Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The John J. Clark House - 108 West 73rd Street

In 1884 prolific developers and builders Terence Farley & Son began construction on a row of nine rowhouses on West 73rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.  As was often the case with such projects, they commissioned the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson to design the row.

Among the architecturally eclectic row completed the following year was the Queen Anne style residence at No. 108 (a near match to No. 116).  Four stories high over an English basement and 20 feet wide, it exuded late Victorian domestic taste.  The arched transoms of the parlor openings spilled over with colorful stained glass, the angled stone bay of the second floor wore a decorative crown of lacy iron cresting, and the slightly-projecting bay at the top floor broke through the slate-singled pseudo-mansard roof to create a visually-interesting parapet of sorts.

Renaissance style panels around the base of the bay depicts griffins, urns of fruit and frightening masks.  Below, a youth holding ribbons morphs from leaves.

Julius Bowman purchased the house for $27,500 (about $685,000 today).  A real estate operator, he leased it to John J. Clark and his wife, Sarah.   The couple had a teen-aged daughter, Anna, fondly called Annie.

Clark was a partner with his brother Joseph, in Clark Bros. which ran several restaurants throughout the city, including the Oyster & Chop House on Canal Street.  John personally owned and operated the popular Bijou Restaurant at 504 Sixth Avenue, as well.

When the Clarks moved onto West 73rd Street, John was enjoying tremendous success.  He owned a carriage and horses--a luxury affordable only by the well-to-do--and speculated heavily on Wall Street.  The Evening World said he was "known as a successful and daring operator."

His restaurants catered to middle-class diners and businessmen.  An advertisement for the Bijou in 1895 noted that the oyster and chop house offered "a quick business lunch" from 11 to 2:00; and "an excellent fine dinner" from 5 to 8:00.  The advertisement listed "hot joints and vegetables" and "game in season."  Full dinners cost from between 20  and 35 cents--approximately $9.50 in today's dollars on the high end.

The trouble-free lifestyle of the Clark family began to unravel early in 1894.  The troubles started when the Bijou Restaurant was raided on Friday night, February 2.  The 46-year old Clark was arrested, along with his manager, Patrick Burns, and two waiters.  The New-York Tribune reported the shocking news:  "Burns and Clark were charged with keeping a disorderly house."  It was a polite Victorian term for a brothel. 

A month later, on March 13, both men appeared before a judge and pleaded not guilty.  Although the charges were later dismissed, the issue was not forgotten and the ugly accusations would continue.

While her father wrestled with his legal problems and damaged reputation, Annie's heart was broken when a romance fell apart.  The Evening World noted that "Disappointment in love affected her mind" and that she "has been suffering from melancholia."  When her depression became suicidal, her concerned parents had the 22-year old committed to the Long Island Home in Amityville.

By mid-November 1894 Annie seemed to have improved.  She was released and sent home.  But she was not cured and on the night of December 5 she threw herself in front of the Sixth Avenue elevated train as it pulled into the 72nd Street Station.  The wheels of the car dismembered a leg.

The Evening World reported "She has made several attempts to commit suicide.  Miss Clark told Dr. Amabide that she deliberately jumped in front of the train."  Although she was still alive the following morning, the newspaper reported "her recovery is despaired of."

Annie lingered for nearly two weeks, before dying on Tuesday, December 18.  Her funeral was held in the 73rd Street house two days later.

A month later the rumors that John J. Clark was running a brothel in the Bijou Restaurant reared their heads again.   On January 31, 1895 Police Captain Picket appeared before the Excise Board and asked that Clark's liquor license be revoked.  The New-York Tribune reported "Ten policemen, of the Nineteenth Precinct, testified that the place had been the meeting-place of immoral people for many years."

An apparently exasperated Clark placed an advertisement in the newspapers the following day offering the business for sale at $3,500.   He sold it to William R. Warner, who gave him a check for $1,750 and a promissory note.  The Sun then reported "He got possession of the place, and for two days and one night pocketed the receipts and opened wine for everybody who came in."

And then Clark's bank notified him that both Warner's check and promissory note were worthless.  Warner was arrested, but Clark had suffered serious financial losses.  An auction was held in April to liquidate the business.

