Thursday, November 23, 2017

The 1896 St. Ann Building - 3-5 West 18th Street

On January 8, 1895 The New York Times reported on a rash of real estate buying and proposed commercial development within a single square-block.  "Real estate men and others have for more than two months past been trying to fathom the mystery of a series of purchases on Sixth Avenue and Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues."  The newspaper called the series of transactions "the largest ever had in the city" and placed the total at nearly $7 million, not including the value of the structures still to be built.

Most of the properties being gobbled up were old brownstone-fronted houses.   But one deal stood out.  "The St. Ann's Protestant Episcopal Church and rectory were bought by Mr. W. K. Everdell for $192,000," noted the article.  The church was no doubt persuaded to relocate by the windfall it received in the sale--nearly $5.7 million in today's dollars.

Everdell quickly resold the property to real estate developer Jacob Hirsh who commissioned the architectural firm of Cleverdon & Putzel to design a loft and store building.  Hirsch gave a nod to the site's history by naming the new structure, completed in 1896, the St. Ann Building.

By the end of the year construction on the eight-story building was far enough along that the architects had chosen the supplier for its opulent terra cotta decoration.  In reporting on December 14, 1895 that the Excelsior Terra Cotta Co. had received the contract, the Record & Guide noted that their "facilities are of the best."  The firm would have a substantial job in front of them.

Cleverdon & Putzel lavished what might have been a rather routine neo-Renaissance business building with sumptuous terra cotta detailing that drew inspiration from Art Nouveau and Moorish Revival styles.

The ground floor retail space and entrance rejected the customary as well.  At a time when the columns of most storefronts were still being cast in iron, the architects used polished granite and added stylized Ionic capitals that resembled spools of thread.  The entablature of the portico above the entrance to the upper floors was inscribed St. Ann, its projecting cornice embellished with snarling lions' heads.

A row of beefy, free-standing fluted columns fronted the windows of the third floor.  They supported an Art Nouveau-inspired freize of garlands and cornucopias.  The fourth through sixth floors featured three-story engaged columns with swirling lines and two-story columns with an intricate basket-weave design which flanked the arches.

Close inspection reveals that the designs within the Art Nouveau frieze are stylized cornucopias.

The windows of the two top floors were deeply recessed, giving the impression of loggias.  The eighth floor openings and columns were surrounded in a picture frame of intricate terrra cotta.  Above it all was an ornate pressed metal cornice.

Among the first tenants was the firm of William Beverley Harison, which moved in on February 1, 1897.  Publishers of educational books and magazines like The Great Round World--A History of Our Own Times for Boys and Girls, the firm operated its retail shop here.

The store sold not only textbooks, but other school supplies, like "Reading Charts, miscellaneous Reference Charts, Maps, Globes, Blackboards, and School Supplies."  Its opening announcement invited teachers and students "to call and refer to the shelves when in search of information; every convenience and assistance will be rendered them."  It also pointed out that all the books moved from the old store "more or less damaged by removal" would be on sale.

The Great Round World Quarterly presented current events to children, even the more gruesome.  This illustration from the April 1, 1897 issue depicts President McKinley receiving the widow of Dr. Ruiz "murdered in the Cuban prison."  (copyright expired)
William Beverley Harison remained in the building for years.  Its children's books did not present bunny rabbits and nursery rhymes.  An advertisement in The Kindergarten-Primary Magazine in January 1900, for instance, read:

This is to remind YOU that if you want to obtain the Reminiscences of Baroness von Bulow at the special price made to kindergartners, you much write the publisher at once for application blanks.

Sharing the building was another school book dealer, The Baker & Taylor Company.  Unlike William Beverley Harison, the company was "book jobbers," or distributors of "miscellaneous educational" books.  Its advertisements pointedly noted "We deal in nothing but books."

The Publishers' Weekly, December 17, 1898 (copyright expired)

The two-story store space was leased to the Mason & Hamlin piano and organ company as its showroom.   The firm would sell instruments until late in 1902.

Shoppers in 1902 could see this upright piano in the St. Ann Building showroom.  Harper's Weekly (copyright expired)
Another tenant in the upper floors involved in publishing was the National Temperance Society and Publishing House.  The group had moved in at least by 1899, printing pamphlets and holding its annual meetings and special lectures and events here.

On January 30, 1900, for instance, a reception for Bipin Chandra Pal was hosted by the National Temperance Society.  Pal was a journalist in India.  Born into a respectable family, his religious "opinions" conflicted with those of his parents and he was "obliged to leave college" in his teens and find work on his own.

He succeeded in editing several newspapers, and was currently working on "lecturing, preaching and writing an elaborate biography of the Empress of India," according to the New-York Tribune.  He was invited to speak at the society because he "understands the Indian temperance question in all its bearings and is outspoken against the local authorities for their administration o the liquor system in India."

In its November 1901 issue The National Advocate noted that the society had issued a "New Canteen Booklet."   Temperance supporters were currently fighting against the availability of liquor in military canteens.  The magazine urged "Every one who may have occasion to discus the canteen question needs this excellent booklet.  It contains enough information to convince any honest man of the iniquity of the canteen and of the advocacy of it both in the army and out of it."

The group was indefatigable in its efforts to stamp out drinking.  It was ignited into action in December 1901 when Albany announced the possibility of new legislature to allow the opening of saloons on Sunday.   An emergency meeting for delegates of about 75 of the "religious, social and temperance organizations" of greater New York was held here on December 2.

In the meantime the National Temperance Society continued to crank out publications.  On February 8, 1902 the Chicago newspaper The Epworth Herald reported that The National Temperance Almanac and Teetotaler's Year-Book for 1902 was out.  "It is packed full of facts for temperance workers."

The year 1904 saw a turn-around in the St. Ann Building tenants.  P. K. Wilson & Sons had moved its lace store into the former piano showrooms two years earlier.  Now the upper floors were home to lace and garment firms, including S. Baerlien, "lace curtains;" Samuel Berry, "silk petticoats;" "K. B. O'Hara, underwear manufacturers;" and George E. Evans, "importers of toilet articles."

Just before midnight on December 31, 1907, just when revelers on Fifth Avenue poised to celebrate the New Year, an automatic fire alarm went off in the P. K. Wilson & Sons store.  Hearing the loud gongs they crowded onto West 18th Street.  The New York Times reported "Hundreds of persons watched the firemen smash in a large plate-glass window when they found the front door inaccessible because of the heavy iron gates across it."

The fire had started in the cellar and although once inside the firefighters made relatively short work of it, the damage was extensive.  "Chief Binns estimated that the loss would reach $25,000, although he admitted that it might be much higher, as the cellar was filled with imported lace."  The damage would equal at least $660,000 today.

Like P. K. Wilson & Sons, several of the tenants remained for years.  S. Baerlein & Co. was still here at least in 1912 and George E. Evans was in the building in 1918.

Another industry was represented in the building starting in 1916 when The Madison Carpet Company leased the third and fifth floors.  They were joined by P. J. McMorrow carpets in 1922.

For years the Eugene Neumaiser & Co. lace curtain makers had operated from the building next door at Nos 7-9.  In 1923 the firm doubled its factory space by leasing space in the St. Ann Building.  In the mid 1920s until 1934 it was also home to the Kohn & Madden printing ink company.

Perhaps the first real sign that the trendy Chelsea neighborhood was overtaking the St. Ann Building came in 1976 when the Studio Workshop opened its pottery and jewelry making classes here.  But change became obvious when Caffe Roma opened in the spring of 1986.  On April 8 The New York Times called it "the most recent restaurant to tickle the tinsel tastes of the fashion crowd."

The former piano showroom changed personalities quickly in the last decades of the 20th century.  In 1989 it was home to One Club.  Ironically, considering that The National Temperance Society had called the building home, by 1993 the two story showroom became the microbrewery Zip City Brewery.   In March 1994 The Times food critique noted "This brew pub, which makes it own beer, also serves food, including a good hamburger."  The article recommended arriving at "an off hour" when the gleaming copper brewing kettles and "malty aroma"could be appreciated.  In the evening, it warned, the young crowd "turns Zip City into a high-decibel fraternity party."

