Saturday, May 19, 2018

Delightfully Eccentric - 18 West 23rd Street

The eclecic mix and match of alterations leaves no hint of the original 1857 house.
R. C. Voorhees began construction on two houses at Nos. 16 and 18 West 23rd Street in 1856.  The upscale, brownstone-fronted residences would take two years to complete.  The block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues would be home to some of Manhattan's wealthiest and most respected families.

Voorhees sold No. 18 Dr. Egbert Guernsey and his wife, the former Sarah Lefferts Schneck.   Guernsey was born on July 8, 1823 in Litchfield, Connecticut.  The Egbert family traced its roots in New England to the 17th century.  He was educated at Phillip's Andover, Yale University, and received his medical degree from University of the City of New York in 1846.  By now Guernsey was a trustee in the newly-established New York Homoeopathic Medical College and a professor of obstetrics and diseases of women.

When the Guernseys moved into No. 18 they had an 8-year old son, William.  Two years later, in 1859, daughter Florence was born in the house.  William eventually went into medicine and in 1874 both he and his father listed their practices here.

Wealthy families like the Guernseys housed their several vehicles and horses in private carriage houses.   By 1871 the old Miner family mansion on Fifth Avenue between 21st and 22nd Street was occupied by the exclusive Dobson & Co. glassware store.  (A dozen claret glasses that year were advertised for $600--nearly $12,500 in today's dollars.)   Egbert Guernsey leased the conveniently-located stable behind the mansion for his use.

The staff consisted of grooms, stable boys, coachmen and others.  In 1875 John H. Jones headed the stable operation and occasionally used 18-year old William A. Jones to do odd jobs.  The younger Jones took a nap on the afternoon of December 19 that year; one he would soon regret.

Jones woke up to discover the stable on fire.  Instead of calling for help or attempting to douse the flames, he panicked and ran.  It was not a good choice for a black teen in 1875.

The New York Herald reported "A fire broke out yesterday afternoon in the two-story brick stable in the rear of No. 166 Fifth avenue, which is occupied by Dr. Guernsey, of No. 18 West Twenty-third street.  It was ten minutes past two o'clock when a negro named William A. Jones, aged eighteen years, was seen by some citizens, who were passing at the time, to rush through the stable door into the street without giving any notice of a fire."

Jones had no sooner run by when flames shot out of the windows and doors of the carriage house.  It appeared obvious to the witnesses that the teen had set the fire.  "Two or three of the citizens at once seized Jones, guessing from his apparent want of desire to extinguish the flames that he had been the cause of the fire."

The newspaper did not hide its disdain for beat cops in reporting that "As usual in cases of emergency, no policeman was at hand and two blocks had to be gone over before one could be found."  Private citizens helped rescue "all the horses, four or five carriages and part of the harness;" but Guernsey suffered $2,000 worth of damage to other carriages and harnesses.  Damage to the building was $500.

In the meantime, "Jones, the suspected incendiary, was taken to the Twenty-ninth precinct station house."  There he told his story and insisted he "barely escaped to the street in time to save his life."  Police were not totally convinced and he was held pending an investigation to find the origin of the fire.

Dr. Guernsey was well-known for his attempts to improve the condition of the poor and public sanitation in general.  He personally visited tenement houses as delivered reports to the New York Sanitation Association.  In reporting on Nos. 88-90 Sheriff Street in 1865 he flatly said "This nuisance should be destroyed."  He said in part "The carbonic-acid gas, in conjunction with the other emanations from bones, rags and human filth, defies description...The inhabitants lead a miserable existence and their children wilt and die in their infancy."

Sarah was no less involved in her own charitable causes.  She was highly involved in events benefiting the West Side Homoeopathic Dispensary, like the Children's Carnival on February 26, 1878.  Newspapers reported that tickets to the events could be purchased from Sarah at the West 23rd Street house.

In 1881 Sarah was among five women appointed by Governor Alonzo B. Cornell to select a site for the proposed House of Refuge for Women.  A New-York Tribune reporter visited her on August 3 for an update.  She was frank about her feelings of greed versus compassion.  "The trouble is the people ask too much for their land...Now if some charitable person would give twenty-five or fifty acres of land in a healthy situation, near a good stream of water, it would amply repay him in a few yeas by the good it would do."  The Tribune titled the article "Reforming Bad Women."

