|Before its two substantial remodelings, the house looked much like the old rowhouse to the left. from the collection of the New York Public Library
Charles Price Britton's 25-foot wide rowhouse at No. 12 East 54th Street was not typical of those around it. Unlike the ubiquitous brownstone cladding which Edith Wharton would later describe as "deadly uniformity of mean ugliness," Britton's home was faced in brick.
Like most of its neighbors, the house was erected shortly after the end of the Civil War. The Britton family were residents at least by 1882 when their address appeared on the membership list of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Britton was the head of the stock brokerage firm of Charles P. Britton & Company. He traced his American lineage to William Britton, a sea captain who came from Bristol, England and settled in Newport in the 18th century. (Oddly enough, his name was originally William Summerill, but he took his mother's maiden name before leaving England.)
Britton had married Caroline Berry in September 1866. The couple suffered more than their share of heartbreak. Their second child, Mary Marsh, died in 1875 at just two years old. Their eldest son, William Adams died at the age of 20 on September 29, 1888. Only Henry Berry Britton, born on September 5, 1878, would survive to marry and become a member of his father's firm.
Although Britton was a member of the socially elite Union League Club, his other memberships reflected his familial history. He held memberships in the Sons of the Revolution, the Society of Colonial Wars, and the New England Society of New York.
In April 1893 the Brittons commissioned architect John Sexton to remodel the interiors. The filed plans are vague at best, but at about $13,000 in today's money they most likely involved cosmetic updating.
At the time John Daly and his wife Ida lived at No. 208 West 59th Street. Daly could not have been more different from Charles P. Britton and yet their paths would cross before very long.
Daly ran gambling houses, one of which was very near his home. The Sun, on August 6, 1893, described his two city operations as "the famous house in Twenty-ninth street near Broadway, and another in Fifty-ninth street opposite the Park." Reportedly he paid the police as much as $100,000 per week to prevent raids.
But he was best known for his lavish gambling house in Long Branch, New Jersey. The Sun disapprovingly called Long Branch "America's Monte Carlo," and reported "Gambling is unquestionably a craze in Long Branch, The average man is overcome by it." The newspaper was astonished that there a patron could gamble "with impunity and without fear of molestation unless he happens to be a native of the town."
"John Daly's place at the Branch is the house where the biggest games are played and where a man can get just about as big a limit as he cares to make. It is the house most frequented by gamblers, because it has the reputation of running the squarest games of any at the Branch," said The Sun.
In stark contrast to the seedy gambling dens of Manhattan's Tenderloin District, this was a palace--a forerunner of the Atlantic City and Las Vegas resorts. "The main gaming room...is a great rotunda with a beautiful stained glass top, and the bright lights glaring through the colored glass are a big advertisement of the vice inside...There is a great wide seaside piazza in front, with big armchairs that invite the passer by, and a yawning doorway that reaches out to take in all."
Like today's casinos, patrons were treated to the best in food. "John Daly's chef is a banner man in his line. He is said to be the best chef at the Branch. The viands he serves for the breakfast of the guests, and the midnight lunch, are even more tempting than the meals at the Ocean Club."
But the purpose of the article was not to compliment Daly's gambling house. The writer warned "Of course, ninety-nine men in every hundred get the worst of the game," and said of Daly's, "It was there that Senator Wolcott dropped his $24,000 in a few hours, and it was there that Banker Woerishoffer used to go and play to win or lose thousands every night."
|John Daly's Long Branch gambling house was built around a central rotunda. The New-York Tribune, August 3, 1902 (copyright expired)
But before they moved in, the Dalys modernized the out-of-date house. They hired architect Joseph Wolf to remodel the facade. Wolf removed the stoop and created an American basement home. While the entertainment rooms would still be on what had been the parlor floor, the entrance was now located a few steps below street level.
|The New York Herald, July 24, 1921 (copyright expired)
Nevertheless, Daly was out of the gambling business and turned his full attention to the more socially acceptable line of horse breeding. He established a summer residence in Saratoga, home of the nation's oldest race track (opened in 1863). The town lured not only racing and horse enthusiasts, but celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso and Oscar Wilde.
It was at their Saratoga cottage on Union Avenue that Ida Daly died on July 6, 1905. Less than a year later Daly died at the age of 68 in the 54th Street mansion. In reporting his death, the New-York Tribune called him the "well known turfman and gambler" and said "he was regarded as one of the squarest men in the gambling business" The article noted "He frequently said that gambling, properly conducted, was as legitimate as any other business."
The Daly mansion was acquired by real estate operators Michael J. and John O'Connor. Although still home to many wealthy families, the neighborhood around St. Patrick's Cathedral was increasingly seeing the encroachment of commerce.
Finally, on June 1, 1910 the O'Connors sold the house. The following day the New-York Tribune reported "The buyer is Mrs. Charlotte E. Van Smith, who will use it for her dressmaking business."
Charlotte did some renovations of her own. Within two weeks her architect, William Anagnost, filed plans to add an elevator, new doors and fire-escapes. The transformation of house-to-business cost her around a quarter of a million in today's dollars and included living quarters for her on the upper floors.
Dressmakers like Charlotte E. Van Smith catered to the carriage trade and often used the term modiste to describe themselves. The cost of their services and glamorous costumes earned them small fortunes, affording Charlotte to live in luxurious accommodations with a still-fashionable address.
Charlotte employed a small staff of experienced seamstresses as well as a boy whose tasks included running packages of completed gowns to her customers' homes, the steamship docks, or shipping firms if the patron were out of town. Such was the case on December 14, 1911 when three gowns had to be completed and shipped off to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Parkinburg, Pennsylvania. The New York Times reported that "Miss Smith kept her employees working until after dark last night" on the three dresses. Each of the dresses were valued at about $300--nearly $7,500 today.
