Saturday, March 9, 2019

Kurtzer & Rohl's Soon-To-Go 1889 306 East 86th Street

In July 1886 Aaron Guedalia hired builder Arthur Gorsch to construct a one-and-a-half story "brick cigar factory and drying room" in the rear of No. 306 East 86th Street.  Guedalia's plan would have added one more to the host of cigar-making firms in the Yorkville area.  But it never came to pass.

It seems that Gorsch saw greater potential in the property.  He and his wife, Sophia, purchased No. 306 East 86th Street with Catherine Bode.  (The nature of their relationship is unclear.)  The title was placed in the women's names.

On September 6, 1889 the architectural firm of Kurtzer & Rohl filed plans for a "five-story flat, with store on the first floor."  The cost was projected at $17,000--about $467,000 today.   It would be an up-to-date structure, evidenced a month later when the City approved Kurtzer & Rohl's "plumbing and draining" plans.

Completed in 1890, the building was faced in yellow brick and trimmed in cast iron, brownstone and terra cotta.  The eclectic design was, for the most part, Queen Anne in style.  Elements from a mixed bag of styles, however, joined in making a visually-entertaining facade.  Carved portrait keystones represented stoic females and formidable vikings.  A cast metal cornice above the fourth floor (and almost doubtlessly a near match to the now-missing terminal cornice above the fifth floor) contrasted undulating vines between hefty demonic faces.  Three terra cotta panels filled the triangular pediment, the central section announcing the construction date.

Brawny demon dogs flank the fourth floor cornice.  A brown scar is evidence of its lost counterpart.

The building was an investment only and in May 1890 Catherine Bode and Sophia Gorsch sold it to Martha L. Andrews.  Her building filled with tenants reflective of Yorkville's highly German population.

Among them was the Koelbe family--Henry, his wife Fanny, and their teen-aged son and daughter.  In July 1893 19-year-old Lucy met a tailor, William Strohoefer, in Brooklyn.  After knowing one another a month, they married.  There were two apartments per floor in No. 306 West 86th Street and Lucy and her new husband moved into the vacant one on the same floor with her family.

But things quickly went downhill in the romance.  It is unclear what made Lucy desperate to get out of the marriage, but four months later, on Saturday afternoon, December 9, she told her husband she was going to visit her parents.  She never returned.  When Strohoefer went to retrieve her, he was barred from the apartment.

When the 30-year-old was unable to convince his in-laws to return his wife, he went to the courts claiming that Lucy was being restrained against her will.  The Koelbes received a writ of habeas corpus the following Tuesday, ordering them to produce Lucy in court the next day.

Court reporters jumped on the delicious story.  The World's headline read "Fought For His Wife," The New York Times's was "Tried To Seize His Wife," the article in The New York Press was entitled "His Wife Rejects Him," and The Evening World exclaimed "His Wife Kept From Him."

The entire Koelbe family appeared with Lucy, whom The Evening World described as "very pretty, with dark, brown hair and eyes, and of the tall, willowy figure."  Strohoefer claimed that he had tried, once again, that morning to see his wife, but "her mother locked her in a room and told him to leave the house."  

When the Koelbes' attorney offered the family's testimonies, Justice Ingraham dismissed him.  "No, I don't want to hear any witnesses."  He turned to Lucy and instructed her "You are old enough to decide for yourself whether you will elect to live with your husband or your father and mother."

To ensure she was not coerced in her decision, he ordered everyone in the courtroom to remain while Lucy left.  After giving her time enough to head to whichever place she chose, he cleared the room.  But Lucy had lingered in the hallway.

Her husband "bolted from the courtroom and threw his arms around his wife's neck," reported The Evening World.  The article in The New York Press continued the melodrama, "'Oh, Lucy! Lucy!' he exclaimed, as he seized her in his arms and tried to draw her away...The husband clung to his wife and attempted to drag her along the corridor."

"The young woman gave a shriek," reported The Times, "and her sixteen-year-old brother came running up at full speed."  While Lucy struggled to free herself her brother pummeled Strohoefer.  "It finally required the efforts of three policemen to release the young woman from the embrace of her husband," said The Evening World.  

It all played out like a scene on a Bowery theater stage.  Lucy screamed, "Oh, take me away from him," and promised "He shan't come near me!  He'll never see me again!"   Strohoefer left the courthouse declaring he would sue Henry Koelbe.

He did not follow-up on the threat, but he was nevertheless not finished with Lucy and her family.  Still living next door in the 86th Street building, he began harassing Lucy remotely.   In March 1894 he was arrested "for sending indecent letters and postal-cards through the mails, addressed to his wife, from whom he had separated," as reported by The Evening World.