In November 1997 the brewery became the Tap Room, serving beer "made the Austrian way."  It was the latest in the brew pubs of Salm Brau, a family owned Austrian company with similar pubs in Japan, Brazil, Indonesia and other locations.

The National Temperance Society would have been pleased in the summer of 2001 when City Bakery moved into the former brewery space.  More than just a bakery, the cafe, which is still there, was deemed by New York Magazine "a true original."

Through it all Cleverdon & Putzel's striking 1896 structure remained wonderfully intact and deserves a pause across the street and a long upward look.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Mohandas Gandhi Statue - Union Square Park

Only a few months after the Stock Market Crash, labor organizations, mostly Communist-led, set March 6, 1930 as International Unemployment Day.  Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in major cities around the world to protest unemployment.  In New York City thousands massed in Union Square park with violent results.

The New York Times reported on the "hundreds of policemen and detectives" who charged into the crowd with "nightsticks, blackjacks and bare fists."  The newspaper said "From all parts of the scene of battle came the screams of women and cries of men with bloody heads and faces."

This was just the latest in a long tradition of public assemblies in Union Square park that dated back to 1861--the day of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.  The park had became New York's unofficial spot for citizens' flexing their American rights to free expression.

Six days later and more than 7,800 miles away in India, Mohandras Karamchand Gandhi began leading peasants in a 24-day march known as the Salt March, or the Dandi March.  An act of nonviolent civil disobedience, it was a protest against the British Government's new "salt laws"--a system first of taxes, and then of outlawing the Indian people's producing salt from seawater.

The London-trained lawyer had been advocating nonviolent civil disobedience for years.   A brilliant community organizer, he took to wearing traditional Indian peasant clothing--sandals and a homespun cotton dhoti.   It was a symbolic and dramatic refusal to accept British rule.

The Salt March was instrumental in bringing about the British Government's negotiations with Gandhi, culminating in the March 1931 Gandhi-Irwin Pact.  The agreement traded the release of all political prisoners for the suspension of the civil disobedience movement.  Gandhi was invited to London to attend the Round Table Conference as the sole representative of India nationalists.

The conservative British opinion of Gandhi was exemplified by Winston Churchill who said in part "It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor."  In another speech Churchill called Gandhi a "Hindu Mussolini" and a dictator.

Gandhi, called "Mahatma," or "holy person," by his followers, was nevertheless a force which the British Government could not ignore.  A humble, genius thorn in its side, he continued to negotiate for Indian independence, and against the British proposed partitioning of the subcontinent.  Like Churchill, Archibald Wavell, the Viceroy and Governor-General of British India who worked directly with Gandhi, accused him of wanting to "overthrow British rule" in order to establish himself as a raj; and deemed him a "malignant, malevolent, exceedingly shrewd" politician.

Indian independence was finally reached on August 15, 1947.  It had tragic repercussions, however, with conflicting religious sects erupting into violence.  Gandhi countered with fasting and vocal protests against the barbarity.  His actions are credited by some with stopping the religious riots.

Four months later, on January 30, 1948, Gandhi prepared to address a prayer meeting.  He was in garden of the former Birla House with his grandnieces at 5:17 p.m. when Nathuram Godse rushed in, firing three bullets into his chest.  Carried into a bedroom, Gandhi died there within half an hour.

More than two million mourners participated in the five-mile, five-hour long funeral procession.  His body was carried on a military vehicle.  The engine was never turned on; instead it was hauled along by teams of 50 men pulling four heavy ropes.

Mohandras Gandhi's legacy went beyond Indian independence.  His nonviolent civil disobedience influence the civil rights and freedom movements world-wide.  The principles and strategies of leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King were heavily impacted by Gandhi's.

On July 15, 1986 The New York Times reported "On the second of October in 1869, Mohandas K. Gandhi was born.  On the second of October in 1986, an eight-foot bronze likeness of the Mahatma is scheduled to be unveiled in Union Square."

The choice of Union Square as the statue's site was by no means casual.  Several other locations had been proposed, but the Gandhi Memorial International Foundation had rejected them all as inappropriate.  Gandhi's great-grandnephew, Yogesh K. Gandhi, was director of the foundation and he explained "Union Square has a history of free speech.  For me, union is identified with unity.  And also, thousands of people are passing by every day.  By seeing the statue, people get the inspiration of the philosophy of nonviolence.  And that is the idea."

Not everyone was as pleased with the choice.  The Union Square Park Community Coalition complained that it had not been consulted, and argued that all Union Square statues portrayed American heroes.  (The group apparently had forgotten about the statue of the Marquis de Lafayette on the eastern hem of the park.)

Henry J. Stern, Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, poo-pooed their reasoning.  "What would have happened if the Statue of Liberty were submitted to a community board?  They would have said it was too big, in too remote a place, and that it was foreign, to boot."

The project went ahead.  The main speaker at the unveiling ceremony was, appropriately, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. 

The work of sculptor Kantilal Patel, the statue was co-sponsored by Mohan B. Murjani, chairman of the Murjani International apparel firm, who donated $100,000.   The Gandhi memorial depicts the leader in his traditional attire.  The naturalistic pose captures him mid-step, walking with a rustic staff.  A separate plaque reads in part "My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop non-violence...In a gentle way you can shake the world."

In 2001 the statue was briefly removed when a water main was installed below the site.  The Parks Commission took advantage of the removal to conserve the work.  When it was reinstalled a year later, the fenced-in setting had been landscaped into a charming, natural setting known as the Gandhi Gardens.

Despite Gandhi's near religious standing in life, his statue suffered repeated humiliation.  When someone noticed that his eyeglasses had been stolen in August 2011, a Parks Department spokesperson said they disappeared every "once in a while."  Vandals cut away the spectacles from their earpieces, which remained in place.  The glasses were refashioned and replaced, once again.

The Gandhi memorial became one of the first of New York's "Talking Statues" when it received its interactive technology in August 2017.  By scanning the bar code on the blue sign on the fence into a cell phone, the visitor hears a narrative of of the statue and of Gandhi.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Orienta - 302 West 79th Street

Pretending to be stone, the rusticated piers framing the bowed bays are in reality, brick.

The residents and developers of the Upper West Side, more than anywhere else in the city, were quick to embrace the concept of apartment living.  In the last years of the 19th century mansions along the district's avenues, built only a decade or two earlier, were demolished for modern apartment buildings.

In 1904 developer Abraham M. Morgenroth was part of the trend.  That year he commissioned Schneider & Herter to design an upscale apartment building engulfing the buildings lots at Nos. 302 through 306 West 79th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.

Architects Ernest B. W. Schneider and Henry Herter produced an eight story structure of red brick and limestone.   The tripartite design included a two-story stone base that supported five stories of red brick, followed by a rather spartan stone-and-brick upper floor.  The architects splashed the facade with exuberant Beaux Arts touches, like the French-inspired cartouche above the entrance and the swag-draped brackets of the second floor cornice.

Highly unusual were the five-story bowed and hooded bays.  They not only added dimension, but caught breezes on warm summer evenings.  Schneider & Herter saved their employer money by using stone-colored brick rather than stone to create the quoins and rusticated piers.  The bowed bays were crowned by carved angels holding shields.

The Orienta was completed in 1905 and had just four apartments per floor, ranging from suites of five to seven rooms.  The largest apartments included "extra servants' toilets," so the families did not have to share the bathrooms with the staff.  Morgenroth's advertising boasted "The trim throughout is of select hardwood, rubbed to a high polish."

Little significant change has taken place since this photograph was published in 1908.  Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, (copyright expired)

The well-heeled families who leased apartments in The Orienta would enjoy the latest in conveniences.  Because electrical service was still unreliable, there were both electric and gas lighting fixtures in the suites.  A 1905 advertisement noted "there are long distance telephones in all apartments.  The plumbing throughout is modern and sanitary and the kitchens are fitted with porcelain lined washtubs and sinks and glass lined refrigerators."  The parlors of each apartment included a gas-log fireplace.

Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, (copyright expired)

The lobby was meant to impress with marble wainscoting and "a commodious waiting room."  A description of the new building in The World's New York Apartment House Album made special note of the location.  "It is high, has perfect drainage, and because of its proximity to the Hudson, Riverside Drive and Central Park, enjoys the purest air."

For all these amenities residents would pay between $660 and $924 a year; more than $2,000 a month in today's dollars for the largest apartments.

The ground floor originally held a restaurant, tagged "Dining Room" for both residents and the public.  The ground floor doctor's office included a studio apartment.  Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, (copyright expired)

Apparently all the players in planning and designing The Orienta were well-pleased with the outcome.  Abraham M. Morgenroth took an apartment and Schneider & Herter listed its address here in 1905.

One of the first to move in was Eugene E. Christian, a fervent proponent of "the Pure Food cause."   The founder and principal in Christian's Natural Food Co., he would be called a food naturalist today.  His letter to the Seville Packing Company on November 10, 1905 was written from his apartment-office here.

The firm had sent him samples of its Nicelle Olive Oil for endorsement.  Christian told the company he had "tested your Nicelle brand of olive oil by both natural and chemical methods, and I find that it contains nothing but a pure ripe olive fat."  His findings no doubt pleased the firm's marketers.  He signed the letter "Eugene E. Christian, Naturalist and Food Expert."

Most residents, however, appeared in the press for purely social reasons, like Everett Jackson and his wife.  On April 1, 1906 The New York Times society page reported "Mrs. Everett Jackson gave her final at home for the season on Tuesday;" and two years later, on April 5, 1908, noted "Mr. and Mrs. Everett Jackson...will leave town this week for a ten days' trip to Atlantic City."

In 1908 Dr. George P. Long moved his practice from Long Island to The Orienta.  The ground floor doctor's office included an apartment with a separate entrance.  Dr. Long paid an annual rent of $840 for the space, or about $1,925 a month today.

Other moneyed residents at the time included manufacturer G. Irving Abendroth; Arthur Edmunds Jenks and his wife, the former Catherine Bonner; and E. M. Cravath and his wife.  Jenks was a partner in the Hanson-Jenks Co., perfumers.  The Cravaths summered on Long Island and were prominent in the horse set.  The New York Times included them among "the most exclusive element on Long Island" at the North Shore Horse Show at Piping Rock in 1909.

Sculpted marble angels hold the swagged cartouche.

While Cravath and his wife busied themselves with the horse shows, another resident was more interested in dogs.  J. Willoughby Mitchell was involved in the annual Monmouth County Kennel Club shows, participating as a Ring Steward in 1908.   His wife focused on more political issues, however.

An ardent feminist, on May 27, 1915 she hosted a "canvassing tea" for the Suffragist cause in the Hotel Belleclaire.  She was also an officer in the national organization of "Women of 1915."  Among the group's efforts that year was preparing for the Patriotic Ball to be held on January 24, 1916 in the Biltmore Hotel.  The goal was to raise funds to purchase "an aeroplane to present to the coast defense of New York."

A rather flamboyant resident styled himself as Comte Rene de Nannez.  He left The Orienta on the evening of July 15, 1914 dressed in evening clothes and wearing a monocle.  His cabbie, Archibald Rogers, took him to a French restaurant on 26th Street and when they arrived the Frenchman insisted that he join him for dinner.  When they arrived back at The Orienta, the count refused to pay the $9.10 fare, saying the dinner was more than enough to cover it.

Rogers had him arrested.  The New York Times reported that the prisoner "talked only French" but "the complainant had no trouble making himself understood."  Finally a French-speaking officer, Captain Bonnoil, arrived and was able to communicate with the prisoner.  The Times said "He said he had no occupation and lived on the income of his estates in France.  When searched enough money was found to more than pay Rogers."   The count was locked up, charged with intoxication and for refusing to pay his cab fare.

George Neubauer was also in a police station house that year; but he was on the more favorable side of the law.  Wanting to sub-let his apartment furnished, he showed it to George Krag on March 7.  As they walked through each room, Neubauer was puzzled when Krag "put down his hat and picked it up again more than seemed necessary," as reported by The Sun.

The mystery solved itself when at one point Neubauer's gold watch and chain, which had been on a bureau, fell out of the hat.  The 24-year old clerk had worked his scheme at least twice before; but this time he picked the wrong victim.  Neubauer "seized Krag" and dragged him out of the building and into police custody.

Among the more high-profile residences by 1921 was Leslie S. Petrie.  A director of the Chesapeake Western Railway he was more importantly the right-hand man to millionaire W. E. D. Stokes who lived nearby at the Ansonia Apartments where Petrie had his office.

In 1921 Helen Stokes left her husband, whom she said had an income of more than $500,000 a year--about $6.7 million today.  Petrie's name appeared in the papers as the messy court case dragged on as Helen sought to obtain "her dower rights" (the right to remain in her residence owned by Stokes).   But the case turned even more scurrilous when the divorce case became entangled with the nationally-publicized murder investigation of sportsman and gambler Joseph Bowne Elwell.

Elwell was found with a bullet wound in the head on June 11, 1920.  The absence of a weapon ruled out the possibility of suicide.   Keys found in Helen Stokes's bureau a year later were suspected to fit the locks of Elwell's home.  Suddenly Petrie, who had been testifying on his employer's behalf, found himself defending Helen.  On April 8, 1921 he testified that the keys fitted the door of the apartment of Edgar T. Wallace, not the Elwell home.

The murder case was never solved.

Another mystery revolved around 36-year old Albert Frazer, who spent the summer of 1929 in Europe.  He boarded the steamer Belgenland in Germany headed home in September.  When the ship docked on September 15, Frazer did not disembark.  A search of his cabin found him dead.

Morris Breitman lived in The Orienta in 1939.  The 43-year old had been the private chauffeur for a wealthy family for 17 years.  His fascination with automobiles took a dark turn that year.   Around 5:30 on the morning of November 7 a car was seen burning in front of No. 250 West 80th Street.  "Hardly had the firemen extinguished the blaze when they saw another car afire in the same block," reported The Times.

While they were trying to put out that fire, another ignited on West End Avenue north of 80th Street.  In rapid succession two more car fires broke out on West End Avenue and 80th Street.  One of the firefighters notified the police and patrol cars began to scour the neighborhood.  Before long Breitman was spotted entering a parked car.

According to police, in his possession were two books of safety matches, the covers of which matched one found in one of the burned automobiles.  The chauffeur admitted he "had had a few drinks."  Although he denied setting the fires, he was arrested and charged with arson.  There were no more car fires.

In 1959 The Orienta was renovated, resulting in five and six apartments per floor.  Still respectable, the tenant list was nevertheless now slightly more down-to-earth.  Among the residents was Julliard student Gerard Schwartz who paid $167 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.  Among his later accomplishments would be becoming the music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and the music director of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart festivals between 1982 and 2001.

The Orienta was converted to co-operative apartments in 1988.  Schneider & Herter's dignified exterior with its unusual rounded bays remains nearly unchanged.

photographs by the author

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Lost John H. Matthews House - 176 Riverside Drive

The Shingle style mansion was surrounded by a cast iron fence in the form of swirling, stylized vines.  The carriage house, on 90th Street, followed the architectural form.  photo by Dr. Martin Deschere from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In October 1898 Thomas Cady's article entitled "New York's Riverside Park" appeared in Munsey's Magazine.   In it he mentioned that "The home of Mr. John H. Matthews, who made a solid fortune out of effervescent soda, is easily the most striking bit of architecture on the river front, it's ample porches and picturesque tile roofs distinguishing it from its more conventional neighbors."  Cady could not have been more spot-on.

Designed by the firm of Lamb & Rich, the free-standing residence was completed in 1891.  While other esteemed architects, like McKim, Mead & White, were designing sprawling Shingle style mansions on summer estates in Connecticut and Long Island, for instance; Hugh Lamb and Charles Alonzo Rich turned to the style for John Matthews's city house--a bold and unique move.

