Thursday, December 24, 2015

The 1902 Coronet Apts -- No. 57 West 58th Street

On February 18, 1901 John W. Condit and his wife, Caroline, sold the 100-foot square property at the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 58th Street to the Mela Realty Company.  It sat directly behind the hulking New York Athletic Club on 59th Street (on the stretch later known as Central Park West) and a block west of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s massive chateau on Fifth Avenue.

Mela Realty purchased the corner with the intention of erecting a high-class, modern apartment building.  To back the aggressive project, it took a $300,000 from William H. Burgess on the same day the title was transferred.

Architect Harry S. Clawson received the commission to design what would be called The Coronet at No. 57 West 58th Street.  The Beaux-Arts style structure was completed in 1902, a 10-story brick and stone confection gushing with lacy balconies, carved lions’ heads and heavy scrolled brackets.   Residents entered through a large two-story arched opening with free-standing columns and a cartouche with a carved coronet.  A stone parapet crowned the roofline.

A carved cartouche surrounded by wheat contains a coronet.  The balcony directly above once held an ornate iron railing.
Modern conveniences included five hydraulic elevators.  Extra income came from upscale shops along the sidewalk, and the New York Athletic Club which took two full floors as additional sleeping rooms for its members in October 1902.  The Club spent a staggering $10,012 to furnish and decorate the apartments—around $285,000 in 2015.  Five months earlier the Mela Realty Company announced that its offices would be moved into the new building.

Lace-like ironwork and robust pediments adorned the facade.

The Coronet filled with well-to-do residents, including several from the medical profession.  Nonetheless, the Mela Realty Company was unable to meet its mortgage payment.  On April 2, 1903, less than a year after the doors opened, William Burgess and his wife, Cora, sued and won the building in foreclosure.

Irving Underhill photographed the building in 1912.  From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1905 two of the street level shops on the 58th Street side were Thomas Young’s floral shop and Albert Papa’s fruit store.  Although the Coronet had its own “private electric plant" below ground, it also depended on gas for lighting when the electricity failed.  In the basement the gas lines traveled through two meters, just under the entrance stairs.  On October 13 something went terribly wrong.

That afternoon a tremendous explosion blew away the stone steps.  The force of the blast knocked Henry J. Morton, a private detective walking by, off his feet.  He jumped to his feet and ran to send in a fire alarm.

Tenants in the apartments above opened their windows and peered down to see what had happened.  At that point a second explosion occurred.  The New York Times reported they “were showered with fragments of fruit from Papa’s store and rose leaves from the florist’s.”

Rumors that the Coronet had been dynamited circulated through the streets.  When the fire engines arrived the crowd around the building was so great that police reserves were called into disperse it.  The Times said the two stores were “wrecked.”

Police discovered that the two gas meters under the stairway had exploded.  “Just why was not learned.”

While some apartments had up to 8 rooms, the floorplan of this level had much smaller apartments, including #4-F which would be termed a "studio apartment" today.  from the collection of Columbia University Libraries

A few months later dentist Morris I. Schamberg moved into the building from Philadelphia.  He specialized in “oral surgery, including X-ray work and extraction under anesthetics.”  Among other residents in the medical profession here were renowned surgeon Walter Arthur Bastedo, Dr. Frank C. Lewis (who was also managing editor of the International Journal of Surgery), and dentist Stephen O. Storck.

Beginning in 1906 the New York Athletic Club considered buying the Coronet as an annex to its Central Park South clubhouse.  On May 10 that year The Evening World reported that the club “now the largest of the kind in the world,” needed additional space and was eyeing the Coronet.  The building was valued at $1 million at the time.  The debate among members and even negotiations with William Burgess would go on for years.

Investigators were faced with a most puzzling mystery that began on April 12, 1909 when a 44-year old resident threw herself from her ninth floor apartment.  An original resident of the Coronet, the women’s wealth was reflected in her rent alone--$3,000 a year; or about $6,700 a month today.  The Times note that the apartment was “elaborately furnished, and that many of the articles of furniture had the monogram ‘H’ on them.”

Hearing the body fall to the pavement, the Coronet’s engineer, Charles Halloweg, and his assistant, George Walsh, rush to the scene; quickly joined by superintendent Julian J. Pettigrew.  A few seconds later, the dead woman’s nurse, Ann Driscol, arrived and identified her as Mrs. William H. Hamilton.

