Friday, September 8, 2017

The Henry W. Bull House - 171 East 62nd Street

The heirs of Peter Van Zandt sold the family's sprawling farm at auction by order of the courts in 1815.  Adam Tredwell and Stephen Thorne, Jr., business partners, purchased a little over 24 acres as investment property, paying $13,000 (around $209,000 today).  Tredwell purchased Thorne's half interest from his family following his death in 1830.

When Tredwell died in 1854 the land was still mostly rural.  The Civil War all but stopped construction in New York as many of the blue collar workers went off to fight.  But in 1868 plots were being sold to builders and contractors who quickly began erecting first class, single-family residences.

Among them was Henry Grossmeyer who began buying land in August 1868.  He purchased three adjoining lots for $16,500, equal to $287,000 today and more than Tredwell and Thorne had paid for their entire 24 acres.   Before 1872 he had completed seven houses, including No. 171 East 62nd Street.

The original architectural style of the house in uncertain; but it differed from the other brownstone-faced neo-Grec and Italianate houses along the block.  It was described in insurance papers as a "brick, tin-roof store and dwelling house."

Grossmeyer leased it to William Cieski and his wife, Ursule around December 1871.  Polish immigrants, they arrived in New York around 1868 and had two children, Mary and Valentine.  William was a boot and shoe maker and set up his cobbler shop in the store.  His business was successful enough to afford a live-in servant.

But the Polish shoe maker had a dark secret.  He had come under the influence of another Polish immigrant, who went by the Americanized name Anthony O. Jones.  Jones was well-educated and spoke fluent English, French, German and Polish.  He was, as well, a dastardly thug who made a fortune in insurance fraud.  Richmond, Virginia's The Daily Dispatch later gave his alias as "The Fire-bug."

Three times before the Cieski family moved into the 62nd Street house Jones had coerced them to take out insurance on their various homes.  And three times those houses burned to the ground.  In May 1868 Williiam Cieski's shoe store downtown suffered the same fate.

Now, a little over a month after the family moved in, Jones visited Cieski, urging him to take out an insurance policy on the house.  According to Ursule, her husband responded "I have no time," to which Jones responded, "If you have no time I will go with your wife to the Fire Insurance Co."  And he did.   Whatever hold he held over the couple, it was strong enough to produce yet a fifth fire insurance policy.

Ursale took out a $1,000 policy on the shoe store and the furnishings of the house.  Then Jones had them send the children upstate while their parents went to Jones's house in New Jersey.  According to Mary's testimony later, Jones and his wife told the Cieskis that "if they told that they were in his house he would kill them."

On the night of February 8, 1872 Jones went to No. 171 East 62nd Street and set up his well-tested scheme.  Flammable materials and accelerates were spread throughout the rooms and a fuse set.  The procedure allowed him time enough to be far from the property when the fire ignited.  Upstairs, apparently forgotten by everyone, the servant Teresa Kennedy slept unaware.

She awoke to the "suffocating stench of something burning," according to newspapers and caused an alarm.  Firefighters found a crime scene. "Three of their rooms were littered with rubbish that was saturated with petroleum.  A half-burnt bunch of matches were an old bed, loaded with inflammable and petroleum-soaked stuffs, was found, with over evidences of preparations for a first-class fire," reported The Daily Dispatch.

William, Ursule and Jones were arrested.  The two men were charged with "feloniously, willfully, and maliciously" setting fire to the house and endangering a human being (Teresa Kennedy).  Ursule faced fraud charges since it was she who took out the policy.

The trial began on April 11 with riveting testimony from Ursule and her children.  The, obviously, attempted to portray the family as victims.  Jones was held in prison while the Cieskis were, apparently, out on bail.  Then they disappeared.

The Daily Dispatch, on October 9, 1873 explained "Jones was imprisoned in Sing-Sing and the Cieski family, upon whose testimony the prosecution depended, departed for parts unknown.  Four months were spent in hunting for them without avail."  Without their testimony, the prosecutors had no case and finally, on October 8, 1873 "The Fire-bug" had to be let go.