Strohoeffer was released on bond to his father; but several weeks later his father returned him to jail.  The unrequited love had caused the young man, he felt, to lose his mind.  The Evening World's headline on April 27 read "Surrendered His Son / Strohoeffer's Father Will Not Remain on His Bond" and explained "Strohoeffer is said to be insane and not responsible for his actions."  Indeed, William Stroheofer was examined, deemed insane, and sent to a public institution in Washington.

Mrs. Minnie Ames had significant drama in her life, as well.  At the time of William Strohoeffer's problems she was living No. 91 East Third Street.  She became friendly with another tenant, described by The New York Press as "variety actress Dora Lennon...or Mrs. James F. Stillman, as she prefers to call herself."  In fact, Dora was the head of a coin counterfeiting gang.

When Minnie noticed plaster of paris dies in Dora's apartment in April 1896, her neighbor was unexpectedly candid.  Dora explained that they were used to make 50 cent pieces, and then suggested that Minnie join the gang "and travel around the country."  She promised that the men would make the coins and she and Minnie would have no problem passing them.

But, according to The New York Press, she "did not consent and left the Third street house."  After taking an apartment at No. 306 East 86th Street she went to the authorities.  The following month she testified at the trial of what The New York Press nicknamed the "song and dance counterfeiters."  Secret Service Agent Bagg called Minnie "an important witness."

In the meantime the ground floor space held the funeral parlor of Philip Boelzer.  While the funerals of more affluent citizens were most often held in their homes, that was not feasible for tenement dwellers.  So the East 86th Street location was ideal for Boelzer's operation.

News among Manhattan's German population seems to have spread quickly.  Early on the morning of September 16, 1899 a horrific tragedy occurred in the Lower East Side, known as Little Germany.  Alexander Weiser, "a German of whom little is known," according to The Sun, murdered Laura Aster, "a widow to whom he has been devoted for more than a year."  He then committed suicide in the same room.

Before the bodies had been removed Philip Boelzer was on site.  The Sun reported "The zeal which characterizes certain branches of the undertaking trade caused the arrest at Mrs. Aster's house yesterday morning of Philip Boelzer of 306 East Eighty-sixth street who, learning of the tragedy, went there to do a stroke of business."

But another undertaker had beaten him there and had already received a permit from the coroner to remove the bodies.  "Boelzer made so much fuss that Policeman Kealey, of the Fifth street station, who was on guard, ordered him away, whereupon he abused the policeman and threatened to have him 'broke.'"  Boelzer's tantrum finally broke the officer's patience.  "Kealey stood it for a while and then locked him up on a charge of disorderly conduct."

photo by James Steeber

The tenants above the funeral home were respectable and hard working.  Bernard Kempner and his wife and family, for example, lived here at the turn of the century.  He was often away from the apartment for his job as a traveling hops salesman.  In 1904 William A. Kraus attempted to land a civil service job, applying for the position of Inspector of Licenses.  His petition was denied.  Another German-born tenant, A. R. Marshall, was secretary of the Gesang Verein Oesterreich, or Austrian Singing Club, in 1912.  

By 1918 the former Boelzer funeral home had become the funeral parlor of C. Herrlich & Brother.   In 1922 Catherine Herrlich, presumably a relative, purchased the building.  

The firm's name had been changed to Herrlich Brothers' Funeral Chapel by February 1933 when the funeral of Theodore Coutant Paton was held here.  He was a well-known cartoonist and animator for Fable Pictures, Inc.  He had animated screen cartoons like Aesop's Fables, Cubby the Bear and Tom and Jerry.

Around 2014 most of the 19th century fabric of the block survived.  But in the background development was already taking over the immediate neighborhood.  photo by James Steeber 

Even as the ethnic population drifted away from Yorkville in the second half of the 20th century, the former funeral home space held on to the neighborhood's traditions.  In 1995 it became home to Rush'n Express, described by New York Magazine as a "new Formica fast-foot joint" which it deemed "a good stop for cut-rate, hearty autumnal snacks like piroshki, kasha, and stuffed cabbage."  The quick-stop restaurant remained for several years.  And then in 200o the 86th Street Wine & Liquor store moved in, becoming a neighborhood standby for a decade.

In 2019 the storefront is boarded up and the neighboring buildings to the east have been demolished.
Major demolition in the immediate neighborhood began around 2017 as 19th century buildings made way for modern apartment houses.  In 2018 a petition for a demolition permit on No. 306 was filed, signalling the impending end to a quirky piece of architecture and a fascinating page of Yorkville history.

photographs by the author


  1. Such a shame that NYC has such an embarrassment of riches (architecturally speaking) that a building like this gets lost in the shuffle to be replaced by another soulless box.

  2. The Second Avenue Subway - awaited for so so long - is partly to blame. Whatever development was lagging behind in Yorkville in terms of new projects is now free to take the rest of the neighborhood. Likely so much more will go before the wave of destruction ceases for a while.