Drawing inspiration from English and early American architecture, the style reflected the recent interest in Colonial America.  The somber elements of 17th century buildings--plain, shingled surfaces, for instance--were reborn with vibrant and interesting shapes, angles and contrasting hues and materials.

The Cyrus Clark mansion sat on the opposite corner.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The New York Times reported "the house is said to have cost over $200,000," or more than $5.4 million today.   Matthews had purchased the plot at the northeast corner of Riverside Drive and 90th Street--about six and a third city lots--from Cyrus Clark, known as the "Father of the West Side," who had erected his own mansion at the opposite corner in 1888. 

Clad in brick, rough-cut stone and, of course, layered shingles, the Matthews mansion was dominated by a corner current with a conical cap.  An "American" porch extended the width of the Riverside Drive elevation, wrapping around the turret.  The profusion of balconies provided multiple spots for enjoying the river views and cooling breezes.   A shocking departure from "colonial" was Lamb & Rich's use of classical caryatids as supports in a second-floor bay.

The surprising caryatids can be seen above the porch.   World War I Liberty Loan posters are affixed to the unique iron fencing.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Known popularly as the Soda Water King, John H. Matthews had amassed a tremendous fortune by the time he began construction on his Riverside Drive house.  His grandfather, also named John Matthews, had come to American from England in 1832.  An inventor and "mechanical genius of rare ability" according to America's Successful Men of Affairs, he had patented machinery for manufacturing soda water.   John H. Matthews and his cousin, George, now headed the massively-successful firm.
While many other millionaires spent their free time in yachting and horse racing, Matthews had a less expected hobby, breeding bulldogs.  He served as the president of the Bulldog Club, as well.

C. H. Tate drew a charming depiction of the mansion for Munsey's Magazine in October 1898 (copyright expired)

On November 4, 1893 the Indianapolis News reported that the breed was now "in favor with fashion and considered beautiful" among socialites.  "These dogs are seen more and more on the 'avenue' each day.  Fashion has begun to set her mark on them, and the only difficulty is that they are hard to secure, and a long purse is needed."

The article mentioned the Matthews kennels "adjoining his chateaulike residence on Riverside Drive."   It noted that two of his dogs, Bathos and Dollie Tester "are splendid specimens of the highest breeding, and one or the other of them--more especially Dollie Tester--often accompanies Miss Matthews in her walks about the West Side."  The writer deemed Bathos "with hardly a doubt the best white English bulldog in America."

Matthews's prize-winning Bathos appears rather disinterested in this 1893 photo.  Indianapolis News, November 4, 1893 (copyright expired)
An unusual aspect of the Matthews mansion was that it adjoined the impressive private stable.  While the carriage houses of most wealthy New Yorkers were located several blocks away, some were placed on the grounds--but in those cases they gave wide berth to the mansion.  This arrangement proved nearly disastrous in the winter of 1896.

The coachman had just finished hitching up a team to a carriage on the evening of December 11.  He had left the stable for a few minutes when fire broke out in the hay loft.  The New York Times reported "He returned in time to get out the horses and a couple of carriages, but four carriages, all of the hay, and part of the interior woodwork were burned out."

Fire fighters arrived in time to keep the blaze from spreading to the mansion.  The chaos caused by fires provided opportunities for crooks and the article noted "About thirty policemen formed a line about to guard against thieving."  The blaze caused "about $5,000 damage and a great deal of excitement," according to The Times.   The loss would equal about $147,000 today.

When this photograph was snapped the land north of the Matthews mansion was undeveloped.  To the far right are the matching private stables.  Greater New York Illustrated, 1905 (copyright expired)

The family remained in the mansion until January 1905, when Matthews sold it to John B. Russell.  The price was kept quiet, however Russell's $210,000 mortgage (nearly $6 million today) gives a hint.  In reporting on the sale, the New-York Tribune called it "one of the 'show houses' in Riverside Drive."

John B. Russell was the president of the Russell Contracting Company.  The firm won large building contracts like the paving of the United States Naval Academy in 1903 and construction of a bridge in Oyster Bay, Long Island, in 1905.

In 1899 the porches and now-dead tree in the side yard were ivy-covered.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Although Russell and his wife, Grace, put nearly $100,000 into altering and remodeling the house, they would not remain in it especially long.  They listed the property for $500,000 in May 1910.  When The New York Times reported on May 20 that they had sold it "to a syndicate which would build a big apartment house" Grace was quick to deny the story.

And, indeed, the Times report was mere rumor.  The following month the Russells sold the house to real estate operator Franklin Pettit, who resold it within a week to Mrs. Mary B. Pell.  Pettit had looked to make a quick, substantial profit, offering it for $600,000; "but it is understood that Mrs. Pell obtained it for slightly over $500,000," explained The Times.

Mary Pell owned the Riverside Drive mansion next door to the former Matthews house and, according to the New-York Tribune on June 29, "purchased the property chiefly for the purpose of preventing the encroachment of an apartment house next to her."

Mary Pell owned the house next door with the unusual second floor balcony when she purchased the Matthews mansion.  Seen here in 1921 the ivy has been stripped away.   photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The wealthy widow died in her Riverside Drive residence on May 26, 1913.  Her will left generous bequests of $1 million each to Columbia University, Rutgers College and the Reformed Church of America. While real estate operators may have suspected that her death would signal the demolition of the two properties, they survived until late in 1921.

On November 5 that year The New York Herald reported that Harry Schiff had taken out a $1.15 million building loan for the construction of a 13-story apartment building.  That structure, completed in 1922 and designed by Schwartz & Gross, survives.

photo via

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Ryder Henry House - No. 5 East 93rd Street

In 1891 construction began on six upscale residences on East 93rd Street, steps away from Central Park.  Designed by A. B. Ogden & Sons in the Renaissance Revival style, they were splashed with Romanesque Revival elements.   The builders were taking a gamble in placing the homes so far north.  At the time the only residence in the neighborhood was the Jacob Ruppert mansion across the street, which had stood in lonely isolation for nearly a decade.

The row was completed in 1892.  Each house was slightly different, yet designed to create a harmonious flow.  No. 5 greeted visitors with a broad brownstone stoop with sturdy wingwalls.  The steps widened as the western wall undulated away towards the sidewalk.

Four of the original row survive; No. 5 is the least altered, thanks to the Ryder family's nearly half century of occupancy.

Romanesque Revival made its appearance in the stubby columns flanking the entrance, and in the foliate carvings below the bowed bay above.  Both the parlor and second floors were faced in rough-cut stone.  Renaissance Revival took over in the pilasters and the carved frieze of the bay, before slightly conceding to Romanesque again in the arched upper floor windows.

The wainscoting, Romanesque newel and exquisite ceiling are original.  photo via Curbed New York

The house was sold to Isaac Hamburger and his wife, the former Fanny Levy.  Hamburger had come to New York in 1848 and established the tobacco firm of I. Hamburger & Co. in 1855.  Three years later the couple were married.  They had five children, three sons and two daughters.

By now Solomon and Benjamin had become partners in their father's firm.  And they were doing very well.  In 1890, "by the rise in Sumatra tobacco," according to the New-York Tribune, the company made $150,000--more than $4 million in profits by today's standards.

Both Isaac and Fanny were active in Jewish interests.  He was at one time the Supreme Grand Master in the District Grand Lodge No. 1 of the Independent Order Free Sons of Israel.  And Fanny, according to the United States Tobacco Journal years later, "was widely beloved for a lifetime of ardent devotion to her family and charitable work which was closely linked with her husband's extensive Masonic activity."

Wholesale tobacco was a family affair,.  Fanny's brother, David Levy, was head of the tobacco firm D. Levy & Son.  Trouble came in 1894 when that firm declared bankruptcy.  The failure was too much for David Levy, and he died shortly afterward.

