Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Fanny Brice House - 306 West 76th Street

The entrance, relocated when the house was converted to apartments, was originally centered.

Alonzo B. Kight acted both as developer and architect in the 1890's.  By the turn of the century he would be president of the Barnard Realty Co., but in 1896 when he started construction on two upscale homes on West 76th Street, he worked alone.

His plans, filed on April 10, 1896, projected two four-story limestone-faced houses, each an imposing 25 feet wide.   The upscale amenities included "hot air heating, parquet flooring, hardwood trim, tiled bathrooms and exposed plumbing."  Each were expected to cost $50,000 to construct--more than $1.5 million today.

Kight changed his mind at some point, making the two homes even grander.  When completed in 1897 they both rose five stories.   No. 306 featured a full-width, three-story angled bay which increased both ventilation and light inside.  A prominent, bracketed cornice above the first floor provided corner balconies behind solid stone railings.   Above the third floor a stone balustrade protected the ample terrace created by the projecting bay.

The new home was purchased by Gilbert Colgate in November 1897 for "about $70,000," according to the Real Estate Record & Guide.  (Kight raked in a substantial profit of about $610,000 in today's dollars in the deal.)

Born on December 15, 1858, Colgate was a major player in American business and manufacturing.  A year before buying No. 306 he had been made a partner in Colgate & Company, founded by his grandfather, William Colgate, in 1806.  Gilbert's brothers, Richard, Sidney and Austin, were also partners.

In the Colgates' music room hung Samuel F. B. Morse's The Goldfish Bowl (at left), which is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum today. photo courtesy of James P. Colgate, great-grandson of Gilbert and Florance Colgate

Originally a starch, soap and candle manufacturer, by now Colgate & Company made perfumes, essences and perfumed soap.  In 1873 it had added toothpaste, sold in a jar, to its product line.

Gilbert's wife was the former Florance Buckingham Hall.  When they moved in they had three children, eight-year-old Elizabeth, four-year-old Florance, and baby Grace, at one.  The family would grow in 1899 with the birth of Gilbert and in 1902 with the arrival of Robert.

Another view of the music room.  The Colgates' furnishings ranged from American Empire to Victorian Rococo Revival pieces.  photo courtesy of James P. Colgate, great-grandson of Gilbert and Florance Colgate

The drawing room of No. 306 was the scene of the wedding of Florance's sister, Mabel Scott Hall, to Chicagoan Sherwood Johnston Larned on October 25, 1899.  The New York Journal reported "Three little ribbon maids also were in attendance upon the bride, forming an aisle with white ribbon, through which she passed.  They were her nieces, Elizabeth, Florance and Grace Colgate."

Grace and Mabel were flower girls in another family wedding in the house on May 23, 1902.  Florance's niece, Mary Hall Putnam married Ira Mallory Remsen, that afternoon.

Both Gilbert and Florance were involved in philanthropies and social issues.  They were members of The Indian Rights Association, for instance.

The gentleman's portrait above the sideboard is of William Colgate, Gilbert's grandfather and founder of Colgate & Company.  photo courtesy of James P. Colgate, great-grandson of Gilbert and Florance Colgate

By the time the couple announced Elizabeth's engagement on April 22, 1911, Gilbert was vice-president of Colgate & Company.   Elizabeth had fallen in love with Stanley Maddox Rumbough who came from a military family.  Rumbough's grandfather was General David S. Stanley and his father was Colonel David  J. Rumbough.  The groom-to-be was a lieutenant in the 15th Cavalry and was currently service as a junior aid at the White House.

In May 1916 Colgate hired architect Harry N. Paradies to install an elevator in the house.  The alterations cost him about $7,000 in today's dollars, but the increase in convenience was no doubt invaluable.

The following year, in July, Florance's engagement was announced.  Like her sister, her fiancé was in the military, Major Edwin St. John Greble, Jr.  With war raging in Europe, there was no time for long engagements.   The wedding took place two days later, on July 28 in the Rutgers Presbyterian Church.

It was a military ceremony.  The groom was the son of Brigadier General Edwin St. John Grebel, and the ushers included two captains, two majors, and a lieutenant.  The New-York Tribune reported "Major Greble is a member of the 2d Field Artillery of Pennsylvania, and he and his bride will start this week for camp."

A gate-legged table with strikingly carved legs served as a desk in the library.  The photograph of the man in uniform on the desk is of Elizabeth's husband, Stanley Maddox Rumbough.  photo courtesy of James P. Colgate, great-grandson of Gilbert and Florance Colgate

Gilbert Colgate rose to president of the firm in 1920; but the year was marked by sorrow when Florance died on February 24 at the age of 56.  The Colgate boys were away at school at the time.  Gilbert Jr. was a sophomore at Yale and Robert was away at the exclusive Phillips-Andover Academy.  Her funeral was held in the 76th Street house three days later.

Grace Hall Colgate was married on June 6, 1922, and she not only married a military man like her sisters, she married Major Joseph Wright Rumbough, the brother of Elizabeth's husband.  He was in charge of the field artillery instruction at Camp Benning, Georgia.  In reporting on the wedding The New York Herald said "there were present many relatives and friends of the bride, and also persons prominent in army circles."

