Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Fred R. Hamlin House - 305 West 71st Street

Period photographs show the doorway, above a shallow stoop at the right, a centered window, and the service entrance to the left, where the present doorway is located.
In 1896 the husband-and-wife team of Carline and Luther F. Hartwell completed a handsome row of seven rowhouses on the north side of West 71st Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.  Designed by Frederick Friend, they stretched from No. 305 through No. 317.

The eastern most house, No. 305, was leased to Robert Appleton, a member of D. Appleton & Company, publishers.  The well-known businessman was also a member of the New York Athletic and the University Clubs, and the Yale Alumni Association.

In April 1903 real estate operator James O'Brien purchased the house and waited for the Appleton lease to expire.  As with most other moneyed families, the Appletons left the city that summer.  While most left one or two servants behind to guard their properties, No. 305 was left unoccupied.  It proved to be a tempting target for mischievous youths.

Nine-year old Herbert Shannon lived across the street and one afternoon he and three friends, two of them also 9-years-old and the other 8-years-old, climbed over the basement gate, forced open the door "and then scampered through the house," as reported by The New York Times on August 29.  Had the intruders been professional adults, they would have made a haul; the newspaper noting "there were plenty of valuable things which could have been carried off."  But there was only one item that caught the boys' attention.

"That was a miniature railroad, consisting of trains of cars, stations, tracks, locomotives, &c., and complete in every detail.  This was all that was removed."  Having made off with the toy train set, the boys did not cover their tracks very well.   A foot patrolman later noticed the basement door open and a detective was put on the case.  The four boys were arrested, charged with burglary and locked up.

When the Appleton family returned to the city, they would have to start looking for a new home.  And they did not look far--moving into the house next door at No. 307.  Surprisingly, James O'Brien demolished the eight-year-old house they had called home and began construction of a replacement in January 1904.

The structure was completed before the summer's end.  Designed by George Keister,  it was a blend of Renaissance Revival and Beaux Arts styles, arguably no more attractive or upscale than the house it replaced.  Designed on the American basement plan, the entrance was a few steps above the sidewalk within a limestone-faced base.  Three charming Juliette balconies which perched above a stone cornice fronted French windows.  Ambitious stone pediments above the third story openings were decorated with palm-flanked cartouches and lions' heads.  The Flemish-bond brickwork of the second and third floors gave way to a rusticated pattern at the fourth.  A deeply-overhanging metal cornice finished the design.

Early in August O'Brien sold the 25-foot wide house to Fredrick R. Hamlin, who was better known as Fred.  It had already been a momentous year for the theatrical producer.  Hamlin was born into the industry, the son of John A. Hamlin, manager of Chicago's Grand Opera House.   Only five years before buying the new house, he began his own theatrical career.

His first production, Arizona, was a success.  But nothing could prepare him for the sensation caused by his 1902 staging of The Wizard of Oz.   It was followed by another blockbuster, Babes in Toyland (which was still in production in 1904).  The two triumphs resulted in his partnering with Lew Fields and Julian Mitchell to form Hamlin, Mitchell & Fields.

The Wizard of Oz was a monumental success for Hamlin.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
By the spring of 1904 it must have seemed to Hamlin that his life could not get better.  On April 16 he purchased a summer home in Bellport, Long Island, and two days later he married Mary Burton Cadow, of Chicago.  Now the newlyweds had a fashionable townhouse as well.

Tragically, Hamlin's seemingly perfect life was about to end.  He came down with the grip (influenza) in October.  Although he seemed to have essentially recovered, he was left with a nagging cough.  On the advice of his doctor he and Mary traveled to Virginia Hot Springs at the beginning of November, where he appeared to have improved.  They came back to New York on November 23.

Suddenly Hamlin was attacked with severe stomach pains.  Doctors could find nothing wrong and told Mary he was simply run down.  Then, on Saturday night, November 26 his nose began bleeding, and was not stopped until the following day.  The New York Times reported on Monday, "Physicians were in constant attendance, and had assembled for a consultation in the evening, when Mr. Hamlin became suddenly delirious, and twenty minutes later died."

Hamlin's estate was appraised at more than $4 million by today's standards.  The whirlwind schedule of a marriage and purchase of two properties had not distracted him from making his will.  Mary received one-third of his estate, which was managed by his attorney brother, Herbert W. Hamlin.

Mary was not satisfied and sued the estate for the ownership of the two houses.  In court papers her lawyers claimed "Before the purchase, and during the progress of his negotiations for the purchase, he frequently declared to various persons that he intended to give the properties to his wife, and that he so intended to give them as a wedding present."  The battle dragged on into 1911; but Mary (by then remarried) was unsuccessful.

