Friday, May 31, 2019

The Robert D. Sterling House - 19 East 77th Street

In 1878 Saulesbury L. Bradley erected a trio of 16-foot-side brownstone-fronted rowhouses at Nos. 15 through 19 East 77th Street.  They were designed by the prolific John G. Prague in the currently fashionable neo-Grec style.  Four stories high above an English basement, they featured three-sided oriels resting on heavy brackets at the second floor.  The upper story windows were encased in architrave frames and wore prominent cornices.

George P. Nelson and his wife, the former Mary E. Robinson, were the original owners of No. 19.  The Nelsons maintained a large summer estate in Westchester County.

An attorney, George had studied law in his father's office in Peekskill, New York and was admitted to practice in 1839.  He divided his focus between Manhattan and upstate.  He was a prominent member of the Westchester County bar and represented that district in Congress for several years.

Nelson's personal fortune was significantly increased following the death of his father, William.  On January 6, 1883 the New-York Tribune reported that the estate was "about $1,000,000."  That amount would be nearly 26 times as much today and was divided equally among George and his three brothers.

The family was at Jamesport, Long Island on September 20, 1899 when Mary inexplicably died.  Newspapers made no mention of the cause of death.  Her funeral was held in the 77th Street house two days later.

Still living with George were his two unmarried daughters, Cordelia and Georgina.  On September 18, 1902 he transferred title to the house to them, most likely to avoid any complications upon his eventual death.  And that came just three years later, on September 27, 1905.

In reporting his death The New York Times noted "He was 89 years old, and for more than thirty years had occupied the house in which he died."  The obituary made note of his civic interests and generosity.  "In the public schools he always took the liveliest interest.  He was also identified with numerous charitable and philanthropic enterprises."

Less than three months later Georgina and Cordelia sold the Westchester estate.  In town they took in a roomer, at least in 1907 and '08.  During both of those years Miss Everitt advertised in several newspapers:  "Teacher--Experienced; visiting tutor; thorough instruction from primary to college preparatory grades; classes as her residence."

On May 14, 1910 the Record & Guide reported that "the Misses Nelson" had sold the house to The Operating Realty Co., noting "this is the first sale of this property in over thirty years."  The new owners almost immediately resold it to broker Robert Dutcher Sterling.

While the brownstone house was out of fashion at the time, the block was decidedly not.  Sterling and his wife, the former Ruth Lancaster Hoe, commissioned architect George B. de Gersdorff to transform it into a modern residence.  His plans, filed on July 16, 1910, called for a "new entrance stoop, new chimney and new stairs."  They were deceptively understated.

The architect removed the stoop, pulled the facade forward to the property line, and created a stylish neo-Federal style residence in red brick and limestone.   

The remodeled home stood out among its Victorian neighbors.  It originally was a match to No. 17 at the left.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The stone-faced ground floor was understated at the very least.  Its modesty allowed the second floor to show off.   Here a stone balcony with iron railings fronted a set of French doors, flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows.  The arrangement, below an arched tympanum, created a Palladian effect.   The splayed limestone lintels of the third and fourth floor windows of carried on the 18th century motif.  The top floor took the form of a steep copper-clad mansard with two prominent dormers.

The Sterlings had two sons, Oliver J. and Edward C.  The family's summer home was in Dublin, New Hampshire.

The Sterlings took an extended trip, possibly to Europe, early in 1914 when they leased the furnished hose to Edward Coleman Delafield, president of the Franklin Trust Company.

The Sterling family was back home by 1920 and they scurried to restaff the house.  Robert was detailed in what he wanted in a chauffeur.  His advertisement sought a "useful man [for] private family; permanent position for unmarried man; wages $30 in city and $85 with board when in country."  The city wages would be equal to about $376 per week today.

The waitress (the top most in the echelon of maids) earned more than the chauffeur.  Her weekly wages were $50 that year and her "car fare" to and from the residence was paid as well.  On the other hand, the laundress, who was expected to do "some cleaning," was needed only two days at week, as reflected in her $3.50 pay.

Ruth's father, Robert Hoe III, was the head of the long-established firm R. Hoe & Co.  Upon his death she inherited $1.2 million in 1924.

Ruth was highly involved in the support of the Babies' Hospital throughout the decades.  She and Robert shared an interest in the American Museum of Natural History.  They both joined the Board of Trustees in April 1953.  They would go on to donate the Bald Eagle Group in the Hall of North American Birds at the museum in 1958 and 1963 presented it with dioramas of 16 of North America's small mammals.

Ruth Sterling died on June 11, 1966 at the age of 87.  Four years later, after a long illness, Robert died at Lenox Hill Hospital on September 5, 1970 at age 95.  The heirs sold No. 19 in 1972.  

The fact that the house had been home to only one family since its 1910 remake was responsible for its remarkable state of preservation.  It remains a single-family home today with few changes other than an elevator, installed in 2003, and replacement windows.

photograph by the author

Thursday, May 30, 2019

"The Pumpkin House" - 16 Chittenden Avenue

The configuration of the river-facing window, resembling a jack-o-lantern, led to the modern nickname "Pumpkin House." photo by Beyond My Ken  

The wealthiest of New York families established vast summer estates in the upper regions of Manhattan during the 18th and early 19th centuries .  Among them was Lucius Chittenden, whose 130-acre estate "included all the land between the Kingsbridge road [now Broadway] and the river," from 185th street to approximately 198th, according to the 1917 Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York.  Chittenden was no doubt drawn to the location by the stunning views from the hill-top site and the cooling river breezes.

