Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The 1889 John B. Gleason House - 34 West 88th Street

In 1889 speculative developer James J. Spaulding completed a row of 19 brick and brownstone-faced homes on the south side of West 88th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  They were, by any estimations, remarkable.

Architects Thom & Wilson had created a string of harmonious, yet individual, 23-feet wide homes whose architectural personalties drew from album of historic styles--Renaissance Revival, Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival.

Thom & Wilson designed a striking row.  No. 34 is left of center, behind the silver car.

At No. 34 two hefty stone newels decorated with carvings of ribbons and roses introduced the wide stoop.  Above it the double-doored entrance was flanked by caryatids with innocent Victorian faces.  Leafy brackets upheld the Renaissance-detailed entablature and cornice, which morphed into a pseudo balcony at the second floor.

The hallway window at the second floor was framed in stone quoins supported by volutes carved with dainty draping and ribbons.  Fluted Corinthian pilasters separated the three grouped openings on this level.  A lushly-carved arched pediment perched above a molded cornice.  The third floor windows wore Renaissance-inspired pediments.  Thom & Wilson saved a delightful surprise for the top floor, where a telamon and a caryatid shared the job of upholding the pressed metal Queen Anne style cornice.

The house became home to the family of John B. Gleason, a partner with his father, William Gleason, and C. P. Collier in the law firm of W. & J. B. Gleason .  

Gleason, who graduated from Yale University in 1876, would be linked to some of New York's most publicized cases.  He went on to defend, for instance, Mary F. Wilmerding in 1898.  She deemed insane by her wealthy husband, John C. Wilmerding, Jr., and committed to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum; although with no real evidence of insanity.  And in 1914 he would defend Harry K. Thaw in his trial for murdering Stanford White.

But in 1895 Gleason had another matter on his mind.  Bicycling had taken American by storm and there was no place in New York City more popular for "wheeling" than Riverside Drive.  But getting from the smooth-faced Boulevard (later Broadway) to Riverside Drive meant navigating the unpaved east-west block.  Mud and ruts made the one-block journey difficult.

On March 1 he and scores of others signed a petition urging the Board of Aldermen to pave one "short block," 108th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive, with asphalt "so connecting those two smooth roads for bicycles and light vehicles."

Gleason's wife, in the meantime, slipped into the routine of women in society.  On February 24, 1896 The Press listed her as among "Some of those receiving to-day."

But, rather surprisingly, on August 20 the following year the New-York Daily Tribune reported that No. 34 "was sold in foreclosure...to the plaintiff, the Equitable Life Assurance Society, for $36,400."  The buy-back price would equal just over $1 million today.

The company made money on the deal when it sold it to "a Mrs. Segelken," as reported in The New York Times on September 27, 1898, for $40,000.  It was not uncommon in the late 19th century for real estate buyers to use pseudonyms for anonymity, at least temporarily.  It appears that "Mrs. Segelken" was in actuality Anna M. Fink, wife of Henry J. Fink.

The well-to-do couple had two children, Clara and Charles.  By the time they moved into the house Clara was a young woman and before long was highly visible in the young Upper West Side set.  It was she, more than her mother, who entertained most often in the 88th Street house.

On January 13, 1900, for instance, The Evening Telegram reported "The fourth meeting of the West End Euchre Club was held at the home of Miss Clara Fink, No. 34 West Eighty-eighth street last evening, followed by refreshments and an informal dance."

The West End Euchre Club may have been short-lived.  On December 2 that same year the New York Herald noted "The first meeting of the Fleur de Lis Euchre Club was held on Wednesday evening at the residence of Miss Fisk, No. 34 West Eight-eighth street.  This club is one of the most popular on the west side."  (How the newspaper decided it was so popular after the first meeting is unclear.)

Clara continued her interest in fledgling social clubs.  On February 3, 1901 the New York Herald mentioned that she had "entertained the members of the Avo Club" on the previous Tuesday afternoon.  This one, too, would not last long.

