Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The William W. Farmer House - 106 West 78th Street

In 1891, at a time when speculative developers were erecting long rows of houses on the Upper West Side, some nearly engulfing entire blockfronts, Eli Martin embarked on a less ambitious project--two spacious side-by-side dwellings at Nos. 106 and 108 West 78th Street.   At 24-feet wide and four stories above the basement level, they were intended for moneyed buyers.

Martin's architect, Henry L. Harris, cleverly designed the two to be pleasingly similar, but unmistakably individual.  Both wore undressed brownstone on the lower floors, and planar stone on the top two.  Shared bandcourses connected the two designs; however No. 106 was almost purely Renaissance Revival (mitigated only by the chunky brownstone blocks) and 108 much more influenced by Romanesque Revival.  Rather surprisingly, not even the pressed metal cornices were identical.

The entrance and the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows of  No. 106 were framed by Ionic pilasters that sat on paneled pedestals.  They supported heavily carved entablatures under peaked hoods.  The design was repeated on a lesser scale on the second floor.  By eliminating the rough-cut stone on the upper floors and minimizing the ornamentation, Harris lightened what could have been a visually ponderous design.

Harris managed to create unmistakably individual structures which play together nicely.
By trading a grassy areaway for a projecting, full-height angled bay, Harris added interior floor space and increased light and ventilation.

The houses were completed in 1892 and No. 106 became home to the William Wallace Farmer family.  Born on January 12, 1851, Farmer was only 17 when he married Annie Jones.  She died soon after in childbirth.  In 1881 he remarried.  His bride, Mary, was the daughter of well-known Wall Street banker, E. M. Knowles.  The couple had a daughter, Marjorie.

After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute in 1865, Farmer had gone into his father's firm, Farmer, Little & Co., manufacturers of printing type.  The year that William purchased No. 106 he became a full partner in the firm, which was renamed A. D. Farmer & Son.  The company was one of the largest type foundries in the country and had branch offices in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Philadelphia and San Francisco.  William had amassed a significant personal fortune by now.

William Watson Farmer - Men of the Century, 1896 (copyright expired)
In 1897 The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography noted "His home, 106 West Seventy-eighth street, is adorned by many fine paintings by European and American artists of high repute."  Farmer's wealth was reflected in the publication's mention that "He is a lover and excellent judge of horses."    And a year earlier Men of the Century had described him as "a favorite in society, and [he] belongs to a number of social institutions.  These include the Lotos, Colonial, New York Athletic, and Riverside Yacht Clubs."

The 65th Street house was the scene of frequent entertaining.  On January 30, 1894, for instance, The New York Times reported "A brilliant musicale was held last evening in the home of Col. W. W. Farmer, 106 West Seventy-eighth Street."  Among the seven soloists was Mary Farmer.  "Mrs. Farmer has a clear, sweet soprano voice, and she had to respond to many encores," said the article, adding "After the musicale there was dancing, and later an elaborate supper was served.  The house was tastefully decorated."

The guest list that night was peppered with the names of some of Manhattan's most recognizable social players, most noticeably millionaire Jules Bache and his wife.

On January 21, 1896 The Times announced "Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Farmer...will give an elaborate dinner on Wednesday evening of next week.  The house will be decorated with roses, ferns, and potted plants.  Miss Marjorie Farmer, a pretty, petite girl of the blonde type, will assist her parents in receiving."

Marjorie's role that night was preparing her to slip into her own social role.  And that came to pass a year later, almost to the day, when she was married to Egbert B. Seaman, Jr. in the Farmer home on January 12, 1897.   The following day the New York Journal reported "Miss Marjorie Farmer was one of yesterday's pretty brides" and noted "The floral embellishment of the residence of her parents...was very handsome.  Many white and pink roses and palms were used."

Perhaps the first hint that things were not completely rosy, financially speaking, for Farmer came in the summer of 1899.  The New-York Tribune reported on July 7, "An execution for $25,665 was issued yesterday against William W. Farmer, president of the A. D. Farmer Type Founding Company."  The award, issued to Francis O. Blackwell, would amount to nearly three quarters of a million dollars today.

As was often the case, the title to the 65th Street house was in Mary's name.  It was her name, therefore, that appeared in newspapers in October 1900 when creditors began pressuring the Farmers for the $37,358 due on the house and the $598.88 in back taxes (more than $1 million today).  The house was lost in a foreclosure auction the following year.

It was purchased by John Foster Williams and his wife, L. Josephine.  Josephine became a member of the West End Woman's Republican Association, but it seems to have taken second place on her priority list to The Sunshine Society, which she had joined in 1900.

The group was formed prior to the Civil War, its purpose being "to incite its members to a performance of kind and helpful deeds and thus to bring the sunshine of happiness into the greatest possible number of hearts and homes."  While it seemed frivolous on the surface, the Society established day nurseries, fresh air homes, lunch rooms and free libraries.

Josephine joined the group with a splash.  On November 27, 1900 the New-York Tribune had reported "After observing the universal and non-sectarian spirit of the Sunshine Society, Mrs. John Foster Williams, of Manhattan, has composed the following stanza:

Bound to no party, to no sect confined;
The world our home, our brethren all mankind;
Love trust, do good, be just and kind to all.
Exalt the right, though every ism fall.

She went so far as to have a professional artist paint the poem in oil "with gold tings" and to have it framed to hang on a wall of The Happy Day House.  As her initiation fee she donated "six pairs of dainty booties in pink, blue and white for Sunshine babies."

Before long it the tables were turned and the Sunshine Society was sending gifts and cards to Josephine.  On March 4, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported "Some golden daffodils, emblems of sunshine, were taken on Monday to Mrs. John Foster Williams, No. 106 West Seventy-eighth-st., who has been in bed twenty weeks, and is still very ill.  She reports that her long, weary days have been brightened by the receipt of cheery letters from T. S. S. members in different places, even so far as the State of Washington...Although unable to write, Mrs. Williams desires to thank all who have sent sunshine into her sickroom.  These little messages have seemed to be a link with the busy world from which she is shut out."

Month after month, although "unable to write," Josephine managed to let the newspapers know of her condition and she routinely appeared in print expressing appreciating for the well wishes and flowers.

Finally, on June 26, 1903 the New-York Tribune noted "Mrs. John Foster Williams, of West Seventy-eighth-st., is seeking health in California."

While members of The Sunshine Society no doubt awaited word of Josephine's death, it was instead John who died on March 16, 1904.  The funeral for the 69-year old was held in the house the following night.  Josephine's health seems to have immediately improved.  She sold No. 106 to Samuel C. and Caroline S. Hine and began dabbling in real estate north of the city.

The Hines immediately set out to update the Victorian bathrooms, laundry and kitchen facilities.  In September 1904 Domestic Engineering reported that J. Haughey, whose office was a few blocks away at No. 490 Columbus Avenue, had been hired to install "a new plumbing system including new high-grade fixtures in the house at 106 West Seventy-eighth street for Mrs. Hines [sic]."

Caroline died on June 25, 1928.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.   The following year saw another funeral in the house.  Francis Adams Hine died here on March 5, 1923.

By the Depression years it appears No. 106 was being operated as a rooming or boarding house.  Policeman Thomas Comiskey lived here by 1936.  The hero cop had been cited for bravery in 1934 when he captured an armed robber even after being shot in a hand-to-hand face off on Amsterdam Avenue.  In February 1936 he was shot four times in attempting to capture four hold-up men fleeing a bar on Amsterdam Avenue.