Things turned murky, however, when Coroner Harburger arrived at the apartment.  There he found Ann Driscol and Mrs. Ellen M. Von Gerichten, who identified herself as Anita Hamilton’s sister.  “The nurse told the Coroner that Mrs. Hamilton had had melancholia and had suffered from delusions,” reported The New York Times the following day.  “She said that she had constantly talked of the fate of a man who leaped, she thought, from the window of the adjoining New York Athletic Club some months ago.  This had preyed upon her mind, the nurse thought.”

The women said that they had suggested to Mrs. Hamilton, around 2:35, that they take a walk in Central Park.  She reportedly replied “All right, I’ll be glad to go for a walk.  I’ll go and put on my hat and gloves.”

When she did not return, and did not answer their calls, the women went into the little room  off the library that she had entered.  They looked out the open window to see her body laying in the court “used as an entrance by the trades-people.”

But when the Coroner asked about the husband, he became suspicious when neither could give him any information.  He went to the building superintendent who said “he did not know the initials of the husband.  He was out of town.”

Coroner Harburger left the two women, telling them he would get the information on the husband if he had to subpoena everyone involved.  A reporter from The Times who arrived later asked Pettigrew about Mr. Hamilton and he, too, got vague answers.

The superintendent said he “is either a banker or a broker, or, rather he was, for he has been retired for a good many years.  He was an elderly man.  After his wife went away for her health he was ill and went away, too.  I do not know where.”

The New-York Tribune’s reporter was no more successful.  “The nurse and Mrs. Von Gerichten said they knew Mr. Hamilton was a banker, but did not know his place of business or his first name.  They said Mr. Hamilton had suffered a nervous breakdown from watching his wife and caring for her and that he had left the city two days ago for a rest, but they didn’t know where he had gone.”

Convinced that information was being withheld, Coroner Harburger refused to issue a permit for the burial of the body until all the facts were revealed.  It wasn’t long before Maurice Eller arrived at the undertaker’s establishment and identified his wife’s sister, Annette de la Barre.

The daughter of Joseph and Christine de la Barre, she “had money of her own,” according to Eller.  The Sun reported on April 14 “He said she had had delusions due to a nervous trouble and was unquestionably out of her mind when she took her life.”

Annette’s depression was apparently caused by a broken heart.  The coroner asked Eller about the photograph of a man on her dresser.  Harburger told reporters “Eller told me that he was John Bowers Lee, senior member of the banking firm of Lee, Kretchmar & Co…He said that Mr. Lee had charge of all his sister-in-law’s financial affairs and was an old friend.  Mr. Lee, he told me, was in Europe, having sailed several weeks ago.”  The coroner added that following Lee’s departure, “the woman had become despondent.”

The mystery surrounding Annette de la Barre deepened when Eller said he wished to avoid any publicity and “it was his desire to have Miss de la Barre buried under the name of Mrs. Hamilton.”  The Sun said “Beyond saying that Miss de la Barre had several brothers and sisters in this city, he declined to tell anything more about her.”

When millionaire John Philbrick Laflin died on February 24, 1903, his widow and daughter, both named Ellen, were staying at the Hotel Savoy.  The family’s summer estate “Bell Haven” was in Greenwich, Connecticut.  By the time of the younger Ellen’s introduction to society, they had moved into the Coronet.

On December 29, 1911 The New York Times reported on the dance Ellen Laflin gave at the St. Regis Hotel for her debutante daughter.  She was no doubt elated when her entertainment got first billing in the newspaper’s society headlines that morning.

Dr. Stephen Storck and his family were still in their eighth floor apartment in 1913.  At only 35 years old, Storck was highly successful.  He and his wife had two young sons.

Tragedy befell the couple in the early hours of June 5 that year.  The evening before they had entertained a married couple and the four played bridge until about midnight.  An hour and a half after their guests left, Mrs. Storck assumed her husband was asleep when she heard a terrifying shriek.

The Sun reported “His wife heard him scream as he went down, and looking out, saw his body on the pavement below.”  The dentist was instantly killed and his death could not be determined as to whether it was accidental or suicide.