On December 2, 1901 The Sun explained "The Avo Club is an organization which was formed about a year ago by thirty young women of the upper West Side and met once a week to talk over things in general.  While there was no rule against marriage, there was a tacit understanding that the cares and responsibilities of matrimony were out of keeping with the objects of the club."

That, it turned out, was the fatal flaw.

After a year one member announced "that she had other engagements and presently she got married."  Then another, and another, until eight more engagements had been announced.  Included in that list was Clara Fink.  The newspaper concluded "it looks as if the Avo Club was doomed."

Clara's wedding to Howard Franklin Mead would take place the following spring.  On April 13, 1902 The New York Herald reported that "One thousand invitations to the ceremony have been issued by the bride's parents."  The article added "Miss Fink is a popular member of the younger set and this season has been seen much in society."

Clara Fink in her wedding dress.  New York Herald April 13, 1902 (copyright expired)
The wedding took place in All Angels' Church on April 30.  The Evening Telegram said the bride was "attired in an elaborate costume of duchesse lace."  A "large reception" was held in the 88th Street house.

A far more somber ceremony was held in the parlor in February, 1919.  After being ill only a short time, Anna died in the house on February 7.  Her funeral was held here three days later.

Henry and Charles were, apparently, already deep in negotiations for the formation of a new firm.  Just three weeks later the Henry J. Fink Co., Inc. was incorporated.  The new endeavor was described as "jobbers and merchants in woodenware, hardware, household furnishings."  But Henry would not live to head it very long.

Five months later, on August 2, 1919, the New-York Tribune reported that the estate of Henry J. Fink had sold No. 34 to Dr. Thomas F. Reilly.

Reilly and his wife, Kathryn, had four children, Lucille, Eileen, Paul and Thomas, Jr.  Born in Pennsylvania, Reilly had graduated from Lafayette College in 1893 and received his medical degree from Bellevue Medical College four years later.  He converted a room in No. 34, most likely in the basement level, for his private practice.

By now Reilly was considered an "authority and lecturer on certain phases of medicine," according to The New York Times, and was on the faculty of Fordham university.  He was, as well, the president of the board of Fordham Hospital, vice president of the board of St. Vincent's Hospital, and sat on the board of St. Elizabeth's Hospital.

Dr. Reilly's good standing resulting in his being the personal physician of eminent figures like the Right Reverend Monsignor Edward N. Sweeney, pastor of the Church of the Ascension.  While living here he wrote complex medical articles, like his "Hitherto Undescribed Signs in Diagnosis of Lethargic Encephalitis," published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1920.

The Reillys remained in the house until April 1930, when they moved to No. 160 Riverside Drive.  The 59-year-old doctor died there just seven months later, on January 24, 1931.

In the meantime, the 88th Street house had been a scene of unspeakable tragedy.  It was now the home of the William and Catherine McDonald family. The couple had four children, James, who was 14; William, 12; four-year-old Kathleen; and Mary.

On December 7, 1930, as Catherine made an apple pie Kathleen played on the kitchen floor.  The busy homemaker did not pay much attention to the child as she turned her attention to preparing the rest of the family's dinner.

That evening Catherine served the pie, but "finding an odd taste both to the piece at her plate and the unserved portion in the kitchen," according to the New York Evening Post, she ate only a bite.  Within a few hours both her husband and Kathleen were sick.

Suspicious, Catherine checked the kitchen where Kathleen had been playing.  A bag of roach powder was missing.  Panicked, she administered an antidote and summoned a physician.  Tragically, the 39-year-old William died just after midnight.  The rest of the family were recovering by the following day.

During the Great Depression the house was again lost in foreclosure.  The United States Trust Company sold it in 1940 to David M. Madden.  It remained a single-family home until 1971 when it was converted to one apartment per floor.

One of the apartments was home to a highly-unusual--perhaps shocking--business in the mid-1970's.  DMC offered women instruction in freely expressing their sexuality.

New York Magazine November 7, 1977
Other than replacement windows, the striking 1889 rowhouse is outwardly essentially unchanged--its wonderful figural carvings standing guard after more than 125 years.

photographs by the author

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