Wednesday, September 30, 2015

No. 81 East 7th Street

East 7th Street, between First and Second Avenues in 1841 was a well-to-do neighborhood.  Just blocks from the exclusive Astor Place and Bond Street areas, 7th Street was filling with comfortable brick homes of the merchant class.

Among them was No. 81 East 7th Street, constructed about this time.  The four-story and basement house was designed in the popular Greek Revival style and its orange brick contrasted nicely with the brownstone of the trim and rusticated basement.  It was owned by the Merchant Marine Insurance Company in 1843 and valued at the time at $4,000—around $122,000 in today’s dollars.

The neighborhood around the home changed by mid-century as immigrants flooded into New York harbor and settled in the Lower East Side.  The Revolutions of 1848 in the Germany states forced many to leave their homeland and seek new lives in America.  By 1855 New York had the third largest German population in the world.  And by the end of the Civil War many of the homes in the neighborhood had been converted to rooming houses.

The owner of No. 81 hung on, however; and with the introduction of the neo-Grec style in the 1870s, the outdated house got a makeover.  The style sought to mimic the buildings of the early Greeks and manifested itself at No. 81 East 7th Street with sharp, molded pediments over the parlor level openings, imposing enframents upholding ambitious lintels and a handsome cornice with rosette-adorned brackets.  The house which had been rather unremarkable suddenly became anything but.

In the late 1880s it was home to the widowed  Pauline Lowenthal.  In 1889 the East Side Ladies’ Aid Society for Widows and Orphans was incorporated and Pauline was elected Vice President.  The aim of the society was “To assist the worthy poor by means of food, coal, clothing and money in necessitious cases.”  The group relied on voluntary contributions and in 1891 had assisted 100 widows and 150 orphans.

Pauline was still in the house in 1892; however the end of the line as a single-family home was drawing near.

By 1902 the house had been converted to a multiple-family dwelling.  It was most likely at this time that the updated Beaux Arts entrance doors were installed.  Among those living in the house in 1911 was the Hungarian-born Dr. Arthur Kozma, who had studied at the Royal University of Budapest.  Kozma would remain in the house for years and became active in local politics.

In 1914 Kozma was the Progressive leader of the Sixth Assembly District and Chairman of the New York County Committee of the American Party.   But on October 27 that year he abruptly resigned his chairmanship when he discovered shady activities within the Committee.

The New York Times reported “Dr. Kozma said he had been led to believe that negotiations were under way to throw support of the American Party to District Attorney Whitman.”  The Committee had decided to consider making Whitman its new favorite after he promised to contribute $10,000 to the American Party.  Kozma wanted no part of it.
As World War I raged in Europe, Americans of Hungarian, Austrian and German birth were viewed with grave suspicion.  Dr. Kozma was one of the speakers on January 30, 1916 at “A great mass meeting of American citizens of Hungarian birth…in the Garden Theatre at Madison Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street in which the persons present pledged unfailing loyalty to the country of their adoption and protested against insinuations that, as hyphenated Americans, they were not good citizens,” as reported by The New York Times the following day.

The great bulk of German residents had begun moving out of the neighborhood around the turn of the century; a trend that was hastened by the disastrous sinking of the General Slocum riverboat that ended in the deaths of nearly 1,300 women and children.  Remaining in the familiar Lower East Side neighborhood was too painful for the surviving families.

The changing make-up of the neighborhood was evidenced in 1916 when The Journal of Information for Literary Workers reported that The Russian Review would be published from an office at No. 81 East 7th Street.  The editor described it as “a new monthly devoted to things Russian.”

By 1921 the basement had been converted to Schwartz’s Restaurant.  In April that year 24-year old Roberto Raffaele arrived in New York from Camp Jackson, South Carolina.  Although Raffaele was trained as a piano tuner, his failing eyesight due to severe cataracts prevented him from continuing that profession and he found employment at Schwartz’s as a dishwasher.  The work earned him $1.50 a day plus meals.

Things would soon turn bad for Raffaele.  On May 24, 1921 five year-old Guiseppe Varotta was playing in front of his home at No. 354 East 13th Street.  The boy was snatched by kidnappers who vanished with him.

A week later, on June 1, Raffaele sat on a park bench in Union Square when he was approached by a man named Ruggiero.  The man could tell by Raffaele’s clothing that he had little money and struck up a conversation that included questions about his financial condition.  Raffaele later testified that he told Ruggiero that he was “almost penniless.”  Finally Ruggerio got to the point.

Raffaele would testify that the man said “It is a shame to see such a fellow like you wearing such an outfit and almost broke.  Listen, I am a fellow who is a member of a society that stole a child for $2,000.”

With the promise of $50, Raffaele agreed to deliver a ransom note to the Varotta home.  It ended tragically for everyone involved. 

When the Varotta family could not come up with ransom money, little Guiseppe was drowned in the Hudson River.  Although Roberto Raffaele insisted that he had no part in the kidnapping nor the murder, he was sentenced to death on August 23, 1921.

