Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Noble Remnants - Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum - Amsterdam Ave and 112th Street

photo by Helena Kubicka de Braganca, via

When attorney John George Leake died on June 2, 1827 at the age of 75, he left a significant fortune (more than $9.75 million today).   With no children nor close relatives, Leake left the entire estate to Robert Watts, the son of his best friend, with the stipulation that the young man would change his surname to Leake.  He did so, but died intestate only a few months later.  The Leake inheritance now passed to Robert's father, John Watts, as next of kin.  However, given the circumstances, Watts was uncomfortable accepting the unintended windfall. 

Found among Leake's papers was an unsigned draft of an earlier will which left funds to create an orphanage.  John Watts was named in that draft as its administrator.  The courts granted Watts's petition to use Leake's estate to establish the institution, which was incorporated in 1831.

On January 16, 1838 the State Assembly unanimously pass a bill "to vest in the trustees of the Leake and Watt's Orphan House of New York, the escheated estate of Mr. Leake."   The state had liquidated 2,236 acres of Leake's real estate upstate, the $8,000 net (a little under a quarter of a million dollars today) being added to the coffers of the institution. 

According to the Morning Herald, during the process one Assemblyman, a Mr. Wardell, "showed himself the warm friend of the orphan and hoped that every man's feelings would prompt him to do at one an act of justice too long delayed."   He ended his speech saying "I am glad to see the Assembly awake to this subject.  Let it be our pride to verify the old Greek maxim: 'The Orphan--first and last in our hearts.'"

The trustees of the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum (or, sometimes, the Orphan House) chose Ithiel Town to design its facility, far north of the city in what was known as Manhattanville.  Among the preeminent architects of the period, Town was an early proponent of the Greek Revival style, as evidenced in his 1829 temple-like Church of the Ascension on Canal Street.

The grounds of the asylum engulfed 50-acres in the area that today would roughly be Amsterdam Avenue to Morningside Drive, and from 109th to 113th Street.  Even while the building rose, the orphanage began functioning.  Vegetable gardens not only taught boys important skills, but provided the institution with food.   The asylum's gardens got a surprise gift of fertilizer in November 1839.

In its meeting on November 18 the Board of Aldermen voted "In favor of giving 250 loads of street manure to the Leake and Watt Orphan Asylum."  It was, perhaps, not so gracious a gift as it might appear on the surface.  Thousands of horses filled New York City streets with manure, keeping cleaners busy all day, every day.  The Aldermen were no doubt happy to get rid of at least some of it.

The building was completed and formally opened in 1843.  Thiel had created a classic Greek temple faced in red brick, flanked by two projecting wings.  The monumental Ionic columns, which appeared to be marble, were in plaster-covered brick.  The majestic structure, which a traveler might mistake for a major civic building, commanded an imposing presence atop the hill in the rolling green countryside.

The resplendent structure appeared in a guidebook around 1861.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The dormitories were on the second and third floors.  Each bed in the second floor rooms were shared by two children.  "The others are not so greatly crowded," commented The Times.  The dining room was situated in one of the wings; school rooms were in another.  The facility admitted children between the ages of three and twelve only.

A one-line notice from Albany appeared in The New York Herald on March 21, 1847.  "The bill authorizing the Trustee of the Leaks and Watt Orphan House to bind out the orphans as apprentices in other States, was passed."  The innocuous-sounding practice would be heavily criticized decades later.

"Binding out" the boys was, in fact, indenturing them to farmers, factory owners, and the like.  Paid only in shelter and food, they were essentially slave workers.  While some boys were well taken care of a welcomed nearly as a family member; others were cruelly used.

Two weeks earlier the institution had proudly reported "There has been but one death in the Asylum during the last year."  That figure was, in fact, quite impressive among similar facilities in 1847.

Later that year President James K. Polk passed by the orphanage on his way to see the engineering marvel, the High Bridge aqueduct, which was nearing completion.  Word had reached the institution weeks earlier and the excited children were ready.  On June 27 a reporter  wrote "As we approached the Leake and Watts Orphan House, we observed about an hundred of the children, boys, awaiting our approach, and as the President's carriage came up, they raised their tiny voices in three cheers."   The President did not disappoint the boys.  He ordered his driver to stop, "and addressed a few words to them...and then we went again."

Eight years later 136 of the orphans got a special treat.  They went on what today would be termed a "field trip" to the nearly-opened Crystal Palace on the site of today's Bryant Park.  On September 25, 1855 the Crystal Palace was closed to the general public  A "special holiday" was held for 1,719 children from missions, orphanages, trade schools and similar institutions.  The New York Times reported "The Leake and Watts Orphans were nearly of a size--comely and well-behaved."

In 1892 the area around the former orphanage was still undeveloped.  The cross had been erected a year earlier when the Episcopal Church purchased the property.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1861 the orphanage was at the center of a horrifying tragedy and scandal.  In 1859 24-year old Mary Dunlop had arrived in New York from Scotland.  She was taken in by the family of her uncle, Hugh McAlpine, a blacksmith.  Six months later she was hired at the asylum as a seamstress, and, according to The New York Times, "her character for virtue does not seem to have been questioned."

On Friday, September 6, 1861 Mary fell ill.  After being sick for a few days, she confided in a co-worker that all was not well at home.  The Times said "she made confessions to one of her associates, charging her uncle with having abused her and caused her ruin."  Hugh McAlpine had not only sexually assaulted her, he had impregnated her.

Mary's sickness was the result of an attempted abortion.  The New-York Daily Tribune later reported "Mrs. Guest testified that she, having heard what was wrong with the girl, determined that she must leave the [asylum], and advised her to go to the Bellevue Hospital, but she preferred to go home to her uncle's house."   Mary died there on September 15.

The family made rapid preparations for a funeral to be held the following morning but officials stepped in.  "Just prior to the removal of the remains, some members of the Police took charge of them, by order of Coroner Schirmer," reported The Times.  Everyone involved scrambled to clear his name.

Dr. Norval, who had attended Mary in the Hudson Street house, had listed the cause of death as "disease of the heart," although the coroner's examiner "found undoubted evidence that death had resulted from the cause stated," reported The New York Times, delicately avoiding the term "abortion."

At the coroner's inquest Mary's co-workers told everything they knew about sordid circumstances leading up to Mary's death.  Shockingly today, no one was held responsible.  The Times described McAlpine as "bearing a good reputation," and The New-York Daily Tribune reported "A strong effort was made by way of hearsay testimony, on the part of the Orphan School witnesses, to prove that the uncle of the deceased had seduced her, but there being no testimony bearing on the abortion, the Jury rendered the following verdict: 'Metro-peritonitis supervening upon abortion, induced in a manner unknown to this Jury.'"

Around 1869 the Asylum sold off a large part of its property, realizing $1 million in the sale, more than 18 times that much today.  Although it foreshadowed the development of Morningside Heights; there were still only three major structures in the area at the time.  As late as 1879 The Sun wrote "That large columned building on the heights at 110th street is the Leak [sic] & Watts Orphan Asylum.  North from it that spacious and well-preserved frame, buff-colored, old, but comely fashioned, is the 'De Puyster Mansion.'  Over the heights, at about 114th street, is a glimpse of the Bloomingdale Asylum."

photo by E. P. MacFarland, May 10, 1934, from the collection of the Library of Congress.
One of the indentured orphans was Charlie Harper.  He had been sent here by his relatives following his parents' death in the mid 1870's.  In August 1878 the asylum "bound him out to David Terry, a farmer at Southampton, Long Island," according to The New York Times.  But in December the 13-year old escaped, hopping a freight train back to the city.  He made his way back to the asylum, and hid in a barn.

