Thursday, October 1, 2015

John E. Terhune's No. 246 Fifth Avenue

A blank scar between the second and third floors testifies to a lost cornice or balcony.
The stretch of Fifth Avenue just below 34th Street was lined with brick or brownstone mansions in the decade following the Civil War.  No. 246, at the southwest corner of 28th Street, was home to the aged bachelor John Quentin Jones.

Jones, who was president of Chemical National Bank, had built his six-story brick mansion around 1857.  The property stretched westward on 28th Street where Jones’ commodious carriage house stood.  Immensely wealthy, for years he shared the house with his sisters, the widowed Mrs. Frances Rogers and Mary S. Jones.  Then, “since the death of his sisters Mr. Jones had resided in his great mansion alone with his servants,” said The New York Times in 1878.

The unmarried millionaire died of an apparent heart attack in his Fifth Avenue mansion.
On January 1, 1878 he “was in a cheerful mood and ate his dinner with a relish at 5 o’clock, and at 7:30 o’clock he suddenly died” reported The Times.  Jones was 74 years old and had only one surviving relative, a younger brother Joshua.   The newspaper described him as “a gentlemen of leisure and cultivation.”

Joshua Jones moved into the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Unlike his brother, who had arduously worked throughout his life, he preferred to live off his wealth as a gentleman.  When he died in March 1888, his funeral was held in the mansion.  New Yorkers may have been shocked to find he left no charitable donations; but left his estate to his already-wealthy cousins.  “It is understood that Mr. Jones had made no public bequests of any importance, but has left his millions to be divided among the member of his family, who are mostly in good circumstances financially,” noted The New York Times on March 25.

By now the Fifth Avenue neighborhood had drastically changed as New York’s wealthiest citizens moved northward, away from the tide of commerce.   On November 17, 1888 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide announced that the “handsome residence No. 246 5th avenue, southwest corner of 28th street, with the stable and lot adjoining at No. 2 West 28th street,” was scheduled to be sold at auction the following week.  Among those bidding that afternoon was Marietta Reed Stevens, who had lived next door at No. 244 for years.

Preferring to be called Mrs. Paran Stevens, Marietta had taken over the management of her husband’s vast holdings, including several hotels, upon his death in 1872.  Although she would not move uptown to the white marble palace at No. 1 East 57th Street until 1892, the shrewd businesswoman saw the handwriting on the wall. 

The New York Times reported that “Mrs. Paran Stevens, one of the social leaders in New York City,” had purchased the Jones residence and stable for $229,000—in the neighborhood of $5.8 million in 2015 dollars.   She then contributed to the march of commerce which was destroying her residential neighborhood.

Through her agent, Joseph Thompson, she commissioned architect John E. Terhune to design a replacement structure.  Starting with the stable end of the property, the six-story structure was completed in two parts; both being completed in 1889.   Terhune’s Romanesque Revival structure was a captivating blend of brick, stone and iron.  Heavy brick corbels above the fifth floor arched openings added a fortress-like effect; while angled cast iron bays set with three-story arches gave an up-to-date flair.  Terhune gave a nod to the recently-popular Aesthetic and Queen Anne movements with a row of terra cotta tiles above the windows of the top floor, and with sunflower-shaped tie rods.   Other iron tie rods, between the third and fourth floors, took on an elaborate backwards S shape and, like their floral counterparts, were as much decorative as functional.

This section of the avenue may have been becoming commercialized; yet it was still Fifth Avenue.  The early tenants of No. 246 were high-end dealers, including the jewelry store of John Mason.  (Any relationship to the John Q. and Joshua Mason family is unclear.)

The exclusive nature of Mason’s operation was evidenced on March 11, 1891 when he displayed the South African diamond he had purchased five months earlier.  Weighing in at 83 carats, it had a yellow cast.   The price tag on the diamond was $5,000—about $135,000 today.  Two months later Mason would have a salesman, William F. Little arrested for stealing $700 worth of jewelry from the store.

Upstairs were offices and other businesses—including the architectural offices of William Schickel & Co. and of Thomas Henry Poole.   While here Poole began designs for the Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church at West 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and the Roman Catholic Chapel of St. John in White Plains.