By the time Sarah Guernsey was doing her part to reform bad women, her 23rd Street neighborhood was becoming intolerably commercial.   The breaking point for the family finally came early in March 1883 when the New-York Tribune remarked "Another of the few private houses left in Twenty-third-st. between Fifth and Sixth aves. will be given up for business on May 1, when Dr. Egbert Guernsey will remove his family up-town."

The house was in Sarah's name.  So when plans were filed by architects D. & J. Jardine to install "two artist's skylights in roof" in September 1884, the owner was listed as "Mrs. Egbert Guernsey."  The minor alterations cost the equivalent of about $9,000 today.

New York's entertainment district had moved onto West 23rd Street by now.   Among the theaters along the thoroughfare was Koster & Bial's Music Hall, on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue; Booth's Theatre on the opposite corner; and the Grand Opera House on the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue.   So it is not surprising that early tenants of the converted Guernsey mansion were involved in the theater.  Among them were producer and manager Daniel Frohman, managers Gale & Spader, and the Lyceum School.  When the new Lyceum School Building was erected in 1885, many of the theatrical tenants moved there from No. 18.

In 1891 the building was shared by the Aeolian Company and George H. Polley & Co.   Aeolian sold its parlor organs and pianos while upstairs the Boston-based Polley & Co. was a publishing house.

Thomas W. Polley, a partner with his brother George, represented the firm in New York.   For several years the bachelor had boarded with the the family of the windowed Mrs. Homer Baldwin at No. 71 East 85th Street.  He was treated essentially as one of the family, so when the Baldwins celebrated Christmas at Niagara Falls they urged the 34-year old Polley to come along.

On Christmas Day The Evening World reported "Last evening the Baldwin household held their Christmas celebration, exchanging gifts and having a jolly time."  For some reason that night they changed their plans.  They were supposed to return to New York City on Christmas night; instead they boarded the New York Central Railroad train after opening their presents.

Along with Polley and his 60-year old landlady were her children, 30-year old Homer, who worked at the Hazard Manufacturing Company, and 23-year old Lillian.  She had graduated from Normal College in 1888 and was engaged to "an estimable young business man," according to The Evening World.  Homer's wife, Lilian, was also along.

As the train sped to New York, another high-speed passenger train was heading north.  Through some horrifying human error both trains were on the same track.  Just outside of Hastings-on-the-Hudson the two trains met, telescoping into one another with a deadly impact.

Nine people died immediately.  Others were scalded, burned, and crushed.  The Evening World wrote "Saddest of all is the tragedy which has befallen the family of Mrs. Homer Baldwin...The mother is dead, the sons and his wife and the beautiful young sister are mangled and burned, the latter not being expected to live the day out, and the father of the young lady's betrothed lies in the Morgue at Tarrytown."  Also in the morgue was Thomas W. Polley.

The following day the New-York Tribune updated the condition of the passengers.  Of the Baldwin party, only Homer had survived.  His wife, sister, and her fiance had all succumbed overnight.

The Aeolian Company proudly touted its automatic organ and pianos.  On April 3, 1892 The Sun noted "The advantages offered by the Aeolian are evident at a glance to any one who takes the trouble to listen to it in the warerooms at 18 West twenty-third street, where it may be heard at any time."  Not only could customers purchase a self-playing instrument, there were approximately 5,000 pieces of music to choose from.

"And yet the Aeolian is not the soulless work of a music box," explained the article, "the player can really guide the music of the Aeolian as a leader conducts an orchestra, and can give infinite expression by changing the time, the power, and the use of different combinations of steps."

In March 1895 Sarah Guernsey made additional updates to her former house, hiring architect R. H. Anderson to install an elevator shaft, change the stairs and make other alterations.  The $3,000 in changes did not apparently extend to the facade.

Aeolian Company continued to lease space and by 1899 was additionally publishing The Aeolian Quarterly here.

The instruments were not cheap.  The price of the illustrated parlor organ would be in the neighborhood of $15,000 today.  The Cosmopolitan, October 1895 (copyright expired)
On September 10, 1902 The New York Times announced that the building "now occupied by the Aeolian Company" had been leased.  The new tenant was the Butterick Publishing Company, and before moving in it commissioned architects Horgan & Slattery to make significant changes.

The firm filed plans on November 8.  They called for new walls, new vents and a new skylight; but most significantly a "new store front."  The cast iron front featured Renaissance Revival-style panels within the piers and pretty filigree arches.

