecture appearing on the west side of Central Park.

The chunky brownstone of the stoop, now delightfully growing moss, was contrasted by delicate carving.

As the houses were being erected, Lamb & Rich were designing the residence of the widow Elizabeth Milbank, next door at No. 24.   Two party wall agreements dated May 5 suggest that Hugh Lamb would own No. 26 while J. H. Andrew would take possession of No, 26.  The agreements were between Hugh Lamb and Elizabeth Milbank for Nos. 24 and 26; and between Lamb and Harriet N. Andrew for Nos. 26 and 28.  Hugh Lamb was arguably nearly as active in real estate dealings as he was in architecture.

The row was completed in 1888 and all three homes would see a variety of residents and sometimes a rapid turnover of owners.

No. 26 became home to Arthur Wellesley Watson and his wife, Anna Josephine.  The wealthy Watson was a partner in the importing firm of Passavant & Co. located at No, 320 Church Street.  The couple had three daughters and attended the nearby St. Agnes’s Chapel on West 91st Street.

In 1894 Governor Roswell P. Flower found himself in the center of a political scandal when he refused to appoint a special Deputy Attorney General to investigate corruption in the office of District Attorney of New York County, John R. Fellows.  The specific purpose of the appointment would be, according to The New York Times, “to prosecute alleged crimes in this city.”  His hard-line stance put the Governor in the midst of a political maelstrom that threatened to unseat him.

A grand jury was chosen to investigate “the failure of Governor Flower to appoint a Deputy Attorney General to prosecute election law violators and corrupt officials.”  Sitting on that grand jury was Arthur W. Watson.
Watson added to his prestige when he was elected to the board of directors of the Colonial Bank at 83rd Street and Columbus Avenue in 1898.   But the Watson social hob-nobbing was best illustrated by a special cable to The New York Times on July 5, 1902 from London.  It reported on the American Ambassador’s Independence Day reception at Carlton House Terrace the day before.  Among the exulted guests that afternoon were the Duchess of Marlborough, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley Martin, Sir Gilbert and Lady Parker, Count Ward, the Marquise Vistabella, and Arthur and Anna Watson.

In the meantime, No. 28 next door had been lost in foreclosure in 1895.  Henry W. Kennedy purchased it for $27,000.  No. 30 saw a rapid turnover of residents beginning at the turn of the century.  Mrs. S. H. Hanford was hosting teas and receptions in 1900; but within a year it was home to Dr. Isaac Hull Platt. 

A specialist in pulmonary disease, Platt was the grandnephew of Commodore Isaac Hull who had commanded the frigate U.S.S. Constitution.  An expert on Walt Whitman, he published a biography of the poet.  His interest in the arts was reflected in his club memberships—the Players, the National Arts Club of New York and the Arts Club of Philadelphia.  His stay in No. 30 would be short-lived.  In 1902 he moved to his estate in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, “Runnemede.”

On September 11, 1912 Anna Josephine Watson died in No. 26 West 71st Street at the age of 57.  Her funeral was held on Friday the 13th at St. Agnes’s Chapel where she had been a member for 20 years.  A private train car carried mourners from Grand Central Depot to the burial at Kensico Cemetery.

Arthur Watson remained in the house for nine years, selling it to Grace Jaques in September 1921.  He moved to the opposite side of Central Park where he died in his home at No. 108 East 73rd Street on July 9, 1929.
A chunky brownstone block, carved with a heraldic shield, joins the second floor openings of No. 28.
The same year that Grace Jaques purchased No. 26; the house next door was sold.  Her new neighbor at No. 28 West 71st Street found himself in serious trouble in 1928.  James Coffield was driving along West 29th Street on the night of January 27.  Six-year old James Parsons lived at No. 529 West 29th Street and was playing in front of his house.    The little boy obviously did not see Parsons’ automobile, nor did Parsons see the child.  Coffield hit James Parsons, who died shortly after being taken to Bellevue Hospital.  Parsons was held “on a technical charge of homicide.”

Coffield’s mother, Ellen, lived in the house as well.  She died suddenly here on April 20, 1932 and her funeral was held in the house the following Tuesday.

