Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The 1891 Washington View Flats -- No. 39-1/2 Washington Square

In 1889 Harriet Chambers and Sarah Salmon had been in business at No. 141 MacDougal Street, on the southwest corner of West 4th Street, for several years.  Their shop, H. Chambers & Co., was located in the street level of the 34-foot wide brick building.  Above were three floors of dwelling space.

But when the building was sold on May 2 that year, the women would soon have to relocate their business which was possibly a millinery or dressmaking shop.  Max Danziger had purchased from Samuel C. Welsh not only that building, but the two abutting structures at Nos. 128 and 130 West 4th Street.  He paid $33,000 for the package.

The three properties were ripe for improvement.  A year earlier The Sun had noted that the store in No. 128 had closed up, describing “the whitewashed window of the dingy shop.”   Two weeks after he purchased the group, Danziger sold them to developer Martin Disken for $35,500, making a quick and tidy profit.

Disken was well-known in real estate circles.  He quickly commissioned the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson to design a five-story flat building to replace the vintage structures.  Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson had produced a number of apartment buildings and rowhouses; but their best known works would come within just a year or two—among them the hulking Harlem Courthouse in 1891 and the New Criminal Courts Building of 1894.

The architects melded neo-Grec, Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne style elements in their up-to-date brick, stone and terra cotta structure.  Visual interest depended as much on the contrasting colors as on the decoration—including foliate bandcourses, fluted columns that upheld nothing on the balcony above the entrance, and honey-comb brickwork beneath the bracketed cornice.  Two parapets, one above the entrance and another at the corner, announced the building’s name: Washington View.

A brownstone, doglegged stoop let to the entrance, which was purely Romanesque Revival in style.  Here a heavily-carved gaping arch embraced the double entrance doors.

Door panels took the form of Japanese fans, a popular Aesthetic Movement motif.

In marketing the spacious apartments to financially comfortable residents, Martin Disken had to deal with the address.   Neither MacDougal Street nor West Fourth enjoyed the upscale reputation of venerable Washington Square.  So he made up his own address:  39-1/2 Washington Square.

The ploy apparently worked and well-to-do families moved in.  But that was not enough for Disken to save his new building.  He lost it in foreclosure on March 29, 1892.  William McElroy purchased it at auction for $64,500—about $1.75 million in 2015 dollars.

Among the first residents was Dr. W. E. Forest.  Around midnight on Saturday, February 7, 1891, he was summoned to the Metropolitan Hotel “to attend Mme. Augusta Berg, a Swede, who occupied Room 445 on the fourth floor,” according to The New York Times a few days later.

The newspaper said “He found her to be a stout, handsome brunette with whom time had dealt leniently.”  He also discovered she was a morphine addict.

Madame Berg was well educated (she spoke English, French and Italian fluently) and came from a family of “repute and fortune.”  Educated as a portrait painter in Florence, she had been encouraged to come to America to further her artistic profession.  She had been in New York for about nine months and her rooms at the Metropolitan Hotel were decorated with “many art objects and books.”

Among her frequent visitors were the Swedish Consul, Christopher Ravn; and Lieutenant W. T. Sears of the cruiser Vesuvius, whom she originally met in Florence.  When Sears had visited that Saturday morning, he found her sick in bed “and very hoarse.”

Dr. Forest noticed a bottle of morphine in the room.  The woman had told Sears she used it only when she had insomnia.  But The Times reported “On talking with her [Dr. Forest] decided that she was addicted to the morphine habit, but that she was not then in a condition to require special or heroic treatment.  He advised her to be quiet and to abstain from the drug.”

Apparently “heroic treatment” was indeed necessary.  Dr. Forest was called back at 10:00 the following morning.  Madame Berg was unconscious.  While he attempted all the remedies available, he put bell boys at work in relays to keep up artificial respiration for 15 hours.  Finally, at 11:00 on Monday night she was dead.

