Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Battered Grace-- The McGrath House - 104 West 71st Street

The heavily-altered house still displays its exotic design.

Brothers John T. and James A. Farley were active real estate developers in the 1880s and ‘90s.  And they worked with the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson several times.  But when they embarked on a project of three speculative rowhouses at Nos. 102 through 106 West 71stStreet in 1885; something seems to have gone awry.  The developers had taken out a building loan from Philip Weinbach. 

The Farleys were individually wealthy and their firm, Terence Farley's Sons, was highly successful.  Yet inexplicably, shortly after construction began the the firm lost the three properties.  They were sold to Phillip Weinberg on March 21, 1885 in a foreclosure auction with $13,582 due on each. The middle house, No. 104, was sold at $20,050—slightly over half a million in today’s dollars.  

Thom & Wilson designed each residence to be starkly different from the others.  Completed in 1886, No. 104 was four stories tall above a high English basement.  Its brownstone fa├žade changed personalities as it rose.  The rusticated Romanesque Revival parlor floor featured arched openings, swirling carved arabesques, and a brilliantly-colored stained glass transom.  A Renaissance-inspired broken pediment joined the second floor windows, the brownstone frames of which swept down to sensuous curls which embraced clusters of tiny flowers.  A floor above the architrave surrounds of the openings incorporated fluted pilasters and layered cornices.

Just above the stained glass parlor window the window framing curls to clasp a tiny bouquet of flowers, the last of the four such elements to survive.

The widowed Anne E. Radway and her daughters, Adelaide and Alice, had been living across the park at No. 120 East 76th Street.  In August 1886 they moved into No. 104 West 71st Street.   Dr. John Radway had died at the age of 45 on the morning of March 15, 1870.  His stature in the New York community was such that the Editor of the New York Times commented on his death.

“Like most men of talent, the Doctor was endowed with the most unabated energy and zeal, prosecuting his theories to a greater extent than his physical system would endure.  Kind and affectionate in his disposition, and genial in his character, and charitable to a fault, he leaves a multitude of sorrowers, who will not look upon his like again.”

Anna had been living on the opposite side of Central Park, at No. 120 East 76th Street.  The $30,000 she received in the sale of that house

On June 25, 1890 the house was the scene of Alice Virginia Radway’s marriage to Dr. T. P. Berens.  Her brother, John, gave her away.  The ceremony was followed by a “wedding supper” for the families and a few intimate friends.

A far less joyful gathering took place in the parlor the following year.  On Thursday morning, October 22, 1891 the funeral of Anna E. Radway was held.  She had died in the house three days earlier.

James S. Radway retained possession of the house until April 1901, when he sold it at auction for $23,500. 

The new owner was Dr. John J. McGrath.  Born near Greenwich Village, McGrath had graduated from Columbia University in 1899, and then studied surgery at the University of Berlin and other European medical schools.  By 1908 he was well-known and respected in the New York medical community, holding the positions of Professor of Operative Surgery at the New York Post-Graduate School and Hospital, Visiting Surgeon to the Harlem and Columbus Hospitals, and Consulting Surgeon to the New York Founding and the Brattleboro Memorial Hospitals.

The original entrance was at the right, accessed by a high brownstone stoop.

While Dr. McGrath and his wife maintained a summer home at Belmar, New Jersey, they routinely traveled to Europe.  On June 29, 1910 The New York Times remarked that “Three of the largest liners in the transatlantic trade will sail from New York this morning, and each is going out with its saloon accommodations booked to capacity.”   They were the Cunard Lusitania, the White Star liner Adriatic, and the Hamburg-American Bleucher.  The newspaper noted “Among the passengers booked on each of the liners are many well-known people.”  Included in the Bleucher’s registry headed to Hamburg were Dr. and Mrs. John J. McGrath.

The couple headed back to Germany for the summer season of 1914.  It was an untimely decision.  Like many other well-to-do Americans, they may have been blissfully unaware of the political tensions.  But these became obvious following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28 and the immediate declaration of war by Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary.