The Chittenden family enjoyed vast vistas from the property.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The era of summer estates was long gone in 1923.  The sole surviving reminder of Lucius Chittenden was a tiny hook of roadway named Chittenden Avenue.  That year The New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr. sold the lot on the edge of the steep cliff at No. 16 Chittenden Avenue to Cleveland Walcutt, a partner in Walcutt Bros. Company at No. 141 East 25th Street.  

The firm initially listed itself as "Printers' and Lithographers' Embossing and Hot Plate Embossing.  Bookbinders' Stamping and Casemaking."   But it took its embossing practice a step further by 1913, producing, for example, heavy embossed paper "friezes" to adorn the upper edges of domestic walls.  

A "Wall-Cut" frieze.  The Painters' Magazine, August 1913 (copyright expired)
Walcutt was as innovative in his vision of a home as he was in his paper products.  He directed his architects, Harold D. Verna and Franklin D. Pagan, to design a cantilevered structure teetering over the cliff face, supported by iron beams .  The plans projected the construction costs at $25,000--about $368,000 today.

As construction began, the extraordinary project brought nationwide attention.  Dansville [New York] Breeze, February 4, 1925
Building on the exceptional site required a special permit.  And as the structure rose it caught the attention of architects, builders and curiosity-seekers across the country.  In February 1925 the Buffalo Courier commented "The modern cliff dweller makes his appearance in the person of Cleveland Walcutt of New York.  The framework of a house actually built on stilts startled the residents of the Riverside Drive district."

The Yonkers Statesman said that automobiles and pedestrians below had "marveled at the unusual steel structure which stretches gauntly aloft from the rocky and inhospitable hillside."  Guesses as to what was being erected ranged from a new bridge, or a lighthouse to a "hitching-post for dirigibles."

Gas Light magazine described Walcutt as "a man of pioneer spirit," saying "the house on stilts is his own idea."  The article explained that conventional house construction techniques were not feasible and that "office-building being employed throughout for the house on stilts, for the problem of wind pressure on the walls of this high home, exposed on all sides, has always to be considered."  The girders on which the brick and concrete house would sit were 40 feet high.

Space was a precious commodity, so heating, cooking and hot water was provided by gas, thereby eliminating the need for a bulky furnace and coal storage area.  The architects faced the walls--inside and out--in rough brick "in a variety of colors and designs."

The Yonkers Statesman described the layout.  "The first floor will have a reception and stair hall, a large combination living and dining-room, and the kitchen  Above will be the  bedrooms and baths, and the roof will be boatlike, with a flat deck finish for part of its surface, and a covered portion to be used as a sleeping porch."

Gas Logic, called the still-rising house "Mr. Walcutt's giraffe-like mansion," and said "And so, from their eyrie on the hillside, Mr. Walcutt and his family will enjoy quiet, fresh air and a bird's-eye perspective on life, for their rooms will be on a level with the treetops about them."

The many references to the vertical girders quickly led to a nickname.  In 1925 American Gas Association Monthly was among the first to call it "The House on Stilts."  

Construction was completed in late 1925.  The Clay Worker commented in January 1926, "Franklin D. Pagan and Harold D. Vernan were the architects of this freak in home building, and are certainly to be congratulated on the success of the undertaking.

Cleveland Walcutt's wife, Grace, had died several years earlier.  He moved into the House on Stilts with his four sons.  Their residency would be surprisingly short.  The following year Walcutt declared personal bankruptcy and lost the house in foreclosure.  It was purchased by Charles Schwartz in 1930.

The wealthy 40-year old was the secretary-treasurer of Universal Liquidators, Inc. an auction firm.  He and his wife had three daughters and a son.

The industrial, unfinished appearance of the supporting girders were, apparently, unsightly to Schwartz, who set about to remedy that.  The New York Times later reported "At the time Mr. Schwartz bought the house, it was supported on the slope by iron girders and was known as the 'House on Stilts.'  Mr. Schwartz had the girders covered with concrete and was said to have large sums of money improving the house."

Schwartz encased the supporting girders in concrete.  Note the permanent shelter on the roof deck, the "generously windowed" southern exposure, as described by Gas Logic, and long balconies.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
On Saturday morning, March 2, 1935, Schwartz went for a drive.  When he returned at around 11:00, he dismissed his chauffeur for the day.   His wife was either unaware that he had returned, or was too busy preparing for that evening's dinner party to wonder about his whereabouts.

But by 8:30 that night, however, he was most definitely missed.  The guests had all arrived, and by now dinner had been held for nearly an hour awaiting Schwartz's appearance.  Finally his father-in-law, Hymie Finkelman, set off to find him.  The New York Times reported that he "went to the garage and found him slumped to the floor of his automobile.  Death had been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning."
The House on Stilts originally sat alone on the cliff.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The ignition was turned on, the gas tank had run out, and the garage doors were all closed.  Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Robert C. Fisher indicated "that he was not entirely satisfied with the circumstances of the death."  No evidence of foul play, however, was discovered.