"There he lay concealed for two weeks," reported The Times on January 25, "and was supplied with food by the other inmates of the institution.  This would not last long, however, and yesterday afternoon Charlie was handed over to Officer Connolly, who took him to the Harlem Police Court."

A glimmer of hope was sparked when Judge Bixby listened to the boy's story and seemed genuinely interested.  He asked Charlie if he had any relatives, and was told that he had an uncle and two sisters in New York City.  Bixby next asked if they "took any interest in his welfare."  Charlie admitted that he doubted they did.  It was not the answer the judge hoped for and the boy was, at least temporarily, jailed.  "The magistrate locked him up until he could have an opportunity of communicating with them."

When a scourge of typhoid fever broke out in the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in Washington Heights in the winter of 1879, the Sanitary Committee made an inspection of similar institutions.  They were not pleased with the results of their December 1 visit to the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum.  On one hand, the facility was well run; on the other, its outdated sanitary conditions were deplorable.

The New York Times reported "Only full orphans are admitted to its benefits and there are at the present time 160 children within its walls, all of them apparently well fed and cared for in every particular, save a sanitary one.  The Asylum having stood for twenty-seven years utterly lacks all the modern appliances for ventilation, sewerage, &c., and though it has a magnificent annual income, no effort has been made during those years to improve the sanitary condition of the place."

On each end of the building were two water closets for the little children.  The raw sewage emptied directly into the street.  The article explained "the urine and all the waste water of the house passes into a sink, or cistern, from which it soaks or escapes through a half-choked sewer to One Hundred and Tenth-street, and thence finds its way along the gutter down to the low ground at Eighth-avenue, where it becomes a stagnant pool, or else is gathered into the numerous shallow wells dug about there by the squatters."

Outhouses (or "night-soil closets") for the older orphans were no less offensive.  The Times said they were "of the rudest description--mere surface pits, half the time choked up...They are emptied about every two years, and the excrement made into compost for the adjoining gardens.  They were in a pretty bad condition yesterday, and the effluvia from the stream of sewerage on One Hundred and Tenth-street, was anything but pleasant."

As the city pushed northward in the 1880's it slowly engulfed the once-bucolic district, making it less agreeable as the site of an orphanage.  Simultaneously the Episcopal Church was searching for a site for its proposed cathedral--one that would outdo even the Catholic Church's majestic marble St. Patrick's Cathedral.  On October 15, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Church had made an "offer of purchase, more or less formal," for the orphanage land.

On April 22, 1888 the New-York Tribune wrote "Building a cathedral worthy of the site at Morningside Park, and worthy of the city as it will be fifty years from now, is a great project and the trustees are wisely anxious to do nothing in a hurry...The Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum will keep possession of the Morningside Park grounds until the summer of 1889."

The orphanage acquired 33 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Yonkers in 1888 and in 1891 the Episcopal Church purchased the Morningside Heights property for $850,000--about $23.6 million today.  The Real Estate Record & Guide pronounced it a "very low price" owing, in part to the trustees being "affiliated with the Episcopal Church."

Construction began on the massive Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, directly behind the orphanage structure.  Over the decades the cathedral grew, eventually butting up against the rear portico.
In October 1924 the wall of the Cathedral edged just feet away from the orphanage's rear portico. from the collection of the New York Public Library
As mid-century approached, it became evident to all that the 1843 structure sat directly in the path of construction.  In 1950 the east wing was demolished.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
On December 9, 2004 The New York Times architectural journalist David W. Dunlap called the former orphanage "a landmark in the way of a landmark" and noted "Wary that Leake & Watts would jeopardize their ability to build the south transept, cathedral officials once resisted any talk of preservation.  The columns, stucco over brick, crumbled.  Column capitals and other woodwork rotted away.  The roof leaked.  A lot."

The church was engaging in what preservationists call "demolition by neglect."  But then it changed its mind.  In 2006 it embarked on a $1.5 million restoration which was completed six years later.  Renamed the Town Building in honor of its architect, it currently houses the Cathedral's Textile Conservation Lab and its social service arm, Cathedral Community Cares.

Nevertheless, it does not have landmark designation and sits directly on the intended site of the South Transept.  And in speaking to David Dunlap in 2004 the cathedral dean, the Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski pointed out that "the investment in the Town Building does not signify a retreat from the hope that one day St. John will be completed."

In the meantime, the 175-year-old Greek temple nudges up against the Romanesque-Gothic behemoth; the two architectural masterworks coexisting as uneasy bedfellows.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Hotel Willard (aka Churchill) - 252 West 76th Street

By the turn of the last century architect Ralph S. Townsend had designed a wide variety of buildings--small flats, private homes and hotels (including the elegant Savoy Hotel on Fifth Avenue).   In 1902 he began work on an "apartment hotel" for developer Alexander McDowell on West 76th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.

Called the Hotel Willard, the 10-story structure was completed in 1903.  Faced in limestone and red brick, Townsend turned, not unexpectedly, to the Beaux Arts style, especially fashionable in apartments and hotels at the time.   A three story base of rusticated stone featured a bracketed balconette above the centered entrance.  Two smaller versions made their appearance at the fourth floor, fronting stone-framed openings with effusive pediments.  A pair of three-story angled bays sat upon ornately carved bowls.  Townsend frosted the facade with swags and festoons, lions' heads, and leafy stone brackets.  The mansard roof wore an ornate copper crown.

An early postcard reveals the stunning views that guests enjoyed above the still mostly low-level structures.  Close inspection reveals that the ninth floor cornice once had railings--originally a balcony.
The Hotel Willard offered accommodations to both permanent and transient guests.  They had their choice of either two rooms and a bath, or four rooms and two baths.  Transient rooms, or course, were furnished.  McDowell leased the Willard to hotelier Arthur T. Hardy, whose opening advertisement in November 1903 called it "The finest apartment hotel of the West End."

The ad boasted "The apartments are luxuriously furnished.  The rooms are large and sunny, and command extensive views of the Hudson from the upper floors."  Both permanent and transient tenants took their meals in the Willard's dining room, "conducted both on the American and European plans."

Annual leases were offered at $600 for the two-room apartments, and $1,600 for the larger suites.  (The rents were not cheap--the more expensive equaling about $3,400 per month today.)   The weekly rates for the unfurnished rooms were between $16 to $22 for the smaller suits, depending on the floor or view; and $40 to $50 for the larger.

An advertisement a month after the opening listed only one apartment still available.  Hardy noted "Cuisine and Service Calculated to Please the Most Fastidious" and promised that the "appointments and conveniences not excelled by any hotel on the West Side."

While the Hotel Willard did not offer the sprawling apartments of some other buildings, it nevertheless drew an upscale clientele.  Among the first to move in was Dr. Frederick S. Howard, a retired dentist and vice-president of the Fourteenth Street Bank.  The 61-year old was a charter member of the Colonial Club, the Upper West Side's exclusive men's social club.  Shockingly, only about two weeks after the Willard opened, he suffered a fatal heart attack in his apartment.