The photographic studio of Davis & Sanford was here as early as 1893.  The firm specialized in photographs of military, theatrical and political figures.  When Lt. Colonel Andrew S. Rowan visited New York after his notable service in the Spanish-American War, he made the expected stop at No. 246 Fifth Avenue to have his portrait taken.
Davis & Sanford were known for society portraits like the above of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and his new bride Eleanor at a Vanderbilt Ball -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
There was at least one manufacturing firm in the building at the time—that of garment maker E. M. Emery.  Conditions for tailors and sewers in the 1890s were brutal, especially during the hot summer months.   In the heat of July 1893 The Evening World reported “The strike at E. M. Emery’s shop, 246 Fifth avenue, against the sweating system, still continues.  Despite occasional labor problems, the firm would remain in the building into the 1920s.

The year that E. M. Emery’s employees went on strike was an especially troubling one.  The Financial Panic of 1893 capped a two-year period of depression and was felt by even the most upscale of retailers.  The ground floor was also home to Obadiah L. Sypher who operated Sypher & Co., antiques and fine arts, here.  While Sypher’s paintings and furniture decorated the homes of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens, even he felt the pinch.

On September 8, 1894, he commented to The New York Times that the economy seemed to be improving.  “People are once more inclined to buy expensive things,” he said.  “For instance, a man does not say: ‘I’d like to buy that, but I can’t afford to.’”  He added “Our business is the pulse of the people more than any other, because we deal in so many rarities and luxuries.”

The following year Sypher had competition in the building.  In December 1895 Herbert H. Hallett opened his fine arts gallery in No. 246.  Upon opening he offered paintings by English artists including Constable and Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Obadiah L. Sypher had apparently understated the effects of the financial depression.  On New Year’s Eve 1896 he was in serious trouble.  Not only did he admit to owing Henry Lesinsky about $85,000 in loans to keep his business afloat; it was discovered he had defrauded the Government out of thousands of dollars in customs duty.

The news was shocking to Fifth Avenue residents.  Sypher had taken over the business from his employer in 1865 and, according to The Times “he has been a large importer of such goods for some of the wealthiest and most fashionable families of New York, and some of his importations of reproductions of famous work in the palaces of Europe brought large prices.”

District Attorney Olcott told reporters “Mr. Sypher’s business had suffered from the general depression in trade, and the past season was not as good as he expected.”  It was an ignoble end to the respected dealer’s career.

Mrs. Paran Stevens still owned the building as the century drew to a close.  She improved the ground floor retail space in 1899 when she added a show window on the 28th Street side.

Among the most colorful of the tenants in the building was William Cunningham Deane-Tanner who opened his English Antiques Shop around the turn of the century.  Married to the actress Ethel Mae Harrison, he gave himself a yearly salary of nearly $30,000 according to Sidney D. Kirkpatrick in his 1986 A Cast of Killers.

His highly varied career had included being ''a timekeeper for the Yukon Gold Company in Alaska; a night clerk at the Inter Ocean Hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming; a prospector in Colorado and Alaska.”  In 1908 the polished and charming antiques dealer left his wife and daughter; and in 1912 he left for Hollywood where he changed his name to William Desmond Taylor and became a well-known motion picture director.

In 1922 he was murdered in his Los Angeles bungalow.  When police arrived studio executives were busy burning papers in the fireplace and actress Mabel Normand was reportedly scurrying around trying to find love letters.  The murderer was never identified; but the scandal ruined the careers of stars Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter.

In the meantime famed photographer Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. purchased half of the interest in Davis & Sanford in 1905.  The esteemed firm became the Davis and Eickermeyer studio.  Eickemeyer became famous for his portraits of the carriage trade, including those of Evelyn Nesbit.
Evelyn Nesbit posed for Eickenmeyer's "In My Studio, Evelyn Nesbit, Tired Butterfly"
Joining E. M. Emery making apparel in the building was A. F. Miller ladies’ “habitmakers.”  The firm catered to wealthy set, creating “riding habits, costumes and outdoor coats.”  In 1906 its managers, Shulte and Petruzzi purchased the business.  When the fashionable Horse Show was held at Madison Square Garden that year, the New-York Tribune noted that “many correct riding habits for the Horse Show…have been made by J. G. Muller, Schulte & Petruzzi.”

The firm offered "correct riding habits" in 1906.  The New-York Tribune, April 1, 1906 (copyright expired)
While the clothing created at No. 246 Fifth Avenue may have been elegant and costly; the conditions of the workers did not improve.  On July 15, 1912 23-year old worker Patrick Graves was overcome by the heat and had to be removed from the building.