Now he faced an even graver injury.  Comiskey and his partner, William Skeats, were responding to a fire alarm on January 3, 1937, "with red headlights glowing and siren whirring," as worded by The New York Times.  The police car raced along Columbus Avenue toward the intersection of 86th Street.  "As they sped across, another car darted in front of them and the two automobiles collided."

Both cops were critically injured and had to be removed from the vehicle.  The Times reported that both Comiskey's spine and skull were possibly fractured.  Although his injuries at first seemed deadly, he survived.

As the neighborhood was rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century a renovation resulted in a duplex apartment in the basement and former parlor levels, and one apartment each on the upper floors.  Another remodeling in 1991 sandwiched a floor-through apartment on the second floor between two duplexes; and a 1994 renovation resulted in just two residences--a duplex and triplex.  On the roof there was now a "greenhouse-conservatory."

While its fraternal twin lost its stoop, most likely during its 1974 renovation, No. 106 retains most of its 1892 appearance--a time when millionaires and their wives were entertained at "elaborate" dinners and "brilliant" musicales.

photographs by the author

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Lost William M. Halstead Mansion - 1 West 14th Street

A conservatory projects into the amble side gardens.  Grown Halstead children lived in the houses on Fifth Avenue at right. were  Fifth Avenue, Old and New, 1824-1924 (copyright expired)
The intersection of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, in 1854, epitomized wealth and social status; so much so that an article in The New York Times on July 15 that year said the neighborhood residents "live like Emperors."  At the northwest corner stood the mansion of William M. Halstead, a stately Greek Revival structure of red brick and stone.

Halstead's patrician residence engulfed several building lots and included an ample side garden.  The wide stone stoop led to an impressive entrance, its doorway recessed behind free-standing Ionic columns.  A cast iron balcony fronted the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows on the Fifth Avenue side, wrapping around the corner to include a 14th Street bay.  A solid brick parapet crowned the cornice.

William M. Halstead amassed his fortune through Halstead, Haines & Co., a long-established dry goods firm.  He and his wife had six children.  As they married he built them upscale homes, three of which abutted the family mansion along Fifth Avenue.  Directly behind No. 1 West 14th Street was the home of daughter Mrs. John Kirtland Meyers; next to her lived William M. Halstead, Jr. and his wife, the former Magdelea Ricter; followed by Dr. Thaddeus M. Halstead.   (Confusingly, the Halsteads had two sons named William.  William S. Halstead went on to became a famous surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.)

The exclusive nature of the neighborhood was evidenced in Halstead's $19,500 property tax in 1857--about $565,000 today.  But by his death around 1872 much had changed.  Millionaires were moving northward and businesses were taking over or replacing their mansions.  It did not take long for the handsome Halstead mansion to suffer humiliation.

Showman James Meade acquired the house and converted it to Meade's Midget Hall.  The entrance was moved to Fifth Avenue and a fourth story in the form of a mansard was added.  The alterations did not offend the private homes that still remained--however his operation inside very well might have.

Meade's Midget Hall opened in November 1877 with offerings that could only be viewed as abhorrent today.  Meade offered just two entertainments--exhibitions of midgets and baby contests.

On November 26 that year the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote "At Ten o'clock this morning the great national Baby Show at Midget Hall, corner of Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue, New York, was opened.  There are four hundred babies entered, and about half that number were in their places this morning.  The show occupies two floors of the building, and around the sides of the rooms, on raised platforms, are the babies, with their mothers or nurses.  At least one hundred and eighty of the two hundred babies spent the greater portion of the morning crying."

One mother's submission to the Baby Show in November 1877.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 26, 1877 (copyright expired)
Meade seduced women into putting their babies on display by offering prizes of $10 to $150, "the highest prize being given to the handsomest mother and child."  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was both biting and racist, saying:

The mothers, with the exception of two, are not handsome...The majority of the mothers are German, and among the Germans there are a fair sprinkling of Hebrews.  There are also Russian babies, Icelandic babies, Polish babies, Norwegian babies, English Babies, Irish babies and one Chinese infant named Wee Boo.  Many of the infants are positively hideous looking, yet their fond mothers think their offspring the handsomest in the show.  There is one baby that resembles a monkey and another with long ears and jaw, that is called the dog baby.  The dog baby barks when it wants food.

The New York Times chimed in with its own insensitive remarks.  One "set of triplets are very small--so small that all three of them might take a nap on a pillow, and leave plenty of room besides for three little bottles and a supply of tin rattles.  They are orphans-in-law, their mother having died when they were born."

A Barnum-like marketer, Meade hired midgets General Frank Mite and Minnie Obom to judge the babies.  The Times reported that Mite "was very much interested in the little ones, frequently wanting them to be held up by his side to measure their relative heights.  Miss Minnie surveyed the show in dignified silence, flirting the trail of her silk dress about with all the grace of a belle."

Within the year New Yorkers became bored with baby and midget shows.  The former Halstead mansion was leased to M. A. Frisbie and Alexander Reed who converted it to Brewster Hall where a wider variety of exhibitions were presented.  Among the most popular were the speed walkers.

On February 14, 1879 The New York Times reported "In Brewster Hall, at Fourteenth-street and Fifth-avenue, Annie Bantell and Lulu Loomer are walking quarter miles in quarter hours."  The newspaper was no less insensitive in describing the walkers than the babies.  "Annie Bartell is as broad-shouldered as a man, strong and muscular, and walks with a firm tread.  She is dressed in a showy black velvet bodice, heavily trimmed with blue silk; flys several blue ribbons in her hair, and wears a bright little bouquet in what would be the upper part of her vest, if she were a man."

A month later Fannie Edwards was engaged in what The Times called an "absurd feat of feminine endurance;" an attempt to cover "3,000 quarter miles in 3,000 quarter hours."  But there was a problem.  On Monday, March 24 the newspaper reported "A damper was put upon the ardor of the female pedestrians who are walking in Brewster Hall."   Two nights earlier Police Captain Williams had ordered the managers to close up promptly at midnight.  The Times said "there was to be no desecration of the Sabbath."

Williams told reporters "There are only two places in the precinct where the walking business is going on, and there won't be any walking done in either of them any more on Sunday while I am here."

Brewster Hall, like Midget Hall, struggled financially despite its desperate attempts to draw patrons (including reintroducing baby shows).  On May 28, 1879 The Times remarked that after the walking matches, "the double-headed girl and one or two celebrities and monstrosities were placed on exhibition.  They did not 'draw' well."

Brewster Hall at is appeared in 1885.  (original source unknown.)
The ground floor exhibition space was divided into stores.  In June 1880 Brentano's Monthly reported on the opening of Wentworth Rollin's bicycle store here, noting "Mr. Rollins is one of the most noted of American long-distance bicyclists."   There was also a lunch counter, a bar, and a liquor store.

The second floor was converted to the Old Guard Armory, the third floor to the factory of trimmings manufacturer Deutsch, Shottick & Deutsch, and Ivan & Mossmann's factory for making cornices and moldings was on the top floor.

The Old Guard was perhaps the city's most venerated military organization, formed in 1826 as the Tompkins Blues.  Over the decades it had served as honor guard at the funeral of President James Monroe and traditionally was present in all Gubernatorial and Mayoral events, such as inaugurations.  The rooms were elegantly decorated and a valuable collection of artwork a military memorabilia was housed here.