By 1925 Schwartz’s Restaurant was gone and the space was taken over by the Jewish Actor’s Club.  In the meantime the upper floors continued to be rented as apartments.  Like nearly all tenements the rooms were often overcrowded.  In 1929 not only did 63-year old Charles Hollandell and his wife Bessie live in one of the apartments, so did their four adult children.

Calamity came on August 29, 1929.  While tenants were asleep at around 2:00 in the morning a fire broke out.   The New York Times reported “Women and children awoke from their sleep to find their homes filled with smoke and every means of escape cut off.   They rushed to windows and cried for help.”

Charles Hollandell threw himself from a rear window and died instantly.  Firemen pulled one woman and a small boy out of the burning building, both of whom died on the sidewalk soon after.  “The firemen had great difficulty in restraining excited women from jumping, and several were badly burned before they could be carried to safety,” said The Times.

The rest of the Hollandell family, including 62-year old Bessie, were rescued and removed to Bellevue Hospital for treatment of their burns.  The scene was chaotic. 

"It was impossible to tell how many persons were missing and families were separated during the excitement and children and parents sought each in vain in the crowds which collected there.  The injured were placed on the sidewalk as fast as they were carried from the house.”

In the end, in addition to the three fatalities, at least 10 residents were taken to the hospital.

The fire damage was repaired and the unusual-looking house resumed its role as home to multiple families.  By the second half of the century the neighborhood had changed once again—now the center of the Ukrainian community.  In the 1980s the basement space once home to Schwartz’s Restaurant was The Verkhovyna, a Ukrainian bar.

The East Village neighborhood was also by now populated by artists and musicians and had taken on its own avant garde personality.  It was the sort of neighborhood that Elizabeth Benjamin did not want to give up in 2006.  But when she failed to pay 27 months of rent at No. 81 East 7th Street (at $227 per month), the owner attempted eviction.  In October 2009, when she failed to provide the $6,129 in back rent demanded by the courts; she was evicted.

But Benjamin had a plan.  She represented herself before the judge saying that she was insane and therefore could not be evicted because of medical reasons.  When she was unable to provide documents proving her psychological or psychiatric condition, her ploy failed.

Today the English basement remains home to a café/bar.  The upper stories are remarkably intact despite replacement windows above the parlor level and an industrial looking fire escape.  As they initially did, the striking neo-Grec alteration upgrades draw a second glance from passersby.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The 1904 First Battery Armory -- No. 56 West 66th St.

In 1881 command of the National Guard’s First Battery was given to Captain Louis Wendel.  Since the unit’s organization from Civil War veterans in 1867 (then known as Battery K), it had had only one commander, a Captain Heubner.  Now the First Battery moved to headquarters at No. 334-346 West 44th Street, over Captain Wendel’s saloon.

Composed mostly of German-Americans, the First Battery seems to have followed its own course.  According to armory historian Nancy L. Todd it had ‘its own Teutonic-inspired traditions and uniforms.”  Its new leader was highly connected with Tammany Hall figures; and in addition to his saloon he operated hotels and other “places of amusement.”

Running a National Guard unit from above a barroom would have been both inappropriate and humiliating, and it appears it was Captain Louis Wendel who most vigorously pushed for a suitable armory.   Finally, on January 17, 1900 the New-York Tribune reported that the Armory Board had received $115,681.15 from the Mayor’s office for the land needed for the First Battery Armory.  The plot was located on West 66th Street and Central Park West.

Politics came into play over the choice of architects.  Brigadier-General McCoskry Butt felt that it should be a military decision.  Tammany Hall disagreed.  A month after the land was purchased, the Tribune wrote “When the question of preparing plans first came up General Butt wanted the [Armory] Board to select the firm of architects, but the Mayor objected saying that it was the business of Commissioner Kearny.”

In fact, Tammany Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck, had a pet firm—Horgan & Slattery—and he made sure most city commissions went to them.  A few years later, on March 8, 1903, The New York Times flatly explained the corrupt arrangement.  “Horgan & Slattery, architects, during Mayor Van Wyck’s administration drew plans for mud scows and also got jobs on public buildings ranging from a $100 alteration to a $4,000,000 Hall of Records.  Everything artistic and inartistic was put in the way of the Tammany ‘official’ architects because they had the support of John F. Carroll and Mayor Van Wyck.”

The General was powerless to choose the architects; but was permitted to give input on the design.  The New-York Tribune noted “Mr. Kearny selected Horgan & Slattery.  General Butt objected to the first draft of the plans, and as a member of a committee, with Commissioner Kearny, he revised them.”

Horgan & Slattery took their time in producing the finished designs; a matter that annoyed the General and the rest of the Armory Board.  When the Board met in the middle of October 1900 the lack of plans ignited a fury.   General Butt protested “that the preparation of the specifications was but a few days’ work.”  Captain Louis Wendell chimed in.  The New-York Tribune said he “made strenuous objection to the long delay in beginning work on the armory.  He said that the money for the work was appropriated nearly two years ago.”

