|photograph by Bjeffway|
Lavish apartment houses had already begun sprouting along “Grand Boulevard” on the Upper West Side at the turn of the last century. Millionaire William Earl Dodge Stokes had a vision: he imagined that section of Broadway as a wide fashionable boulevard similar to the Champs-Elysses in Paris. His frothy Ansonia Apartments would be joined by other sumptuous apartment buildings like the Belleclaire and the Dorilton.
Peter Banner was active in the Upper West Side realty game, buying, building and selling hotels and apartment buildings. By 1904 the stretch of Central Park West from 66th Street to the tip of Central Park was nearly complete. There were just three vacant lots left at the corner of 89th Street. The southern half of that block was filled with the newly-completed Progress Club building. The club had been found in 1864 by wealthy Jews who found difficulty obtaining memberships in men’s social clubs.
Banner purchased the plots and laid plans for another spectacular apartment building. Why he chose to name it the St. Urban is unclear—certainly little is known about the historic and religious figure—but perhaps it was simply a tongue-in-cheek play on words relating to the metropolitan setting.
|In 1904 Hughson Hawley depicted the St. Urban in watercolor -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYW0HKLBV&SMLS=1&RW=1536&RH=747|
Recognizing that New York society looked to France as the standard of things chic and fashionable, he followed the lead of the Broadway apartment buildings. His architect, Robert Timothy Lyons, designed a 12-story Parisian-inspired Beaux Arts confection of limestone and brick topped by a curved mansard and impressive corner tower crowned by a tall lantern. At street level, a wonderful carriage drive—an internal porte cochere—sheltered well-heeled residents from the elements as they stepped from their polished vehicles.
Construction would take a full two years—hampered by legal battles and mishaps. The Progress Club sued, claiming that the new building’s southern cornice violated its airspace and directed rainwater onto its roof garden. And as construction continued, a partial collapse caused a setback. It all added increasingly to Peter Banner’s costs.
On May 28, 1905 the New-York Tribune commented on the unfinished St. Urban calling it “One of the latest and finest additions to the high class apartments of New-York.” The newspaper called it “Magnificently situated, superb and imposing in design, massive and absolutely fireproof in construction, carefully planned and thoroughly and elegantly equipped with every modern device.”
|The completed St. Urban looms behind horse riders in Central Park. The balconies, cresting and cornice seen here have been lost. photograph by Hans Hannau, from the collection of the New York Public Library|
“Every modern device” included tile-lined refrigerators in each kitchen which were connected to a refrigeration plant in the basement. This allowed the residents to make their own ice—foregoing the need for visits from the icemen who routinely carried blocks of ice up flights of stairs to oaken ice boxes throughout the city. This was a sublime luxury in itself.
|A 1905 promotional piece depicted one of the Colonial Revival interior rooms -- New-York Tribune, May 28, 1905 (copyright expired)|
The completed building offered little choice to the potential residents. Each sprawling apartment had 12 rooms, “in addition to three baths—as well as ample maid accommodations,” according to an advertisement. Various rooms were paneled in either mahogany or quartered oak. For annual rents of $3,000 to $4,000 the families enjoyed four large bedrooms, beamed-ceiling dining room, library and large foyer. Reflective of the financial status of the intended tenants, each master bedroom included a wall safe. Service areas included the kitchen, pantry, a servant’s bath and two maids’ rooms.
By the time the first residents moved in in January 1906, the St. Urban had cost Banner $800,000 above the cost of the land—nearly $22 million in 2015 dollars. The massive legal costs and unexpected construction set backs were too much for the developer. He lost the St. Urban the same year it was completed.
Operator Albert Forsch purchased the building in a foreclosure sale for $1.13 million, and then quickly turned it over to the Barstun Realty Company. But bad luck surrounding the St. Urban was not limited to its builder.
|Carriages entered one side and exited the other, keeping passengers safe from the elements -- photographs http://285-central-park-west.com/|
Among the first residents was Henrietta Freeman, a widow, who moved into a sixth-floor apartment with her 14-year old daughter and two sons. Her asthma had been particularly bad for more than a week on January 20, 1906 so a trained nurse was called in to look after her. The following day The Sun reported “About half past 6 the nurse went down stairs to dinner and left the two sons in charge of their mother. When the nurse came back the sons said their mother had gone to the bathroom.”
The nurse entered the bathroom, but Mrs. Freeman was not there. In a panic, one of the sons rushed out of the building and found his mother’s body in the courtyard. The doctor who was called from across the street, Dr. Jaques, “thought Mrs. Freeman might have been struggling for air and lost her balance while she had her head out of the window.”
Tragedy came again to the St. Urban just three weeks later. Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Main had taken a fourth floor apartment. At 11:00 on the morning of February 16, 1906 their maid received a package from the Fifth Avenue tailoring establishment of Jules C. Weiss & Co. It was delivered by 15-year old errand boy Joseph Gellerei. Before taking the packing inside and closing the apartment door, the maid casually noticed Gellerei walking toward the elevator.