A fire broke out on November 7, 1881 which gutted the third floor and damaged the mansard.  While the blaze did not reach the Old Guard Armory, it suffered water damage.  The New York Times confirmed "The well-known oil painting of the Arctic rescuing a crew at sea was not damaged.  Slight damage was done to the uniforms and arms in the closets and racks."

The building was repaired and new firms moved in while the Old Guard remained in place and expanded into the third floor.  On December 2, 1885 The Times reported on a meeting during which two new oil paintings "of old commanders from the Seventy-first Regiment" were presented.  

On October 24, 1886 the same newspaper described the rooms of the Old Guard, which it called "one of the coziest and most attractive clubrooms in this city."  The article noted "The [second] floor is divided into a drill room and a parlor.  The drill room, with a locker for each member, is ornamented with an interesting collection of old prints and pictures."

One of the most cherished relics was the the Old Guard's punch bowl, once owned by Major William T. McClean.  "The bowl, which is of mammoth proportions, was presented to the corps 'years and years' ago, and there is a private receipt for brewing the Major's punch."  The article noted that among those who had drunk from the bowl were DeWitt Clinton, Marquis de Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Henry, Clay, Daniel Webster, Martin Van Buren and Stephen A. Douglas among many others.

Fire broke out again on August 30, 1893.  This time the Old Guard was not so lucky.  The Engineering Record said the space was "gutted" and placed the total damages at $85,000--nearly $2.4 million today.   The New York Times said the fire's "worst deed" was "the burning out of the Old Guard Armory...with all its priceless historical pictures, relics and trophies."

Other tenants in the building were the Fifth Avenue Furniture and Carpet Company on the ground floor; the Celluloid Piano Key Company; and W. S. Budworth, "furniture storer and picture packer," on the top floor.  The newspaper said the damages to the Old Guard Armory were "impossible to estimate" due to the irreplaceable artworks and artifacts.

This time the Old Guard Armory did not return.  But the building was once again repaired and became home to a furniture and carpeting retailer.

The building as it appeared in 1899.  photographer unknown, from the collection of Edward B. Watson, published in his 1976 New York Then and Now

On January 25, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that "The tenants now in the building have been notified to vacate on February 1."  Two months later, on May 3, American Architect and Architecture explained in its "Building Intelligence" column that developer Henry Corn would erect a $500,000, 11-story office building on the site, designed by Robert Maynicke.  It was the final chapter in a long and varied history that started with one of Manhattan's stateliest homes.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Warner's Hollywood Theatre - 237 West 51st Street

By 1929 the grandest of the motion picture theaters were palaces with lavishly decorated auditoriums that vied for attention with the films being shown.  Among the most prolific of theater architects was Thomas W. Lamb who was commissioned by Warner Bros. to design its Warner's Hollywood Theatre that year.

Completed in April 1930, Lamp's exterior was somewhat restrained--possibly due to the Stock Market collapse a few months earlier.   The theater sat sideways on West 51st Street, the long auditorium wall ornamented with a slightly projecting, Mediterranean inspired copper "roof" supported by brick corbels.

The lobby section, faced in contrasting brick, featured two fluted pilasters.  Their Art Deco capitals took the form of stylized fountains surrounded by flowers.   The piers which flanked the entrance morphed into striking, muscular lamp-holding figures.

Dimension was achieved not only by the Art Deco styled stair-stepping brickwork, but by the contrasting use of the light and dark brick which created architectural detail.

Inside, Art Deco yielded to Baroque.  Lamb's auditorium spilled over with gilded ornament, painted panels, and crystal chandeliers.  It was the Versailles of motion picture palaces.

photo via paris-newyork.tv
photo via tripadvisor
A night at the movies in the 1920's and '30's included a live show.  Lamb's stage was among the largest in the theater district.  The apparently amicable relationship between the managers of live theaters and motion picture theaters was evidenced on the opening night of Warner's Hollywood.  On April 17, 1930 The New York Times reported "At the dedication of the Warners' Hollywood Theatre next Tuesday evening a contingent of stage players will act as ushers and program girls.  These will include Bobby Clark, Paul McCullough, Joe Fresco, Armida, Ann Pennington and others."

The theater opened on April 22 with the musical comedy Hold Everything, starring Joe E. Brown, Winnie Lightner and George Carpentier.

An electrified blade sign drew patrons down the block from Broadway.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Warner's Hollywood presented occasional live musical revues, like that 1934 Calling All Stars headlining Martha Raye.  It was the scene of New York premiers, like the 1935 A Midsummer's Night Dream.  The all-start cast included James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Haviland, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Anita Louise, Victor Jory, Ian Hunter, and Jean Muir.  Decades before on-line motion picture theater reservations, the lavish film drew crowds that made 51st Street impassable.

The box office was overwhelmed by crowds hoping to see A Midsummer's Night Dream in 1935.  original source unknown.
Another significant motion picture to premier here was Casablanca. which opened on November 26, 1942.  Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, it went on to become one of America's most classic motion pictures.

The figural pier/lamps are striking Art Deco elements.
By now the managers waffled between motion pictures and live theaters.  Briefly, in 1940, the name was changed to the 51st Street Theatre and stopped screening movies; offering dance programs and drama instead.  A year later the name again became the Warners' Hollywood; although occasional live shows were still staged, like the 1941 Banjo Eyes with Eddie Cantor.

The end the line as a motion picture house came in 1948 when it was purchased by Broadway producer Anthony Brady Farrell.  He initiated a renovation to a legitimate theater, naming it in honor of Mark Hellinger, who had died on December 21, 1947 of heart disease at the age of 44.  Hellinger's impressive and varied career started out as a theatrical critic.  By 1937 he was a syndicated columnist in 174 newspapers when he was hired by Jack L. Warner as a writer and producer.

As the renovations neared completion, The New York Times reported on October 12, 1948 that Farrell "has accepted six sketches by Billy K. Wells for a show he plans to install in his playhouse."  The Mark Hellinger Theatre was dedicated with a fund-raiser on January 16, 1949.  The Times reported it "was dedicated yesterday under the sponsorship of the New York Heart Association at a ceremony attended by leading personages of stage, screen, radio and politics."

Among the speakers that night were Walter Winchell, Joe E. Brown, Toots Shor, Irving Berlin, George Jessel and James A. Farley.  A bronze plaque to Mark Hellinger was also dedicated, its inscription written by Winchell.  More than $200,000 was raised towards fellowships for five young doctors studying heart disease.

Initially Farrell presented light theatrical fare, mostly musical revues.  It opened to the public on January 22 with a revue by Farrell and Sammy Lambert, About Face, starring Bert Wheeler.  The revues did not fall short of their lavish surroundings.  Bless You All, for instance, which starred Jules Munshin, Mary McCary and Pearl Bailey, was a spectacle.  It opened on December 13, 1950 and cost its producers $230,000--in the neighborhood of $2.4 million today.

A major hit debuted on February 11, 1953 when Helen Gallagher opened in Hazel Flagg, a musical stageplay lifted from the motion pictures.  The Times said "To judge by 'Hazel Flagg,' which opened at the Mark Hellinger last evening, borrowing from the movies may not be such a bad thing....it turns out to be a fast and brassy Broadway show."

Helen Gallagher and the cast of Hazel Flagg on the Mark Hellinger stage photo by Marcus Blechman, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Another crowd favorite was Plain and Fancy, the hit musical about the differences between the plain lives of the Amish and the flashy life-styles of city dwellers.  While the audience filed into the theater around 7:30, a half-hour before curtain on Friday, January 20, 1956, Al Jones was busy in the office counting out the cast's weekly payroll and inserting the cash into envelopes.  Three others sat about talking, including two of the company's dancers.