The architects were ordered to produce plans within a week.  On October 24 The New York Times reported “The filing of the plans and specifications is said to be due to a little agitation of that subject at last week’s meeting of the Armory Board.  At that time Brig Gen. McCoskry Butt called attention to the fact that the board had passed upon the plans eight months ago, and that there the matter had rested.”

It would be nearly a full year before the cornerstone was laid.  But finally, on September 21, 1901, with the foundation laid, the ceremonies took place.  The New York Times said “With picturesque ceremonies and a gorgeous display of gaily colored uniforms the First Battery of the National Guard laid the cornerstone of its new armory, in West Sixty-sixth Street, yesterday afternoon.”

All 106 members rode on horseback to the site led by Captain Wendel.  A band played and crowds listened to a short address by City Council President Randolph Guggenheimer who noted “This battery, composed mostly of German-Americans, was one of which all citizens should be proud.”
With the bank playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” Guggenheimer smoothed the mortar with a silver trowel, then dropped coins and other mementos into the cornerstone.  A derrick lifted the heavy stone into place as the band struck up the National Anthem.

Newspapers reported on the rising structure, estimated to cost $175,000.  “The officers of the battery claim that it will be the most conveniently arranged armory in the whole city,” reported The Times.  The proposed design included a central tower “for signaling purposes.”  Inside, the first floor housed a concrete-floored drill room, a riding ring, and offices.  Below street level were stalls for 76 horses, a 50-yard rifle range and 25-yard pistol range.  Also in the basement were “shower baths, toilet rooms, ammunition compartments, and shell, harness, and boiler rooms.”

The second floor contained locker rooms, commissioned officers’ rooms, a gymnasium and a kitchen.  The third floor was dedicated to Captain Wendel’s apartment, his clerk’s apartment and a janitor’s apartment.

Finally, on February 3, 1904 the new Mayor turned over the gold key to the armory to Captain Wendel.  Horgan & Slattery’s exterior design was as much about function as it was romantic medieval fantasy.  At 175-feet wide, it reproduced a crenulated fortress with turrets, loop holes, sally ports and other elements necessary to defend the unit from siege.   The final cost of the armory--$125,000 for the land and $118,000 for the structure—would equate to about $6.7 million in 2015.
The armory on opening day. -- New-York Tribune, February 4, 1904 (copyright expired)
Instead of military sieges, the new armory quickly became the scene of sporting and social events.  Just three weeks after the unit moved in a most unusual demonstration took place.  On February 25, 1904 The Evening World reported that a young woman from Brooklyn, Victoria Jarvis, had accepted the challenge to ride a bucking bronco here.

The confident city girl took on a bucking bronco in the riding ring here in 1904 -- The Evening World, February 25, 1904 (copyright expired)
The girl received permission from her parents after “she assured them that she would have no trouble in handling the animal.”  The World said “The bronco recently arrived from the West.  The animal, it is said, has unseated many good riders.  Those who have tried to master it have found the task difficult, for the animal, after going a few paces, usually throws the rider.”

Victoria’s Brooklyn girlfriends had confidence in her, saying “she has ridden many mettlesome horses.”  And the self-assured Victoria boasted to reporters “I believe I will have no trouble in retaining my seat on the bronco. I understand that he is rather a wild little animal, but that does not matter, for I am used to horses.”

One wonders if the Brooklyn girl truly understood the differences between East Coast horses and wild West bucking broncos.  Sadly, we may never know, as newspapers failed to follow-up on the story.

Expense was incurred in the elaborate, variegated brickwork.
Two years after the armory was completed, scandal visited West 61st Street.  With Captain Louis Wendel’s Tammany Hall buddies mostly gone; his shady operations drew to a close.  On December 26, 1906 he was arrested for graft and corruption.  The Sun reported that he had been charged “as an officer of the State with having unlawfully received money for the performance of certain of his duties.”

Within two months Wendel had tendered his resignation.  The public indignity threatened the very survival of the First Battery.  Major General Charles F. Roe, commander of the National Guard of the State, wrote a letter that said in part “I have the honor to inclose herewith…the resignation of Capt Wendel from the National Guard.”  He added “The condition of the First Battery is such that I am convinced that it would be in the very best interests of the service to disband it.”

It was only through the intercession of Adjt. Gen. Nelson H. Henry that the unit was saved.  He countered that to disband the unit while Wendel’s case was pending “might tend to impair the ends of justice.”
While the ugly court case continued, the 61st Street armory added another unit, the First Field Hospital.  But, as had been the case during the Spanish-American War when Wendel offered the First Battery’s service and was denied; the members would see World War I come and go without seeing action.

Instead, throughout the war the 61st Street armory was best known as a wrestling and boxing match venue.  The events were initially staged as part of the war effort.  On November 21, 1919 the New-York Tribune noted “Major J. Franklin Dunseith, commanding officer of the First Field Hospital, New York Guard, last night appointed Billy Roche to manage a big wrestling show, which will be staged at the armory of the First Field Hospital, 56 West Sixty-sixth Street, next Wednesday night.  This show will be staged as a part of a recruiting campaign and will be open to the general public.”