The elevator door was open and Joseph Gellerei stepped inside. Tragically, the elevator man, James Benjamin, had failed to close the door when he took the elevator up. Three hours later the boy’s body was found at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Benjamin was arrested on the technical charge of homicide.
The sedate atmosphere of the upscale building was upset on the evening of September 13, 1908, prompting The Sun to run the headline “Fisticuffs in The St. Urban.” Jesse Trist lived on the fifth floor and that night he received a visit from San Francisco stock broker Walter Koch. The social call turned violent by 8:00 when tenants heard “the crash of falling glass” and passersby dodged “a shower of bric-a-brac on the sidewalk.”
Police rushed to the building to break up the fight and then arrested Koch for disorderly conduct. The Sun reported “The apartment was badly wrecked and the clothing of both men was torn. Neither man would tell what the quarrel was about.”
The chauffeur of another tenant, broker Edward S. Steinam, was soon in the news for fighting; but his confrontation was in the line of duty. On December 29, 1908 Joseph G. Buzzer had driven Steinam in his “big touring automobile” to the Nevada Apartments at 69th Street and Amsterdam Avenue where the Nevada Baths were. While his employer enjoyed the baths, two “suspicious looking men stopped beside the car and began questioning Buzzer about it,” reported The Times the following day.
When the men ordered Buzzer out of the car, he refused. They forced him out and began beating him. “Buzzer fought gamely, but was no match for the two, and he yelled ‘Murder!’ and ‘Police!’”
A young woman witnessed the fray and ran up the avenue to find a policeman. When she told one officer that two men were “trying to murder a chauffeur” he replied that he was sorry, but “The trouble isn’t on my beat.”
There was another policeman across the street and the women rushed to him. He gave her the same answer—the fight was not within the limits of his patrol area.
“Meanwhile the shouts of the fighters could be heard for blocks, but no policemen came until a little girl who had seen the fighting ran to the West Sixty-eighth Street Station and told the desk Lieutenant, who ordered two plain-clothes men to the scene,” said the newspaper.
Because the officers were not in uniform, the thugs fought back. “The appearance of the policemen only made the fight wax fiercer and for a few minutes the corner by the Nevada was the scene of the liveliest turmoil the neighborhood had witnessed in years.”
Thoroughly refreshed, Steinan walked out of the Nevada “just as the men who had tried to steal his car gave in to police.”
Brawls like these involving the affluent and respected residents paled in comparison to the scandal of wealthy broker Gonzale Medina. The 35-year old lived in the St. Urban with his wife, Margaret, his 8-year old daughter Sylvia by a former marriage, and their servants Mabel and Joseph Fuller.
On April 27, 1912 Margaret was stunned when she walked in on her husband showing “indecent photographs” to Sylvia. When she questioned the 8-year old, she “learned that her husband had not confined himself to exhibiting the pictures,” reported The Evening World on May 16.
Sexual abuse of children was rarely discussed or publicized and Margaret was unsure of what to do. But after ordering Gonzale out of the house (he moved into the Hotel Prince George), she confided in friends who advised her to report the crimes.
Proper Edwardian women constantly considered public opinion and avoided scandal; yet with startling candor and courage Margaret went to the District Attorney’s office. The Grand Jury heard testimony not only from Margaret, but from the servants and Sylvia herself.
Medina was arrested and charged with a list of charges including “the possession of indecent photographs, impairing the morals of a female child under sixteen years of age, and assault in the third degree.”
Robert F. Amend, a partner in the pharmaceutical firm, Eimer & Amend, lived in a top floor apartment with his wife Josephine, and their housekeeper Hilda Kuehner. In 1913 the 51-year old became ill. His wife nursed him constantly; but after months of illness he died on January 6, 1914 in the St. Urban apartment.
Following the funeral Josephine became increasingly despondent—to the point that her aunt, Mrs. Stoerzer, moved in with her to help Hilda Kuehner watch over her. Within about a week and a half of her husband’s death, Josephine said she heard him calling for her “and that she must obey his summons.”
A doctor was brought in “to try what could be done for her with hypnotic treatment, but the voice she heard kept calling her, and yesterday it was obvious that she was no better,” reported The New York Times on January 26. Josephine’s brother-in-law, Otto P. Amend, arrived that day to help the women look after and try to console her.
Twice while Otto was there that morning Josephine “became hysterical and tried to leap through the window, but each time Mr. Amend was able to restrain her.” By the time he eventually left the apartment she seemed to have regained her composure. The executor of Robert’s estate, J. B. Tolch, dropped by in the evening to discuss business with Josephine and when he left at 8:00 she seemed fine.
Josephine was resting on a couch in her bedroom and as her aunt went to an adjoining room to do some sewing she turned out the lights. The housekeeper sat in the dimly lit room with Josephine. When Josephine asked her to make coffee, Mrs. Kuehner was resistant; but “after much pressing,” she agreed and headed to the kitchen.
“She had hardly gone from the room when she heard the window open, and as she hurried back she saw at a glance that Mrs. Amend was gone.” Josephine had plunged 12 stories to her death onto 89th Street.
