Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Remarkable History - 112 Waverly Place

No hint of the prim 1826 appearance remains after the overwhelming 1920 re-make.

In 1826 Mayor Philip Hone transformed the former execution grounds and potter's field at the base of what would be Fifth Avenue into a parade and drill grounds, called Washington Square.   Greenwich Village was experiencing a population explosion as thousands of New Yorkers fled northward to escape the terrifying cholera epidemic which began a year earlier.

Well-heeled businessman and former politician Thomas R. Mercein recognized the potential.  In 1826, two years before the first mansion would appear on Washington Square, he erected a row of nine upscale brick-faced homes on West Sixth Street, between the park and Sixth Avenue.

Three bays wide and three-and-a-half stories tall, the Federal-style houses sat above shallow English basements.  Handsome paneled stone lintels adorned the openings and two tall dormers pierced the peaked roofs.

No. 112 is second from right in this photograph, the last of the row unchanged since 1826.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1814 Sir Walter Scott had published his highly-popular novel Waverley.  His large following in Greenwich Village petitioned the city to honor him with a street and in 1834 Longworth's American Almanac explained "Sixth-street led from Grove until about the year 1832, when it was named Waverley Place from Broadway west."

Livingston Livingston received a new address with the name change: No. 112 Waverley Place.   A well-to-do attorney, his name made his illustrious pedigree remarkably clear.  In addition to his legal practice, he was a Commissioner of Deeds and would be appointed Chairman of the Board of County Canvassers of the City and County of New York in 1846.  And he had a remarkable hobby--he raised silkworms and then had their silk converted to fabric.

While living here in 1837 he submitted finished goods to the Tenth Annual Fair of the American Institute.   He was up against other New Yorkers with the same preoccupation.  Martha Marvin, who was just 14 years old, submitted "fine specimens of cocoons, reeled and sewing silk," and as did Eliza Evans.  David Ruggles presented "superior specimens of cocoons, from worms fed on the leaves of the Brussa mulberry."  Livingston's hard work paid off, however.  He was awarded a certificate "for beautiful specimens of silk, second crop."

By 1846 importer Stephen Moulton was living in the house.  He did business at No. 86 Cedar Street.  It is unclear if he was married.  His name routinely appeared on the passenger manifests of steamships heading to England, but always alone.

By 1849 two rooms were being leased in No. 112.   Eliza Collins, "widow of George," was listed in city directories as living here that year.  And by 1851 the well-known physician, musician, vocal coach and composer, Dr. Clare W. Beames was here.

Beames, who would remain for at least two years, was less know for his medical practice that his musical profession.  He was the organist of Grace Chapel and a prolific song writer.  Because of his androgynous first name, he often preferred to be listed as "Mr. Clare W. Beames" rather than as "Dr."  

Much of Beames's work was the translation and adaption of the operatic arias to popular songs, like "Life We Saw First in This Valley," which started life in Donizetti's Linda Di Chamounix.   But he wrote lighter fare as well.  His "Merry Sleigh, Jingle Jingle Clear the Way" was marketed as being "Composed expressly for and dedicated to his Pupil, Miss Jane A. Andrews, The Popular Vocalist, by Clare W. Beames."

Beames had moved on in June 1852 when an advertisement in The New York Herald announced "A small private family will accommodate one or two gentlemen with two furnished Rooms, with or without breakfast.  No other boarders."

Boarders came and went.  Walter K. Ritch, a teacher at School No. 26 stayed perhaps the longest.  He was here at least from 1854 through 1866.  His salary in 1854 was $350 per year.  Abner Barlett was here in 1855 when the City embarrassed him by publishing his name in the list of those owing personal taxes.  He was behind $21.56.  A decade later C. R. Reed was living here when he was inducted into the Union Army.

The first real notable owner of No. 112 came in 1878 when The Churchman announced "The Rev. J. S. Atwell's address is No. 112 Waverley place, New York city."  Joseph Sandford Atwell already had a remarkable career.

Born on July 1, 1831 in Barbados, he was educated at Codrington College and moved to the United States in 1863; a bold move for a black man while the Civil War was still raging.  He attended Divinity Hall (later the Philadelphia Divinity School), graduating in 1866.

With 4 million people released from slavery, he went south to help organize the Episcopal Church's efforts to evangelize blacks.  While in Louisville, Kentucky he met and married Cordelia A. Jennings, a graduate of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia.  The couple would have three sons, Joseph, Robert and Ernest.

