Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The John T. Farley House - No. 303 West 90th St

photograph by the author
Builder Terrence Farley was described by the Bulletin of the Building Trades Employers' Association as "prominently identified with the improvements of the upper west side in the early eighties, following the opening of the elevated road."  His sons, John T. and James A. Farley, continued the business, forming T. Farley's Sons.  By 1898 T. Farley's Sons had established a reputation for its high-end structures.  They were responsible, for instance, for the mansions of Jacob H. Schiff, Frank J. Gould and William Guggenheim.

That year they began construction of seven high-end rowhouses which wrapped the northwest corner of West End Avenue and 90th Street.  Prolific architect Clarence F. True received the commission and, in keeping with his architectural flair, he married two distinct historical styles--Elizabethan Renaissance and Flemish Renaissance Revival--to create an eye-catching row.

While several of the homes sprouted elaborate carved decoration and distinctive Flemish gables, No. 303 West 90th Street was reserved, nearly to the point of severity.  Especially wide at 24 feet, the handsome arched entrance sat below an ornate carved cartouche which announced the address.  The bowed limestone facade at the second and third floors was banded in wide flat courses and featured two stone and iron balconettes.  Above it all the pitched roof was covered in red tiles and distinguished by two prominent dormers with arched pediments.  Attractive wrought iron fencing defined the areaway.

As the project neared completion in October 1899 the Farleys placed an advertisement in the New-York Tribune.  "These houses contain several novelties, and are designed and built to please the most FASTIDIOUS, and are constructed in the best manner possible.  The location is the very choicest and MOST FASHIONABLE in New York, and in the immediate neighborhood of the handsomest and most expensive improvements."

One of the seven, however, would not be offered for sale.  John T. Farley kept No. 303 West 90th Street for his family.   Farley and his wife had four sons.  

John Farley's fortune afforded him and his family a lifestyle similar to his wealthy clients.  He was a member of the Westchester Country Club, the Larchmont Yacht Club, and the Suburban Riding and Driving Club.  He was also  a member of the Coney Island Jockey Club.   The New-York Tribune explained that while he was "not prominent in the racing world," he was "a lover of good horse flesh."

The Farleys hosted a formal card party in the house in 1901.  Note the cove ceilings.  While interior decorating taste required perfect symmetry in the window treatments, it did not extend to the artwork on the walls.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The health of the 46-year old builder deteriorated in 1904, but did not seem to be the cause of excessive worry.  Then, on Wednesday, January 4, 1905 he suffered a fatal heart attack in the 90th Street house.   The Record & Guide noted "his sudden death was a surprise to his family and friends."

The house was briefly leased to James Shewan and his family.  Shewan had come to New York from his native Ireland in 1869 at the age of 21.  The following year he married Ellen Curley and the couple had two sons and four daughters.

Apprenticed as a ship's carpenter in Ireland, he started a dry dock and ship repair business in New York.  By the time he moved into the 90th Street house with Ellen and one daughter The Evening World described him as "rated as many times a millionaire" and noted he "has a great country estate at Cold Spring Harbor, L.I."

The Shewan family, which had "a prominent place in society," dealt with an embarrassing situation in April 1906.  James Shewan, Jr. lived in an "expensive apartment in Cross Chambers, No. 210 Fifth avenue," according to The Evening World.  He was thrown into a panic on the afternoon of April 26.

Yvonne du Mont, wife of the wealthy New Orleans rubber manufacturer Edgar R. du Mont, was described by the World as "a strikingly pretty young woman, and always appeared to be well supplied with money."  She had come to New York about a week earlier to attend a family wedding and took an apartment in the Belleclaire,  on Broadway at 77th Street.

She was found in her rooms by hotel attendants, "suffering from the effects of two corrosive sublimate tables she had swallowed."  She asked them to send word to young Shewan.  Newspapers were quick to following the movements of the socially-prominent young man.

"He hurried to the hospital and most of the night he was at the side of her cot, working with the doctors and half hysterical in his pleadings to save the young woman's life," reported the newspaper the following day.  Naturally, society was puzzled at his involvement with the married woman.

When a reporter stopped him as he left the hospital, "he was surprised that his identify had become public."  He answered questions saying "Oh, I'm merely a friend of--her husband's."

And that husband's business partner quickly attempted to squelch rumors of impropriety between Yvonne and Shewan.  "She had no trouble whatever," said C. H. Taylor.  "She and her husband were the chummiest of chums, and I know that they love each other very much."

Mrs. du Mont recovered, but her reputation did not.  In September 1911 she was spotted on Broadway by Mrs. George Harwood Barrett, the "beautiful young Boston wife of the portrait painter," as described by the Richmond, Virginia Times Dispatch.   The Barretts lived, at the time, in "magnificent apartments near Riverside Drive."

The unsuspecting Yvonne du Mont was "publicly caned" by the irate woman.  According to the Times Dispatch, "She portrayed Mrs. Dumont in the dual capacity of New Orleans society leader and as a 'vampire,' who makes periodical visits to this city to take part in affaires du coeur, free from the irksome supervision of her husband."

In the meantime, the Shewans left West 90th Street in 1907, leasing the furnished mansion of Mrs. W. E. Woodward at No. 58 west 71st Street.  No. 303 became the unhappy home of Allen Lawrence Story and his young wife, the former Helen Hilton, who were married that year.  The bride was just 16 years old and The New York Times said "The marriage was a runaway affair and created much excitement in Washington society circles, in which the bride's parents were so prominent for many years."