A boxing match that month featured “Paddy Burns, formerly of the Third American Army, and Bushy Graham, formerly of the Second American Army,” according to The Sun, “for the benefit of the American Red Cross.”

But long after the war ended, well into the Depression years, the armory was still best known as a boxing and wrestling arena.  One event in particular ended badly on November 3, 1922.  Lightweight boxer Albert Press entered the ring against Castos Limperoplus that night.  The New-York Tribune reported “it was a fast mill up to the sixth, with Press getting the better of the argument.  The Greek went down four times, taking the count of nine twice.”

Then things took an ugly turn for Press.  “In the sixth he braced and as Press came from his corner, Limperoplus let fly a left hook, striking Press on the temple.  The latter was dragged to his corner unconscious.”

The following morning Press was still unconscious at Bellevue Hospital, diagnosed with a fractured skull.  His opponent was arrested “and paroled pending Press’s recovery.”

A far less violent event was the Open Exhibition of Colorful Tropical Birds and Canary Types which opened on December 3, 1949.  By now military activity in the armory was nearly non-existent.  Finally in 1976 the building was decommissioned and renovated by the architectural firm Kohn Pederson Fox for use as ABC television studios.

In 2003 ABC Television Network commissioned architect Cosmo Veneziale to restore the façade and create appropriate replacement windows.  The romantic fortress, with its history of corruption, scandal and tepid function as a military facility, stands as a colorful side note in the history of the Upper West Side.

photographs by the author

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Lost P.S. 70 -- 207 E. 75th Street

By 1920 fire escapes zig-zagged down the Victorian facade -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the years after the end of the Civil War the Upper East Side saw rapid development.  While rows of handsome brownstones were erected along the blocks closer to Central Park; the area nearer the East River filled with immigrant families working in the breweries and cigar factories there.  The swelling population required civic structures—fire houses, police stations, churches and schools.

In 1874 three plots of land were purchased by the Board of Education on East 75th Street, between Second and Third Avenues and a year later it added a fourth, “making the entire plot one hundred feet front,” as recorded in the Board’s 1875 Annual Report.

Nearly two decades later architect Charles B. J. Snyder would take the reins as Superintendent of School Buildings and turn traditional school design on its head.  He focused on fire protection, fresh air, proper lighting and classroom size.  But that was almost 20 years away.

Other than style details, there was little difference between the yellow brick and brownstone school house that rose on East 75th Street and the buildings that had been erected for the purpose since the 1850s.   Ventilation, sunlight, and fire-proof materials were of little consideration to the architect.

A main entrance sat within a central section with a tower-like fifth floor with brick corbelling and an eye-catching circular opening.  Below it was a commanding two-story arched opening.
But the main entrance to Grammar School 70 was not for pupils.  At the farthest ends of the building were double-doored entrances—one for girls and one for boys.  This was, after all, 1876.

In 1886 19-year old teacher Kate Macdona was promoted from the Primary Department of School 77 to the Grammar Department of School 70.  A month after the school season began she had problems.  When James Moloney acted up one day early in October, she sent him to his seat with a verbal reprimand.

Two other pupils, James and William Foley, ran home and told their father--a personal friend of Principal George White--that Miss Macdona had used foul language.  John  Foley soon told White of Kate’s use of “indecent language in the presence of the school children.”

According to The Sun, White instructed Kate that “the young teacher would have to be more circumspect in the future.”  She demanded to know what the objectionable language was; but the principal felt no more discussion was necessary.  Refusing to back down, the stalwart girl demanded an investigation. 

Louis M. Hornthal, Congressman Dowdney and Isaac P. Chambers of the Board of Trustees of the 19th Ward questioned each of the 50 boy pupils of the school.  Miss Macdona was exonerated and James and his brother were suspended from school for telling an untruth.

But the boys’ father would not take the ruling lying down.  He served an injunction on Chairman Chambers, restraining the trustees from suspending his sons.  What had seemed a trivial incident had become a messy and very public case.  It was taken to court and on November 28, 1886 The Sun reported that Kate Macdona “has been made ill by her trouble with the Foley boys.”

The matter seemed out of control.  On March 24, 1887, after Judge Andrews of the Supreme Court, ordered that the boys be reinstated in school, John Foley “marched triumphantly” into Grammar School 70 with his sons and a “procession” of supporters, as described by The Sun.  He interrupted Mr. White’s class and announced that the district trustees were “too ignorant to know their duty.”

Nearly a year after it started the matter which The Sun called “John Foley’s Great Boy Case” was finally put to rest.  On November 21, 1887 Judge Andrews ruled that the Foley boys had “done nothing contrary to the rules of the Board of Education.”   Nevertheless, the overwhelming testimony of the other boys supported Kate.

The population of the Upper East Side continued to swell and in 1890 Grammar School 70 received an annex.  It was a positive note for a school that was about to find itself in the courts and the newspapers once again.