The House on Stilts was eventually sold to Anna Schwartz, who resold it in December 1946 to Eugene Principe.  At some point a one-bedroom apartment was created.  The primary duplex still contained five bedrooms, two bathrooms and a maid's room.  

The Principe family retained ownership until 2000 when it was placed on the market for $1.1 million.  It was purchased by interior designer William Wesley Spink.  By then, thanks to Schwartz's entombing of the iron pilings in concrete, the house had lost its moniker "The House on Stilts."  It was now widely recognized as The Pumpkin House, because the configuration of the western windows resembled a jack-o-lantern.

photo via
Spink, who filled the house with a collection of valuable art, did structural renovation to the aging structure.  He sold it in 2011 for just under $4 million; and it appeared on the market again in 2016 for $5.25 million.  Once the only structure on the cliff, it is today crowded in by apartment buildings.  None of them, however, can compete with the Pumpkin House's architectural singularity.

photo by Beyond My Ken

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Ralph Walker's 1927 New York Telephone Building - 140 West Street

from the collection of the Library of Congress

On June 7, 1926 The Lima New York Recorder reported "Today a huge buff and gray mass adds another prominent feature to the famous profile of lower Manhattan; it is the building of the New York Telephone Company recently complete at 140 West Street."  Touting it as the "World's Largest Telephone Building," the article noted that it accommodated "an army of 6,000 telephone workers"--essentially the population of a small town.

The massive building project had started three years earlier, in 1923.  The newspaper explained that following World War I "the clamor for telephone service swelled until it bid fair to overwhelm a company whose reserve resources had been drained."  The New York Telephone Company's greatly enlarged staff and equipment were scattered throughout the city, often in leased space.

The newspaper noted that "To the architects, McKenzie, Voorhees and Gmelin was presented an exacting task.  Their plans had to provide a structure of a kind peculiar to the requirements of a telephone company and of a design which would not be unsightly and therefore objectionable to the citizens of New York."  The article failed to give credit to the specific architect responsible, however, and that was Ralph Walker.

Walker had not only produced a monumental structure, he set a new course for architects nationwide.  According to Margaret M. M. Pickart writing in the Landmarks Preservation Commission's designation report in 1991, "A pivotal structure in the history of skyscraper architecture, it is a prototypical example of what came to be regarded as the American Art Deco style."  As the building neared completion, celebrated artist Joseph Pennell deemed it "the most impressive modern building in the world."

Walker carried his Art Deco motif inside, most noticeably at the lobby level.  Painted ceiling panels done by muralist Hugo R. B. Newman and bronze plaques embedded in the flooring depicted events and developments in the history of communication.  Even the Art Deco chandeliers mimicked the setback configuration of modern skyscrapers.

photo via WFC Architects
Managing the transfer of the equipment and employees was a herculean task.  The Daily Star, a Queens newspaper noted on June 7, "The migration has been under way since last February."  The transfer required 1,650 moving vans.

photo via WFC Architects

Included in the building was the New York Telephone Company's Training School, where switchboard operators went through a four-week training period.  The company was precise in the type of women it needed (there were no male operators).  The Lima New York Recorder, in 1927, wrote "The successful applicant for telephone operating possesses quick mentality, a pleasant disposition and physical and mental alertness."

There was an on-site General Employment Bureau on the ground floor to handle filling the hundreds of positions.  "At this bureau, applications from young women are accepted for telephone operating positions and for the various kinds of clerical employment," explained the Millbrook Mirror and Round Table.  The applicants waited in a lounge furnished in a home-like atmosphere with tables and fringe-shaded lamps before being escorted to one of ten interview rooms.

Another necessity in such a mammoth building with hundreds of daily visitors was a lost-and-found room.  The Telephone Review reported in 1929 "During the past two months the lost articles returned to owners included: Gloves, rings, silk hose, handbags, money, wrist watches, pocket books, cameo, hand bag, keys, fraternity pin, scarf, umbrellas, x-ray picture, pay envelopes, cosmetic sets, ear rings, and one bag containing apples and potatoes."

Although actual fighting during World War II was taking place in Europe, New York was well aware that it was a potential target for enemy planes.  Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the country into the conflict, the city was on alert.  On January 10, 1941 The New York Sun reported that several hundred "observers" had been placed at observation posts throughout the city.  Not surprisingly, one of them was the New York Telephone Building.  

In 1928 the New York Telephone Building loomed above all downtown buildings.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

By now the legions of New York Telephone workers had been creating Christmas cheer for years.  The Great Depression left many families without money to pay for gifts.  With their own jobs secure, the telephone workers shared their good fortune.  On December 8, 1938 The New York Sun reported "More than 2,000 members of the staff of the New York Telephone Company, 140 West street, are playing Santa Claus this year, and on Saturday will begin the initial distribution in hospitals, institutions and poor homes toys and playthings for approximately 3,000 children, who otherwise might have no Christmas."  

As in years past, the female employees provided dolls.  "These, in most cases, have been elaborately dressed by women employees of the Manhattan offices of the company, their hand-made costumes portraying every nationality and color and a wide variety of fashions."  The men contributed things like books, scrapbooks, "stream-lined trains, automobiles, airplanes and other mechanical novelties."  The annual Christmas toy distribution continued at least through 1946.

