Friday, August 14, 2015

Robt Cowie's Village Re-do--No. 71 Washington Place

In the years preceding the First World War the streets branching away from Washington Square were undergoing change.  An invasion of artists, musicians, poets and writers was transforming the once-staid residential area into one of artists’ studios and bohemian tearooms.   Vintage brick and brownstone-clad homes were converted to include updated studio spaces with large windows.

Many of the transformations were executed by real estate developer Vincent C. Pepe, the major force in Pepe & Brother.  Vincent, writing in the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide on August 5, 1916, noted “Owners of real estate have realized that in order to obtain the desirable class of tenants, old buildings must be remodeled artistically and efficiently in order to meet the requirements of the ‘artist colony’ which has been firmly established in the district.”

In 1915 Pepe had purchased No. 124 Waverly Place, built in 1838, and converted it into a nearly unrecognizable studio building with expanses of glass that captured the natural light.  Upon the building’s completion sculptor Rudulph Evans took the spacious fourth floor studio. 

The artist would go on to create notable sculptural portraits like that of Thomas Jefferson in Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Memorial; two statues in the United States Capitol; and the statue of Robert E. Lee in the Virginia State Capitol.   But those commissions would not be executed on Waverly Place.

Within months, obviously impressed with what the Pepe brothers had done, Evans purchased a nearby house with similar intentions.

The Greek Revival house at No. 71 Washington Place had been built in 1848 for merchant H. Coleman.  But for several decades it, like so many of the houses surrounding Washington Square, had been a boarding house.  The advertisements for rooms here throughout the 1880s and ‘90s used terms like “respectable,” “gentlemen,” and “references.”  The precautions did not eliminate sometimes colorful boarders, however.

Among these was Charles E. Lawton who lived here in the 1890s.  He was a founder in 1895 of the City Vigilance League of New York, along with powerful religious leader Rev. Charles H. Parkhurst and other self-proclaimed guardians of propriety.  The objects of the league, as laid out in its certificate of incorporation were, in part, “to repress in the community what makes for its detriment.”

To that effect, Charles E. Lawton and another League member, Thomas L. McClintock, initiated a series of “night expeditions” to houses of prostitution to gather evidence.

Another boarder in 1897 was 71-year old Ellis N. Crow.  He left No. 71 Washington Place on Wednesday April 7 that year saying he was “going to Mount Vernon to collect some money.”  But he never went to Mount Vernon and by Saturday his family was understandably panicked. 

The New York Times reported “Members of his family suggest no reason for his disappearance, except a possible derangement of his mind from an attack of grip, with which he had been suffering several days, although he was not supposed to be seriously ill.”

His family members described him as an upstanding, moral citizen--the type even Charles E. Lawton would have approved of.  “He is said to have been generally regular and temperate in his habits and to have invariably gone home promptly when he had completed any business matter calling him out,” said the newspaper.

But despite the family’s portrayal, there was some suspicion about Crow’s activities.   An elderly man had been found unconscious on the street a few days earlier and was locked up for the night in the Leonard Street Police Station.  He was fined $3 for intoxication the next morning and taken to the Hudson Street Hospital.  The name he gave, E. N. Crowell, was suspiciously similar to that of Ellis N. Crow.  But all trace of that man was lost after he left the hospital. 

As it turned out E. N. Crowell and Ellis N. Crow were apparently not the same man.  But, humiliatingly for the family, the circumstances were very similar.  On April 12 The Times reported that Crow had been found in the workhouse on Blackwell’s Island, using the name John Cawell.

“On the day of his disappearance he was arrested on the charge of intoxication, and was sent to the workhouse from the Jefferson Market Police Court the following day.  He will be released from his confinement to-day," said the article.

But now, in 1916, change would come to the outmoded house when, in April, Rudulph Evans purchased No. 71 from Frank J. Maguire.   Perhaps unexpectedly, Evans did not seek the services of Pepe & Brother, but commissioned Robert Cowie, of the architectural office of William W. Bosworth, to transform the old structure.  The Record and Guide reported on August 5, 1916 that Evans was altering his building into two duplex apartments.

“One of the suites will be occupied by the owner and the other, with seven rooms and bath, is being held at $2,400 a year rental.”

The idea of two rather grant duplexes apparently quickly fell to the wayside to be replaced by a more financially advisable plan.  Cowie’s revised design added a floor, set back from the roofline behind a wide balcony and topped by a pergola.  Although Evans’s residential and working space at street level was still two stories, the intermediate floors contained one apartment each.

Wurtz Bros.captured the renovated structure shortly after completion.  The original appearance would have been similar to the Greek Revival homes that flank it.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Cowie’s renovation was unlike the sometimes extensive exterior overhauls performed by the Pepe brothers.  Other than the additional story, he saved Evans money by focusing on the two lower floors.  Here he removed the stoop and placed the entrance to the Evans duplex squarely in the center of a three-sided, two story bay.  It was flanked by a door to the upper floors and a service entrance.   The second story bay was filled with small diamond panes.  On either side were niches; presumably intended to hold statuary, possibly by Evans himself.

Otherwise, except for stucco coating, and a picturesque Juliette balcony at the fourth floor, little changed to the 1838 façade.

The renovated building was ready for tenants in December 1917 when Mrs. Evangeline Brewster Dennis and Mrs. Harriet M. McKinley took apartments.

Soon after, on January 17, 1918, Evans opened his studio for an exhibition.  The New-York Tribune noted “One of the season’s most interesting events in art circles is the exhibition of the works of Rudolph [sic] Evans, an American sculptor, which opens to-day in Mr. Evans’s studio, 71 Washington Place.  Mr. Evans is one of only three American sculptors who have ever exhibited full length figures in the Paris Salon.”