Those troubles now spread to the Hamburger family.  Isaac had tried to help his brother-in-law financially and the unpaid loans lead in part to his own bankruptcy.  On March 1, 1895 the New-York Tribune reported that I. Hamburger & Co. "failed yesterday."  Although the Tribune reported that the "general depression in business" was thought to have been the principal cause; it added "The failure of D. Levy & Son, wholesale tobacco dealers a year ago is said to have been one of the causes of the assignment yesterday."

The Hamburgers managed to remain in the 93rd Street house for a while.  In 1896 a lien was filed against Isaac; and finally on May 12, 1898 it was sold in foreclosure to the mortgage holder, Louis Dannhauser for $43,615--nearly $1.3 million today.

The basement areaway is protected by low stone walls.  The architects created interest with the undulating lines of one of the stoop's wing walls.

Sixteen days later he sold the 21-foot wide house to Benjamin Lowenstein.  Like Hamburger, Lowenstein was a leader in Jewish causes.  He was also a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   The Lowensteins had three daughters, Loretta, Emma and Carrie, and a son, Leo.

Benjamin had founded the Nassau Smelting & Refining Works with his brother, Moses.  Located on West 16th Street, it collected and reclaimed scrap metals--essentially an early recycling center.  But their business practices were sometimes shady.  The week before he purchased No. 5 East 93rd Street the Mongolia Metal Co. took out a full-page advertisement in Hardware magazine informing the trade that Benjamin and Moses had been found guilty of trade-mark infringement by stamping "Mongolia" on their bars of metal.  "BEWARE OF FRAUDULENT IMITATIONS" warned the ad.

Seven years later, on December 19, 1905, The New York Times ran the shocking story that Benjamin had been arraigned in the Tombs Court the day before "charged with grand larceny."  Lowenstein had conspired with a storekeeper's clerk for the Erie Railroad to falsify records concerning brass fittings in September 1904.

The Erie Railroad began closely inspecting the books in the first months of 1905, leading to Harry J. Ort's confession.  The fake numbers resulted in Lowenstein's pocketing an extra $1,270 in the deal.  Both men were held on $2,000 bail.  Unfortunately for Ort, his clerk's salary left him in less comfortable circumstances than his wealthy cohort.  The Times ended the article saying "Lowenstein sent his check for $2,000 to the City Chamberlain's Office and went back to his office, while Ort was locked up."

Loretta was the first of the sisters to marry.  Her wedding to Arthur Wallace in the Louis XVI Room of the St. Regis Hotel on November 25, 1909 was a glittering affair.  The Times reported "The wedding ceremony was held under a canopy of chrysanthemums, lilies, and palms, and at dinner after the reception in the marble banquet room the bride sat at a heart-shaped table strewn with white roses."

The family was back at the St. Regis for Carrie's marriage to Harry Groedel on February 21, 1918.   Emma, however, would never be married.  She died on January 2, 1923 while on a New Year's visit to Carrie's home in Newark, New Jersey.

The following year the Lowensteins moved to an apartment on West 110th Street.  No. 5 East 93rd Street became home to the Ryder Henry family.

A Baltimore native, Henry was relatively unknown in New York society at the time of his wedding in 1907.  The same could not be said of his bride, Louise Frelinghuysen Jackson, daughter of the wealthy William Henry Jackson and the former Mathilde Bruce Reynolds Jackson.  Her mother had been presented to Queen Victoria as a debutante.

The marriage took place in the Jackson mansion at No. 556 Madison Avenue, just off the corner of 56th Street.   The guest list that afternoon included names like Shepard, Livingston, and Van Rensselaer.

Henry's pedigree, nevertheless, could compete with his bride's.  He was a direct descendant of the 18th century governor or Maryland, John Henry.  His brother, Clement, married Louise's sister, Adelaide,  When the couple named a son Ryder Henry, it sowed the seeds of confusion in society columns years later.  Ryder's nephew was always referred to as Ryder Henry 2d as he earned social recognition.

Ryder and Louise would have two children.  Louise Frelinghuysen Henry was, obviously, named after her mother; while John Campbell Henry shared his name with his grandfather and great-great grandfather.

Louise's debutante luncheon on November 29, 1927 was far too large for the 93rd Street house to accommodate.  It was held in the Louis XVI ballroom and the Tapestry Room of the Park Lane Hotel.  Her mother scored a social coup when The Times led its listing of guests with nobility: the Countess Alexandrine von Beroldingen.  (Although born in New York City, she carried her ancestral German title, highly impressive to Manhattan socialites.)

The mother and daughter were soon hosting together.  The New York Times announced on November 13, 1928 "Mrs. Ryder Henry and Miss Louise Frelinghuysen Henry of 5 East Ninety-third Street will give a luncheon at the Park Lane on Nov,. 27 for Miss Alexandra Diodati Gardiner, debutante daughter of Mrs. Robert Alexander Gardiner."

The Henry family summered, most often, in Easthampton, and routinely appeared in the society pages rubbing shoulders with the elite.  Louise enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending the exclusive Miss Nightingale's School, and then St. Timothy's School in Catonsville, Maryland.  As would be expected, she was now a member of the Junior League.

The heiress was, however, apparently in no great hurry to marry.  While other young women in her class often wed a year or two after their debuts, Louise's engagement to F. Douglass Clark was not announced until September 25, 1934. 

The wedding on November 28 that year drew headlines.  "Miss Louise Henry Wed in St. Jame's" announced The Times, with a sub-headline "Church is Massed in Blooms."  After a detailed description of the event, the guests, and the outfits, the article reported "The ceremony was followed by a reception at the home of the bride's parents, 5 East Ninety-third Street, which like the church was decorated with palms and chrysanthemums."

Four years later, after suffering an extended illness, Ryder Henry died on October 2, 1938.  He was buried in Cambridge, Maryland.

Louise and her son, who had attended the Berkshire School in Massachusetts, lived on in the house.  When World War II erupted, John Campbell Henry served with an Army anti-aircraft unit in Europe with the rank of lieutenant.  His impressive family background earned him memberships in the Colonial Lords of Manors, the Huguenot and St. Nicholas Societies.

His marriage to Margaret Riker Post on June 11, 1949 in the Church of the Incarnation was a significant social event.

The aging Louise was alone in the 93rd Street house and invited her spinster sister, Margaret Augusta Jackson, to live with her.  Margaret was proud of their lineal descent from French and Dutch settlers.  She had been a member of the Huguenot Society since 1893; serving as its secretary for three decades.  She also served as director general of the Daughters of the Holland Dames, and was a life member of the Colonial Dames of America.

Despite her advanced age, she seemed indefatigable.  She maintained her role as an officer in the Home Garden Society and a registrar of the Colonial Lords of the Manor.  For 35 years she served as secretary for the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children.

But Louise would be alone again in 1952 after her 91-year old sister died in the house on January 14.  Nevertheless she remained here until her own death on April 24, 1965 at the age of 93.

The house became the "upper school" of the Columbia Grammar School.  The school was founded in 1764 in a one-room house by the Battery.  The lower school was housed a block away at Nos. 22-28 West 94th Street.

The mansion was returned to a single family home in 1998.  It was purchased in 2002 for $4.25 million by floral designer Lynn Jawitz who, according to Curbed New York, "set about sprucing it up with marble columns, a royal palace's worth of ornamental molding, and many different patterns of floor."

The Versailles-like parlor floor rooms (top) are Jawitz's creations.  photo via Curbed New York
Jawitz put redecorated mansion back on the market in 2011 for $24.5 million.   Perhaps her decorating scheme (resulting in what Curbed New York called a "medieval fairy tale townhouse") was a bit aggressive for buyers, and in 2014 the price was reduced to $20 million.

The Henry mansion is the last of the row to retain its original stoop (the stoop at No. 11 was recreated in 2011).  Outwardly it is little changed, thanks in a great part to the Henry family's four decade ownership.

non-credited photographs by the author

Friday, November 17, 2017

The 1828 Jacob Bogert House - 39 Barrow Street

photograph by the author

Charles Oakley was busy constructing houses along Reason Street (named in honor of Thomas Paine's 1794 The Age of Reason) in the mid 1820s.  In 1826 he completed Nos. 47 and 49 and in 1828 added Nos. 39 through 45.  Already locals had corrupted Reason to Raisin Street and that same year Reason Street was renamed Barrow Street.  Artist Thomas Barrow, who had depicted Trinity Church in 1807, received the honors.

