Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Rhine and The Kaiser -- Nos. 1716-1722 2nd Avenue

In 1876 Gertrude Rhinelander married stockbroker Francis Waldo.  It was apparently a marriage sparked by love.  The new husband of the 39-year old heiress had lost everything in the Financial Panic of 1873.  Tragically, Francis died just two years after the wedding.

Gertrude is best remembered for the massive mansion she erected at the southeast corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue (in which she never lived; but left empty to be repeatedly ransacked until her death in 1914).  The young widow thrust herself into real estate development, a tradition among the Rhinelander family, and on July 31, 1886 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on her plans for a five-story “brick flat with stores” at the northeast corner of Second Avenue and 89th Street.

The project for Nos. 1716-1718 Second Avenue would quickly expand when Gertrude acquired the two abutting 25-foot plots at Nos. 1720-1722.  Architects Lamb & Rich were given the commission to design two matching apartment buildings.  Each was projected to cost $70,000; in the neighborhood of $2 million in 2016.

Gertrude dubbed the new structures The Rhine (Nos. 1716-18) and The Kaiser (Nos. 1720-22) with a nod to the Rhinelander family’s German roots.  Completed in 1887, their Romanesque Revival façade gave the impression of a single structure.  While Lamb & Rich incorporated the expected elements of the style—arched openings with dramatic eyebrows which terminated in fearsome heads, beefy medieval entrances and brick corner quoins, for instance—there were surprises.  Cast metal spandrel panels of medallions with delicate flowing ribbons and a unique maze-like pattern of brickwork at the second story distinguished the buildings.

The corner store was originally leased to Spies Bros. “household furniture;” but by the mid-1890s it was home to O. Carlstedt’s drugstore.  In September 1898 Theodore Niedlich, who had been manager of another drugstore, at Second Avenue and 82nd Street, bought Carlstedt’s pharmacy.

In the meantime, A. Schwab, Jr. operated his barber shop in the store at No. 1718 for years.  As late as 1908, when it was used as the “Republican” polling place, a barber shop was here, although under different ownership. 

While most of Gertrude R. Waldo’s tenants were respectable working-class immigrants, at least a few were not so upstanding.  On January 24, 1892 The Sun reported “There was an exceedingly lively time last night in a flat at 1,720 Second avenue.”  The article explained that “the top floor rear is occupied by a German woman who calls herself Freda Burton.  She is a blonde 24 years old, dresses neatly and says she is married.”

Freda had lived in the apartment for five months.  The lease had been signed by “a man about 30 years old, who said his name was Burton.”  In fact, he was Alfred Riss and the couple was not married.

Riss had been the “barkeep” at a notorious dive called the Hole in the Wall, owned by Carey Welch.  After police finally shut it down, he was “supported by Mrs. Freda Burton, with whom he lived,” according to The Evening World.  Freda Burton paid the rent through prostitution and extortion.  The couple shared the apartment with another disreputable character, May Eisman, who The Evening World said was “another former frequenter of the ‘Hole in the Wall.’”

The “lively time” referred to by The Sun had actually begun two weeks earlier.  On January 10 Freda met 26-year old student Edgar L. Huntington on East 14th Street.  He took her to the theater and then to the Florida House hotel on 13th Street near Fifth Avenue.  The Sun reported “He met her a night or two later and they had a wine supper and went to the Morton House.”

Freda and Alfred were setting up what was known as a “badger game.”  Having gained Huntington’s trust, Freda “decoyed” him to her Second Avenue flat.    She locked the door and accused the young man with having robbed her of jewelry while at the Morton House.  The Evening World reported “Riss, at a signal, ran in and made the usual bluff of ‘the injured husband.’”

Had the badger game worked, Huntington would have paid the couple money to avoid confrontation and social embarrassment.  Instead, he struggled.  The Sun reported “At 7 o’clock last night Mrs. Burton set the house in an uproar by screaming wildly.  As the tenants ran into the hall to see what the commotion meant, a well-dressed young man dashed out of Mrs. Burton’s rooms and ran down stairs with Mr. Burton in close pursuit.  Burton clutched a pistol in his right hand, and Mrs. Burton followed, calling to him not to shoot.”