Arthur T. Hardy carefully chose his service staff.  He was especially impressed with the refined demeanor  of 25-year old applicant Agnes Pemberton.  Although he suspected she came from "a better family than her position would imply," he hired her as a chambermaid, hoping she would be a good influence on the other staff members.

Agnes started work on New Year's Day, 1904.  The New-York Tribune noted "She had a large quantity of clothing of fine material, most of it several seasons old.  Her manners were above reproach, and, although she did it faithfully, her work seemed foreign to her nature."  Agnes "held aloof from the other servants," but was friendly nonetheless.

Beginning the first week of April there were clues that Agnes was unhappy.  One day a maid admired her silk shirtwaist.  Agnes told her "I am going to leave all of my clothing to you girls when I go."  Servants later recalled that "she frequently commented on the easiest manner of death when reading stories of suicides in the newspapers."

On April 6 a wedding took place in the house directly across the street.  A few of the maids watched while the carriages came and went.  After it was over, Agnes said flatly, "Well, God bless them; I suppose they are happy now."  The New-York Tribune remarked "There was just the suspicion of a tear in her eye as she turned away, with the remark that she was going to her room."

Servants lived in the 10th floor mansard.  As she had indicated, Agnes went to her room.  It overlooked the back of the building, above the two-story extension where a stained glass dome illuminated the hotel's offices.  Half an hour later a porter named James was at work cleaning the dome when Agnes's body smashed onto it and landed at his side.

On April 7 the New-York Tribune reported "several guests whose rooms faced on the courtyard saw Miss Pemberton's body falling through the air.  It turned only once."  A clerk who heard the crash and ran to the second floor found the dazed porter "sitting on the dome and staring wildly at the form of the young woman."

The New York Times quoted Coroner Jackson. "I am very anxious to learn the actual identify of he young woman, for I firmly believe that she came from an excellent family.  From what I can learn, she was too dainty and refined for her position."  But her true identity was never discovered.  Investigators could find no trace of relatives.  As she had promised, her clothing and the $70 in her purse--around $2,000 today--were distributed among the other servants.

Although theatrical people were not welcomed in many parts of the city, such was not the case on the Upper West Side.  The Hotel Willard became home to several.  Among them was actress Maude Harrison, an early resident.

Maude Harrison was a favorite of American audiences for decades.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Maude was a New York City native, born in 1854.  She had long been popular with audiences and had created the part of Mrs. Brown in Bronson Howard's long-running 1878 play The Banker's Daughter.  For years she was a member of A. M. Palmer's Union Square Theatre Company and had played opposite stars like Richard Mansfield.

After a semi-retirement, Maude returned to the stage as a vaudeville actress in 1905.  In April 1907 the 53-year old actress mentioned to other guests that she had not been feeling well for several days.  A Christian Scientist, she refused to consult a doctor.   Then, on the morning of April 28 a maid found her unconscious on the floor of her apartment.  She died that afternoon without ever regaining consciousness.

Another well-known name in the theater living here at the time was Alice Nielsen along with her husband, Benjamin Nentwig.  An actress and singer, Alice's rise to fame was the stuff of fable.  As a child in Kansas City she sang on the street corner.  Wealthy meat packer Jakob Dold invited her to sing at his daughter's birthday party.  Dold was so pleased he sent her to the White House to represent Missouri at a musicale.  By 1900 at the age of 28 she was America's biggest box office draw.

Alice Nielsen - from the collection of the New York Public Library
In January 1911 two well dressed women checked into Suite 44.  The names they used were aliases.  They were, in fact, the notorious Poillon sisters, Katherine and Charlotte, who first attracted attention when Katherine sued W. Gould Brokaw for $250,000 for breach of promise in 1905.  She received a settlement of $17,500 (almost half a million today); then claimed she received only a fraction and sued her lawyers for $11,500.

Later they had a man arrested claiming he was spying on them for attorney Carl Fischer-Hansen.  And then, according to the New-York Tribune "they had a fight in City Hall Park with three lawyers, one of whom had pushed a suit against Katherine for a department store claim of $800."

The pair continued to appear in newspapers.  In March 1906 the Hotel Barstow tried to evict them for non payment.  The management turned off their electricity, but they burned candles.  An elevator boy claimed Charlotte punched him in the ribs and the jaw.   Their bad reputations grew as they moved from one residence hotel to another, never paying rent.  In February 1908 five hotels--the Bristol, the St. Francis, and Albany, the King Edward, and the Grenoble--filed suit against the women.  They were sent to Blackwell's Island for three months "for trying to beat hotel bills."

Three weeks after the sisters checked into Hotel Willard, Arthur Hardy realized their true identity and asked them to vacate.  But they were slow to do so.  He appeared before Magistrate Herbert on February 6 saying "I have two guests in my house.  I understand they are the Poillon sisters.  They have promised me to get out, but I want to know what to do if they don't carry out their promise."

The judge told him "Well, if you don't want a guest in your house, you should put him out by force."

Charlotte Poillon the New-York Tribune, April 2, 1915 (copyright expired)
Katherine Poillon.  The sisters appeared refined and well-bred but were notorious scam artists.  The Evening World, July 24 1903 (copyright expired)

A reporter from the New-York Tribune immediately telephoned Suite 44 to get the sisters' reaction.  Charlotte reminded him that "the laying on of hands" constituted assault and said "Now, do you think the manager of this very exclusive hotel would try to come up here and put my sister and myself out by force--and say, even if he tried, it do you think he'd get away with it?"

Hardy again asked the women to leave.  They promised both to go and to pay their bill.  Then they again delayed their departure.  And then again.  Finally, a policeman was called to escort the deadbeat guests out.  He was successful, but was sued by the Poillon sisters who charged he "had unlawfully entered their rooms at the Hotel Willard."

The Hotel Willard continued to appear in society columns as its well-to-do residents held benefit teas, wedding breakfasts, and announced engagements.   In 1918, during a brutal cold wave, Mrs. James Selvin, Jr.'s name appeared in print for a far different reason.   On January 5 the New-York Tribune ran the headline "100,000 Thrown Out Of Work by Cold Wave," and reported that record low temperature had forced hundreds of loft buildings to shut down after being "deprived successively of heat, of water and finally of power."

A day earlier Mayor Hyland had announced that Mrs. Selvin, along with three other well-to-do women "had volunteered to raise a fund of $50,000 for the purchase and distribution of coal to the poor of the city."

Among the more celebrated tenants two yeas later were Dorothy and Eddie Parker.  Dorothy Parker had by now achieved national renown as a drama critic; her husband was a broker.  They were no longer getting along.  As a matter of fact, Dorothy lived in apartment 834 and Eddie in 704.   Not long after the couple appeared in the February 1920 census records as living here, they moved to No. 57 West 57th Street.  Their marriage did not survive much longer.

Vacationers in the summer months understandably preferred the seashore or mountains to the heat of the city.  In in June 1921 Hardy advertised "Special Summer Rates" of $2.50 and up for a single room and bath, and $5 and up for a "parlor, bedroom & bath."  (The more expensive rate would equal about $60 a night today.)

