Monday, October 15, 2018

Scandal & Scoundrels - The Lost 1887 208 West 54th Street

By the time this shot was taken on March 19, 1916, the block had significantly changed.  from the collection of the New York Historical Society
In the spring of 1887 Samuel McMillan, a prolific developer in the 1880's and '90's, commissioned architect F. A. Minuth to design a flat building at No. 208 West 54th Street.  It was not the first time the two had worked together.  Minuth, as a matter of fact, had designed an apartment building on the same block just a year earlier.

Minuth filed plans for the 25-foot wide structure on March 25.  They were vague, calling only for a "five-story flat" with a tin roof to cost $26,000 (just over $691,000 today).  The results were much more exciting.

Minuth's design had all the bells and whistles of the Queen Anne movement.  The understated brownstone basement and first floor upheld four stories of red brick, ruddy terra cotta and stone.  The artistic stoop "floated" from the sidewalk to the entrance.

The entire plan was (typically Queen Anne) asymmetrical.  Instead of being executed in cast metal, as would be expected,the four-story angled bay was of brownstone.  It encompassed a riot of giddy decorations--polished granite columns at the second floor, carved pediments and panels, a make-believe roof, complete with carved shingles, above the fifth floor openings.  Not to be outdone, the single windows to the side grew progressively showier with each subsequent floor, until the topmost wore a terra cotta seashell.   The third, fourth and fifth floors openings sat above half-bowl Juliette balconies with swirling iron railings.

Topping it all off was a steep gable and ornate terra cotta rondel.  The elaborate pressed metal cornice upheld a tall parapet.

Somewhat unexpectedly, McMillan retained possession of the building for several years.  Apartment buildings, or flats, of this type were operated nearly as boarding houses, with a proprietor keeping close watch on things.  McMillan leased No. 208 to a proprietor, or manager.

Among the first tenants were actress Maude Granger and her husband, playwright Alfred Cecil Calmour.  Born as Anna E. Brainard on Christmas Day 1849, she was highly popular with theater audiences and would eventually appear in several silent films.

In addition to her beauty, Maude Granger was among the the top box office draws of her day.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Like most other women in the building, Maude a maid.  She was wealthy enough to own her own carriage, a team of horses, and to employ a full-time groom.  It may be that she was leaving New York on an extended tour in the fall of 1889 that prompted her to sell her horses.

On October 11 that year she instructed the groom, Edward R. Lloyd, to go to "Van Tassell & Kearney' sell a team of brougham horses," according to The New York Times a few days later.  Van Tassell & Kearney's was Manhattan's premier horse and carriage auction house.  Lloyd did what he was told, received a check for nearly $9,000 today, but then forged her name and disappeared.  Five days later he was tracked down by detectives and arrested in Ontario, Canada.

Living in the building about the same time was stock broker Charles T. Schlesinger.  The well-to-do bachelor was a man's man, or as The Sun described him, "a well-known athlete of the New York Athletic Club."  Schlesinger was a member of that club's water polo team and its football team.

At noon on October 30, 1891, he left his apartment and walked down Broadway to meet his two sisters who were out shopping.   The women had previously mentioned to Schlesinger that a man had harassed them on the street.  He no sooner met them, than they told him the same man had been trying to "force himself on their attention."  They pointed out John F. Walker.  Schlesinger told his sisters to continue their walk and that he would follow discreetly.

Sure enough, Walker "again made himself obnoxious to the ladies," as described by The Sun.  Schlesinger caught up with them, told his sisters to keep walking, and demanded an explanation from the cad.  Walker delivered "an insulting response" which earned him a punch in the face from Schlesinger.  Walker retaliated with his heavy cane.

A well-known lacrosse player, Lionel Moses, was passing by and jumped in.  He advised Schlesinger to move along before things got out of hand while he detained Walker.  He rejoined his sisters and at 33rd Street they boarded a Sixth Avenue streetcar.  But Walker did the same.