On May 28, 1892 The Sun reported that Mrs. Louise M. Galligan, principal of the Primary Department, was under charges “preferred by the trustees, of falsifying pay rolls, cruelty to teachers, incompetency, and conduct unbecoming a lady.”  The 30-year veteran educator had been charged by “a majority of the forty-three teachers under her.”  She had been tried on similar charges in 1878, but had retained her position.

A hearing was held on April 15 during which the trustees presented 300 pages of testimony supporting their conclusion that “she is no longer fit to teach.”  The Sun described Mrs. Galligan as “a large, gray-haired woman, about 55 years old.”  She testified on her own behalf and emphatically denied the charges, which included “she was continually nagging the teachers under her and rendered their lives miserable.”

Two months later, on June 16, 1892, The Evening World reported “Mrs. Louise M. Galligan is no longer Principal of the primary department of Grammar School No. 70, in East Seventy-fifth street.”  The newspaper said she was dismissed on charges “of inefficiency, incompetency, neglect of duty, conduct unbecoming a principal and teacher and falsifying the time-record book for teachers.”

The headstrong Louise M. Galligan, however, would not go down easily.  On August 1 The Evening World reported that she had sued Trustee Louis M. Hornthal for $50,000 for libel and slander.  The court instructed Hornthal to “make the charges more specific” in Galligan’s dismissal.

When her slander suit failed, she pressed on, now headed to Supreme Court.  On November 19, 1894, more than two years after her dismissal, she entered the courtroom where she sought $25,000 in damages against the school trustees.  The Evening World said “Miss Galligan came into court early, accompanied by two friends, They seated themselves in a triangle in a convenient spot and watched the door.  Miss Galligan is plump, and if she has almost reached the three-score limit she has made a friend of Father Time, for her brown hair has scarcely been touched.”

Louise Galligan, much to the astonishment of the court, acted as her own lawyer, telling the jury “I have not the means to employ counsel, but I will try to show you how I incurred the ill-will of these defendants.”  She had no witnesses (while the defense had “three benches” of teachers ready to testify) and rambled on until the judge stopped her.

“After her continuing at some length the Court interrupted Miss Galligan by suggesting that she had not stated in her complaints what the alleged libel was.  A considerable discussion of an amusing nature followed, and then the Court took an intermission until 2 o’clock to give the plaintiff an opportunity to rearrange her papers, adding the suggestion that she should have counsel.”

The case did not end happily for Louise Galligan.

In the meantime, things went on as usual in Grammar School No. 70.  On Flag Day 1893 George White, still principal, was presented by the children with an immense American flag 12 feet wide by 20 feet long.  The Evening World said on June 14, “While presenting this ‘emblem of our individual liberty and collective greatness,’ as the thirteen-year old presentation orator, Patrick McGrath, expressed it, the school saluted the flag, and at the close repeated a pledge to it.”

By 1898, when the school was improved “by painting the rooms, etc.,” as mentioned in the Minutes of the Committee on Buildings that year, it had become Public School 70.   George White remained on as principal; and the size of the student body was reflected the following year in its 82-member graduating class.

By 1902 when inspectors went through the 30-year old building it was showing its age.  They reported that “Three classes on the main floor of this school are badly lighted, and on dark days are unfit for use without artificial light.”  Students still used outhouses in the rear yard and the Board of Education  announced plans to demolish the old buildings behind the school, on 76th Street, for “the erection of new waterclosets for the boys.”

Young women teaching teen-aged boys was in 1906, as it is today, a sometimes rocky road.  John Smith, 13 years old, found himself in Children's Court on November 21 that year because he had become helplessly smitten with his teacher.

Earlier Patrolman Fraizer was approached by the school janitor, William Adams, who was dragging young Smith by his arm.  Adams wanted the boy arrested.  When the officer asked what the charge was, he was told disorderly conduct.

“He’s been writing love letters to his teacher and won’t stop, though he has been warned enough.”  The New York Times added “It was said that he had not only written love letters to the teacher, but had made the unpardonable mistake of reading them to others before sending them.”

The Sun, on November 22, 1906, said the hoped-for affair had begun during the previous school season.  “When he saw the black haired, dark eyed young woman it was a case of love at first sight.” 

But she was not his teacher; she taught a grade above his.  “Previous to that he had never been particular about his studies; he didn’t care whether or not he was left back.  But the day the new teacher entered the fourth primary Johnny changed.  He made up his mind that he would be promoted to her class, even if he had to crib at the examinations.  His love for the new teacher inspired him and spurred him on, and at the end of the term he headed the class in every subject.”

When school started again in the fall of 1906, John Smith began writing his love letters, one of which The Sun reprinted.  

My deerest luv: This is a luv leter frum 1 of yur pupels what luvs you.  I always luved you sinse the day I first seen you.  You have the most butiful eys I ever seen and I always think about you the hole day and nite.  I wud like to tel you how mutch I luv you but I am afrade you wud get mad at me.  I cant help luving you all the time.  Your luving pupel

The unnamed teacher was, at first, amused.  But when the letters appeared daily she became concerned.   When Johnny’s jilted girlfriend told on him to the teacher, the jig was up.  Although he promised the teacher he would stop writing love letters, he could not stop himself.

