Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The 1826 E. C. Riley House - 134 Sullivan Street

In 1760 Major Abraham Mortimer, Commissary to the British Army, leased 26 acres of land from Trinity Church, just south of Greenwich Village.  He erected his lavish country home, named Richmond Hill.   Following the Revolution the house briefly became the vice-presidential mansion; home first to John Adams then, beginning in 1797, to Aaron Burr.  The glory days of Richmond Hill came to an end after Burr's ignoble 1804 duel with Alexander Hamilton.

John Jacob Astor leased the estate from Trinity Church, criss-crossing the land with new streets where brick houses quickly began rising.   By the 1820s an explosion of development was being seen, inspiring seemingly unlikely investors to get into the speculative real estate game.

Two of these were grocer George S. Mills and carpenter John A. Ryerson who formed the firm Mills & Ryerson.   In July 1826 they purchased the land at the northwest corner of Prince and Sullivan streets and soon began construction of four houses--two facing Prince and the other two on Sullivan Street.  Mills & Ryerson seems to have been initially successful; but declared bankruptcy in April 1842.

No. 134 Sullivan Street was one of the houses begun in 1826.  Three stories high and faced in Flemish bond red brick, it exhibited many of the elements of the Federal style--a handsome doorway with fluted Ionic columns and sidelights, and paneled stone lintels.  But it also displayed the influence of the emerging Greek Revival style; forgoing the peaked attic with dormers in favor of a full-height third floor.  A stone-fronted English basement was accessed by a doorway under the stone stoop.

Stately columns and pilasters flank the door.  The transom and sidelights would, most likely, have originally been leaded.

The house became home to the E. C. Riley family.  Riley's profession is unclear; but the family were members of the Swedenborgians.  The religious group was founded by Emanuel Swedenborg who declared he had the ability to freely visit heaven and hell, and could speak directly to demons and angels.  The Last Judgment, he revealed, had already come to pass, happening in 1757.

The New York congregation was formed in 1816, taking the ungainly name of the Association of the City of New York for the Dissemination of the Heavenly Doctrine of the New Jerusalem.   Newspapers and the community at large preferred an abridged name, the New Jerusalem Church.

Among the most feared diseases of the first half of the 19th century was tuberculosis, known then as pulmonary consumption.  It attacked E. C. Riley, Jr. who died one month after his 17th birthday, on Monday, February 10, 1845.  His funeral was held in the Sullivan Street house the following day.  The entire congregation of the New Jerusalem Church (which numbered less than two dozen persons) was invited.

Riley and his wife were still living in the house a decade later.  He devoted some of his time as a "laddie," or volunteer firefighter with Engine Co. No. 17 at least by 1854.

No. 134 Sullivan Street had a boarder in 1861.  John Ickler made his living teaching piano.  His reputation was such that when William B. Bradbury later advertised his "new scale pianos" he boasted Ickler's endorsement.

By the spring of 1864 No. 134 Sullivan Street had only one resident, possibly Riley's widow.  A rather charming advertisement appeared in The New York Herald on May 24 that year:  "A gentleman can obtain a very neat and comfortably furnished Front Room, with breakfast and tea if desired, in a genteel private house, with an elderly woman."
In the 1870s the railings of the stoop and areaway were replaced with attractive Gothic-inspired ironwork.  At the time the upper floors were being operated as a boarding house.  In 1876 Patrolman Edward Dunn was living here, earning an annual salary of $1,200--nearly $27,500 today.

Ironically, another boarder, William Smith, was arrested on March 20 the following year, for forgery.  He and Frank Dwyer (who refused to give his address) went to the wine store of John Osborne at No 45 Beaver Street and presented an order for 13 cases of wine for F. H. Dwyer.  Dwyer was a known client of Osborne, so the clerk did not suspect foul play.  Later Osborne realized that the signature was a forgery and had the wine-loving crooks arrested.

Also in the house was Henry E. Wegelin and his wife, Elizabeth.  Born in Switzerland around 1835, he had come to the United States in 1855.  The couple's son, Oscar, was two years old in 1879.  On August 28 that year, a daughter, Lydia Ernestine, was born in the Sullivan Street house.

At some point the property had been purchased by musician Louis Ohlemann.  An oboist, he performed with the New York Philharmonic from 1851 to 1874.  Following his death the house was sold at auction on Wednesday, March 6, 1889.

By now the Sullivan Street neighborhood had filled with working class immigrants, many from Italy.  No. 134 was purchased for $11,250 by Giovanni Farina.   Farina moved in with his wife, Annunziata, and their sons George and Louis.

Within the year Farina commissioned architect W. Holman Smith to renovate the basement level to a store.  A simple cast iron storefront was installed.

Louis Farina ran a express company around the corner at No. 132 Prince Street.  One of his drivers, "Dutch" Kelly, was being sought by police in April 1895 after a prostitute who called herself Alice Welsh was found bleeding to death in the hallway of the tenement house at No. 143 Thompson Street.  Alice took the surname of Michael Welsh, "who described himself as a song-and-dance artist," according to The New York Times, after they lived together for a time.
Police found Welsh in a saloon on West Houston Street on April 22.  The Times noted it was "a resort for the women who walk the streets in that neighborhood."  Welsh said he had not lived with Alice for two years.   On the morning of Sunday, April 21, he said, just hours before she was found dying, she was seen drinking with "an Italian" in that same saloon.

Detectives trying to tracing the movements of Alice that day had to sift through a tangle of aliases.   The woman with whom Alice worked on the streets was known as "Gimpy" Amanda.  The Italian with whom Alice was seen in the saloon was Louis Lavale, better known as "Big Louis."  Welsh told them the police Big Louis had been "pressing his attentions" on Alice for a long time and they often quarreled.

Police learned that after Alice and Welsh were no longer living together she had moved in with "Dutch" Kelly--whose real name was Richard Hermann.  They stopped by Louis Farnina's Prince Street business to interview him.  To their disappointment, Kelly had quit about two weeks earlier.

The basement store was leased to several proprietors.  Marco Degregario took it for three years in 1897, followed by John C. Miller in 1900.

When Giovanni Farina transferred title to the house to Annunziata in April 1904, it was assessed at $9,500--about $258,000.  She sold it five years later to Peter J. Rubino and Andrew Leone, who immediately put the title into the names of their wives, Rosa Rubino and Anna M. Leone.  At the time of the sale the house was described as a three-story brick tenement and store.

The new owners' tenants were Italian.  Living there within the next few years were Giovanni Motta, Gennaro Calabrese (a partner in the Italian wine importing firm of Calabrese & Cafariello), and the Elio family.

In 1917 reformers warned of white slavery operators who forced young girls into prostitution.   Middle and upper class families were unaware of the scope of the problem until 18-year old Ruth Cruger disappeared on February 13.  The privileged girl was going ice skating and wore white kid gloves and a velvet coat.  She never returned to the Crugers' home on Claremont Avenue.

It was only after her body was discovered in June and The Evening World began investigating that the horrifying truth was discovered.  In the past six months more than 700 girls had been reported missing in New York City.  The newspaper printed a full list of every one, most of whom had disappeared within a block of their homes.   On the list was 14-year old Lillie Elio who had left No. 134 Sullivan Street on May 21 never to be seen again.

The neighborhood remained heavily Italian for decades.  Nick Acquafredda lived at No. 134 with his widowed mother when World War II broke out.  He joined the Army and was wounded in battle in April 1943.