Joseph Atwell was ordained the first black deacon in the Diocese of Kentucky by Bishop Benjamin Smith; and in 1867 Atwell's parish of Saint Mark's was recognized by the Episcopal Church as the first black congregation in the state.

He continued to move about the South, earning acclaim for bringing advancing some of the first black Episcopal churches "from infancy to maturity," and for pioneering acceptance of black clergyman in the South.

In 1875 he moved his family to New York City to become rector of Saint Philip's Church, one of the oldest African American Episcopal congregations in America.  The Churchman later divulged that in doing so he exchanged what was, in fact, a relative easy job as pastor of Saint Stephen's Church in Savannah for a much more difficult one.  "He wished, among other things, to give his children those advantages which they could scarcely hope for amid the peculiar environments of the South."

Atwell worked tirelessly for his congregation.  The Churchman said "When he took a half-holiday at times he showed all the liveliness of a school-boy, but he was chiefly known as the grave, care-worn rector, going soberly and conscientiously from duty to duty, praying with the sick, advising with the perplexed, and attending to the wants of the poor."

Joseph S. Atwell spent much of his time at the sickbeds of the poor.  But in the fall of 1881 it was he who was bedridden, having contracted typhoid fever.  He died in the Waverley Place house on October 8, 1881.

A memorial service was held in St. Philip's Church on February 5 1882.  Two bishops presided, aided by three ministers.  The Churchman reported "The congregation was very large, completely filling the church.  Part of a colored regiment occupied the front seats in the middle aisle, while a band of brass instruments accompanied the organ, adding much to the music, which was remarkably fine."

Letters from around the country, "highly complimentary of the deceased," were read.  One, from the Reverend Dr. De Costa said that if the policy at the time of Atwell's invitation to move to New York had allowed the "appointing a bishop of the African race," he would no doubt have been given the honor.

Cordelia and the children were now without income; a terrifying situation for any mother, let alone a minority woman.  Before taking up the offertory, "an earnest appeal [was made] to the people in view of the fund about to be raised for the widow and children.  The Churchman said "The speaker made an especial plea for his children, that all their father would have secured to them, had he lived, might be assured to them now that he was dead."  The congregation responded with $235, more than $5,800 today.

Cordelia and the children, of course, necessarily moved on before long.  In the mid-1890's the new owner of No. 112 was once again renting rooms.  Salesman Daniel Dooling lived here in 1895, and bookkeeper Charles W. Bang was here the following year.

The house received its second notable resident around 1899 when artist Everett Shinn and his illustrator wife, Florence Scovel Shinn leased it from Catherine de Anglemont.  

Shinn was born in Woodstown, New York and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where he met Florence.  They graduated in 1897 and were married the following year.  While her husband was known for more serious painting, Florence illustrated magazines and books--like Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, and The Autobiography of a Tomboy.

Their choice of the Waverly Place location was not surprising.  Greenwich Village had become the enter of Manhattan's artistic community, luring artists, musicians, poets, and writers to its winding streets and subterranean tearooms.

A member of the Ashcan School of painters, Everell used Washington Square as the subject of at least 20 paintings, including this 1910 example.  in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Everett was interested in the theater, as well.  On December 15, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported that he would erect "a one story studio" in the rear to cost nearly $27,000 in today's money.   The addition would not be merely an art studio, as it turned out.  In 1912 he had a stage installed, creating a theater for his newly-organized Waverley Place Players.

On March 21 The Sun wrote "Mr. Everett Shinn, known to the continent for years as an admirable mural painter, a facile worker in pastel and an illustrator, recently, as has been told, decided to give a theatre-less New York still one more playhouse, and so last night he threw open the doors of the Littlest Theatre.  Mr. Shinn's Littlest Theatre is out in the back yard of the Shinn house at 112 Waverley place.  By daylight it is used as the Shinn studio."

Everett wrote many of the plays presented here, including the tongue-in-cheek Lucy Moore or the Prune Hater's Daughter."  The New York Times noted on March 21 "This is the second production of the Waverley Place Players, and they do it just for the fun of the thing.  A regular performance is to be given to-morrow night, and perhaps there will be another on Saturday, and then, when they get around to it, they will produce another play."

Another well-known artist, Ben Ali Haggin, was in the cast that night.  Everett Shinn played two parts and Florence had the title role.  The Times began its review saying "If you were a writer like Owen Johnson or an illustrator like May Wilson Preston, or a painter like Paul Doughtery, and if you had had an invitation you would gave gone to Waverley Place last evening and gained admission to Everett Shinn's house at 112."