Snippets of the Horgan & Slattery storefront survive on the first and second floors.
Surprisingly after investing $10,000 in the remodeling, Butterick Publishing subleased the building in the summer of 1907 to high-end milliner and furrier Simon Lindau.  The Real Estate Record & Guide announced he "will open a store as a branch of his present establishment at 933 Broadway."

Lindau, too, would not stay on especially long, leaving in the summer of 1911.  The first floor became home to Maxwell's jewelry store and Odell's fur and millinery shop (which extended onto the second floor).  The top three floors were vacant.

The following year, on December 26, an explosion in the basement occured around 9:50 at night.  By the time fire fighters arrived the fire had spread up the elevator shaft "and the blaze began to leap twenty feet above the roof," as reported by The Times.  A crowd of several thousand crammed West 23rd Street to watch the firemen fight the blaze.  It was extinguished without major damage to the building.  The newspaper reported "The major part of the damage was the ruin of furs by water."

Both Sarah Guernsey and William N. Guernsey had died in 1901, followed by Dr. Egbert Guernsey in 1903.  The title to No. 18 had passed to Florence Guernsey.  Among her tenants was the pottery store of M. Warren, the sole agent for Zanesville Pottery; and furniture dealer Charles S. Nathan who leased the store in January 1917.

Florence Guernsey never married.  She was highly active in women clubs and, according to the New-York Tribune, "early in life she showed a keen interest in all movements looking to the advancement of women."  She died on January 17, 1919.

No. 18 was sold at auction in March 1920, then quickly resold a month later to Charles H. Hall "who will use it for his New York warerooms," according to The Real Estate Record & Guide on April 17.

Charles Hall Inc, was founded in 1873 in Springfield, Massachusetts as a retail store selling china, glassware and general household goods.  Now No. 18 became "Hall House" where the firm's wholesale operations were based.  The building quickly proved to be too small and in 1924 the firm moved to No. 3 East 40th Street.

No. 18 was sold to Joseph M. Crucet and once again the building received a make-over.  Crucet commissiond Edward L. Middleton to do a startling update which resulted in a Mediterranean flavored splattering of Arts & Crafts-style tiles, two Spanish-tiled overhanging roofs at the second and fifth floors, and a stucco-faced parapet.  Rather surprisingly, almost nothing was done to the two-story 1902 Renaissance-Revival storefront.

Crucet's firm, the Crucet Manufacturing Company, was well-known for its handsome table and floor lamps.  In March, even while the renovations were taking place, Crucet leased the second floor to the Roseville Pottery Company for its showroom.

A 1920's advertisement suggested the wide range of lamps the firm offered.  Good Furniture Magazine, (copyright expired)

In June 1950 Bengor Products Company moved into the store and mezzanine.  Formed by Ben and Lou Gordon in 1925, the firm was emblematic of the change in businesses along the block.  In reporting on the move, Billboard magazine said the new store was "in the heart of the novelty import-export business."

Among the novelties Bengor hawked was the book Passions of Paris which gave the unsuspecting "reader" an electric shock. Billboard magazine, March 1, 1952

Bengor Products remained in the building for years, selling products the good taste of which were sometimes questionable.  In 1966 the firm marketed "Mr. John," described in the American Import & Export Bulletin as a "novelty gag-joke item shaped to resemble a urinal with a flush valve."

As the 20th century drew to a close Bengor Products and its gag items were gone.  In 1997 New York Magazine commented on "beauty pearls filled with moisturizer, cleanser or face scrub" that could be purchased at MCM Salon here.

In 2010 the top floors were converted to apartments.  A Mexican restaurant operates from the ground floor today and a spa from the second floor.  The eccentric mish-mash of upgrades to the old structure makes for a delightfully unique presence on the block--with no hint of the 1858 house hidden somewhere within.

photographs by the author


  1. Historic photos during the Aeolian occupancy 1891-1902

  2. For several years in the 1980's the firm of Ariston Design occupied the 4th and 5th floors of this building. Some French style paneling from a previous renovation survived in the storage room. I was an interior designer there for about four years before the firm moved to West 34th Street, and, later, Broad Street, before going out of business. We specialized in the interior design renovations of private country clubs throughout the US. The firm was owned by Michael Sothirhos, who served as the US Ambassador to Jamaica and Greece.