Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Toppled Balance - Nos. 153-159 West 74th Street

When the stoop and doorway of No. 159 (left) was moved from left to right and additional windows punched into the facade in 1905, the architect's perfect symmetry was upset.

In 1886 construction began on four high end rowhouses on the north side of West 74th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.    Developer Charles Barney had commissioned 27-year old architect James Brown Lord to design the structures.  Lord would become best known for his later, stately Beaux Arts buildings like the Appellate Courthouse on Madison Square.  But for Barney's project he turned to the popular Queen Anne style.

Sort of.

Completed in 1887 the 21-foot wide brick, stone and terra cotta residences were four stories tall above an undressed brownstone basement.  While his plans were stately and proud, Lord seems to have been unable to let his hair down.  The homes were missing expected Queen Anne elements like irregular roof lines, dog legged stoops, or fanciful balconies.  But one almost obligatory feature of the style was glaringly absent: asymmetry.

The Queen Anne style houses appearing throughout the Upper West Side were delightful in their picturesque lack of balance.  Windows of various shapes and sizes, gables and dormers, balconies and bays, were splashed along their facades with  seeming whimsy.  The four houses on West 74th Street, on the other hand, had the symmetry of a Rorschach test.

The stoop of No. 153 was to the right, that of No, 155 was to the left.  Between the houses at the parlor floor a magnificent terra cotta rondel carried out the balance.  The symmetry would have been upset by the protruding two-story bay of No. 153 had Lord not flipped the design, creating a mirror image of the pair in Nos. 157 and 159.

The result was perfect balance, almost unheard of in Queen Anne style architecture.  Lord stepped away from the style further when he framed the entrances of the middle homes with Renaissance Revival terra cotta pilasters.  The second floor was embellished with exquisite neo-Classical terra cotta panels framed in checkerboard brickwork.  Two bland, brown brick strips at the first and third floors suggest the loss of ornate terra cotta friezes.

No. 153 became home to bachelor Jacob W. Mack.  An officer in the garment firm Nathan Mfg. Co., he was made a School Commissioner in 1895, and he was president of the Harmonie Club.  Jews were not welcome in the exclusive men's clubs, prompting the organization of the Harmonie Club in 1852.  In May 1896 the New-York Tribune described it as "one of the oldest of its kind in the city [and] well known as one of the most select Hebrew clubs here."

Although Mack was most often in the newspapers regarding school matters; he occasionally appeared for social reasons.  He had a summer "cottage" at the then-fashionable Sea Gate community near Coney Island.  Other property owners there were the Morgan, Vanderbilt and Dodge families.  And entertainments in the 74th Street house, while apparently not frequent, were notable.  On January 29, 1893, for instance, The New York Times noted that "J. W. Mack, of 153 West Seventy-fourth Street will entertain eighteen guests at dinner on Saturday."

Mack was gone by 1902 when Bates Wyman and his wife, the former Lilly Langdon, lived in the house. Wyman was vice president of the Guaranty Trust Company and for several years a representative of the American Express Company in Paris,

While the wives of most wealthy businessmen involved themselves in charities, benefits and social functions; Lilly turned to the The Tribune Sunshine Society, known as the T.S.S.  It was the brainchild of a female Tribune reporter who suggested that by passing on the Christmas cards they received to shut-ins and invalids, women might spread cheer and "sunshine."  By now the society had spread internationally.

After she spent the summer abroad, the New-York Tribune was happy to welcome Lilly back in November 1902.  "Mrs. Bates Wyman, of West Seventy-fourth-st., has returned to the city, after many months of travel, and has again resumed her kindly help at the office on certain days to work on the enrollment books," reported the newspaper.

In the spring of 1903 Lilly established a new branch of the T.S.S., the Elizabeth Wyman Memorial Branch.  The Tribune noted "This branch is named in memory of a young woman whose life was spent doing kindly deeds for the children of the poor."

It would hardly seem that the Wymans needed extra income.  Nevertheless they rented a room.  Their first boarder, Theodore Albert Hungerford was one of the owners of The Hotel Gazette.  He died in the house in November 1903 at the age of 64.

Lilly's interest in helping invalids was reflected in her ad for the vacant room in March 1905.  "Private family will accommodate two gentlemen; semi-invalid elderly person; moderate."  The accompanying problem, sadly, was that her boarders died.  Her next roomer, John L. Farwell, died at the age of 72.  He had been well known in the banking and railroad circles of New Hampshire before financial reversals around the turn of the century.

No. 153 would see other well-heeled owners before the Depression years.  Herber C. Pell, whose main residences was in Tuxedo Park, purchased the house in 1906; and by 1920 Mrs. George Leonard Fisher was living here.  On September 14 that year The Sun noted that she "is touring by automobile in the Berkshires.  She now is in Stockbridge and will return this week."

