Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Campion House -- 327 and 329 West 108th Street

Born in London in 1844, Thomas Graham attended public schools in New York City.  His father was a builder and, upon coming to America, a staunch abolitionist.  Thomas set out on a career in architecture, studying in the office of Jardine & Thompson; but he left at the outbreak of the Civil War to serve with the First New York Engineers.  Upon his return to New York, he learned the cabinet making and stair building trade.  But he switched careers in 1870 again when he again took up architecture and building.

In 1898 Leslie's History of the Greater New York noted "He now has his son, William Van Wyck Graham, associated with him in various building operations."  William was 25 years old at the time and he and his father had just embarked on a new project--seven upscale row houses on West 108th Street, between Riverside Drive and  Broadway.  Thomas acted as architect while William was the owner and builder of record.

By the fall of 1899 the houses, stretching from No. 317 to 329 West 108th Street, were taking shape.  On November 4 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide remarked on the homes, which Thomas Graham described as "the finest and best equipped American basement residences ever offered to the public for sale in this city."  The Guide noted "They are all built, finished and fitting in the most approved style of modern domestic construction, with hard woods, tiles, mosaics, sanitary plumbing, and the closest attention to the necessity of producing large, airy apartments, rich in appearance and containing all the requirements of elegance and comfort."

Four of the homes were 18 feet wide, handsome but not atypical of the luxurious rowhouses rising throughout the Upper West Side.  The two western-most homes, however, Nos. 327 and 329, were nothing short of mansions.   No. 329 was lavish 40-feet wide and, because the Grahams had set aside a 10-foot swatch to the side, it was designed as a corner house with bay windows on the side and views of Riverside Park.

"The largest house, No. 329, is practically a corner of Riverside Drive," said the article, which added that the narrow "permanent easement" "gives it all the many advantages of a front on that famous thoroughfare.  It contains a fireproof shaft for an automatic elevator.  It is generously designed, and no expense has been spared to make it a perfect residence for an opulent family."

Although the row was nearly a year from completion, William Van Wyck Graham had "prepared elegant books containing elevations and floor plans" for potential buyers.

Thomas Graham's rendering included well-dressed pedestrians, ball-playing boys, and a nanny with her charge.  No. 329 was designed as a corner structure.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, November 4, 1899 (copyright expired)
William Van Wyck Graham seemed to be leading an enviable life.  In addition to his successful business with his father, he was engaged to be married.  But things took a tragic turn in August 1900.   On September 1 The Sun reported "William Van Wyck Graham, 25 years old, son of Thomas Graham, a New York architect, committed suicide late last night on the lawn in front of the New York Infant Asylum by drinking enough carbolic acid to kill a dozen men."

The article noted "Graham was engaged to be married and a letter from the young woman dated Aug. 20 was found in his pocket.  It was evident that he had visited her while he was drinking and that they had quarreled."

Following the tragedy Thomas Graham stopped work on the 108th Street houses.  In December the unfinished row was sold at auction.  Emil Goldmark purchased the homes, but did nothing with them before they were lost in foreclosure in August 1902 to Hugh J. Gallagher.

Gallagher was obviously more aggressive in moving the high-end properties.  Two weeks after his purchase he sold Nos. 327 and 329 to Charles D. Wilder and George W. Wilder, respectively.  Both were officers in the Butterick Publishing Co.; George was its president and Charles its treasurer.  The two hired the architectural firm of Horgan & Slattery to complete the houses.  (It is no coincidence that the architects were simultaneously doing renovations to the building at No. 18 West 23rd Street for Butterick Publishing Co.)

George W. Wilder had paid $105,000 for No. 329--about $4.4 million today.  The cost to finish his house was about $35,000, $10,000 more than his brother's.  The plans called for "new retaining wall, shafts, tank &c."

It was no doubt George's highly visible and responsible position that prompted him to fib to the police when he was stopped for speeding in 1905.