Later that year, on December 21, the wedding of the Evans’s daughter, Lucy, took place in the spacious studio.

On June 29, 1918 Helen D. Hunt took an apartment in the building.  The widow of stockbroker Andrew D. Hunt, the 65-year old had led an interesting life which was only going to become more so.  A small article in the New-York Tribune on August 11, 1920 told of an automobile crash with a Broadway street car in which Helen was riding and “was badly shaken up.”  The motorcar was owned by Percy A. Rockefeller.  It was the first mention in newspapers of the link with the wealthy family that would end with Helen D. Hunt on the witness stand.

Helen had run the household of millionaire James Stillman, Sr.  She lived in the Stillman mansion until his death on March 15, 1918.  As housekeeper she was in charge of the staff and enjoyed a small suite of rooms that included a sitting room. 

Stillman’s daughter was Mrs. Percy A. Rockefeller.  His son, James A. Stillman, and his wife lived in the house.  An ugly and messy divorce case in 1921 brought into question the paternity of the younger Stillman’s son, Guy Stillman.

Mrs. Rockefeller appeared in court on June 15 to testify in support of her brother; saying that he had lived apart from his wife for months for months before the baby was born.  The New-York Tribune noted “With her was Mrs. Helen D. Hunt.”

When Helen was questioned, the defense suggested she was being influenced by the Rockefellers.  “Mrs. Hunt, you are employed by Mrs. Rockefeller, aren’t you, now?”

Helen had to confess that “I do things for her when she asks me to;” and when asked if Mrs. Rockefeller were the “only person that pays you anything, isn’t she, at the present time?” she was forced to reply “yes.”

In the meantime the Washington Place building became home to well-known figures.  On January 27, 1920 the up-and-coming architect Raymond M. Hood took an apartment.  Two years later he would partner with John Mead Howells in the building competition to design the Chicago Tribune Building.  Their winning design would bring the 41-year old Raymond Hood sudden acclaim as one of New York’s most talented architects.

Nina Witt occupied an apartment for several years with her daughter, Marion Bull.   In 1925 they had high-profile house guests in D. H. Lawrence and his wife.  On September 15 that year Lawrence wrote to Dorothy Brett describing the apartment.  “It’s quite a pleasant smallish arty house, with a negro cook Albertina.”  His critique of a local play was tepid.  “We went to the Greenwich Village theatre and saw a play about tramps—hoboes—amusing, but nothing.”

Helen D. Hunt died in her apartment here at the age of 78 on August 26, 1931. She had been ill for two months.  Until her death she had continued to be active in civic affairs and social welfare work.

In 1934, when Rudulph Evans was decorated by the President of France with the rank of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor “in recognition of his eminence as a sculptor,” American painter Audrey D. Buller was also living and working here.  She was listed in the 1935 Who’s Who in American Art and her works are currently displayed in prestigious museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Rather surprising residents in 1940 were Prince and Princess Hubertus zu Loewenstein; exiles of Nazi Germany.   The New York Times explained they “are making their home here with the intention of becoming citizens.”

On March 18, 1940 the couple’s infant daughter Princess Maria Elizabeth Katerina Gabrielle Dorothea Constance Edwarda was christened.   She was believed to be the first American-born German princess.  Following the baptism, a reception was held at No. 71 Washington Place. Among the guests were Prince Nicholas Cantacuzene, a Russian exile, and Count Wolfgang Spiegelfeld of Austria.

Evans exhibited his "Fragment of a Memorial" in the National Sculpture Society's 1940 exhibition -- from the Exhibition Catalog.

Rudulph Evans sold No. 71 in 1949.  The new owner renovated the building in 1955 to include an art studio at ground floor with a library on the mezzanine.  Above there were now two apartments per floor other than the single fifth-floor penthouse.

Herman Gulack’s Greenwich Gallery took the lower levels by 1957.  Among the works he exhibited that year was Edward Hopper’s Automat.  The Greenwich Gallery was gone in 1958 when renowned photographer Diane Arbus and her husband, Allan, and daughters moved in.  By now the building was filled with celebrated residents.  Actress Ali MacGraw was on the second floor; Opi, the New Yorker cartoonist and his wife had an apartment on the third; and director of stage and television, Jess Kimmel lived in the penthouse.

Diane Arbus and her husband entered into a sort of separation before long and she took the girls to a Charles Street apartment.  Allen Arbus sublet the mezzanine of the duplex to Arthur Unger.  He would operate his Young World Press from the space for eight years.

In December 1959 Jess Kimmel directed the off-Broadway production of William Gibson’s Dinny and the Witches.  His television credits included his production of Show of Shows, The Red Buttons Show, and Naked City.

But in 1961 the 46-year old became despondent when he learned he was losing his hearing.  After not being heard from for some time, he was found dead in his penthouse on Tuesday night, May 30.  He had been dead “for several days” of an apparent suicide.

In 1982 the building was converted to cooperative apartments.  Freelance writer and researcher Joan M. Spano had lived on the third floor for nearly 20 years at the time.   Early on the morning of November 1986 the 55-year old woke up and lit a cigarette in bed.   When she dozed off again her cigarette fell to the bed linens, starting a fire.  Joan Spano died of smoke inhalation.   The fire was extinguished before it could spread to other apartments.

Today the penthouse has been replaced by a bunker-like structure that sits awkwardly atop the structure.  But otherwise Rudulph Evans’s 1916 remake of an 1848 relic is essentially unchanged.

photographs by the author

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