With the garments boxed and labeled and sent off with 15-year old Nathan Friedman, Charlotte felt she could relax. But disaster was about to strike.
Nathan was headed to the Adams Express Company depot at 48th Street and Madison Avenue. At around 52nd Street he was approached by a man who said he needed a messenger boy. Nathan directed him to the telegraph office; but the man said he had been there and simply could not find one.
He offered Nathan $1 to take a message to "F. Marshall" at 838 Fifth Avenue (which was, in fact, the mansion of William Watts Sherman). The boy refused and started on his way.
Insistent, the stranger said he lived at the Hotel Buckingham and that if Nathan would come with him to get the message, he would guard the packages until he returned. The boy was finally convinced and went off on the phony task. The New York Times reported "When he returned the bundles were gone" and surmised a "young man is richer by some $900 worth of evening gowns which he purloined by trickery from the boy."
Apparently now retired, in January 1919 Charlotte E. Van Smith leased her shop (in what the Real Estate Record & Guide now termed "the Van Smith Building") to another high-end dressmaker, "Miss Jean, designer of gowns."
Exactly one year later, on January 27, 1920, the business was looking for a new model. The advertisement in The New York Herald not only reflected the caliber of the clientele, but a change in the dress sizes today. "Model. Attractive, size, 36, preferably brunette. High class dressmaking establishment. House of Jean, Inc."
Significant change would come to No. 12 when Charlotte E. Van Smith next leased the building to the interior decorating firm of Leed, Inc. On July 24, 1921 The New York Herald opined "One of the latest and perhaps one of the most interesting examples of remaking an old Gotham dwelling into an appropriate home for business has just been accomplished by Leed, Inc...who recently moved from 631 Fifth avenue into the four story and basement house at 12 East Fifth-fourth street, once the home of 'Phil' [sic] Daly, the gambler."
Surprisingly, the firm's president, L. R. Kaufman, did not seek the help of a professional architect. Instead, he personally remodeled the facade with striking results. What had been a modified Victorian rowhouse was now what pretended to be a glorious French Gothic mansion; its yawning, deep-set entrance recalling a 15th century gatehouse.
Carved crockets adorned the entrance arch, a faux balcony introduced the second floor with grouped, stained glass windows, and a series of pointed Gothic arches--including two blind arches at their end--finished the top floor. Inside Kaufman attempted to retain a domestic environment in which to display the firm's furniture, artwork and bric-a-brac. The New York Herald said he had finished the walls in "rough old terra cotta plaster with marble terrazzo floors in black and white squares. The general effect is the production of old Italian walls in warm colors."
A new staircase lead to the main showroom on the second floor. Leaded windows similar to those in the front opened onto the rear garden, "which is to be finished with a terrace and loggia with playing fountains,"
|The New York Herald, July 24, 1921 (copyright expired)
Leeds, Inc. operated from the lower two floors. The third floor was leased to Louise & Annette, Inc., a millinery shop; and the upper apartment where Charlotte E. Van Smith had lived was sublet to
Mrs. Wendell Phillips.
Mrs. Phillips would be forced to perform an unpleasant task later that year. She was the president of the Carry-On Association which operated the Carry-On Club for disabled soldiers on Madison Avenue. Clubs for military men who had returned from the war were common and rarely prompted anything but favorable press.
But in September 1921 seven men complained to the courts that they had been ousted from the club and asked to be reinstated. A journalist from The New York Herald visited No. 12 East 54th Street, but on October 1 reported "Mrs. Phillips refused to discuss the matter other than to say the men ejected were considered 'disturbing elements.'"
In the fall of 1927 the esteemed Kleinberger Galleries moved from 725 Fifth Avenue to the former Leeds, Inc. showrooms. Kleinberger routinely dealt in Old Masters and catered to the country's wealthiest and best informed collectors. Just before leaving its former location, the gallery exhibited a modern piece--an oil portrait of American hero Charles A. Lindbergh.
The New York Times reported "The portrait is the work of M. A. Rasko, a New York artist who went to Mitchel Field and sketched Lindbergh on the day before his take-off. The aviator was shy at first, thinking Mr. Rasko had gone there to photograph him. Finally he relented and allowed the artist 'five minutes.' Mr. Rasko stayed forty-five minutes and completed his sketch."
Now at No. 12, Francis Kleinberger returned to more familiar territory. In January 1928, for instance, he was asked to settle a dispute when London art critics declared that "The Lute Player" by Vermeer in the collection of Philadelphia attorney John G. Johnson was a forgery. The controversy arose when an identical picture appeared in the Royal Academy's Winter Show in London, on loan from the collection of the late Lord Iveagh.
Kleinberger emphatically defended Johnson's as the original. "I am positive that the painting is a genuine work by Vermeer," he said. As for Lord Iveagh's painting, he withheld an opinion until he had the opportunity to examine it.
Later that year, in November, the gallery held an exhibition of paintings by early German masters, including Hans Holbein's portrait of King Edward VI of England as a boy. The show was to benefit the American Red Cross.
Kleinberger Galleries remained in the building at least through 1935. By the early 1940s it had been converted to a Swedish restaurant, the Three Crowns. It was operated by John Perrson and Bror Munson who had run the Sweish Pavilion at the World's Fair. Robert W. Dana in his 1948 Where to Eat in New York said "It has a beautiful dining room and bar, not too large, but nicely proportioned." The successful eatery operated into the early 1960s.
|postcard from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries
|photo via The Skyscraper Center