The New York Telephone Company embarked on another program in 1971 which was only marginally related to the telephone; but continued the firm's concern over families and children.  That year it began distributing free Child Return Kits.  It was a simple pocket-sized folder with space for the child's information on one side, and a slot for a dime on the other.  With the folder in his pocket, a lost child was identifiable; and if he were old enough to use a pay phone, he had the coin.  The company's announcement cautioned parents, "But don't forget to remind your child not to spend his emergency dime on an emergency like soda."

A large fire broke out in the building in 1975.  According to Steven Scher in his New York City Firefighting: 1901-2001, "hundreds of firefighters were injured and sick for months afterward from the burning wire insulation.  The fire knocked out wide areas of phone service as well."

New York Telephone Company ceased to exist when NYNEX was formed; the building became headquarters of Bell Atlantic after that firm merged with NYNEX; and eventually it was home to Verizon.  It all resulted in a change in the building's name as well.  The New York Telephone Company tag was dropped and 140 West Street became officially known as the Barclay-Vesey Building.

The damage of the 1975 fire was nothing compared to the carnage caused by the collapse of the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001.  The government's May 2005 Environmental Impact Statement explained "When 7 WTC collapsed directly onto 140 West Street, Verizon's building was severely damaged and telephone and other communication services were cut off to large parts of Lower Manhattan."

Thousands of Verizon employees had to be temporarily relocated while repairs were made.  Glenn Collins, writing in The New York Times on January 6, 2003 said "The gaping holes in the tan-brick facade of the Verizon Building are still open to the ground zero void.  The blasted steelwork is jacked up like a Rube Goldberg contraption.  Only four tortured pieces of the 72-foot ornamental entranceway bronze work now exist.  Such are the wounds inflicted by the crushing debris from not one, but three, neighboring buildings: the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, and 7 World Trade Center, which pancaked next door."

photo by the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Verizon's New York manager for design and construction, Dominic P. Veltri, said of the massive project "What we're doing here is engineering on the fly.  We're changing a flat tire on a bus going down the highway at 60 miles an hour."  At the time $70 million had been spent to stabilize the building and, according to Collins, "the restoration is expected to cost at least $140 million more."

Each of the 1,800 windows were replaced, 520,000 facade bricks were recreated in Stone Creek, Ohio, and 22,500 cinder blocks and 93 tons of structural steel were required.  Inside the 15 ceiling murals had been damaged by burst water mains and firefighting efforts.  Four of them required extensive conservation and all needed to be cleaned.   The bronze entrance on Washington Street and the decorations above the ground floor windows were mutilated.  They were recast at the Excalibur Bronze Foundry under direction of William F. Collins, AIA Architects, LLP. 

photo via WFC Architects
Verizon brought its employees back in December 2005.   But yet another devastating event would take place seven years later.  On October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit New York City.  Lower Manhattan was swamped by an immense storm surge; the flooding reaching four feet high in the lobby.  Once again the 1,700 employees were relocated.

On April 11, 2013 The Times's architectural columnist David W. Dunlap, who called the lobby "a masterpiece of Jazz Age decorative art," wrote "As the company began recovering from the worst of the destruction, it became clear that the flooding had even affected 12 monumental ceiling frescoes...Paint was peeling, flaking and blistering."

The paintings were in danger of being lost.  The EverGreene Architectural Arts studio was hired to repair and stabilize the panels.  The meticulous, labor intensive project cost Verizon $160,000.

A conservator of William F. Collins Architects brings a ceiling panel back to life.  photo via WFC Architects

Only a month after The Times article Verizon announced it would move 1,100 employees from No. 140 West Street "and offer half of the 31-story tower for sale or lease."  Before the year's end developer Ben Shaoul purchased 22 floors for conversion to residential condominiums, known as One Hundred Barclay.

photo by Beyond My Ken
And Verizon had learned a valuable lesson in the meantime.  In October that year it began construction of a nine-foot high wall to protect the building against flooding.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The 1888 Henry E. Stevens House - 280 West 86th Street

No. 280 is the sole survivor of the six-house row.

In the summer of 1887 developer J. C. Caldwell announced he would be erecting six rowhouses on West 86th Street, stretching east towards Broadway from the corner of West End Avenue.  His architect, Joseph H. Taft, filed plans in August which estimated the construction cost of each at $20,000--just over half a million in today's dollars.

Late Victorian architects rightfully considered themselves the inheritors of all the architectural styles that had come before.  Their carefree blending of historical styles was, perhaps, seen nowhere in New York more markedly than on the Upper West Side.  Among Caldwell's row completed the following year, No. 280 West 86th Street was a marriage of three disparate styles.

Four stories tall above a high English basement, it was clad in brick and stone.  Touches of Romanesque Revival showed up in carvings of the dog-legged stoop and the chunky, undressed blocks of the basement.  Renaissance Revival panels appeared above the arched entrance and in the angled bay which rose from the basement through the third floor, where it provided a balcony to the fourth.  The house wore a curvaceous Flemish Renaissance Revival gable upon the understated stone cornice.  Its lack of decoration was more than made up for by its sweeping lines and prominent point.  

