Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Purdy and Guilfoy Houses - 640-642 West 158th Street

No. 640 (center left) and 642, both now rather dismal looking, were originally exact matches.

In the 18th century the land far north of the city--areas which would later earn the names Washington Heights, Harlem and Harlem Heights, for instance--was dotted with farms and the country estates of the wealthy, like the elegant Georgian mansion of Roger Morris (known today as the Morris-Jumel Mansion).

The area's refreshing breezes and hilly geography continued to lure wealthy residents for decades following the Revolution.  In 1841 renowned naturalist and illustrator James John Audubon purchased 20 acres of the former estate of British Colonel John Maunsell, which had been enlarged by his nephew John Watkins.  Audubon erected a home here where he lived with his family until his death in January 1851.

Audubon's widow, Lucy, left the estate in 1854 and leased the house.  When she died in 1874 at the age of 86 the area was still sparsely developed.  But that began to change as improvements in public transportation inched northward.  By the mid 1880s rowhouses appeared around what was now known as Audubon Park and within a decade development was in full swing.

In 1896 architect John P. Leo got in on the trend.  He and investor John G. R. Lillienthal bought eight plots along West 158th Street from another architect, August W. Cordes.   Leo designed the houses in a nearly-balanced A-B-B-A-A-B-B-C plan.  Why No. 648 stood starkly apart from the otherwise symmetrical row is puzzling.

Among the first of the homes to be sold was No. 640.  The 18-foot wide house was purchased by the 34-year old E. Lawson Purdy in June 1897.  The son of an Episcopal minister, he was educated at St. Paul's School in Concord, Massachusetts, and at Trinity College.

By the time Purdy moved his family into the new home, his career had taken a drastic turn.  He had started out with the New York Bank Note Company; but around 1890 he read Henry George's Progress and Poverty.  More than half a century later a close friend, V. G. Peterson commented on the impact the book had on Purdy.  "Soon afterwards he deserted business to enter the field of tax reform."  In 1896 he was appointed secretary of the Tax Reform Association, the goal of which was to improve unfair tax laws

Three months after Purdy bought No. 640, J. G. Creamer purchased the house next door.   But he never had a chance to move in.  The wealthy attorney was a member of the Harvard Club and was generally well respected.  But he had developed some eccentricities that caused several of his formerly-close friends to avoid him.

Just a month after he purchased the 158th Street house, The Sun explained "Two years or more ago, it is said, Mr. Creamer was set upon by a gang of toughs late at night in this city, and was pummeled with brass knuckles.  He was ill for some time.  After his apparent recovery, it was observed that he had queer notions on one or two subjects, although perfectly rational in every other way."

Among his "queer notions" was the belief that he was a connoisseur of fine wines.  It was a affectation that had caused wealthy people summering at Saratoga that year to be "alternately amused and annoyed."   The newspaper noted "He would approach persons with whom he had only the slightest acquaintance, insist upon their drinking with him and listening while he discoursed on the quality of the wine.  His manner at such times was abrupt and excitable."

Creamer had not yet moved into No. 642 on September 26 when he landed in Jefferson Market Police dressed for an evening out.  The Sun reported "he was dressed in evening clothes, and carried a silk hat, overcoat, and a walking stick."   He had been arrested, along with two women, Nellie Daly and Rena Anderson by Policeman Pierson--Creamer for intoxication and the women for stealing $70 from the attorney.

Creamer create a scene of sorts.  He "vigorously protested that he was not intoxicated at the time, and called Pierson a liar."  The judge's reprimand caused him to apologize.  The two women insisted that they had not stolen the $70, but that Creamer had given it to them "in a burst of generosity."  It was a generous burst, indeed, equaling more than $2,000 today.  Creamer confirmed their story and they were released.

It was one of final episodes of the wealthy attorney's embarrassing public displays.  On October 2, 1897 The Sun ran a headline "J. G. Creamer's Insanity" and reported "His friends were convinced that the only way to avoid more and more frequent outbursts, with their disagreeable consequences, was to have him confined where his head could be treated."

Instead of Creamer, the Purdys' new neighbors became the Dr. William H. Guilfoy family.  The physician and his wife, the former Mary Powers, had four daughters, Alice, Mary, Florence and Kathryn, and a son, William Jr.

Born in lower Manhattan to Irish immigrant parents in 1860, Dr. Guilfoy had the distinction of being the first person to take a competitive civil service examination in New York State.  It resulted in his being appointed a medical clerk in the Health Department in March 1885.  In 1901 he was appointed Registrar of the Department.  In this post he changed the course of medicine by establishing vital statistics records.

His detailed statistics recorded death and birth rates, causes of deaths and illnesses, and enabled medical authorities to recognize patterns and developing epidemics.  On April 6, 1909, for instance, he released figures showing that deaths among children under one year old that week totaled 324, up from 294 that same period the previous year.  He attributed the increase "largely to the great prevalence of grip" (or influenza).

At the time that Guilfoy was made Registrar, Purdy was the Secretary of the New-York Tax Reform Association.   On November 9, 1906 he was appointed president of the Tax Department by Mayor George B. McClellan .  In reporting on the appointment, The Sun noted "He has been a prime mover in the presentation of bills to the State Legislature for the purpose of establishing changes for the benefit of the taxpayer....He has written several books on the subject of tax problems."