Dr. Forest was back at the Metropolitan Hotel in March 1894.  Famous lawyer John Graham was unable to get out of his bed due to a severe case of rheumatic gout.  Forest attended his patient, but 10 days later noticed what appeared to be gangrene on his foot.  He consulted with Dr. William T. Bull who declared the case “hopeless.”  They prepared to remove the foot.

With the lawyer anesthetized but fully conscious they began.  Graham looked at the group assembled around his bed, including his private secretary, two nephews, and business associates, and said “Gentlemen, are we about to hold a political convention?”  They were the last words he would utter.  Graham died in his bed at 4 a.m. on April 9.

Despite a few lost patients, Dr. W. E. Forest retained his good standing and reputation.  He became the house physician for the Wetmore Home for Fallen and Friendless Women, nearby at No. 50 Washington Square South; and in 1898  wrote Massotherapy, a book which touted “the use of massage rollers in indigestion, constipation, liver trouble, paralysis, neuralgia and other functional disorders” rather than drugs or medicine.

Denis Arnould, head of the candy-manufacturing firm D. Arnould & Co., lived in the Washington View with his 19-year old daughter, Emily, in what The New York Times deemed “handsome apartments.”  Arnould’s professional success was in stark contrast to his private life.

He and his wife had two daughters.  Around 15 years after they married, Mrs. Arnould became insane.  “His wife’s affliction had come upon him like a thunderclap,” said The Times.  She was institutionalized and died in the asylum in 1890.   A few months later, Emily’s older sister also went mad.  The Times said “the shock of the mother’s death disclosed the fact that the eldest daughter had inherited a weak brain.”  She was taken to St. Vincent’s Retreat at Harrison, New Jersey.

Now Arnould was terrified that Emily, too, would become unstable.  “He surrounded her with every comfort and luxury,” said The Times.  She went to school only when she felt like it, and he worked half days so he could lavish attention on her.  “No one was ever allowed to cross her wishes, and the father was watchful constantly to see that her desires were granted almost before they were expressed.”

Emily seemed to thrive and when the spoiled girl showed any signs of unhappiness or moodiness, her father “redoubled his efforts to make her life bright.”

When Arnould left the Washington View for his office on September 11, 1893, Emily was in good spirits.  But 10 minutes before he returned home at 1:00, Mary called to the cook who was in the kitchen preparing lunch.

“I am dying, Mary.  I have taken poison.”

Mary dropped her utensils with a shriek and ran to Emily’s bedroom.  The girl was fully dressed, lying on the bed, and the room was filled with the odor of carbolic acid—a popular means of suicide in the 1890s.  Mary’s sympathies were directed less on the self-centered girl than on Denis Arnould.

“Oh, your poor father!  What will he say?”

Emily quietly replied, “I am sorry for him, but I couldn’t help it.  I am not happy.”

Mary rushed out of the apartment to the unnamed “nearest doctor,” which may have been W. E. Forest.  He returned with the cook, armed with a stomach pump.  By the time Arnould entered, the doctor was able to assume him, “She is all right now.”

Emily recovered and her father was at a loss to why his daughter would attempt suicide.  It certainly wasn’t a broken romance, he told reporters.  “I am sure that there was no man in the case.  I know that she had no attachments of any kind outside of her home.”  And he was quick to dismiss insanity.  “I cannot believe that she is insane.  She has always been as bright as could be, and, though I have carefully watched her, I have never been able to detect the slightest symptom to indicate that she would follow in the footsteps of her poor mother and sister.”

Max Eastman was an avid baseball fan; enough to spend $12 (equal to about $310 in 2015) on two tickets for the first and third games of the New York Baseball Club’s championship series in 1911.  When he had not received his tickets within a week, he sent a note by messenger on October 14 saying “Kindly let me know by return messenger what is the matter.”

The messenger boy returned later with Eastman’s opened envelope.  There was no written message, but the verbal reply that there was “no answer.”

Max Eastman fired off a letter to the editor of The New York Times complaining of the scam.  He closed by saying “I’m not at the ball game this afternoon.  And I’m not anywhere else that I’d like to be because they’ve got my extra money.”

