Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Unexpected Relic at 33 West 63rd Street

A sidewalk bridge obscures the ground floor as renovations continue in January 2018.

Richard Everett was a member of the real estate firm Everett & Murphy; but he and his wife, Margaret, sometimes struck out on their own.  Such was the case on May 16, 1890 when they purchased the three old frame buildings at Nos. 31 through 35 West 63rd Street from Eugene A. Philbin, paying $16,000, about $414,000 in today's dollars.

No 31 was 37.5 feet wide, twice the width of the other two buildings.  On September 11 that year Richard Everett sold the property to Robert Carey for a satisfying $19,500.  The Everetts and Carey now laid plans for matching apartment houses on the sites of the wooden structures.

George Fred Pelham had learned his trade in the architectural office of his father, George Brown Pelham.  He had just opened his own practice and the twin apartment houses for Carey and the Everetts was among his earliest, if not his first, commissions.

Decades later Pelham would become well-known for his neo-Tudor apartment buildings and homes.  But for now he was content to work in the same historic styles being used by any number of New York architects.  For the 63rd Street project he turned to Romanesque Revival.

His plans called for "two double five-story brown stone front flats."  The Record & Guide noted "They will have steam heat, cabinet trim servants' stairs, etc., and will cost about $75,000."  The inclusion of hardwoods, servants' stairs and the significant cost--nearly $2 million each today--are evidence that the apartments were intended for upper-middle-class families.

Indeed, the $2,200 invoice submitted for both buildings by the Hardwood Decorative Co. would equal about $30,000 each today.   Each of the apartments contained eight rooms, making them the size of a small private house, and included space for a live-in servant.

Completed in 1891, the matching buildings had centered entrances within a two-story brownstone base.  Chunky, rough-cut quoins flanked the second story and framed all the openings.   The upper three floors were clad in red brick, the brownstone trim here including swirling carved panels between the third and fourth floor windows.   A cast metal cornice originally ran above the arched openings of the top floor.

Among the earliest tenants of No. 33 was George S. Adams and his family.  A director and treasurer of the Bidwell-Tinkham Cycle Company on West 59th Street, he was called to jury duty in 1893 and was chosen to sit on a shocking murder case.

Dr. Robert W. Buchanan was charged with having killed his wife, Anne.   Buchanan had been served with divorce papers on June 14, 1890.   Anne had apparently discovered he was having an affair with his first wife.  Soon afterwards she became sick and suffered a prolonged death.  It was not long before Buchanan and his first wife remarried.

Suspicious, authorities had Anne's body disinterred.  The New York Times reported "and the discovery was made that she had died of an overdose of morphine."  The case made nationwide headlines, the North Dakota newspaper The Washburn Leader saying he was charged "with killing his second wife with slow poison in order to obtain her fortune."

Jury selection was a slow process, with many potential jurors admitting they had already decided on the doctor's guilt.  George S. Adams, however, was among the first accepted.  The trial lasted until August 25 and ended with a conviction.  The Washburn Leader reported "Dr. Robert W. Buchanan is sentenced in New York to die in the electric chair in the week beginning Oct. 2."

Another early tenant was William Scott, listed merely as "a clerk."  He and his wife, the former Emma Douglas, had a baby girl, Cora, the year the apartment building was completed.   He, too, would see jury duty; albeit his case was not a life-threatening as Adams's had been.

In April 1895 Scott was chosen to serve in the case of Police Inspector William W. McLaughlin, who had been arrested and charged with extortion.  He was accused of squeezing Francis J. Seagrist, Jr. for $50 years earlier while he was captain of the First Precinct.

McLaughlin walked free when the jurors could not arrive at a verdict.  Amazingly, The New York Times listed each juror by name, along with his address, and published his vote.  William Scott had considered McLaughlin guilty.

Ade Stephens appeared in a courtroom in 1901; but as a witness rather than a juror.   John H. Shults, Jr.'s German-born father was a millionaire whose Brooklyn bakery was one of the largest in the world.  He married Caroline C. "Daisy" Beard on December 3, 1890.  His bride, too, came from immense wealth.  Her father, William Beard, made his fortune in streetcar and railroad construction.

But Daisy reached the end of her patience only three years later when she left her philandering husband.  She and their two children moved into her parents' home.  Finally she filed for divorce in June 1901 charging that John was "guilty of misconduct with one Sylvia Thorne in the latter part of 1897 and the early part of 1898, and in November, 1900, with one Eva Richards, in an apartment house on Fifth Avenue, Manhattan."

