Clarence True was among the most prolific of architects working on the Upper West Side in the 1890's. His inspiration was almost always drawn from historic periods, resulting in structures that ranged from charming, romantic or elegantly grand.
When he designed three upscale townhouses at Nos 309 to 305 West 75th Street for developer Charles G. Judson in 1892, he gave them his own take on the Francois I style. Completed the following year, each home had its own personality; yet the trio were unmistakable architectural siblings. Carved decoration, expanses of multiple-paned windows, prominent dormers (one clad in copper) and projecting gargoyles successfully blended 16th century France with 19th century America.
Judson sold No. 309 on November 7, 1895 to Edward S. Hatch for $41,000--just over $1.2 million today. He quickly resold it to Pauline Starr, who almost simultaneously (on November 27) purchased No. 311. Another relative, Walter D. Starr, had purchased No. 313 on January 3, 1894.
Pauline's parents moved into No. 309. Daniel Ebbets Starr was 51-years old and his wife, the former Pauline Gilsey, was 42. Her father, Peter Gilsey, was the well-known hotelier and owner of the Gilsey House on Broadway.
Pauline's motivation to purchase the two homes may have had to do with her impending marriage. On December 2, 1896 she married William Watson Caswell in the Church of the Transfiguration. The moneyed couple would construct a Newport-worthy summer home, Willmount, in Westchester County and by World War I would have a third home in Boston.
Next door at No. 313, Walter D. Starr changed his focus from lumber to real estate. In 1895, shortly after purchasing the house, he dissolved the Walter D. Starr lumber company. He formed the Long Island Sand Co., a contracting company, and was also involved in buying and selling Manhattan real estate.
The house contained 14 rooms and three baths. It was sumptuously furnished; the parlor being decorated in the Empire style. The Starrs' art collection was noteworthy. There were more than 100 oil paintings, including works by esteemed artists like George Inness. The artworks, including life-sized Cararra marble statuary and bronze sculptures comprised what dealer Benjamin S. Wise called "a collection that few private houses possess."
Starr raised the ire of Oyster Bay estate owners in 1900 when he purchased "Cooper's Bluff" near Sagamore Hill. The bluff was composed of what was described as "the finest building sand." But when Staff announced his intentions to build a dock to facilitate the removal of the sand, the wealthy property owners revolted. The New York Times reported on September 10, 1900 that "The objection to the building of the dock is based on two grounds. One is the destruction of a picturesque section of the shore, and the other is that the digging of sand there will mean the establishment of a colony of Italians in huts or barracks close to the finest places in Oyster Bay."
While Walter Starr wheeled and dealt in real estate, his wife was active in social circles. In January 1896, for instance, she was a manager of the "tea and bazaar" for the benefit of the Association for Befriending Children and Young Girls.
Daniel Ebbets Starr died at No. 309 on December 27, 1898. His funeral was held in the Church of the Transfiguration, where his daughter had been married just two years earlier.
|The windows of No. 309 originally had many small panes. Note the gargoyle projecting over the service alley.
His Damier Phoenix was an impressive and famous vehicle, first purchased two years earlier by William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. for $10,000 (more than $300,000 today). Vanderbilt called the car the "White Ghost" and he reveled in the speeds its 23 horsepower engine could attain. The New York Times remarked it had "gained much notoriety on the Long Island roads."
|The White Ghost above was involved in the tragic accident of February 1902. photo via Vanderbilt Cup Races
February 12 was a holiday, so there was an especially large crowd of children out playing. Three boys, James Dillon, John Riley and Henry Theiss were in the street as the powerful automobile approached. The article said "they did not see the machine until it was fairly upon them, and the first they knew of its presence was when the horn sounded hoarsely in their ears."
The boys scattered but 7-year old Henry Theiss tripped and fell. The White Ghost ran over his head and stomach, killing him. The Times dramatically reported "When the clothing was removed a religious medal was found driven into the flesh by the weight of the machine."
Despite witnesses reporting that Thomas was driving at about 40 m.p.h., he was exonerated in court on February 17. He testified that he was not going at a high rate of speed, that the roadway was wet, and that the boy "jumped right in front of the machine." Alexander Nones corroborated his story, saying he saw the boy dash into the street.
Later that year, on July 24, Walter D. Starr sold No. 313 to real estate operators Ottinger & Brother. The end of the Starr family presence on West 75th Street came in 1908 when Pauline sold No. 309 to Francis P. Bent in August 1908. She had already sold No. 311 three years earlier to Hyman Berkowitz.
Ottinger & Brother sold No. 313 to Arthur R. Freedlander and his wife Lilly in 1906. The coupled appeared in court over a bizarre legal tug-of-war with artist Arthur R. Freedlander in 1909. Full-length portraits of well-heeled women had been fashionable since the 1880's. The problem with Lilly's was that her husband refused to pay for it.
Valued by the artist at the equivalent of $14,000 today, he told the courts on November 23, 1909 that Freedlander had commissioned him to paint the portrait. Arthur Freedlander, on the other hand, insisted that Wieburgh "asked to be allowed to paint his wife and that it was understood that he would not pay any money unless the portrait was entirely satisfactory." He told the judge it "does not truly or accurately represent a likeness" of his wife.
A parade of well-known artists, art instructors and critics took the stand. The New York Times reported that they agreed the portrait was "a fine work of art" and worth the amount asked for it.
Arthur R. Freedlander personally handled the sale of No. 313 in the spring of 1912. His lengthy advertisement in The Sun noted that it sat within "the most restricted section on the West Side" and said "artistically, this is one of the most beautiful homes in New York City." "It is the sort of home that appeals irresistibly to a person of culture and refinement."
Before long the "restricted section" began to fall from fashion. No. 309 was operated as a rooming house by 1935 and its Depression Era tenants were not all respectable. Charles Spies was among them in January 1935 when he was arrested with four cohorts for the burglary of the home of architect Gerald Holmes on East 19th Street. The gang made off with silverware and jewelry valued at $3,000, almost 18 times that much today.
No. 311 had been converted to apartments in 1920. An advertisement on May 23 that year offered "Magnificent 2, 3, 4 room apartments, bath and kitchenettes, electric light, gas; maid service free; $1,500 to $3,600." The least expensive rent would equal about $1,525 a month today. No. 313 was converted to a total of two apartments around 1922.
The most celebrated tenants in any of the three homes would be a still struggling Woody Allen and his wife, Harlene. In his book Woody: The Biography, David Evanier recounts Elliott Mills description of the space.
I visited them at West Seventy-fifth Street. It was a divided crazy apartment. It had a monster chandelier that must have [once] been at the center of somebody's living room. In their apartment it was right on the edge of the wall.
Evanier quoted Elliott's description of a hilarious incident. "A huge water bug came up in the bathroom Woody was terrified of those things And he had this huge insecticide can. He was furiously spraying it, jumping around He was waltzing around with this spray gun trying to get this bug. Harlene was making fun of him. She went into the bathroom and smashed the bug with a broom. "Later, in Annie Hall, he transformed the bug into a lobster, then a spider 'the size of a Buick.'"
Despite the alterations and the inexcusable entrance doors of No. 311, Clarence True's stately threesome still evoke the time when this block of West 75th Street was "restricted" and wealthy homeowners filled them with valuable artworks and furnishings.
photographs by the author