Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Wm. H. B. Totten House - 15 West 73rd Street

The entrance, reached by a high stone stoop, was originally where the arched window is today.

Edward C. Clark was president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company in the 1870's when embarked on a second, perhaps more passionate, interest: real estate development.  Clark envisioned the rocky underdeveloped Upper West Side as a suburb for upper and upper-middle class families.

In 1877 he purchased 30 building lots on Eighth Avenue (later named Central Park West) between 72nd and 73rd Streets; and kept adding to his holdings until by 1881 he owned nearly the entire block between Eighth and Ninth (later Columbus) Avenues and 73rd to 74th Streets.

Clark already had a close relationship with architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh.   Two years after construction began on the high-end Dakota Apartment, the pair set to work on another aggressive project nearby.  Hardenbergh designed 28 townhouses stretching from No. 15 to 67 West 73rd Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.   Construction was done in two phases, with the eastern group of homes completed in 1884, and Nos. 29 through 67 a year later.  They flowed together as a picturesque grouping, harmonizing their architecture with that of the Dakota.

The basement and parlor levels of No. 15 were faced in stone.  A high stone stoop led to the arched double-doored entrance which was outlined by a delicate parade of carved leaves.  The centered opening at the second floor featured a stone balconette, Renaissance-inspired carvings within the frame, and a colorful stained glass transom.  Between the third floor windows was a carved three-quarter profile portrait.  Two joined brick-faced dormers punched through the slate-tiled mansard.

Speculations regarding the subject of the portrait plaque has included actor Edwin Booth or writer Mark Twin.

Rather than sell the completed homes, as most developers would have done, Clark retained ownership, leasing them to well-heeled families.  No. 15 became home to William Henry Brackett Totten and his family.  

The Totten family arrive on Staten Island in 1767 acquired much property in the area around what was known as Bentley.  By 1869 the neighborhood was named Tottenville.  It was there that William was born to Abraham Cole and Mary Brackett Totten on February 13, 1831.   At the age of 19 he moved to New York City and entered the grocery business.  Shortly after marrying Sarah B. Castree, the daughter of millionaire John Castree, in 1856, he went into the butter and cheese commission business, forming W. H. B. Totten & Co. with partner Robert T. Pierce.

from Morris's Memorial History of Staten Island, New York (1900, copyright expired)
Additionally, in 1895 Totten was appointed president of the Irving Savings Institution (the position held by his father-in-law until his death in 1888), and was a director in the Merchants' Refrigerating Co.

William and Sarah had five children, Henry Wade, Willard Ray, Clarissa (known as Clara), Annie and Elsie.  The family maintained a summer estate in Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey.  The Totten children grew up in a life of privilege.  Clara, for instance, attended Rutgers Female Institute and College, graduating in 1879.  She was active in its Alumnae Association, holding the position of corresponding secretary for decades.

The door of No. 15 wore a wreath of black crepe on March 10, 1900.  On the previous morning young Harry Wade Totten died in the house.  Although he was a member of the New-York Athletic Club, he had not yet entered the business world.

William, like so many of the well-to-do businessmen living in the neighborhood, was highly active in the affairs of the Upper West Side.  He joined the West End Association, becoming its vice-president by 1906, and was a member of the West Side Republican Club.

Sarah Baldwin Totten died at the summer house on August 18, 1904.  The New-York Tribune described her estate as "large, all in personal property."  William inherited "all the household furniture and everything appertaining to housekeeping," while Sarah's jewelry was divided among the children.  Everything else was to be divided among them, "share and share alike."

Interestingly, Sarah had been empowered to dispose of her father's estate but had not done so  Her will passed that authority to Elsie.  Oddly enough, it would be several years before she took care of that, as well.

Willard moved out of the 73rd Street house a few months later.  Elsie married Allen B. A. Bradley on January 22, 1907 in the West End College Church.  Perhaps fearing that her aging father would be left alone if Annie married, Clara remained at No. 15 with her husband, William W. Kennedy, following their wedding.

Stone blossoms sprout from the underside of the balconette.  Carved panels decorate the sides of the recessed opening, framed by an exquisite rope of leaves and berries.
On October 8, 1909, Willard returned to Manhattan after closing his Avon, New Jersey summer house.  The next day he suffered a fatal heart attack.  Society was stunned a month later when it became known that he had been secretly married for four years.

On November 19 The Sun reported "From a wedding announcement received here to-day it is learned that Miss Sallie Creveling of Asbury Park, daughter of Mrs. Mary Creveling, a dressmaker, was married to the late Willard Ray Totten...on October 16, 1905."  It went on to say "Last summer, Mr. Totten and the supposed Miss Creveling were much together.  It was believed they were engaged to be married, but that they had been four years married was not suspected."