Taft sat the arched third floor opening next to the bay on a slightly projecting panel which sat on tightly-arranged brackets, giving the illusion of a Juliette balcony.  The windows of the fourth floor formed an arcade, each separated by an engaged column and crowned by prominent keystones.  

The house was purchased by Henry E. Stevens and his wife, the former Mary Jane Davison.  Both were born in Grafton, New York, and had married there in 1856.  Henry had graduated from Hamilton College and Mary Jane had received an education reserved for girls of well-to-do families.  After attending a local school, she was enrolled in "a select school in charge of the Rev. Mr. Shipley, Pastor of the Baptist Church of Grafton," and in 1853 went on to the Troy Seminary, according to the 1872 Fifty Years of Troy Female Seminary. 

Henry and Mary Jane summered in South Orange, New Jersey. The couple had had five children, but by 1895 only Harry E. and Dottie were still living. Henry and Harry were partners in H. E. Stevens & Son, a real estate firm.  Henry was additionally a director in the Washington Savings Bank and the Colonial Bank.

In October 1898 Stevens hired architect John Wilson to make alterations to the house.  His plans are frustratingly vague; but the work did not extend to the outward appearance of the residence.  Costing just under $11,000 today, the renovations were most likely updates to the plumbing and other modern conveniences, since no structural modifications like walls are included in the plans.

At around the turn of the century No. 280 became the home of the Austin Hall Watson family.  Watson and his wife, the former Julia Brainard Vail, had two children, Beatrice and E. Vail Watson. 

Watson had been employed by the Western Union Telegraph Company until 1879 when he married Julia.  (His bride was a direct descendant of William Brewster of the Mayflower.)  That year he resigned to become the junior partner in the dry goods firm Julia's father, James E. Vail, Jr. & Co.  (Interestingly, James E. Vail was not a "junior," but used the suffix to differentiate himself from his uncle.)  

Six years later Watson bought out Vail and by the time he purchased the 86th Street house he was senior partner in the importing and commission merchant firm of Watson, Porter, Giles & Co.  It operated from a spacious establishment at No. 61 Leonard Street and had a branch office in Chicago.  Like Stevens, he was also involved in banking.  He was a director in the Metropolitan Bank, the National Shoe and Leather Bank and the Mutual Alliance Trust company.

Austin H. Watson - New York, the Metropolis, 1902 (copyright expired)

Also moving in to the 86th Street house were Julia's parents, James Everett Vail and Redelia Brainard Vail.  Despite his successful career in the dry goods business James Everett Vail is remembered today for of his contributions to early baseball.  He was the secretary of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, and, interestingly, Redelia was the sister of the Cincinnati Red Stockings's 1869 pitcher, Asa Brainard.

The Leonard Street showroom of Watson, Porter, Giles & Co. - New York, the Metropolis, 1902 (copyright expired)
The Watsons' summer home, "Oakdale," was on the banks of the Rippowam River in Connecticut.  The Commemorative Biographical Record described it in 1899 as being "noted for its cordial hospitality so freely extended alike to stranger and to friend."  The family was there on July 5, 1904 when crooks broke into the 86th Street house.

Affluent families most often left at least one servant in their town houses to prevent just such occurrences.  But, instead, it seems that Watson had asked a business associate, Charles F.  Henry, to check on the residence periodically.  It was Henry to discovered the break-in.   When police arrived, they did a cursory inventory of the missing valuables.  Most evident was jewelry valued at around $1,500--more than $43,500 today.

Satisfied that the missing items were documented, Charles Henry asked the officers if they would like some refreshments.  The Morning Telegraph reported on July 11 "When he went to the cellar he found that the extent of the robbery had been only half uncovered.  The wine bin had been opened by the burglars, the larder broken into, and the table spread with an elaborate meal.  Wine, preserves, cigars, the best that the house afforded, had been spread upon the table and, apparently, consumed with the utmost deliberation."

The newspaper was unsympathetic with the policemen, spoofing them with a parody of a nursery rhyme.  "When Henry got there the cupboard was bare, and so the poor coppers had none."

James Everett Vail died in the house on January 19, 1907 at the age of 72.  The funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  Redelia Vail continued to live on with the family (she would live until 1922, dying at the age of 88). 

Austin H. Watson retired on December 31, 1909.  The January 1910 issue of Fabrics, Fancy Goods and Notions reported "The old employees of the house gave him a dinner at the Arkwright Club on December 30...and at that time presented him with a book containing an engrossed set of resolutions signed by every employee of the firm.  Mr. Watson has been well and favorably known in the notion trade for many years, and will carry with him into his retirement the best wishes of a host of friends."

Watson did not intend to idle away his retirement years.  The journal explained "Mr. Watson has purchased a country residence near Fishkill Landing, N.Y., where he will have about one hundred and forty acres of farm land and a number of buildings.  He will devote himself very largely to farming on a scientific basis, and to raising blooded stock."

The Magnolias now replaced Oakdale as the Watson family's summer home.  It was the scene of Beatrice's wedding on September 7, 1910.   Her marriage ceremony to attorney Ferdinand A. Hoyt took place on the lawn.

Watson's focus on "scientific farming" proved successful.  In 1913 inspectors made a "tour of the dairies" in the district.  The Beacon Daily Herald made a special note that they found The Magnolias to be "in a first class condition.  The stables are all concreted, clean and sanitary.  Of this place the committee makes the most pleasing report."

