Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Neville & Bagge's 1916 325 West End Avenue

The Upper West Side embraced the concept of multi-family living early on.  At the turn of the last century scores of brick and brownstone residences, erected only 15 or 20 years earlier, were razed for apartment buildings.   In 1915 the Charmon Construction Company demolished eight rowhouses at the northwest corner of West End Avenue and 75th Street to make way for one more.

Designed by the firm of Neville & Bagge, the 12-story structure, completed in 1916, was essentially Renaissance Revival in design.  The architects splashed an otherwise austere facade with sumptuous terra cotta ornament tinted to match the orange-brown Roman brick.   It structure cost $600,000 to construct, in the neighborhood of $13.8 million today.

The elaborate entrance under a glass and iron marquee featured a terra cotta frame of vases, shields and swags upheld by engaged Doric columns.  Pseudo balconies clung to second floor openings, and ornate panels decorated the third floor beneath a complex terra cotta cornice.

The hue of the terra cotta balconies is an almost exact match to the brick.

The two-story framings and balconettes of the windows at the fourth and fifth as well as the topmost floors were worthy of a doge's palace.   Striking, hefty balconies adorned the ninth floor.  

No. 325 West End Avenue was designed as two connected wings with a light court between.   Each section contained two apartments per floor.  The western wing held one 11-room suite and one 5-five apartment per floor.  The wing fronting West End Avenue had 9 and 7 room apartments on each floor.

Oddly enough a canvas awning extends from beneath the marquee in this 1919 photo.  photo by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Steven Kates, in his 2017 book Family Matters! A Memoir
, recalls some of the details incorporated for the upscale families who would occupy the sprawling spaces.  "Our apartment had two master bedrooms and two servants rooms off the kitchen, in which there was a call board which indicated which 'chamber' was buzzing for assistance (call buttons in the two bedrooms and the living room, with a floor button under the dining room table)."

Structures on the roof, invisible from the street, held the laundry, a servants' bathroom for those chambermaids doing the wash, and three auxiliary servants rooms.

Among the first tenants were Joseph B. Greenhut and his wife, the former Clara Wolfner.  A Gettysburg hero, he retained the title of captain.  In 1902 he purchased the massive Siegel-Cooper department store on Sixth Avenue, and in 1906 he bought Benjamin Altman's emporium directly across the avenue for his Greenhut & Co. drygoods store.  

Greenhut's investments were ill timed, however.  Retailers were abandoning the Ladies' Mile and moving further north.   In 1914 the Siegel-Cooper store failed and the following year Greenhut & Co. closed.  Joseph Greenhut admitted "As one after another big concerns quit and moved away we were left high and dry to fight the fight alone."

Despite the significant losses, the Greenhuts continued their upscale lifestyles.  One of their first entertainments in No. 325 was their golden wedding anniversary.  On October 15, 1916 The Evening Telegram reported on their "informal reception at their house."   The New York Times agreed that it was informal, since no invitations were issued, yet estimated that "About four hundred called to offer congratulations."

Following the reception the Greenhuts' son, Richard, hosted a dinner where the "entire entertainment suite on the second floor of Sherry's was used."  In reporting on the event, The Times reminded readers that the Greenhuts' summer home, Shadow Lawn, in Long Branch, New Jersey was "now occupied by President and Mrs. [Woodrow] Wilson."

Superintendents of high-end apartment buildings held sway over which suppliers of ice and milk, for instance, were admitted.  It was fertile ground for bribes.  And Lucius M. Kimball was not adverse to augmenting his wages by graft.  He found himself defending himself in court, however, on December 5, 1916.

The State had noticed that the price of household milk was inexplicably high compared with the cost of producing it.  An investigative body, the Wilks Committee, discovered that consumers were paying for the kickbacks enjoyed by superintendents.

Kimball came clean on the stand, admitting he received $1.50 from Sheffield Farms for every customer in the building.  When asked about the ice dealer, he identified Corcoran & Ward. "I think they pay $2 a customer...They've made two payments--around $50 for the two."  The payback would be equal to a little over $1,000 today.  He went on to name the daily newspaper vendor, and the baker (although the latter paid him him in "a loaf of bread and five rolls each morning").  Kimball told the judge "It's embarrassing to say so, but it's the situation."   But the temptation was understandable.  The bribes he received from the vendors easily matched or surpassed his $150 per month salary.