By now the 71st Street block was seeing change.  The Depression was not kind to the large private residences which required domestic staffs and expensive upkeep.  No. 30 had been home for several years to James Frederick Andrews.  The wealthy widow had taken up the obligations normally reserved for a socialite—such as the reception he gave on January 23, 1914 to introduce his daughter, Doris, to society.   The retired stockbroker did admirably, assisted by his daughter’s aunt, Mrs. Cornelius Poillon.

“After the reception a dinner and theatre party was given for the receiving party, to which a number of men were asked” reported The New York Times.

Less than three months later Andrews would be dead.  Following an appendicitis operation at the Polyclinic Hospital, the 68-year old died on February 11, 1915.  Five months later the house was leased by the estate.

The end of the line had come for the three Queen Anne homes.  The Andrews house became “apartments and furnished rooms” by the time of Ellen Coffield’s death.   Four weeks before that tragedy would befall No. 30, also now a rooming house.

The 81-year old Dr. Stephen Smith Burt, a Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Physical Diagnosis at the Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital, had been living in a furnished room in No. 30 for some time.  In 1930 he had become paralyzed on one side and was unable to move without help.

Dr. Burt had never married.  His 1899 Recollections and Reflections of a Quarter of a Century detailed his years of teaching at Cornell and the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  His family’s deep roots in America were reflected in his memberships in the Society of Colonial Wars, Sons of the Revolution, and the Huguenot Society.

The New York Times noted on March 28, 1932 “It was customary for those who looked after him to carry him from the bed in his furnished room at 30 West Seventy-first Street to a favorite armchair by the window, where he was in the habit of sitting and smoking.”

On Saturday afternoon, March 26, the invalid doctor was doing just that.  But as he attempted to light a cigar, the match fell from his shaky grasp and ignited his robe and pajamas.   Unable to extinguish the flames, the terrified old man must have watched them spread.

At some point neighbors noticed smoke swirling from the open window and notified the housekeeper.  She rushed to the room and found him unconscious and badly burned.  An ambulance took him to Roosevelt Hospital where he died soon afterward.  Doctors attributed his death to shock.

That same year No. 26 was home to blue collars residents like Louis Jackson who earned his living as a “feeder” in the printing plant of Branwell Company, Inc. at No. 406 West 31st Street.  Norman Fenster, a casting director, lived here by 1944 when he was in charge of casting and direction of Paul Vincent Carroll’s Shadow and Substance produced by the Actors Equity Association.

Also renting an apartment in No. 26 was Russian-born American citizen Brocha Ivova.  In 1945 the United States initiated the military occupation of a defeated Japan.  Brocha was a civilian employee of the War Department and she was moved to Tokyo for her job.  She retained her apartment on West 71st Street while she was abroad.

On the evening of June 8, 1947 friends reported Brocha missing.  Early the next morning her body was found beside a road about six miles outside of Tokyo.  Early reports said there were two bullet holes in the young woman’s head.  The Associated Press reported “American Criminal Investigation Division agents began an immediate search for ‘the possible murderer or murderers.”

Newspaper readers were shocked when, a week later, the AP reported “Army Criminal Investigation Division officials said today that Miss Brocha Ivova had been slugged to death with a blunt instrument and that her murderer or murderers might have been soldiers.”

The report added “that a jeep containing occupants who appeared to be soldiers had been seen hastily leaving the spot where the body was found.  The motive for the crime continued to baffle Army agents and Japanese police.  The woman’s jewels and purse were untouched.”

Change in Manhattan is inevitable; and so it was for the three humiliated houses on West 71st Street.  No. 26 was returned to a single-family home in 1977 and received a subsequent restoration-renovation in 2011.  After having been converted to two apartments per floor in 1949, No. 28 was likewise restored to a single-family dwelling in 1995.  Only No. 30, which has sadly lost its stoop, continues its multi-family use with three and four apartments per floor.

The houses survive along with a long row of 19th century rowhouses.
The charming brick-and-brownstone homes survive as reminders of the development of the Upper West Side when well-to-do families moved into upscale homes that defied architectural convention.

 photographs by the author