When the trio ran directly into Policeman Keiser, Alfred Riss “discreetly returned to the house.”  The officer grabbed Huntington and Freda cried “I want you to arrest that man; he chloroformed and robbed me.”  At the station house she accused him of stealing $1.30 and two gold brooches at the Morton House on January 13.  She then added “He called at the house tonight and tried to chloroform me again, but my husband arrived just in time to drive him out.”

Police quickly untangled the scheme and The Evening World opined that after having Huntington arrested, Riss and “the Burton woman,” were “now heartily sorry for it.”  They were both later arrested and held in $1,000 bail for attempted robbery.

But the excitement was not over for the night.  The Sun reported “Two hours later there was a lively fight among half a dozen men in front of 1,720 Second avenue.”  The melee ended with two men, 25-year old John Hassell and Alfred O. Schmidt, arrested, both claiming to be visitors in the building.  “Schmidt had been beaten, and his nose and mouth were bleeding freely,” said the newspaper.  “Neither of the men was in a condition to tell what the row was about, and both were locked up.  They are cigarmakers.”

On the 89th Street side, innovative concave bays provided additional ventilation and light.  Note the highly-unusual brickwork at he second floor..

In 1895, the same year that James Wilkenin received a permit to run a fruit stand on the corner outside of building, Rhine tenant Frank Dewes got into a tragic altercation.  A printer by trade, he had traveled on a warm summer night to Louis Altoro’s rented room on the third floor of a tenement on East 113th Street. 

The following day, August 6, The Evening World reported “There was a quarrel over a woman.”  The conflict ended with Altoro firing a bullet into Dewes’s right chest.  The newspaper said “he will probably die” and added “Altoro escaped.”

Another German-born tenant in the Rhine was Isidor Kohn.  He was swept away in the bicycling craze of the 1890s and joined the bicycle corps of the Eighth Regiment.  His problems began in May 1896 when he coveted a better and newer vehicle.

Another member, Gustav Ballin, stored his bike at the Eighth Regiment armory.  Bicycles were expensive, costing around $2,500 to $3,000 in today’s dollars.  So when Ballin arrived to find his bicycle stolen, he was understandably upset.  He was also understandably suspicious when Isidor Kohn appeared at the armory with an identical model in another color.

The Sun reported on May 20, 1896 “Removal of the paint revealed the stolen wheel, and Kohn was arrested.  He pleaded guilty.”

Italian-born Pasquale Venevio lived in the Rhine at the turn of the century with his wife and seven children.  He was an accomplished cornetist and earned a position with the Brooklyn Navy-Yard “Admiral Band.” On December 23, 1902 he was the subject of a disturbing complaint by William Conterno, the son of 70-year old Luciano Conterno.  The elderly man was the leader of the 14th Regiment Band.  William accused Venevio of assaulting his father with his cornet.

Initial reports downplayed the accusation.  On December 26, in reporting that Venevio had been released on bail, The Evening World said “Two physicians reported that they found Conterno to be suffering only from three slight wounds made by an operation.”  In fact, the circumstances were far direr.

William Conterno alleged that on November 23 Venezia “got into a row with the bandmaster, whom he charged with working him too hard.”  It ended with Venezia pummeling the old man with his instrument and knocking him to the floor.  The Sun reported “Venezia kicked the bandmaster a number of times on the legs and in the groin and then ran away.”

Two weeks later Conterno became ill and was confined to his bed.  The Sun stated “His condition is so serious that his physician has small hope of his recovery.”  Venezia was taken to Conterno’s home where the elderly man identified him “as the person who had assaulted him and caused the injuries from which blood poisoning resulted,” said the newspaper.

The young musician pleaded his innocence.  He denied having ever struck Conterno and said the only problems between them had been the exchange of “some hard words” because the bandmaster owned him two weeks’ salary.

Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo no doubt was intimately aware of these episodes.  According to The New York Times years later, “Mrs. Waldo personally collected rents in her twin apartment buildings, the Kaiser and the Rhine.”  And after fire broke out on April 21, 1904, she was on the scene.

A gas explosion in the basement of The Rhine occurred at around 2:00 in the afternoon.  Because it was a workday, “there was not a man in the building above the ground floor, but there were women and children too small to be in school in almost every apartment,” noted The Evening World the following day.

