Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Horgan & Slattery's Nos. 329 to 343 West 71st Street

A rather startling report, at least in real estate circles, appeared in The New York Times on April 5, 1895.  Within a matter of weeks every one of the eight rowhouse recently completed by Horgan & Slattery had sold.  The rapid sales spoke of the desirability of the residences.

And Arthur J. Horgan and Vincent Slattery needed the cash.  In 1894, when construction of the row began, their firm declared bankruptcy "with a large indebtedness," according to American Bankruptcy Reports a few years later.  By now they had re-incorporated as "Horgan and Slattery Company:" but when that firm failed within two years, they reformed as Horgan & Slattery, using their wives' names.

The struggling partners would find salvation in the highest city offices.  Tammany Hall Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck would funnel many civic commissions to Horgan & Slattery, and designed by other architects were filtered through them for approval as "consulting architects."  It all prompted an infuriated New York Times editorial on July 15, 1899 that questioned who these unknown upstarts were. "Does anybody know who they are or what they have done or why any human being should pay them a nickel each for their opinions on the art of architecture or even whether they exist?" it asked.

But despite their obscurity and their future bad press; Horgan & Slattery had managed to produce a row of impressive Italian Renaissance Revival residences.  Five stories tall and romantically embellished with Venetian touches--balconies and faux loggias, for instance--they were faced in yellow brick and lavished with terra cotta.  A bit surprisingly, given their formal facades, the pattern of the row was an off-kilter A-B-B-A-B-B-B-A.

Venetian style masks grin down below heraldic-type shields.

The new owners along the row were professional and wealthy.  Among them were architect Samuel Breck Parkman Trowbridge and his wife at No. 331; the wealthy widow of lace merchant Richard Muser at No. 343; and advertising executive Henry Brock's family were in No. 339.

Perhaps it was his upcoming marriage to Edith Hellman that prompted 23-year old George Louis Beer to purchase No. 329.  The couple was married on November 11, 1896 and despite both coming from prominent Jewish families, the service which took place in Sherry's Red Room was conducted by Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement.

Beer was a historian and economist.  He graduated from Columbia University in 1892 and was now a professor of European History there.  His sister had married Edwin R. A. Seligman, son of banker Joseph Seligman, and like George, a economics professor at Columbia.  The new Mrs. Beer was was a granddaughter of Joseph Seligman.

George Louis Beer -- George Louis Beer: A Tribute to His Life and Work, 1924 (copyright expired)
Although his wedding ceremony may have hinted otherwise, Beer was at least marginally active in Jewish life.  He was a founding member in January 1897 of The Judaeans, a club which stated its goal as "to promote and further the intellectual and spiritual interests of Jews, and at least three-quarters of its members shall be engaged in literature, the arts of sciences."

When Mount Sinai Hospital relocated to new buildings covering a full block at Fifth Avenue and 100th Street in 1904, George and Edith endowed the facility with $10,000--more than a quarter of a million dollars today.

Beer, by now, had retired to focus on his research and writing.   Early in 1913 his four-volume set on the British colonial system was published--British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765; Origin of the British Colonial System, 1578-1666, and the two part The Old Colonial System.   On June 1 that year The Washington Herald announced that the combined works had earned him the first Loubat Prize for the best English language book on "history, geography, archaeology, ethnology, philogy, or numismatics of North America."

As war broke out in Europe, Beer's focus turned from Britain to Germany.  After "German apologists" routinely defended its actions to the still-neutral United States, Beer cautioned readers of The Sun on October 18 1914 to judge carefully.   Citing historian James Anthony Froude, he likened history to "a child's box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please.  We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose."

The U.S. entrance into the war brought it closer to home for Beer.  He was appointed  "colonial expert" to President Woodrow Wilson's American Commission of Inquiry; and attended the Paris Peace Conference.  In 1919 he was appointed director of the Mandatory Section of the League of Nations.

On March 17, 1920 the New-York Tribune announced rather bluntly "George Louis Beer, forty-seven, historical and economic writer, is dead at his home, 329 West Seventy-first Street."  Edith remained in the house until November 1943.  In the meantime, she had as neighbors her relatives, Hugo and Hazel Seligman.

When the Seligmans moved into No. 343 in 1915 the house already had garnered a colorful history.  Its original owner was the then-recently widowed Cecelia Muser, whose husband, Richard, died under suspect circumstances in 1893.

Muser, whom the Evening World said was "supposed to be worth at least $1,000,000," was a partner in the Belgium lace importing firm Muser Bros., and according to the New-York Tribune, a "large owner of Chicago Gas and General Electric."  At the time the family, including son Richard Jr., maintained a country residence north of the city in Suffern, New York.  The Evening World described it as "a fine estate of 300 acres, with a fine house and outbuildings."

It was there he was found in the woods with a bullet in his head in August 1893.  He lived for 12 hours after being found; and immediately the theory of suicide was dismissed.  The Evening World, on August 11, stated the obvious:  "the fact that no pistol was found near the body gives color to the theory that he did not die by his own hand."

The perpetrator of the murder was never discovered; although suspicion was cast on Cecelia.  Town gossip in Suffern said that the Musers were planning a divorce "on account of differences between Mrs. Muser and the housekeeper," reported the Tribune.  The implied "differences" would have been an affair between the servant and Richard Muser.

When Cecelia arranged to have the funeral take place in the home of a relative, it only fueled speculation.   Some of Muser's friends, according to the New-York Tribune, said the funeral arrangements led credence to the "domestic trouble point of view" as the cause of the murder.

