Thursday, May 23, 2019

Charming Bedfellows--Nos. 14 and 16 St. Nicholas Place

The wooden shingles of the second floor are a latter renovation, sometime after 1938.  The boxy green entrance to No. 14 was originally an airy open porch.

The district of northern Manhattan which would become known as Sugar Hill was expected by many to be the city's next exclusive residential neighborhood.  Both freestanding residences and rowhouses rose in the 1880's which would house well-to-do families.  James Montieth cleverly created a hybrid of the two.

A Sugar Hill resident himself (he lived on St. Nicholas Avenue at 154th Street), he acquired the properties at Nos. 14 and 16 St. Nicholas Place and laid plans for two upscale homes.  Perhaps to make the most efficient use of the plots and wring out the most floor space as possible, he directed architect William Grinnell to design connected houses fashioned to appear nearly as one.  The result was a fairy tale delight.

Completed in 1884, the Queen Anne style houses featured all the architectural bells and whistles expected in the style--asymmetric lines, a mixture of materials and colors, and a riot of shapes and angles.  The two-story and attic structures sat on bases of rough cut schist--a highly unusual choice for the style.   No. 14 stole the spotlight with its corner tower and bulbous onion dome.  The stucco-covered and half-timbered gable at the side tied into the more prominent example of No. 16.

The gable of No. 16 was originally stucco faced and included Tudor half-timbering.
That house featured a projecting bay supported by a shallow wooden entrance porch.  The Tudor-style gable boasted elaborate half-timbering.  The two dwellings shared a wide box dormer and their chimneys marked the separation line.

When the houses were completed U.S. District Attorney William Dorsheimer and his wife, Isabella, lived in Washington D. C.  But on February 4, 1886 he wrote a letter of resignation to President Grover Cleveland.  The couple moved to New York where Dorscheimer died in the spring of 1888.

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on March 20, 1892 apparently caught the eye of Isabella P. Dorsheimer.  It offered "the 2-1/2 story stone and frame house, No. 14 St. Nicholas Place...adjoining the residence of James A. Bailey.  The above property is in the choicest and most desirable residence locality in the city of New-York."   Isabella leased the home from the Montieth family and was listed (as "widow") at the address at least through 1894.

On May 21, 1896 James Montieth's heirs sold No. 14 to Thomas Alexander, who paid $25,000 for the house, or just over $770,000 today.  He immediately transferred title to his wife, the former Annie Newton.  The couple had three children, Marion, Arthur Douglas and Nelson.

Alexander had begun working for the Federal Government as an office boy in 1867 at the age of 13.  On New Year's Day 1887 he was appointed commissioner and deputy clerk of the United States District Court, in which position he acted "as cashier of the admiralty branch of the district court," according to the New-York Tribune.  By the time he purchased the St. Nicholas Place home, his responsibilities had greatly increased.  He now oversaw all bankruptcy cases and Federal felonies.  On April 29, 1896, for instance, The Sun reported that "Henry J. Butler, a letter carrier attached to Station A, was brought before Commissioner Thomas Alexander yesterday afternoon...on a charge of having stolen letters containing money."

Like all moneyed families, the Alexanders closed their Manhattan house during the summer.  While they were gone during the summer of 1899 there was a break in.  The Sun reported that Thomas Alexander, "upon visiting his home at 14 St. Nicholas place, for the first time in six weeks, the house having been closed for the summer, he found that it had been entered and every room showed traces of having been carefully searched."  The intruders took nothing, but were evidently searching for something in particular.  "They had opened every drawer and searched every cranny, and apparently every scrap of correspondence had been read over."

Between the topmost tower windows pierced panels create stylized sunflowers, an important motif in the Queen Anne style.
Frustrated, the burglars now focused on Alexander's office.  On August 26 The Sun entitled an article "Alexander's Curious Visitors," and noted "Sometime between Saturday noon and Monday morning some person pried open two drawers of the cashier's desk in the clerk's office of the United States District Court in the postoffice building.  Commissioner Thomas Alexander is clerk of the court."  Once again the thieves went away empty handed.  "The lock of one drawer was forced off and fell into the drawer and the clutch of the other was forced back into the lock." 

In the meantime, No. 16 had originally been sold to the family of Leonard B. Smith.  Smith was a partner in the tea and coffee firm of Eppens, Smith & Wiemann at No. 267 Washington Street.  In 1896, the same year that the Alexanders moved into No. 14, Smith leased the residence to the Augustus R. Adams family.

Adams was an attorney and member of the law firm Adams & Hahn at No. 76 Williams Street.  His son, Robert Allison Adams, was enrolled in the "classical" courses at New York City College at the time.   On May 13, 1902 Augustus died at the age of 60.  His funeral was held in the house three days later.

Leonard Smith and his wife sold the 32-foot wide house to Emma Reiner in 1905.  The Adams family continued to lease under their new landlord.