A resident who attracted less honorable press was 25-year old Melinda Stefan, who fell for the violent bank robber Peter Phillip Mauchlin in the early 1970s.  He bombed a bank near Union Square in October 1973, injuring 10 persons, and robbed at least three other Manhattan banks as well as the Meadowlands National Bank in North Bergen, New Jersey earlier that year.

Before committing the Union Square bombing, he had escaped from the Federal House of Detention.  Five days later he was captured in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina with Melinda.  She was held on $10,000 bail on charges of harboring a fugitive.

Only the two cast iron piers remain of the basement storefront (painted black).
Through it all the exterior of the Riley house mostly retained its 1826 appearance.  The basement storefront was covered over towards the end of the 20th century (although two cast iron piers are still visible).  Today there are two apartments in the house that has survived nearly two centuries of change on Sullivan Street.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Industrialists, Vocalists and Gangsters -- Nos. 329-337 West 85th St.

High brownstone stoops led originally to the entrances above the current green awnings.
Ralph Samuel Townsend was born in New York in 1854 to a builder, also named Ralph Townsend.  When he was in his late 20s, the younger Townsend was listed in city directories as an architect.  By the first years of the 1890s he was highly successful and one of the major players in creating the new Upper West Side.

In 1890 construction began on a row of five houses on West 85th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.  Completed the following year, the upscale residences exuded stability and decorum.  Townsend designed the essentially identical homes in the Romanesque Revival style; then splashed them with a touch of Queen Anne at the delightful attic level with its pyramidal caps.

The parlor levels sat above  especially high English basements.  Both were faced in rough-cut stone.  The otherwise identical facades were distinguished by individual carved elements--the keystones above each entrance and incidental medieval style decorations.  The upper two stories were faced in brick and trimmed in undressed stone.  Shallow stone bowls at the second floor, and smaller versions at the third, most likely held decorative cast iron railings.

Close inspection reveals the subtle differences in the carved decorations.

P. T. Radiker snapped up three of the new homes--Nos. 329, 331 and 333.  Called "The House Merchant" by real estate operators, he initially leased them to high-end tenants.   

George W. Fairchild and his family moved into No. 329.  Like all moneyed New Yorkers, they maintained a summer house, theirs being in Red Bank, New Jersey.  When the family left for the summer in 1893, they left two servants in charge of the 85th Street house.  Prior to leaving Fairchild notified police at the 86th Street Station House that the family would be gone.

The Irish girls, Maggie Moriarty and Bridget O'Houlihan were out on the evening of July 22, 1893 when Policeman Clements headed down the block to check on the closed-up residences.  He stopped short when he noticed two young men peering in the basement windows of the dark house.

The young men were not dressed like burglars.  They wore what The New York Times described as "their Sunday clothes."  Nevertheless, Clements arrested them "on suspicion of having burglarious designs" and hauled them off to the station house.  The Irish-born men, both 23 years old, maintained their innocence.  

Martin Cavanagh and John Mahon insisted that they had dates with the servant girls.  They said they were puzzled as to why they had been stood up and, according to the newspaper, "had maddening visions of rivals in the affections of Maggie and Bridget."

In the meantime, the girls rushed home, realizing they were late.  "When told of the fate of their swains, they tried to get them out," reported The Times.  "They failed, and the disconsolate young men spent the night in the station."

In 1895 Radiker sold the three houses.  The total of $75,000 would be equal to about $725,000 each today.  No. 329 became home to theatrical manager Emanuel Hayman, better known as "Harry Mann."  Well known in the entertainment industry, he was manager of the Knickerbocker Theatre at the time.

No. 331 became the exclusive Mrs. Gordon's Boarding School.  An advertisement in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1895 noted "Mrs. Gordon will receive a limited number of young ladies who wish to visit New-York for the study of music, art, languages, and for general improvement and culture."  The ad noted "The location is the most healthful and desirable in the city."

And No. 333 was purchased by C. H. Pierce, executive and director of the Singer Sewing machine Company.  The Pierce family's summer home was in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.   

In 1895, the same year the family moved into the 85th Street house, Pierce joined his neighbors in signing a petition to city officials.  The 1890s saw a popular fad sweep across the nation: bicycling.  The petition asked for a bicycle path between the Upper West Side and the "lower parts of the city."  

It was a different, new type of transportation that nearly cost Pierce and his wife their lives in 1904.   The couple was at their summer home, where Pierce was president of the local golf club.  He was also, according to The Times, "among the most enthusiastic autoists here all Summer."

On the evening of August 27 Pierce took over the wheel from his chauffeur.  "Mr. Pierce was returning from a spin on the Rumson Road, and was descending a steep hill at a good rate of speed, when he saw a light carriage directly in the way, coming up Bayview Avenue," reported The Times.  Pierce set the brakes and "reversed" the power; but was going too fast to stop.

"The horse, directly in his path, arose with fright on its hind legs.  Putting one arm around his wife, Mr. Pierce turned the big machine nearly at right angles and struck a tree with great force."  The auto overturned and both Pierce and his wife were ejected, landing across the road where they lay unconscious.

The accident occurred directly in front of the fashionable Lockwood House hotel where well-dressed guests were seated on the porches.  Several rushed to the scene and carried the injured couple into the hotel.  While Mrs. Pierce suffered mostly from shock and bruises, her husband was badly cut and had internal injuries.  Their chauffeur "escaped with a severe shaking-up."

In the meantime, No. 335 had originally been purchased by Edward G. Jardine, Sr..  He was partner with his uncle, Joseph P. Jardine, in the organ manufacturing firm of George Jardine & Son.  "The firm built many of the most famous organs in America," wrote The New York Times in 1896.  In March that year the firm came to a bizarre end.

On Friday, March 13 Joseph Jardine died.  Two days later, even before his funeral was held, Edward G. Jardine died.  The Times reported frankly "The firm of George Jardine & Son, organ builders, has been wiped out by death in the short space of three days."  Jardine's widow would remain in the house until selling it in 1902.

The first occupant of the house next door, No. 337, was Standard Oil executive Charles W. Owston.  The year of Jardine's death he served on the jury that decided the fate of Police Captain Thomas Killilea, charged with graft.  The following year the family name would appear in newspapers for a more pleasant event.

On October 12, 1897 the house was the scene of the wedding of Agnes Douglas Owston to William Jenkins Higgs.  Like many Standard Oil executives, Owston had transplanted his family from Cleveland.  And so it was not surprising that the bridegroom was originally from that city.  The Times remarked that the wedding "attracted unusual attention in many parts of this country as well as abroad."

Guests in the 85th Street house that evening came from as far away as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts.  They were surrounded by the expected Victorian profusion of potted palms and flowers; and the newspaper noted "The bridal presents were on view, and were strikingly numerous and elegant."

By the outbreak of World War I the row saw its wealthy owners leave one-by-one.  The arts replaced business and industry, among the first being the Owston house.  It was purchased in 1917 by Madame Esperanza Garrigue as both her home and "The Esperanza Garrigue Classic Music Conservatory."  The Sun reported on September 30 that she would resume teaching on October 1 "at her new residence studios, 337 West Eighty-fifth street."  

The former concert singer (whose sister, incidentally, was the wife of the president of Czechoslovakia)  employed a staff of vocal coaches.  She had a clever marketing strategy to lure new students.  Between noon and 1:00 every Wednesday she listened to potential students sing
 at no charge; then directed them to the right teacher.  And the school was apparently highly successful.  The Sun noted "Mme. Garrigue's regular classes are entirely filled.  There will be no vacancy till January, 1918."

