Friday, January 25, 2019

The 1866 Benjamin F. Isherwood House - 111 East 36th Street

The entrance, now floating above what was once the basement door, originally wore an arched pediment; removed for an air conditioner.
Around 1866 developer Jacob Voorhies, Jr. completed construction of the impressive brownstone residence at No. 111 East 36th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues.   Molded window surrounds, an ornate cast metal cornice, and the arched, double-doored entrance were all elements of an upscale Italianate-style residence.  At 25-feet wide and four stories tall above a high English basement, it was intended for a well-to-do family.

Instead, however, Voorhies sold the house to Louisa F. Rostan, who styled herself Mademoiselle Rostan.  At the time she operated her Mlle. Rostan's Young Ladies' School on 25th Street.  After a few months, No. 111 was ready to receive students.  On October 10, 1867 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune:

Mlle. Rostan's select French and English Protestant School, No. 111 East Thirty-sixth-st., will be reopened on TUESDAY, the 24th of September next.  The course of instruction is thorough and systematic, and designed to combine a finished English education with the practical knowledge of the French and other modern languages.  Superior advantages are also offered in music, drawing and painting and all the classes are under the care of accomplished professors and teachers.  A very limited number of young ladies are received in the family and welcomed to share in all the comforts and privileges of a pleasant home.

As the advertisement mentioned, a few of the out-of-town girls lived in the house with Louisa and her husband.  All of the students were groomed for future lives in polite society.  Fluency in French, for instance, was indispensable for girls who would spend weeks abroad nearly every year.  They also learned the intricacies of Victorian deportment.

On March 28, 1868 Harper's Weekly reported on one daily ritual the girls would follow, the "morning walk."  Among the schools which had taken up the "pleasing custom," it said, was "the fashionable and well-known school of...Mlle. Rostan."  "These walks are usually taken every morning, and are sometimes repeated in the evening."  While the article described the walks as exercise, they were also a means by which the young ladies learned the rules of the promenade, when and how to greet other strollers, how to rebuff familiarity from someone unknown, and such.

Under the watchful eye of an instructor, girls take their morning walk.  Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1868 (copyright expired)

The end of each school season was capped by a ceremony to demonstrate what the students had learned over the past months.  On June 18, 1870 The New York Times reported "The parlors of Mlle. Rostan's Young Ladies' School, at No. 111 East Thirty-sixth-street, near Fourth-avenue, were filled by a very select attendance last evening, on the occasion of the closing exercises of the fair pupils, previous to the Summer vacation."   There were poetry and other readings, and "an interesting conversational exercise" to demonstrate fluency in French.  The ceremony, said the article "what with the fine vocal and instrumental music, the display of fragrant flowers and of pretty faces, was made to pass off in an enjoyable manner."

On January 3, 1872 Louisa Rostan sold No. 111 to Eliza Green for $50,000--just over $1 million today.  Four months later Louisa announced the opening of the school's new location, 20 blocks north on West 52nd Street, near Fifth Avenue.

Eliza Hicks Green had earlier been married to Dr. Benjamin Isherwood.  Their son, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, was born on October 6, 1822.  His father died while he was still an infant.  Eliza remarried a civil engineer, John Green, whose profession may have influenced the life of Benjamin.  When the young man entered the United States Navy in 1844 he, too, was an accomplished engineer.

Eliza was once again a widow when she moved into No. 111.   It was almost assuredly her son who provided the money for the house.  In an 1863 letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Edward N. Dickerson noted that Isherwood "was the son of a widow named Eliza Green, who had been left in poverty, and had been supported by him."

That same year Benjamin Isherwood had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to the post of Engineer-in-Chief of the United States Navy.   It was Isherwood who developed the Navy's Bureau of Steam Engineering.  Under his direction the fleet of steam vessels increased to 600 during the Civil War.

In 1872 Isherwood, by now a rear admiral, moved his wife and five children into the 36th Street house with his mother (it was most likely always the plan).   It was most likely no coincidence that Admiral David Farrugat's home was next door.

In his 1965 Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, Naval Engineer, biographer Edward William Sloan, III described the house: "Solid mahogany and sterling silver fixtures were everywhere, even in Isherwood's private bathroom, where stood a huge copper bathtub, reputed to be one of the first installed in a private home in New York city."  Isherwood furnished the house with Second Empire style pieces brought from France.  According to engineer Frank W. Bennett in his 1897 The Steam Navy of the United States, Isherwood hired foreign-born artisans to decorate the rooms with frescoes, one of which depicted Pompeii.

Benjamin Franklin Isherwood from the collection of the National Archives.

In 1880 the title to No. 111 was transferred to Isherwood's name.  His children were now young adults.  Christina was the victim of a terrifying attack when she left the house on January 11, 1883 to attend a luncheon party with her cousin, "Miss Carpenter," at a friend's house on 57th Street.   They intended to take the Park Avenue streetcar, the tracks of which  ran below street level, passing through a tunnel.

Passengers descended a flight of steps to hail the Park Avenue streetcar.  photograph by Langhill & Bodfish, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The young women waited on the street until Miss Carpenter thought she heard the streetcar's bell and rushed down the steps ahead of Christina to signal the driver to stop.  As she did so, she passed "a tall man with sandy whiskers on the stairs, and a moment later heard Miss Isherwood cry out," according to The Sun.  The man had snatched Christina's handbag.  "Miss Isherwood, who is small, but courageous, resisted his attack, and he flung her upon the stone landing which interrupts the winding way.  He wretched the purse from her hand and ran up into the street with it."

