Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Blum & Blum's 1912 120 West 86th Street

Sadly, at some point during the 20th century the building lost its exuberant cornice.

The land spreading west from Central Park West in the 86th Street area was once the sprawling country estate of the wealthy and respected Livingston family.   By the late 1880s it was owned by descendant T. E. D. Powers who partnered with architect John G. Prague to develop the plots.  The pair would build more than 230 residences in rapid-fire succession.  The Real Estate Record and Guide said in 1890 “They have created a neighborhood.”  

 In 1887 Prague and Powers had lined both sides of the 86th Street block between Amsterdam Avenue and Columbus Avenue with Renaissance Revival-style homes.  Prague varied the otherwise identical houses with windows, materials and rooftop elements which, according to The Record & Guide were taken "from full-sized drawings in Mr. Prague's office."

One house, No. 120, would not survive especially long.  Perhaps more than any other section of the city the Upper West Side quickly embraced the concept of apartment living.  In 1911 developers Meyer & Meyer razed the 24-year old residence and its next door neighbor and hired George and Edward Blum to design a modern apartment building on the site.

It was one of their earliest commissions.  The brothers had arrived in New York from France in 1888 when George was just 9 and Edward 12 years old.  They studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before returning to open their firm Blum & Blum in 1909.  Within the next two decades the Blum brothers would be responsible for designing at least 120 apartment houses.  

Although they would become recognized for their Beaux Arts and, later, Art Deco designs; for No. 120 West 86th Street they turned to neo-Renaissance architecture, touched with Arts & Crafts decorations.  The 12-story facade was clad in limestone and red brick and topped with an aggressive pressed metal cornice.   Adept treatment of the starkly-contrasting materials resulted in a light and airy presence,

The newly-completed structure elbowed its way in among the Prague-designed rowhouses. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Completed in 1912 the building offered apartments of six to eight rooms, all with three bathrooms.  While most upscale apartment buildings on the West Side were named--like the Dakota, the Ansonia and the Apthorp--120 West 86th Street followed the lead of its East Side counterparts and was known only by its address.

An advertisement in August that year boasted "The building is equipped with every known improvement conducive to comfort, convenience and luxury.  Its appointments are sumptuous and its decorations will please the most discriminating."  The ad noted that the building offered "extra servants rooms if desired" and pointed out that the location was convenient to both the 86th Street and Broadway subway, and the "new 86th St. Elevated Station." 

Rents ranged from $1,750 a year for the six-room apartment to $2,500 for the largest--in the neighborhood of $5,500 per month today.  Well-to-do apartment seekers were not put off by the pricey rents.   Within one week soon after the advertisement appeared eight leases were signed.   Among the professionals moving were a number of physicians, including doctors Henry L. Salsbury, William T. Moynan, and Samuel Max Brickner.  

Brickner and his wife were followed by the society pages, which noted, for instance, that they had returned from a trip to Atlantic City on December 1, 1912.  But the doctor was battling one of the most feared diseases of the early 20th century: tuberculosis.  When the couple moved into the building he was on the house staffs of the Sloane Maternity Hospital and of Mt. Sinai Hospital, where he was associate gynecologist.  

Brickner's deteriorating health forced him to retire in 1913, but he continued to work as editor of the Medical Pickwick, Medical Record.  He and his wife were summering in Saranac Lake, New York, in June 1916 when he succumbed at the age of 49.

Evert S. Fink and his wife, too, were among the initial occupants.  He was a member of the brokerage firm Starkey, Marshall & Co. at 7 Wall Street, and president of the Celtic Avenue Realty Co.   The couple were guests of Dr. Stephen O. Storck and his wife in the Coronet Apartments on West 58th Street on the evening of June 4, 1913.  The four played bridge until just after midnight when the Finks returned home.

The following day the New-York Tribune reported "Scarcely had they arrived when the telephone rang, and when Mr. Fink answered it he heard Mrs. Storck's voice, broken with hysterical sobs, as she said: 'Please come to me quickly.  Stephen is dead; he fell from the window.  Come quickly.'"

Fink rushed back in a cab and found Storck's body still in the courtyard.  An ambulance arrived from Flower Hospital and the dentist's death was deemed instantaneous.   According to his wife, he had left her in the dining room when he went to the bedroom to undress.  "The next moment, she said, she heard his cry as he fell from the window opening on the court," said the Tribune.

The Gilbert F. Cosland family was in the building by 1914.  A wholesale liquor dealer, he was president of G. F. Coshland & Co. on Murray Street.  His wife, Josephine was a director and secretary in the firm.  The couple had two daughters and a son.

Coshland was, according to The Times, "active in Jewish charities," and Josephine was an associate member of the Hospital for Deformities and Joint Diseases.  (The designation required a yearly donation of $1.00).   Their charitable generosity had no doubt been fully appreciated by the soldiers fighting the Spanish-American war in 1898.  When the American Red Cross pleaded for supplies to be sent to the temporary camps scores of firms responded with pajamas, pillow cases and blankets, socks and canned goods.  The Coshlands sent two cases of wine.