Yonkers police had had enough of drivers flashing along the roadways at more than 8 miles per hour.  On April 9 they planned a sting.  Cops were stationed at quarter mile intervals.  When one cop would signal the next, he would set his timer.  Any car that traveled the quarter mile in less than one minute and 53 seconds was speeding.

The ploy worked and six drivers were pulled over, including Wilder.  The New-York Tribune noted "All of the cars were of the large touring kind and had parties of women aboard."  Flora Nichols Wilder and her companions waited outside of the police headquarters while her husband was processed inside.  When he was asked his profession, he said he was the chauffeur, no doubt hoping to avoid unflattering publicity.

No doubt when his name and address were printed in the newspapers along with "driver" as his occupation, Wilder suffered good natured ribbing at his clubs.

George and Flora purchased a winter home in 1910, a sprawling Spanish Colonial style residence in Redlands, California.

The George Wilders escaped the brutal New York winters in Redlands, California.  (copyright expired)
In May 1915 Charles sold No. 327 to J. Louis Schaefer and his wife, the former Susan Karsch.  Schaefer was treasurer of W. R. Grace & Co., president of the Grace National Bank, and a director in a score of other corporations.  The couple had four children, Bernard Karsch, J. Louis, Jr., Kathryn Christine and Susan Grace (she went by her middle name which was possibly a nod to William Russell Grace, founder of W. R. Grace & Co.).

Both of the Schaefer boys were enrolled in Princeton, but with war raging overseas, they both enlisted in the Army.  They both held the rank of private in 1916.

When the conflict first broke out their father had made a remarkable move.  He was in Italy in 1914 when he and scores of other wealthy Americans suddenly had no way to get home.  As reported in The Times, he "chartered the steamship Principessa Mafalda at Genoa, enabling many stranded Americans to return home."

Entwined dolphins surmount the vestibule window of No. 327.  Above, a cherub peers from behind a scroll in the elaborate cartouche, while the outstretched wings of an angel provide support for a window platform higher up.
When George Wilder put No. 329 on the market that year, J. Louis Schaefer purchased it for about $80,000.  He had no intentions of moving his family into the slightly larger home; but was most likely skittish because of the 13-story apartment building that had just been completed on the Riverside Drive corner.  (It was most likely that same building that prompted Wilder to sell.)  By maintaining ownership of No. 329 and the 10-foot easement, Schaefer could prevent a 50-foot wide building from going up next door to his mansion.  He leased house to moneyed families (giving him the opportunity to choose his next door neighbors).

Following the war J. Louis, Jr. joined W. R. Grace & Co. in its Domestic Credit Department.  Kathryn graduated from Barnard College in 1920.   The close ties between the Grace family and the Schaefers was evidenced when Bernard married Betsy Rice Lovejoy on  September 11, 1924.  Among his ushers was Russell Grace d' Oench, grandson of William Russell Grace.

Louis, Jr. was next to marry.  His wedding to Marguerita C. Sandbloom took place on January 5, 1926; followed by Kathryn's wedding on January 14, the following year.  In reporting on her marriage to Carl Norman Gerdau, The New York Times noted "Mr. Gerdau and his bride will sail today on the Colombo to pass several months in Spain."

Nineteen days later J. Louis Schaefer was dead.  On February 5 he walked to the garage on West 109th Street where he kept his car.   He, Susan and Grace were preparing to leave for a weekend at their country home in Neponsit, Long Island.  Just as he entered the car, he collapsed.  By the time a doctor arrived, he was dead.

J. Louis, Jr. and his wife were living in Seattle and, of course, Kathryn was on her honeymoon.  Neither could be present at the funeral in St. Luke's Lutheran Church on West 46th Street on February 8.   The Times headline read "Throng Mourns J. Louis Schaefer" and reported that hundreds stood in the vestibule of the church, unable to be seated, and the street outside was crowded with those unable to get in.

