Friday, April 26, 2019

The Hilgert Bachelor Apts - 31 West 26th Street

No trace of the original 1855 appearance remains.

In the 1850's the wealthy New Yorkers moved into new homes on the blocks near the recently-opened Madison Square.  The 25-foot residence of the Stephen Mann Blake family sat on the north side of West 26th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue.  Completed around 1855, it was faced in red brick and rose four stories above a high English basement.

Blake's business, listed as "bonnets" in directories, was located at No. 126 Chambers Street.  It is unclear whether he was an importer of millinery, if he manufactured his products, or did both.  Whichever was the case he had amassed a sizable personal fortune by the time he and his wife, the former Elizabeth Ann Hoyt, purchased the 26th Street home.  He was, as well, a director in the Croton Fire Insurance Co.

It was not unusual for even the most well-to-do families to take in a boarder in the first decades of the 19th century, and in December 1857 the Blakes offered rooms to "a gentleman and wife."  The advertisement stressed "House newly furnished, and every home comfort insured.  Those desiring a superior home may call at 31 West Twenty-sixth street."  It noted, "Dinner at 6 o'clock."

Married on September 13, 1837, the Blakes had two daughters, Charlotte Elizabeth, known popularly as Lizzie, and Anna, known as Annie.  The family traveled frequently to Europe, where the girls learned to speak French and Italian.

Lizzie's marriage to the young and wealthy Abner Weyman Colgate on November 23, 1869 was a society affair.  Two days later The Sun reported "The reception given by Mrs. Stephen M. Blake on Tuesday evening at her residence, 31 West Twenty-sixth street, in honor of the marriage of her daughter to Mr. Colgate...was, in many respects, one of the most brilliant events of the year.  

"For several hours, the spacious and very beautifully frescoed and furnished drawing-rooms were thronged by large deputations of fashionables from this city, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Washington.  Rich and valuable gifts to the bride poured in from every hand, and a shower of sincere congratulations fell upon the happy couple."  

Two weeks later the Evening Telegram noted "Mr. Abner W. Colgate and Mrs. C. (nee Lizzie Blake, of Twenty-sixth street) sailed for Europe on Wednesday week, contemplating an extensive foreign trip."

Annie was married to Edward Williams Dodd in 1883.  She had already embarked on a writing career, her 1881 article in Harper's Magazine about the political leaders of France was deemed "the most brilliant article of the kind we have had in ten years" by editor Henry Mills Alden.  She would go on to write novels, non-fiction works and short stories.

On January 9, 1885 Stephen M. Blake died at the age of 75.  His funeral was held in the fashionable Trinity Chapel a block away from the family home.   

It appears that Elizabeth had preceded her husband in death.  Oddly enough, while her sister had died in 1880, Anna Dodd did not inherit the house and it remained in the name of the Elizabeth Blake Estate.  The following year Anna hired contractor William L. Clark to make updates to her childhood home.  It was leased as a boarding house, run by Miss E. J. Dickson in the 1890's.  

Miss Dickson had a pair of colorful boarders in 1894.  The Evening World reported on February 19 "Zella Nicolaus, the young woman who wanted $40,000 of George Gould's money and who comes and goes like a 'sprite,' has again visited this city.

"This time she came as the wife of a Mr. 'Romaine,' who is supposed to be her guardian, 'Al' Ruhman, the twain stopping at the fashionable boarding-house of Miss E. J. Dickson, 31 West Twenty-sixth street."  Zella Nicolaus was well-known for her shady operations.  The article noted "They arrived at the boarding-house last Monday evening.  She disclosed her identity to Miss Dickson."

The couple's stay was abruptly ended.  "Zella left the house last Wednesday at the request of Miss Dickson, who dreaded notoriety."

By the turn of the century the once-exclusive neighborhood was seeing the encroachment of commerce.  While still upscale, its proud residences were being converted to apartment houses or being razed for business structures.  In 1903 the Blake Estate obtained a demolition permit for No. 31.

But Anna Dodd apparently had a change of heart and in April that year architect Dudley S. Van Antwerp filed plans to substantially remodel the house into bachelor apartments.  The stoop was removed, a fifth floor added, and the building extended to the rear.

The choice of Van Antwerp is interesting.  The 36-year-old had only recently opened his own office and his new bride, Hilda Fenn,  (they married in 1901) partnered with him as "associate."  She was listed both as an "artist" and "interior designer" on some of Van Antwerp's works.

The conversion cost the Blake estate the equivalent of $734,000 today.  No trace of the former Blake house survived.  Van Atwerp faced the house in red brick generously trimmed in limestone.  His 20th century take on Georgian architecture included splayed lintels and multi-paned windows.  The openings sat within recessed bays and rested on deep stone sills which projected to the edges of the piers.  Regretfully, no renderings or photographs of the lower two floors seem to exist.

Amazingly, the small-paned windows survive.
The hotel was leased to Matthew H. Hilgert, who christened it The Hilgert.  An advertisement offered "Elegant Bachelor Apartments, two, three rooms, electric elevator, large bath" and promised "house comforts."