The family's social involvement within their new upstate surrounds was evidenced later that year.  Both Austin and E. Vail were avid golfers and members of the Southern Duchess Country Club.  On November 22, 1913 E. Vail entered the field of 21 contestants in the Club's tournament and won it.  Winning the prize may have caused an awkward moment, however.   The Beacon Daily Herald reported "The tournament was for a silver cup offered by Austin H. Watson.  He is the father of the successful golfer."

Austin's love for the game resulted in a horrific accident in July the following year.  A hard-hit golf ball hit a stone wall and rebounded, striking him in the eye.  On August 23, 1914 the New York Tribune wrote "For six weeks he had been almost frantic with pain."  The agony only intensified.  "For three weeks Mr. Watson had been unable to sleep, so intense had been his sufferings."   At 2:30 on the morning of August 23 he got out of bed and entered the bathroom.  A gunshot awoke the butler.  Breaking in the locked door, he found Watson dead with a bullet wound to the head.

E. Vail Watson inherited The Magnolias.  His mother and grandmother lived on briefly in the 86th Street house.  Newspapers routinely reported that they "were guests" of E. Vail Watson at his Connecticut home.

By 1916 No. 280 was the home of Alfred W Mack and his wife.  They were members of the wealthy Temple Emanu-El congregation and summered at Long Branch, New Jersey, popular with moneyed Jewish families.   The 86th Street residence was perhaps too much house for the couple and by 1918 there were roomers listed here.  Thomas P. Ohlert, a junior auditor for the U. S. Shipping Board was listed here in 1918 and 1919.  Because of his job, he was exempt from military duty.  By 1920 Guyon L. C. Earle ran his real estate office from his room in the house.

Throughout the Depression years, the house continued to see roomers come and go.  Mrs. Bertha Bright Rainger, a member of the American Kennel Club, lived here in 1930.  She was a breeder of cairn terriers.  And the following year Charles E. Burch, a steel engineer, had a room in the house.

An official alteration to apartments, two per floor, was completed in 1969.  Another renovation, completed in 2001, included a penthouse, unseen from the street, which resulted in a duplex with the fourth floor apartment.

Regrettably, Joseph H. Taft's purposeful contrast of brick and stone has been obliterated under a coat of mouse gray paint.  The entrance has been narrowed to accommodate a single standard-sized door, air conditioners have been gouged into the stonework, and the profusion of stained glass that almost certainly filled the arched transoms of the upper windows has been removed.  Nevertheless, the last survivor of the row retains most of its 1888 appearance.

photographs by the author

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Lost Congregation Ohab Zedek Synagogue - 18-22 West 116th Street

The American Architect and Building News, September 28, 1907 (copyright expired)

The governor of Nieuw Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, had a strong and simple view on religion:  his faith was right and all others were wrong.  A member of the Dutch Reformed Church, in 1655 he forbade citizens to "admit, lodge or entertain...any one of the heretical and abominable sect called the Quakers."  The following year he refused Lutherans the right to organize a church.  So it was not surprising that when the first Jews landed in New York in 1654 they were met with severe discrimination.

Nevertheless, religious tolerance in the New World won out.  Between 1812 and 1846 the Jewish population in New York would swell from 400 to 10,000 and by the start of the Civil War there would be more than two dozen synagogues in the city.  Another congregation was established in 1873, the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek.

Originally worshiping in a synagogue at No. 70 Columbia Street, it moved into the former shul of the Congregation Anshe Chesed on Norfolk Street in 1886.   Then twenty years later, on April 10, 1906, the New-York Tribune reported that the congregation would be moving to the newly-fashionable Harlem district.  It had purchased the 70-foot wide property at Nos. 18 to 22 West 116th Street from Robert C. Dorsett for $69,500--a pricey $2 million today.

Within the month architects Hedman & Schoen had filed plans for a "two-story brick and concrete synagogue."  The project cost was $60,000, nearly doubling the cost of the entire project.  Jewish congregations grappled with architectural styles.  The Gothic Revival and Greek Revival styles were closely associated with Christian churches.  So synagogue architects often turned to Moorish Revival, which hearkened to the pre-Inquisition era when Jews enjoyed relative freedom in Spain.

Architects Axel Hedman and Eugene Schoen, however, went another direction.  The New-York Tribune reported that the synagogue "is to be of the Tudor style, in brick and terra cotta, with an elaborate facade having a great central gable window with ornamental mullions and a cornice with two cupolas.  There are to be three front entrances, the central one having a staircase."

By fall construction had progressed far enough that the cornerstone could be laid.  The congregation gave the honors to one of its most prominent and wealthiest members, banker Jacob H. Schiff.  But first there was a major problem to overcome--the structure was being constructed by the Schaeffer-Carroll Construction Company, an all union firm.  And Schiff was not a union member.

Mr. Carroll explained to a reporter "Every man on the job would strike if a non-union man put a trowel into mortar on this job.  Mr. Schiff has got to join the union and I'll be present to swear him in."  And so it was.  The millionaire financier joined the labor union and the ceremony could go on.