Cecelia Muser and, later, the Hugo Seligmans, lived at No. 343.

Cecelia moved into the 71st Street house and quickly ran into a different sort of trouble.  In the spring of 1896 she noticed laces worth $2,000  and other clothing items were missing.  Although it seems she did not immediately notify police, her neighbors, the Trowbridges did.  The newlyweds returned from Europe in May and Mrs. Trowbridge discovered her $400 wedding dress and $1,040 in other gowns had been stolen.

On a servant's bed on the top floor of the Trowbridge house at No. 331 were footprints.  Detectives followed them along the rooftops until they reached No. 339--the home of the Henry Brock family.  Brock, who was president of Brock's Commercial Agency, had eight children.  Two of them, 21-year old Georgie and 12-year old Florence, were about to be in hot water.

When detectives informed Mrs. Brock that there had been a burglary on the block, she allowed them in to investigate.  They checked the servants' shoes, none of which matched the prints.  But one pair, belonging to Florence, were a match.  "Just at this moment they saw a trunk being taken from the house," reported The New York Times.

Police followed the wagon the carried it to a warehouse.  Inside were not only Mrs. Trowbridge's dresses; but Cecelia Muser's expensive laces.  The Times noted "Miss Georgie Brock, who is a beautiful brunette, has always had a good reputation in her neighborhood, but her father said yesterday that Florence is unmanageable."

The girls were arrested for grand larceny on May 26 and Georgia admitted guilt.  It turned out that when Georgie realized what her sister had done, she tried to cover up the theft, sending the trunk to storage until she could quietly return the items to their owners.

Cecelia Muser, having gotten her laces back, refused to press charges.  Henry Brock attempted to minimize the theft, telling a reporter "It was merely a child's misdoings, serious enough, but due wholly to her lack of judgment."

Around 1903 Celelia moved to No. 505 West End Avenue.  The John Reinfrank family moved in; but their stay would be disastrously cut short.  Reinfrank (who at some point had dropped the "h" from Rheinfrank) was a director in the Germania Bank and the founder of the coal company J. Rheinfrank & Co.  Now retired, he had passed the operation of the business to his sons.  The Coal and Coal Trade Journal called him "one of the most highly esteemed" and "one of the wealthiest" in the business.

On Wednesday, June 15, 1904 Reinfrank and his wife, Katherine, (he was 75 and she was 64) joined a group of family and friends on the General Slocum, a steam-powered side wheeler hired by the German-language St. Mark's Lutheran Church to take a group on a day-long picnic outing.  Before making it to its destination the vessel caught fire and within a span of 15 minutes the ship burned to the waterline.  In the greatest loss of life in New York City until the World Trade Center attacks, nearly 1,000 people perished.

The Reinfrank's daughters were in Europe at the time.  Hearing of the disaster they boarded a ship to New York; they knew that their family would have known many of the victims but they were unaware that their parents were passengers.

On June 17 the New-York Tribune reported that brothers Frederick and Gustave Reinfrank, "two big Germans," "wandered disconsolately from the morgue to the scene of the accident, to Police Headquarters and back to the Morgue" looking for their parents."

John Reinfrank's body was identified and his funeral held in the 71st Street house on Sunday, June 19.  When the daughters arrived on the Lucania five days later, their brother was there to tell them the horrifying news.  At the time Katharine's body had still not been found.

Alice Miller purchased No. 343 in 1908, and sold it to the Seligmans in 1915.  Despite the ample size of the house, it was not large enough for the debutante entertainment for daughter Susan in December 1921.  The New York Herald announced on December 24 that her parents and her uncle Alfred F. Seligman, "will unite in giving a supper and dance next Monday night in the Plaza...There will be 300 guests."

The Seligmans left West 71st Street at least a decade before Edith Beer.   In 1935 it was home to attorney Alexander Cumming; but change was quickly coming.  By 1937 it was operated as a rooming house, home to tenants like former chorus girl Dorothy Sabine who sued the wealthy aeronautical supplies manufacturer J. D. Wooster Lambert that year for breach of contract.  Her questionable action claimed he had promised to pay her $300 a month as a "secretary" and to give her 20 percent of all profits.

In the meantime, the Brock house had seen more excitement following the stolen dresses episode.  For several years the Brock name appeared in the newspapers only to report their comings and goings at fashionable resorts like Atlantic City.   But then, on June 26, 1900 the New-York Tribune ran the mystifying headline "Henry Brock Disappears."

On the previous Saturday a "few thousand" of his clients received a letter that read:

Dear Sir: I regret to announce my inability to continue this business.  Accept my sincere thanks for your kind support and encouragement so many years.  I will be personally at your service any time you require me.  Respectfully yours, Henry Brock

The difficulty in obtaining that service would be that Brock simply vanished.  When two clerks in his office in the Park Row Building were questioned, they could only say that "Mr. Brock left town suddenly last Thursday night."  A review of the company's finances showed no outstanding debts.

The Brock house was eventually sold at auction in April 1908.  Like its neighbors, No. 339 was converted to furnished rooms during the Depression years.

As the 20th century drew to a close the houses were all treated with a bit more respect.  The George Beer house was remodeled into four apartments in 1973--three duplexes and a floor-through.  In 2011 No. 339 became "Class A apartments," and the Muser house at No. 343, too, became modern apartments.

Despite minor changes like replacement doors from the early 20th century in most of the houses, the row mostly retains its 1895 appearance.  And despite the black eye that Horgan & Slattery continues to wear more than a century later, most architectural historians grant the row a most favorable opinion.

photographs by the author

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