As was the case with all moneyed widows, the newspapers followed her every move.  A year later, almost to the day, for instance, The New York Herald told its society page readers "Mrs. George Leonard Fisher of 153 West Seventy-fourth street is visiting Mrs. Willis K. Howell at Orchard Corner, Morristown, N.J."

But within the decade No. 153 had become a rooming house.  In August 1939 Ruth Shawilson leased the house, purchasing in the deal "the furnishings of the twenty-one rooms," according to The Times.

155 and 157 were framed in ornate Renaissance Revival terra cotta.

In the meantime Charles Barney had retained possession of No. 155, putting the title in the name of Lilly W. Barney.  It was leased for years to William R. Warren, president of the Warren-Burnham Company and the Virginia Portland Cement Company.

Warren's expertise in cement made him a frequent lecturer at Harvard on the subject.  By World War I he was widowed and both his sons were serving in the military.   On April 3, 1918 he was found dead in his office at No. 115 Broadway.

A somewhat surprising detail is the dead rats included in the pilaster decoration

Lilly Barney next leased the house to Carl J. Ulmann.  A partner in silk and cotton firm Ulmann, Bernhard, & Co., he was a collector of medieval illustrated manuscripts.  When the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged an exhibition of "Arts of the Book," among the items temporarily donated by Ulmann was a page from Herodotus, printed by J. and G. de Gregorius in Venice in 1494.

When the Barneys sold No. 155 in 1921, Ulmann purchased it.  He died in 1929 at the age of 66, and his estate retained possession until 1935.  It too, became a rooming house.

Next door, No. 157 had originally been the home of William Onderdonk.  It was the scene of a most distressing incident in 1894.  On New Year's Eve, 1893 a wealthy Brooklyn friend, Edward Hincken came to visit.  Hincken had been three times the president of the Produce Exchange and was a trustee of the Bowery Savings Bank.

What should have been a pleasant New Year's visit turned tragic when the 81-year old Hincken suffered a stroke.  Paralyzed, he was placed in a bedroom, where he died five days later.

Attorney Thomas Drew Robinson and his wife, the former Mary L. Brookes, purchased the house in 1896.   Robinson traced his family to "John Robinson, of Leyden, the pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers," according to The American Lawyer.  A graduate of Brown University in 1849, Robinson received national attention when he represented the Native American Gay Head tribe, winning for them land on Martha's Vineyard which they had occupied for thousands of years.

Robinson's leisure time was far removed from legal work.   He was one of the first New Yorkers to become interested in orchids.  He collected and cultivated the tropical plants, the New-York Tribune noting "all his life much of his leisure time was spent among his flowers."

The attorney died in the house from pneumonia on February 26, 1902.  Mary remained here until her death at the age of 79 on February 9, 1916.

Like its neighbors, the residence would be operated as a rooming house in the Depression years.  Helen Schatz lived here in 1936 when she was listed on the Government's watch list of Communist voters.

The last of the row, No. 159, was the home of Dr. Walter Mendelson by 1895.  Of Jewish and Quaker parents, he was a member of the Society of Friends.    The physician was ahead of his time in recognizing the dangers of obesity as early as 1890.  He devised low-fat diets and wrote papers on the subject; although his insistence that drinking water promoted heart disease would be challenged today.  When he lectured at the New-York Academy of Medicine on January 21, 1890 on "Physiological Treatment of Obesity," The New York Times said "the result was that most of the stout physicians of the town assembled to hear Dr. Walter Mendelson tell about it."

Entertainments in the Mendelson household did not necessarily involve light-hearted chatter.  When he hosted the West End Medical Society on February 17, 1904, the subject was "A Clinical Study of Myoidema, with Especial Reference to its Occurrence in Pulmonary Tuberculosis."

In 1905 Dr. Mendelson upset John Brown Lord's perfect architectural balance when he hired architect John P. Benson to renovate the house.  The $8,000 remodeling project included relocating interior walls, enlarging some windows, and moving the entrance from the left to the right.  The new doorway and stoop required slicing the beautiful terra cotta disc on the facade in half.  Benson did his best to disguise the alteration--relocating the old stoop rather than updating it, and using bullnose brick to soften and round the corners of the new doorway.

The Mendelsons had four daughters.  Wharton Mendelson was married in 1912, and her sister Elizabeth Wharton Mendelson in 1919,  Elizabeth's wedding was held in the 74th Street house on October 11.  In 1920 Mendelson retired and moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania.

The house, like the others along the row, became rented rooms.  Around September 1924 it received its most celebrated tenants, Carl Ruggles and his wife, Dorothy.  The composer wrote modernist music, described by Charles Seeger as using "dissonant counterpoint."

Despite the upset balance--heightened when the stoop of No. 153 was removed and the doorway made into a window--and the loss of decorative detail; James Brown Lord's handsome row radiates its stately presence on West 74th Street.

photographs by the author

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