When the car was about at 42nd Street, Walker sat down opposite Schlesinger and pulled out a "large self-cocking revolver" and said "I'll finish you right here."  The athletic broker balanced himself on the seat with his palms and thrust his feet into Walker's stomach.  "Then he sprang upon Walker and they fought for possession of the pistol."

Understandable chaos and panic ensued.  The Sun reported "The car stopped and conductor, driver, and all the passengers deserted it, leaving the two men struggling...A colored boy, who sat next to Schlesinger, holding in his arms an immense floral horseshoe, dropped the flowers like a hot potato, and jumped out the window, carrying the sash with him."

Policeman Farley jumped onto the stopped streetcar and tried to disarm Walker, "but had to use his club before Walker would drop the weapon."  At the police station, Walker said he was a graduate of West Point and former officer of an Ohio regiment.  Insisting he had acted in self-defense, he demanded that a letter be send on his behalf to Grover Cleveland.

The case took a surprising turn when it came to court on December 7.  As it turned out John Walker was indeed a former captain in the U.S. Army.  The New York Times reported "It was shown in the Court of General Sessions yesterday that he was subject to fits of insanity, and had often annoyed women."   Judge Cowing dismissed all charges providing that the United States Army would take charge of him.  Walker was taken to the Military Insane Asylum in Washington D.C.

Not long after McMillan sold the building to Mary G. Barrymore Valentin in January 1892, a shadier type of tenant began taking flats.  Falling into that category was former actress Lilyon Beardsley.  Minnie C. Warren's suit for absolute divorce from her husband, attorney Lyman E. Warren, landed in Superior Court on January 10, 1894.  In addressing the jury, Judge Dugro said that the only question they needed to decide upon was:

Did defendant at any time between Oct 30, 1890, and May 27, 1893, live in improper relations with Lilyon Beardsley, otherwise Lilyon Daniels, otherwise Donna Madixxa, otherwise Mrs. Smith, otherwise Mrs. Abbot?

The jury apparently decided that Lilyon and the attorney had, indeed, had improper relations.  Minnie was granted her divorce.

In 1905 Susan Merrill took over the operation of the building.  She had earlier run a boarding house where, in 1902, she had a terrifying roomer--Harry Kendall Thaw.  Susan later testified that repeatedly girls would call, thinking they were to audition for a stage play.  After Thaw took them to his rooms, the landlady would hear screams as Thaw took a whip to the bound girls.  She tried to evict him, but he threatened her, promising to kill her if she said anything about his behavior.

Susan was horrified when Thaw appeared at No. 208 West 54th Street and rented a three-room apartment.  She testified at his trial for murdering Stanford White, "In West Fifty-fourth street I heard the same screams and when I ran up to Thaw's three rooms I found him with two girls.   The back of one of the girls was all black and blue and her arms bleeding.  Thaw's face was red, as I have described.  She told me she was twenty-two years old."  Thaw was already married to Evelyn Nesbitt at the time.

In April 1916 the estate of Mary Valentin sold the property to Mary I. Smith.  She immediately made improvements, including a new bathroom.  But modern plumbing did not improve the respectability of the tenants.

Mrs. Margaret Hill lived here at the time.  Although born of a good family, according to newspapers, she had nefarious leanings.  It seems that she was expecting an influx of cash in the beginning of June 1916, when, according to The New York Times, she arranged "for an elaborate renovation of her apartment."

But two weeks later she was nowhere to be found.  Police descended on her apartment on June 22 to find only her maid, Frida Johnson, who said she did not know where Margaret had gone, and only that "before leaving had ordered her furniture to be put into storage."

Margaret, as it turned out, had gained the trust of the multi-millionaire spinster Gertrude Claypool, the niece of former Governor Bookwalter of Ohio.   Over a period of days she drugged the elderly woman, hoping that she would not notice the increased doses.  Then, when Gertrude was essentially incapable of reason, Margaret and her cohorts abducted her to a Newark hotel where they had her rewrite her will.  Included in Margaret's share would be $4,000 outright (around $120,000 today).

