In the decade prior to the outbreak of the Civil War the blocks branching off Union Square were among the most fashionable in the city. In 1853 construction began on four impressive rowhouses at Nos. 108 through 114 East 17th Street. Completed in 1854, No. 112 became home to Anthony Bleecker and his wife Cornelia; while next door at No. 114 William and Jane Mootry moved in. Mootry was a wealthy attorney and insurance agent.
As had been the tradition with the exclusive residential areas of Manhattan, the Union Square neighborhood saw change as the commercial district inched northward. By the 1880s nearly all the mansions along the square had been razed or converted for business purposes; and the homes along the side streets were converted to boarding houses or demolished.
Such was the fate of Nos. 112 and 114 East 17th Street. In March 1890 real estate developer and builder Peter N. Ramsey and his wife, Hortense, purchased and demolished the homes.
That same year George F. Pelham opened his architectural office. The 23-year old had been trained in the architectural office of his father, George Brown Pelham, where he worked as a draftsman. It may be that his first commission was the designing of an apartment building on the site of the two 17th Street houses for the Ramseys.
Upscale apartment living was still a new concept—one that required convincing moneyed families for whom respectable living had always meant a private home. No matter how expansive the flats, society often viewed them as “living on a shelf.” The Ramseys set the tone of their new building by naming it after President James Monroe’s summer estate, Fanwood, that had stood in upper Manhattan.
Pelham produced a hefty brownstone and brick structure that married the Romanesque and Renaissance Revival styles. Six stories tall, it sat on a chunky base of rough-cut brownstone with an imposing stone porch. The split personality created by the medieval-inspired Romanesque and the more refined Renaissance styles grew more evident as the eye traveled upward. Above the third floor cornice Pelham turned to a tricolor motif—using both red and cream-colored brick and brownstone to create dimension. Graceful shallow Renaissance Revival pilasters rose three stories to carved brownstone Romanesque ornamentation. Spandrels and panels were filled with complex medieval designs.
|photo by Beyond My Ken
Costing $110,000 (nearly $3 million in 2015) the Fanwood boasted just two spacious apartments per floor. Potential residents were lured by the inclusion of an elevator, the latest in convenience. As intended, the apartments were taken by wealthy entrepreneurs.
Among them were landscape and genre painter Edward Percy Moran and his wife Virginia who moved in in 1898. Moran, who went by his middle name, was best known for his scenes of American history.
|Masculine, rough-cut stone at the first floor would give way to more manicured treatment above.
Attorney Dudley F. Phelps, Jr. and his wife were here by 1902. The Phelps name had been listed within the uppermost echelon of Manhattan society for decades. Mrs. Phelps was a member of the Tuesday Evening Skating Club—an organization that was perhaps less about ice skating than about teas and dinners for its high society members.
On January 6, 1902 the first meeting of the season was held at the St. Nicholas Rink. The following Saturday Alice Ward Howland gave a tea for the members. Every Tuesday thereafter was skating and a supper hosted by a different member. On February 17 that year the group assembled in the Fanwood for supper given by Mrs. Phelps.
|Red brick contrasts with buff-colored brick and brownstone on the upper floors.
Maintaining a high-end apartment house at the turn of the last century was an expensive proposition. Prominent residents expected a large building staff that included maids, hall boys, doormen, elevator operators, “engineers” (the men who kept the boilers, furnace and other equipment working), and other service personnel. By the time Mrs. Phelps was hosting the Tuesday Evening Skating Club, the Fanwood had seen six owners; and it suffered a $3,437.81 operating deficit in 1902.
Nevertheless, high profile professionals and their families continued to call the Fanwood home. The highly-respected Dr. Lucius C. Adamson and his sister lived here at the time. Now retired, Adamson had been in charge of the insane pavilion of Bellevue Hospital until 1895.
