Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Hubert & Pirsson's Nos. 60 to 64 West 70th Street

Involved in the aggressive and sometimes ruthless real estate development business in 19th century New York were, somewhat surprisingly, a few women.  Among them was Sarah J. Doying.  She had been wheeling and dealing for several years, sometimes reducing her costs by acting as her own contractor.

In May 1886 Sarah embarked on one of her most ambitious projects.  She commissioned the architectural firm of Hubert & Pirsson to simultaneously design six five-story brick “tenement buildings” on Ninth Avenue (later renamed Columbus Ave this far north), three houses around the corner on West 69th Street, and three more houses directly behind those, on West 70th.

The West 70th Street residences, Nos. 60 through 64, were completed in 1887 at a cost of $10,000 each (nearly $260,000 in 2016).   The high-end four story Queen Anne houses were the latest in architectural style.   The basement and parlor levels were faced in brownstone, while the middle floors were clad in red brick.  Steep fish-scale shingled mansards with full-floor cast metal dormers capped the structures.

As many of the architects working on the Upper West Side at the time were doing, Hubert & Pirsson designed the homes to be architecturally individual; yet to work together as a whole.  Nos. 60 and 64 balanced one another with matching second floor bays; while the projecting bay of No. 62 was a floor above.  It morphed into a handsome balcony for the attic story.  The architects playfully turned the chimneys of the end homes sideways, using their wide sides as architectural bookends.

 Like Sarah Doying, Josephine Peyton was a force in the real estate business.  While she owned and operated much Manhattan property (in 1886 she advertised for lease No. 303 Fifth Avenue, “One of the handsomest stores on the avenue…having three magnificent show rooms.”) she amassed vast real estate in the Bronx.

Josephine was the daughter of John B. Walton, who started his business career as the owner of a crockery shop, but made a fortune in real estate speculation.  When she was 21 years old, in 1861, she married real estate investor George W. Sherman.  They had one child, Mabel.  Through her exposure to her father’s and husband’s businesses, Josephine learned the real estate business.

When John Walton died in 1875, Josephine inherited $500,000.  That enormous amount was increased when she inherited “a good deal of money” from her mother, who died in 1881.  And when George Sherman died, her fortune grew to about $2 million.

By the time Josephine purchased No. 60 West 70th Street in 1892, she had remarried.  William K. Peyton had originally operated a dry goods story; but he too turned to real estate, which is how he and Josephine met.  Now Peyton focused on managing Josephine’s lower Manhattan interests, including the Jackson Flats on 13th Street and Greenwich Avenue, and a block of houses on Bleecker Street.

Despite her enormous wealth and her “fine house in Seventieth Street,” as described by The New York Times; Josephine Peyton lived relatively simply.  She owned one horse and one carriage, and preferred to use the street cars to get around town.  The Times described her saying “She dressed very plainly, and was shrinking in her manner.  She had black hair, and her figure was slim.  She was brisk in her movements.”

Her pastor, the Rev. Alfred W. Hodder of the 16th Street Baptist Church called her “a very able business woman of great prudence, foresight, and executive ability.  She was as extensively traveled as any woman I know.  There is hardly a foot of the United States that she and her accomplished daughter did not explore.  She was very fond of traveling.  She was a woman of exalted character.”

She was also, as was later discovered, a woman not to cross.   On September 19, 1894 she sat down with her lawyer and revised her will.   Less than two months later, on November 7, she died.

When Josephine’s will was probated a week later, jaws dropped throughout Manhattan and, in fact, the entire nation.  A headline in the Los Angeles Herald on November 16 read “An Undeserving Husband,” and a corresponding headline in The Times was “Naught for Her Husband.”

The New York Times article began “Of the estate of $3,000,000 left by Mrs. Josephine L. Peyton, not one penny goes to her husband, William K. Peyton.”   Josephine had quietly disinherited her apparently adulterous husband; explaining in her will “Inasmuch as my husband, William K. Peyton, has not acted in a manner befitting a husband.”  No one, it seemed, was more surprised and shocked than Peyton.

Josephine also managed to evict Peyton from the 70th Street house.  The executors’ sale auction on Wednesday, February 20, 1895 not only included the residence; but the furnishings.  The auction advertisement offered “The elegant four-story high-stoop brownstone private resident, with three-story extension; exquisitely decorationed; gas fixtures, gas-logs, and in perfect order.”

