Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Hermann A. Flurscheim House - 131 West 77th Street

In 1887 partners William C. G. Wilson and James Tichborne began construction on a row of five 20-foot wide residences on West 77th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.  Their architect, William K. Benedict, has been largely forgotten today; but he would go on to design hotels and high-end homes, many of them out of town.

Benedict used a visually-pleasing combination of brownstone and red brick.  The Romanesque Revival style basement and parlor levels were clad in chunky, undressed blocks.  The brick upper levels were Queen Anne, with a splash of English Renaissance.  No. 131 was the centerpiece of the balanced A-B-C-B-A designed row.

The second and third floor openings were framed in brownstone quoins.  The three windows of the second floor upheld two on the third--separated by handsomely-carved panels.  To compensate for the missing center window, Benedict installed another carved stone panel.  The arched openings were joined by crisp, projecting stone eyebrows.  Benedict's English-inspired treatment of  fourth floor culminated in an unusual pressed metal parapet.

The row was completed late in 1888 and on February 26, 1889 Wilson & Tischborne sold No. 131 to Robert and Olga J. C. Soltan.   Robert was a "prosperous importing merchant," as described by The New York Times, with offices at No. 15 Cedar Street.  The Soltans were well-known among in the German social circles, and Robert was a member of the Liederkranz, the German singing society founded in 1847.

Like all well-to-do New Yorkers, the Soltans spent the warm months at fashionable resorts, like Newport or Long Beach, New Jersey.  They were among the 800 or so guests at the Long Beach Hotel's ball on the evening of August 5, 1891.  (The following day The New York Times remarked "There were some very handsome costumes noticeable.")

Many wealthy businessmen visited their families in their summer homes only on the weekends or for occasional extended stays.  Olga and the children were summering in the Long Beach Hotel in 1892 while Robert remained in New York.  His brother, Ernest, was in town from Hamburg, Germany.

Robert had to go to Chicago on business, and offered to take Ernest with him, showing him Niagara Falls on the way.  He send a letter to Olga explaining the plans.  But after he was able to conduct the business through telegraph, the trip was canceled.  Now he and his brother. Ernest, decided to take a small "naptha launch" from the Columbia Yacht Club on 86th Street and the Hudson River, to Long Beach, "intending to give his wife and children a surprise," according to a newspaper.

The Bob, the naptha-powered motor launch, would have been similar to this one.  Katalog fran Escher Wyss, ca. 1900 (copyright expired)
They men started off in the launch the Bob on Tuesday morning, July 17.  But they never arrived.  The following day the Bob was discovered bottom-up on a shoal near Long Beach.  The New York Times reported "articles of clothing and a valise known to belong to Robert Soltan were found in the locker."  There were no signs of the brothers.

On June 22 The Times noted "His wife is in a critical condition from grief and shock."   The bodies were never recovered, and the newspaper reported that "it is the general opinion among old bay men that the high winds carried them out to sea."

Olga and the children remained at No. 131 for a few years.  She sold it in February 1895 to Mrs. Margaret Kennedy for $35,000, or just over $1 million today.  The Kennedys would be victims of crime before the year was out.

William K. Benedict produced a handsome, balanced row of upscale homes.
Twentieth Century magazine lamented on the increased number of "murders, highway robberies and burglaries" which it deemed "a pretty good indication as to whither we are drifting."  Among nearly a dozen crimes--murders, attempted murders, suicides and robberies--on single day, November 22, it listed was the burglary of No. 131 West 77th Street.

In March 1902 Margaret Kennedy sold the house to Hermann A. Flurscheim for $32,250 taking a slight loss in the deal.

Flurscheim had arrived in New York City with his parents from Germany at the age of 15 in 1866.  He married San Francisco native Isabella (known as Bella) Goldsmith in 1876.  The couple would have five children--Estelle, Helen, Agnes, Harry and Bernard.

In 1884 he became associated with Stern Brothers department store, where his retail acumen was first displayed.  As the firm's foreign representative he was one of the founders of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris.

The delicate carving of the keystone, including a wafting ribbon, defies the nature of the otherwise rugged Romanesque Revival parlor level.
Flurscheim's purchased of the West 77th Street house was necessitated by a career move.  He had brought his family back to New York from Paris the year earlier, resigned from Stern Brothers, and founded the competing Franklin Simon & Co. with his partner Franklin Simon.   The Times would later credit him with being "among the first to establish buying headquarters for American firms in European cities: and as "one of the first New York merchants to foresee the future of Fifth Avenue as a retail business street."

The 77th Street house was filled with masterful artworks.  While living in Paris Flurscheim had not only collected art, but had served on the jury of awards at the salon of the Paris Exhibition of 1900.  The Dry Goods Economist said that he had "formed a valuable collection of paintings which are now in his New York home."

In the spring of 1910 focus turned to things social as Estelle's wedding was planned.  She was married to Otto Loeb in the fashionable St. Regis Hotel on the evening of April 11.  The Times reported that "following the ceremony there was a dinner in the marble ballroom, which was decorated with Bride's roses and lilacs."  The newlyweds set off for a six-month trip to Europe.

Not every mother interrupts her newly-married daughter's honeymoon; but before long Bella arrived in France.  Then tragedy struck.  On July 7, 1910 the New-York Tribune reported "Cable dispatches received in this city on Tuesday announced the death on Monday in Paris, France, at the Hotel Carlton, of Mrs. Isabella Flurscheim, wife of H. A. Flurscheim, of No. 131 West 77th street."

