Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The "Hildegarde Withers Home" - 32 West 74th Street

In 1885 construction was completed on a long row of towhouses along West 73rd Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  They were designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh and commissioned by sewing machine mogul Edward Clark, who had put the young architect to work on the lavish Dakota Apartments at the corner of the block five years earlier.  Clark's optimism in the growth and development of the neighborhood was obvious.  There were only few other buildings in the immediate neighborhood.

But in 1902 things had changed and the Upper West Side was now a vibrant new suburb.  Clark, who had died in 1882 before completion of the 73rd Street project, left a long row of building plots directly behind (from No. 18 through 52 West 74th Street) to his one-year old grandson Frederick Ambrose Clark, known to the family as "Brose."  Now, at the age of 21, Frederick commissioned architect Percy Griffin to design a dignified row of homes on the 74th Street site.

Griffin, who is not well known today, worked almost exclusively in the stately neo-Georgian style,  Concurrently, for example, he was working on the plans for a Georgian-style rowhouse for John Stevens Melcher on East 51st Street, just off Vanderbilt Row.  The 18 homes on West 74th Street, known as the Clark Estate Houses, would be an architectural tour de force.

Completed in 1904, their courtly designs would have been at home in London's upscale Mayfair District.  The Architectural Record, in November 1906, said the block "presents the appearance of a composite whole well studied in its entirety for silhouette fenestration and general composition."  The article added that Griffin "has varied the individual facade treatments to give to each house a distinctive character, yet to preserve in its composition certain lines, which allow it to properly take its place in the block."

Although the writer said that the Clark Estate Houses were intended for families of "moderate income;" their size and amenities argued the point.  The 25-foot homes were five-stories tall with a three-story extension to the rear and contained up to 20 rooms.  And Frederick Clark would have disagreed, as well.  An advertisement insisted "NO residences have ever been offered for rental in New York City comparing with these in construction, equipment, appointments and detail.  They have been designed and built with the careful attention to details of construction given only to the highest class houses built for private ownership."

The Architectural Record, November 1906 (copyright expired)

And The Architectural Record seems to have contradicted itself when it conceded that "Each house...has its own steam-heating plant, and a dynamo of sufficient power to run an electric elevator (with automatic control), a convenience that should count with people who have lived in elevator apartments and would object to climbing the stairs."  Each contained four or five bathrooms.  According to The New York Times, construction of each cost "about $110,000," or about $3 million today.

Clark had no intention of selling the new residences; his grand project was an investment.  By November 1904 the entire row was occupied except Nos. 42 and 32.  An advertisement for the "New American Basement Dwellings" in The Sun on October 30 depicted well-dressed gentlemen strolling before the homes, suggesting their upscale tone.

The Sun, October 30, 1904 (copyright expired)

Like its neighbors, the upper floors of No. 32 were faced in Flemish bond brick with charred headers to suggest age.  Its top story with its copper-clad dormers was nestled behind a continuous balustrade with the other homes.  A columned portico supporting a stone balcony dignified the limestone base.

The house became home to the George E. Armstrong family.  Armstrong was secretary of massive wholesale drygoods firm, The H. B. Claflin Company.  Living in the house with his parents was George, Jr. who had graduated from Yale in 1901.

A nattily-dressed George Armstrong turned out in his tweeds and tam at the Fox Hills Golf Club.  The New-York Tribune, November 24, 1901 (copyright expired)

While many other successful businessmen sailed yachts and raced horses, Armstrong was interested in a more recently popular sport, golf.  His name routinely appeared on the sports pages and he was described by the New-York Tribune as a "prominent player of the Fox Hills Golf Club."

Mrs. Armstrong placed manicured shrubs on the balconyThe Architectural Record, November 1906 (copyright expired)

Around 1912 the Armstrongs moved to West 82nd Street, and No. 32 was rented by a far more controversial and well-known figure, Herman Ridder.   Born on Greenwich Street to German parents, he had worked himself up from an errand boy to establishing the German language newspaper the Katholisches Volksblatt in 1878.  By now he was the publisher and editor of the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung and was highly involved in political and civic affairs.

A staunch Democrat, he was active in the Grover Cleveland campaigns and in 1908 was appointed Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee.  His high visibility and vocal stances had resulted in a well-publicized stand-off with Theodore Roosevelt.  The New York Times later remembered that after Roosevelt had visited William Jennings Bryan, "it was reported to Mr. Ridder that President Roosevelt had referred slightingly to him.  This was denied by Colonel Roosevelt, but not until there had been much comment about it in the public press."

By the fall of 1914 when Germany was seen by many Americans as an aggressive, invading force in Europe, Ridder tried to soothe anti-German sentiments.  He found a staunch adversary in The New York Times.  On September 24, 1914, for instance, the newspaper wrote "Herman Ridder taunts Great Britain and challenges her navy in an editorial in English in this morning's Staats-Zeitung."  And on January 23, 1915 it ran a long letter to the editor charging that Ridder's appeal to German Americans to further their native culture was "plain treason" and "would be juster to call it merely seditious."