Suddenly two unknown men  quietly entered the room.  One pulled out an automatic pistol and told Jones "Give me that bag."  Before the manager could react, the gunman grabbed the $7,000 payroll and, as he turned to leave, warned "I'll shoot the hell out of you if you make any noise."  His partner doubled the threat, saying "I'll kill you all if you move."

The Times reported "Two gunmen not in the cast put on an unscheduled act at the Mark Hellinger Theatre last night, but the show went on as usual."  One has to wonder how the two dancers managed to hoof their way through their routines after the terrifying ordeal.

Nothing so far would compare to My Fair Lady which opened on March 15, 1956 with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.  Times theater critic Louis Calta announced "'My Fair Lady' arose yesterday morning festooned with critical garlands and destined to thrive as Broadway's fairest gentlewoman of this, and perhaps other seasons."  He wrote "Hardly had the curtain been rung down when a thunderous ovation greeted the members of the company and the principals.  After more than a dozen curtain calls, the house lights were turned on."

The following days hundreds crammed into the lobby to purchase tickets.  The average wait at either of the two box-office windows was 45 minutes and that day's ticket sales topped $18,000.

A line of ticket hopefuls line 51st Street in hops of seeing the hit show.  photograph from Time Magazine, 1956 
My Fair Lady was the Hamilton of its day.  So when President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to New York City in October the following year to address the National Fund for Medical Education at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the First Lady expressed her serious desire to see the play.  On October 22, 1957 the 1,600-person audience was unaware of the 50 Secret Service men lurking about the auditorium.  And as the the overture played, no one realized the President and his wife had slipped in after the lights were dimmed.

The Times reported "After the cast had responded to the last curtain call the show's stage manager, Biff Liff, stepped to center stage and asked the audience to remain in their seats until the Presidential party had left."  But as the audience gasped and craned their necks, Liff realized they had already slipped out.  "As he left, President Eisenhower told a representative of the management, 'It was a very nice show," said the newspaper.

Some wondered how tickets "to the biggest hit on Broadway" had been acquired with one day's notice.  The play's press agent explained that tickets from another party had "been retrieved."  He said "The management sometimes resorts to such violent tactics even in a democracy."

Earlier that year, in March, Farrell had sold the theater to father-and-son team Max and Stanley Stahl.  The two already owned the adjoining building on Broadway occupied by the famous Lindy's Restaurant.

Five years after it opened My Fair Lady showed no signs of slowing down and was now the longest-running play in Broadway history.  The problem was that Richard Rogers and Samuel Taylor, producers and creators of No Strings, had signed a contract with Stanley Stahl to open their play on March 1, 1962.  The producers of My Fair Lady maintained that they had a verbal agreement with Stahl that as long as the play grossed $35,000 per week it would not be ousted.

Neither side budged.   Finally, as the deadline loomed, the case ended up in court.  On February 13, 1962 a State Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of Rogers and Taylor, ordering My Fair Lady to vacate on or before February 22.   The Mark Hellinger Theatre had killed its golden goose.

And it did not take the producers long to find a welcoming venue.  Three days later they announced that My Fair Lady would open in the Broadhurst Threatre on the afternoon of February 28.  At the time of the announcement the play had grossed an approximate $19 million in ticket sales.

Until  the enactment of a new State liquor law on November 1, 1964 alcoholic drinks were prohibited in theaters.   The Mark Hellinger Theatre responded in August the following year by installing a 40-foot semi-circular bar in the rotunda of the lounge.  Theater-goers sipping cocktails at intermission would see memorial productions in the years to come.

The rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar was a ground-breaking theatrical production.  On October 22, 1971 The National Catholic Reporter said "The play, which opened at the Mark Hellinger Threatre in New York Oct. 12 is probably the most pre-sold musical in Broadway history and may be the most profitable."

Other highly-touted productions were the three-week engagement of the Martha Graham dance company in April 1974, and the 1980 Sugar Babies, starring stage and screen veterans Mickey Rooney and Anne Miller.  The Massachusetts newspaper The Heights said on January 21 "Slapstick, striptease, sparkles, and stars.  That was vaudeville and burlesque fifty years ago.  Magically, it exists again today at the Mark Hellinger Threatre."   In October 1985 Tango Argentina opened, causing New York Magazine to call it "An exciting theatrical extravaganza of music, song and dance.  The critics raved in Buenos Aires, Paris, and now in New York."

The curtain was lowered for the last time in February 1989 at the close of Legs Diamond.   With no new musicals available, the Nederlander Organization, owner of the theater, leased it to the Times Square Church for five years at more than $1 million rent per year.

Then on December 7, 1991 The New York Times reported that the Hellinger had been sold to the church.  "The Hellinger has long been considered one of the best and most beautiful theaters for presenting Broadway musicals," the article added.   Speaking for the Nederlander Organization, Arthur Rubin told Glenn Collins of The Times, "I'm a theater person and I hate to see any theater go.  It's a question of economics."

The non-denominational church was founded in 1987 by David Wilkerson, its pastor, at a time when the Times Square district had suffered serious decline and X-rated movie houses and strip clubs occupied many of the former showplaces.  Wilkerson hoped to rescue some of the "physically destitute and spiritually dead people" he saw there.

The Times Square Church still operates from the former theater for which it paid $17 million.  Almost miraculously, it has lovingly preserved Thomas W. Lamb's sumptuous interiors which look today almost exactly as they did audiences in evening clothes saw Julie Andrews play Liza Doolittle.  On the exterior a modern marquee is the sole change.

photographs by the author

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The 1911 Morse & Rogers Building - 25 Hudson Street (166 Duane)

The sons of Hess Sonn, a German Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who listed his occupation as "peddler," Henry and Hyman Sonn joined forces early on.   In 1875 Sonn Brothers was listed in directories as fish sellers at No. 119 Warren Street.  Within the decade they had enlarged their business to "wholesale grocers."  While "grocers" sounds innocuous enough; a large slice of their business was in selling liquor by the turn of the century.

Around the same time they diversified by entering the real estate business, buying and selling properties and erecting buildings as far north as the Upper West Side.  Late in 1909 they looked closer to home--the wholesale grocery district around Hudson and Duane Streets.   The brothers purchased the seven old buildings at the southwest corner of Duane and Hudson Streets.

Sonn Bros. then negotiated with one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the country to erect a large, modern factory and office building for them.   On January 22, 1910 the Real Estate Record & Guide ran the headline "BUILDING FOR THE SHOE TRADE."  The article reported that "Messrs. Sonn Bros." would erect a 12-story structure which, "when completed will be occupied by Morse & Rogers, lessees, for their wholesale shoe business."  The shoe firm had already sat with architects W. L. Rouse and L. A. Goldstone to lay out their specific needs.  "The building is entirely fireproof and has been designed for the express purpose of meeting with the requirements of the lessees," said the article.

Rouse & Goldstone was well known for its loft and apartment buildings.  While the architectural style of the Morse & Rogers building was basically Renaissance Revival; the architects splashed it with Beaux Arts decorations at the top floor--garlands and scrolled keystones, for instance.  The main entrance, on Duane Street, took the form of a Renaissance columned portico supporting an arched pediment.  Confusingly, the building took the address of No. 25 Hudson Street.