It was an impressive affair.  The New York Herald, on November 5, reported that "Thirty-five hundred members of the First Hungarian Congregation yesterday saw Jacob H. Schiff, the well-known head of the firm of Kuhn, Loeb, & Co. bankers, sworn in as a union man before he was permitted to mix the mortar used in the laying of the cornerstone of their three hundred thousand dollar synagogue."

The newspaper was a bit ambitious in its numbers.  The New-York Tribune estimated the number of members present at 300 and, in fact, while costly, the total price of the synagogue would be about half of the Herald's estimate.   Congregation Ohab Zedek had been a bit optimistic, as well, in sending invitations.  A letter from the White House was read, in which President Theodore Roosevelt offered his regrets at not being able to attend.   Nevertheless the ceremony was imposing with the bank of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum playing Hebrew hymns, aided by a chorus from among the congregation.  

The building was completed in 1907.  Its red brick neo-Tudor facade did not flaunt; but emanated an air of dignity.  A large arched stained glass window dominated the design, flanked by two lancet-like windows with prominent cornices.  Above each were open-work Stars of David.
The American Architect & Building News illustrated the complex brick and terra cotta details in this photo.  The gentleman in the picture might be L. Herman, then president of the congregation.  The American Architect and Building News, September 28, 1907 (copyright expired)
The congregation would often lead the city's Jews in philanthropic causes, perhaps none so urgent as the situation in Palestine in 1915.   World War I was taking a merciless toll on Jews, although no shots had been fired there.  Turkish forces brought with them contagious diseases, and starvation was rampant. 

Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, wrote, “All of the disease, the cholera, typhus fever, dysentery, malaria and the other angels of destruction have been forgotten due to the starvation … The synagogues have removed the silver crowns and ornaments from the Torah scrolls to sell them by weight – from their silver they have made whip handles…The Arabs wore our prayer shawls on their heads; the shopkeepers used our sacred books to package their goods…Mothers sold themselves to save their children from death."

A cable message to Rabbi Philip Klein arrived on April 4, 1915 that said 100,000 Jews in the Holy Land were starving.  "Financial conditions are desperate and help is urgently requested.  Please ask the American liberal press to spread this appear throughout the country."  Rabbi Klein and Congregation Ohab Zedek spearheaded the New York fund drive, and they did so in an ingenious way.

The former shul on Norfolk Street is pictured in the inset.  memorial pamphlet to Dr. and Mrs. Philip Klein, 1926 (copyright expired)
The congregation's cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, was gifted with a unrivaled singing voice.  Born near Kiev, Russian, he had begun singing at the age of 9 and later trained in Austria where he was known as "The Wonder Child" because of his vocal ability.

On April 29, 1917 the New-York Tribune reported that he would give a concert of Hebrew liturgical music "with a choir of forty voices" in the Hippodrome for the benefit of the Jewish War Relief.  It would kick off a nation-wide tour during which he would visit between 30 and 40 large cities.

The cantor turned down a princely offer for his faith.  The American Jewish Chronicle, April 19, 1918 (copyright expired)

The tour reaped large amounts for the relief effort; and had an unexpected result as well.   Sitting in the audience at the Chicago concert on March 15, 1918 was Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Grand Opera Company.  He desperately wanted Rosenblatt's golden voice.

After the concert Campanini approached the cantor, known popularly as "Yosele" Rosenblatt, and offered him $1,000 per performance.  It was a celebrity wage--about $16,700 a night in today's dollars.  And Campanini was prepared for any arguments.

Rosenblatt explained to The American Jewish Chronicle a month later, "When I told him that I did not think it proper for me as an orthodox Jew to appear upon the operatic stage, Mr. Campanini said that he would guarantee that I need not remove my beard, nor sing in any performance on either Friday or Saturday, and that he would not ask me to sing any operas that would hurt the feelings of an orthodox Jew."

The singer asked for time to think about it, and in the meantime Campanini considerately sent a letter to Morris Newman, president of Congregation Ohab Zedek, explaining the offer and asking the for his "favorable answer."

That would not come.  Newman's response, written with "the consent of Mr. Rosenblatt," according to The American Jewish Chronicle, said in part "we feel that the Rev. Rosenblatt's sacred position in the synagogue does not permit him to enter the operatic stage."  The trustees, said the letter, had "no objections to his singing at concerts, whether sacred or otherwise."

Foremost among the congregants working for relief efforts was Jacob H. Schiff's son-in-law, Felix M. Warburg.  His indefatigable work resulted in his receiving "the highest honor rabbinical authority has ever conferred on an American Jew," as reported by the New-York Tribune on March 19, 1920.  "It was the degree 'Haber,' or 'Chover,' which had its origin in the Talmudic era, and is given only in recognition of great humanitarian service."  

The honor, bestowed by Rabbis Bernard Drachman and Philip Klein of Congregation Ohab Zedek, recognized his far-reaching achievements in the relief of the Jews of war-devastated Europe.  The rarity of the accolade was evidenced in the article's noting "Sir Moses Montefiore was the last Jew to receive the distinction, it being awarded to him for saving the Jews of Damascus in 1848."  

