In the 18th century summer estates of wealthy New Yorkers like Richard Riker, Archibald Gracie and Peter Schermerhorn dotted the Upper East Side. But the 19th century saw factories being erected near the riverfront and wooden cottages appearing on newly laid out streets. In 1826 the New York Evening Post remarked about the district which would later be named Yorkville. “Twelve months ago here were not more than two or three buildings on the barren rock, where there are now upwards of sixty, some of them built in a good substantial manner.”
Although still far from the city proper, the houses were being erected along the Commissioners' street plan mapped out in 1811. At some point--historians give the dates of 1855 to 1861--a comfortable frame home was erected on East 85th Street between what would be First and York Avenues.
Generally called "vernacular" in style--meaning a carpenter-builder had drawn the plans with no particular architectural style in mind--the three-bay wide house nevertheless exhibits elements of the current Italianate style in its elliptical arched openings under floating lintels and the deep-bracketed cornice.
As with similar houses in the mostly rural district there was a small front garden. A stoop led to the parlor floor where the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows welcomed cooling breezes during warm summer months.
In the years before the house was constructed Yorkville saw an increase in population as Irish and German immigrants moved here not only to work in the breweries and factories, but to help build the Croton Aqueduct. An Irish family was living at No. 412 East 85th Street by the late 1860's.
James Coss was born in Ireland in 1840. On March 10, 1870 his wife, Margaret, gave birth to twins. But merely enduring childbirth in the mid-19th century did not guarantee survival for the infants.
At just five months old, little Margaret Coss died in the 85th Street house on July 24. Her tiny casket was placed in the parlor until her funeral two days later.
The house was lost in foreclosure in June 1875 and purchased at auction by Martin Clear and his wife, Annie. Clear's commute to his poultry business downtown was not as difficult as might be imagined. Streetcars ran along Second and Third Avenues starting in 1858; and the Third Avenue elevated railroad would open in 1878.
Martin and Annie seem to have been financially comfortable. In 1878, for instance, the Department of Public Charities and Corrections accepted his bid to provide 13,650 pounds of poultry to its various institutions.
The Clears rented a room in 1879 to the unmarried Denie D. Matthews, a school teacher in the Girls' Department of Grammar School No. 37 on East 87th Street.
In 1880 Martin transferred the title to his wife. The same year he enlarged the house by extending the basement forward. It now provided a commodious front porch--no doubt a frequent refuge on warm summer evenings. Simultaneously a third floor was added to the rear extension. The architect was Julius Boekell who was responsible for scores of buildings but is largely forgotten today. The renovations cost Clear a significant $6,000--about $148,000 today.
Following Martin's death, Annie E. Clear sold No. 412 on January 15, 1896 to Johanna Seebeck. Seebeck, a real estate operator, paid the equivalent of $295,000 in today's money. She sold it on May 2, 1901 to Marie Steindler and Elias Gussaroff. They, too, were in the real estate business and before long would partner as Gussaroff & Steindler.
As Johanna Seebeck had done, the new owners leased the house. In 1908 it was home to Joseph Rosenberg, who was appointed a Commissioner of Deeds that year.
But before 1915 the family of John Herbst was living here and would remain for decades. Herbst was well-known as a maker of granite and marble monuments. He had started out as a partner with Otto Schaefer in Herbst & Schaefer "a monumental firm at 41 East Forty-fifth street," as described in Stone magazine in July 1901. But theirs became a rocky alliance, ending that summer with Otto Schaefer filing suit "against John Herbst for a dissolution of the firm."
Herbst forged ahead, forming Herbst's Marble & Granite Works. While his stone yard was located at No. 440 East 92nd Street, he kept an office in the 85th Street house. And used the front yard as a showroom.
|Gravestones fill the front yard around 1916. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Like the Clears, the Herbsts rented a room in the house for several years. Margaret Glynn lived here at least from 1919 through 1921, receiving a widow's pension from the New York Police Department of $300 per year.
|By the time this photograph was taken in 1932 the firm name had been changed. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The Herbst family remained in the house until 1966. That year the newly-formed Landmarks Preservation Commission placed the house on its list of structures to be considered for landmark designation.
In the meantime, the new owners went ahead with minor interior renovations, installing an apartment on the third floor. With no landmark designation, the historic house got a stroke of good fortune when it was later purchased by Catherine and Alfredo De Vido.
The couple restored the house based on early documentation; a project that was aided by the fact that De Vido was an architect. The porch was rebuilt and the clapboards replaced. While De Vido relied on help from the LPC for early documentation, he was not altogether disappointed that the house was not landmarked. The New York Times columnist Matt A. V. Chaban noted on December 8, 2014, "there were some benefits to not having official oversight, such as when he installed simple two-pane windows that were lacking the original arches, as well as wider clapboards."
In December 2016, exactly half a century after No. 412 East 85th Street first appeared on the LPC's consideration list, it was declared a landmark, insuring its continued preservation.
photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Holly Tooker for suggesting this post