Tuesday, December 25, 2018
The 1897 Gertrude Wallach Borg House - 334 West 77th Street
Prolific architect Clarence Fagan True was responsible for scores of structures Upper West Side, many of them constructed by his own development firm, the Riverside Building Company. In 1896 he began construction of a row of six Elizabethan Renaissance Revival style homes which wrapped the corner of West 77th Street and Riverside Drive.
Anchoring the three 77th Street residences was No. 334. Completed in 1897, it was faced in beige Roman brick and trimmed in limestone. Like the preponderance of Fagan's residences, it was designed on the American basement plan (meaning there was no stoop). Its bowed facade rose four stories to a stone balustraded balcony which fronted the mansard roof level.
True outlined the upper windows in stone Gibbs surrounds and gave the entrance a full dose of architectural drama. The doorway was recessed below a carved Renaissance-inspired hood, supported in turn by manorial lion-faced brackets.
On July 3, 1897 Leopold Wallach purchased No. 334 for $50,000--just over $1.5 million today. He was one of the trustees of the inheritance of his 20-year old sister, Gertrude. Their father, Samson Wallach, had run the shirt manufacturing firm of H. Wallach's Sons and upon his death in December 1889 The New York Times noted he had "an ample fortune."
Gertrude, one of seven surviving Wallach children, lived with Leopold's family. He and the other trustees of Gertrude's money most likely purchased the imposing residence in anticipation of her upcoming marriage. Almost simultaneously her financé Myron Irving Borg graduated from Yale. The son of Simon Borg, he lived in a the family's impressive mansion at No. 855 Fifth Avenue.
On Wednesday, October 26, 1898 the couple was married in Leopold's home. The bride was still enrolled at Barnard College at the time. Gertrude was, by now, of age and the title of the house was transferred to her name.
The already comfortable financial position of the Borgs was improved in 1899 when Myron was admitted as a full partner in his father's stock brokerage firm, Simon Borg & Co. As the years passed they would have three sons--Myron, Jr., Cecil and John.
The family maintained two Connecticut country residence--in Stamford and in Greenwich. There Gertrude flexed her gardening skills, resulting in her repeatedly winning prizes in the annual exhibitions of the New York Horticultural Society.
Both she and her husband were active in philanthropic causes. Gertrude routinely opened the 77th Street house for meetings and benefit receptions for charities like the Stony Wold Sanitarium (a facility in the Adirondacks for women and children suffering tuberculosis), the Council of Jewish Women, and the National League of Women Workers. She helped found the Women's Auxiliary Board of Mt. Sinai Hospital, was a vice president and director of the Altro Health and Rehabilitation Services, Inc., (a workshop for handicapped adults), and would be named vice-president of Irving House, a shelter for children with cardiac disease.
No less involved was Myron, who was a trustee in the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, a director of the Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews, and was on the advisory committee of the Irvington House for Cardiac Children.
The family was at the Stamford house in the summer of 1907 when a drive ended with a speeding ticket. On July 29 their road car was pulled over and chauffeur Charles W. Stobble fined $20. Newspapers reported that several other drivers were ticketed that day as the Stamford police had lost patience with speeders. The ticket--an astounding $1,350 in today's dollars--was hopefully paid by Borg and not his unfortunate employee.
Near the family's Greenwich home was the sanatorium of Dr. W. H. Wiley. On the windy night of December 28, 1911 the wooden building caught fire. Inside were 20 patients. The wind accelerated the blaze which quickly spread. The staff had no time to wait for fire fighters.
The Richmond, Virginia newspaper, The Times Dispatch, reported "Dr. W. J. Wellington, the house physician, and Mrs. Wiley and the nurses risked their lives time and again in carrying out the men and women patients, many of whom were unable to move."
The winds carried sparks and embers into the night sky. Both the Borg house and the nearby Henry O. Havemeyer mansion caught fire. Luckily for the millionaires, their homes were saved when firefighters arrived on scene. The sanatorium, however, was a complete loss.
Although the enactment of Prohibition outlawed the “manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors," the law allowed private citizens to keep and enjoy "in the privacy of their homes" the wine, beer or spirits which they already had before January 1920. Perhaps Myron had prepared for the coming law, or perhaps he had always kept a well-stocked cellar. In either case, when the sale and manufacturer of alcohol became illegal, his cellar was well-filled with quality wines and liquor.
In March 1920, just over a month after the national enactment of Prohibition, Borg hired three men to do repairs on the damaged brickwork in the basement of the house. On March 22 The Sun reported "They worked for several hours until they discovered the cellar." The workmen summoned a friend who had a wagon. The newspaper continued "while Mr. Borg's family and the servant thought the cracks in the bricks were being filled up the bottles were being taken out to the wagon."
When the basement became suspiciously quiet, a servant went down to check. "All the workmen left were their discarded implements and an old coat." The New-York Tribune reported "Thirty-six bottles of extra fine liquor, said to be worth $1,000 were removed from the cellars of Myron I. Borg, banker, at 334 West Seventy-seventh Street." The loss would equate to more than $12,000 today; but perhaps worse for Borg was that it was now irreplaceable.
Myron, Jr. graduated from Harvard in 1917. His engagement to Josephine Heimendinger was announced on March 13, 1923. The wedding took place in the ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel a week later. John was his brother's best man and Cecil acted as an usher. A reception and dinner for 200 guests followed the ceremony.
The marriage, incidentally, did not last. A few years later Josephine's romantic interest turned to her brother-in-law, Cecil Borg. She and Myron were divorced on August 10, 1931 and exactly two months later Josephine married Cecil. One imagines strained family relationships from then on.
Gertrude sold No. 334 in 1927 and she and Myron moved to No. 270 Park Avenue where Myron died four years later. Gertrude lived until the age of 82. She died in Stamford on August 17, 1958.
In the meantime, the home that she had shared with Myron and their children was altered immediately after its sale. The new owners rented rooms in the once-lavish home, earning them a multiple dwelling violation from the Department of Buildings in 1936.
A renovation in 1966 resulted in a duplex on the first and second floors, and two apartments each on the floors above. Three decades later the duplex grew to a triplex, the fourth floor now had two apartments and the fifth just one.
But despite the upheaval inside, little is changed to the exterior of the handsome house Gertrude Wallach purchased in anticipation of her 1898 wedding.
photographs by the author
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