None of the housewives noticed anything out of the ordinary before the fire had spread upwards to the roof.  “There it mushroomed, spreading into all the apartments on the top floor of No. 1718 and working through the walls to the top floor apartments” and into The Kaiser, reported The World.

Patrolmen Connelly, Reagan and Kauff rushed into action.  Aware that the building was doubtlessly filled with women and children, they ran into the buildings.  While terrified tenants on the lower floors were successfully led down the stairs, those in the upper apartments were trapped and the thick smoke overtook many of them.

The Sun reported “The windows were full of women almost in hysterics and the three cops had a hard time keeping some of the more nervous from jumping to the sidewalk.”  The newspaper described Mrs. Anna Martin, a widow, “leaning out of a window, with five scared children clinging to her.”

By the time firefighters reached the Martin apartment, the situation was critical.  The Evening World reported, “On the top floor of No. 1718 a Mrs. Martin was found unconscious in the kitchen of her flat with five little children huddled around her.”  Police and firefighters managed to get them down by the fire escape. 

The newspaper detailed another case.  “On the top floor of No. 1720 was found a Mrs. Komst, hysterical and useless, her aged mother-in-law overcome by smoke and three children panic-stricken.”  Rescuers had difficulty getting the Komst family down, because by now the fire escapes were “cluttered with tenants, household goods, firemen and fire apparatus.”

Mrs. Paul Dresher, whose apartment was on the second floor of No. 1716, safely reached the street.  But then she remembered her Maltese cat, Liebchen, and rushed back into the burning, smoke-filled building.  She found Liebchen, but was quickly overcome by smoke.  Lt. McGrath of Engine Company 22 had seen her reenter the building and followed.  He found her unconscious with the cat in her arms.  The firefighter carried them both down the stairs to the street.

The aftermath of the blaze was devastating.  “The big building was completely gutted, and many of the tenants, especially those on the upper floors, lost everything they had.  A basketful of dead canary birds, parrots and pet cats and dogs was gathered up by the firemen in their tour through the rooms after the fire was extinguished,” wrote The Evening World the following day.

Getrude Rhinelander Waldo rebuilt the two apartment houses.  With the top floor burned away and the Tuscan Revival style enjoying a re-emergence, it was possibly at this time that the incongruously-romantic and deeply-overhanging Tuscan-style roofs were installed on the Second Avenue and 89th Street elevations.

The renovated buildings attracted stable working-class tenants.  In 1906 Henry Peyser was approved for a civil service job as an “Attendant.”  And in 1909 Nathan Scheuer was one of three founders of the Union Tool Co., manufacturers of hardware and hardware supplies.  That same year, on January 21, Samuel A. Johnson was awarded a medal for heroism by the Carnegie Hero Fund.  On August 14, 1908, he was passing by a New York Telephone Company manhole where he learned that several workers in the tunnel were overcome by fumes from a leaking gas main.

The New-York Tribune reported that Johnson, “on learning of a number of men senseless in the manhole, jumped in and succeeded in bringing to the sidewalk [James J.] Houilhan and [Peter] Collins.  The latter died an hour later.”

In the early 1930s the General Physical Laboratory, whose headquarters were at No. 509 Fifth Avenue, operated its research laboratory at No. 1718.  Here Director Charles W. Homan worked with two technical assistants and a glass blower in the “development of low voltage rare gas discharge tubes, rare gas arc lamps, stroboscopic lamps, cadmium vapor tubes and high tension indicators.”

Throughout the 20th century the ground-floor stores came and went, altering the storefronts as they did so.  In 1959 The Kaiser was reconfigured to just four apartments per floor.  The buildings lost their decorative cornice above the second floor openings, and at some point the brick was painted gray accented in white.

In 2015 the buildings were still slathered in gray paint.  The long scar above the second floor attests to the lost decorative cornice. photo via Google Maps

In 2016 the paint was stripped off, exposing the contrasting materials and hues.  The Rhine and the Kaiser--projects of one of Manhattan’s most interesting dowagers--survive a bit battered as colorful relics of the Upper East Side’s early stage of development.

many thanks to Jason Kessler for suggesting this post
photographs by the author 

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