Dr. Walter A. Bastedo was living here at the time.  A specialist in abdominal diseases, he was associated with St. Luke’s Hospital and taught pharmacology at Columbia Medical School.  When Booker T. Washington became seriously ill in 1915, Bastedo was consulted.   He diagnosed the educator with serious kidney trouble and blood pressure of 215.  On November 4, 1915 Dr. Bastedo personally brought Dr. Washington to St. Luke’s Hospital for treatment.  Unfortunately, it was too late.  Booker T. Washington died 10 days later.

Upscale tenants like Margaret Auchmuty Mackay and Annie Emily Claiborne Pell were in the Coronet at the time.  Annie was the widow of the wealthy Clarence Pell and her cottage on Rhode Island Avenue was well known among the fashionable Newport set.  Her father, Colonel Claiborne, was a member of Congress and she was descended from William G. C. Claiborne, the first Secretary of the State of Virginia.

And the building continued to house an inordinate number of physicians.  In 1919 Dr. Edward Bronson Finch, Dr. James Herbert Lawson and Dr. Frank Waldo Hempstone all listed their addresses here.  Already in the building were Dr. James H. Kenyon, Dr. Herbert L. Wheeler and his Yale-educated son Dr. Clifford S. Wheeler.

During World War I the tailor in the building turned its focus to custom-fitting uniforms.  The Seventh Regiment Gazette, October 1918 (copyright expired)

On October 30, 1918 some New Yorkers may have been shocked when the New-York Tribune reported that the young Dr. Wheeler had left “for Vladivostok to join the Czecho-Slavak army.”  Wheeler had recently been inducted into the U.S. Army as a lieutenant, but was granted a furlough so he could “join the Czecho-Slovak forces operating in Siberia.”

Following the Armistice, now-Captain Wheeler testified to the peace conference in Paris as to conditions in Siberia.  He was home in time for the December 1, 1919 announcement of his engagement to Dorothy Jeannette Lewis at a dinner dance in her parents’ Springfield, Massachusetts home.

The Coronet had an artistic group of residents as well, including painter Charles Ebert, American impressionist Hassam Childe, and voice coach Mrs. Henry Smock Boice.  Mrs. Boice regularly gave musicales and recitals in what The Music Magazine described on February 17, 1916 as “her handsome studio.”

Fuzzy photographs captured the studio of Mrs. Henry Smock Boice in 1916 The Music Magazine, February 11, 1916 (copyright expired)

William Burgess sold the Coronet in November 1919 after still-ongoing negotiations with the New York Athletic Club broke down.  The new owners, brothers Everett and I. Randolph Jacobs, quickly resold the building a month later to a syndicate which announced that “the building will be altered into apartments of from two to five rooms.”

Alterations would have to wait until leases expired and in 1920 residents were still advertising to sublet their apartments as they left for Europe or summer resorts.  On April 25, 1920 an advertisement in the New-York Tribune offered “Seven rooms, 3 baths; beautifully furnished.”  And later that year an ad appeared for a “comfortably furnished housekeeping apartment” of “8 rooms, 3 baths, $600 monthly” for eight months.

The Coronet continued to house well-to-do and celebrated residents throughout the first half of the century.  In the fall of 1925 internationally-renowned flutist George Barrere moved in, possibly because of proximity to Carnegie Hall.

But the second half of the century was not so kind.  Modern apartment buildings lured affluent renters, and reduced income contributed to the building’s decline.  At some point the three upper cornices were sheared off, the parapet removed, and the balconies below the two-story engaged columns on both sides were lost.

Long, blank scars and ornate brackets with nothing to support testify to the missing balconies and cornices.

In 1976 the building was converted to an 85-apartment condominium.  The renovation included a distracting upper floor with a slanted skylight visible from the street.  Despite changes inside, the building retained its name, The Coronet.

In 1985 The Manhattan Ocean Club opened in the building, a result of the rebirth of the area now filling with trendy and upscale eateries.  The restaurant hired chef Steve Mellina, who studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris.  Considered one of the best fish restaurants in Manhattan, patrons were prepared to spend a minimum of $125 in the room lined with Picasso reproductions.  The Manhattan Ocean Club was in the Coronet for two decades, closing in 2006.  It was replaced by Quality Meats Restaurant.

A mishmash of garish commercial awnings and an unsightly fire escape detract from what remains of the 1901 design.

Today the somewhat careworn Coronet apartment building is little noticed by passersby.  But a pause to look up reveals the remnants of Harry Clawson’s 1901 beauty.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunate architectural barbarism. It would not take much to restore this beauty to its former glory but the owners obviously dont care.