Rouse & Goldstone released this rendering in January 1910.  Real Estate Record & Guide, January 22, 1910 (copyright expired)
The Record & Guide pointed out "It will include three elevators and especially designed hoisting and lowering apparatus for conveying packages to and from the various floors."  The red brick building on its two-story limestone base would cost the Sonn brothers the equivalent of $12 million today.   Morse & Rogers signed their 21-year lease on January 14, 1910, effective on March 1 the following year.

On March 3, 1912 the New-York Tribune noted that "Hudson street at this point is rapidly being improve with high class business buildings" and pointed out "the new twelve story building at Hudson and Duane streets, built by Sonn Brothers and leased to Morse & Rogers."

As World War I spread over Europe, Morse & Rogers took on a partner, becoming McElwain, Morse & Rogers.  With America's entry into the conflict, the Government set restrictions on a number of commodities, such as sugar, wheat, leather and certain fabrics.  Shoe manufacturers were faced with a series of constraints, some of which McElwain, Morse & Rogers spoke out against.

On December 21, 1917 The Sun reported "British war shoes for civilians are threatening to throw a wrench into the American retail shoe market machinery."  The Government sent out specifications of English women's "war shoes" to manufacturers.   Ben Jacobson, manager of McElwain, Morse & Rogers, was not afraid to speak out.  He said in part:

It is high time that somebody should intervene and get war styles out of the minds of the authorities.  If the dealers, who are now overstocked and scarcely able to see their way clear to buy stylish shoes such as women demand were to put in an additional stock of war shoes which nobody wants it would certainly create some dissatisfaction.

Nevertheless, the firm seemed to be weathering the war propitiously.  Three months earlier it had expanded its operations by purchasing the adjoining six-story building to the south, Nos. 13-19 Hudson Street.  Journalists and real estate dealers saw the move as forever changing the old grocery district into the new shoe district.

On August 5, for instance, The Sun opined "The purchase ties for all time the shoe district at this point and creates here a permanent shoe centre."  Despite the wartime problems, the article noted "The firm works a day and night shift in the matter of receiving and delivering goods and also occupies space in various warehouses."

The stable position of McElvaine, Morse & Rogers was further evidenced in its December 30 , 1917 advertisement in search of a "Young Man, Energetic, with executive ability, to take charge of claim and complaint department of large wholesale shoe house; fine opportunity for right man."

Shoe designers grappled with the wartime regulations creatively.  The following year, on September 19, The Sun reported on new styles by McElwain, Morse & Rogers.  "Of the shoes which comply with Government specifications one that is already selling well is very similar in style to an army officer's boot.  It is a woman's shoe, with a high, military heel, and whole quartered blucher pattern plan toe.  A handsome dress boot of recent manufacturer is of black suede, and practically seamless."  (One wonders if such styles were the source of a favorite insult thrown about by early 20th century boys, "Aw, your mutha wears army boots.")

Following the war, McElwain, Morse & Rogers returned to making stylish shoes.  In 1920 the "Mode" women's walking boot, below, sold for the equivalent of $98 today.  The Evening World, November 16, 1920 (copyright expired)
Somewhat surprisingly, at the expiration of the long-term lease in 1931, the shoe firm left the Hudson Street building.  Space was now leased to various tenants, none of which had anything to do with the shoe industry.  Among the first was Field Publications, owned by the Chicago-based Marshall Field family.  It published the controversial P.M. periodical here, deemed by some as "radical."  Its articles were often politically-charged.

The newspaper received a maker-over in the late 1940's when it was renamed the Star.  It was here that renowned cartoonist Walt Kelly and his comic strip "Pogo" got its start.  The firm would go on to produce The Weekly Reader, as well.

Another of the initial tenants following McElwain, Morse & Rogers's leaving was Joseph Sullivan.  But his occupancy would be short-lived.  On July 1, 1931 The New York Times reported on more than 80 raids in the last two nights by Prohibition Administrator Andrew McCampbell's army of agents.  The article mentioned "In one of the raids yesterday Mr. McCampbell's men uncovered what they described as a wildcat brewery at 25 Hudson Street."  John Sullivan was arrested and the agents seized two 2,000-gallon vats of beer and a "1,500-gallon vat of the same beverage."

Throughout the next two decades the building saw a variety of firms come and go.  In 1944 The Oakland Company, Inc., manufacturers of "marine lighting," moved in.  It would remain for several years.  At the same time H & L Manufacturing Company was here; and by the mid-1950's Tru-Vue Optical Corp., makers of eye glass frames, was operating in the building.

After 1952 the Field Publications space was taken over by El Diario de Nueva York, arguably New York's most popular Spanish-language newspaper.

The 1970's saw a a major change overtake the Tribeca neighborhood as factory buildings were recycled into galleries, restaurants and living spaces.  The industrial tenants of No. 25 Hudson had to find new homes when a renovation of No. 25 Hudson Street, completed in 1981, resulted in offices on the upper floors and shops at ground level.

The State of New York took three floors in the refurbished building as the new home for the Sanitation Department's medical facility.  But when the State announced it would move its Parole Division offices here from West 40th Street, neighbors in the edgy neighborhood revolted.  On February 7, 1982 The New York Times reported that the plan "faces opposition from the neighborhood's residents, who have voiced fear that the 2,700 former offenders who report to the board regularly will bring crime to this increasingly residential part of the city."

The article added "They also contended that the state had agreed to excessive rent for the new site at 25 Hudson Street, at the corner of Duane Street" and complained that there was no impact statement filed.

Spokespersons for the State fired back.  State leasing officer Rosetta Wynne said "This horror of parolees ganging up and roaming around the streets is utterly ridiculous."  Parole officials contended that the 90 armed officers would actually make the neighborhood safer.   And Paul Young, a parole agency spokesperson explained that state agencies were not required to file impact statements for relocation of administrative offices.  "I could see it if we were dumping nuclear wastes," he said.

Nevertheless, the hoopla reached Albany and on March 13 Anne Marie Santangelo, speaking for the agency, announced "We were informed by the Governor's office that we would not move.'

The Renaissance-inspired entrance could as easily served a bank building as a shoe factory.
A nightmare occurred in the State's Sanitation Department medical facilities in January 1985 when a pipe froze and broke, spraying raw sewage throughout the clinic.  On January 24 the Health Department declared the space "unfit for human habitation."  Health Commissioner Dr. David J. Sencer explained the clinic was unfit because there was no drinkable water, "several floors are flooded with raw sewage due to broken waste lines" and "severe, noxious and objectionable odors are present."  It was a serious problem for days, preventing the medical treatment and examination of hundreds of sanitation workers.

In the meantime, Rachel's caberet opened at street level around 1983 and was a nighttime destination for years.  Shows like "I Can't Give You Anything but Lyrics by Dorothy Fields" in May 1984 drew crowds.  Fields's lyrics for composers like Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg and Cy Colemon included the songs "A Fine Romance," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "The Way You Look Tonight."

The former shoe factory was converted to "loft dwellings" in 2001, two and three per floor.  In its neighborhood of low-rise 19th century brick structures, the Morse & Rogers building--which changed the personality of the district from eggs and butter to shoes--stands out.

photographs by the author
many thanks to resident Robin Clements for the suggestion and input

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

William J. Fryer's 11 East 30th Street

In 1895 partners Edgar G. Anthony and Haskel Silverman ran their women's apparel making business, Anthony & Silverman, from the altered rowhouse at No. 9 East 30th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  But in July 1897, following the break-up of the partnership, Silverman purchased the brownstone next door at No. 11 for $37,000.  It was a significant outlay, equal to more than $1 million today.