Testifying for Daisy was Ade Stephens and her maid, Fanny Fox.  The New York Times reported that they "gave confirmative evidence."  How exactly Mrs. Stephens and her maid knew that Daisy's husband was carrying on sexual affairs was not revealed.

By around now Emma Scott's father, Franklin Douglas, had moved in with the family.  He became ill in the spring of 1902 and died in the apartment on April 15 of pneumonia.  He was 75 years old.

Three years later the family would be devastated again, when Cora, now 14 years old, died on March 2, 1905 of spinal meningitis.  She had been sick only a short time.  Her funeral, like her grandfather's had been, was held at the Thirty-fourth Street Reformed Church just west of Eighth Avenue.

A terrifying tragedy occurred in the second floor apartment of Charles Baker on the night of June 16, 1907.  Living with Baker and his wife was his 76 year old mother-in-law, Mary J. Odell.  The Bakers left the apartment early that evening to visit friends.   Sunlight still lit the room where Mary sat knitting when they departed.  But as twilight fell, she struck a match to light a kerosene lamp for more light.

The Sun reported "The match fell from her hand and ignited the table cloth.  The fire spread to some lace curtains near by."  Mary's screams were heard by Mrs. Jacob Plass, who lived on the third floor.  She rushed to inform the janitor, Thomas Hannan.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Baker apartment worsened.  "The room had filled with smoke in the meantime and Mrs. Odell fell onto the table.  Her clothes caught fire."  Hannan tried to break in the locked door, but it was no use.  More time was lost as he ran to the third floor and lowered himself down to the Baker's window ledge.  He kicked in the window and stumbled over Mary Odell in the smoke.

"Hannan smothered the fire in the woman's clothes, which had burned her about the head and body," reported The Sun.  Residents lowered a pail of water from the upper floor which he used to put out the fire.   The elderly woman was taken to Roosevelt Hospital with severe burns where her condition was listed as critical.

Broker Arthur Edmund Kramer was living in the building in 1910.  The 22-year old was the son of Arthur Booth Chase, brother of Salmon P. Chase, former Supreme Court Chief Justice.  He had an impressive pedigree, earning him membership in the Sons of the Revolution, the Society of Colonial Wars, and the Sons of the American Revolution.  He was also a member of the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, often referred to as the Silk Stocking Regiment or the "Dandy Seventh" because of its long tradition of being composed of sons of Manhattan's wealthiest families.

When he was still young, his father died and his mother remarried Edward G. Kramer, who adopted him.  Now, on December 15, 1910, he appeared in New York Supreme Court to get his birth name back.  He told Justice Seabury that he was the last surviving male descendant of his branch of the Chase family.  The Times added "He gave as his reason for making the application for the change of name his desire to perpetuate the honorable name of Chase."  The judge agreed and granted the application.

Margaret Everett still owned No. 33 at the time, extending her $35,000 mortgage until March 1915 that year.  (It was a significant mortgage, equal to about $875,000 today, especially considering that the Everetts had owned the parcel for two decades.)

At least through the World War I years the building continued to house financially comfortable residents, like Augustin B. Healy, who was here in 1911.  He was a director in the Central Leather Co.  But by 1925 the aging structure saw a less affluent population as modern apartment buildings lured away the moneyed tenants.

The widowed Hannah Forgeiase lived in a top floor apartment by 1925, sharing it with her two sons Alexander the Theodore.  Both men were steeplejacks and neither of the blue collar workers was about to allow anyone to threaten their mother.

Hannah was infuriated that the lock to one one of her windows had been removed by the building superintendent.   When Perry Frucht, a manager, knocked on her door on Saturday night, March 7 that year to collect the rent, she told him she was withholding the rent until the lock was reinstalled.

Frucht explained that the window opened onto a fire escape and that fire laws demanded there be no locks.  The discussion became heated, drawing the attention of Alexander and Theodore.  Frucht was punched in the face and sent back down the stairs.

Frucht went to the building's super, Percy Wilkins and asked for his help in collecting the rent.  The New York Times reported "Wilkins went up to the top floor and a short time later came down with a cut on his eye and no rent."

Now the battered pair enlisted the help of Policeman Zessna whom they found outside.  The officer had no sooner walked into the apartment than Theodore threw a heavy flat iron at him, hitting him on the ear.  The policeman responded by pulling out his pistol and firing.  The bullet lodged in the ceiling and he fired again.

Just as he pulled the trigger, Hanna ran into the hall.  The bullet hit her in the hand, resulting, naturally, in screams and more chaos.  "In the meantime," said the newspaper, "the neighborhood had become excited by the noise and rumors that a policeman had been killed."