On November 25, 1917 The Sun noted "It goes without saying that the Esperanza Garrigue Conservatory has a distinguished faculty."  Indeed, among the extensive staff the instructor of German grand opera was Richard Hageman of the Metroplitan Opera Company.  Alberto Bimboni, director of Italian grand opera, was a graduate of the Institute of Musical Art in Florence; and Maurice Lafarge, in charge of "French lyric declamation," was a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire.

When Madame Garrigue moved her studio to the Carnegie Hall building in 1920, Ida M. Haggerty-Snell purchased No. 337.  She opened her voice studio in the house, targeting students who, perhaps, had less likelihood of appearing on the professional stage.  Her advertisements included the line "Not all may become Artists, but everyone can be taught to sing artistically."

Nevertheless, when one student, Helen Vogel, gave a recital in the studio on Sunday afternoon, July 10, 1921, Musical Courier gave her a pleasant critique.  "Mme. Ida Haggerty-Snell presented one of her talented pupils in recital at her beautiful resident studio, 337 West Eighty-fifth street."  Explaining that Helen had only trained here for five months, the article said that her performance of operatic arias reflected "much credit on her teacher" and that "She received sincere applause."

Later that year, on October 1, Alfredo Martino opened his voice studios at No. 329.  Until now they had been located further uptown at No. 331 Riverside Drive.  Known internationally, he had trained famous voices like Margaret Burke-Sheridan, known as "Puccini's Enchantress," and had written technical works like the 1919 The Mechanism of the Human Voice.

Alfredo Martino, The Musical Courier, December 14, 1922 (copyright expired)

The former Pierce house, at No. 333, was home to a different type of artistic studio.  In 1919 Lillie M. Weaver was leasing it from the Charles Campbell estate.  A lawyer, he had purchased it in 1907.  

She now held her classes in china decoration here.  Painting china tea sets, berry bowls, chocolate sets and similar household items was a popular pastime of middle- and upper-class women.  Lillie Weaver's classes offered "conventional, naturalistic, enamels, lusters, oil painting" in landscape or still life motifs.

A gape-mouthed grotesque provides a humorous detail to No. 337.
But before long the house would be home to a far more celebrated couple.  In 1921 it was purchased by Ruth Hale and her husband Heywood Broun.   Well-known columnists, they had one son, Heywood Hale Broun.  A staunch women's rights activist, Ruth used her maiden name; a stance that caused the couple to cancel a trip to France the same year they bought the house because the Government refused to issue a passport to her under the name Hale.

The pair hosted weekly dinner parties.  Many of the guests came from the famous Algonquin Round Table group of which Broun was a member--people like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott.  The wide variety of famous names entertained here included Jascha Heifetz, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Harpo Marx and James Weldon.

One of the grandest parties was the couple's first New Year's Eve gathering in the house.  According to author Susan Henry in her Anonymous in Their Own Names, "Their party attracted some two hundred guests, among them best-selling British author H. G. Wells."  Henry mentioned that the Broun's son recalled Ruth never much liked Wells because "he was always pinching her behind."

Heywood Broun sold the house in 1929; at a time when the block was again seeing change.  Down the row, No. 337 had been operated as a rooming house for several years, attracting an undesirable type of tenant.  One of these was David Burke, who had escaped after murdering a policeman during a heist in May 1924.

Four months later Burke's luck ran out.  The 28-year old and an accomplice held up Brooklyn jeweler Louis Mendelsohn at gunpoint on September 13, making off with $8,000 in goods.  But the victim followed them out the door, shouting to policeman Charles Farley.  Farley took chase and overtook the accomplice while Burke fired twice at the officer, missing.

A dramatic foot chase followed during which Burke jumped on the running board of Max Kaufman's automobile.  He pointed his pistol at the driver and demanded "drive like hell."  Instead, Kaufman hit the brakes and refused to move.  Burke ran on, through tenement buildings and over fences until he ran face-to-face with Farley.  At the station house he was positively identified as the man who had shot and killed Detective Bernard Grottano in the May robbery of the United Cigar Store on Flatbush Avenue.

Two days later The New York Times reported that Magistrate O'Neill of the Fifth Avenue Court in Brooklyn had denied Burke bail.  "He will be arraigned for a hearing tomorrow on charges of murder and robbery."

When a gang of six robbers was arrested on February 2, 1942 by Newark police, the confession of one crook sent investigators to the same rooming house at No. 337 West 85th Street.  It was home to 25-year old Elsie Melka.  The Times reported "As a result of the confession the police also picked up Elsie Melka...She was held in $10,000 bail for violation of the Sullivan law [possessing illegal hand guns] after the police found two revolvers, one loaded, in her apartment, which it is charged was used by criminals hiding from authorities."

In 1955 all but two of the houses were converted to apartments, two per floor.  Then in 1960 No. 329 and 337 were also renovated to two apartments per floor.  All five houses are cooperative apartments today with matching awnings where the stoops once stood.  Ralph Townsend's contrast of materials and colors is obliterated under an ill-advised coating of chocolate and cream colored paint.  Yet his overall design is wonderfully intact.

photographs by the author

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Lost New York Turkish Bath - 13-15 Laight Street

Around 1855 Dr. Trall expanded into the taller No. 13 Laight Street. The original double-wide Georgian mansion doubled as his residence.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
By 1807 Trinity Church had transformed the boggy, snake and mosquito infested tract bordered by Beach, Hudson, Varick and Laight Streets into the elegant St. John's Park.  Fine brick mansions faced the square, its focal point being the magnificent Georgian-style St. John's Chapel.

Although the neighborhood remained exclusive in 1850, wealthy homeowners were already moving northward.  That year Dr. Russell Thacher Trall converted the handsome, double-wide mansion at No 15 Laight Street to his "Water-Cure Institute."  Simultaneously he opened a "country" facility.  His advertisement on October 23 explained "Dr. Trall receives Patients at the commodious City establishment, 15 Laight-st. and at Oyster Bay, L.I.  Communication daily between these places by steamboat and railroad."  Dr. Trall's consultations did not come cheaply.  The $5 fee would be about $157 today.

Trall quickly added a Medical School to his institute.  The lecture room was frequently used by outside speakers.  On November 21, 1854 Dr. J. E. Snodgrass spoke here on "The Curiosities of Science."

Within five years Trall took over the abutting house at No. 13 Laight Street.  The combined buildings now served as his Hydropathic and Hygienic Institute--a combination hospital, medical school and "water-cure" establishment.

Russell Thacher Trall --from the collection of the Ernest Bell Library

The water cure, a precursor to today's hydrotherapy, was considered more spiritual and natural than contemporary medicine.  Practitioners believed that water (the major component of the body) would enter wounds and imperfections in the skin and flush out impurities.  This was done by various methods--"plunging baths," "sitting baths," and "head baths" among them.  Only cold water was used.

Trall was also an enthusiast of vegetarianism and founded the New-York Vegetarian Society in October 1852.  At its second meeting in the Water Cure Institute in November Trall announced that there were now 25 members.

Another group that used the lecture room as its meeting place was the Women's City Temperance Alliance.  At its meeting on the afternoon of December 9, 1853, the members voiced concern that propaganda from anti-Temperance groups linked them with Women's Rights organizations.  A resolution was adopted that read:

Resolved, That this Alliance is in no sense a Woman's Rights movement--we neither adopt its principles, nor endorse its measures, but have organized ourselves with a Society for the one great object of aiding the progress and securing the triumph of the Temperance Reform, by the use of all the means in our power.