Sharing the ground floor with art and antiques galleries in the first years of the 20th century was the haberdashery of E. A. Newell.  Founded in 1863, it was touted in a 1913 advertisement as having “catered only to the most exclusive trade in Men’s Furnishings.”  The ad continued, saying the shop “at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street has always had for its clientele the best-dressed men in New York.”   A morning coat suit or dinner coat suit could be purchased here in 1913 for $60—a significant $1,500 today.

As the Great Depression neared, the neighborhood around No. 246 was less upscale.  A disturbing trend of shady characters in the building began in 1927 when accountant Charles Drimba was arrested for forging $40,000 in checks.  He had been fired from his job as night auditor at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel six blocks away in December 1926 for stealing cigars.

While he quickly got a new job in No. 246; his theft launched an investigation at the hotel.  An inside forgery ring headed by Drimba was uncovered.  In his desk at No. 246 Fifth Avenue detectives found $20,000 in forged restaurant checks.

In 1930 the principals of the brokerage firm of Dodge & Co., Inc. were arrested for fraud.  Albert Contento and Joseph M. Kurtz (who had two aliases) were arrested in April that year for offering $1 million in stock of the Ford Motor of England Company—a firm that did not exist—at $18 a share.  At the time of their arrest they had swindled the public out of more than $42,000 in one week from their $35-a-month office.

The bad press for the building continued the following year when Henry C. Cliff was arrested in July 1931 for “use of the mails in advertising obscene books and pictures.”  His mail order pornography business went under the name of the Album of the Month Club.

The building would become home to other fly-by-night operations, like the Ornamental Concrete Institute that leased space for its mail order business here in 1932.  An advertisement in Popular Science promised “Now—you can learn how to make one-piece cement Fireplaces in any color effect or design!”

The Craft Arts company offered “drawings and photographs of warplanes and battleships” by mail order, and the New York Publishing Service offered to critique stories, articles and books by aspiring authors.

Phony real estate operator Albert Branin was jailed in 1936 “on charges of defrauding elderly men and women,” according to The New York Times.  One of his victims was 86-year old Robert De Mille, cousin of director Cecile B. De Mille.  The retired builder lost $22,000 to Branin and "it was charged that in one instance he was induced to pay $2,500 in a deal supposedly involving the purchase of twenty Boardwalk lots in Atlantic City."

Things did not improve when on June 19, 1945 William F. Kelly, head of the Kellycraft Hosiery Company was arrested.   He rented “desk space” in the building and went door-to-door in downtown offices selling “nylon-like” stockings to office girls desperate for hosiery during the war years.  The problem was that Kelly did not manufacture stockings.

After the girls had paid for their hosiery, and then never received them, Kelly was charged with 52 petit larcenies and five counts of passing worthless checks on 57 victims.  The New York Times remarked he "caused anguish to hundreds of girl stenographers in the financial district last Spring when he failed to deliver” the stockings.

Other questionable businesses in the building at the time were the General Products company whose nebulous advertisements offered “Become Independent! Have your own business!  Any locality, either sex.  Experience not necessary!” and the S. Benko firm which would send “two bulletins” for the price of one dollar telling of “unlimited opportunities” as a manufacturer’s representative.

By the last quarter of the 20th century the No. 246 said squarely in the Oriental Rug District.  In the 1980s it was home to the Cahatalbash Rug Co.   Upstairs the new advertising agency Frnznick & Custatis moved in, reflective of the improved reputations of the tenant list.  But the structure had been sorely neglected and its architectural integrity was hidden under a slather of cream colored, peeling paint.

photo by Beyond My Ken
Finally in 2011 the owner, Argus Realty 246 LLC lost the property in foreclosure after it defaulted on $14.5 million in debts.  In December 2013 HH Realty Equities paid $19 million for the building in an internet auction.  The new owner initiated a massive renovation and restoration which brought the exterior back to its former attractiveness.

 non-credited photos by the author


  1. Mrs. Paran Stevens is worthy of a posting of her own. Notoriously difficult and bad tempered, she waged a never ending battle with the trustees of her husband's estate throughout her long widowhood, over matters large and small, the Leona Helmsley of a kinder, gentler age.

    1. So true. And somewhat ironically it was her temperament that caused her death of a massive stroke.