James Slevin, Jr. and his wife were still in the building at the time.  And Mrs. Slevin was still involved in charitable causes.   On February 14 that year the European Relief Council held a benefit in the Hotel Bilmore "to save the lives of 3,500,000 children in central and eastern Europe," according to the New-York Tribune.  Stage and opera stars performed and luncheon was served.  The newspaper announced that tickets could be obtained from Mrs. Slevin.

Anna Mildred Traitel, the daughter of Nathan E. Franklin and his wife, the former Ada Keller, returned to live with her parents in the fall of 1921.  Known as Mildred, she had been educated at exclusive Semple School for Girls, but eloped in 1913 with David S. Traitel, the head of Traitel Marble Company.  The couple seemed to have a stories marriage, dividing their time between their New York apartment on East 54th Street and their Belle Harbor summer home.

But the 19-year old bride had quickly realized her mistake.  On their honeymoon Traitel became drunk and physically abusive and the behavior continued.  Over the years he "repeatedly" held a gun to her head, and struck her.  Mildred endured eight years of abuse before filing for separation and temporarily moving into the Franklins' Hotel Willard apartment.

The Franklin family experienced tragedy in the 1940 after Nathan was scheduled to undergo an operation.  He was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital on February 27.  The 69-year old was excessively apprehensive about the procedure.  At 7:00 on the night of March 1 he jumped to his death from the window of his hospital room.

In the meantime, a colorful resident of the Willard was "Uncle Robert" Spero, a manufacturer of willow ware.  He and his wife, the former Ray Maibrun, were married in 1893.  With no children of their own, the couple began hosting large parties for underprivileged children in 1919.  Little by little their charitable outreach extended other overlooked groups, like aged women.  Robert Spero established the unofficial Parents' Day.

The New York Times reported on May 14, 1923 that Spero held a Mothers' Day celebration for "900 woman inmates of the Home for the Aged on Welfare Island."  In addition, all the children in the hospital wards on the island were brought into the assembly hall with the elderly widows "where Spero distributed 2,000 packages of animal crackers, 2000 lollypops [sic] and 1000 flags."

Spero refused to take donations for his parties, paying all expenses personally.  His devotion to the children led him to found the SOS, or "Stay On Sidewalk," program, aimed at reducing traffic accidents involving children.  He additionally started a children's radio program and organized his own group of child entertainers.

The Speros maintained a summer house in Deal, New Jersey.  Finally in November 1939 they left the Willard and moved there permanently.   Ray died there a few months later.  Robert lived on until December 13, 1948.

The Hotel Willard was the scene of a large bridge tournament on the night of October 19, 1932.  Sometime after midnight, while 40 persons played in the dining room, two armed robbers entered the lobby.  One forced the night clerk, Edgar Simmons, into the office while the other stood guard.  When a female guest walked in, he greeted her graciously, handed her her mail and room key and said goodnight.

In the meantime, the other gunman was trying to force Simmons to open the safe.  The clerk insisted he did not know the combination.  The thug finally gave up.  The pair took $80, $42 of which came from Simmons' pockets, and shoved him into the elevator.  They ordered the operator to take it up and warned both not to come back down.  The New York Times said "The bridge players learned of the robbery when the police arrived."

The only manager the Hotel Willard ever had hard, Arthur T. Hardy retired in 1936 after 33 years service.  Before long the property was taken over by the Bank for Savings which made renovations.  In announcing on September 3, 1941 that the 252 West Seventy-sixth Street Management Corporation had leased the building for 10 years, The New York Times remarked "Recently modernized by the bank, the hostelry contains 126 rooms and two stores."   Included in the changes was the building's name.  It was now known as the Hotel Churchill.

The following year the bank sold the property to the Seventy-sixth Street Hotel Corporation (most likely a reorganization of the lessor).   The new owners quickly remodeled the building into seven apartments per floor above the ground level.

Uncharacteristically, the building never experienced a significant downturn as did so many of the turn of the century apartment buildings, especially following the onset of the Depression.  Typical of the tenants in the newly-renovated Hotel Churchill was James Wilson Wenman and his wife, the former Carrie Byrd.  Now retired, Wenman had been a member of the Cotton Exchange and sat on its board of governors for 40 years.

There would be two more renovations.  In 1952 a penthouse level "with three hotel rooms" was added; and a 1960 makeover resulted in six apartments per floor, and now just one in the penthouse.  The restoration of the facade brought the building back to its 1903 appearance when it was touted as "the finest apartment hotel on the West End."

photographs by the author

Monday, October 15, 2018

Scandal & Scoundrels - The Lost 1887 208 West 54th Street

By the time this shot was taken on March 19, 1916, the block had significantly changed.  from the collection of the New York Historical Society
In the spring of 1887 Samuel McMillan, a prolific developer in the 1880's and '90's, commissioned architect F. A. Minuth to design a flat building at No. 208 West 54th Street.  It was not the first time the two had worked together.  Minuth, as a matter of fact, had designed an apartment building on the same block just a year earlier.

Minuth filed plans for the 25-foot wide structure on March 25.  They were vague, calling only for a "five-story flat" with a tin roof to cost $26,000 (just over $691,000 today).  The results were much more exciting.

Minuth's design had all the bells and whistles of the Queen Anne movement.  The understated brownstone basement and first floor upheld four stories of red brick, ruddy terra cotta and stone.  The artistic stoop "floated" from the sidewalk to the entrance.

The entire plan was (typically Queen Anne) asymmetrical.  Instead of being executed in cast metal, as would be expected,the four-story angled bay was of brownstone.  It encompassed a riot of giddy decorations--polished granite columns at the second floor, carved pediments and panels, a make-believe roof, complete with carved shingles, above the fifth floor openings.  Not to be outdone, the single windows to the side grew progressively showier with each subsequent floor, until the topmost wore a terra cotta seashell.   The third, fourth and fifth floors openings sat above half-bowl Juliette balconies with swirling iron railings.

Topping it all off was a steep gable and ornate terra cotta rondel.  The elaborate pressed metal cornice upheld a tall parapet.

Somewhat unexpectedly, McMillan retained possession of the building for several years.  Apartment buildings, or flats, of this type were operated nearly as boarding houses, with a proprietor keeping close watch on things.  McMillan leased No. 208 to a proprietor, or manager.

Among the first tenants were actress Maude Granger and her husband, playwright Alfred Cecil Calmour.  Born as Anna E. Brainard on Christmas Day 1849, she was highly popular with theater audiences and would eventually appear in several silent films.

In addition to her beauty, Maude Granger was among the the top box office draws of her day.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Like most other women in the building, Maude a maid.  She was wealthy enough to own her own carriage, a team of horses, and to employ a full-time groom.  It may be that she was leaving New York on an extended tour in the fall of 1889 that prompted her to sell her horses.

On October 11 that year she instructed the groom, Edward R. Lloyd, to go to "Van Tassell & Kearney' sell a team of brougham horses," according to The New York Times a few days later.  Van Tassell & Kearney's was Manhattan's premier horse and carriage auction house.  Lloyd did what he was told, received a check for nearly $9,000 today, but then forged her name and disappeared.  Five days later he was tracked down by detectives and arrested in Ontario, Canada.

