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

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