“He promised not to write any more, but he just had to pour forth the fire of his love burdened heart, and he continued writing the letters,” said The Sun.  The teacher appealed to the principal and Johnny was disciplined by having to eat lunch standing up for two days.  But he continued with the letters.

A conference was held which was attended by the principal, the head of the primary department, and Miss Dark Eyes [the code name concocted by The Sun to conceal her identity], and it was decided to have Johnny arrested.”

Johnny Smith appeared before the judge and his crimes were laid out in detail.  The teacher failed to appear and after some time the court was compelled to discharge the boy; but only after extracting a promise that he would stop writing.

“I’ll love her just the same; all right, all right,” the boy said to reporters as he walked out, ‘even if I kin not write to her.”

Johnny Smith was, in fact, somewhat fortunate.  Other teachers in Public School 70 were less lenient.  Robert Holcomb's class was making pencil cases on Friday June 1 that same year.  He had an after-school job at a laundry taking orders, so when 3:30 came he was eager to leave.  But his teacher, Max Schellitzer, instructed the boys to stay until he had examined the cases.

After Robert’s was collected, he asked Schellitzer if he could leave.  “The teacher told him to stay until he was told he might go,” said the New-York Tribune later.  The antsy boy waited 15 minutes then started for the door without Schellitzer's permission.  It was a bad idea.

“He says that Mr. Schellitzer caught him first by both arms and then by the throat and threw him against a desk with such force that he became unconscious,” said the Tribune the following week.  “Mr Schellitzer said, when seen yesterday, that he boy kicked and struck him, and that in the scuffle which ensued he fainted and fell against a desk.”

One way or the other, the 12-year old boy was unresponsive and his mother, Elizabeth Holcomb, was sent for and an ambulance called.  Police arrived and would have arrested Schellitzer had Mrs. Holcomb, a widow, not intervened.  She later explained she did not want to get the teacher in trouble.

Robert remained unconscious for hours and doctors said “that he may have sustained an injury to his brain.”  At Presbyterian Hospital he was found to have bruises “on his arms and around his throat.”  It was only through the urging of neighbors that Elizabeth Holcomb pursued the matter in court.  Somewhat amazingly, Principal George White told the judge that “though he was not present at the time he believed Mr. Schellitzer’s version of the case to be correct.”

By 1919 the neighborhood had substantially changed from the gritty environment of 1876.  Now the independent Public Education Association noted that the school was located “a block or so east of the wealthiest residential section in the world.”  The school building, however, was far from upscale.  The Association called it “an ancient fire trap” and said “It is doubtful if such conditions would be tolerated under our factory laws in even the poorest sweatshop!”

The Associations report, released in April 1919, complained that 2,000 children were crowded into class rooms with seating for scarcely 1,000.  Ventilation, lighting and heating were unacceptable.  “In one room on the top floor, which has no windows and is completely surrounded by other rooms, there is only one aisle in the middle of the room…There mere thought of fire under such conditions is enough to make one’s blood run cold.”

Abraham Smith, now principal, chimed in saying “The building is unfit for human habitation.”  The Evening World quoted the Association’s report as saying “toilet conditions are loathsome and unspeakable.”

The Board of Education complained that the Association had “picked out [as its example] one school which the board has planned to tear down for two years so that a new one may be erected.”

The Board’s intentions to raze the 19th century school building did not come to pass, and in 1921 Howard Nudd of Public Education Association was still pointing out Public School 70.  “An example of the Board of Estimate’s failure to provide sufficient funds for school maintenance, he related, was the general condition of Public School 70, situated in East Seventy-fifth Street.  This building had been ‘repaired,’ he said, by painting the building and its flag pole.”

The antiquated but picturesque Victorian structure survived another two decades before being demolished.  The replacement school faces 76th Street and the site of the old Public School 70 is now its playground.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Koller's Hotel -- No. 141 E. 17th Street

In 1886 the neighborhood around Third Avenue and 17th Street was largely German, earning it the name Kleindeutchland.  But at least one business in the area was Italian-owned.  L Faccini ran his four-story boarding house at No. 141 East 17th Street.

Faccini obviously housed both Italian and German boarders.  Mrs. Louise Schneider lived here in 1886 when her coin collection went missing.  The culprit was caught, convicted, and on July 13 was sentenced.

The New York  Times described the felon as “Frederick Thompson, a colored lad.”  During the proceedings, a letter pleading for clemency from the boy’s mother, Mrs. Holland Thompson, of Montgomery, Alabama was read.  The woman was unable to write, so her husband a former Assemblyman of Alabama, a clergyman, and a merchant, had done the job for her.

“Mrs. Thompson said that she had been a slave and that she tried to bring up her boy in the right way.  The boy, however, was wayward,” said The TimesJudge Gildersleeve was unmoved by the emotional plea.  He sent Thompson to Sing Sing Prison for two and a half years.