Silverman commissioned architect William J. Fryer to make significant changes to the previously-altered house.   He filed plans in September that year for "front and rear and interior alterations" at a projected cost of $12,500.

Fryer was eminently respected within the building community.  Early in his career he became interested in "fireproof construction," and claimed to have co-invented the hollow tile fireproof block with J. G. Johnston.  By now he held the position of Chairman of the Board of Examiners and was responsible for the laws that placed New York City ahead of other metropolises in terms of building codes.  He nevertheless retained his private practice.

Fryer's update replaced the brownstone of the four upper floors with gray brick trimmed in terra cotta.  Exuberant Beaus Arts decorations--like the tangle of bows and fruits above the openings of the third through fifth floors--coexisted with prim Renaissance Revival pilasters framing those of the sixth.  The fifth and sixth floors were separated by an especially handsome cornice in the form of a stretched garland.

The old brownstone, described as five stories in building reports, sat above an English basement.  Without the stoop the altered structure would have now become six stories in official records.  But (somewhat confusingly today) because Fryer included a cast iron staircase leading to the former parlor floor, building documents initially continued to describe the structure as five stories.

Even with the staircase removed, the original configuration of the entrance door and show window at the second floor is obvious.
Silverman moved his operation into new quarters where he continued to make ladies' riding habits, many of which were of his own design.  The upper floors contained apartments. 

Silverman's patented riding skirt allowed a female equestrian to demurely ride side saddle. United States Patent Office 
Silverman's riding skirt was intended, according to his patent application, to "conform to the figure of the rider when seated upon the saddle, present a graceful appearance, and be free from the unsightly wrinkles common in ridingskirts."

In the spring of 1903 Silverman brought William J. Fryer back to redo the storefront in what was still being called a "five-story dwelling and shop."  Within the year he sold the operation and the building to Robert Pluym.

On November 20, 1904 the New-York Tribune featured Pluym's "new riding habit for ladies and misses." (copyright expired)
Listed as a "ladies' tailor and habit maker," Pluym continued Silverman's focus on riding outfits.  He was highly influential in the industry; so much so that it was probably his appointment as national president of the politically-powerful Ladies' Tailors' and Dressmakers' Association of America, that prompted him to move to Washington DC and sell No. 11 to Edmund Abdy Hurry around 1910.

Somewhat ironically, Hurry leased one floor to Kaskel Silverman's old partner, ladies' tailor E. G. Anthony.  The other commercial floor was taken by the Marks Adjustable Chair Company.   That firm's innovative furniture worked on the concept of notches and bars that allowed the user to change the angle of the back.  Still used in patio lounges and deck chairs today, it appeared in parlors throughout the country.

New-York Tribune, June 19, 1910 (copyright expired)

In appears that in 1913 Hurray converted the upper floors to lofts.  That year both E. G. Anthony and Marks Adjustable Chair were gone.  The outside staircase was still there, so when the Campfire Outfitting Co. leased the second floor, it was still called the "parlor floor store."   In November, the same month that Campfire Outfitting signed its lease, Parfumerie Riviera took the sixth floor as a branch of its Fifth Avenue shop.

Harper's Bazaar listed Parfumerie Riviera as a "specialty shop."  The women who patronized the upscale perfume store were refined, educated and well-to-do.  The shop's advertisements were often entirely in French, such as the May 1914 ad that read "Specialties de Beaute Objets de Toilette, Articles de Paris."  Shoppers could expect to pay dearly for scents like Katyonka, "a la Russe, the most beautiful and lasting perfume in the world."  The $9 per ounce price would be equal to about $225 today.

New-York Tribune, October 31, 1915 (copyright expired)

In December 1919 the Edmund Abdy Hurry estate commissioned architects Bart & John P. Walther to again update the building.  It was most likely at this time that the exterior staircase was removed.  The improvements seem to have been in preparation for selling the property, and in 1920 the Manport Realty Corporation took title.

Significant change came eight years later when Manport Realty sold No. 11 Knott Corporation, owners of a chain of hotels.  On November 4, 1928 The New York Times reported that the building had been "converted from a loft building into eight apartments and a restaurant."  (In fact, there were eight apartments per floor, not in total, with four on the top floor).  The Department of Buildings certificate listed them as "non-housekeeping apartments," which meant there were no kitchens.

One resident in particular made a resourceful use of her apartment.  On April 24, 1932 Herriet Menken, writing in The New York Times reported that stages had been cropping up in "town halls, hotel rooms and studios to stage plays for your children."  She said that "One of the most active of these groups is led by Mrs. Clare Tree Major at her "combined rehearsal room, office and studio at 11 East Thirtieth Street."

Clare Tree Major had come from the London stage to New York in 1914 and started her children's theater three years later.  Although the plays were for youngsters, she did not employ any.  "Mrs. Major has only adults in her casts, for, she claimed, it takes adults to give good performances.  'Besides, I can't carry stage mothers around.'"

A renovation completed in 2015 retained the 1928 configuration of eight apartments on the third through fifth floors and four on the sixth.  The two-story commercial front was modernized with an architecturally sympathetic make-over.  And while the upper facade could use a gentle cleaning and the cast metal cornice needs repair, William J. Fryer's striking design survives intact on the upper floors.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The 1840 John Degraw House - 16 Grove Street

Carpenters John Degraw and Samuel Winant were not only business partners, they appear to have been best friends.  When Degraw opened his carpentry shop in 1827 at No. 11 Watts Street, Winant's had been at No. 17 Jacob Street for seven years.  Both were volunteer firefighters at Hook & Ladder Company No. 3 on Vandam Street (they resigned in 1830).

In 1828 they not only partnered as Winant & Degraw, but were living in the same house.  Winant and his family had been living at No. 50 Vandam Street for several years and now city directories listed Degraw at that address.

The men expanded into development and building.  In 1839 they purchased the plots stretching from No. 12 through 18 Grove Street where they erected four identical homes, completed the following year.  The 21-foot wide brick-faced houses were handsome, unassuming examples of the popular Greek Revival style.  The openings were trimmed in modest brownstone sills and lintels; and the doorways were framed in the expected heavy stone pilasters and entablatures of the architectural style.

The partners would no longer have to share the same house.  John Degraw moved into No. 16, and Winant's family into No. 14 next door. 

In 1852, 12 years after the Degraw family moved in, daughter Mary got a job teaching in Primary School No. 27 about three blocks away at No. 174 Amos Street (later renamed West 10th Street).  She taught there for several years, earning a salary of $100--about $3,000 a year today.

It appears Samuel Winant retired around 1857, at the age of 60.  His family moved to Staten Island where he died eleven years later.  Business directories listed "John Degraw & Co." in 1857, with no further mention of Winant.

Fire was a constant threat in the 19th century, when finding one's way in dark cellars and attics required open flames--candles, kerosene lamps, or in the case of upscale homes, gas jets.  On November 25, 1860 the Degraw house narrowly escaped disaster.  The New York Times reported "About 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon, a fire occurred in the dwelling-house No. 16 Grove-street, near Hudson, in a clothes closet on the top floor, caused by the carelessness of one of the occupants, who place a lighted candle near some garments.  Damage to the amount of $50 was done."   The loss would be equal to a little more than $1,500 today.

The Degraws moved from Grove Street around this time.  The family leased No. 16 to the Silvanus Gedney family.  Gedney was a partner with John G. Hadden in the successful construction firm of Hadden & Gedney with offices at No. 147 Prince Street.