Later that same year importer Isaac Weingart was found dead in his bathtub on the morning of November 6. Another resident, Dr. Bodog Beck, was called to the scene. It was the beginning of a messy legal battle that suggested Dr. Beck, the coroner, and the Weingart family conspired to falsify the cause of death.
Beck and Coroner Herman Hellenstein had been friends for more than 15 years. The cause of death was listed as “Asphyxia, due to natural causes.” But an investigation was begun by Commissioner of Accounts, Leonard M. Wallstein. The Times noted “Mr. Weingart…was insured for $310,000. A verdict of suicide would have made the insurance void.” Suddenly Beck and Hellenstein, along with others, were being considered for “misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance.”
On October 26, 1918 the St. Urban was advertised for sale as a “splendid investment” at $1.275 million. There was at the time an outstanding mortgage of $825,000 due September 1922. The building was purchased by a tenant, real estate operator Frederick Brown. Brown, along with his daughter and wife Rose, had lived in the building for several years. He sought a quick profit, however, and resold the building five months later. Although he was asking $1.35 million, which in itself would have been a tidy short-term profit, The Sun reported “the amount actually involved in the transaction is said to have exceeded that figure by about $150,000.”
But within the year, Brown may have regretted the sale. On March 3, 1920 the New-York Tribune announced “Frederick Brown, who has owned several hundred apartment houses in the last few years and who bought and sold last year real estate valued at about $87,000,000, yesterday came near being a man without a home.”
The newspaper said “It seems that the new owners have decided to conduct the apartment on the co-operative basis. Mr. Brown may have been told of the plan. At any rate, he learned yesterday that the apartment which he occupied, a suite which he never expected to surrender, was purchased by the man in the suite below. Mr. Brown, large owner that he is, found himself in the predicament which has been the experience of many. He had no home.”
The Browns eventually worked out the problem and retained their apartment in the St. Urban. Its location on a lower floor proved a problem two years later. On May 11, 1922 The Times reported "The apartment of the Browns, on the second floor, was entered by the burglar, who climbed the wall like a 'human fly' and found an open window facing the street."
At around 4:00 that morning Rose was awakened by the reflected light of a burglar’s flashlight in the dresser mirror hitting her face.
At around 4:00 that morning Rose was awakened by the reflected light of a burglar’s flashlight in the dresser mirror hitting her face.
Frederick Brown later said “She acted very sensibly and remained quiet while she nudged me in the side. I awoke with a start, saw in the dark the outline of a big man standing near the bed, and gave way to my first impulse to shout at the burglar.”
The robber remained cool and instructed the Browns to “Keep quiet. I won’t hurt you. Just give up and everything will be all right.”
The intruder removed $60 from the wallet in Brown’s coat pocket along with a gold fountain pen valued at $100, and then demanded jewelry. Rose removed a $3,000 ring from her finger and handed it to him.
When he asked for the key to a metal strong box, Brown assured him there was nothing inside but insurance papers and documents. Accepting Brown’s word, he escaped through the window he used to enter.
Frederick Brown rushed into the street in his night clothes and told foot patrolman of the incident. He could only describe the intruder as a large, black male. The Times reported “Mr. Brown said that detectives came to his house promptly to investigate the crime, and within half an hour they returned there with a negro the Browns were unable positively to identify.”
Nevertheless, the man was arrested with his “bag in which he carried a chicken.”
In the meantime, the other well-to-do residents dealt with staffing their apartments. On a single day in 1920 two advertisements appeared in The Sun and the New York Herald. One, placed by H. Meyers, sought a white chambermaid, waitress for his family of two. The ad advised that the maid would remain in the New York apartment during the summer and that carfare would be paid.
The other advertisement sought a general housekeeper for a family of four. Like the Meyers family, they limited the field to white applicants. They offered a salary of $15 per week—equal to about $9,200 a year today.
Unlike the fashionable apartment buildings in other areas of the city which suffered decline in the second half of the century, those along Central Park West enjoyed continued prosperity. It was where famed architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable grew up; and in 1955 the 34-year old daughter of Britain’s Countess of Dysart, Lady Mary Greaves, lived in the St. Urban. Lady Mary was tragically found dead of a barbiturate overdose that year.
Nevertheless, by the final years of the century alterations had changed the original design and the building showed its age. In 1958 the cornices were removed, and later the 10th floor balcony was taken down. At some point the copper cresting and other ornaments of the roof were damaged and removed; and the slate shingles on the mansard were replaced with asphalt. In 1973 architect Lee Harris Pomeroy was hired to punch unsympathetic openings with the personality of flat-screen televisions into the mansard above the ornate copper dormers.
In 1990 a $750,000 renovation project replaced the asphalt on the mansard with copper shingles. While the replacement was contrary to Lyons’ original plan, it was a decided improvement. Today there are 56 apartments with varying floorplans within the venerable structure. Its elegant Beaux Arts façade and corner tower are indispensable in the Central Park West streetscape as seen from the park.