In fact, Ridder was trying hard to foster camaraderie between German Americans and other citizens.  When he died on November 1, 1915 The Times took a more compassionate view of him, telling its readers that just before he died he uttered the words "May peace soon be with us."

The French windows of the second floor opened inward.  The Architectural Record, November 1906 (copyright expired)

By the end of the war the Clark estate was leasing No. 32 to Earle E. Carley, a member of the stock brokerage firm of Carley, Rosengarten & Carley.   Like all wives of moneyed businessmen, his spouse involved herself in charitable causes.  She was a member of Auxiliary A of the Park Hospital.  The New-York Tribune noted in December 1918 that "This hospital is giving up over 80 percent of its capacity for caring for sailors and marines injured or taken ill in the service."

On December 13, 1918 The Sun reported that the Auxiliary was hosting a dance at the Plaza Hotel the following week "for the purpose of contributing Christmas cheer and comforts to the soldier inmates."  The article noted "Tickets may be obtained of Mrs. E. E. Carley, 32 West Seventy-fourth street."

When shocking genocide unfolded in Armenia and Syria Americans responded with the Near East Campaign in hopes of raising $36 million in relief.   Helping in the door-to-door canvas in March 1919 was Mrs. E. E. Carley, whose name appeared on a list of other helpers, including the socially elite like Mrs. George Vanderbilt, Mrs. Ogden Reid and Mrs. George J. Gould.

But the Carleys would soon have to find a new place to live.  The Clark Estate began selling off the row later that year and the first to go was No. 32.   On December 17 The Sun reported "The buyer, a prominent merchant, will occupy after extensive alterations have been made."

Dr. George E. Paddleford was not, in fact, a merchant.  He had made his fortune in oil in California.  A year before purchasing the 74th Street house he had married Genevieve Teal, the divorced wife of stage manager Ben Teal.  Her daughter, 16-year Cynthia by that marriage lived with them.  But their occupancy and domestic bliss would be short-lived.

Genevieve had a colorful past.  In 1908 she was convicted of obtaining "perjured testimony" against Frank Jay Gould in his divorce suit and was sentenced to a year in prison.  Then in 1918 Ben Teal sued the headwaiter at the Hotel Astor for $50,000 damages for alienating her affections.  She quickly married Paddleford following the ensuing divorce.

Bad publicity continued to follow her.   On her honeymoon trip she was arrested in Vienna, charged with swindling Austrian and Swiss tradesmen.  The Times reported "In her trunk the police found two costly vases bearing the stamp of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, New York.  The Vienna police discovered that she had left a trail of debts in European cities totaling 500,000 francs."

Paddleford filled No. 32 West 74th Street with expensive furniture and artwork.  But it appears that his marriage was already falling apart.  On January 10, 1920, less than a month after he purchased the house, The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that he had leased it furnished to sugar refining magnate Henry O. Havemeyer.

By 1922 the Paddlefords were living apart.  Cynthia had embarked on a singing career and her mother continued her felonious ways.   In 1923 she was once again detained by police in Europe, only to reappear in print in 1926 when she and Cynthia were arrested in Innsbruck for purchasing $2,000 in gowns from a Berlin dressmaker and slipping out of the country without paying.

On May 29, 1926 The Times reported "When they were arrested at Innsbruck they were wearing the costumes acquired in Berlin.  According to the police here, they had come from Posen, where they had served a term for a similar offense."

By now Paddleford had sold No. 32 to William Andrew Saks.  The grandson of Andrew Saks, founder of the upscale Saks & Co. department store, he had married Dorothy Constance Plaut in October 1913.   The couple maintained a summer house in Deal Beach, New Jersey.

William's father, Isidore was president of Saks & Co. while William held the post of treasurer and his brother, Joseph, was secretary.  In 1920 the men embarked on a significant move, building a new store at Fifth Avenue and 50th Street.  Although the firm was always Saks & Co., the new location gave it the more popular tag Saks Fifth Avenue.

In April 1923 the firm merged with Gimbel Brothers.  On March 30, 1926 Gimbel Brothers announced that the Saks family was withdrawing from the store's management.  While their father said he would retire from business, William and Joseph told reporters "they had no plans for the immediate future," according to The Times.

The Saks family lived on quietly at No. 32 until William's death on October 24, 1931.  The 50-year old had been sick only a week.  He left an estate worth about $30 million today.  Along with the residuary estate in trust, Dorothy received "the life use of the residence" which was valued at $75,000, or about $1.4 million today.   The children, Andrew and Carol, each received half a million.

Dorothy Saks stayed on in the house until 1939, when she sold it in April to real estate operator M. C. Berg.  In reporting on the sale The Times mentioned it "contains twenty rooms, five baths and an automatic elevator."