The following month Rabbi Drachman was back in the newspapers, this time fighting the Federal Government.  Prohibition brought an end to wine, an important element of the Passover and Sabbath rites.  On April 2 he declared, according to the New-York Tribune, that "fermented liquor has been used from 'time immemorial' and that Jews are 'enjoined by their religion' to use it on all religious occasions, including the celebration of the Sabbath."  (The government, by the way, issued an exemption in favor of Jews and Christians in the use of fermented wines for sacramental purposes.)

On February 22, 1925 The New York Times reported that Morris Newman had announced "that the congregation will begin at once the erection of a new synagogue in West Ninety-fifth Street, near Amsterdam Avenue."  But, somewhat confusingly, that did not mean the abandonment of the 116th Street building.  "The new building, it was explained, would not supplant the present synagogue of Ohab Zedek...where services will continued to be held."

The new structure was completed in 1926.  The 116th Street shul, while still owned by Congregation Ohab Zedek, became known as the One Hundred and Sixteenth Street Synagogue, or sometimes the Community Synagogue.  On October 9, 1932, President Herbert Hoover sent a letter that read:

I sent hearty congratulations to the congregation of the One Hundred and Sixteenth Street Synagogue upon their celebration of the 25th [sic] anniversary of its founding, and every good wish for success in continued helpfulness in the field of spiritual inspiration which has always been a major contribution of the Jewish race to the world.

Finally on June 14, 1939 The New York Times reported "The synagogue formerly occupied by the First Hungarian Ohabzedek Congregation, a two-story building at 18-22 West 116th Street, has been the Baptist Temple of the City of New York."  The article added that the building "will undergo extensive alterations in preparation for occupancy."

The Christian church removed the Stars of David from above the thin stained glass windows.  photo via NYC Department of Records & Information Services
The Christian congregation had apparently been leasing the building for a short time, already.  Four months earlier, on February 15, the New York Age reported "on Sunday morning at the Baptist Temple Church, 20 West 116th Street, the auditorium was filled to capacity to hear the inspiring sermon preached by Rev. Coles, subject 'Stewardship.'"

In the three decades since Congregation Ohab Zedek had erected the building, the Harlem neighborhood had become the epicenter of Manhattan's Black community.  The Baptist Temple Church was founded in 1899 by worshipers who had broken away from Mount Olivet Baptist Church.  The 116th Street church would play an important part in the district's political, social and religions activities.

On October 17, 1953, for instance, the upstate newspaper The Kingston Daily Freeman reported that Rev. L. A. Weaver, pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church, and "messengers" would "leave for New York to attend the annual session of the Empire State Convention at the Baptist Temple Church, 20 West 116th street."  

A devastating fire ravaged the church in 1965.  Without the funds to restore the interior, a false ceiling was erected at the balcony level, closing off the upper space.  The smashed stained glass windows were sealed up.

In the meantime, the Temple continued its work.  The New York Branch of the NAACP established its headquarters in the building and it was here that Mrs. Annie B. Martin, described by the N. Y. Amsterdam News as its "activist president," was unanimously re-elected to a sixth two-year term in December 1988.  She pledged "to help combat growing racial tensions in New York City, and continuing attention to the community problems in education, unemployment and against the narcotics menace."

N. Y. Amsterdam News, October 8, 1988
The New York Times highly-respected architectural columnist David W. Dunlap visited the sanctuary in June 2002.  The pastor, Rev. Anthony W. Mann was looking for financial help to finally restore the space.  Dunlap described looking above the false ceiling.  "This hidden space is amazing in its dimension and decrepitude, stripped to brick, timber and steel columns.  The frames of the Tudor-style arched windows are still evident, but cinder blocks now replace glass."

Despite Rev. Mann's laudable hopes to restore the vintage structure, there was a darker side to his pastorate.  On June 21, 2004 Neil Graves, writing in The New York Post, wrote "In the end, the elderly parishioners of a Harlem church said it was no contest--God scored a TKO victory for them over a bully pastor."  Graves went on to say "Members of the  Baptist Temple Church at 18 W. 116th St. awoke from a nightmare yesterday by reclaiming their church from Rev. Anthony Mann, 44, a former corrections officer who ran the place like Sing Sing, several said."

Scores of members had abandoned the congregation after Mann made "their life in the pews miserable." according to Graves.  "Some even said the younger man challenged them to fistfights and denied them funerals for loved ones."  After resisting efforts to fire him for two years, Mann finally resigned.   During his term in the pulpit membership had fallen to about only 40.

In 2018 the windows were blocked over and weeds sprouted from the entrance pediment.  image via Google Street View

In the 1920's a popular trend had changed the face of ecclesiastic architecture throughout the country; at least for a decade or so.  Congregations demolished their steepled structures to erect "skyscraper churches"--modern apartment or office buildings with ground floor space delegated to the churches.  

On May 9, 2016 Curbed New York announced that the Baptist Temple congregation would be doing just that.  The article said "Plans call for a new 11-story structure to be built on the site at 20 West 116th Street.  The new church will be located on the cellar and first floors of the building."  The decision had been prompted by the Department of Building's citing structural damage.    

Workers began demolition in 2009.  photo by Austin2Harlem
Demolition began in October 2009, but then ground to a halt.  Nine years later, in August 2018, the architectural firm of GF55 Partners released new renderings for the proposed replacement.  On August 29, 2018 New York Yimby advised "No completion date has been announced yet."

rendering by GF55 Partners via
many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for suggesting this post