The intrepid young woman rose to her feet and she and her cousin rushed after him, crying "Stop thief!"  A posse of pedestrians joined in the pursuit but lost sight of him around Third Avenue and 36th Street.  Nevertheless, the women gave clear descriptions to detectives.

In Christina's purse, which had cost her $17, contained a $20 gold coin, $6 in other currency, and a pair of opal and diamond earrings..  The Sun added "Her velvet gown was ruined by her struggle with the highwayman and her fall."  The article added that the description "has been recognized as that of a man who has for some weeks past been loitering around the tunnel and the houses in that neighborhood...Murray Hill is excited over the rather poor prospect of his capture."

But 52-year old William Barlow was shortly arrested.  Described by The New York Times on February 12, as "a broken-down English thief," a pickpocket and a tramp, he admitted to stealing the purse.  He had spent the money and pawned the earrings.  Although they were worth $50, he sold the pawn ticket to a barkeeper in a Chrystie Street saloon for $1.  The jewelry was tracked down in a pawn shop and identified by Christina, "who was delighted to see her property again."

In court on February 19, Barlow told the judge he committed the crime because he was out of work and had been without food or a home for days.  Judge Cowing was not moved.  "Your crime was a most serious one," he said.  "Young ladies who appear in our streets in broad daylight must be protected by the law."  He sentenced Barlow to 12 years and 6 months in the state prison.

Like the women in Louisa Rostan's school, Christina was a student of music.  In March 1899 she attended a performance of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine.  Also in the audience was The New York Times music critic, who was not impressed.  Following his unfavorable review, Christina fired off a letter to the editor.  She started off saying "Permit me to add one more protest against The Times's criticism of 'L'Africaine.'  Your critic must have left his thinking cap off when he penned that criticism."  Her own detailed and educated evaluation, several paragraphs long, followed.  She ended saying "Pardon my trespassing upon your time, but as one deeply interested in music and as a student of it since childhood, I cannot listen in silence when so fine a work as 'L'Africaine' is ridiculed."

Christina and her sister, Eliza, were both still unmarried and living with their aging father in 1907.  He transferred title to the house to them as "joint tenants" on October 7.  The transaction was listed on the documents as a "gift."

On June 19, 1915 Rear Admiral Benjamin F. Isherwood died on the 36th Street house at the age of 92.  The New York Times mentioned at the time "The steam engineering and construction building at Annapolis was named Isherwood Hall after him and bears a bronze statue to him, testifying of his services to his country."

By now Christina was living alone in the house.  She may have taken in a companion before long, however.  On February 17, 1919 The New York Times reported on the death of Jane Marsh Morehouse, noting "Funeral services from the house of her friend, Miss Isherwood, 111 East 36th St, Tuesday, February 18, 12 o'clock."

Christina was looking for a servant for both the city and country houses two years later.  Her ad on July 10, 1921 read "Chambermaid-waitress wanted, competent, for country."

Following her marriage to Carsten Boe, Christina leased No. 111.  It was home to George Eddy Donovan in 1926.  A graduate of the University of Dayton, he became engaged to Alice Augusta Roeth in December that year.

Ernest R. Shaw, a representative of the New York Air Terminals, Inc. was leasing the house in 1931.  The firm had acquired property at North Beach, Queens, for its "flying field."  That facility would later grow into LaGuardia Airport.

After having lived in the house several years, Ernest R. Shaw purchased it in September 1933 for precisely $75,587--an odd sum equal to about $1.43 million today.  It appears to have been a bad decision.   The following year, in October, the bank foreclosed and took possession of the property.

The Central Savings Bank initially leased the house.  By the early 1950's it had become home to inventor Willoughby Francis Hill and his wife, the former Lillian F. Dahl.  Hill's best known invention was the Lily cup--the pleated paper cup found at almost every drinking fountain and water cooler in America.

Hill explained that the concept came to him while he was an engineering student at Columbia University.  While in Central Park he stopped by a drinking fountain where a tin cup hung from a chain for the many users.  It struck the young man as being intolerably unsanitary.

Lab tests on the cup found it "dangerously contaminated."  Eventually Hill dropped out of college to focus on inventing a disposable cup and the machinery to manufacture it.  He went on to invent other paper items, like the frills placed on the ends of pork chops.

On May 9, 1954 the 60-year old suffered a fatal heart attack in the house.  Exactly how long Lillian remained in the house is unclear, but it was sold in July 1961 to Edith Harwood who immediately announced plans to alter it.  The renovation, completed the following year, resulted in two apartments per floor.

The stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the former basement level.  Oddly enough, the original entrance was left intact, hovering above the new doorway.  Although the carved surrounds of the windows were left untouched, the sills and their brackets were shaved flat.  Worse than breaking through the brownstone to accommodate room air conditions was the destruction of the pediment over the old entrance for the same purpose.

Despite the architectural vandalism, the house where well-heeled young ladies learned the fine arts of Victorian decorum and, later, a major figure in American military history once lived, still retains its 19th century dignity.

photographs by the author

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