In the meantime Herbert Hamlin leased No. 305 to moneyed families.  John Stoddard lived here in 1912 when he and two partners incorporated the Eastern Coal & Coke Company.  In 1916 Sophie Louise Stebbins signed a lease; and in 1918 P. V. Giroux, a partner in the Gerrard Wire Typing Machines Co. lived here.

Still owned by the Hamlin estate, No. 305 was being operated as a rooming house in the Depression years.  Among the roomers was 26-year old Richard Nicolai Belling.  One of eight generations of acrobats, the family's long tradition of world-wide travel caused him frustrating troubles in 1932.

Belling's grandfather was born and lived in Philadelphia; but the family was in Paris when Belling's father was born.  Belling's siblings were born in various locations.  He explained to a reporter "Bob was born in Chia, Siberia; Tom was born in Manila; I was born in Hungary; Maude was born in Copenhagen."

Immediately upon Belling's birth his father went to the United States Consul and registered him as a U.S. citizen.  When he was 14-years old, according to Belling, "I came to the United States in 1920 with father and was admitted as an American."  But in 1929 he applied for a passport and was now told he was a Chinese citizen.  Customs officials contended that while his grandfather had the right to "hand down" his citizenship, because he lived in the U.S., his father could not do so.  Despite being an American citizen by birth, he had been born outside of the country.  A 1926 Customs decision held that "children of American citizens who have never resided in the United States are not American citizens.

So Belling went to the Chinese Consulate.  He was denied a passport because he had been registered as an American citizen in 1906, so he was therefore not a Chinese subject.  He thought he had the solution when he made out an application for U.S. citizenship, noting "I renounce my allegiance to the Republic of China."  It was rejected.  The clerk told him, "You can't do that because Chinese are not admitted to citizenship in the United States."  

So Richard Nicolai Belling was left without a country, and unable to travel.  The New York Times quoted him on February 4, 1932:  "I'm not an American, they tell me.  Well, then, I'm a Chinese and have no legal right to be here.  I can't become an American.  I can't get the money to fight this out in Supreme Court and, besides, there's a decision as precedent against me.  What can I do.?"  (Happily, The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and Belling later received his citizenship and social security card.)

Another roomer, William T. Jobe, had other problems.  The 29-year old was arrested on November 8, 1934 for burglary and suspicion of a separate armed robbery.  The Times reported he was charged with "burglary in the theft Wednesday night of $900 worth of jewelry and clothing from the apartment of Jene Carroll in the Hotel New Weston, Forty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue."  On the same night a Los Angeles manufacturer and his wife were held up in the same hotel and robbed of jewelry valued at $2,500.

On November 26, 1936 Herbert Hamlin announced that he had leased the house for five years.  "The lessee intends to remodel the house into one and two-room apartments," reported The Times.  The renovations, however, appear to have fallen short.  In 1937 the building received a "multiple dwelling violation" from the Department of Buildings.  It may have resulted in the lease being cancelled.  On October 17, 1938 Herbert Hamlin leased the house, "containing eighteen small apartments," to Carroll Woolf.

Woolf made further renovations, which resulted in 1940 in a caretaker's room and two furnished rooms on the first floor, two apartments on the second, three furnished rooms on the third, and six more on the fourth.  It was possibly at this time that the entrance was moved from the right to the left of the ground floor and given an unconvincing neo-Georgian doorway.  

According to the current owner, John Birge, the house was purchased "in the early 1960s by a preservationist named Freedom Ainsworth.  There is little information on the ‘net about him except that he was an engineer and is credited with some industrial inventions."  His conversion, completed in 1966, resulted in one apartment on the ground floor and two each above.  Birge added "Mr. Ainsworth replaced the interior staircase with a steel set and installed new beams so that the house has no interior load bearing walls…unusual for a house of this width."

Much of the 1904 detailing survives in the dining room.  photo via blocksy.com
In 1996, following Miriam and Jon Birge's purchase of the house, a ten-year renovation was begun.  An owner's duplex was created on the second and third floors.   Among their renovations was the replacement of windows, some of which were original to the structure, but, as Birge explains, "could not be restored."

The Birges plan addition work in 2019 which will include "restoring the cornice, [and] rebuilding the irreplaceable windows on the second floor."

photographs by the author


  1. The Neo-Georgian entrance was already present in 1989 when the house was included in the West 71st Street Historic District (see the description and the accompanying photograph on the building in the designation report for the district). So the later renovation by Miriam and Jon Birge could not have been responsible for this alteration.

  2. Tax photo c. 1940: http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/s/7bn93f

    1. See also http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/s/b8vz5n