But what apparently few knew was that there was serious trouble within the Shinn household.  Florence's brother, broker Alden Cortlandt Scovel lived in the house with the couple.  Suspicious of Everett, he had hired private detectives to follow him in July and August that year.   The artist repeatedly went to the Hotel Cadillac.  According to The Sun on March 11, 1913, "on one occasion when they forced an entrance into the room occupied by Shinn" they found him in bed with an actress.  "They heard the woman cry, 'Oh, my God!' while Shinn turned pale and his lips twitched nervously."

The Sun reported on March 11, 1913 that Florence had received a final decree of divorce.  The judge awarded her $4,800 a year in alimony.  Twelve days later The New York Times announced that Everett had married Corinne Baldwin, of Brooklyn.

As it turned out, Shinn's marital road would never end in bliss.  His marriage to Corinne ended in divorce, as did his next marriage to Gertrude McManus Chase.  In April 1933 he secretly married the 21-year-old Paula Downing behind the backs of her parents.  He was 59 at the time.

In the meantime, Waverly Place (by now Villagers had seemingly forgotten the name's origin and dropped the second "e.") had drastically changed in appearance.  On August 5, 1916 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide ran an article entitled "Washington Square Section Reclaimed Through Modernized Buildings."  It explained that more than more old houses were being converted to artists' studio buildings.  "Owners of real estate have realized that in order to obtain the desirable class of tenants, old buildings must be remodeled artistically and efficiently in order to meet the requirements of the 'artist colony' which has been firmly established in the district."

The article noted "Douglas Robinson, Charles F. Brown Company, is going to alter 112 Waverly Place into studio apartments."  Plans were filed by architect Adolph E. Nast in October for renovations to cost $8,000, or about $153,000 today.

The completed alterations left no trace of the Federal-style house.  Heavily influenced by the current Arts & Crafts trend, its asymmetrical brick facade was both severe and picturesque.  Vast expanses of glass admitted floods of northern light so sought by artists.  The topmost studio was additionally lit by a skylight.  

The 1826 row now was completely transformed.
The ever-progressive Village was known for tearooms where women smoked openly and where unmarried women lived on their own.  Olive L. Creelnan took an apartment in the renovated building in April 1919, and Miss Marion Downer leased another in October 1922.  It would have been shocking almost anywhere else in the city.    (In truth, Olive did not live entirely alone.  She moved in with her gray striped Angora cat.  When it disappeared on June 25, 1920, she described it as having "seven toes on each forefoot.")

The next outstanding resident of No. 112 came after mid-century.  Lorraine Hansberry was living on Bleecker Street when she won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for the best American play of the season in April 1959.  Starting out as an artist (she termed herself "a lousy painter") she had turned to writing.

On April 9 The New York Times noted the several "not onlys" necessary to describe her. "Not only is she just 28 years old; not only is she a Negro; not only is she the first Negro woman ever to have a play on Broadway, let alone to win an award; but also 'A Raisin in the Sun' was her first produced play."

Born in Chicago, she came to New York in 1950 and married to music publisher Robert Nemiroff in 1953.  Her commitment to civil rights had its roots in her childhood.  Her father, Carl A. Hansberry, was a well-to-do real estate broker and banker.  When she was eight he purchased a house in a white neighborhood.

She later remarked "He died in 1945 at the age of 51--of a cerebral hemorrhage, supposedly, but American racism helped kill him."

With the profits of A Raisin in the Sun Hansberry purchased No. 112 Waverly Place.   She always stressed that the play was not "a Negro play but one about people who happen to be Negroes."  She continued to write, her themes most often embracing prejudice.  On August 2, 1963 The New York Times reported on her newest play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window."  Through it Hansberry now shed light on religious bias.  "In a Greenwich Village setting, the plot deals with a young Jewish intellectual, his actress wife and their search, both comic and tragic, for values and ideas."  

Sadly, Lorraine Hansberry would not be involved in the staging of that play.  She was diagnosed with cancer and for two years was in and out of hospitals.  She was released to attend opening night on October 15, 1964; but returned two days later never to leave.  She died in University Hospital on January 12, 1965 at the age of 34.

Five years later a renovation of No. 112 resulted in a doctor's office in the cellar, one apartment each on the first and second floors, and a duplex above.  Everett Shinn's studio and theater building in the rear was renovated as a private home.  It was occupied by supermodel Kate Moss in the late 1990's, when she was engaged to Johnny Depp.  When she moved out in 2014, it was offered with a monthly rent of $19,000.

One of a row of delightful and eclectic architectural tidbits on the block, No. 112 boasts more than its share of history.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment