Saturday, May 25, 2019

James W. Cole's Eclectic 1890 177 Waverly Place

The venerable two-story brick-faced frame house at No. 177 Waverley Place had become a rooming house by the late 1870's.  Among tenants were Martha McFarland and her son, William David, who was attending New York City College; and Richard C. Bolton, a clerk.  One by one similar Federal-style homes would soon be disappearing in Greenwich Village, replaced by commercial or apartment buildings.

On March 1, 1890 developer William Ranking purchased No. 177 from Anna M. Hoch.  He paid the widow $9,000 for the property; about $256,000 today.  Any roomers in the house would quickly have to relocate; for just a month later, on April 18, architect James W. Cole filed plans for a five-story "stone flat" to cost $13,000.   Ranking's total expenditure on the project would amount to $626,000 today.

The structure was built with lightning speed, and the first tenants moved in before the end of the year.  Cole had created a hybrid of architectural styles.  He faced the  basement and first floor levels in undressed brownstone.  That, along with the arched windows, echoed Romanesque Revival.  The entrance, which perched above a shallow stone stoop, featured Corinthian pilasters and a bracketed entablature whose incised, stylized palmette designs hearkened back to Greek Revival.

The openings of the planar upper floors wore molded lintels and Italian Renaissance-inspired pediments.  Their understated brackets were more in keeping with the neo-Grec style.  An impressive cast metal cornice crowned the design.

Ranking quickly sold the building.  On March 28, 1891 Samuel Aronson paid him $25,000.  Ranking's 12-month investment earned him a profit equal to more than $75,000 in today's dollars.

The flats--just two per floor--became home to respectable middle-class residents.  Among the first to move in was civil servant Dennis H. Foley.  A Commissioner of Deeds, he was a low-level city government clerk who assisted notaries public.

Like Foley, the other residents held jobs which, while respectable, did not earn them lavish salaries.  Anne M. Glass was a teacher, for instance, in 1898.  She earned about $495 per year, or in the neighborhood of $15,000 today.   The Cudibert family were in the building at the same time.  Their son hoped to add to the family's income when he placed a situation wanted advertisement in the New York Journal on October 15 that year:  "Boy, 18, experienced, willing, in machine shop."

By May 17, 1906 when Samuel Aronson sold the building to Charles Seidel and his wife, Millie, the second "e" in Waverly Place had been dropped in common usage.  The Seidel family would retain ownership for decades.

George Wilkinson lived here in 1919 when Congress passed the Volstead Act, ushering in Prohibition.   He worked for a man named Inteman as a trucker's delivery assistant.  The company's offices were relatively nearby at 18th Street and Eighth Avenue.  A delivery on the night of January 15, 1920 landed George and the trucker, William J. Flynn, in deep trouble.

The New York Herald reported that the men were arrested "while they were unloading cases of whiskey from a horse-drawn truck at a saloon at West and Liberty streets."  They were charged with possessing liquor--and not a small amount.  On their truck were 146 cases and a barrel of whiskey.  The apprehension of the deliverymen did not sit well with thirsty bar patrons.

"When the two federal agents arrested the men they were immediately surrounded by a hostile crowd of men, whom they dispersed at the point of their revolver.  The whiskey was seized."

In December 1921 Charles and Millie Seidel leased the building to Jesse Oppenheim.  In signing the 21-year lease, the new proprietor intended to modernize the outdated structure.  In reporting on the lease The New York Herald said "The property will be altered."

Oppenheim hired the architectural firm of B. H. & C. N. Whinston to update the Victorian building.  The architects not only upgraded the infrastructure, like plumbing and electricity, they removed the stoop and installed a new foyer.  Also included in the plans was an electric sign.

With the stoop removed and the entrance lowered, the transom above the double doors assumed mammoth proportions.  Surviving the update is the fantastic cast iron fringe above the well-eroded cornice.

With his upgrades in place, Oppenheim placed an advertisement in The New York Herald in October 1922:  "Just completed, 2 room kitchenette and bath suites, all the latest improvements."

The remodeled apartments continued to attract middle class tenants.  Residents William R. Compton and William H. Sayre both passed the State bar exams in 1926.  Architect George Provot moved into the building around the same time.

Born in New York, Provot had studied architecture for nine years in France, where he received his first degree in 1886.  In 1889 he received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Columbia University.  He was a member of the well-known firm of Welch, Smith & Provot before striking out on his own.  He was still living at No. 177 Waverly Place when he died in the French Hospital on West 13th Street on July 9, 1936.

Other residents at the time were being scrutinized by the Government.   Theodore and Sylvia Schwab, along with their neighbor Dora Sklar, were on a published list of Communist voters.  The three were still here in 1940 when their signatures appeared on Communist Party petitions.  Another resident, Ruth Levine, added hers as well.

Astonishingly, the 1890 interior shutters survive in the first floor, front apartment.
Having held onto the building for 35 years, in 1939 the Seidel family sold the building to real estate operator J. Perlow.  As the decades passed, the tenant list continued to be middle class.  By 1962 college student Bruce Brown was sharing an apartment with a classmate.  That year his mother, Helen Gurley Brown, published her book Sex and the Single Girl.

The Addams-Family-appropriate light fixtures are especially eye-catching.  Taking the shape of wyverns (two-legged dragons) the originals were produced in the 1890's, making them period appropriate.  However, their crisp lines suggest they might be recent reproductions.

Despite his mother's progressive thinking, Bruce's father, David Brown, seems to have been a bit more conservative.  According to biographer Gerri Hirshey in the 2016 Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, he wrote to Bruce's girlfriend (and later wife), Kathy Ames, in 1963 saying in part that perhaps she could convince him to cut his hair.

Among the residents in the mid-1980's was illustrator Robert M. Cunningham.

Although the brownstone entrance has been seriously weather-eroded and the loss of the stoop is regrettable, James W. Cole's brooding Late Victorian flat building is an architectural treat.

photographs by the author

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