Living in the building about the same time was stock broker Charles T. Schlesinger.  The well-to-do bachelor was a man's man, or as The Sun described him, "a well-known athlete of the New York Athletic Club."  Schlesinger was a member of that club's water polo team and its football team.

At noon on October 30, 1891, he left his apartment and walked down Broadway to meet his two sisters who were out shopping.   The women had previously mentioned to Schlesinger that a man had harassed them on the street.  He no sooner met them, than they told him the same man had been trying to "force himself on their attention."  They pointed out John F. Walker.  Schlesinger told his sisters to continue their walk and that he would follow discreetly.

Sure enough, Walker "again made himself obnoxious to the ladies," as described by The Sun.  Schlesinger caught up with them, told his sisters to keep walking, and demanded an explanation from the cad.  Walker delivered "an insulting response" which earned him a punch in the face from Schlesinger.  Walker retaliated with his heavy cane.

A well-known lacrosse player, Lionel Moses, was passing by and jumped in.  He advised Schlesinger to move along before things got out of hand while he detained Walker.  He rejoined his sisters and at 33rd Street they boarded a Sixth Avenue streetcar.  But Walker did the same.

When the car was about at 42nd Street, Walker sat down opposite Schlesinger and pulled out a "large self-cocking revolver" and said "I'll finish you right here."  The athletic broker balanced himself on the seat with his palms and thrust his feet into Walker's stomach.  "Then he sprang upon Walker and they fought for possession of the pistol."

Understandable chaos and panic ensued.  The Sun reported "The car stopped and conductor, driver, and all the passengers deserted it, leaving the two men struggling...A colored boy, who sat next to Schlesinger, holding in his arms an immense floral horseshoe, dropped the flowers like a hot potato, and jumped out the window, carrying the sash with him."

Policeman Farley jumped onto the stopped streetcar and tried to disarm Walker, "but had to use his club before Walker would drop the weapon."  At the police station, Walker said he was a graduate of West Point and former officer of an Ohio regiment.  Insisting he had acted in self-defense, he demanded that a letter be send on his behalf to Grover Cleveland.

The case took a surprising turn when it came to court on December 7.  As it turned out John Walker was indeed a former captain in the U.S. Army.  The New York Times reported "It was shown in the Court of General Sessions yesterday that he was subject to fits of insanity, and had often annoyed women."   Judge Cowing dismissed all charges providing that the United States Army would take charge of him.  Walker was taken to the Military Insane Asylum in Washington D.C.

Not long after McMillan sold the building to Mary G. Barrymore Valentin in January 1892, a shadier type of tenant began taking flats.  Falling into that category was former actress Lilyon Beardsley.  Minnie C. Warren's suit for absolute divorce from her husband, attorney Lyman E. Warren, landed in Superior Court on January 10, 1894.  In addressing the jury, Judge Dugro said that the only question they needed to decide upon was:

Did defendant at any time between Oct 30, 1890, and May 27, 1893, live in improper relations with Lilyon Beardsley, otherwise Lilyon Daniels, otherwise Donna Madixxa, otherwise Mrs. Smith, otherwise Mrs. Abbot?

The jury apparently decided that Lilyon and the attorney had, indeed, had improper relations.  Minnie was granted her divorce.

In 1905 Susan Merrill took over the operation of the building.  She had earlier run a boarding house where, in 1902, she had a terrifying roomer--Harry Kendall Thaw.  Susan later testified that repeatedly girls would call, thinking they were to audition for a stage play.  After Thaw took them to his rooms, the landlady would hear screams as Thaw took a whip to the bound girls.  She tried to evict him, but he threatened her, promising to kill her if she said anything about his behavior.

Susan was horrified when Thaw appeared at No. 208 West 54th Street and rented a three-room apartment.  She testified at his trial for murdering Stanford White, "In West Fifty-fourth street I heard the same screams and when I ran up to Thaw's three rooms I found him with two girls.   The back of one of the girls was all black and blue and her arms bleeding.  Thaw's face was red, as I have described.  She told me she was twenty-two years old."  Thaw was already married to Evelyn Nesbitt at the time.

In April 1916 the estate of Mary Valentin sold the property to Mary I. Smith.  She immediately made improvements, including a new bathroom.  But modern plumbing did not improve the respectability of the tenants.

Mrs. Margaret Hill lived here at the time.  Although born of a good family, according to newspapers, she had nefarious leanings.  It seems that she was expecting an influx of cash in the beginning of June 1916, when, according to The New York Times, she arranged "for an elaborate renovation of her apartment."

But two weeks later she was nowhere to be found.  Police descended on her apartment on June 22 to find only her maid, Frida Johnson, who said she did not know where Margaret had gone, and only that "before leaving had ordered her furniture to be put into storage."

Margaret, as it turned out, had gained the trust of the multi-millionaire spinster Gertrude Claypool, the niece of former Governor Bookwalter of Ohio.   Over a period of days she drugged the elderly woman, hoping that she would not notice the increased doses.  Then, when Gertrude was essentially incapable of reason, Margaret and her cohorts abducted her to a Newark hotel where they had her rewrite her will.  Included in Margaret's share would be $4,000 outright (around $120,000 today).

But the scheme fell apart when Gertrude later realized what had happened and notified police,  Now they were on the trail of all the participants.  Detectives carefully combed through Margaret's belongings, finding the same drugs that were used on the victim, photographs and other evidence.

Gertrude had named names and identified Margaret Hill as one of the main figures.  Assistant District Attorney Dooling, did not hold back, saying, according to the New-York Tribune, "this band of blackmailers, card swindlers, opium users and smugglers lies at the end of so many lanes of evidence that he is not sure yet just which of these crimes will form the basis of the indictments."

Louis Levy was a tenant in the 1920's.  His motives were, perhaps, well intended, but his means of resolving a problem were more than questionable.  On February 13, 1922 he and another man strode into the office of theatrical booking agent Walter B. Sheridan in the Gaiety Theater Building on Broadway and 46th Street.   According to Sheridan, they accused him of putting "scantily draped women on the stage" at a show he was arranging in the Bronx.  Sheridan assured them everything would be according to the law.

Both men reacted by pummeling Sheridan, breaking his nose.  With blood pouring from his face, Sheridan followed the fleeing duo down the stairs, hollering for help.  According to The New York Herald, "with the memory of the recent holdup in the office of the Morrison Pen Company fresh in their minds, occupants of the other offices began running into the corridors shouting for the police."

On the street things got chaotic.  As workers from the building shouted that robbers were at work, the crowd on Broadway stopped and jammed the street.  Traffic could no longer move and the tie-up lasted until police could finally restore order.

Levy had been seen running from the building and was arrested for felonious assault.  His alibi was not convincing.  "He said he had gone into the building with a friend whose name he could not recall and that he had run because he saw everyone else running," reported the article.

The building, now owned by Margaret Mills, was described as "furnished-room house."  Among her tenants in 1924 was 35-year-old divorcee Susie Nelson.  Susie was carrying on a sexual affair with 29-year-old married police officer James J. Sullivan.  The dead-end romance not only nearly ended her life, but landed Officer Sullivan in more than his share of hot water.

Sullivan worked nights and on December 8 at about 3:40 in the morning, he reported sick at the station house.  He then went to Susie's apartment at No. 208 West 54th Street.  Five hours later he went into the hallway to use the restroom and, while there, heard a gunshot.