While moneyed New Yorkers routinely spent weeks or months abroad every year, the Alexander family stayed relatively close to home.  Thomas Alexander commuted to their summer residence on the weekends, most likely spending weeknights at his club.  But on February 23, 1907 The Sun reported that the Commissioner would be taking his "first vacation since 1898."  The two-week visit to London, said the article, "will be the Commissioner's first real holiday since 1898.  Ever since the bankruptcy law went into effect that year the Commissioner, who is also clerk of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, has never for a single day been a hundred miles away from his office or beyond reach by telephone."

In 1912 the Alexanders began construction of a new summer house in Harriman, New York, overlooking the Ramapo Mountains.  While construction proceeded, the family leased a house nearby.  On the night of July 9, according to The Sun, Thomas "started with his two sons to visit the new home, and in the darkness stumbled into a well that has been sunk about fourteen feet.  His cries for aid brought his sons, who were a little distance away, and they saw that other help was needed."

One of the boys rushed to a neighbor who brought his automobile across the field.  He had the foresight to bring along a wicker chair.  In the meantime, a call was made to Dr. Rhullison who lived about six miles away.  Using the automobile lights to illuminate the well, the men carefully dropped packing crates into the hole until they could clamber down.  The chair was lowered and Alexander was carried up.  The 58-year-old had suffered three broken ribs, but nothing more serious was evident.  What the country doctor did not perceive was that, in fact, his skull was fractured.  

Alexander lingered in the Harriman house for two weeks.  He died of heart failure on July 24 as a result of his injuries.  Alexander's estate was valued at about $1.7 million in today's dollars, the bulk of which was bequeathed to Annie.   The family continued to live in the St. Nicholas Place house and at Briarton, the new Harriman estate.

Following the expected mourning period, the Alexander family reappeared among society.  On June 24, 1916 Marion was married at Briarton to Charles Meding.  She was given away by her brother, Arthur.  The Sun reported "Two hundred guests came out from New York by automobile."

After the Adams family had leased No. 16 for two decades, on September 13, 1917 Robert A. Adams purchased it through his father's estate.   The family's focus, however, was no doubt mostly concentrated on Arthur's well being.

Five months earlier the United States had entered World War I and Arthur enlisted in the Army.  He was sent overseas as part of the American Expeditionary Force in France with the rank of First Lieutenant where he held the position of Chief Ordnance Officer.  But on June 4, 1917 The Sun reported that he had been "to-day honorably discharged from the camp for physical disability."

1st Lt. Arthur Douglas Alexander was a Columbia-educated attorney.  photo via Columbia University Roll of Honor
While overseas Arthur had contracted tuberculosis.  He continued his military service in the States until after the Armistice.  On March 28, 1919 the Columbia Alumni News reported that he "has been discharged from the service and may be addressed at 14 St. Nicholas Place, New York City."  Less than a month later, on April 21, Arthur died in the St. Nicholas Place house of the disease.  In January 1921 Columbia University announced the establishment of The Arthur D. Alexander Memorial Cup to be presented annually at the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball Championship.

On April 1, 1925 an advertisement in The New York Times announced the liquidation of the real estate of Thomas Alexander.  Included was No. 14 St. Nicholas Place, described as a "splendid home; exceptionally fine views."

No. 16 was vacant in 1938, its windows boarded up and a plank fence protecting it from invaders.  Note the elaborate Tudor gable.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
No. 16 had been sold three times by now, yet was still a single-family house.  By the mid 1940's it was home to Dr. Alma Mary Haskins and her husband, James Egert Allen.  Almas was the only Black woman practicing podiatry in the city at the time.  Born in Newport News, Virginia, Haskins received her medical degree from New York University and had served as president of the New York County Society of Podiatrists in 1927 through 1929.

James E. Allen was born in 1896 in Greenwood, South Carolina.  He had been an educated in the New York public school system since 1926.  Additionally, he was a community advocate, civil rights activist and author.  An active promoter of African American studies, he was the first president of the New York City Branch of the NAACP.

The esteem in which the community held Dr. Haskins was evidenced in a comment in The New York Age on February 26, 1949.  "Send fancy get-well cards to Dr. Alma Mary Haskins who is better after suffering from a severe attack of sciatica."

Both houses managed to survive the 20th century as single family homes, although in 2003 No. 14 was converted to apartments--one each on the first and second floors, and two on the third.  A rediscovery of the Sugar Hill neighborhood at around the same time resulted in the careful preservation of Nos. 14 and 16.  They are the oldest surviving structures in the Sugar Hill Historic District.
photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Most Queen Anne style houses of the late 19th century, at least in the USA, presented a hodgepodge of strange lines, materials and colours, as you say. There was none of the architectural rigour we might have expected from eg Georgian homes. But I am very glad that the rediscovery of Sugar Hill led to the careful preservation of these historic homes.