Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The 1883 James B. Randol House - 17 West 73rd Street

Somewhat beleaguered today, the house was once upscale.  A brownstone stoop originally led to the arched doorway, now a window.

In 1882, two years after sewing machine mogul Edward C. Clark started construction on his Dakota Apartment on Central Park West between 72nd and 73rd Streets, he brought back architect Henry Janeway Hardenberg for another ambitious project.   Hardenberg designed 28 townhouses, stretching from No. 15 to 67 West 73rd Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  Their German Renaissance detailing was no doubt purposely intended to meld with the hulking Dakota.

Construction was done in two phases.  No. 17 was within the first group, finished in 1883.  (Nos. 29-67 were completed a year later).   Its high English basement and parlor level were clad in light-colored sandstone; while the upper floors were faced in red brick.  Stone quoins ran up the sides to the mansard attic and brick gable.  The somewhat somber personality of the design was accentuated by the grim bas relief portrait between the second floor openings.

In contrast to the ominous hooded face in the spandrel panel, pretty Esthetic Movement brackets in the form of leaves uphold the molded sills.
Clark did not sell the townhouses; but leased them to upscale families.  No. 17 became home to the James Butterworth Randol family.   A mining engineer, Randol was born in Newburgh, New York in 1836.  He married Christiana Terhune on June 1, 1865 and whisked his bride to the far West.

Randol's uncle, Samuel Butterworth was the general manager of the Quicksilver Mining Company near San Jose and hired him as its secretary.  Upon Butterworth's retirement in 1870, Randol moved into his post with an annual salary of $12,000--a little over a quarter of a million dollars today.  He held the position for 25 years, in the meantime purchasing the Mirabel silver mine.

James Randol was astonishingly progressive regarding worker welfare.  He established company health benefits at $1 per month cost to the workers, and included staff doctors on the payroll.  He built three "Helping Hand Clubs" for employee entertainment, including a 450-volume library.
At the time when the population of California was booming, the couple wisely invested in real estate in San Jose.  James was, as well, a director of the Bank of California and several other San Francisco firms.

Upon his retirement the Randols moved back east and into No. 17.   The couple's three children, William Merwin, Mary and Elizabeth were still unmarried.  William, who graduated from Harvard in 1891, was vice-president and manager of the Standard Quicksilver Company.  Now he was president of the New York and Philadelphia Coal and Coke Company.

Christiana had been known as a hostess in California and slipped into that role, on a smaller scale, in New York.   The house was in the center of a social spotlight on November 20, 1900 when Mary's wedding to Charles Carroll, of the historically illustrious Baltimore family, was held here.  Immediately after the reception, the newlyweds left for California where, among their activities, Mary showed off the family's former home, Casa Grande, to her husband on December 8.

In January 1903 William's engagement to Mary Digges Lee of Baltimore was announced.  Mary's family was no less historically important than the Carrolls' and, in fact, the two families had been connected when her ancestor, John Lee, married Harriet Carroll in 1832.  On February 7, 1903 Christiana and Elizabeth hosted a tea for Mary in the 73rd Street house.

The socially notable wedding was planned for November, but as the date neared, James Randol became disturbingly ill.   And then, on November 7, the Washington DC Evening Star reported "On account of illness in the family of Mr. Randal [sic] the invitations of the marriage of Miss Mary Digges Lee and Mr. William Merwin Randal [sic] have been recalled.  The ceremony will take place very quietly on November 11 at 'Needwood Forest.'"  (Needwood Forest was the ancestral Lee plantation, originally around 1,500 acres.)

The day after the wedding, the newspaper followed up, saying that "Owing to the grave illness of the bridegroom's father the wedding was a very quiet one."  That concern had been well founded.   Just over a month later, on December 23, 1903, James Butterworth Randol died at No. 17 at the age of 67.

Christiana and Elizabeth remained in the house, alone with their servants.  It was a target of burglars in the summer of 1914, a period when, according to insurance firms, 52 Upper West Side homes had been broken into between May and July.  Frustrated by the inability of police to stop the thefts, The Sun, on July 31, said the burglars used the neighborhood "as playgrounds" and that insurance adjusters declared "that housebreakers were having a picnic in that part of town."

On January 29, 1919 the 74-year old Christiana Terhune Randol died "suddenly" in the house.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  Elizabeth, still unmarried, left soon afterward.

The Clark family leased the house next to George A. and Dagmar Bolle Weinmann.  They were here less than a year when George died on March 11, 1920.  The house was once again the scene of funeral, this one on March 14.