In the meantime, Peyton wasted no time in protesting the will.  On November 26, 1894, ten days after it was probated, he filed “formal objections to the probate of the will and notice of contest.”  He insisted that the codicils were not part of Josephine’s will, and “that if she executed them she did so under undue influence, and that her signature was procured by fraud.”

The case dragged on until January 1899.  A settlement was reached whereby $10,000 of Josephine’s fortune was invested by trustees and William Peyton received the income for five years “or until his earlier death.”

In the meantime, with startling coincidence, Nos. 62 and 64 were owned by real estate operator Ella Webster.   A widow, Ella moved into No. 64 and leased the adjoining house.  For several years in the early 1890s the upscale residents of the block were plagued by mischievous teens who made coming and going from their homes a challenge.  And their favorite target was Ella Webster,

The New York Times told its readers about of them, 14-year old Phineass Fairman, saying he “has, according to the stories of the neighbors, devoted his best time and talents to making things lively for them.  In this he was aided and abetted by a number of other youths, and that they succeeded admirably in keeping things moving along the upper west side.”

The Times said “among the people with whom Master Fairman devoted himself with special care was Mrs. Ella Webster, a wealthy widow of 64 West Seventieth Street…Whether it was that the opulence of Mrs. Webster, who owned almost the entire block of houses from Sixty-ninth to Seventieth Street in Columbus Avenue, specially roused the young gentleman’s resentment, or that he was opposed to her from cardinal principles because her deceased husband had made his money as a slaughterer of hogs, does not appear.”

Whatever the reason, the boys “pursued her with the most persevering industry.”  They would wait for callers to visit Ella, and then “bombard her and her callers with various forms of the lower order of animal life.  Lobsters at a particularly ripe and gamy stage, rats, similarly conditioned, &c., were hurled at her front door until her friends were almost afraid to visit her.”

Finally, on July 13, 1891 Ella had enough.  Her sister called on her that day and she was pelted with a rotten lobster.  When it smashed on her dress, the odor of the decaying corpse and the stain were irreparable.  Ella stormed off to the police court to have Phineass Fairman arrested.

The following day the teen promised to reveal the name of the ringleader of his gang, and was released.  Quite surprisingly, nearly two years later Phineass and Ella were back in court.  The boy’s father, Gibson W. Fairman, had filed a $3,000 suit against her for “false imprisonment and malicious arrest” of his son.

The Times informed its readers that it was Phineass who, with his gang, had repeatedly soiled the garments of Ella Webster’s visitors.  When her maid would clean the items and hang them out to air in the yard, “Phineass and his friends would get on the fence and almost drive the maid off with language and actions that the witness could hardly hint at.”

Justice came swiftly.  “On the testimony the jury found for the defendant within two minutes after they left their seats.”

By the time of the trial, Ella had recently remarried.  Her new husband, Theodore Conkling, was a woolens manufacturer on West 23rd Street.   She left West 70th Street; but would be back before many years.   Ella left Theodore because of “her husband’s alleged intemperance” and in November 1899 they were divorced.

When Ella moved out of No. 64 it became home to Lavinia H. Dempsey.  The unmarried woman was a member of Holland Dames and in January 1898 she was scheduled to become Queen of the New York chapter at a ball.  But dissension over the function prompted The United States Army and Navy Journal to write, on October 2, 1897, “The tendency to division among societies representing historic ancestry is something lamentable.”

The comment was in response to a notice from Carrie H. Lupton, Queen of the Connecticut Holland Dames, who said they “are not in sympathy with the New York society” and “will never recognize any of their social functions.” The Connecticut branch refused to participate in Lavinia’s coronation.  The Journal remarked “This is very sad.”

Following Ella Conkling’s divorce, she moved into No. 62, next door to her former home.  She was expecting friends on the night of March 14, 1901, so when the doorbell rang she answered it personally.  Instead of her expected guests, it was Theodore Conkling and he was drunk.  She tried to slam the door on him, but he was too quick and entered the foyer. 

Conkling grabbed his former wife by the throat and a struggle ensued.  Luckily for Ella, just as Conkling drew his revolver, her attorney, Mark M. Schlessinger, and his brother, Edward, came through the open door.