Susie had taken his service revolver and shot herself in the chest.  The wound was not fatal and she told police at the West 68th Street Station that she was "discouraged with life."  James J. Sullivan was suspended from the force pending an inquiry, and had much explaining to do when he got home to Queens.

The old apartment building was convenient for Thomas Healey, who lived here in 1926.  Although he worked as a finance company collector, he was also part-owner of the nightclub next door at No. 210, the Club Biarritz.   During Prohibition, questionable activities went on in such places, and the Club Biarritz was no exception.

In December that year McKewn Whitcomb came into Manhattan from his home in South Orange, New Jersey for a night on the town.  According to his complaint later, he "bought three bottles of ginger ale and received a bill for $21, which he protested."  (The ginger ale was admittedly pricey, the three bottles equal more than $290 today.)

He went on to claim that the waiter directed him to Healey's partner, Frank Timpone, who "beat him."  Then both Healey and Timpone took Whitcomb "to a room on the floor below the club, which was on the third, and beat and robbed him of $42, all he had."

Before they released him, according to Whitcomb's testimony, "Timpone seized me by the throat and threatened to crush in my skull.  Healey told me he was a detective and threatened to him me on the head with a blackjack."  They put him in a taxicab and "Healey told me if I made a complaint it would go hard with me."  He made a complaint.  The men appeared in court on December 16.

Dr. Alvin Bakst owned the building in 1967 when it was eyed along with other surrounding properties as the site for a major structure.  Bakst sold and the following year the massive 42-floor 1700 Broadway was completed; ending a rather sordid history for the 25-foot wide slice of West 54th Street.

photo via

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The M. Rowan "Ice Cream Saloon" - 668 Sixth Avenue

In 1850 William Johnson began construction of six brick-faced homes on the east side of Sixth Avenue, between 20th and 21st Streets.  At 20-feet wide the four-story homes were intended for well-to-do families decades before the avenue would become a major shopping thoroughfare.

No. 334 in the middle of the row, became home to Catharine Danforth.  She remained until early in 1862 when she moved to No. 57 West 24th Street.  On March 18 that year an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "To Let--The house 334 Sixth Avenue, near Dr. Muhlenberg's church, in complete order; gas fixtures, bath, range &c; suitable for a physician."

It was not a physician who leased the house, but the New-York Ladies' Educational Union.  With civil war raging in the south, they rented the property for their Institution for the Children of Deceased or Disabled Soldiers in the house.

On June 7 The New York Times described the institution's goals in dramatic Victorian prose:

First, that of the care-worn, war-made widow, who is thankful to leave her little one under the kind auspices of Mr. and Mrs. Davis, the Superintendents, while she seeks perhaps for the first time a day's employment.  Again, it is a refuge for the young girl of intelligence and capacity, who would fain accept instruction to fit her to combat unwonted trials in a commercial sphere; and a home for the little girls and boys, some of whom wear garments of mourning that should be looked reverently upon by every loyal American, especially those who in tranquility of luxurious homes, entertain but faint visions of the battlefield.

The article described the house as being "large, and will require much to make it the home-place that is intended."  To fund the furnishing and renovations, the New-York Ladies' Education Union held week-long fairs in places like the Cooper Institute.  And as Thanksgiving approached, a "Thanksgiving Donation Visit" was advertised.  On the holiday the doors were opened to visitors from 3:00 to 8:00.

A few weeks earlier Rev. Stephen H. Tyng, rector of the fashionable St. George's Church on Stuyvesant Square, had heard unflattering rumors about the institution.  On November 17 he took out an ad that said in part "Having been informed that certain statements unfavorable to the character of the 'Institution for the Benefit of the Children of Deceased or Disabled Soldiers'...have been presented to the press...I desire personally to certify that this institution has been established by ladies of the most indubitable excellence of character and dignity of social position."

Soon after the end of the war the Institution was dissolved.  In 1869 owner Mary McKenna converted the first and second story to storefronts.  The shop space was leased to ice cream manufacturer M. Rowan & Co. while the upper floors became home to another institution, the Shelter for Respectable Girls.  It was run by the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, connected with the Church of the Holy Communion on the corner.

On February 23 1873 The New York Herald noted that "during the past two years it has received and provided with situations over five hundred homeless, but respectable women.  The majority of these were Christian women, many of them communicants in various Christian churches, some of them persons reduced from affluence to poverty, and cast, from no fault of their own, without a friend upon the world."  The Shelter for Respectable Girls remained at least through 1876.

Three of the original row, including 668, retain much of their domestic appearance.

In April 1875 Rowan & Co. renewed its lease.   By now Sixth Avenue was transforming into a major shopping district as small buildings from the 1840's and '50's were demolished to be replaced by lavish emporiums.  It had proved to be a perfect location for an "ice cream saloon."

Michael Rowan had come from his native Ireland in 1851 and established his ice cream business in 1866.  He manufactured his ice cream in the cellar.  The firm supplied bulk treats to restaurants and hotels and for large events like excursions.  The "saloon" (a term later changed to the more benign "ice cream parlor"), was a favorite stopping point for the women shopping along Sixth Avenue.

Sales were brisk on the hot Saturday afternoon of August 26, so when the shop was broken into that night the safe was full.  On August 31 The New York Times reported "The ice-cream establishment of Messrs. Cowan [sic] & Co., at No. 334 Sixth avenue, was entered by burglars on Sunday morning.  They broke open a small safe and carried off the contents of the money-box, consisting of $1,500 in cash and a check on the Bank of the Metropolis for $14.40."  The take would equal about $35,700 today.

Rowan, his wife Theresa, and their sons, Joseph Charles, Francis (known as Frank), Ambrose, Marten and Edmond, lived above their other ice cream shop at No. 742 Sixth Avenue at the time of the break-in.

In the 1878 Journal of the Fair for the New St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rowan advertised his ice cream as "The only old fashioned cheap hand made Ice Cream in the city."  (The term "cheap" would be substituted with "affordable" today.)  Ice cream was priced at $1 per gallon and "French & Italian Creams" at 60 cents per quart.  A gallon would cost $25.50 today.  The ad noted "Liberal discount to Church Festivals, etc."

A separate article in the Journal promised "Lovers of ice-cream in its purity, charlottes that are delicious, French and Italian creams surpassing any house in the city in quality, will find at M. Rowan's establishments, 334 Sixth avenue...and 742 Sixth avenue...everything to suit the most fastidious taste."

Joseph Charles apparently had no interest in going into his family's business.  In 1884 he enrolled in Columbia College as a law student.  By now the Rowans had given up the other store and moved into the upper stories of No. 334.

In 1888 Illustrated New York gushed about the store saying "Few among the many inviting and excellent establishments devoted to the manufacture and sale of ice-cream and kindred toothsome products on Sixth Avenue have secured a more enduring hold on popular favor than the well-known and flourishing ice-cream depot and refreshment parlor of Mr. Rowan."

The article described the 20- by 70-foot saloon as "neatly appointed and well kept"  It added "Five polite and efficient assistants are employed while a delivery wagon is in steady service."

In 1897 the estate of Mary McKenna enlarged the store space for Rowan.  It hired architect P. F. Brogan to design an extension to the rear, costing $3,500.  The increased business also necessitated more than the single delivery wagon mentioned in 1888.  On July 10, 1900 the Confectioners' and Bakers' Gazette noted "many wagons [are] kept going constantly to supply the demand."