With callous editorializing, The Evening World ran a headline on April 23 that read "Auction Sale at Clark's / The Notorious Dive Wiped Out of Existence at Last."  The article began "The auction sale of the furniture and movable effects of the notorious resort known as the Bijou Restaurant...where John J. Clark and Paddy Burns have reigned for so long, was held this morning."

There was little interest in the sale and, according to The Evening World, "Clark and Burns looked on disconsolately" while the expensive fixtures brought fractions of their value.  "The big French steel range, which took the prize at the World's Fair and was said to have cost $1,000, brought $26," for instance.

John and Sarah Clark left the 73rd Street house that year.   Things did not improve and in 1901 the man who had run several restaurants and lived in high style was earning $15 a week as a waiter in a small Broadway restaurant.   He told a reporter from The Evening World on February 25 that year "My advice to young men is to stay out of Wall street and avoid speculation.  I made $100,000 running a oyster saloon in Canal street, and then I wanted to make a million."  At the time Clark was in debt between $130,000 and $350,000--as much as $9.5 million today.

In the meantime, Mary J. Owens had bought No. 108 and, like Julius Bowman, used it for rental income.  But when the Health Department inspected the property in 1896, its findings were concerning at best.  The report ordered the house to be vacated on or before October 26, saying it "is dangerous to life and unfit for human habitation because of defects in the plumbing and the existence of a nuisance on the premises that is likely to cause sickness among the occupants."

Mary took care of the plumbing issue and immediately sold it, in March 1897, to Joseph F. Calvert.  He leased the house to Dr. Augustin H. Goelet, a professor of gynecology in the New York School of Clinical Medicine. 

A highly respected authority, Goulet's papers routinely were published in medical journals.  At the annual meeting of the American Electro-Therapeutical Assocation in October 1892, for instance, he delivered his paper "The Treatment of Salpingitis by Depletion and Draining Secured by Electricity;" and in June 1898 The American Journal of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children published his "The Surgical Treatment of Fibroid Tumors of the Uterus."

Calvert sold No. 108 to builder Andrew J. Robinson in March 1900.  His firm, Robinson & Wallace was formed in 1872 and was responsible for several notable buildings, like St. Luke's Hospital, the St. Paul Building, New York Hospital, the Havemeyer Building and the East River Savings Bank.

He turned it into a boarding house, advertising on December 1 "Beautiful steam heated rooms; large closets; every accommodation; parlor dining room; table board."

But Robinson's purchase came at a bad time.  The St. Luke's Hospital project in 1895 had caused his firm significant problems.  He had signed a $1 million contract for marble from a quarry company in Georgia.  When that firm failed, he had to buy the quarry in order to fulfill his own contract with St. Luke's.  The working capital of Robinson & Wallace was so depleted that the same month that he bought No. 108, the company declared bankruptcy.   Robinson's creditors forced an auction of No. 108 in February 1901. 

Interestingly, the buyer was Frank C. Poucher, treasurer in the reorganized Andrew J. Robinson Company.   But if Poucher lived in the house at all, is was not for long.  He sold it in May 1902 to Dr. Hiram C. Driggs for the equivalent of about $772,000 today.

The 74-year old had graduated from the University Michigan in 1854.  In addition to his medical practice, he was a director and the treasurer of the Hudson River Lighterage Co.   He and his wife, Maria, had six children, Maurice, William, Adrian, Francis, Helen and Grace.  Still unmarried, Helen and Grace moved into the house with their parents.

In 1908 Driggs retired from medicine and became purchasing agent and paymaster for the Valvoline Oil Company.  He had been involved with the oil company since 1880 when it was known as Leonard and Ellis, oil refiners.

On May 24, 1910 bus driver Thomas Kinney pulled his bus up to the Fifth Avenue Coach Company's station at 71st Street and Broadway to refuel.  As he was filling the tank with gasoline, an explosion occurred.   The passengers scrambled from the bus and a fire alarm was sent in to the fire station at 72nd Street and Broadway.

The New York Times reported "Dr. Driggs had just left the Subway station there, and was crossing to the east sidewalk of Amsterdam Avenue, when the tender of Engine 40 swept down upon him...The horses were running when the pole of the tender struck the aged physician.  He was thrown to the pavement, and the wheels passed over his head."  The 82-year old was dead before a doctor could arrive.  Word was sent to his family in the 73rd Street house.