Two months later Gilbert Colgate sold No. 306.  Newspapers and journals made note that he had owned the house for a quarter of a century, but were vague about the new owner.  It was not until October 21 that the Real Estate Record & Guide announced "Fanny Brice, the actress, is the buyer of the former Gilbert Colgate residence."

The popular entertainer's marriage was already troubled.  Her husband, Julius "Nicky" Arnstein, was a professional gambler and con artist, who had no fewer than six aliases.  The couple had two children, Frances and William.

In 1915, while he was still married to Carrie Arnstein, he was imprisoned in Sing Sing Prison and Fannie visited him every week.  After Carrie divorced him in 1918 they married.

Arnstein's past followed the family to West 76th Street.  According to biographer Herbert G. Goldman in his Fannie Brice: The Original Funny Girl, "Fannie's immediate plans for the townhouse were settled, not by her, but by Arnold Rothstein.  The famous gangster gambler insisted Fanny buy her furnishings from him.  He himself, what's more, would make all the selections."

Fannie had little choice in the matter.  Rothstein had supplied Arnstein's $100,000 bail money.  Although the amount had been repaid, Fannie recognized the new demand as "interest."  The furnishings came with a $50,000 invoice.  An appraiser placed the value at between $10,000 and $13,000.

A month after she purchased the house the Record & Guide reported that Fannie Brice Arnstein, had commissioned architect Samuel Cohen to make $15,000 in renovations.  While retaining the first three floors as the family's residence, she transformed the upper two floors into apartments for friends like actresses Valeska Suratt and May Weston.

Two years after moving in Arnstein was again imprisoned, convicted this time for conspiracy to carry stolen securities into Washington DC.  He was sentenced to three years in Leavenworth prison.

The often-zany comedienne as she appeared in the 1924 Ziegfeld Follies while living in the 76th Street house.  from the collection of the New York Public Library 

Immediately upon his release Arnstein began seeing other women.  The humiliation became too much to bear for Brice.  On September 17, 1927 The New York Times reported that she had filed for divorce in Chicago, adding "Miss Brice's suit makes what is said to be the first instance of plastic surgery being held responsible for alienating the affections of a husband."

The article explained that since having work done on her nose in 1923, "Arnstein developed an inferiority complex, repeatedly informing her that [because] she was so much more beautiful he was uncomfortable in her presence; that he, thereupon began seeking the society of other women and told her that plainer women appealed to him more."

"At her home, 306 West Seventy-sixth Street," said The New York Times, "where her children are being cared for by a governess, the report was denied."  But, of course, it was all very true.

Journalists and photographers camped out at Grand Central Terminal that week, awaiting Fannie's arrival from Chicago.  The New York Times said "Miss Brice appeared tired and worn when she stepped from the Lake Shore Limited...Reluctantly she posed for the newspaper photographers."  She repeatedly pleaded, "I'm all in.  I want to get home and see the children."

But when her taxicab arrived at the 76th Street house, it was already a mob scene.  While the children waited inside, she answered a barrage of questions.  The New York Times recounted:

"Why go to Paris?" she said.  "I have a good lawyer in Chicago, and he got me a divorce in forty-eight hours."
When she was asked if she contemplated marriage a second time, she flashed back:
"Isn't that a silly thing to ask me?  How do I know?"
Then she made a comic grimace, although her eyes were filling with tears, and said:
"Haven't I had enough?"

Before the year was out Fanny Brice and her children had left West 76th Street.

Although the house continued to be home to moneyed residents, none would have recognizable names like Colgate and Brice.  By mid-century it had been converted to unofficial apartments and not all of the tenants were model citizens.

Jack Bernstein lived here in 1955.  The 48-year-old was arrested and held without bail on May 7 that year, facing life imprisonment after already having been convicted three times for felony burglary.  He had a record of 14 previous arrests.

The New York Times reported "When he was arrested last Friday, the police found $100,000 in stocks and bonds and $20,000 in furs, jewels and silverware in his car and his apartment at 306 West Seventy-sixth Street.  A fully loaded .38-caliber automatic and a set of lock picks were also found in the car."

In 2006 the house was converted to 14 apartments: three on the first floor, two on the second, three each on the third and fourth, and a duplex on the first and penthouse level (installed in 2000 and invisible from the street).

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. When I first moved to NYC in 1980, my dear dear friend, the late great Gregory Huffman, at that time principal dancer at Joffrey, lived in a part of what had been Fanny Brice’s palatial townhouse. By then, the grand building had been carved up into several smaller apartments, but Greg’s apartment was the entire drawing room (plus a couple smaller adjoining rooms) with the most incredible plaster friezes, frescoes, and ornamentation, gorgeous parquet floors, and a huge ornamented mantel and fireplace. It was amazing, and because of this, I always felt I had gotten to know a tiny bit of the original Fanny. It was amazing. Also in the same building had been Lee Strasberg’s apartment, where Marilyn Monroe came for her private method acting coaching sessions, which in the 1960’s had prompted the rest of the neighbors to complain about the Method-acting noise. Only in NYC does one find such history in these legendary apartment buildings like The Dakota, Ansonia, etc.