In June 1918 Joseph Greenhut suffered symptoms of heart trouble; and then on October 14 he suffered a heart attack.  Ten days later The New York Herald reported he was "seriously ill of heart disease at his home No. 325 West End Avenue."  The family, said the article, was "holding out hope" for the recovery of the 75-year old.

Greenhut lingered, bedridden.  His eldest son read him the happy news of armistice on November 12 after which the old man commented that he could now die content.  He did so five days later.

Social columns routinely followed the movements of the well-to-do residents and announced the debutante entertainments, engagements and weddings of their daughters and sons.   Among such prominent families were those of residents Arthur Harris, Michael William Dippel, and Henry F. Tiedemann.  Before 1920 the family of well-known attorney Charles Arndt was in the building.   His name often appeared in newspapers connected with the settlement of large estates.  

Every family in the building maintained a small domestic staff, as repeatedly reflected in help wanted ads.  One, for instance, in February 1921 sought "Maid--Wanted personal maid for one lady, one who is also willing to assist with light chamberwork...Protestant preferred."  Later that year the tenant in apartment 1-D needed a "Girl, French, for girl 12 years old and sewing."

The advertisements always demanded references and interviews, of course, were intensive.  But the precautions did not always prevent servant troubles--as Mrs. Estelle Lowenthal discovered in 1926.

The Lowenthal's chambermaid, Freda, was doing more snooping than cleaning in their bedroom when she discovered love letters to Estelle from another man.  Freda pocketed the incriminating evidence and quit her job.  When she telephoned her former employer and threatened to expose her, Estelle hung up the phone.  And then she went to the police.

Certain that her former mistress would pay for the letter, Freda convinced Marcell Dreifuss, who was in love with the out-of-work maid, to go to the apartment and extort payment.   When he arrived he demanded $25,000 for the letter.  Instead, detectives who had been staking out the apartment arrested him.  In court on August 9, 1926, his attorney John Caldwell Myers explained to the judge that he was blinded by love.  "His weakness lay in what the poet has chosen to refer to as 'The light that lies in woman's eyes.'"   The defense did not work.

The light court which sliced between the east and west wings provided additional ventilation and sunlight to the apartments.

The Arndt family was still living here when son Christian was married to Louise Clausen in a notable society wedding in St. Barthlomew's Church on October 10, 1933.   The reception was hosted by George F. Baker, Jr. and his wife, in their grand mansion at No. 75 East 93rd Street

At mid-century the occupants of No 325 West End Avenue continued to be still upscale and it appears that one or two servants' rooms in the apartments fell short for some.  In 1948 a penthouse level was added containing a single apartment plus eight maid's rooms rentable to residents.

The affluence of the residents was evidenced in May 1956.  As with all upscale apartment buildings, No 325 essentially emptied out for three months in the summer when residents left for their country homes.  When Mrs. Frances Bleiberg arrived at her "summer bungalow" at Lake Peekskill near the town of Putnam Valley she found it ransacked.

Although some articles like an expensive camera and a radio were taken, the thieves were most interested in clothing.  More interesting than the description of Frances's things were the items stolen from her husband.  Included were six pairs of cashmere socks, two pairs of alligator shoes, and a cashmere jacket.  The jacket was valued at more than $1,000 in today's money.

There were, of course, people involved in the entertainment industry here as well.  On the 6th floor in the 1960's was Gene Callahan, a Hollywood production designer and director who won three Academy Awards for America, America, The Cardinal, and The Hustler.  

Jazz drummer, instructor and author Melvin Sokoloff, known professionally as Mel Lewis lived on the second floor with his wife, Doris, and their three daughters beginning in 1976.  Nominated for 14 Grammy Awards during his career, he was a fixture at clubs like the Village Vanguard in the 1970's and '80's with his Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra.

Lewis's biographer Chris Smith, in his 2014 The View from the Back of the Band, noted Apartment 2C "also became the hub for his teaching and mentoring of musicians.  Many of today's greatest jazz musicians spent countless hours in that apartment listening to and talking about music with Mel."

The musician was diagnosed with melanoma in the late 1980's.  He died still living here on February 2, 1990.

The building got its brush with cinematic fame in 2004 when it served as the home of characters Joanna and Walter Eberhart (played by Katherine Ross and Peter Masterson) in The Stepford Wives.  The couple moved out of the building to settle in the idyllic village of Stepford, Connecticut, with unhappy results.

No. 325 was converted to co-ops in 1972.   The address got another celebrated resident in 2016 when actress and comedian Ellie Kemper and her husband, writer and producer Michael Koman, bought an apartment.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. The building is in the 1975 Stepford Wives.