The lawyer joined in the fray while his brother ran for help.  He found Policeman Owen McKenna at the corner of Columbus Avenue.  “There’s a man in here with a gun, and he’s liable to shoot it,” he shouted.

The policeman rushed into the house to find Schlessinger holding Conkling down.  Schlessinger told him that Conkling had threatened to “annihilate” everyone in the house.  The Times reported “At this point Mrs. Conkling appeared.  She corroborated this allegation.  Her clothing was torn and several bruises on her neck were visible.”

Everyone was taken to the West 86th Street police station.  Theodore Conkling explained to the police that “his call on his ex-wife had been purely social, and that she had knocked him down and assaulted him.”  He added that “he had not threatened her.”

By the end of World War I all three houses were being operated as boarding houses or as furnished rooms.  On February 10, 1920 an advertisement in the New-York Tribune offered “neat, comfortable room, suitable for two, $9 weekly” in No. 60.

Residents of furnished rooms were not always respectable.  In 1934 two 19-year old girls roomed in No. 60.  Grace Perry and Bobby Essex worked as “taxi dancers” at the Gem Dance Hall at No. 88 Columbus Avenue, near 64th Street.  Taxi dancers were hired to dance with customers on a dance-by-dance basis.  Upon entering the clubs, male patrons would buy dance tickets, usually for ten cents each (memorialized in the popular 1931 song “Ten Cents a Dance”).

On Friday evening, March 11 that year 28-year old Armedo P. Lopez entered the club.  Lopez was a chauffeur and throughout the night he danced with both girls.  The following morning his body was found in the hallway of No. 60 West 70th Street.  He had been fatally shot.

The girls admitted they had danced with the victim the night before, but said they knew nothing about how his body came to be in the hallway where they lived.  In requesting $1,500 bail for each, Assistant District Attorney Saul Price told Judge Freschi “he did not believe the women were telling all they knew about Lopez’s death.”  The judge thought that was a reasonable assumption.

Nos. 62 and 64 were suffering neglect around this time.  Around 1937 they were boarded up and remained vacant for three years.  Then in 1940 a $35,000 remodeling by architect Samuel Hertz was completed that resulted in 36 one-room “suites.”  As was common at the time, the stoops were removed and the entrances moved to below street level in the former basements.  That same year No. 60 was renovated to furnished rooms and its stoop removed as well.

The start contrast between the early days of the row, when millionaire businesswomen lived in the homes, and the 1940s when single rooms were rented on a weekly or daily basis, was exemplified on February 24, 1943.  Philip Stein, 34 years old, lived in No. 64 with his “common-law wife,” 23-year old dancer Sandra Stein.

Stein was a drug dealer known on the street as “Flip.”  He and Sandra were spotted in Midtown by detectives that night after a tip reported that he had been “peddling narcotics.”  They followed the couple to a Broadway theater and detained them, accusing Stein of using a counterfeit bill to buy the tickets.  It was a clever ploy to get inside their 70th Street room.

Philip Stein pulled $275 in cash from his pocket to prove his money was genuine.  The detectives then “dared him to leave them to his apartment to convince them he had no counterfeit money there,” said The New York Times the following day.  Apparently not the brightest drug dealer in town, Stein fell for the trick.  Both he and Sandra were arrested when a large quantity of narcotics was found in their room.

Another tenant brought publicity to No. 64 in 1961 after Paige Mallory gave her 35-pound pet monkey, Barney, a bath on July 8.   As the woman dried him off, he escaped from his collar and fled out the window.  Police were called, but despite all efforts the beast escaped over the fence.

Down the block, at No. 50 West 70th Street, Mrs. Sadie Cohn and her five-year old son, Joel, were in the backyard when Barney showed up.  Finding the monkey’s antics amusing, Mrs. Cohn brought him a banana.  After he ate it, he jumped onto the boy, scratching him in the arms and shoulders.

Surprising to readers more than half a century later, The Times reported “A patrolman helped subdue the animal and returned it to Miss Mallory.”

All three of the houses of the Queen Anne row were renovated to apartments in 1993.  The architect for No. 60, Kenneth Halpern, recreated the missing stoop, using Hubert & Pirsson’s surviving houses on 69th Street as models.  Despite the still-missing stoops and grossly out-of-period entrances on the other homes, the group retains its charm.  And the histories of the three houses are inextricably bound to three extraordinary pioneering businesswomen.

photographs by the author

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