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 19, 1915 (copyright expired)

The mayor had dismissed Purdy's affiliation with Tammany Hall.  The Sun explained "Mayor McClellan intimated yesterday that in appointing Mr. Purdy he had not given so much regard to Mr. Purdy's political leanings as to the fact that he was one of the foremost experts on questions of taxation."

The two highly-visible neighbors would remain in the twin houses for decades, both regularly appearing in the newspapers for their commendable actions and sometimes controversial comments.

Railing at the city government for its less-than-aggressive crackdown on the cocaine epidemic in 1912, Guilfoy did not hold back.  "The punishment of the trafficker in cocaine should be as drastic as that meted out to the man who menaces society with a revolver or a stiletto," he told reporters on December 3.

Calling incurable addicts "fiends," he made what would be deemed a sexist distinction between an addict and a user.  "I have heard of cases where men got over the habit after becoming slaves to it, but I have never heard of a woman fiend being able to stop its use once she became addicted to the drug."

Early 20th century scientific and medical research scrambled to keep up with a changing world; a fact reflected in a judgment Guilfoy made during a coroner's inquest in 1916.   William H. Noll and his wife, Miranda, had been married only five days on January 22, when he decided to "tinker" with his automobile.  Because of the frigid winter temperature, the garage was tightly closed.  Miranda sat inside the car and her husband worked.  The following morning they were both found dead.

Their deaths were said to be "petromortis," or death by gasoline.  The coroner said that "he had never heard of a fatal result from inhaling gasolene fumes," said the New-York Tribune; and Guilfoy concurred, saying he had never come across a case of gasoline poisoning.  "The fumes of all coal tar products are dangerous," he said, "if breathed to any extent, but I never heard of this newly invented disease."  We recognize their deaths today, of course, to carbon monixide poisoning.

Later that year Dr. Guilfoy would be dealing with a more far-reaching problem.  Infantile paralysis, or polio, had broken out within the city in alarming numbers.  In the month of June there were nearly 400 cases reported.  The analysis produced by Guilfoy's department analysis was terrifying.  On July 4, 1916 The New York Times said "Dr. William H. Guilfoy...estimated yesterday that, in the last few days, there had been one death from infantile paralysis every two and a half hours.  He added that this rate showed no signs of diminishing."

The Health Department took drastic action after 72 new cases were reported on July 3 and 23 deaths had occurred in the past 24 hours.  The Health Commissioner announced that "children under 16 years of age will be forbidden [to enter] the motion-picture theatres in this city all Summer."  Any movie theater found admitting youngsters would lose its license.

In 1921 Lawson Purdy (he had stopped using his first initial by now) was also known for his helping create the city's zoning laws.  As a matter of fact, The New York Herald deemed him the "Father of Zoning Law."   At a meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers on December 21 that year, he attacked what he considered a serious problem--the upsurge in neon advertising signs.

Purdy was most disturbed by the flashing lights of 42nd Street and proposed to get rid of them.  "I am inclined to believe that outdoor signs, with the exception of the small sign advertising what may be sold or made on the premises, ought not to have any place on the public streets," he said.

When asked specifically about Times Square, he called the neon lights there "hideous and disgraceful."  Obviously, it was one issue where Purdy did not get his way; and resulted in the brilliant neon displays that helped make Times Square internationally recognizable.

Next door Mary Guilfoy had received her teaching license that year.  And by now the Guifoy household included John F. Redmond, who had married Alice in 1917.  He was the managing editor of Editor & Publisher magazine.   Like his father-in-law, who was a member of the American Irish Historical Society, Redford was proud of his roots and a member of The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.

Independence day 1923 was not one of celebration in the Guilfoy house.  Instead it was the scene of Redford's funeral.  The young man had died two days earlier.

After 45 years working for the city, Guilfoy retired on July 1, 1929.  The Times said "It was one of Dr. Guilfoy's favorite pastimes to point out that he had seen the death rate of the city decrease from 28 per 1,000 to 11.75 per 1,000, and had observed the attitude of the city administration change toward such matters as sanitation and hygiene with old dangerous methods supplanted by modern safeguards to the public health."

On Friday, May 17, 1935 the 75-year old became ill.  His condition worsened to pneumonia and he died in the 158th Street house on May 23.  His funeral was held in the nearby Church of Our Lady of Esperanza two days later.   Mary Powers Guilfoy died on August 27, 1942.

Two years before Mary's death, Lawson Purdy had sold No. 640 to Goulbourne Clarke "for investment."   The Guifoy house became home to Martin Lowenthall and his bride, the former Margot Kaztenstein.  The couple announced the arrive of their son, Eric Harold, on December 22, 1946.

By the last quarter of the 20th century the block had significantly declined.  The once-proud houses suffered neglect and abuse.  In 1991 renovations were done on No. 642, still a one-family home, which might have made Mary Guifoy shudder.

The staircase is original, the wedged-in columns with the non-matching gilded capitals are not.
A bathroom in the renovated No. 640 has a decidedly Las Vegas flair. above photos via beatingupwind.com
In 1994 the Purdy house was converted to apartments, one each on the lower floors and two on the top.

For reasons known only to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, when the Audubon Park Historic District was designated in 2009 it stopped abruptly at the John P. Leo designed row.  The twin houses, once home to two of New York City's movers and shakers, are at the mercy of current and future homeowners.

photographs by the author

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