The newspaper explained that the sudden revelation by Sallie "is believed to be the initial step in proceedings by the young widow to obtain possession of Mr. Totten's estate, which is valued at $200,000."  It is unclear whether Willard's family knew of the union.  Nevertheless an attorney "admitted that the marriage was a fact and said that the Tottens were pleased to have her in the family."

Sallie's coming forth would prove more profitable in 1915 when Elsie got around to settling her grandfather's $1.75 million estate.  She received a $30,000 slice, equal to about $755,000 today.

By then the Totten family had left No 15.  In 1909 William H. B. Totten retired, living "quietly between his home in this city and his cottage at Avon," according to the New York Produce Review.

With its long-term tenant gone, the Clark estate posted a "For Rent" advertisement in the New-York Tribune on September 26, 1909.  "In a restricted neighborhood, opposite the Dakota Park, convenient to elevated and subway stations; electric lights throughout; indirect radiation heating system.  Rent, including heat $3,300 per year."  The pricey rent would be about $7,640 per month today.

Dr. William Francis Honan had no problem coming up with the rent.  He no doubt signed the lease in anticipation of his upcoming marriage to Maude Ives Park on October 27.  The well-known physician had graduated from the New York Homeopathic Medical College in 1889 and was the author of many articles, such as the 1907 "Surgery and the Public."

Perhaps even more than for his medical work, Honan was familiar to the public because of his former marriage.  His first wife, Ida von Claussen, was by any estimation colorful.  She was the granddaughter of wealthy builder Matthew Byrnes, now deceased.  In 1901 the couple adopted a little girl, Natalie.  Their names were routinely mentioned in society columns as they came and went at fashionable summer resorts.

But Ida's growing eccentricities prompted a separation around 1902.  She left her husband, taking Natalie with her.  In 1904 Honan was living in the Hotel Regent at 70th Street and Broadway, providing Ida with the equivalent of just under $3,000 a month alimony in today's dollars.  In January 1905 she had him arrested and jailed for non-support.

She complained to the judge that "for the last few years she had received practically nothing from her husband."  She admitted she received $250 per month personal income from the Hotel Lorraine on Fifth Avenue, part of her inheritance from her grandfather.

Honan testified that "he was willing to provide a home for his wife, but that she would not live with him."  Idea admitted that was true, "but added that she was afraid, as her husband had one occasion chased her with a razor, and o another had threatened to 'cut her heart out,'" as reported in the New-York Tribune on January 29.

The judge, considering that her total monthly income topped $10,000 by today's standards, dismissed the case, "stating that there seemed little likelihood that Mrs. Honan would become a public charge."

Ida sue for divorce in South Dakota in 1906, charging William with abandonment.  He appeared in court there, most likely happy to be done with his difficult wife.  It would turn out that he was premature in his relief.

Ida's name soon appeared in newspapers nation-wide.  She styled herself as Countess Ida von Claussen and in 1907 she had aspirations of being introduced to the King of Sweden.  When that did not happen she demanded that the American Minister to Sweden, Charles E. Graves, be fired.  The Evening World reported "President Roosevelt refused her request, and she denounced him, threatening to sue him for $1,000,000."

Ida not only threatened to sue Roosevelt for $1 million, she did.  In the course of her legal action, she was annoyed by Charles Strauss, the Chairman of the Board of Water Supply.  She fired off a threatening letter to him, which resulted in her being arrested and spending six months on Blackwell's Island.  Natalie was given over to Honan's custody.

Now Ida discovered that her former husband had remarried.  She took him to court in January 1911, claiming the divorce was invalid "because she had not acquired proper residence" in South Dakota.  She demanded a proper New York State divorce and alimony.   The courts dismissed her action.

She and Honan were back in court in June.  In an article entitled "The 'Countess' In High Jinks," The Sun reported on June 3 that she drove up to the Domestic Relations Court "attired in purple velvet and sparkling with diamonds."  She was now appealing for custody and support of Natalie.

"The Countess said she didn't want any of his money for herself.  She was able to go to Europe whenever the mood came over her and move in the highest social circles there--oh! even among royal personages."  Once again she was rebuffed by the court.  "When the Magistrate refused the complainant became abusive and declared that there was no justice there."

Outside the courtroom she snatched roses from a woman and tore them to pieces.  When court officers tried to remove her, "She struggled against ejectment and lay upon the floor and kicked.  It required six men to eject her, for she is 6 feet high and built on athletic lines," said the newspaper.

Outside she raised her fist in the air and announced "Tell the Judge I would like to hand him one of these."  Extra policemen were called to move along the growing crowd as the "countess" lingered for more than an hour.  "When the audience dispersed the Countess, who was her ow chauffeur, opened up the throttle, took the high clutch and headed for Fifth avenue like an expert."