Schaefer's estate was valued at just under $3 million, more in the neighborhood of $43 million today.  There were few bequests other than to Susan and other family members.  An exception was Lillian G. McEvoy, his secretary for two decades.  She received a lump amount of $19,000, along with a yearly annuity of $2,500 "in recognition of faithful service."  Schaefer apparently suspected she would generously give the inheritance to family members or others.  A clause stressed that she "use the $2,500 yearly for herself" and directed "that if she did not keep her agreement to do so the payments be discontinued."

J. Louis Schaefer had sold No. 329 to Jesuit organization The America Press in 1926.  Now called "Campion House," it housed the editorial offices of America, a Catholic weekly.  The priests who worked on the publication lived in the upper floors.  Susan and Grace remained in No. 327 until 1930 when they moved to Park Avenue and sold the house to the group.

The two mansions were internally connected, and a nearly seamless alteration of the facade transformed the doorway of No. 327 to a window.  On April 10, 1931 The New York Times reported "The editors of America, a Catholic weekly review, were hosts yesterday afternoon to 200 guests at an information reception marking the official opening of the periodical's new offices at 329 West 108th Street...Each editor has a private office and private living quarters."

Campion House soon had other groups under its roof.  A month after the official opening, the newly-formed Catholic Poetry Society of America moved its offices in.  And in November 1937 Spanish priests in the dioceses of New York, Brooklyn, Newark and Philadelphia organized the Spiritual Union of Spanish Priests in the United States.  They, too, opened their offices here.

The editor-in-chief of America was Father John LaFarge. The priest came from an artistic family.  He was the son of famous American artist, John LaFarge, the brother of architect Christopher Grant LaFarge, and novelist Oliver LaFarge was his nephew.   Father LaFarge, however, was not known for the arts, but for his work for human rights.

A crusader for racial equality and he was a visible force behind the Civil Rights Movement.
He founded the Catholic Interracial Council and in 1936 conducted the first course in interracial justice offered at the School of Catholic Action at Fordham University.  So fervid was he in his beliefs that he testified before the Senate Committee To Prohibit Discrimination in Employment in 1944.  He said in part:

These men are not enthusiasts, nor utopian idealists, nor revolutionaries, nor seekers of position and political influence.  They are hard, sober realists, in daily contact with the sordid facts of human existence...The question of racial discrimination in employment opportunity is a national question and must be treated on a national basis...If such legislation is not provided, such as is now laid before Congress, the door will be laid wide open for the worst type of revolutionary agitation.

On November 7, 1955, on the eve of his double jubilee as priest and Jesuit, the 75-year old commented on race relations in the United States.  He felt that there had been "extraordinary improvement" within the last ten or fifteen years, and predicted acceleration.

On November 6, 1963 The New York Times reported that the Society of Jesus had purchased the nine-story building at No. 106 West 56th Street.  "The Jesuits will move their editorial and magazine offices from 329 West 108th Street, where they have been for 37 years," said the article.

Eighteen days later Rev. John LaFarge died in the 108th Street house at the age of 83.  He had just completed another book, Reflections on Growing Old.  His other works, on the whole, were more pointed to his passion, with titles that included Interracial Justice, The Catholic Viewpoint on Race Relations and The Race Question and the Negro.

His obituary that engulfed half a page in The New York Times mentioned that he had been a founder of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.  It noted "What delighted him was that the movement produced affluent white farmers willing to fight for the rights of Mexican migrants, Puerto Rican laborers and Negro sharecroppers."

The 10-foot wide easement that once provided sunlight and air to No. 329, now acts as a service alley.
In 1984 Campion House was converted to apartments.  In stark contrast to the sympathetic architectural alterations that were made in 1931, the Thomas Graham's stately mansard roof was brutally butchered to provide an additional story.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Fr. LaFarge was also a great-grandson of American hero Oliver Hazard Perry and therefore cousin to the August Belmont family of New York City.