In the meantime Henry Grossmeyer had leased the house to Dr. Franklin W. Hunt, who practiced from the former shoe store.   Hunt remained in the house at least through 1874.   But by 1884 when Grossmeyer sold the property to brothers Robert and Ogden Goelet for $14,000, it was described as a "four-story brick tenement."

Change finally came in August 1916 when Henry W. Bull purchased the building.  He announced that he "will alter the house into a private dwelling for his own use."  The 62nd Street neighborhood by now was seeing an influx of wealthy homeowners.

Henry Worthington Bull was a partner in the brokerage house of Bull, Holden & Co.  He was also a member of the firm Harriman and Company, was vice president of the Compania Cubana and of the Oriental Consolidating Mining Company.  His father, William Lanman Bull, had been president of the New York Stock Exchange from 1888 to 1890.

The Columbia University graduate married Maud Livingston in 1904.  The couple was well known in Manhattan and Long Island society.  Bull was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a member of the Knickerbocker Club, the Racquet and Tennis Club, the New York Yacht Club, the Turf and Field Club and the Westminster Kennel Club.

Both the Bull and Livingston families traced their American roots back for generations.  Henry was a member of the Mayflower Descendants and the Sons of the Revolution.   They couple was about to transform a tenement and store into an upscale residence where The New York Times would later say they were known "for their luncheons and other events."

In August they commissioned architect Frederick J. Sterner to remodel the old house.  For a decade had been remodeling old rowhouses into modern homes--many of them romantic fantasies with Mediterranean or Tudor facades.  For the Bulls he was a bit more conservative.

His plans were filed in September 1916, calling for $5,000 in renovations (about $115,000 in today's dollars).  Along with the expected upgrades like new wiring, heating and plumbing, the Bulls' house would get an entirely new personality.

The result was was a prim, neo-Federal house faced in red brick.  Five stories tall including the mansard attic level above the projecting cornice, it reflected the colonial-inspired trend that took hold just before the turn of the century.

Although Henry and Maud had no children of their own, the decision to move into the spacious house may have been prompted by their taking in two of Maud's young nieces, Phyllis and Kathleen Baker.  The girls were the daughters of Maud's sister, Carolyn Livingston, and Dr. Harold W. Baker.  That marriage did not end well.  Carolyn moved to Paris with her new husband, Frank H. Platt, and Baker moved to Boston.   Rather astonishingly, their little girls found a home with their aunt and uncle.

The family escaped the Manhattan winter of 1920.  In January they leased the house to Dewees Wilworth "for the winter furnished."  It was apparently a satisfactory arrangement for the following September they leased it to Frederick W. Sheasley.  And on December 6, 1922 the New-York Tribune reported that the Bulls had leased the house "for the winter" to the Frederick H. Allen family.

The Allen family moved in just in time for daughter Priscilla Alden Allen's debut.  A headline in The New York Times on December 16 read "Miss Allen Makes Her Debut At Ball" and reported that a "throng" greeted her at the Ritz-Carlton.

The house was the scene of a wedding reception on January 3, 1924.  Following the fashionable and socially-important wedding of Maud's niece, Silvie Livingston, to William Tilden Pelton Hazard in St. Bartholomew's Church, guests arrived at the 62nd Street house.

In 1924 Kathleen was introduced to society, and in December 1926 it was Phyllis's turn.  The girls had received the educations of privileged young women, studying at the Brearley School in Manhattan and the Fermata School in Aiken, South Carolina.

On September 20, 1927 the Bulls announced the engagement of Phyllis to Eliphalet Nott Potter, Jr.  Newspapers merely mentioned that her birth parents lived elsewhere.  There was no mention of either parent following the St. Bartholomew's Church ceremony on December 28.  Henry gave his niece away.  She wore two veils of antique lace which The New York Times said "had been worn by the bride's maternal grandmother and great-grandmother at their marriages."