Born in 1801, Gedney had suffered unfathomable heartbreak by the time he moved into the Grove Street house.  He was married three times.  He and his first wife, Nancy, had seven children, only three of whom were living when she died in 1847.  He married his wife, Susan, in 1850.  She died seven years later.

Gedney's third wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1858, was 30 years younger than he.  At the time of their wedding he had witnessed the deaths of five of this children; only his 32-year old son Alexander and 20-year old son William Alfred were still alive.   Alexander died the following year.

And tragedy in Silvanus Gedney's life continued.  On Saturday, January 23, 1864 33-year old Margaret died.  Two days later The New York Times announced "The friends or the family are invited to attend the funeral services this (Monday) afternoon, at 3 o'clock, from her late residence, No. 16 Grove-street."

William had married Latitia Cassidy in 1861 and the couple remained in the Grove Street house with William's aging father.   In February 1874 the family placed an advertisement in The New York Herald seeking a servant.  Their ad suggested that whoever landed the job would have little free time on her hands.  "Wanted--A girl to do general housework...must be a good cook, washer, ironer and baker."

Silvanus Gedney died on October 15, 1889 at the age of 88.  William and Latitia moved to Jersey City where William died two years later, at 52.

Still owned by the Degraw family, No. 16 Grove Street was home to the family of John Purcell by the second half of the 1890's.  Purcell lived here with his second wife, Margaret.  The couple had married in 1879 after both their spouses had died.

Purcell was well-connected politically.  The Commissioner of Jurors, The New York Tribune described him on January 2, 1898 as "The Tammany Leader in the IIId District and a close friend of Richard Croker."  Known as "Boss Croker," he was the leader of Tammany Hall, wielding an almost unchallenged hand.

Eight months after the Tribune's mention of him, John Purcell was dead.  On September 16, 1898 The New York Times wrote "Many friends of the deceased official assembled at the family residence, 16 Grove Street, and proceeded to St. Anthony's church, were a solemn mass of requiem was celebrated."  The funeral was attended by New York City and State political heads.  Along with Croker were two senators, a judge and Sheriff Thomas J. Dunn, for example.

The Degraw family continued to own the house into the 20th century.  On March 19, 1910 John H. Degraw transferred title to Lotta Degraw, who lived in Teaneck, New Jersey.  For the first half of the century it was operated as a rooming house.  On October 23, 1931 American composer, lyricist and librettist Marcus (known as Marc) Samuel Blitzstein moved in, paying $10 a week rent.

According to biographer Howard Pollack in the 2012 Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World, it was during his time here that he "developed a romantic relationship with his future wife, Eva Goldbeck."   Eva arrived in New York later that month and Blitzstein managed to get another room in the house for her.  They would remain in No. 16 through 1932.

Another well-known resident was newspaper reporter, book reviewer and editorial writer, Maurice Joy.  Born in Ireland he came arrive in New York after working in Canada as a writer for The Montreal Star in 1916.  He joined the staff of the New York Evening Mail and later The New York Sun, before settling into free lance writing, most notably for the New York Herald Tribune.  He died in the Grove Street house on April 27, 1944.

By mid-century No. 16 was owned by Marie Louise Goebel.  She did not live in the house, but leased it to rooming house proprietors.  Not all of the tenants were as respectable as Blitzstein or Joy.  On February 7, 1956 38-year old Andrew Finnegan was arrested for his part in a string of burglaries in new apartment houses.  He and a partner, Irving "Izzy the Eel" Cohen bribed construction workers to sell them master keys to buildings under construction.  Once they were completed and occupied, the pair would use their keys to gain entrance and rifle apartments.

When Marie Goebel sold the house in February 1957, it contained 10 furnished rooms.  The New York Times announced simply "The property will be remodeled."  A renovation was completed the following year that resulted in a duplex apartment in the basement and parlor floor, one apartment and one "class 'b' room," on the second, and one apartment on the third floor.

Another renovation was completed in 1970.  Now a two-family home, it contained a triplex in the basement through 2nd floors, and a single apartment on the third.

At some point in the late 19th century the Degraws updated the house with sheet metal cornices over the stone window lintels.  In the late 20th century these were painted white, along with the brownstone trim.  Otherwise the house greatly retains its picturesque 1840 appearance.

photographs by the author

A Painted Lady - Guastavino's 1886 No. 127 West 78th Street

On July 11, 1885 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced "R. Guastavino has plans under way for six handsome three and four-story and basement high stoop private dwellings, 16 and 19 feet front each...They will be novel in their architecture, which will be a combination of Moorish and Renaissance."  The row, on the north side of 78th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, was commissioned by developer Bernard S. Levy.  Each was projected to cost about $197,000 in today's dollars.

Architect Rafael Guastavino had arrived in New York City from Spain only four years earlier.  Trained in Barcelona, he was fascinated with the Catalan vault--a tremendously strong, curved structure constructed or veneered with brick or tile.  The same year that he accepted Levy's commission for the houses at Nos. 121 through 131 West 78th Street he patented his "Tile Arch System."

The architect’s Spanish background shone through and the resulting row, completed in 1886, was a delight of Moorish Revival confections.   Each of the homes flowed harmoniously from one to the other; yet a second glance revealed that no two houses were exactly alike.  Guastavino used red brick and sand-colored stone on the three upper stories which sat on a rough-cut brownstone base.  Moorish motifs (a snarling Syrian-style lion separated each building at the third floor) blended with Romanesque and a touch of Queen Anne to create the up-to-the-minute residential designs.

The Record & Guide described the interior details.  "The parlor floors and all the staircases are in black walnut, the second floors in mahogany, the third and fourth in poplar.  Handsomely-carved mantels of these woods, with large beveled mirrors and fine brass work are found in all the principal rooms.  Stained glass is used over the doors and windows with good taste and effect, a few lights of right colors adding much to the cheerfulness and beauty of the halls and rooms."  The bathrooms were finished in cherry and deemed "large and complete."

The journal noted the modern conveniences, including "electric bells, means for electric lights and speaking tubes" on all floors.  Dumb waiters ran from the basement to the top floor, suggesting that owners could take breakfast in their bedrooms.  The writer was taken with the service areas.  "The facilities for the work of the cook and the laundress are the best, an abundance of stationary tubs being provided, with ample space for ironing and drying, while the clean grass plots look as if they were already expecting the muslins and laces which will some-day be laid on them for bleaching."

Bernard Levy was apparently equally pleased with the project.  He not only moved into No. 121, but put Guastavino to work designing a second row on the opposite side of the street.

The parlor floor openings of No. 127 wore stylized trefoil arches that sprouted striking stairstepping stones that in turn supported the two-faced bay above.  The bay was flanked by quarter-round spandrels filled with elaborate Queen Anne terra cotta designs.  Moorish turned to classical in the top floor windows where a less angry version of the lion's head decorated the triangular pediment.

The house was purchased by George West Van Siclen and his wife, the former Sarah Jane Gregory.  Five of their seven children had died in infancy.  Sons Arthur James and Matthew were 17 and 6 years old respectively when the family moved in.