Above the second story show window the name M. Rowan is announced in cast iron.
The McKenna estate brought P. F. Brogan back in January 1901 to design an new storefront.  Michael Rowan died around 1907.  The business was continued under Frank, Ambrose and Edmond.  While Joseph Charles continued to live above the store at least through 1912, he was not involved in the business, having followed his legal career.

By the end of World War I the retail stores had abandoned Sixth Avenue, moving north to Fifth Avenue and Herald Square.  Nevertheless, the Rowans stubbornly stayed on.  On August 26, 1919 The Sun reported that Edmond Rowan had renewed the lease on the building for another ten years.

The enlarged windows of the 1920 renovation can be seen in this May 9, 1940 photo.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The ice cream parlor remained downstairs, but the upper floors were converted for business by architects Gronenberg & Leuchtag in 1920.  At the time the windows of the two top floor were enlarged.  Simon Waist & Dress Co. moved in that year, headed by Michael Simon.

In 1925 Sixth Avenue was renumbered and No. 334 became No. 668.  At the end of Edmond Rowan's lease the ice cream store was gone, ending its 60-year history in the space.

Passersby could have no clue that the top story windows are not historic.
The Sixth Avenue neighborhood suffered decline and neglect for decades, only to be rediscovered as "The Ladies' Mile."  The massive retail emporiums, many of which had stood essentially vacant, were repurposed as residential and commercial buildings.  A surprising renovation of No. 668 restored the residential-style windows on the upper floors, complete with pressed metal cornices matching the historic examples next door.

photographs by the author

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Gertrude and Michael Gavin Mansion - 12 East 65th Street

In June 1906 Minnesota railroad magnate James J. Hill purchased the sumptuous mansion at No. 8 East 65th Street.  The New York Times remarked that he was the "second of the Western railroad magnates to reach the decision recently that he spends enough time in New York to justify his buying a house here."  Another member of the Hill family would, too, be moving to the block before long.

On September 21 that same year a Minnesota newspaper reported "The engagement of Miss Gertrude Hill, daughter of James J. Hill, to Michael Gavin, a lawyer of New York, was announced last evening at a dinner given at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Theron Slade."  Noting that Gertrude had made her debut two years earlier, the article added that she "is musical in her tastes."

Gertrude Hill Gavin on her wedding day.  from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society 
The wedding took place in St. Paul later that year.  The couple received a handsome wedding gift from James J. Hill; a Manhattan mansion.

Next door to the Hills' New York home, at No. 12 East 65th Street, was the 22-foot wide brownstone residence of Judge Charles H. Truax, built in 1876.  The Traux family had lived in the house since the mid 1890's.  In 1907 the judge sold the now out-of-fashion brownstone to Hill.

The architecturally outdated Traux house, left, contrasted with the ebullient Beaux Arts mansions of James J. Hill and William Bliss.  from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society
The title to the property was put in Gertrude's name.  When the couple returned from their honeymoon trip, they set about planning their new home.  On August 29, 1908 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect Walter B. Chambers had been hired to design a five- and six-story brick and stone dwelling.  The projected cost was placed at just over $1 million today.

The New York Times explained the "five- and six-story" issue.  "The design is unusual, the house being five stories high in front and six stories in the centre, and three at the rear.  It will have a mansard and a second-story balcony, and be finished with a central stair hall and foyer."

Chambers carefully melded the new house to its neighbors to the west.  He matched the rusticated base, and lined up the second floor balconies and cornices.  A quieter presence, the design was nonetheless harmonious and elegant.

Although educated in law, Gavin was a junior partner in the investment banking firm of Moore & Schley when the couple moved in.  In 1915 he joined the brokerage firm of Montgomery & Company; and before long became a full partner in the financial firm Montgomery, Clothier and Tyler.

The Gavins were highly visible in society, traveling to Europe regularly and entertaining both in the Manhattan home and their Bernardsville, New Jersey estate.  On August 19, 1910 The New York Times advised "Mr. and Mrs. Michael Gavin will sail on the Adriatic next week for France, where they expect to visit friends and spend considerable time motoring.  They will return to New York in October."

Gertrude was highly active in charities and activities related to the Roman Catholic Church.  In 1920 she was elected the first president of the National Council of Catholic Women.  She was awarded the papal medal Pro Ecclesia and pontifical diploma in 1924.  Her religious interests spilled over into the entertainments in the 65th Street house.  On January 16, 1923, for instance, she hosted a lecture by Father Clifford, Professor of Scholastic Philosophy at Columbia University, on "faith, faith cures and the doctrine of the miraculous."

In 1920 the Gavins gave up the Bernardsville summer home after Graenan, their French Renaissance-style mansion designed by John Russell Pope, was completed on their 50-acre Oyster Bay, Long Island estate.  In 1926 Gertrude had Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel, a medieval chapel in the French village of Chasse, dismantled and shipped to the Oyster Bay estate.  John Russell Pope was brought back to oversee the careful reconstruction on the grounds.   The project sparked the legend that Graenan, too, had been imported stone-by-stone from France; a rumor that survives.

The charming chapel was removed to Marquette University in Wisconsin, in 1966 following the destruction of Graenan by fire.  photo by Sulfur
In the meantime, Gertrude may have surprised some when she announced in November 1924 that she would be stepping down from the presidency of the National Council of Catholic Women.  She had been selected by Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes to "work among Catholic immigrants landing at New York."

Quoted in The New York Times on November 10, she explained "Many of these Italians as well as Catholic immigrants from other countries become confused in the struggle for existence in the new country and from lack of information sometimes make mistakes."

Michael Gavin retired in 1928.  His time was not idle.  The Gavins traveled almost every year to the Saint John River where Gertrude loved salmon fishing.  Along with the Hills, they were members of the exclusive Jekyll Island Club.  They eventually acquired a third home in Boca Grande, Florida.

Wealthy socialites gave their assistance during World War II to relief work and to military support--like the Soldiers' and Sailors' Clubhouse.  Gertrude did her part by helping to organize and run the Cathedral Canteen of New York.  Both the Departments of the Army and the Navy awarded her certificates of appreciation following the war.

In 1949 the Gavins sold the 65th Street house to the Dominion of Pakistan.  They moved to an apartment at No. 760 Park Avenue where, within six months of one another, the couple died in 1960.

The Republic of Pakistan purchased the James Hill mansion in 1951 and today still owns both properties.

photographs by the author

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Religious Scandal, Military Towels, and Designer Handbags - 106 Franklin Street

By the 1830’s the block of Franklin Street between Church Street and West Broadway was lined with handsome Federal-style residences.  No. 106 reflected the fashionable nature of the neighborhood.  Faced in brick it rose three full stories to a pitched roof with prominent dormers.  At 25-feet wide, it was on par with the homes of the city’s most prominent citizens.  The upscale tone of the home was also evidenced by its resident, the Episcopal Bishop of New York.

Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk was born on July 15, 1791.  After graduating from Columbia College he studied theology under Bishop John Henry Hobart, eventually succeeding him as Bishop in 1830.  Onderdonk and his wife, the former Eliza Handy, had two children, Elizabeth Caroline and William Handy Onderdonk.