The doctor suffered a highly-visible breakdown on December 7, 1902. The New York Times related “On that day he created a disturbance in the dining room of the Fifth Avenue Hotel by rising from his seat at a table and exhorting the diners.” He was removed from the highly fashionable hotel and taken to the very insane pavilion he had once supervised. After a few days he was sent to the Rivercrest Sanitarium on Long Island.
Around February 1, 1903 Dr. Abramson’s condition seemed to be corrected and he was released. Unfortunately, his stay back home in the Fanwood would last less than two weeks. On Thursday morning, February 12 his sister took him back to Bellevue Hospital and on Saturday he was transferred again to the Rivercrest Sanitarium. The New York Times explained “He is suffering from religious mania.”
Later that year Simon and Fredericka Brentano moved in. The location was quite convenient, since the Brentano Brothers Bookstore, of which Simon was president, was located just a block away on Union Square.
The Fanwood also attracted members of the theatrical profession. Leading actress Grace Elliston was here in 1904 and a year later William Morris and his family were residents. Morris was among the nation’s leading theatrical booking agent. His who’s-who client list included Will Rogers, Al Jolson, Weber & Fields, Charlie Chaplin, James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Burns & Allen, Maurice Chevalier, Anna Held, Sophie Tucker, Rudolph Valentino, and Eddie Cantor.
|Grace Elliston was a leading stage actress during the first decades of the 20th century -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Piano manufacturers Henry Ziegler and his family, and his father-in-law Joseph Kuder lived in separate apartments in the Fanwood. Ziegler was the grandson of Henry E. Steinway and was a director in the Steinway Piano Company. Kuder was both a family member and competitor. He had co-founded the Sohmer & Co. piano company with partner Hugo Sohmer.
On September 24, 1904 the International Record of Medicine and General Practice Clinics reported that Dr. L. W. Bremermann had moved into The Fanwood. A member of the American Urological Association, Louis Bremermann published technical articles on groundbreaking processes, such as “The Technique of Cystoscopy and Ureteral Catheterization” in The American Journal of Urology in 1905.
An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on August 13, 1905 testified to the commodious apartments enjoyed by the residents. “Large, light apartments of eight rooms and bath, elevator.” Tenants could expect to pay between $1,200 and $1,400 per year—or more than $3,000 a month in 2015 dollars.
Just two years, almost to the day, after moving in Dr. Bremermann’s wife, Helen Tope Bremermann, died suddenly on September 13, 1906. Her funeral was held in The Fanwood apartment the following day.
Greeley Stevenson Curtis, Jr. was living in the building at the time. Educated in Electrical Engineering at Cornell and Harvard Universities, he focused on hydraulic engineering for fire fighting. In 1904 he became Fire Department Expert for the National Board of Fire Underwriters, but resigned two years later to work as a private consulting engineer. In 1907 Harvard University’s Secretary’s Report noted his specialty was “of municipal and town fire protection, including fire departments, fire alarm systems, etc.”
Curtis and his wife, Fanny, had an infant son, Greeley, Jr. Despite his remarkable work—he wrote more the 40 papers including those on steam fire engines and fire engine testing—his more colorful invention had nothing to do with fire fighting. The Secretary’s Report noted that he “has perfected and placed on the market a mechanical base-ball game, which was partially developed while he was in college.”
Real estate operator Herman Wronkow purchased The Fanwood in August 1909, and turned it over five months later for $175,000. Reporting on the sale on March 5, 1910, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted “The purchaser of the Fanwood property is a builder, who will erect on the site at the expiration of the present leases, a 12-sty business structure.” The news may have come as a shock to the residents; but they need not have packed their bags too quickly. The ambitious plans of the Acme Building Co. were never realized.
In 1913 Richard B. Lee, Jr. and his wife, Gertrude, were residents. Lee was general manager of the transportation department of the American Sugar Refining Company. Gertrude’s father, retired Army Colonel Phillip F. Harvey, visited the couple for Christmas that year from Washington D. C. The three visited friends on 69th Street on Christmas night.