Dr. William Honan was finally rid of Ida von Claussen.  But her story did not end there.  She was soon judged mentally unstable and sent to the insane asylum at Middletown.  Shortly after her release in 1915 she married Francis Dona, a Canadian.  That marriage did not work out; and on September 10, 1920 The Evening World reported "The marriage took place [in Reno] yesterday of Ida von Claussen, of New York, who gave her age as thirty-nine...to Capt. Raymond H. Mayberry.  The bridegroom is an actor and lives in Los Angeles."

Five days later the same newspaper ran the headline "Ida Von Claussen, Six Days A Bride, Sues 3d Husband."  The article listed "the remarkable record established by Countess Ida von Claussen-Honan-Dona-Mayberry in six days.  On the same day, September 9, it said, she met, became engaged to and married Mayberry.  On September 14 she sued to have the marriage annulled.  Her complaint charged him with marrying her "solely for the purpose of obtaining from her financial assistance and support."

In the meantime, Dr. Honan had remarried.  Maude Ives Honan had died in the 73rd Street house on February 15, 1915.  In 1917 Honan and his new wife, Grace, moved to the opposite side of the park, at No. 116 East 63rd Street.

No. 15 became home to Dr. Ernest Simons Bishop.  A bachelor, he was a pioneer in the treatment of opiate addiction.  Bishop recognized and fought against common fallacies still in place today.  He testified at a meeting of the New York State Department of Narcotic Drug Control in April 1919, for instance, that drugs were not indicative of "moral decay."

The Sun reported he said "that many charming persons in the best society took narcotics regularly and that their morals were not impaired."  He was among the first to declare that "The appetite for drugs is a disease, an absolutely material thing."  To those in the room who were positive that all addicts were disheveled, dirty criminals he promised "You meet only one class of drug addicts, those who are arrested."

Bishop's method of treating addicts was to wean them off the drugs, not withdrawal them abruptly.  He warned doing so, which was the accepted method of treatment, could physically harm or kill the patient.  His controversial and outspoken opinion did not earn him any friends in mainstream medicine and on February 10, 1920 he was indicted on 26 counts of filling drug prescriptions.  The New York Times later remarked "Dr. Bishop's theory that addicts were medical cases and not legal cases brought him into conflict with the Federal authorities."  It was probably no coincidence that his book The Narcotic Drug Problem had been released that month.

Bishop was cleared of any violations in 1925 after, according to The Times, "prominent persons in both the medical and legal professions came to his defense."  He continued to work feverishly for drug treatment reform.

In the spring of 1922 the Clark estate began selling off much of its properties.  In May Dr. Bishop purchased No. 15, spending $45,000 on the house (about $658,000 today). 

Bishop was his summer home in Blandford, Massachusetts in 1926 when he contracted influenza and died a week later on November 17, 1926 at the age of 50.  His obituaries lauded his career and his ground-breaking research into opiate addiction and treatment.

In 1942 No. 15 West 73rd Street was converted to apartments, one per floor.  The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to a few steps below street level.  Among the first tenants to move in that year was Tamara Swann, known to motion picture and theater audiences merely as Tamara.

The Russian-born chanteuse's throaty voice earned her roles like the Russian princess in Jerome Kern's 1933 Roberta, in which she introduced "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."  Almost immediately after moving into No. 15, she boarded the airplane the Yankee Clipper with other stars heading to entertain World War II troops at the overseas USO Camp Shows.

Tamara lived in No. 15 only a few weeks before her untimely death.  original source unknown
On the night of February 22, 1943 she was seated in the plane next to motion picture star, singer Jane Froman.  Somewhere over Lisbon, Portugal the Yankee Clipper crashed.  Tamara was among those killed.

On April 24 Billboard magazine reported "About 350 people, representing all branches of show biz and headed by Bert Lytell, president of Actors' Equity, paid final homage yesterday to Tamara (Swann), singer, who lost her life in the crash of the Pan-American Clipper at Lisbon."

Another tenant in the theatrical profession was Joseph Geiger, Broadway producer, who moved in around 1947.

The house with the more than its fair share of history has notably changed since its completion in 1884.  An architecturally incongruous doorway, unsympathetic replacement windows and a serious coat of grime are regrettable.  Nonetheless, Hardenbergh's Renaissance-influenced design struggles valiantly to shine through.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Hi. This is a great website!
    I'm pretty sure the relief portrait here is of Balzac.
    I think the one at 17 West 73rd is Dante.
    The relief face at 19 West 73rd Street looks so familiar. I've never been able to place it, but it's probably another author.