It appears that Oakley made deals with craftsmen; for apparently they either invested in the project, or they received discounted prices on the houses in exchange for work.  As a result the new buildings became home to masons, carpenters and stone cutters--like carpenter Jacob Bogert who moved into No. 39.  (The stone cutter Abraham Bogert who also worked on the houses was most likely a relative.)

Three bays wide, his house was two and a half stories tall above a shallow basement level.  A brownstone stoop let to the narrow entrance, adorned only by a small transom.  The Flemish bond red brick was trimmed in plain brownstone lintels and sills.  The peaked roof would have been pierced by one or two dormers.

On November 3, 1854 Joseph G. Warner moved into No. 39 Barrow Street.  His timing was bad in terms of the State and City elections that year.  Exactly one week later he walked to the polls to vote.  The inspectors told him he was ineligible to vote, because he had just moved into the district.

Warner was not pleased.  The New York Times reported that he "remonstrated" with the inspector and insisted that his lawyer had assured him he "had a perfect right to vote," because he had lived in the state for a year and in the county for four months.  "The appeals of Mr. Warner made no impression upon the Inspectors," said the newspaper.

Furious, Warner headed to the Second District Police Office and complained to Justice Meech.  Warner had presented an interesting conundrum.  While, on one hand, he had just moved into the Fourth District; on the other the law declared it "a misdemeanor for Inspectors of Election to refuse the deposit of a legal ballot from a legal voter."

Because of Warner's complain, three inspectors were arrested.  On November 11, 1854 The Times noted they were awaiting a hearing.  "The punishment for this offence is left at the discretion of the Court; being imprisonment for one year, or a fine of not less than $250."  It was the first case of its kind and the newspaper was sure that the "inquiry will probably excite considerable interest among politicians and citizens generally."

The fiery Joseph G. Warner was gone from Barrow Street by 1861 when David Groesbeck was living here.  He worked in the Hall of Records as the First Auditor in the Metropolitan Police Department's Board of Finance.  In December 1863 he received a raise, bringing his salary up to $2,000 per year (just under $39,500 today).  But he was disgruntled about the back pay the city still owed him.

Since 1859 he had been performing "extra services," apparently what would be termed overtime today.   He had petitioned the Board of Aldermen for his back pay in February 1863, but that petition "was referred to the Committee on Finance."    Finally, on December 13 he received $2,460 which represented the "extra services rendered in the Auditing Bureau" during the years 1859 through 1862.

It may have been that sizable windfall--equal to more than a year's pay--that prompted Groesbeck to move.  Only four months later he sold everything in the house.  His advertisement on April 28, 1864 offered "Beds, bedding crockery, table linen, towels, looking glasses, pictures, mantel ornaments, &c., for sale cheap, in good order.  Second hand dealers need not apply."

It was most likely James D. McClelland, a lawyer, who raised the attic to a full third floor within the next few years.  The renovation was done prior to July 29, 1870 when an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "A second or third floor to let--unfurnished, in a private house, where there are no children."

On March 13, 1873 McClelland sold the house to Amos Jean and his wife, Rosina.  They paid $4,100 (or about $84,800 in today's dollars).  The couple took out a $3,000 mortgage to buy the property.  They continued to rent rooms, and on May 8, 1874 offered "furnished--large front room and pantry in a quiet house...also a small room; excellent neighborhood."

The designation of a "front room" was important to potential renters.  Unlike a "hall room," it would have a window and therefore light and ventilation.

When the Jeans sold No. 39 in January 1891, the buyer was, somewhat surprisingly, James D. McClelland, who now lived just two houses away at No. 43. He spent $6,500 to regain the house, which he leased to John F. Neilson, a City Marshal.  Just two months later a fire broke out in the house; but the damage was minor and Neilson continued to live here.

Neilson was involved with Tammany Hall politics, a fact that tainted his reputation in the eyes of some journalists.  After City Marshal Henry J. Spink was killed in a train accident in Sheepshead Bay in June 1893, Neilson was appointed to replace him.  The Evening World commented "Neilson held the same office before.  He is one of Police Justice 'Barney' Martin's henchmen in the Eighth District...Neilson will be attached to the Third District Civil Court, in the Jefferson Market building."

'Barney' Martin, was, incidentally, Justice Bernard F. Martin.  He had been partners with "Red" Leary and his wife, Kate, in a saloon, described by Abram C. Bernheim as "the resort of the most disreputable classes in the community."   And Tammany Biographies published by The New York Evening Post in 1894 added "'Red' Leary was the most notorious burglar in the country, and Kate probably the most famous pickpocket in the world."  The trio had lived together above the saloon.

Later that year, in November, Martin advertised "hall rooms, nicely furnished, $1.50."  The weekly rent would be equal to about $43 today.  Among those living here in 1896 was William McClelland, apparently the son of Neilson's landlord.  It is most likely no coincidence that the young McClelland landed a job as a clerk in the Third Judicial District Court--the same location where John F. Neilson served as City Marshall.

It is unclear when Neilson left the Barrow Street house.  On July 1, 1910 James D. McClelland (still living at No. 43 Barrow) sold the house to Bridget McDonald.   At least twice she leased the house--in August 1919 to Jane Herder, and in November 1921 to Catherine McCabe.

It was purchased by Marie Louise and Julius Goebel in 1936.  Immediately Marie Louise involved herself in neighborhood activities.  She opened what one newspaper described as her "100-year-old house and garden" for the Greenwich House Garden Tour in 1937, arranged by Mrs. J. G. Phelps Stokes.  She participated in the event every year until 1940.  In 1939 she installed a "studio for sculpturing" in the rear.

The following year Julius Goebel died.  A few months later, in April 1941, Marie Louise leased the house to Bertha Brainard; then sold it in 1945 to Ruth Neinson.

No. 39 has remained a single-family residence.  It sits on a block emblematic of Greenwich Village charm, perhaps best described by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1969 when it said "The warm quality of brick creates an atmosphere for this street."

photograph by the author

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Downtown Treasure, The National City Bank Building - 55 Wall Street

Photographer Irving Underhill captured this shot of an eerily-empty Wall Street.  From the collection of the Library of Congress

At 2:30 on the afternoon of December 17, 1835 Samuel Swartwout, Collector of the City of New York, wrote a startling letter to a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.  It began:

Dear Sir--Last night, between eight and nine o'clock, a fire broke out near the Merchants' Exchange, and is still raging most violently...By this disastrous visitation, between four and five hundred buildings have been destroyed, and goods and other effects, to the amount of fifteen to twenty millions of dollars.  This calamity falls principally upon the heavy importing merchants; and they must unquestionably become greatly embarrassed, and many of them ruined.

Those merchants relied heavily on the Merchants' Exchange building for holding meetings, conducting business, auctioning properties and goods, and related functions.  With its destruction, Swartwout quickly arranged temporary quarters and plans were laid for a new structure.

The original Merchants' Exchange was a casualty of the 1835 Great Fire of New York --King's Handbook of New York (copyright expired)
About two months following the fire The Herald announced "It is intended, if practicable, that the new Merchants Exchange shall occupy the whole block, bounded by Exchange street, Wall, William and Exchange Place."  

Interestingly, on May 3, 1836 the South Carolina newspaper, the Cheraw Gazette, announced "John Haviland, Esq. of Philadelphia, has received the first premium for a plan of the new Merchants Exchange, New-York.  The cost of the building, exclusive of the ground, will be about $300,000."  It is unclear whether the newspaper simply received erroneous information or if Haviland's undertaking merely fell apart.  In either case, it was architect Isaiah Rogers who took on the project.

