Saturday, November 11, 2017

The David Randell House - 75 West 47th Street

In the decade before the outbreak of Civil War, the 47th Street block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues became lined with comfortable brownstone dwellings.  Among them was No. 75, just off the corner of Sixth Avenue and home to the Randell family.

Italianate in style, it was three stories tall above a tall stone stoop.  The restrained ornamentation was limited to the handsome entrance where ornate foliate brackts upheld the arched pediment, the molded eyebrows above the eliptically arched openings along with the bracketed sills, and an especially attractive cast metal cornice and frieze.  Most likely a cast iron balcony originally fronted the parlor windows.

No. 67 (left), just down the block and seen here in 1906, was identical to No. 75.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Active in community affairs and reform, David Randell was nominated as candidate for Police Justice by the Temperance Convention on October 30, 1852.  That same year a daughter, Mary, was born.  David and Lydia Randell had five other children, Matilda, David, Charles, Cornelia, William and George.  A son, James, had died at the age of 7 in 1837, and 21-year old Louisa Ann died in 1839. 

The Randell house would be the scene of several funerals in relatively quick succession.  David died in 1856.  On June 2, 1862 Cornelia Catherine died in the house at the age of 36.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.    The following year, on March 7, the 74-year old Lydia died; and in 1865 the funeral for David Morris Randell, who was 44 years old, was held here.

Exactly when the Randell family sold No. 75 is unclear; but it was home to Dr. John Messenger in the mid-1870s.   He was on the staff of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was so respected and well-known that his name quickly came to the mind of a swindler in 1871.

T. J. Rockwell entered the fashionable St. James Hotel on Broadway on July 15 and presented a check for $60.  The bookkeeper, Francis J. Arthur "declined at first to have anything to do with it, as he did not know Mr. Rockwell" said The New York Herald.  Arthur was understandably cautious, as the check would be worth about $1,220 today.

He told Rockwell, however, that "if he would get some responsible person to endorse it he would then cash it for him."    Rockwell said he knew Dr. John Messenger very well and that he would be only too happy to endorse any paper he would hand him.  According to The New York Herald, "Mr. Arthur was also happy in the acquaintance of Dr. Messenger," and assured Rockwell that his endorsement would be good enough for him.

Rockwell reappeared 45 minutes later, "his face radiant with smiles."  On the back of the check was John Messenger's signature.  He received his $60 in cash and disappeared.  The following day Arthur took the check to the Bowery National Bank where he "was surprised and not a little disgusted at being informed by the cashier that Mr. Rockwell never had an account there, and that the signature of Dr. John Messenger was a forgery."

The ornate cornice survives intact.

Messenger sold the house in 1879 to Julius Hart and his wife, the former Isabelle Gosling.  The doctor's decision to sell may have been prompted by the completion of the Sixth Avenue Elevated train that year, just steps away from his door.  And it may have been too much for the Harts, as well.  They sold No. 75 to James E. Kelly on May 27 1882, less than two years after moving in.  Kelly paid $19,700, a little more than $475,000 in today's dollars.

Following Kelly's death in 1893 the house underwent a series of rapid-fire turnovers.  Between March 1897 and February 1902, when it was purchased by Dr. Albert G. Weed, Jr., it had changed hands at least eight times.  The old residence was still a private residence and Dr. Weed initially used it for his home and office.

Weed was a well-to-do physician, the personal doctor to Senator John C. Spooner, advisor to President William McKinley, for instance.  He maintained a summer home in Middleton, New Jersey.  But eight years later the doctor yielded to the inevitable.  The district was no longer one of upscale homes.  In 1905 the massive New York Hippodrome had opened just four blocks to the south on Sixth Avenue, and the block between 44th and 45th housed street car barns.

In August 1910 Weed commissioned architect Henry C. Pelton to convert the house to business.  The $3,500 in renovations called for an extension to the front, another to the rear, the addition of bathrooms and the rearrangement of interior walls.

The remodeled house was purchased by Benjamin V. R. and Lillian V. Winterbottom around 1914.  It became one of two J. Winterbottom & Son Co. funeral homes; the other located at 194 Spring St., run by his father, James E. Winterbottom.  The family had been in the undertaking business for generations since James's grandfather, also named James E. Winterbottom, started the firm in the 1880s.

Benjamin and his wife had suffered through scandalous publicity when, in 1902, his affair with Gertrude Thompson was exposed following her suicide.

Gertrude had left her husband a few months after their marriage when she discovered he was a professional gambler.  The Evening World explained "Thrown upon her own resources Mrs. Thompson became a manicurist.  She is said to have been extremely good looking and had many admirers."  But few of them, said the newspaper, made any impression on her.  She was captivated by Benjamin Winterbottom "who is said to be a married man."

A family friend, Mrs. Alden Eisert, said "Gertrude seemed to be completely fascinated with him.  She talked of him constantly, and when she did not see him for a day or two she seemed greatly depressed."

She was depressed enough that one evening in October 1902 she pulled her bed directly under the ceiling light and attached a rubber tube to the gas jet.  Lying on the bed, she put the tube in her mouth.  The Evening World wrote "As she lay dying she held in her hand the photograph of Winterbottom, which at last slipped from her grasp and fell to the floor, shattering the glass."  Gertrude left a note to her father that read "I loved Ben.  I lived for him; I died.  Gertrude."

Soon after opening the West 47th Street funeral home the family closed the Spring Street operation and James joined Benjamin and Lillian in running the business here.  The well-respected businessman (he had been County Coroner until through 1909) found himself behind bars on Saturday night September 19, 1914.