But the scheme fell apart when Gertrude later realized what had happened and notified police,  Now they were on the trail of all the participants.  Detectives carefully combed through Margaret's belongings, finding the same drugs that were used on the victim, photographs and other evidence.

Gertrude had named names and identified Margaret Hill as one of the main figures.  Assistant District Attorney Dooling, did not hold back, saying, according to the New-York Tribune, "this band of blackmailers, card swindlers, opium users and smugglers lies at the end of so many lanes of evidence that he is not sure yet just which of these crimes will form the basis of the indictments."

Louis Levy was a tenant in the 1920's.  His motives were, perhaps, well intended, but his means of resolving a problem were more than questionable.  On February 13, 1922 he and another man strode into the office of theatrical booking agent Walter B. Sheridan in the Gaiety Theater Building on Broadway and 46th Street.   According to Sheridan, they accused him of putting "scantily draped women on the stage" at a show he was arranging in the Bronx.  Sheridan assured them everything would be according to the law.

Both men reacted by pummeling Sheridan, breaking his nose.  With blood pouring from his face, Sheridan followed the fleeing duo down the stairs, hollering for help.  According to The New York Herald, "with the memory of the recent holdup in the office of the Morrison Pen Company fresh in their minds, occupants of the other offices began running into the corridors shouting for the police."

On the street things got chaotic.  As workers from the building shouted that robbers were at work, the crowd on Broadway stopped and jammed the street.  Traffic could no longer move and the tie-up lasted until police could finally restore order.

Levy had been seen running from the building and was arrested for felonious assault.  His alibi was not convincing.  "He said he had gone into the building with a friend whose name he could not recall and that he had run because he saw everyone else running," reported the article.

The building, now owned by Margaret Mills, was described as "furnished-room house."  Among her tenants in 1924 was 35-year-old divorcee Susie Nelson.  Susie was carrying on a sexual affair with 29-year-old married police officer James J. Sullivan.  The dead-end romance not only nearly ended her life, but landed Officer Sullivan in more than his share of hot water.

Sullivan worked nights and on December 8 at about 3:40 in the morning, he reported sick at the station house.  He then went to Susie's apartment at No. 208 West 54th Street.  Five hours later he went into the hallway to use the restroom and, while there, heard a gunshot.

Susie had taken his service revolver and shot herself in the chest.  The wound was not fatal and she told police at the West 68th Street Station that she was "discouraged with life."  James J. Sullivan was suspended from the force pending an inquiry, and had much explaining to do when he got home to Queens.

The old apartment building was convenient for Thomas Healey, who lived here in 1926.  Although he worked as a finance company collector, he was also part-owner of the nightclub next door at No. 210, the Club Biarritz.   During Prohibition, questionable activities went on in such places, and the Club Biarritz was no exception.

In December that year McKewn Whitcomb came into Manhattan from his home in South Orange, New Jersey for a night on the town.  According to his complaint later, he "bought three bottles of ginger ale and received a bill for $21, which he protested."  (The ginger ale was admittedly pricey, the three bottles equal more than $290 today.)

He went on to claim that the waiter directed him to Healey's partner, Frank Timpone, who "beat him."  Then both Healey and Timpone took Whitcomb "to a room on the floor below the club, which was on the third, and beat and robbed him of $42, all he had."

Before they released him, according to Whitcomb's testimony, "Timpone seized me by the throat and threatened to crush in my skull.  Healey told me he was a detective and threatened to him me on the head with a blackjack."  They put him in a taxicab and "Healey told me if I made a complaint it would go hard with me."  He made a complaint.  The men appeared in court on December 16.

Dr. Alvin Bakst owned the building in 1967 when it was eyed along with other surrounding properties as the site for a major structure.  Bakst sold and the following year the massive 42-floor 1700 Broadway was completed; ending a rather sordid history for the 25-foot wide slice of West 54th Street.

photo via

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