Maria and the girls remained in No. 108.  Helen Elizabeth was married to George Shortmeier in the parlor three years later, on July 12, 1913.  Her brother, Maurice, gave her away and Grace acted as her maid of honor.

A much less joyous service took place here on April 24, 1918.  Maria T. Driggs had died in the house two days earlier and her funeral was held in the parlor that afternoon.

No. 108 became a private home again when it was sold to war hero Byron T. Burt, Jr. and his wife.  In 1919, the year they moved in, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross "for repeated acts of heroism in action near Gricourt, France."  A first lieutenant, he served as an "observer" in the Balloon Section of the Army's Aviation Section.  On three occasions in 1918 he flew his balloon behind enemy lines, "making important observations of the enemy's positions and directing our artillery fire, until his balloon was set on fire by incendiary bullets from enemy aircraft," said the citation.  "On one occasion he refused to jump until his companion, a student observer, was safely away."

New-York Tribune, February 6, 1919 (copyright expired)

Burt's unbelievable ability to escape death continued on September 26, 1919 when he piloted an Army balloon in an international race.  His balloon failed and he was dumped into Lake Michigan where he was rescued after being adrift for nearly half a day.

He was still with the Army Air Corps when he was assigned to The ROMA, a hydrogen-filled dirigible under construction at Langley Field on Long Island.   Anyone visiting the hangar was checked for anything that could trigger a disaster--cigarettes and lighters, and even exposed metal nails in the soles of their shoes.  Mechanics were even prohibited from using metal tools.

Finally on November 5, 1921 The ROMA was ready for its test flight.  More than a thousand onlookers watched as the leviathan ship rose into the air.   The test was considered a tremendous success; but things would not play out so well on February 21, 1922.

Byron T. Burt was one of the crew of the massive ROMA.  photo from the collection of the Air Combat Command History Office.

That morning the rudder system malfunctioned, sending the enormous craft into high voltage lines.  A massive explosion followed, killing 34 airmen, and injuring eight others.  Only three, including Lt. Burt, escaped unharmed.

Elizabeth Hoyt owned No. 108 during the Great Depression.  When she leased it to Jacob Keler on October 18, 1938, it was still listed as a private dwelling.  But a detail in The New York Times suggests it, in fact, was a rooming house.  "The house contains eighteen rooms and seven baths," said the article.

Elizabeth sold the house and its next door neighbor at No. 106 to real estate operator M. C. Berg in 1940.  If, indeed, it the former Clark house had still be a private home, it would not be for long.  Berg converted the basement level to a restaurant, and the upper floors to furnished rooms.

By the mid-1950s the restaurant space was home to Chez Elle.  It was shut down by the State Liquor Authority on October 30, 1959, charged with, according to The New York Times, "encouraging a homosexual clientele."  The article said the shuttering of Chez Elle was the twelfth bar within a matter of days in the Authority's "campaign against taverns that cater to prostitutes, homosexuals and criminals."

The conditions for residents on the upper floors were substandard at the time.  John Varen had purchased Nos. 108 and 106 from M. C. Berg and he was served for violations in "his tenement houses" in October 1961.  The offenses included "broken plaster and no sprinkler system."

But things began improving in 1967 when a renovation resulted in two apartments per floor above a coin-operated laundromat in the former restaurant space.   In 1984 the lower level became Cavaliere Restaurant.  Despite a malignant review in New York Magazine on February 18, 1985 ("In place of the cheese you wanted with your otherwise fine arugula salad, you get sand."), the restaurant remained a neighborhood staple for years.

In 1995 another Italian restaurant, Arte Pasta II, took over the below street level space.  The eatery remains there, known now as Arte Cafe.

No. 108 received its brush with cinema fame in 2016 when scenes from the film The Strike starring Bronson Pinchot was filmed both outside the building and inside the restaurant.

The cast iron cresting and the parlor floor stained glass survive.

Despite the several renovations inside the Clark house, the upper exterior remains essentially intact other than expected replacement windows.  And while it could use a gentle cleaning, the 1885 house with more than its fair share of history. is a delight.

photographs by the author

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