It was the end of the line for the house as a private residence.  Berg immediately transformed it for commercial purposes.  Weeks later Camera: A Practical Magazine for Photographers noted "Plans are already on the drafting table of Architect A. L. Kocher, New York, for the complete alteration of a 5-story residential building at No. 32 West 74th Street, New York, into [the] 1940 quarters for the future new home of Clarence H. White School of Photography."

Clarence H. White had started his groundbreaking school in 1914.  It was the first in America to teach photography as art and include design as part of its curriculum.  Like schools of painting, it stressed composition and even brought abstract art into the field of photography.

The school was regularly the scene of student or staff exhibitions, such as the one in January 1941 when works by teachers were exhibited in the galleries.

In the meantime, the address was becoming well-known throughout the nation for a far difference reason.  Author Stuart Palmer began a series of detective novels beginning in 1931 surrounding a fictitious female sleuth named Hildegarde Withers.  In one book he succinctly summed up her background by quoting a census taker who listed her as "spinster, born Boston, age thirty-nine, occupation school teacher."  Her address was No. 32 West 74th Street, New York.

Similar to her fictional counterpart Miss Marple, she was prim, unbendingly respectable and routinely had run-ins with NYPD homicide detective Inspector Oscar Piper.  For decades murder mystery fans would read about her comings and goings from the 74th Street house as she solved tricking crimes.

In 1944 the Clarence H. White School moved on and No. 32 was once again remodeled, this time for sleeping rooms and other facilities for the Vacation Camp and Dormitory for the Blind.   In 1945 there were 30 blind working men housed here.  The organization also maintained a summer camp which "gives vacations to 400 blind men and women at Rye, N.Y.," according to The New York Times in April that year.

One residence, Arthur L. Jackson, made history of a sort in 1952 when he was one of 47 persons to take the first Federal Civil Service examination solely for blind persons.  The participants were applying for Government jobs as "typists from dictation machines."

The Vacation Camp and Dormitory for the Blind was still in the building in September 1954 when a benefit performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream was held at the Metropolitan Opera House.  But that would be the last event for the facility at the 74th Street location.

Before the year was out the former home was converted to the Hayden Manor Nursing Home.  It accommodated 70 residents and had a staff of 24 (12 men and 12 women).  Among the many elderly occupants who passed through its doors over the years were former entertainers, businessmen and community leaders.

Among them was Clotilde Operti Gobbi, who was in the chorus on opening night of the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1883.  On July 22, 1956 her 100th birthday was celebrated in the nursing home, among red roses sent by the Metropolitan Opera Association and accompanied by a radiogram from manager Rudolf Bing, who was in Italy.  Photographers snapped pictures as she cut her birthday cake and residents sang "Happy Birthday."

"But the brightest moment came when Miss May Savage, a singer in the Metropolitan chorus, led to the wheeler chair her 91-year-old mother, Mrs. Maria Ghislaine Metten Savage, who retired from it only a decade ago.  The two old ladies chatted in French, then put their heads together and sang in soft but sprightly voices a few bars from the opening chorus of Gounod's 'Faust,'" reported The Times.

Clotilde was not going anywhere especially fast, either.  The following year her 101st birthday was celebrated here.

Charles B. Blum lived his final years in the home.  He started his toy and doll business in New York in 1888 and was credited with having imported the first harmonicas from Germany to America.  He was widely credited with popularizing the instrument in the States.   He died at the age of 82 in June 1957.

Another notable residence was English-born stage and television actor George Turner, whose legal name was George Thirlwell.  He had appeared in featured roles in Broadway plays like Epitaph for George Dillon, The Apple Cart and Lady Windermere's Fan.   Never really retiring, his last Broadway role was in Entertaining Mr. Sloane in 1966.  In the spring of 1968 he appeared on television's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" in Soldier in Love.  He died shortly filming that part, on July 30.

In 1978 No. 32 was, once again, remodeled.  This time it was converted to a total of 14 upscale apartments.    Where elderly residents had been pushed about in wheelchairs, buyers now paid high prices for refurbished spaces.

In 2012, for instance, the vice president of Mandarin Oriental, Jan Goessing and his wife Susanne paid $1.3 million for a two-bedroom, two bath apartment on the fifth floor.    They sold it in 2015 to actor Tony Goldwyn and his wife Jane Musky.  Goldwyn is well-known for his role opposite Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in the 1990s film Ghost and as President Fitzgerald Grant on ABC's Scandal.

The striking house with its varied and colorful past is little changed since its completion in 1904.  The entire block deservedly earned special landmark status in 1977.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. A spectacular example that showcases what magnificent architecture can do to the streetscape. This elegant row makes even the most casual stroller a wide-eyed architectural buff, inspiring and uplifting everyone's design consciousness. A note worthy landmark ensemble.