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

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