Perhaps the most celebrated resident at the time was Alfred Hertz, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera House.  Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he suffered from infantile paralysis, or polio, as a child.  Although he was not permanently crippled, he required a cane for the rest of his life.   When the Metropolitan Opera's 1906 tour took them to San Francisco, Hertz was there to conduct when the massive earthquake and devastating fire took place.

On January 20, 1915 Hertz wrote a letter from 120 West 86th Street to Otto H. Kahn, then the chairman of the opera.  After 13 years with the Met, the 42 year old asked for a year's sabbatical, saying in part "It is, I understand, the practice of the leading American universities to allow their professors one year in every seven for study, contemplation and leisure away from the routine of their ordinary work."  He explained that he felt that the 12-month period would give him time "for repose and study" and to "do both concert and operatic conducting."  The New York Times made an explicit point that the letter "does not mention the word 'resign.'"

Famed conductor Alfred Hertz lived in the building through the fall of 1915.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Nevertheless, Kahn was apparently not pleased.  In his reply, dated the following day, he gushed on about Hertz's contributions and loyalty and hoped he would be the guest of honor at a "dinner or some other suitable function."  But he also made it clear that their cutting of ties was in no way a temporary sabbatical.  "There is nothing for us to do but to accept your resignation," he said.

Hertz, possibly stunned by the unexpected reaction, never got his year's vacation.  He accepted the post of conductor of the San Francisco Symphony that year, a job he would hold until 1930.

George A. Gardner was a resident when Hertz left.  He was Assistant Superintendent of Railway Mail Services, a Government position under the Post Office Department.  The lucrative job not only afforded him the ability to live at No. 120 West 86th Street; but to hire architect Carl P. Johnson to design his summer home in East Quogue, Long Island in 1916.

But Gardner's congenial relationship with the Post Office was about to come to an abrupt and unhappy end.  In 1897 a system of "pneumatic mail" was begun in New York City, initially between the Main Post Office and Bowling Green, less than 4,000 feet.  By now tubes extended up the East and West Sides to Harlem.  The amount of time it took for bundles of mail to reach Harlem from the Main Post Office was about 20 minutes.

But there were some in the Post Office Department who felt the tube system was out of date and that automobiles could accomplish the task more efficiently.   In 1917, when the Government was faced with either scrapping or enlarging the system, Gardner was one of five experts on a committee to weigh both options.  He soon found he was in the minority and that, in his opinion, "the other four members were prejudiced against a favorable recommendation for Government purchase of the tubes."

So enraged was Gardner at the committee's unmovable stance that he resigned.  The Merchants' Association was equally displeased and in May 1918 sent Gardner and F. B. De Berard to Washington DC to appear before the Committee on Rules of the House of Representatives.  Garner testified that the committee was "hostile to the pneumatic tube system" an that its investigation was "perfunctory."

Garner's impassioned testimony apparently swayed the Committee.  The pneumatic tube mail system remained in place until 1953.

Another physician living in No. 120 in 1919 was Dr. James M. McTiernan.  His summer home was in New Rochelle, New York.  He had served in the Army Medical Corps during the war and was now an instructor at the New York Post-Graduate and the Polyclinic Hospitals.  Society's attention turned to the doctor that year not because of his social standing, nor necessarily that of his bride-to-be, but that of his soon to be sister-in-law.

On May 10, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. Morton F. Plant, of 1051 Fifth Avenue, has announced the engagement of her sister, Miss Florence Morgan Cadwell, to Dr. James M. McTiernan.'  Mae Plant (she preferred to be called Maisie) was the recent widow of the multimillionaire Morton Plant who famously traded his magnificent Fifth Avenue residence to Pierre Cartier for a $1 million strand of pearls.  That mansion continues to serve as Cartier's New York flagship store.  The newlyweds continued their lives together in No. 120 West 86th Street.

The building was still commanding lavish rents.  In 1922 a seven-room, three bath apartment leased for $3,600 per year and an eight-room for $4,000.  The rent for the larger apartment would be equal to about $4,800 per month today.

The Depression and Prohibition years, however, brought some unwanted publicity to the address.  The first instance involved Mrs. Dorothy Edelston, secretary of the American League of Equal Rights, Inc., described by The New York Times as "an organization said to be backed by prominent clergymen and others."

On January 8, 1931 Mrs. Edelston surprisingly appeared at a Hell's Kitchen tenement and knocked on the door of Mrs. Annie Core, a 73-year old scrubwoman.  Pretending to be looking for an old friend who had lived at the address, she engaged Mrs. Core in a conversation.  The topic eventually turned to the elderly woman's finances.

The New York Times, on April 1 that year, revealed that Mrs. Core, "ill at the time, confided she had $1,322,50 in the Fourth Avenue Savings Bank and $1,698.06 in the Dime Savings Bank."  The combined $3,020.56 was a fortune for the cleaning lady, in the neighborhood of $47,500 today.

Mrs, Edleston convinced Annie Core that banks were dangerous places during the frail economy and that her money should be invested.  Trusting her new, well-dressed friend, the old woman withdrew her funds and entrusted them to Dorothy Edelson.