Born on August 13, 1840, Van Siclen was a graduate of Columbia University.  His family traced its American lineage to Ferdinand Van Sicklen who settled in Gravesend, Long Island in 1642.  Proud of this Dutch heritage, George was a founder of The Holland Society of New York.

from The University Magazine, January 1893 (copyright expired)
An expert in two vastly different areas--real estate and sports fishing--he was the author of A Guide to Buyers and Sellers of Real Estate and Fysshe and Fysshynge.  He also published a translation of Andrew Carnegie's Triumphant Democracy into Dutch.  An attorney, for years he served as the Law Editor of the Real Estate Record & Guide.  His wealth, however, came from banking.  He was a founder of both the Title Guarantee and Trust Co. of New York and the Holland Trust Company of New York.

The Van Siclen home was filled with heirlooms, including family deeds from Belgium dating to the 15th century.  Especially interesting were two family portraits--Dr. Moses Younglove and his wife, Polly Patterson Younglove.  The doctor had served under General Nicholas Herkimer during the Revolution.  The University Magazine reported decades later that at the battle of Oriskany, he "was taken prisoner, made to 'run the gauntlet' by the Indians, broke through the line, was scalped and lived."

Van Siclen was secretary of the Holland Trust Company for three years and, as such, on April 7, 1893 was called to testify in an action against the institution by Oliver D. Robinson.  The aggressive tactics of the prosecution's attorney, Colonel Bacon, were too much for Van Siclen to bear.

Collective gasps in the courtyard most likely followed Van Siclen's shocking breach of Victorian deportment.  The Sun reported "On cross-examination he lost his temper and called Col. Baker a liar.  Before Col. Baken could reply Judge Truax called Mr. Van Siclen to order and told him that such language could not be tolerated in court, and that if it occurred again he would have to punish him."

Chagrined, Van Siclen apologized, saying he meant no disrespect to the Court and that he had spoken in heat.  The especially tense proceedings, however, continued when the opposing lawyers "got into another wrangle," as worded by the newspaper.  The judge suggested "that if they wanted to settle their differences they could do so out of court."  He offered to postpone the case until the lawyers had battled it out on the street.

Sarah Jane died on June 18, 1898 at the age of 56.  Her funeral was held in the house three days later. Before long George married Grace Cornell Hogarth; but their life together would not be long-lived.

On Sunday April 19, 1903 Van Siclen died at the age of 62.  The Record & Guide listed his memberships in the Twilight Club, the New England Society, the Sons of the American Revolution and the American Geographical Society; but they were just a few of the many organizations in which he was involved.

Grace sold the 65th Street house to Assistant United States Attorney William L. Wemple on August 23, 1905.  The nationally-known lawyer was also a director in the International Mines & Development Co.

By 1917 Wemple had left his position and gone into private practice.  He became the corporate attorney for the Hudson Dock and Terminal Company and accepted individual cases, perhaps none so interesting as that of Chandra Chakraberty.

Federal investigators had their hands full with German spies and terrorists living and plotting on American soil.  At the same time, unrest in India against the English colonial government was heating up.  The German government took advantage of the situation by bargaining with Indian nationals.

On March 11, 1917 The Sun reported "Papers seized in the office of Capt. Franz von Papen...when Wolf von Igel was arrested in connection with a plot to blow up the Welland Canal in Canada, showed that Van Papen and Von Igel had planned extensively for uprisings in India."

They papers also suggested that Bengali-born Dr. Chandra Chakraberty and Ernst M. Sekunna, a German, "had a committee of Hindus in America who had charge of the sedition plots."  Chakraberty was apparently given a generous budget from the German Government to use in seducing Americans into the plot.  When he was arrested on March 5, 1917, Chakraberty hired Wemple as his defense attorney.

Wemple had a challenge in front of him.  In Chakraberty's West 120th Street apartment detectives found "a number of cancelled checks made payable to Americans...It is hinted that Americans were in the alleged conspiracy," reported The Sun on March 11.

Chakraberty was released on bail on March 6, but it was quickly revoked.  The Sun reported "The Hindu, accompanied by Sekunna and his attorney, William L. Wemple, walked up to Police Headquarters shortly before 6 o'clock bareheaded, but carrying his hat in his hand."

Things turned out badly for Wemple's client.  On April 13, 197 The Indianapolis News reported that "Dr. Ernst Sekunna and Wolf von Igel, Germans, and Chandra Chakraberty and Heramba Gupta, Hindoos, were indicted by a federal grand jury yesterday for conspiracy in setting on a foot a military expedition in this country against a friendly nation.  They were charged with conspiracy to foment a rebellion in India."

Wemple sold No. 127 in August 1919, sparking a rapid-fire turnover in ownership.  Nelli Herold sold it to La Grange Beattie in October 1921 for $27,500 (about $377,000 today).   No longer a private home, rooms were rented out to tenants like Ethel Watson Usher.

New-York Tribune, October 29, 1922 (copyright expired)
The renowned pianist accompanied vocalists on stage, sometimes traveling to Europe with their concert tours.  When she opened her studio in No. 127 she was proudest of being the accompanist to operatic soprano Sue Harvard.  And when Music News reported on Harvard's 1922 London engagement, it noted "Miss Harvard's American accompanist, Miss Ethel Watson usher, was a decided acquisition to the program, and came in for her share of honors."

Usher shared her studio with voice coach Virginia Los Kamp.  On December 28, 1922 The Music Magazine reported that the pair "gave a tea at their headquarters, 127 West Seventy-eighth street, December 20, the former singing Dawn in the Desert and an old Irish song with fine expression and style."  Several of Los Kamp's students performed as well.  The magazine added "Miss Usher, perhaps best known as accompanist for Sue Harvest (she went with her to England and Wales last summer) played the accompaniments in finished style."

Earning less glowing publicity was another roomer, James Morrow.  He was the manager of the 42nd Street branch of the stock brokerage firm of Clark, Childs & Co.   Also working there was "stock bulletin runner" Harry Fallon.  The pair devised a sideline in the office to make extra money.

Two days after Ethel and Virginia held their musical tea, detectives walked into the 42nd Street office and arrested Morrow and Fallon "before a large crowd of customers," according to The New York Herald.  The article explained that Patrolmen Frank Kincher and John Flattery had learned that horse race gambling was taking place there.

Kincher tapped the office's telephones and listened in as Morrow and Fallon took bets.   The newspaper wrote "The anti-gambling crusade was extended yesterday to warfare against race bookmaking when James Morrow of 127 West Seventy-eighth street and Harry Fallon of 1213 Eighth avenue, Brooklyn, were arraigned before Magistrate Joseph E. Corrigan...on charges of bookmaking."

After the 78th Street block suffered decline during the Depression years, No. 127 received a make-over of sorts in 1940 when it was converted to three furnished rooms in the basement, two apartments each on the first and second floors, and four furnished rooms on the third.  The last quarter of the 20th century was kinder when the house was converted to one apartment in the basement, two on the parlor floor, and a duplex above.

At some point around this time, all the houses in the Guastavino row were painted red and white, covering over the architect's purposeful contrast of textures and colors.   The row was soon locally called "the red and whites."

Then, in 2014, a meticulous restoration of No. 129 next door was completed.  While the project gloriously resurrected and brick, stone and terra cotta and earned the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award in 2015; not everyone was so happy.

The owners of No. 127, Dr. Eric and Suzanne Walther, were split.  He was pleased with the restoration; while Suzanne complained to The New York Times journalist Christopher Gray, "I hate it.  It ruins the unity of the row."

There are still some who prefer the disfigurement of the red and white paint to Rafael Guastavino's 1886 intentions.
Despite their coat of 20th century make-up, the row is a rare and wonderful example of Rafael Guastavino's early work in America.

photographs by the author