Rogers was among the foremost architects of the time.  He had recently completed designs for the massive Astor House Hotel nearby on Broadway; and was at work on the plans for the Bank of America at No. 44 Wall Street, also destroyed in the fire.   Both of those buildings would employ classic Greek columns in their designs.

Rogers's nearby Bank of America building, completed in 1836, featured two massive Greek columns. The Bank of America: A Brief Account of an Historic Financial Institute, 1918 (copyright expired)
Considering the fate of its predecessor, Rogers was tasked with designing a "fire-proof" building.  His gray granite structure, which took six years to complete, would indeed be hard to burn.  The New-York Tribune noted its "partitions, floors and walls being all of stone."

The finished building was a stately Greek Revival edifice with a free-standing order of monolithic two-story Ionic columns at the second floor.  Each column was 3 feet in diameter, nearly 30 feet tall, and weighed more than 33 tons.  According to The New York Times, they "were hauled up Wall Street, one at a time, by teams of forty spanned oxen."

The architect topped the structure with a massive iron dome.  Its oculus allowed sunlight into the large rotunda.

An 1858 engraving shows the iron dome and a sedate Wall Street.  Rogers's building bore a striking resemblance to LaGrange Terrace, or Colonnade Row, completed a few years earlier.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Even though the building was still under construction, tenants had begun moving in as early as 1839.  Among them were several fire insurance firms, including the Seventeenth Ward Fire insurance Company, the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, and the Merchants' Fire Insurance Company.   Broker Myer Levy established his office here in 1839, the same year his speculations for a client resulted in an violent encounter.

At noon on December 20 Levy was walking back to the Merchants Exchange from a meeting of the Board of Brokers.  The Morning Herald (which commented that women found Levy to be "very handsome looking") reported he was ambling along "with his book under his arm, and his thoughts on the rise and fall of stocks" when Emanuel B. Hart approached.

The newspaper said Hart then produced "a very respectable cowskin [and] gave Mr. Levy a smart blow across the most classical portion of his nose.  At this sudden attack, the fire flew from his eyes and the blood from his nose."  The two well-dressed and respectable businessmen engaged in fisticuffs, creating "as great a sensation in Wall street as the arrival of the British Queen."

It had all started when Levy purchased disastrous stocks for Hart.  When Levy demanded the $400 owed him, Hart requested time to obtain the funds.  The broker threatened to report him as a defaulter and "put your name in the Black Book."  Hart retorted that "If you do I'll cowhide you."  Both men fulfilled their promises.

Among the tenants in 1843 was the young attorney John Jay, who had graduated from Columbia College in 1836.  He was the namesake of his grandfather who was President of the First Congress and first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. 

The first hints at financial problems for the Merchants' Exchange Company, owners of the building, came in February 1852 when an announcement appeared in The New York Times.  The group was looking for an $800,000 loan, secured by the mortgage to the building.  The massive amount would be equal to about $25.6 million today.  The statement declared that the current rental income was $65,000 and "it is presumed that is can be increased" to $90,000.

But the desperate attempt came too late.  "After every effort had been exhausted to redeem it from the sheriff's hands," according to The New York Times on May 11, 1852,  the Merchants Exchange building was sold at auction.  Called by the newspaper "one of the grandest structures in the United States"--its shocking-low winning bid was $805,000, or "two-thirds its estimated value." 

Despite the change in ownership (the new organization was the New York Exchange Company), business inside the building went on unchanged.  For years real estate auctioneers like Anthony Bleecker and A. H. Muller conducted sales of estates and properties within the building; and Simeon Draper held semi-weekly auction sales of stocks and bonds. 

The large meetings of merchants routinely held in the rotunda dealt with issues which potentially affected commerce.  Such was the case on December 16, 1853 when about 300 businessmen assembled to discuss the problem of "Harbor Encroachments."  A sudden rash of private docks threatened to obstruct harbor traffic and, consequently, with business.  The men pressed for the "appointment of Commissioners to fix a permanent shore line."

In 1862 the Merchants Exchange left its granite headquarters, which then became home to the United States Custom House.  The move came at a tenuous time; one when the suggestion of corruption within the Custom House was rampant.   On February 7, 1863 The New York Herald wrote "For some time past we have heard much upon the subject of gross frauds said to have been committed by Custom House officers."   With the nation engaged in civil war, the newspaper noted that the nerves of citizens were on edge and officials needed to act.  "The anxiety felt about this matter should be cleared away by an official expose of the whole affair.  These are times when it is dangerous to tamper with the people."

Although the 1871 depiction of the Custom House appears to show a missing dome, an etching of the rotunda that same year confirms that it was intact.  images from the collection of the New York Public Library
Familiar faces continued to lease space within the building.  In 1864 at least five insurance company, including four fire insurance firms, shared the address with the Customs House.  And Simeon Draper who had for years auctioned stocks and bonds in the Merchants Exchange, now held the position of Collector of the Port.  That ended in scandal, however, following a visit by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.

On August 16 that year The New York Herald reported "Political circles in this city have been in the greatest ferment since the announcement of the removal of Simeon Draper from the position of Collector of the Port."  The President intended to stamp out corruption and Draper and his cohorts were on his hit list.  The Herald commented "With this removal the President has ripped up a most formidable cabal."

But corruption was a recurring scourge within the Custom House.  It would once again find itself in the sights of a Government clean-up in the summer of 1873.  On August 15 The New York Herald reported "Yesterday was a 'Black Friday' in the annals of the New York Custom House.  That stately and imposing building was swarming from the hour when business commenced in the morning till dusk with half-crazed inspectors and other outside officials of the Custom House, who were led to visit headquarters by the rumor that an investigation was pending before Assistant Secretary of the Treasury."   The federal investigators were on their way "in regard to some huge frauds, alleged to have been committed by various Custom House officials, numbering in all from seventy to ninety persons."

Top-hatted businessmen conduct business within the Custom House's stately rotunda.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The newspaper said "It is impossible to describe the paralysis of terror depicted on the faces of the swarms of office-holders who thronged the corridors, passages and anterooms of the big building attendant on this rumor of probable decapitation and criminal exposures."

By 1896 it was obvious that the old granite building was no longer adequate for the Customs House.  In January that year two congressmen had opposing opinions regarding a solution.  Representative Quinn introduced a bill in the House for "reconstruction and renovation of the present Custom House building."  Representative Low had already introduced a bill for the erection of a new building on Bowling Green.

The Customs Collector Kilbreth had already met with architects McKim, Mead & White.  The firm directed the construction firm of Norcross Brothers to assess the possibility of remodeling and adding floors to the aging structure.  Their report, made public on January 17, 1896, concluded "To enlarge the building and to make it perfectly must be practically rebuilt" and doubted that it would "be either economical or wise to do this."

Three years later the magnificent Cass Gilbert designed Custom House neared completion at No. 1 Bowling Green.  On January 29, 1899 the New-York Tribune rejoiced over the coming move from Wall Street, writing "few tears will be shed over the abandonment of the dark, dirty structure."

There was at least one man who did not share the newspaper's opinion of the stately structure.  James Stillman was president of the National City Bank, located across the street at No. 52 Wall.  On July 3, 1899 the bank paid the Department of the Treasury more nearly $3.3 million for the old Customs House.  The New-York Tribune noted that the bank's directors had "the ambition" of making it the American counterpart to the Bank of England.  "This purpose is generally understood to have been the leading motive which impelled the National City Bank to purchase the Custom House."

On December 2 Stillman held a stockholders' special meeting.  The agenda included "payment for an improvement of the old Custom House property."   Despite the earlier opinion of the Norcross Brothers, the bank went back to McKim, Mead & White in 1904 to carry out those renovations.

McKim, Mead & White staff architect Louis H. Dreyer produced a rendering of the renovations.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In a remarkably sympathetic and seamless renovation, the architects added four stories.  A second colonnade, this one Corinthian, perfectly aligned with Rogers's original.  Already classic, the renovations made the building monumental.  Inside the architects completely redesigned the rotunda, creating a classical Roman environment later echoed in their Pennsylvania Station and the Main Post Office.

photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

At the time of the building's remodeling banks relied heavily on messenger boys whose extremely low rate of pay was equal to their skill level.  One, a 17-year old named Benson Lang, would make national news after he headed off to the National City Bank on Friday, February 4, 1910.