Around 1:15 in the morning they crossed Broadway at 66th Street, heading for the subway. Col. Harvey was in the lead and entered the kiosk, assuming his daughter and son-in-law were behind him. He boarded the train to his hotel.
In fact, had he turned back he would have witnessed extreme horror. A large maroon limousine was traveling down Broadway in the pouring rain when it swerved suddenly. A taxi driver, Henry de Forrest, was directly behind the limo. He explained the events that followed.
As the big car served, he “saw immediately ahead of him, in the blinding wind and rain, the figure of a man tottering to the street, with an open umbrella still shielding him from the rain, and in the street, even nearer to the taxicab, the form of a woman.”
The big limousine struck both pedestrians. The chauffeur then “put on full speed and disappeared.” De Forrest hit his brake and applied the emergency brake, which stalled the engine; however his taxi skidded on the rain-wet street. He struck Richard Lee, and then his front wheel ran over the head of Gertrude.
Witnesses helped de Forrest carry Richard and Gertrude into a saloon where he called the police. Gertrude died in the ambulance. The following morning Richard’s hope for survival was “precarious.” Colonel Harvey was informed of his daughter’s death at his hotel.
Equally tragic was the death of John Gerrin on July 7, 1919. He had been superintendent of service at the Hotel McAlpin for years; but in 1918 he retired because of ill health. Mrs. Gerrin went on what The Sun referred to as a “shopping expedition” that day and when she returned she found the door locked and the smell of gas seeping from the apartment.
She called The Fanwood’s superintendent, John Prem, who forced the door open. “Gerrin’s body was found in a chair, his head and shoulders resting on the gas range, the jets of which were turned on full force,” reported the newspaper.
Another theatrical personality in The Fanwood at the time was Manuel Klein. He served as musical director of the New York Hippodrome and had written many of the musical scores for that venue. Klein had been working at the Gayety Theatre in London when the war erupted, and was injured when it was bombed by zeppelins.
As the century progressed, one of the more colorful residents of The Fanwood was engineer Henry Torrance. On June 9, 1918 The Sun had reported that Mary H. Fisher, daughter of resident Mrs. Charles Henry Fisher, married him at noon in St. George’s Church on Stuyvesant Square. Following their honeymoon trip in the South, they returned to The Fanwood.
The couple lived together until Mary’s death, after which Henry lived on alone “in a large apartment,” according to The New York Times decades later on March 6, 1960. The newspaper was reporting on Torrance’s 90th birthday.
A devotee of physical culture, Torrance believed “that if you keep exercising you’ll never die.” Two weeks before the party he had injured his elbow while skiing and a year earlier he had canoed the 32-mile length of Lake George alone in 12 hours. At the age of 90 the feisty man still did daily chin-ups and held the post of chairman of the board of the Norwalk Company, manufacturers of heavy duty compressors.
Henry Torrance was little moved by the birthday fete which included the recitation of poetry. “If anyone says anything important make a note of it,” he said loudly to a friend.
Seven years later, the same year that 41-year old artist and resident Marvin Cherney died, the amazing Henry Torrance passed away as well. His obituary recalled that in 1933 his athletic prowess had attracted the attention of The New Yorker. When, 23 years later, the magazine called to follow-up, he had showed up at their offices.
He carried a heavy suitcase and, after removing his cap and jacket, stretched out on the office floor. “After wiggling his legs in a bicycling motion for a while, he said, ‘I still exercise an hour and a quarter every morning. This sort of thing, up-and-down jumps, and a workout on my rowing machine.” He then “executed a jig” and opened his suitcase to display his many rowing, canoeing and tennis trophies and framed certificates.
Rather surprisingly, there are still just 13 apartments in The Fanwood. The unsightly fire escape that obscures Pelham’ handsome façade resulted in sections of the stone balcony railings above the porch to be lost. The bracketed cornice, a 1898 upgrade, compliments the building that once attracted successful businessmen and their families to abandon their private homes for apartment living in the late 19th century.
photographs by the author