Apparently enjoying a drink that Friday night, James Winterbottom "made the acquaintance" of three men, Max Lichowitz, Walter Ryan and Joseph Shein.  Before they realized it, the sun was up.  Then, at 9:00 in the morning according to the New-York Tribune, "as it was both too early and too late to go to bed, somebody suggested a trip to Coney Island."

Once there the three men "made excuses," and left Winterbottom alone.  A few seconds later he realized his wallet containing $265 (more than $6,500 today) was gone.  He called two policemen who tracked down the trio; but a search failed to find Winterbottom's wallet or money.  But Lichowitz announced that his gold watch and chain were missing, and that if Winterbottom accused him and his friends with larceny, he would do the same.

And so the Tribune's retelling of the story began with the line "One good turn deserves another, and James E. Winterbottom, ex-Coroner of New York County, learned yesterday that a turn of any variety is likely to be rewarded in kind."

Among the most publicized funerals here was that of Inez Jolivet Vernon.  She was a professional violinist who played with the Metropolitan Opera House and had been decorated by King Edward VII and Tsar Nicholas II.  She and her husband George Ley Vernon, lived in the Sunmer Apartments at No. 31 West 11th Street.  Unaware the fuse of World War I was already hissing, Inez was in Europe in the spring of 1915.  George, along with Inez's sister, actress Rita Jolivet, and theatrical producer Charles Frohman were to join her there.

Disregarding warnings placed in newspapers by the German embassy, on May 1, 1915 the three boarded the RMS Lusitania.  On the afternoon of May 7 a German U-boat torpedoed the ocean liner off the coast of Ireland.  Among the 1,198 passengers and crew killed were George L. Vernon and Charles Froham.

On July 16 Inez was back home and, once again. planning to sail to Europe.  That day she made various purchases and had her trunks sent to her apartment for packing.    Aware than she had booked her passage and the apartment would be empty, the superintendent of the Sumner Apartments let himself in on Thursday the 22nd to show the apartment.  He and the prospective tenant walked into a gruesome scene.

The New York Times reported "Mrs. Vernon was kneeling at the foot o a bed, clad in black.  Her face was buried in her hands, and her right temple had been shattered by a bullet from an automatic pistol, which as found under the body."

Rather astoundingly, despite the fact that her face was cradled by both her hands (making the shooting of a gun seemingly impossible), the coroner pronounced it a suicide and ordered the body taken to the Winterbottom & Sons funeral home.   The mystery thickened when it was later rumored that George had been to meet with the Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovitch to complete an arms deal when he died; and that Inez's subsequent trip was to finished the deal.

A moving double funeral occurred here on November 5, 1917.  Two French soldiers, Joseph Vasseur and G. Fronier had been wounded on the front and were sent to New York to instruct American troops.  Unaware of leaking illuminating gas, they died on their room.    The coffins were draped in both American and French flags and the service was conducted by the Chaplain Edmund Banks Smith of Governors Island.   Representatives from both countries were in attendance, including military officers, the French Consul's Office, and a delegation of the Sons of the American Revolution.

J. Winterbottom & Son continued here until through 1921.  In 1922 the lower floors became home to the Penwick Restaurant.   The quaint name disguised a well-attended speak-easy that was raided on the night of November 17, 1923.  The following morning The New York Times reported "About 200 men and women diners booed the raiders when they entered the Penwick Restaurant...where, after showing a search warrant issued by United States Commissioner Boyle, they seized 336 bottles of beer and 48 bottles of ale."  That night manager Joseph Quigley and his oyster opener, Thomas Peters ("behind whose counter most of the beer was found") were arrested.

Quigley found himself in jail again following a raid on November 20, 1925.  And this time the Government had had enough.  The New York Times reported "The gay clink of the convivial glass will give place next week to the clank of the prohibition padlock."  Calling the Penwick Restaurant one of the "so-called 'gilded palaces of the night," the newspaper listed it among the places "wherein those who live New York's most expensive night life have been wont to frolic."  But the November 1925 raid was one raid too many for enforcers and the club was shut down and padlocked for good.

As mid-century approached the upper floors were operated as "one-room kitchenettes."  One was the scene of a tragic accident when the gas heater had a loose connection, resulting in the death of 74-year old Leo Oestericher and the hospitalization of his wife, Rose, on December 4, 1948.  Luckily, before she was overcome she telephoned her son, who broke in the door with policemen.

In 1952 Trico Watch Time occupied the commercial space.  Its presence signaled the change in the neighborhood to what would become known as the Diamond District.   The wholesale jeweler offered items like the "Diamond Jim" tie pie with "29 hand-set rhinestones and 28 baguettes in a double row," and a 17-jewel "Diamond Jim" watch, "studded with hand-set rhinestones, rhodium finish; black suede wrist band."  The watch was available for $16.25 in lots of six or more, or about $150 each in today's dollars.

In 1968 the building was renovated, resulting in a jewelry store on the first floor, offices and jewelry repair on the second, and two apartments each on the upper floors.   Peeking above the flashy Diamond District storefront today the remnants of David Randell's house look out on a much changed block.

photographs by the author


  1. Great story, thanks. That ornate cornice seems to be the only surviving part of the front decoration. In fact the ornate foliate brackets under the arched pediment were really TOO restrained. If there was a cast iron balcony in front of the parlour windows, it would be great to put it back now.

    I would also take down the modern, messy advertising above the awning and re-create it in a matching, metal 1930s font.

  2. Do I remember this building, in about 1970, being (badly) painted blue? Or was that another?
    JH Weider