The following day the Washington D.C. Evening Star reported "the ticker startled hundreds of business offices today and set a small army of messenger boys on a fruitless quest with this laconic announcement: 'Lost, a ten-thousand dollar bill.  Notify Hornblower & Weeks.'"

Lang had been employed by the banking house of Hornblower & Weeks for about four months when he was handed the rare $10,000 bill (there were only about 20 in circulation at the time) and the company's pass book and sent to the bank to deposit it.   But when he arrived at National City Bank, the bill was gone.

As he explained later "I never had seen so much money in one bill before and I couldn't help showing it, first to the elevator man then to another bank runner, and thirdly to a Greek bootblack, who has a stand in front of the building.  I let him handle it and hold it up to the light.  He didn't believe it could be real.  He gave it back to me, I put it into the pass book, put the pass book in my overcoat pocket and hurried to the bank."

According to the teen, he was so stunned by the loss that he wandered the streets all day until nightfall looking for the bill.  Afraid to tell his employers, he went home.  He told his mother what had happened and the following day she accompanied him to Hornblower & Weeks.

While the loss of the bill was substantial--more than $260,000 in today's dollars--it was doubtful that it could be used.  The New York Tribune pointed out two days later "It would seem prudent for the next few days not to present a certificate of that denomination in payment of any merchandise, as all such bills will in the nature of the case, be under some suspicion."

Three days after the incident, Benson Lang was behind bars in The Tombs with his bail set at $10,000--the exact amount of the lost bill.   On February 18 the Ohio newspaper The Democratic Banner reported that his lawyer "pointed out that his client had been afflicted by attacks of aphasia with complete temporary loss of memory."  His employers had another opinion entirely.  "It has been asserted by members of Hornblower & Weeks that young Lang fell into the hands of a gang of gamblers through a woman's influence."

National City Bank leased office space in the building.  Among the tenants around the time of Benson Lang's felony were the brokerage firms of Mackay & Co., and Colgate Hoyt & Co.  

The law firm of Shearman & Sterling was also located in the building.  John W. Sterling handled the affairs and estates of millionaires in the United States and abroad.   When Baron Strathcona died in London in May 1914, for instance, his $23.25 million estate was executed by Sterling.  And four years later when National City Bank president James Stillman died, it was Sterling who handled the $20 million estate.  (Newspapers were somewhat shocked that he left his entire fortune to his family, The Evening World noting "Nothing was left to charity.)

When John W. Sterling died in 1921, his will was significantly more philanthropic.  The New York Times announced "He provided for the erection of several memorial buildings for his Alma Mater, Yale; scholarships, library, laboratories, &c., all of which will represent an expenditure of probably $20,000,000."

Every year the gloom of the Great Depression temporarily disappeared below the grand dome of the rotunda as the National City Bank held its Christmas party.   In 1937, for instance, all 6,000 employees of the bank's 74 offices gathered here.  On December 22 The Times reported "The City Bank Club Choral Society of 125 voices will sing Christmas carols to the accompaniment of an electric organ.  The program will be broadcast over WHN.  The decorations include a 50-foot Christmas tree."

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, American boys abandoned their jobs to joining the military.  It caused a severe shortage in the workforce and National City Bank met the problem head on by hiring women as messengers.  On August 6 that year The New York Times reported on the 60 "girl runners" in language which would be deemed inexcusably sexist today.

Faced with a shortage of qualified young men for page boys, messengers, and runners, the bank turned six months ago to the feminine field.  From it was gleaned a photogenic group of high school girl graduates who now 'wouldn't give up' their jobs "for anything"--except marriage...Five suburban "glamour girls" combined the intricacies of banking with a few remarks about their 'really nice' men associates in a description of their work.

In 1957 the bank re-hired McKim, Mead & White to modernize the building at a cost of $912,000.  Included in the project was the installation of a two-story safe deposit vault that weighed more than 1,400,000 pounds.  The Times reported on November 27 "Men with hydraulic drills raised fearful clatter on the world's largest banking floor--it is 188 feet long, 124 feet wide, with a reach of 72 feet to [the] roof of the great Pantheon-type dome put up in 1842."   It took days to lower the massive steel vault into place on hydraulic jacks, the same "used to underpin the White House in Washington when it was made over a few years ago," said the newspaper.

Other renovations included an escalator to reach the banking floor.  The Times added "The grim old brick-arched cells in the basement, used by the Customs people from 1863 to 1899 as a lock-up for pirates, smugglers and other interesting male-factors, may be done over too.  Now they're used mainly for utilities and for storage."

Luckily, because the bank had again chosen McKim, Mead & White, the classical facade was preserved and the magnificent interiors were not significantly altered.  Nevertheless, eight years later when the building was being proposed as a New York City landmark, the bank bristled.  Spokesman John A. Wilson remarked "We are not Philistines," but insisted that the building was just "one example of Greek architecture...Certainly not all present examples of Greek architecture in our city are to be preserved--only...the finest.  And, in our opinion, our head office building is not in the elite category."

Despite the bank's opposition, the exterior of the building was designated a landmark on December 21, 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission calling it "one of the few truly monumental Classical buildings of this city."

In 1979 the bank, now named Citibank, remodeled again.  The interiors were not yet landmarked and could potentially have been destroyed by modernization.   Instead, in what architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called "another laudable action," the exterior was cleaned and restored and the interiors converted to a public banking facility "within the framework of a historical interior."  In deference to the glorious McKim, Mead & White banking room, the manufacturers of the automated banking machines were asked to specially design the equipment for 55 Wall Street.

Although Huxtable lamented "It would be nice to be able to say that the results are as good as the intentions," the interiors were, nonetheless, preserved.

In the spring of 1990 Citibank sold the historic structure to foreign investors for $69.1 million.  Luckily, according to a lawyer for the buyers, "They think it's a fine structure, a fine piece of Americana.  They intend to maintain it."

photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress

Oddly enough, the building sat almost empty for nearly a decade.  In October 1994 real estate operator Raymond T. O'Keefe explained "It's unusual, it's unique, but what can you do with it?  Banks no longer need grandiose space, retailers don't like space that's tucked away, and the office floors just don't divide well."

It seemed the building would be purchased in September 1996 when Donald J. Trump boasted he had negotiated "a bargain" price for the property at $20 million.  He declined to say what exactly what his plans for the site were; but was "in discussions with House of Blues, Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Cafe and Virgin Records."  With his customary use of superlatives, he told Robert D. McFadden of The New York Times "It's one of the easiest to rent that I've ever seen because it is one of the most beautiful buildings...It's truly one of the most magnificent structures in the world."

Then, on May 28, 1997, The Times reported "Four months after Donald J. Trump walked away from buying 55 Wall Street, a subsidiary of the investment bank that was to have financed his purchase of the historic building has bought it."

The Cipriani family, owners of Harry's Bar in Venice and two restaurants in New York City, announced it would open a luxury hotel and banquet hall in the building.  Giuseppe Cipriani told reporters "It'll be the most exclusive hotel in America, with the most gorgeous banquet hall."

The renovation by Michael Gadaleta of MG Architects resulted in a 30,000-squre foot banquet hall and the 144-room all-suite Regent Wall Street hotel.  Unfortunately the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack dealt a fatal blow to the hotel.   On December 18, 2003 The Times explained "It is a victim not only of the attack on New York--through which it resolutely stayed open, sheltering and feeding victims, workers and neighbors--but of an economy that was souring even before Sept. 11, 2001."  The Regent Wall Street closed on January 7, 2004.

photograph by Charles Heckler, via mgnewyork

Today, following a 2017 conversion, the upper floors contain 106 furnished condominium apartments known as the Cipriani Residences.  The grand banking hall (designated a landmark in 1999) is still home to the Cipriani restaurant.

many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for suggesting this post.