In the meantime, the Hydropathic and Hygienic Institute proved successfully.  An 1855 advertisement said that 100 patients could be accommodated.  The Institute was not limited to the water cure.  Among the staff were Mrs. L. F. Fowler, in charge of female diseases and obstetrics; L. N. Fowler, an expert in phrenology and mental science; and surgeon G. H. Taylor.

The medical school promised not only to "qualify male and female practitioners of Healing Art, but also to educate and send into the field of human progress, competent Health-reform, Teachers and Lecturers."  Tuition was $50 for a six-month course, or $100 for students boarding at the school.

Despite the upscale tenor of the neighborhood, Dr. Trall was surprisingly attacked on August 23, 1855.  The New York Times reported "As Dr. R. T. Trall, the Vegetarian, was returning from a visit to the sick bed of a friend...while near St. John's Park, he was violently assaulted by two rowdies, one of whom struck him with a slung-shot, which felled him to the earth.  After lying in a state of insensibility for some time, he managed to get to his house, No. 15 Laight street, where he now lies in a very critical condition."

Out-of town clients taking the water cure could board at the Institute.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on November 22, 1859 explained "Good board can be obtained from $5 to $7 per week.  Full treatment, with board, from $7 to $15 per week.  Transient persons $1 per day.  Gymnasium and Bathing privileges for the use of guests free of charge."

Another trend was emerging at the time--Russian and Turkish "vapor baths."  In 1865 a Parisian physician named Buisson, wrote in The Medical and Surgical Reporter "When a person has been bitten by a mad dog, he should be made to take seven of the so-called Russian Vapor baths."  The doctor explained that the resulting perspiration would sweat out the infection.  He added that the same would work for a rattlesnake or tarantula bite.

Another expert, Dr. Laurence Turnbull, wrote a paper on "Diseases of the Internal Ear" that year.  He concluded, in part, "Finally, here belong all those cases of hardness of hearing which have happened to be relieved by the use of Russian vapor baths."

In February 1865 two doctors, A. L. Wood and E. P. Miller took over Dr. Trall's operation, opening The New York Hygienic Institute the following month, the first Turkish bath in Manhattan.  Later that year Erasmus Wilson, in his The Eastern, or, Turkish Bath, wrote "By far the most complete baths that have yet been erected in this country, are those at 13 Laight St., New York City, by Miller, Wood & Co., first opened to the public in March, 1865.  They are already patronized very largely by the most cultivated and intelligent people of New York.  They were the first to introduce Shampooing, and, in fact, this is a very important part of the process, and has high value."

Laight Street was misleadingly depicted as quiet and residential in 1872.  The new owners added a sign "Turkish Baths" to the side.  The Herald of Health, July 1872 (copyright expired)

The Turkish bath used heat, steam and cold plunges to cure an almost endless list of maladies, including malaria, gout, rheumatism, diabetes, hysteria, "female weaknesses," epilepsy, hypochondria, paralysis, influenza, lameness, and dysentery.

Wilson pointed out that women would benefit greatly from the treatments.  "Physically their habits are so much worse; their skin so much weaker; circulation so much more languid; dress so much more confining, and perspiration so rarely well performed, that it becomes to them a necessity, and one of the greatest luxuries they can enjoy."

The fact that Miller, Wood & Co. published Wilson's book make his glowing review a bit suspect.

Clients descended a flight of stairs to the Frigidarium--a "nice, comfortable room, filled with easy chairs, and lined around with little curtained apartments."  Those "apartments" were the 10 changing rooms where a "bath garment" was put on.   Called a cummerbund, it was a rectangular piece of red cloth.  "This is tied artistically over the right shoulder, passing under the left one, and descends about to the knee," explained Wilson.

So dressed, the patron moved on to the warm-air Tepidarium and sat upon upholstered lounges.  Attendants then wrapped a wet towel around the client's forehead and placed his feet in a tub of warm water.  The room was lit by the soft light of stained glass windows.  Once perspiration began to appear, the patron was moved to the next room--the Sudatorium, or "hot place."

One client sits in the Tepidarium, at left, while others recline in the Sudatorium, then shower.  The Eastern, or, Turkish Bath, 1865 (copyright expired)

Each client was stretched out on a couch.  "There you lie till bathed in a profuse perspiration, and you are wet with tears of sweat."  Attendants then shampooed and massaged the body "till all the old skin is gone."  A soapy sponge bath followed by a shower brought the body temperature down.

The procedure was not over yet.  Another brisk rub down followed, then a trip back to the Tepidarium for further cooling, then back to the Frigidarium.  Clients sat wrapped in a "good, motherly, soft, woolen blanket" until ready to go back to their daily routine.

The Rev. W. C. Van Meter gave a glowing recommendation in The Little Wanderer's Friend in 1864.  "The perspiration that does not exhaust, the rubbing that electrifies, the shower-bath more refreshing than a summer shower upon withered plants, the wrapping in clean white soft woolen blankets, the reclining in 'extension chairs,' surpass the most luxurious dream."

As had been the case with Dr. Trall's operation, patrons could board here.  On November 3, 1865 The New York Times mentioned that Virginia Paine Grant, the sister of General Ulysses S. Grant, and two companions "have been spending several days at the Hygiene Institute, Nos. 13 and 15 Laight-street."

Dr. Miller left to open Dr. Miller's Turkish Baths on West 26th Street before 1872.  Wood & Holbrook continued to run the Laight Street operation.  That year they boasted that its "boarding department" was "supplied with the Best Kinds of Food, Healthfully Prepared, and Plenty of it." Clients taking advantage of the accommodations and treatments paid from $15 to $25 per week; as much as $500 in today's dollars.

But the Turkish bath phenomena seems to have been fading.  By 1877 Wood and Holbrook were focusing on publishing its popular magazine The Herald of Health, from the Laight Street location, along with books like the somewhat sensational The Relations of the Sexes by Mrs. E. B. Duffey.  The author touched on subjects like the history, evils, causes and remedies of prostitution, "marriage and its abuses," polygamy, "free love and its evils," and chastity.

Other titles published by Wood & Holbrook that year were The Change of Life; What Young People Should Know; Advice to a Wife; and The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation.

The Hygienic Institute was now advertised as the Hygienic Hotel.  An advertisement in 1874 said it "combines all the advantages of a good hotel and home with those of a first-class health institution."

By now the elegant St. John's Park had been demolished by the Hudson River Railroad Company and replaced by a freight terminal.  Instead of the handsome dwellings, loft buildings now closed in around Nos. 13 and 15 Laight Street.   The one next door at Nos. 9 and 11 Laight Street caught fire on during a fierce gale on March 12, 1888.  Four fire companies battled the fire, the New York Times noting they "saved the surrounding property which was in great danger for a time."  Nevertheless, the newspaper pointed out that there was "slight damage to the Hygienic Hotel."

Within a few years Helen C. Julliard purchased and demolished the old buildings and erected a six-story brick warehouse.  It, the old freight depot, and all the buildings around the site of what had been St. John's Park were razed in the early 1920s to make way for the entrance to the new Holland Tunnel.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Unlikely Survivor - No. 22 East 66th St

The gradual northward migration of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens had not yet reached the block of East 66th Street, off Fifth Avenue, in the mid-1870s.  Around 1875 developer Charles E. Cornish erected a string of upscale, brownstone-fronted homes which wrapped the southeast corner of Madison Avenue onto the side street.  Among them would have been No. 22 East 66th Street.