Dorothy invested it in mortgages in her own name, acting as trustee.  She most likely did not expect Annie Core to have the wherewithal to contact an attorney when she disappeared.  Dorothy was brought before a judge on March 31 on grand larceny charges.  She promised that, if given a week, she would repay Annie.  Instead, according to the newspaper, Magistrate Burke "gave Mrs. Edelstone until 2 o'clock tomorrow afternoon to return the money."

It was Morris Kaplan whose name appeared in the newspapers the following year.  A partner in The Broadway Hosiery & Underwear Co., Inc., he rented the nine-story building at No. 296 South Street on May 1, 1932 as a "wool remnant factory."  But it was not underwear that was being made inside the plant.

Early in June two prohibition agents were returning to the sub-Treasury Building from Water Street when they smelled the odor of alcohol fumes.   Returning with a search warrant, agents broke through two steel doors on June 6.   What they found astonished even the most seasoned of investigators.

They described "a plant capable of turning out 40,000 gallons of alcohol a day."  The Times reported "The distillery occupied the entire nine floors of the building and was connected by pipe lines with a garage on Water Street, where trucks unloaded molasses which went into the making of 190-proof alcohol."

In an amazing, professional operation, the molasses was pumped through pipes under the flooring, camouflaged as drainage pipes, to storage tanks in the main building.  Similar pipes sent the distilled liquor to trucks labeled as "Gasoline" or "Oil" tankers.

The article said "The agents found 200,000 gallons of molasses, a large part of which was fermenting in twenty wooden and steel vats.  They also found 20,000 gallons of high-grade alcohol."  The operation was declared "one of the largest distilling plants ever uncovered" and the liquor and equipment was valued at about $300,000--more than $5.25 million in current dollars.

A warrant was issued for Morris Kaplan's arrest.  His attorney asserted two days later that Kaplan "is no way connected with the still, and that the operators used his name as a blind."

Sam Brandwein was arrested on November 11, 1943.  He was the manager of the White House Bridge Association at No. 846 Seventh Avenue.   But, like Kaplan's underwear factory, there was more going on inside than bridge playing.

The club was already on law enforcement radar after it was the scene of the murders of Robert C. Greene and Morris Wolinsky by ex-convict Max Fox in 1941.  Max claimed they "squeezed me out" of a partnership in his Wall Street betting commission house.

When police raided the White House Bridge Association on the night of Kaplan's arrest, they reported "seventy men, twenty of them bookmakers and known gamblers, at seven tables in the club playing various games for money."  The Times said Kaplan, along with three other men and a woman, were "arrested as common gamblers and gambling house operators."

Despite those occasional and unfortunate episodes, the great majority of the residents of No. 120 remained upscale and respectable.  Trouble did return to the building in 1971, however.

The building's owner, Arthur David Greenberg, had reportedly been harassing the tenants of the rent-controlled building.  They blamed his withholding of services on their refusal to agree to a co-op conversion plan.  In response City Rent Commissioner Benjamin Altman scheduled a press conference in the building's lobby on September 15, 1971 to announce he was hitting Greenberg with fines totaling $20,000.  That conference would never take place.

Things turned chaotic as Altman headed towards the entrance.  With television cameras rolling, Greenberg intercepted him, saying "I'm the owner of the building," and accusing the commissioner of having a corrupt staff, of harassing him, and of being a racist.  When he pointed out 64-year old Joseph C. Smith, who had testified to having been harassed by Greenberg, the tenant came forward.

Smith attempted to defend himself, but according to one journalist, "was unable to say much because of interruptions by Mr. Greenberg."  The last words Smith was able to utter were "You shut off the hot water and electricity last Christmas Eve."  He then collapsed to the sidewalk.

Another tenant, Rebecca Schild, screamed "Murderer! Murderer!  Now are you satisfied?"  Mayhem ensued.  A third tenant, 35-year old actor Jay Stuart, jumped over Smith and tried to land a blow on the landlord's jaw.  An aide to Greenberg began pummeling Stuart while Housing and Development Administration officials attempted to pull back both men.

Amazingly, cameras rolled throughout the entire ugly affair.  Smith was removed to Roosevelt Hospital where he died about 43 minutes later.  In the meantime, Greenberg found a police officer and demanded that he arrest Stuart for assaulting him while simultaneously insisting "Oh boy, am I going to sue him," referring to Commissioner Altman.

The tense situation lasted for another two years.  Upon Greenberg's appeal the State Supreme Court set aside the $20,000 fine, saying he had not been given due process.   But he was fined $7,000 for harassment of tenants on May 22, 1973.  In response he told reporters that it was he, not the tenants, who had been "harassed, threatened and attacked," and that he had "lost every nickel I put into the building."

Despite its occasional shady tenants and the ugly period in the 1970s, No. 120 West 86th Street continues to be an enviable address.  And Blum & Blum's handsome brick and stone design is nearly unchanged (albeit without its cornice) since the building muscled in among its brownstone neighbors over a century ago.

photographs by the author

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