Word soon reached the West 68th Street precinct house and No. 33 West 63rd Street was besieged by cops intent on aiding their fallen comrade.  The Forgeiase brothers were arrested for felonious assault and their mother was was treated by an ambulance doctor on the scene.

The Times ended its account of the affray saying "Frucht left without the rent."

The Depression was not kind to the old building,  It was lost in foreclosure to the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank early in 1938.  The bank resold it in October that year to 40-year old real estate operator Jehiel R. Elyachar.  He quickly hired architects Voorhis, Walker & Foley to make changes, among them was the installation of an elevator and reconfiguring the eight-room apartments to "suites of one and one-half, two and three rooms," as announced on October 20.

The alterations were completed the following year, resulting in five apartments per floor.  The architects explained in August 1939 that the "modernization consisted of simplifying the facade by removing the old cornices and substituting [a] decorative parapet flush with the front of the building, modernizing the entrance...providing fireproof stairways, new floors, plumbing, tile bathrooms and tile or terrazzo floors in the hallways, and rearranging the apartments to meet present-day demands."

As seen in 2010, the renovations stripped the ground floor and left a blank scar in place of the cast cornice.  photo by "Marjorie" via http://marjorie-digest.blogspot.com/2010/10/lonely-little-red-building.html

The modernization stripped the ground floor of nearly all its architectural details.  And while the architects boasted that the loss of the 1890 cornice resulted in a "decorative parapet," it looked more like an ugly scar where a handsome cornice once hung.

Jehiel R. Elyachar was a colorful character.  Born in Jerusalem, he had immigrated to the United States in 1928 and founded the Straight Construction Corporation.  Despite his age, he joined the Army at the outbreak of World War II.  He rose to the rank of colonel, in charge of military intelligence under General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Upon his return to Manhattan, he continued using his rank of colonel before his name.  He added about a dozen more rental properties to No 33 West 63rd Street by the mid 1950s when he stopped buying, "content to collect the rents and supervise the maintenance," as explained by Albert Scardino in The New York Times years later.  With holdings worth more than $100 million, he turned to philanthropy, giving generously to American and Israeli causes.

By then the neighborhood around No 33 was seedy at best.  Under the initiative of John D. Rockefeller III and civic leaders, an urban renewal project, the Lincoln Center Renewal Project, was initiated.  It was well under way when developer Paul Milstein got into the act in 1968 when he began planning his Lincoln Square steps away.

Elyachar was by now a founder and president of the American Society for Technion, which raised money for scholarships and financial support for the Israel's primary technical education institution, was influential in Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University, and owned the largest collection of Ladino and Sephardic literature in the Western Hemisphere.  He was 70 years old when Milstein approached him, wanting to buy No. 33 West 63rd Street.

But Elyachar did not need Milstein's money.

The developer was eyeing the 63rd Street property as part of the site for a 43-story mixed-use tower.  Every other owner, including the owners of the matching building next door at No. 31, agreed to sell.  But Elyachar seemed to enjoy taunting Milstein.  Repeatedly the two would agree on a price, then the old man would change his mind; at one time adding the condition that Milstein donate around $100,000 to one of his charities.

Finally, according to Milstein's son Howard, "My father said, 'You know what, you're going to keep your building.'"

The Milstein family forged ahead with the complex, named One Lincoln Plaza, working around the 1890 flat building.  Unexpected problems arose for Elyachar and his tenants when the abutting buildings were taken down.  On May 11, 1891 Richard and Margaret Everett and de facto partner, Robert Cary, had signed a "party wall agreement" for the two buildings.  That wall was never intended to be an exterior partition and, therefore, was not built to withstand weather.   Now with No, 31 gone, ice formed on living room walls of some tenants.

photo by "Marjorie" via http://marjorie-digest.blogspot.com/2010/10/lonely-little-red-building.html

The unconventional, generous and often feisty Jehiel R. Elyachar died in Bellevue Hospital Center following a heart attack on March 29, 1989.  He was 90 years old.

After a lifetime of amazing accomplishments, perhaps his most visible legacy is the out-of-place Victorian apartment building sitting awkwardly in the plaza of One Lincoln Plaza.

In 2001 an ongoing apartment-by-apartment renovation was begun.  Among the improvements was the welcomed installation of a reproduction cornice in keeping with the building's architecture.

photographs by the author


  1. Sometimes money isn't everything. Fourth sentence from the end, I think the fiesty old guy died in 1998 not 1898.