The boarding house became the scene of some publicity later that year.  When 32 Italian girls, working as chorus girls and ballet dancers, were discharged from the National Opera Company touring in Chicago that December, they were in trouble.  They had little money, spoke no English, and were stranded in a Western town a world away from home.  The girls were put on an “emigrant car” to Grand Central Depot, and their arrival drew caused notice.

“Thirty-two somewhat jaded young women were landed in New York, at the Grand Central station, early yesterday morning,” reported The Sun on December 15.  “They chatted altogether in rapid Italian as they lugged their bag and baggage from the emigrant car in which they had traveled from Chicago…They at once sought lodgings, and are now scattered about in several Italian boarding houses.”

Two of the girls ended up at “the Italian Penzione” on East 17th Street.  The newspaper sensed trouble.  “None of them speaks any English worth mentioning, and they are here in New York without employment, and with but scant means.”

A reporter arrived at the Faccini boarding house, where Signora Faccini, “the pretty daughter of the innkeeper, acted as interpreter.”  The two girls explained that following the previous Saturday night performance they were handed a note saying they were fired.  Each was given $10, or half a week’s pay.

“They were told that they must pack their trunks and take the train for New York…Fifteen chorus girls and seventeen ballet girls were thus turned adrift,” reported The Sun.  It added “They left Chicago early on Sunday morning in a second-class car in which the ordinary comforts of travel were entirely lacking, and the girls complain that they had no sleep from Sunday until their arrival here at 7 o’clock yesterday morning.”

How, or if, the bewildered girls got back to Milan is unclear.

Boarders in Faccini’s boarding house would have to endure the German music and revelry coming from next door at No. 143.  In 1885 Carl Goerwitz opened his Scheffel Hall around the corner at No. 190 Third Avenue, and leased the stable at No. 143 East 17th Street (consistently numbered 141 by mistaken historians) and converted it to an annex of the German beer hall.

By 1889 the boarding house was known as Corbini’s Hotel.  It was owned by Louise Brunner who hired architect J. Hoffman that year to create a two story extension at a cost of $4,000.  Jutting out to the property line, the handsome brick and metal façade featured thin engaged columns with bulbous bases at the second floor that upheld a series of blind arches, sea crest swirls, and a pierced, ornamental parapet. 

The addition housed a two-story restaurant.  The storefront was protected by a slightly-projecting roof with a small hood over the entrance to the hotel at the eastern side.

Mattie Kortwright ran the restaurant.  She was embroiled in what The New York Times called “a case that grows complicated” in July 1889.  According to her, she had invested $710 in the business of diamond broker Edward Giro after he had promised to marry her.  “He did not keep his pledge to wed, and she did not see any return for her money,” explained The Times on July 14.

When the case came to trial on July 13, Mattie Kortwright failed to appear.  Giro told the judge he had received only $95 from her, and that was his fee for managing her restaurant.  He then counter-sued, saying that a few days earlier he had gone to the restaurant and was assaulted there by Charles Riss, “a Spaniard,” who struck him with a cane.

He pointed out his assailant in the courtroom.  “Riss explained that he had warned Mrs. Kortright to have nothing to do with Giro, and this was the cause of the affray,” reported The Times.   Riss was arrested in the courtroom and the case was adjourned until the following day when Mattie Kortright could testify.
When Mattie appeared the next morning, she said she preferred to drop the charges.  The judge refused.  The complexity of the case grew deeper when it came to trial again.  This time only Edward Giro showed up.

“The absence of Mrs. Kortright,” said The Times, “was not explained, and Charles Riss, the Spaniard, who was charged with having assaulted Giro, and who was released on his parole on Saturday, did not appear.”  It seems that Riss, however, was busy in another courtroom.  He had been arrested on a charge of assault preferred by Giro was arraigned at the 57th Street Police Court.  “It was presumed that Mrs. Kortright ahd gone to that court to look after Riss.”

“The Spaniard’s” trouble got worse when Justice Smith issued a warrant for his arrest for contempt.

The following year the first signs of problems with the “restaurant” in the Corbini Hotel appeared.  On January 20 the liquor license was revoked for raucousness, and then again on June 26.

No. 141 East 17th Street changed names again by the turn of the century, becoming Koller’s Hotel.   Rather astoundingly, the scandalous property was owned by the socially and politically prominent Hamilton Fish in 1900.

 The hotel was an important part of the 1904 corruption case against Police Captain Gannon, who was charged with ignoring illegal activities here in exchange for bribes.  Witness Henry Wolfsohn was asked to describe what he saw going on there during the summer of 1901.

“Well, in the hotel itself I have never been, but in the front of the hotel there were, during the night, between the hours of ten and one or two o’clock, any quantity of lewd women passing by there, and accosting men at different times, and we saw them sitting on the stoop outside and saw them take the men in.”

The prosecutor asked “In where?”

“In this place, 141.”

“And disappear!”

Wolfsohnn replied, “And disappear, yes, sir; and during the night it was very noisy, and often until two or three o’clock we heard the music.”