A blend of the established Italianate and the up-and-coming neo-Grec styles, it rose four stories above the high English basement.  Designed for a financially-comfortable family, it boasted floor-to-ceiling parlor windows capped with classical pediments, architrave-framed openings on the upper floors, and an especially pleasing cornice with stylized brackets between which were robust rosettes and dentiled arches.  The double-doored entrance, beneath a fanlight, was protected by a columned portico crowned by a stone balustrade.  Most likely it continued as a unit with the mirror-image entry  next door at No. 20.

Webster Wagner purchased the house in 1879 as an investment.  His wide-flung career included politician (he served in both the State Senate and State Assembly), manufacturer, and inventor.  After working with the New York Central Railroad, he developed and manufactured the first sleeping car and the luxurious parlor car, or "drawing-room car."  Railroad companies could expect to from $17,000 to $20,000 for the parlor cars--upwards of $478,000 today.

Ironically, Wagner's death came in a sleeping car when the train he was traveling in was struck from behind by a Chicago Express near Spuyten Duyvil.  His was among the most gruesome casualties, having burned to death.

The Wagner family retained possession of No. 22 East 66th Street, and it would see a rapid turn-over of moneyed tenants.  It was home to John S. Dickerson and his wife, Emma, by the mid-1890s.  Dickerson was a partner in the tin-plate and metal importing firm Dickerson, Van Dusen & Co.  Shortly after Emma's death in the house at the age of 45 in November 1897, he moved to the Plaza Hotel.

Stockbroker Albert H. De Forest leased the house next.  His poor health had forced him to retire on May 1, 1898 from the brokerage house C. I. Hudson & Co., which he and Charles I. Hudson had formed in 1885.  De Forest and his family were at their summer home in Litchefield, Connecticut in August 1899 when he died.

J. Wray Cleveland and his family were the Wagners' next tenants.  A member of the Title Guarantee & Trust Co., the wealthy businessman joined the trend of updating the neighborhood in 1904.  He purchased the old brownstone at No. 131 East 64th Street, demolished it, and commissioned Augustus N. Allen to design a modern residence on the site.  Once the Wrays' new home was completed, No. 22 East 66th Street became home to corporate attorney Parker Kirlin and his wife.

The house was the scene of yet another death in November 1912 when Kirlin's 82-year old father-in-law, Peter J. Ralph died here.  Famous for his Great Lakes steamships, he had formed the firm P. J. Ralph & Co. decades earlier.  During the Civil War he was appointed by President Lincoln as Inspector of Steamers.

By now the house was owned by Wagner Webster's daughter, Anna, who had married George W. Van Vlack.  The seemingly mundane announcement that she had leased it to "Madame Lemay" in February 1916 proved to anything but.

"Madame Lemay" was Berdina Le May, the 44-year old divorcee and present wife of 29-year old actor Pierre Joseph Le May.  Berdina was the daughter of John Findlay Wallace and Sadie W. Wallace.  He was not only President of Westinghouse, Church, Kerr & Co., but the chief engineer of the Panama Canal.  The Wallaces had never approved of the young actor.

Le May, then only 21, had met Berdina Wallace Orr in 1908 when they were introduced by mutual friends at the Iroqouis Hotel.  Despite his daughter's having been married and divorced, and being 35 years old (quite old enough to handle her own romantic affairs without parental interference), Wallace objected to the increasing attachment.  According to The New York Times later, "the result was that Mrs. Orr was sent to Boulder, Col., where she remained for six months."

Following her return early in 1911, the couple ran into each other on a Fifth Avenue bus on March 27.  They "talked things over," according to Le May, and the next day went to Hoboken where they were married.  The Wallaces were unaware of the secret wedding for a month.

The newlyweds took an apartment on West End Avenue, and while they "lived harmoniously" at first, according to Le May, Berdina's parents did their best to convince her that he "was not fit to be her husband," going so far as to bribe her "by acts, promises, and the payment of money."

Mrs. Wallace got her opportunity when Pierre and Berdina got into a "squabble" on June 10, 1911 over his career and "the thought that it threw him too often in the society of other women," as he put it.  Pierre left the apartment, and when he returned he found Berdina gone.  He waited for five days alone there, hoping she would return.

His wife had gone to live in her parents' apartment in the Apthorp on Broadway and 79th Street with her parents.  Whenever Pierre attempted to contact her, "all the information he could get was that his wife was out of town and he could write to her, addressing the letter to her parents' home," said The Times.

It was possibly his still-fervent hope that Berdina would return which prompted Pierre Joseph Le May to lease No. 22 East 66th Street in his wife's name in 1916.  He took his battle one step further in August that year when he sued his in-laws for $100,000, charging them with conspiring to separate Berdina from him.  In reporting the suit, The New York Times noted parenthetically, "Le May said he was now in the movies."

His renting of the East 66th Street house seems to have been in vain.

No. 22 was still a private home when Anna Van Vlack leased it to Frances Karr in August 1919, who converted it for use as a private school.  The school would continue here until September 1931 when Frances Karr leased another house, No. 112 East 76th Street, as its new location.

Anna Van Vlack had died in October, 1923; however the family continued to own and lease the property.  By the Depression years, the block had seen significant change.  Of the old 1870s brownstones, only No. 22 remained intact; although part of its portico had been shaved off when No. 20 was renovated in 1922 by wealthy lawyer William Fawcett.  His famed architect, Rosario Candela, pulled the facade to the property line, thereby removing the stoop and half No. 22's eastern column.

The portico features quirky, stylized capitals.  When the facade of No. 22 was pushed forward, the new structure removed half of the columns on that side, making them seem embedded in the brickwork.

In January 1934 Anna Van Vlack's sons, George and Wagner, leased the house to Salem Edward Munyer.  He announced his intentions "to alter the structure for a residence and a studio for laces."  Munyer's shop was installed in the English basement and the upper floors were updated as his family's home.

The Munyers maintained a country home in Hot Springs, Virginia.  Their daughter, Helen Jewell, was well-educated, attending Centenary Collegiate in New Jersey, Syracuse University, and New York University's Washington Square College.  On March 21, 1939 the Munyers hosted a dinner party to announce Helen's engagement to George Townsend England, Jr.  

After leasing the house for a decade, Salem E. Munyer purchased it from the Van Vlack family in 1945; ending their 66-year ownership.  Munyer wasted no time in hiring architect James E. Casale to convert it to apartments.  His plans were filed in March 1945, projecting a cost of $3,000.

Among Munyer's tenants in the 1950s was author and radio producer Ann Honeycutt.  A close friend of James Thurber, he had illustrated her 1939 How to Raise a Dog in the City, In the Suburbs. 

By 1950 Munyer's "lace studio" was gone from the lower level to be replaced by a succession of galleries.  The Martha Jackson Gallery opened here in 1953, and would be the venue for exhibitions of works by modern artists like Marino Marini, Willem de Kooning, Lawrence Calcagno and Paul Hailer Jones over the next few years.

Other galleries in rapid succession after 1955 were the Symons Galleries, the Hewitt Gallery which opened in October 1958, and the Robert Isaacson Gallery. 

By 1971 it was the location of Isabelle Mayer's society catering service, Charles Wilson, Ltd.  New York Magazine said she "has gathered scrapbook full of testimonials from members of the Four Hundred.  Though her heart is clearly with the Auchinclosses' debuts, she is almost as proud of her clambakes and the annual ball parties in all the hotels."