The building's name is announce in the two parapets.

Two residents in the building at the same time were concerned with more far-reaching issues than baseball tickets.  Robert W. Bruere and his wife, Martha, were well-known Socialist leaders and writers.  Bruere gave up his post as head of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor in 1911 to do more writing.  In 1912 The Times described him saying “He is widely known as a sociological writer, and has been a member of the Socialist Party for many years…His wife is also known as a magazine writer.”

On August 7, 1912 Theodore Roosevelt spoke in Chicago.  His speech, the “Declaration of Principles of the Progressive Party,” laid out the Bull Moose platform.   Some voters were shocked when it was discovered that the speech was edited and entire portions written by Robert W. Bruere.

The Times reported on September 5 that the Socialist had been invited to Roosevelt’s Oyster Bay, Long Island home, Sagamore Hill.  There, it said, “in the course of a long interview [he] revised and edited Mr. Roosevelt’s speech and wrote a number of paragraphs for insertion in the document.”

When a reporter called at the Bruere’s Washington View apartment for comment, he discovered the couple was in Wyoming on vacation.  Bruere’s secretary was there, however, and was happy to give her opinion.

“Whatever Mr. Bruere inserted in Col. Roosevelt’s speech or in the platform of the Progressive Party were good Socialist doctrines, I’m sure.  I don’t see why the Executive Committee should make any rumpus.  They ought to be glad to have any Socialist doctrines espoused by other political parties.”

Bruere would go on to become the Evening Post’s “investigator of labor conditions in the West” and he and Martha continued to write books, such as their 1913 Increasing Home Efficiency.

The building, photographed on May 24, 1933, looks little different than today.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
A less controversial author, F. Lawrence Babcock, and his wife, Nita, lived in the Washington View at mid century.  He was also an associate of Fortune magazine.   A writer of industrial biographies, his best known work, Spanning the Atlantic—the History of the Cunard Line, was published in 1931.  During World War II he was a war correspondent for Time magazine.  Babcock was still living here when he died at the age of 54 in 1960.

The 1960s were considered by the New Age movement to be the beginning of the Age of Aquarius.  The coffee shops and tearooms of Greenwich Village became the centers of hippie culture with poetry readings, bongo drums and jazz.  It was a situation that did not sit well with Washington View resident Mrs. George Voskovec, or her neighbor, Councilman and future Mayor, Edward I. Koch, who lived at No. 14 Washington Place.

Other residents had complained that the MacDougal Street coffeehouses “were noisy and attracted merrymakers and disorderly persons from all over the area, creating ‘offensive’ conditions.'”  They petitioned city officials to enforce laws requiring “orderly conduct by their patrons.”

The Times reported “The coffeehouses are accused of operating without licenses and creating noisy, offensive conditions by bringing a carnival atmosphere to the section.  The coffeehouses are also accused of having readings, recitals and other forms of entertainment that require cabaret licenses.”

But the newspaper said that “while the Macdougal Street neighbors were winning a skirmish at one end of the street one neighbor was losing a battle at the other end—the southwest corner of Washington Square Park.”

In response, Mrs. Voskvec and Ed Koch attacked.  They charged “that, in violation of the midnight curfew, derelicts and ‘jerky kids’ were singing, screaming, setting off firecrackers and drinking alcoholic beverages.”  One may assume that the “jerky kids” comment came from Mr. Koch.

Before the 20th century became the 21st, the Washington View was converted to co-ops.  The conversion did not change many of the amenities enjoyed by Dr. Forest or Denis Arnould.  A real estate listing for a two-bedroom apartment in 1999 included “eat-in kitchen, maid’s room, two fireplaces.”

Although the Washington View has lost its historic ironwork on the 4th Street side balconette and second floor balcony, and was given a mid-century fire escape and modern replacement windows; little else has changed to its rather charming late Victorian exterior.

photographs by the author

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