Another witness testified that on September 12, 1901 “we entered the place there.  They had a barroom there’ it is a licensed place on the ground floor.  We went in there and had a drink and asked them what all the music was about upstairs, all that noise going on upstairs, and he said, ‘There is some fun up there, you had better go upstairs.’”

His companion, Adolph Dreymann took up the story in his testimony.  He said after they sat at a table a while “one of the girls asked me to take her upstairs to have a good time, and I said I wasn’t feeling well, and she said, ‘That’s all right, I will make you feel well,’ and she started to unbutton my pants.”

On September 10, 1901 the hotel was raided as an “alleged disorderly house,” the polite term for a house of prostitution.  “The warrants were for Samuel Koller, the alleged proprietor, and for ‘Jane Doe,' the housekeeper,” reported The Times.   The pair was quietly arrested and locked up.  “There was no excitement,” said the newspaper.

The arrests did not change the seamy operations at No. 141 East 17th Street, however.  A month later the Parkhurst Society—a vigilante reform group headed by clergyman Charles Henry Parkhurst—raided Koller’s Hotel after Captain Gannon insisted to reporters that there was not one “disorderly house or any other illegal resort existed in his precinct.”

It was not only Captain Gannon who was on the take.  Edward H. Alcott ran the saloon in Koller’s Hotel and in February 1901 he filed charges against Etienne Bayer an agent of the New York Anti-Vice Society and his son, Julius, for extortion.   He alleged that in December 1900 the men threatened to have his liquor license revoked “for keeping a disorderly house,” unless he paid them $100.

When he refused to pay, he was served with an order on Christmas Eve to show cause before Supreme Court Justice Degro, why his license should not be revoked.

The Bayers returned, saying that “$300 would satisfactorily settle the matter.”  Julius told Alcott to put the money in an envelope and give it to “the barber in the third chair at 525 Broadway.”  The saloon keeper followed the directions and told authorities the barber “placed it with several others in a pile in front of him.”

On February 25, 1901 the two men were held at $1,500 bail each on charges of extortion.

In 1903 both Captain Gannon and Edward Koller were gone from the neighborhood.  The precinct was now under the control of Captain Gallagher and the hotel, now called the Rainbow Hotel, was run by Albert E. Smith.    Smith had no intentions of changing the money-making illicit operation, however.  When 16 prostitutes were picked up for “loitering” on Saturday night, August 15, 1903, Smith hurried to the station house to bail out two of them.  The Sun noted that he was just one of several saloon keepers who rushed to provide bail to the women.

Captain Gallagher was red-faced on December 13 that year when the hotel was once again raided as a disorderly house.  Albert Smith was arrested and his waiter and eight women were also locked up.  Captain Gallagher, said the New-York Tribune, “was reported as having been found in the hotel by the raiders.”  Gallagher insisted he was innocent, saying he arrived after the raid had commenced.

Eventually police and social reform abolished brought respectability to No. 141.   By 1913 it was home to the Berlin Renting Agency.  Founded by Charles Berlin in 1892, the real estate office advertised apartments and office space from the building for years.  

When Hamilton Fish offered the building's leasehold for sale on March 14, 1920, the property was described as a “four story building, with stores.”

In 1922 two young journalists, Henry Robinson Luce and Briton Hadden, rented an office in the building for $55 a month.  The men, now both 23 years old, had met at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut in their teens.  There the two boys had worked together on the school newspaper. 

In 1921 they were both working at The Baltimore News; but they boldly quit their jobs, moved to New York, and in the tiny office at No. 141 East 17th Street formed Time, Inc.  Here they composed the prospectus for TIME magazine.  The first issue was published on March 1923.
Their endeavor would grow into a vast journalistic empire, would change the face of the American magazine industry, and result in Luce’s being called “the most influential private citizen in the America of his day” by his biographer Robert Edwin Hertzstein.

In 1938 the Berlin real estate office is still here and the storefront intact.  Next door, at No 143, the Scheffel Hall annex still survives.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1944 Hamilton Fish sold the building.  While it continued to house a mix of offices, residential space, and retail stores over the decades, it retained its wonderful beleaguered 1889 façade at the second story.  In 1966 No. 141 was purchased by artist Alfred Blaustein who commissioned Bernard Rothzied to transform the interiors. The esteemed architect was well-known for his skill in the adaptive repurposing of existing buildings.

Writing in The New York Times, William Robbins described the renovation on October 30, 1966.  “Mr. Rothzeid divided the upper three floors into two apartments, one a duplex and the other a triplex, including a studio that occupied the entire top.”

A cast iron pilaster at the right, and a lonely engaged column to the left are the last fragments remaining of Hoffman's storefront.

Rothzied removed the roof of the triplex and installed a large slanted skylight.  But despite the modern 1960s interiors; No. 141 East 17th Street retained its somewhat grungy and charming exterior appearance.   Today a bicycle shop has been in the retail space—once home to a more-than-shady saloon--for years.  And upstairs, in what was once a sordid “hotel,” residents of the high-end apartments no doubt have little idea of their building’s colorful history.

photographs by the author