Herman and his unmarried children remained at No. 131, attended to by their domestic staff.  Helen would be the first to leave.  On October 20, 1912 The Sun reported "H. A. Flurscheim...has announced the engagement of his daughter, Miss Helen Flurscheim to Ansel Straus of Boston."

The following year the New-York Tribune reported "The wedding of Miss Agnes Flurscheim, daughter of H. A. Flurscheim, of No. 131 West 77th street, to Harry G. Cowen will take place on Tuesday, October 21 at the St. Regis Hotel."

The 63-year old Hermann A. Flurscheim died on August 18, 1914 "of a complication of diseases at his home," as reported in the Dry Goods Economist.  The New York Times described him as a "pioneer dry goods merchant and art collector."  The Evening World added "He was deeply interested in art and had a fine collection."

Flurscheim, who had owned a 50 percent interest in Franklin Simon & Co., left an estate valued at "more than $1,000,000."    It was, for the most part, divided among the children and Hermann's one grandchild.  But a codicil in the will may have raised a few eyebrows among society.  Mme. Bertrand De Lyteull of Paris, France, received $50,000 outright and $1,000 monthly income for life.  The bulk sum would be equal to more than $1.25 million today, and the monthly payments about $25,300.  Reporters who asked Flurscheim's lawyers about the bequest were told simply that Mme. De Lyteuil "was a friend."

The will directed that No. 131 West 77th Street "be turned over to the use of the unmarried daughters Helen I. and Agnes V., and shall be at their disposal while they remain single."  The rub was, as noted by the New-York Tribune on September 25, "They have married since the making of the will."

The house, therefore, was temporarily leased by the estate to Charles W. Hart and his wife, Sarah.  By 1917 they owned it outright, and around 1919 the Harts leased it to Florence M. Overton.  She used the house for her boarding school, although she preferred not to use that term.

Florence had been the dean of the Brenau School of Expression and Dramatic Art in Georgia for 19 years.  Now she struck out on her own.  In November 1919 The Anchora of Delta Gamma reported that Florence had a "very unique plan of caring for young women who desire the advantages of New York and yet who are mature enough not to need the restrictions of a boarding school.  Courses in contemporary English, Conversational French, Art History, Grand Opera, etc., are offered."

The bulletin described No. 131 West 77th Street as "a spacious stone and brick structure with magnificent parlors, airy bedrooms, and the atmosphere of your own cultured home.  Social advantages, sight seeing, theaters, etc., are attractions."

The early 1920's saw the once elegant residence being operated as a rooming house.  In 1921 23-year old John McGuigan was renting a room here, while working as a bellhop at the Hotel Chatham.  Also working there was a "telephone girl," Marie C. Walsh.  The beautiful Marie became the object of John's affections.

According to The Evening World a year later, "Between hops Johnny basked in the sunshine of the telephone operator's smiles and finally they were 'keeping company,' she accepting his invitations for little outings on their evenings off."  But then Marie's fickle affections cooled and she asked for a transfer to the Hotel Majestic "to get rid of his attentions."

In an effort to be nearer to the girl he still loved, John managed to get a job at a nearby hotel, the Lucerne.  He repeatedly annoyed Marie at her job, and threatened to commit suicide if she did not come back to him.  That prompted Marie to go to the police.  At the West 68th Street Police Station he was ordered to keep away from the girl.  "He said, in sorrow, that he would if he could," wrote The Evening World.

"But he couldn't."

He continued to haunt the Majestic Hotel, which caused his being fired from the Lucerne.  Then, on the night of May 16, 1922 Marie had to work late, not leaving her switchboard at the Hotel Majestic until 11:00.  She was frightened upon walking out of the building when she saw her stalker sitting across the street.  She tried to make it home without having to face him, but he caught up with her at the top of the stoop of her rooming house.

McGuigan professed his love, again threatened suicide, and physically restrained her.  In court on May 23 she testified "He grabbed me around the neck and hugged and choked me.  With my disengaged hand I pressed the bell while I struggled with him.  Robert Peterson came to the door and told Johnny to let go, but he said he wouldn't that I was his."

Peterson responded by sending McGuigan tumbling down the stone steps.  The following day Marie filed for his arrest.  Amazingly, by today's viewpoint, McGuigan received no punishment for his stalking and abuse.  In reporting the case The Evening World took a rather cavalier attitude.  "Then came the warning form the bench and the parole and Miss Walsh left the courtroom wondering what will happen next."

A colorful roomer at No. 131 in the early 1930's was actor Edward La Roche.  The stage and motion picture actor had at one point spent seven years in the French Foreign Legion during which time he won two decorations for bravery.

La Roche's roles were always incidental characters.  In the 1923-1924 stage production of The Lady he played The Loafer, and in the 1932 Foreign Affairs he was the Waiter.  His last Broadway part was Second Beard in the 1932-1933 production of Twentieth Century (another cast member of which was William Frawley).

But the aging actor was struggling.  In November 1935 he worked for three days in a Warner Brothers short film, earning $70 (about $1,250 today).  But the spotty work was not enough to keep him afloat financially.  When he was found dead in his room a few weeks later, on December 26, The New York Times noted that he "had recently been on relief."

Although the house was not yet officially converted to apartments, sprinklers were added in 1937.  It would not be until 1970 that a renovation would result in four units.  An extension into the rear yard allowed for an eight-room, 3,200 square foot owners' duplex in the former basement and parlor levels.

photographs by the author

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