Story was the son of well-known and outspoken Mrs. William Cummings Story who was frequently quoted in newspapers for her "strong opinions" on topics such as her stand against pacifism.  Helen had inherited money from the estate of her grandfather, United States Circuit Court Judge Henry Hilton.  The couple had a daughter, Ruth, in 1908; but the relationship quickly deteriorated.

Despite his privileged background, according to Helen Allen "refused to contribute anything toward the household expenses from his income.  She was obliged to pay everything and eventually her husband "stayed for the most part at the home of his mother" at No. 86 Gramercy Park.

On September 26, 1911 Allen arrived with his brother, Harold Story, saying he wanted to retrieve some of his old clothes.  Little Ruth's nurse, Dikka Carlsen, was holding the toddler in her arms when the men entered the house.  According to Helen later, "they took the child from the nurse by violence and shoved her away when she tried to stop them."  Dikka ran after the car, but, according to Helen, "her husband and his brother beat her off and made away with the child."

Ruth was taken to Mrs. William Cummings Story's residence.  Every time Helen tried to see her daughter, she was told Mrs. Story was out.  The New York Times reported on November 29 that "She says she has learned that Mrs. Story has ordered that she shall not be admitted to the Gramercy Park house."

Helen took legal action against Allen, and on November 28 Supreme Court Justice Seabury ordered him to produce Ruth in court.  Helen told reporters that she believed "she has an excellent chance of getting the custody of her daughter."

The house that had once seen society dinners and other entertainments was, by 1931, a rooming house operated by Kurt Heppe.  That year it would be the scene of a sensational shootout straight from a gangster movie.  Years later Heppe told a reporter that running rooming houses was "anything but dull," adding "You meet such interesting people."

Perhaps the most interesting was 19-year old Francis Crowley whom Heppe described as a "model tenant."  The teen had rented the rooms on the top floor under a fictitious name, and for good reason.     

Born on October 31, 1912 to an unmarried German immigrant and, reportedly, a policeman.  He was immediately put up for adoption at the "baby farm" run by Mrs. Annie Crowley.  Annie kept the infant, giving him her surname.  The New York Times would later say she "brought him up as well as she could."

But Crowley was challenged.  The newspaper described him as "undersized, underchinned, underwitted--he never could learn to read and write in any but the crudest fahsion and he never developed beyond the mental age of ten and a half--the world would never have known he existed if he had not turned to crime.  And having vanity, he turned to crime."

Crowley ran away from home in his teens and fell in with gangs.  He was fascinated with automobiles, which he frequently stole.  His foster brother, John Crowley, was no doubt partially responsible for his violent criminal path.  In 1925 John was involved in a shoot out with Patrolman Maurice F. Harlow, in which both men died.

Francis became bolder, participating in a shoot out in front of the American League Headquarter in the Bronx in February 1931.  Shortly after that, when Patrolman George Schaedel tried to arrest him, Crowley shot and seriously wounded him.  Before long he earned the street name "Two-Gun Crowley."

His closest friend and crime partner was Rudolph "Fats" Duringer, a truckman.   Early in the morning of April 27, 1931 the Crowley was driving a stolen car.  Inside were Duringer and a dance hall hostess named Virginia Brannen.   Duringer's motives are fuzzy--rape and robbery were both suggested--but for whatever reason he shot Virginia in the head and they dumped her body near St. Joseph's Cemetery in Yonkers.

On May 6 Crowley and his girlfriend, 16-year old Helen Walsh, were sitting in another stolen car when two policemen approached the car and asked for identification.  Crowley responded by fatally shooting Hirsch and seriously wounding Yodice.

The case drew to a head when police showed a photograph of Crowley to Kurt Heppe.  He identified the wanted man as his top floor tenant.  The day after murder of Officer Hirsch, "more than 100 policemen...armed with tear gas, axes, shotguns, rifles, machine-guns and pistols, besieged the place," reported The Times.  Inside the apartment were Crowley, Duringer and Helen Walsh.

The Brooklyn Standard Union estimated the number of police on West 90th Street that day at 300.  A crowd of about 1,000 civilians grew around the perimeter of the two-hour siege, "the most spectacular waged by New York police in a generation."

Astonishingly, Crowley, Duringer and Helen received only superficial wounds.  Kurt Heppe later told a reporter "after his gun battle with the police we picked 900 bullets out of the mattresses, the woodwork, the walls, the ceiling and the floor."
Smug and dapper, Francis Crowley posed in prison.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Rudolph Duringer was executed for the murder of Virginia Brannen on December 10, 1931.  Helen, who had testified against Crowley, attempted to see him on May 5, 1932, the day he was scheduled to be executed.  Still furious, he refused, adding "I hear she's running round with a cop and she wants to sell the story to a newspaper."  Francis "Two-Gun" Crowley was electrocuted in Sing Sing that night at the age of 20.

Life in No. 303 West 90th Street was much quieter after that.  In 2013 it was reconverted to a single family home.   Clarence True's original double entrance doors survive, as does the handsome wrought iron fencing.   The house's sedate facade successfully keeps secret the colorful story of a petty gangster and a sensational shoot-out which played out here.

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