The McGraths booked passage back to New York on the Kronprinzessin Cecilie.  The luxurious ship was filled--carrying 350 first-class, 130 second-class, and 736 steerage passengers.  Along with the McGraths in first class were some of New York’s leading citizens—James A. Blair, Eugene Delano, and James R. Roosevelt among them. 

But the Kronprinzessin Cecilie carried something else, as well:  $10,679,000 in gold.

Five New York City banks had scurried to get their gold out of Germany.  Because there had been no time to obtain war insurance on the precious cargo, bank directors waited nervously until they received it.  A newspaper explained the gold would be stored “in their own vaults for use when it is again possible to undertake to export it.” 

The  Kronprinzessin Cecilie had nearly completed the voyage on August 3 when trouble occurred.  For some reason the captain felt the vessel was in danger of “possible capture by British or French warships,” according to a telegram from Washington DC.  The steamship headed for the nearest “three-mile safety zone” off American shores—Bar Harbor, Maine.  At around 9:00 that morning the unexpected liner docked in Bar Harbor rather than New York City.

The United States Government immediately descended on the German ship.  Bar Harbor was not a port of entry, a significant problem in itself; but American laws forbade an international vessel to discharge its passengers a different port.  Should the passengers disembark, the North German Lloyd Company, owners of the steamship, could be fined $1,000 per passenger—more than $1.2 million.

To make matters worse negotiations between the German and United States Governments were necessary to allow the gold to be off-loaded.  Initially William Gibbs McAdoo, the Secretary of the Treasury, declared that the gold would have to be returned to Germany along with “the bankers who shipped it.”

The New York Times explained “It would not be possible to bring the ship into New York without going beyond the three-mile safety zone, and it is not believed that the Captain will take any chances on an unprotected vessel worth more than $5,000,000.”

The doctor and his wife waited waited in frustration and luxury with the other high-class passengers while the negotiations played out.  Finally the day after the steamship had pulled into Bar Harbor, New Yorkers read that its passengers “are due in this city by train this morning.”  It would mark the end of the McGraths’ travels to Europe for several years.

The couple was still in the 71st Street home when Dr. McGrath was appointed Trustee of Bellevue and Allied Hospitals.  By now, according to The Times, he was a “fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, the American College of Surgeons and a number of medical and surgical societies.”

The McGraths were gone from the house by the early years of the Great Depression.  The 1930s were not kind to many upscale residences on the Upper West Side.  No. 104 West 71st Street was home to Coleman Morgan, an “advertising man,” in 1932; but in 1935 it was converted to “furnished rooms” by architect Julius Eckman with a restaurant in the basement level.  The brownstone stoop was removed and Eckman gave the basement an Art Deco makeover with stepped, clustered pilasters and a wavecrest frieze.

Another conversion, in 1954, resulted in three apartments in the basement and four each on the upper floors.

Among the tenants in 1960 was the family of 17-year old Robert Engler and his pet honey bear, Timmy.  The 10-pound pet caused substantial excitement in the Upper West Side neighborhood when he escaped on Wednesday morning, August 31.

Reports came into the police station of an animal prowling the backyards, but investigating officers found nothing.  The Times said the sightings “had been regarded in some police circles as ‘imaginary.’”

And then Timmy “strolled into the New York Institute of Technology at 135 West Seventieth Street” on the evening of September 1.   The startled elevator operator found him in a corner of the lobby and called police.  But “when the police came, Timmy decided to move.”

The chase was on as the officers pursued the honey bear to a basement restroom, and then to a lobby lavatory.  The eventual apprehension was not without injury.  The New York Times reported “Timmy was finally captured by Detective Walter Bentley; but not before the detective was bitten on the right wrist.  Then Timmy was taken to the West Sixty-eighth Street station house in a pail.”

Whether Robert Engler got his honey bear back is unclear.  It was removed from the police station by an agent of the ASPCA.

Julius Eckman added Art Deco elements during the 1935 make-over.
In 1990 a store replaced the basement apartments; and at some point the upper floors received an unfortunate coating of white, then gray paint which gives the house a derelict appearance as it flakes away from the brownstone.  Happily when the house was given replacement windows, the wonderful stained glass transom was saved.  And despite the abuse, Thom & Wilson’s exotic design still shines through.

photographs by the author

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