The guests at the ceremony constituted a Who's Who of Manhattan society with names including de Peyster, Belmont, Baker, Cutting, Iselin, Havemeyer, de Rham, and Kountze.  The reception was held in the 62nd Street house.

Two years later, in May, The Times reported "One of the notable weddings of this week will be that of Miss Kathleen Baker to Louis Starr."  The couple was married in Grace Church and, as expected, the reception was held in the Bulls' home.

Henry and Maud would not be empty-nesters for long, however.  In 1931 Phyllis was back with her son, Eliphalet.  She received a Reno divorce on January 27, 1932 which gave her custody of the boy for nine months a year.  On June 27, 1933 she went back to court, asking for full custody "on the ground that she can give the boy...every material advantage and that she is refusing offers of marriage to give him all her attention."

But she and her uncle were called back to court to testify after newspapers reported "that she soon would marry Fred Astaire, musical comedy actor."  When Supreme Court Justice Strong asked her about the reports, according to The New York Times on July 12, 1933, "Mrs. Potter said she had not given a definite answer because she was not sure that the marriage would not interfere with her duties to her child."

The following April the Bulls sold No. 171 East 62nd Street to the Livingston Islip Corporation for $70,000.  They moved permanently to California within a few years.  The house was converted to a triplex on the lower three floors and one apartment each on the upper stories.

Despite its conversion to a multi-family residences, the house continued to be home to upscale occupants.  The family of John Young Brown was here in 1952 when the engagement of their daughter, Virginia, was announced.  She had attended the exclusive Foxhollow School in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Around the same time Alexandrine Lowell lived in the building.  A servant, Siiri Toivanen, was known to her as Sigrid Toevoe.  The woman lived in a tenement at No. 324 East 64th Street where, according to The Times, she "had few dishes and scarcely any cooking utensils.  She apparently did her occasional cooking on a small pot-bellied stove, fueled with wood from boxes she carted home from a neighboring store.  The flat contained two rickety rocking chairs and a white iron bedstead."

After leaving Alexandrine Lowell's apartment on March 23, 1954 Sigrid was killed in a bus accident.  In her shopping bag was $21,617 in cash and bank books showing balances of $14,575.  How she had accumulated the small fortune--more than $320,000 today--was a mystery.

By the early 1960s the address had lured tenants in the entertainment industry.  Actor Joseph Schildkraut lived here at the time.  The son of internationally-known actor Rudolf Schildkraut, Joseph's stage and screen career spanned half a century.   He was perhaps best known for his portrayal of Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank in the 1955 stage production of The Diary of Anne Frank and the subsequent 1959 film version.  He was a repeat performer in popular television programs like The Twilight Zone.
Joseph Schildkraut's CBS press headshot in 1962
Schildkraut's second wife, Mary McKay died in 1961.  In 1963 he married actress Leonora Rogers.  Just a year later, on January 21, 1964, he died of a heart attack in the 62nd Street house with Leonora at his side.

Also in the building were actor and playwright Robert R. Wallsten and his wife, the actress Cynthia Rogers.  She was known mostly for her Broadway performances, notably with Helen Hayes and Philip Meivale in Mary of Scotland in 1933.  She died at the age of 62 here on May 2, 1971.  Wallsten would live to be 93, dying on December 22, 2006.

When film director Dominick Rosetti struck out to establish his own firm, Rossetti Films, Inc., in 1974, he operated from his apartment in the building.  It was still here as late as 1982.

Then in 2008 No. 171 was reconverted to a single family home.  Today, as it was in 1916, Frederick J. Stern's dignified early 19th century reproduction is a conspicuous standout on the mixed bag of architecture along the block.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Phyllis & Kathleen Livingston were my wife's aunts, and we have their scrapbooks from a fascinating social era, now largely defunct of course. Thanks for profiling one of their childhood homes.