Like Elizabeth Randol, Dagmar Weinmann left the house.  It became the home of the family of Dr. Alexander Nicoll by May.

A native New Yorker, Nicoll graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1903.  During World War I he served in the United States Medical Corps as a lieutenant colonel.  When the family moved into No. 17 he had been director of the first surgical division of Fordham Hospital for three years.  His wife was the former Adeline Burdett Bliss.

The surgeon's cases sometimes made news, but none was more publicized than that of John H. Reid on whom Nicoll operated on May 25, 1921.   Reid had crossed paths with one of the Roaring '20's most notorious figures, Robert Arthur Tourbilon.  The gangster was sometimes called "Ratsy" for his initials, but best known by his alias "Dapper" Don Collins.  Collins was infamous nationwide for his involvement in con games, white slavery, and liquor smuggling.

On the morning of May 15 Reid was a guest at a "breakfast party" in the home of Mrs. Helen Warner in the Bronx.  Things came to a quick end when Collins shot Reid in the face.   Ten days later Nicoll operated to remove bullet fragments from his spine.  The Evening World reported "It was found that one of the bullets fire by Collins penetrated Reid's mouth, passed downward and shattered the fifth cervical vertebrae."   The slippery Dapper Don was still on the loose.

After owning them for four decades, in 1922 the Clark family began selling the 73rd Street houses.  On August 14 Nicoll purchased No. 17.

An operation performed by Alexander Nicoll on April 11, 1923 drew press attention because of his innovative approach to pain relief.  Edward Higgins was awake during his hernia operation and it seems Nicoll was concerned that the local anesthesia would not be effective enough.  He placed headphones on his patient which were connected to a radio.  As he operated, Higgins listened to a comedy show broadcast from Newark, New Jersey.

Because his patient used headphones, Nicoll and his assistants were not distracted.  Higgins, on the other hand, was.  The New York Times reported that he "laughed at one time during the tedious operation at jokes by a comedian."

The debutante events for Margaret Emma Nicoll took place during the 1928-29 social season.  Equally impressive were the events surrounding her wedding to John E. Gerli on April 24, 1932.  Her future in-laws hosted a dinner dance in the Central Park Casino the night before.  The ceremony was held in St. Bartholomew's Church, followed by a reception in the Louis XVI Ballroom of the Park Lane Hotel.

The family remained at No. 17 through the early years of the Great Depression.  It was purchased on April 6, 1936 by Edmund M. Vansleben, "for occupancy."  But like many investors at the time, his assertion that he would maintain it as his own single-family home was not true.

Within the year it had been converted to apartments.  The stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the former basement level.

Christine Zam lived with her husband in one of the apartments in 1964.  The couple decided to take an evening stroll around the neighborhood on Halloween night that year.  As they walked along 82nd Street, a terrifying incident was taking place further uptown.

Monroe Schall and his wife Doris, were parked in front of the apartment house at No. 123 West 93rd Street.  In the car was June Baron.  The three were waiting for June's husband, Leon, to come down.  Suddenly, at around 7:30, an armed man forced his way into the car and ordered Schall to drive.  Within a few blocks, he ordered Schall to stop, took June's purse, pushed her out of the car, then told Schall to drive to 84th Street and Riverside Drive.  There he took Schall's wallet, forced the couple out and drove off with their car.

Speeding through the Upper West Side, he sideswiped a taxi at the intersection of 82nd Street and Broadway.  He lost control and crashed into the window of a store.  In doing so, he hit Christine Zam.  She died on the scene.

The injured culprit ran from the scene, and then tried to hijack another motorist who grappled with the gun.  Before David Barnes was able to wrest control of the weapon away it went off once, missing both men.  The New York Times reported "the thug then leaped out of the car and fled east down 79th Street."

Unexpectedly, the stained glass parlor floor transom survives.
In 1986 No. 17 underwent another renovation, resulting in two apartments per floor.  Despite the abuse, the 135-year old home still has hints of its former glory, when a silver magnate and a radio-playing surgeon lived here.

photographs by the author


  1. Thank you for this interesting history of a house of which I had often heard. JBR and CTR were my great grandparents and their daughter Mary my grandmother. I have a number of letters addressed to them at 17 West 73rd St.
    FYI, their daughter Elizabeth was married at All Saints Church in July 1918.
    Thanks again

  2. I think the carved face here is Dante.
    I've always enjoyed the fact that the relief sculptures on this group of buildings portray actual people.