Today the basement level is home to Bistro Chat Noir, while the parlor floor is a beauty salon.  The last survivor on the block from the 1870s, No. 22 looks a bit forlorn.  Nevertheless it is a charming relic of much quieter era on East 66th Street.

photographs by the author

Friday, May 26, 2017

Olde England off the Park -- 17 East 84th Street

Having learned his trade in the architectural office of his father, George Brown Pelham, George Fred Pelham opened his own office in 1890.   His son, George Fred Pelham, Jr., joined the firm in 1910. 

Pelham's designs for apartment buildings, rowhouses and hotels were impressive; but not especially out of the ordinary.  He routinely turned to the same historic styles being used by any number of New York architects--Renaissance Revival and Gothic Revival, for instance.  

In 1922 the Sagamore Realty Co. commissioned Pelham to design a half-million dollar apartment house in Bronxville, New York.  His neo-Tudor fantasy was a striking blend of half-timbering, rubble stone and slate tiling.

Pelham's rendering of the Bronxville project had noticeable similarities to 17 East 84th Street.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, October 7, 1922

Simultaneously, the architect was working on plans for a nine-story apartment building for the 2069 Broadway Corp, to be erected at Nos. 17 and 19 East 84th Street.  Designed in what the Record & Guide called "the style of Elizabethan period of English architecture," the upscale structure would share many of the charming details of its Bronxville cousin.

Completed in 1923, the $300,000 building (around $4.2 million today) was intended for the wealthy residents of the mansion-filled block.  There were just two apartments per floor, each containing five to seven rooms, along with a sprawling penthouse.

The two-story base was faced in rough-cut stone.  Here the slightly off-centered doorway was balanced by a matching, pointed-arched window.  Centered above was a carved coat of arms of two rampant lions flanking a crown-topped shield--the product of a designer's romantic imagination.

Above a projecting stone bandcourse the facade separated into two distinct but equally-charming sections.  To the west, stucco and copper-clad half-timbering created a Tudor cottage effect.  Behind the acute gable was a slate-tiled mansard.  The more severe section to the east was faced in ruddy Flemish bond brick.  Its top two floors, Elizabethan-fashion, were outlined in stone quoins.  A castellated parapet sat ready for pouring boiling oil on unwelcome invaders of East 84th Street.

As the building neared completion, a sign advertised apartments "7 Rooms, 3 Baths; 6 Rooms, 2 baths." from the collection of the New York Public Library

No. 17 quickly became home to some of New York's most recognized names in society.  George Leary, Jr. had grown up in privilege.  The family mansion was at No. 1053 Fifth Avenue and young George was well-known among the yachting and tennis set on Long Island.  His parents' Southampton summer home, Hawthorne House, was completed in 1920.  Gossip, the "International Journal of Society," called it "a pretentious affair so far as spacious grounds and larges rooms on the inside of the house are concerned."

Following George's fashionable wedding to Sarah Thomson in St. Patrick's Cathedral (performed by Archibishop Patrick Hayes, later Cardinal Hayes), the couple moved into No. 17 East 84th Street.  They remained here for years.  Despite the spacious proportions of their apartments, the guest list for the dinner and dancing to celebrate their anniversary in 1925 required larger accommodations.

Dinner was served in a private suite of the Park Lane Hotel.  "The dance followed in the Tapestry Room," reported The New York Times, "the guests for it coming on from other dinners."  Those guests bore the surnames of some of Manhattan's most elite: Dodge, Remsen, Brokaw and Goodhue among them.

Several renowned publishers and physicians were early residents.  Perhaps the most famous doctor was Bela Schick, who married Catharine C. Frieds in 1925.  The couple would live at No. 17 for decades.

A pediatrician, Schick's name lives on in the Schick Test which essentially brought an end to diphtheria as a fatal disease to thousands of children annually.  But he was also known for his touching ability to relate to his young patients.  The New York Times noted later "Visitors to a sick child in the hospital were often astonished to see the distinguished-appearing Dr. Schick in a white medical jacket squatting on the floor, his hands sticking up from his head like ears, waggling his fingers."

Although he and Catharine never had children, he held firm opinions as to their rearing.  In his 1932 book Child Care Today, he offered guidance to parents like "Love the child--that is the most important implement of discipline," and "The attitude of parents toward sex education may be summed up in these words: No emphasis and no secrecy."

It was not all work for Schick.  He and Catharine routinely appeared at concerts and traveled frequently.

Among the prominent publishers in the building was Pascal Covici, of Covici, Friede, Inc.  In 1928 he was dismayed at the Government's censorship of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Considered pornographic, it was banned in the United States.  But before the Custom House began confiscating the book, Covici had acquired a copy.

He wrote to the author, saying in part "Sincerely, I believe it to be the most vital piece of fiction I have read in the last ten years.  It would be a tragic loss to literature if your book would not be brought out in some way or other in America."

The phrase "in some way or other" was significant.  He offered to publish Lady Chatterly's Lover in the U.S. "if some of the phrases that seem to offend out Custom House officials were taken out."

The Great Depression had little effect on the upscale building.  In 1938 management reported that it was fully rented and had been for the four previous years.  Nevertheless, in November 1941 the building's owners, the Harlem Savings Bank, announced that architect J. M. Berlinger had been hired to remodel the penthouse "into two three-room apartments."

The elderly Sarah Wisner Lockwood had been living alone here since her husband's death in 1927.  I. Ferris Lockwood had been bursar of the New York Public Library.  Sarah was well-known for her charity work and had founded the New York branch of the Girls Friendly Society in 1894.

The Lockwood's daughter, Priscilla, had married Alfred F. Loomis in Grace Church on June 5, 1921.  Perhaps because of her mother's advancing age, the Loomis family moved into the building from their home at No. 122 East 76th Street in 1941.  Loomis, like George Leahy, Jr., was well-known in yachting circles.  He was the author of several books on sailing and his various vessels, docked near their country estate, The Orchard, in Huntington, Long Island, raced regularly in regattas.

Sarah Wisner Lockwood died in her apartment on October 24, 1944 at the age of 94.  Her son-in-law, Alfred, was serving as a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves in the war at the time.

The Loomis family would remain in the building for years; their names appearing regularly in the society columns.  The children received the upbringing expected in wealthy families.  Sarah, known as Sally, debuted in the ballroom of the Cosmopolitan Club on November 2, 1946.  She attended the exclusive Chapin School, then Bryn Mawr College, and was, of course, a member of the Junior League.

Sarah's brother, Alfred Worthington Loomis, was married to Louise Harding Earle in St. John's Protestant Episcopal Church in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, in May 1950.  The same church was the setting of Sarah's wedding the following year, in April, to Ward Clarke Campbell.

On November 19, 1967 while Bela and Catharine Schick were on a cruise to South America, the doctor was stricken with pleurisy.  He was brought back to New York on November 30 and he died exactly one week later at the age of 90.  The distinguished couple had lived in what The Times called their "spacious apartment" for approximately four decades.

George Fred Pelham's quaint apartment house is little changed since it elbowed itself in among private mansions in 1923.  A modern awning obscures the details of the entrance; but overall its charming personality survives.

photograph by the author

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The 1887 Chas. Lehmann Bldg. - 754 Ninth Avenue

Charles Lehmann ran his butcher shop from at No. 754 Ninth Avenue, just south of the corner of West 51st Street in the early 1880s.  He and his wife Matilda lived in the little building behind the store, with the address 754-1/2.

In January 1886 the firm of Thom & Wilson had its hands full.  The architects were simultaneously working on 11 houses on Tenth Avenue at 76th Street, 13 houses on Ninth Avenue and 64th Street and five more on Park Avenue.  They were also at work on 10 apartment houses in Midtown, three "stores and flats" on Ninth Avenue, and nine tenement buildings.

Nevertheless Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson accepted another, much less ambitious, commission to design a small building in the gritty Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.  On April 23 Thom & Wilson filed plans for a replacement "four-story brick tenement with store" for Lehmann.  The 25-foot wide structure was projected to cost $16,000 to build--a little over $415,000 today.

Lehmann's building was completed in 1887.  The cast iron elements of the two-story commercial base appear to have been selected from foundry catalogues.  In stark contrast, the upper two floors were far from off-the-shelf.

Contrasting materials and colors--brick, stone and terra cotta--joined in a handsome neo-Grec facade splashed with hints of Queen Anne.  Thom & Wilson used brick for much of the decorative elements--the imitation quoins and blocks flanking the third floor openings, a sawtooth bandcourse, and recessed panels, for instance.  Between the third and fourth floors two panels filled with terra cotta tiles provided visual interest.  Their swirling designs, sunbursts or sunflowers were important Aesthetic Movement motifs.  The sheet metal cornice, with its panels of swags and rosettes, included a stylish parapet that may have originally announced the construction date, or perhaps Lehmann's name.

Sadly, a coat of white paint disguises the once-colorful contrast of stone, brick and terra cotta.

Charles Lehmann reopened his butcher shop in the ground floor.  The second floor was taken by Brode & Shannon, plumbers and gas fitters.

The upper two floors contained apartments, leased to low-income working class families.  Outside their windows was the Ninth Avenue Elevated Railroad.  Not only passenger cars, but rumbling freight trains traveled up and down the avenue.

Despite the desperate conditions of Hell's Kitchen residents, one family in No. 754 struggled to improve the future of one son.  Charles F. Osborne was enrolled in the College of the City of New York while living here.  His studies may have been slowed by having to work to help the family.  It took him six years to graduate in 1895.

In 1893 Charles Lehmann leased the butcher shop to L. Meyer.  It changed hands again when R. F. Hilsmann bought the business.  He transferred ownership to Emil A. Hilsmann, most likely his son, in 1897.

An upstairs tenant, Joseph Gunterman, learned a valuable lesson on June 13, 1898 when he visited the brothel at No. 210 West 13th Street.  The place was run by Georgie Daly, a 24-year old black woman.  Gunterman told police that Daly had entered the room where "he was in the bed" with an "unknown woman" that night at around 11:40.  He claimed that when he got dressed, he was missing $50.

Georgie Daly was arrested and held for trial on grand larceny charges.  The case was heard before a grand jury on June 27, 1898.  Gunterman's story of being robbed in a house of ill-repute, however, would not have garnered sympathy from the respectable jury.  Too, his assertion that he was carrying $50 in cash--nearly $1,500 in today's dollars--was suspect considering that he lived in one of Manhattan's seamiest neighborhoods.  The jury dismissed the case.

At the time Frederick Coppolo ran his sidewalk fruit stand in front of the butcher shop.  He turned over its operation to Andres Gargula the following year.  Gargula was granted his fruit stand license on September 5, 1899.

Charles and Matilda Lehmann struggled to keep their building.  On November 1, 1905 they refinanced the property with a mortgage of $12,000; not appreciably less than the original construction cost.

Little had changed to the neighborhood in the first years of the 20th century.  The renters in No. 754 continued to be hard working, blue collar types.   James R. Hayden lived here in 1906 when he was hired by the City as an "axeman" with the Board of Water Supply.  To quality for the stable position, which came with an annual salary of $840 (less than $23,000 today), Hayden had to pass a Civil Service exam.  As the City laid water pipes and sewers, heavy laboring axemen like Hayden would be on hand to clear the sites.

On September 11, 1915, the worst accident in the history of New York's elevated railways occurred two blocks north at the 53rd Street curve.  Thirteen people died and 48 others were seriously injured. The Lehmanns still owned No. 754 a year later when the Manhattan Railway Co. proposed adding a third track to the elevated railroad.   Like other property owners along Ninth Avenue, they received a small compensation after approving the additional track.

After having been the neighborhood butcher shop for decades, the ground floor was home to H. Cohen's furniture store by the outbreak of World War I.

The Keiser family rented an apartment here in the 1920s.  Harold Keiser was 17 years old in 1923 when he and three friends went to a party in the apartment house at No. 6 Amsterdam Avenue.  The problem was that none of them had been invited and they were refused entrance.

Undaunted, the boys decided to crash the party by entering through a window by way of the rear fire escape.  They went down the block until they found a way to get to the roof of the seven-story apartment building at No. 14.  But in order to get to No. 6 they had to leap from building to building.

Keiser did not get very far.  Between No. 14 and 12 he missed.  He would doubtlessly have died in the seven-story plunge had it not been for a bizarre reprieve.  As with most apartment buildings, housewives dried their laundry on criss-crossing clotheslines.  Pulleys made it possible for them to send the wet clothes into the high voids between the buildings.

The New York Times reported "Bouncing from clothesline to clotheslines Harold Keiser...escaped with a broken right ankle."  The newspaper explained that the clotheslines which stretched from window to window across the areaway acted to break his fall.

The Keiser family was among the last residents of No. 754 Ninth Avenue.  In 1930 architect Irving Kudroff renovated the commercial floors, including vast show windows at the second floor.  The upper two floors were converted for storage.

At some point a sheet metal patch was inserted into the pediment, announcing an arcane date.

It would not be until the last quarter of the 20th century that Hell's Kitchen would see change from one of the most depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods to a trendier residential district.  Charles Lehmann's butcher shop became the Network Theater by 1979, and the Amistad Theater in 1982.  By 1981 the Stanley Harrison Acting Studio was also in the building.

Today a Mexican restaurant operates from street level, with the appropriate name Hell's Kitchen.  The upper floors have been given a regrettable coat of gray-beige paint which sadly hides Thom & Wilson's contrasting colors and materials.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The 1886 Marvin Safe Company Bldg - 468-472 West Broadway

In the early 1970s, with paper box factory on the lower floors, the building was remarkably intact--including several of the original doors.  photograph by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On February 19, 1885 fire broke out in the six-story factory of the Marvin Safe Company at No. 326 West 37th Street at around 2:40 in the morning.  A second, then a third alarm was called as "there were prospect of a serious conflagration," as explained by The New York Times the following morning.  When the blaze was finally extinguished, the building was in ruins.  One week later Building Inspector D'Oench ordered the "razing of the walls."

Owner Willis D. Marvin wasted no time in laying plans for a new factory.  He purchased the properties at Nos. 88 through 92 South Fifth Avenue, running through the block to Nos. 136 to 144 Thompson Street and hired architect Oscar S. Teale to design a "six-story brick and iron factory."  Teale's plans, filed in June that year, placed the cost of construction at $65,000--about $1.65 million today.

The Marvin Safe Company was firmly established as a leading player in the industry.  Its safes--ranging from relatively small office-sized models to gigantic vaults--were well-known for protecting their contents from fire.  The large headquarters building would house a multitude of departments--manufacturing, painting and stenciling, offices and salesrooms.   Because of the elevated train that ran down the middle of South Fifth Avenue, Teale placed the showrooms on the second floor--visible to passengers--while less noticeable ground floor retail space would be leased.

Oscar S. Teale was educated at Cooper Union, graduating in 1866, and had worked with several architectural firms, including the offices of J. Cleveland Cady and Lamb & Rich.  But it is not his professional successes for which he is best remembered, but for his avocation--magic.  Teale was an amateur magician and a close friend of Harry Houdini.  He would go on to write books on the subject, including his Higher Magic: Magic for the Artist.  Not only did he design Houdini's magnificent monument in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York; but he served as a pallbearer at the funeral.

Teale's completed Marvin Safe Company building was six stories of red-orange brick trimmed in stone and cast iron.  The Romanesque Revival tripartite design kept the visual weight low.  The hefty three-story base was dominated by three soaring arches where rough-cut stone courses decorated the piers.  Unexpected neo-Classical elements appeared in the delicately festooned panels that defined the second and third floors, and the elegant scrolled keystones draped with garlands.  The spandrels of the arches were filled with lacy cast iron decorations.

The two-story middle section featured a row of six arches joined by prominent eyebrows.  Here again the neo-Classical panels appeared and bold decorative cast iron masonry supports adorned two piers.  Teale continued to lessen the weight with each succeeding level.  The sixth floor was a light array of three sets of arched openings below pronounced lintels.  A sturdy brick corbel table took the place of a cast cornice.

The ground floor was leased to the C. & C. Electric Motor Company.  The Iron Age, in 1888, explained "They manufacture electric motors from one-eighth horse-power up for general manufacturing and mechanical purposes."

In describing the effect of the elevated railroad on businesses later, real estate operator Victor Levy noted that the second floor showroom was an advantage for the firm.  "The Marvin Safe Company building don't have their salesroom there, it is a kind of show room for advertisement for the elevated railroad.  It is a big advertisement.  It is an improvement for them."

The rear, Thompson Street, elevation is decidedly more spartan.
More than 250 employees--all male--worked in the factory.  Their grueling jobs were not pleasant.  In the spring of 1886 they walked out, demanding better wages and more humane working hours.  A compromise was achieved on May 5 with Marvin Safe Company agreeing to reduce hours of labor "to nine hours on five days of the week and eight on Saturday."  They refused to increase wages, however, except in the case of "17 men in the ironworking department, who will receive an advance of $1 a week."

The safes were not only complex and secure, but highly attractive.  The New York Clearing House, 1888 (copyright expired)
The Marvin Safe Company was understandably sensitive about the reliability of its product.  So management was apparently infuriated when The Evening World erroneously reported that one of its safes had been broken into in the offices of William E. Chamberlin.  On March 3, 1889 a retraction explained that the safe "was made by a Pennsylvania house, and this statement is made in justice to the Marvin Safe Company, whose safes are not considered as favorite objects of attack on the part of the enterprising burglar."

Not all of the Marvin Safe Company's employees worked in the factory.  A crew was required to deliver and install the safes which weighed thousands of pounds.  It was a job not without its dangers.

In 1892 a five-ton safe was delivered to the seventh floor of the Hays Building at No. 21 Maiden Lane.  The elevator suddenly jerked upward, sending a worker plummeting down the shaft, killing him instantly.  And on April 30, 1894, as workmen were hoisting a 5,000-pound safe through the elevator shaft to the 12th floor of No. 68 Nassau Street, one of the cog wheels of the windlass broke.

The Times reported "The safe fell to the stone floor at the bottom of the shaft with such force as to shake the surrounding buildings.  Frank May, one of the workmen, was struck by flying pieces of the windlass.  His arm was dislocated and he received severe contusions on the leg...John Burke, who rode up on top of the safe, jumped to one of the floors just in time to save himself."

In the spring of 1895 the City embarked on a project of widening and extending College Place.  By cutting the street through existing blocks it would form a connection to West Broadway and South Fifth Avenue--one continuous thoroughfare from Dey Street to Washington Square.  Businessmen like Willis Martin predicted confusion.  He joined others in a petition to the mayor on March 18 suggesting "the entire street should be given the name of West Broadway for its entire length."  The idea was well received and the Marvin Safe Company building received the new address of Nos. 468-472 West Broadway.

By now Marvin Safe Company had merged with two other prominent manufacturers, the Herring Safe and Lock Company of New York, and the Hall Safe and Lock Company of Cincinnati.  What would seem to have been a wise move proved otherwise and the consolidated firm was soon in trouble.

The title to the West Broadway building was in the name of Marvin's wife, Lilla.  In March 1899 plans for $1,200 in improvements were filed under her name.  The quiet updating may have been in preparation for the inevitable leasing of the factory space.  The improvements seem to have included the automatic sprinkler and fire doors soon touted in loft advertisements.

On November 25, 1899 The New York Times reported that United States Judge Kirkpatrick had denied an application "for permission to sell and dispose of the plant and stock of the concern."

In August 1900 the Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Company was reorganized and a few months later leased the four-story building at the northeast corner of Broadway and Walker Street.  Lilla B. Marvin retained ownership of the West Broadway building, which was quickly leased to multiple tenants.

Among the first were Toch Paint Supply Co., makers of "damp resisting paint," A. Hart & Company, "makers of Artistic Metal Novelties," and the Martin Brass Foundry.

Benajah M. Martin was owner of the foundry that bore his name.  He and his family lived at No. 240 West 74th Street.  His daughter Alice was frail, The New York Times describing her saying "from childhood she had been more or less an invalid," and she was constantly under a doctor's care.

Despite her condition, Alice had involved herself in mission work on Chrystie Street beginning around 1906.  But in November that year she was concerned about a condition that affected the muscles of her throat.  She convinced herself that she was suffering from tuberculosis.

On the night of November 20 the 20-year old wrote a note explaining that rather than be a burden to her family and suffer herself, she would end her life.  She then drank oxalic acid dissolved in water.  Around 7:00 her maid found her lying on her bed "suffering great agony."  Alice was dead before a doctor could arrive.  Her note ended "I give you all my love.  Good-bye to you."

Toch Paint remained in the building for several years.  They were joined by the Joseph alter Box Co. and in 1912 by M. Friedman & Co., manufacturers of canes and umbrellas, who took the fifth floor.

The Jos. Walter Box Co. foreshadowed the several similar firms who would lease space two decades later. New-York Tribune, November 29, 1911 (copyright expired)

In 1920 the Incandescent Supply Company leased the entire building, paying $21,000 a year rent (just under $250,000 today).  But before long the firm purchased the property.

Incandescent Supply Company sold the building in 1928, while still leasing a portion for its use.  Soon No. 468 West Broadway would fill with paper box makers--Livingston & Co., the Plymouth Corrugated Paper Box Co., and the Belle Box Company.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw substantial change in the Soho neighborhood as factories gave way to art galleries, boutiques and cafes.  In 1977, while the upper floors continued to be manufacturing space, the ground floor was converted to Mama Siltka's restaurant, described by Howard Thompson in The New York Times on February 28, 1979 as "a buzzing, cavernous place, with the piano across the room beyond the bar."

A year after Mama Siltka's opened, the upper floors were converted to what the Department of Buildings described as "studios--art, music, dancing or theatrical, with accessory living."  A subsequent renovation in 1983 resulted in "class A" apartments.

The ground floor saw a string of trendy tenants following Mama Siltka's.  The Circle Gallery opened by 1983 and would remain for more than a decade.  Sharing street level was Pour-Toi in 1989, a high-end boutique offering designer clothing by designers like Moschino, Gianni Versace and Karl Lagerfeld.  The first American store of Saba Australia opened here in August 1997, specializing in both men's and women's clothing; followed by Detour boutique in 2004 and Paul Smith around 2012, and currently Hugo Fine Arts Gallerie.

The Marvin Safe Company's building, designed by a magician, has suffered little change--keeping the 1886 architectural magic intact.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Lee Ping Kwan, AIA, for suggesting this post