Hilgert used a portion of the hotel for the Hilgert Footgear Curative Institution.  Calling himself "Professor Hilgert," he purported to "cure all physical ailments" with his "Magic Mechanico-Physiological Boots."  His chief assistant in the clinic was osteopath Albert Whitehouse.   The custom made shoes cost wealthy customers up to $5,000 a pair.  (A hefty sum, equal to more than $150,000 today.)

Among Hilgert's clients were Bishop Henry C. Potter and millionaires Robert Goelet, Charles M. Schwab and James Butler.  But his practice came to the attention of the County Medical Society in November 1905.

Mrs. Catherine Lubbs had earlier taken her disabled 9-year-old son to Hilgert.  The boy had been treated at the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled, but his condition was irreversible.  The New York Times reported on January 31, 1906 that he "had been taken in hand by 'Prof.' Hilgert and as a result had grown steadily worse."  The boy was "now at the point of death."

On January 29 detectives showed up at No. 31 West 26th Street and arrested both Hilgert and Whitehouse.  They were charged initially with practicing medicine without a license.  Each provided bail for the other.

The lawyer for the County Medical Society called the men "quacks" and charged "that as a result of using the 'Hilgert curative footgear' methods children have become so seriously crippled that it is doubtful if they will ever be cured of their ailments."

Rather astonishingly, Hilgert wriggled out of the charges and continued to run the Hilgert Institute.  But his sketchy practices would soon catch up with him when he carried them too far.  In the summer of 1907 he took an unusual case in the wealthy Dr. C. W. Dunlop.  There was nothing wrong with Dunlop physically, but he was suffering from creeping dementia.  Hilgert promised the doctor's wife, Gertrude, that his magic boots would effect a cure and Dunlop was effectively imprisoned in an apartment in The Hilgert for months.

When his frantic nephews and nieces finally tracked him down (through a note from one of Hilgert's concerned nurses), a months-long and highly visible trial began in January 1908.  The Evening Telegram began its article of January 9 saying "'Magic boots,' made famous by the maker, Matthew Hilgert, came into the limelight again to-day."  The article explained that the family alleged "Hilgert desires to marry Mrs. Dunlop, who is seventy-three years old, when her husband dies."

The continued bad press may have been too much for Anna Blake Dodd.  The following year Hilgert was gone and an advertisement in the New York Herald on September 2, 1909 noted the building was available, "suitable for apartments or business or both."  It turned out to be business.

Within three months the Blake Estate hired architect M. Zipkes to again remodel the building.  It was most likely at this time that the lower two floors were converted for business with a cast iron storefront.

No. 31 West 26th Street filled with apparel-related firms.  In 1910 Walzer & Broscow took the top floor, and in 1914 The Reliable Cloak & Suit Company and Denker & Porges both signed leases.  The fourth floor was home to furrier S. Chaitin.

In 1914 fire escapes were installed and they came none too soon.  On January 15, 1915 The Evening World reported "Fire in the fur loft of S. Chaitin...caused fire and water damage of $10,000 and brought fright to thirty men and girls who worked in the building."  John Hines, who ran the sole elevator, refused to leave his post.  The article noted that he "kept his car going up and down the shaft until all were out of the building, though heavy smoke made his labor a dangerous one."  The damage was significant, more than a quarter of a million dollars in today's money.

That March, after the repairs were completed, Joseph Mandel leased the two-story retail space for his restaurant.   When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Mandel threw his support behind the troops.  On November 29 that year the New York Tribune reported that "Nearly 20,000 soldiers and sailors will eat their Thanksgiving dinner in New York City" and noted "Patriotic societies, clubs, hotels, churches and families have come forward to make the day memorable to those who will fight for the nation's ideals."  Among those providing free dinners was Mandel's Restaurant.

In the meantime more and more fur merchants shared the building, as the neighborhood became part of the fur district.  In December 1916 Samuel Steuer Fur Company took the third floor and in 1918 Eckstein & Kass, "furs," moved in.

On September 6, 1919 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Blake Estate had sold No. 31.  "This is the first transfer of the property in sixty-four years."  The buyer was Joseph Mandel.

For the next seven decades the building would continue to house apparel firms.  The gradual change in what would be known as the Nomad district was evidenced when the newly-formed People With AIDS Coalition moved in in 1985.  Founded by Griffin Gold, the privately supported group published a monthly newspaper written by and for people with HIV and AIDS.  By the time of Gold's death at the age of 33 in 1989, it had a worldwide circulation of 14,000.

By 2001 the Gallery of Architecture operated here.  That summer it launched an exhibition of prints, watercolors and other renderings of French architecture ranging from 1700 through the 1970's.

Today a restaurant still operates from Joseph Mandel's space, although his second floor is now home to a fitness center.  Overall little has changed since the 1909 remodeling that transformed the bachelor hotel that had transformed an upscale private home.

photographs by the author

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