Benjamin Tredwell Onderdonk photo via 
Although grown, both Caroline and William were living with their parents in 1844 when the family looked for a summer place.  The Onderdonks, like all well-to-do families, left the city in the warm months for the country.  With their parishioners out of town, most fashionable churches closed for three months.  On March 26 William placed two advertisements in the New-York Daily Tribune.

The first offered the Franklin Street house for lease:  “To let—The three story basement House No. 106 Franklin st.  Two parlor pier glasses, a Nott’s stove for the hall, and an entry oil cloth will be let with the house.”  (The two parlor pier mirrors were a clear indication of the upscale furnishings.)

The second ad read: “Country Residence—Wanted, a large and commodious dwelling house situated in a healthy part of the State, near an Episcopal Church, and of convenient access to the city.”

At the time scandal rocked the Episcopal community and it centered on Bishop Onderdonk.  When a candidate for the ministry, Arthur Carey, was interviewed by Rev. Dr. Hugh Smith of St. Peter’s Church, he expressed views sympathetic to Roman Catholicism.  It was a serious matter in 1843—Roman Catholics were called "Papists" (and worse).  Rev. Smith called for an inquiry by Bishop Onderdonk.

In 1887 Valentine's Manual depicted Franklin and Church Streets as it would have appeared in the early 19th century. copyright expired 
When Onderdonk deemed Carey suitable for ordination a backlash erupted.  Now the Bishop too was accused of pro-Catholic sentiments.  During the uproar, the Bishop of Virginia, William Meade, suddenly produced a number of affidavits from women who alleged Onderdonk had “engaged in improper touching” and had made inappropriate advances.   (It was an astonishingly early precursor to today's #MeToo movement.)

Onderdonk fought the charges valiantly; proposing that the women were paid to make the charges so his enemies could get rid of him.  But a resulting trial before the House of Bishops ended in Onderdonk’s suspension.  While he retained his position—at least in title—he was unable to celebrate mass or any other of his priestly duties.

Further tragedy came to the family when Elizabeth died at the age of 37 on Saturday morning, May 14, 1853.  Her funeral was held in the parlor of the house on Franklin Street two days later.

Although he was no longer able to perform his duties, Onderdonk and his family continued to live quite comfortably in their fine home.  On September 1, 1854 an advertisement in The New York Herald sought a new servant.  “Cook Wanted—To go a short distance in the country.  She must understand milking, baking, washing and ironing, and come well recommended.”  The notice reveals that the family still maintained a country home.

Bishop Benjamin Onderdonk died on April 30, 1861.  Despite more than a decade of public humiliation, he received full honors at his Trinity Church funeral.  The interior of the church was draped in black and several hundred clergymen attended the service.  His body lies today within a stone sarcophagus in Trinity Church that depicts him lying with his foot crushing a serpent labeled “Scandal.”

By the time of Onderdonk’s death commerce was inching closer and closer to Franklin Street.  Its once fine homes were being razed or converted for business purposes.  In September 1866 the Trustees of the Episcopal Fund were authorized to buy a new Episcopal Residence on East 22nd Street and to sell “the house 106 Franklin Street, formerly the Episcopal Residence.”

The property was purchased by Hugh Doherty.  Rather than demolish the old house, he altered it to a store and loft building.  The renovations were completed before 1868, resulting in an up-to-date Italianate-style structure.  In April 1868 he advertised “To Let—A First Class Loft, suitable for the fancy goods trade; terms moderate.”  And two months later an advertisement offered “To Let—A fine office, with room for sample counter, at a moderate rent.”

Among the first tenants was Fairbanks & Martin, dry goods merchants.  And in 1872 the newly-formed R. D. Wood & Sons moved in.  Originally an iron dealer, firm would totally remake itself before the end of the century.

One employee of Fairbanks & Martin in 1873 stepped off his commuter train before realizing he had left his important papers on the seat.  He placed an advertisement in The New York Herald on September 20 offering “$10 Reward will be paid to any person returning a Letter Case, with contents of papers and memoranda, lost by the subscriber on the Stongington line Wednesday night.”  The papers were apparently important, for the reward R. Hazard offered would be more than $210 today.

The South was devastated by a yellow fever epidemic that year.  On October 10 The New York Herald reported that a fifth priest had died after administering last rights to the sick and that 39 victims had died in Memphis alone the previous Wednesday.  Fairbanks & Martin donated $25 to the relief effort (about $525 today).

Fairbanks & Martin moved to 78 Franklin Street the following year.  In their place Giffin & Wilde, commission merchants moved in.   The firm, headed by Charles H. Giffin, Jr. and Charles E. Wilde, remained in the building until its bankruptcy in 1879.

The estate of Hugh Doherty sold 106 Franklin to Samuel H. Frisbee in January 1881.  Described in the sale documents as a “five story brick store,” it sold for about $908,000 in today’s dollars.  Just over four years later, in August 1885, real estate operator Thomas S. Clarkson purchased it for the equivalent of $1.45 million today.

Clarkson hired the architectural firm of W. A. & F. E. Conover to renovate the structure.  Their plans, filed in February 1888 called for “front alterations.”  A new storefront and, most likely at this time, the broad openings with their metal lintels decorated with rosettes were included in the renovations.

By now R. D. Wood & Sons had become George Wood, Sons & Co. and no longer dealt in iron, but in textiles.  The firm operated a cotton mill and the Millville Manufacturing Company in Millville, New Jersey.   

As other tenants came and went, the firm stayed on.  The broad array of textiles it handled was evidenced in the 1913 American Trade Index, which listed “Sateens, cambrics, linings, buntings, silesias, long cloths, crashes, diapers, napkins, [and] towelings.”  During World War I the firm landed lucrative contracts with the Government, supplying the United States Marine Corps with towels.  

Following the war, as the dry goods district inched further uptown, a different type tenant called 106 Franklin Street home.  Korona Spice Co. was headquartered, here, dealing in spices like its Korona Hungarian Paprika.

During the Great Depression, the Government once again purchased from George Wood, Sons & Co.  On November 21, 1935 The New York Times reported the firm had bid on “cotton huck towels” for the Army, and 394,652 yards of cotton linings, felt and padding “to be used in the army clothing factory.”

George Wood, Sons & Co. stayed on at 106 Franklin Street through mid-century.  In the 1980’s the Tribeca renaissance was transforming the once gritty neighborhood as galleries, restaurants and trendy shops replaced the old factories.  By 1983 Calligraphy Studios leased space in the building, providing the meticulous hand-lettering necessary for upscale place cards and invitations.   Its services were recommended by Tiffany & Co.’s stationery department.

In 2000 Bu and the Duck offered its own baby items to shoppers —clothing, toys and accessories.  And in August 2012 the six-year old handbag line known as Gryson opened a boutique here.  The Times said the shop, “decorated with steel pipes and brass lighting fixtures, reflects the downtown aesthetic of the label and stocks pieces like suede tote bags [priced at] $695.”

Pedestrians passing by 106 Franklin Street today could have no idea that industrial building started life as a luxurious home.  The most astute of observers, however, might notice a nearly hidden clue at the second floor.  The Flemish bond brickwork is original to the 1840’s residence of one of New York City’s earliest Episcopal Bishops.

photographs by the author