Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Isabella - 307 East 85th Street

On July 28, 1881 butcher Richard Roach and his wife, Mary, purchased the 25-foot wide, three-story wooden house at No. 307 East 85th Street, just east of Second Avenue, from Jacob Groy.  They paid $7,000 for the property (an affordable $177,000 today) which included a two-story frame dwelling in the rear yard.  As part of the deal the Roaches inherited tenants, Richard Bryson and his wife, who lived in the back house.  It was not a happy coexistence.

Roach immediately informed Bryson that he would be raising his rent.  Bryson refused to pay the increase so Roach had "dispossess papers" served on him.  Bryson went to court, produced his five-year lease from Groy with the stated rent, and won his argument.

On April 17, 1882 the New York Herald reported "Since that time Roach has, as is alleged, done everything in his power to annoy him."  It came to a climax on Saturday, April 15, 1882 when a neighbor informed Bryson "that Roach had gone about among the neighbors circulating reports derogatory to the character of Mrs. Bryson."  Irate, Bryson stormed around the corner to Roach's butcher shop at No. 1646 Second Avenue.  The New York Herald said "the enraged husband opened upon him with all the violence of injured innocence."

The verbal battle escalated into a fist fight and before long Roach's "butcher's boy," 21-year-old William Delmage came to his employer's aid.  Outnumbered, Bryson pulled out his "immense revolver" and struck Delmage on the forehead.  All three were arrested and taken to the station house where they were held at $500 bail returnable only after they kept the peace for six months.  Bryson's firearm was confiscated.

How long the uneasy cohabitation existed after that is unclear.  But on March 31, 1888 The City Record announced that Richard Roach had hired architect P. H. Gilvarry to design a five-story apartment building on the site.  

The journal's description of the building as an apartment house was both complimentary and surprising.  Even the better multi-family buildings at the time were routinely listed as tenements.  The Isabella, as Roach called his building, would straddle the distinction at best.

Gilvarry ran into problems as construction commenced.  City inspectors "disapproved" this specifications for plumbing, for instance, delaying progress.  

The completed structure was a happy hodge-podge of architectural styles.   A short stone stoop led to the arched entrance, centered within the rusticated base.  The second and fifth floors were Romanesque Revival, their arched openings outlined in sandstone and capped with Roman brick laid in a striking sunburst pattern.  The continuous stone bandcourses and the ghosts of shaved-off lintels at the third and fourth floors smack of neo-Grec, while a neo-Classical pressed metal cornice topped it all off.

While Gilvarry's overall design was attractive enough; it was his used of Queen Anne-style terra cotta accents that caught the eye.  Large, square panels between the third and fourth floors depicted swirling leaves and vines, a seashell, and a stylized sunflower or daisy.  But the terra cotta tour de force was was centered between the large openings of the second floor.  A plaque within a plaque announced "Isabella" on a billowing sash, surrounded by hefty stylized foliate forms in the corners of the main panel.

Today the name plaque is nearly obliterated from view by a tangle of fire escape ladders and stairs.
Expectedly the Isabella filled with working-class tenants.  Among the earliest were William T. Roach (whether he was a relative of the developer is uncertain), a plumber; and Levi B. Tibbetts, an iron worker.  Both were here by 1892.

Mark D. Converss lived in the building at the same time.  Like so many in the neighborhood, he looked forward to the regular Thursday summer concerts in East River Park (now known as Carl Schurz Park).  

But on June 16 The Evening World reported “There is a prospect that the regular Thursday concert at East River Park one week from to day will be given in the evening instead of afternoon, and that to-day will see the last day concert in this pleasant resort, whose frequenters are prevented by their work from visiting it in the daytime.”  Paul Dana, President of the Park Commissioners, foresaw a danger to children.  He told a reporter “The only question seems to be whether the railing along the esplanade, next to the river front, is safe, with the crowds of children that would be attracted there by evening concerts.”

The Evening World felt Dana was being needlessly cautious.  "The only remaining objection to the evening concerts at the Park now appears to be the unsafe condition of the railing along the river front, and this certainly is trivial."  Asserting that "the last few days hint that the warm season has fairy set in, and this is another forcible argument against further delay in the matter," the newspaper circulated a petition urging the Park Commissioners to forge ahead with the concerts.  Mark Converss whole-heartedly agreed and added his name to the petition.
Below the lush terra cotta sprandrel panel the ghost of an eared lintel is evident.

In the first years of the 20th century New York City businessmen were terrorized by the Black Hand, an Italian-American extortion group also known as La Mano Nera.  Although the Yorkville neighborhood was heavily German, the barbershop in the basement of the Isabella was run by Sicilian-born Frank Chimera.  His association with the Black Hand proved fatal to him.

Chimera lived in a "sleeping-room" at the back of the shop.  On Saturday morning, May 23, 1914 his body was found there.  His throat had been slashed.  The murder led to a chilling discovery.  Investigators found not only a completed bomb (described by authorities as being "such as is used by Italian black hand extortioners"), but eight sticks of dynamite, a package of smokeless powder, half a dozen electric fuses with fulminating caps, and other bomb-making elements.

Gilvarrry framed the arched openings with rounded bricks.  The Romanesque Revival detail of the stone eyebrows has been lost.

Although still conducting a meticulous investigation of the site, Owen Egan, Inspector of Combustibles for the Fire Department said evidence so far "indicates that the place was used as a bomb factory."  The Evening World reported "Inspector Egan's theory is that the place was used by bomb throwers and that Chimera's throat was cut in a dispute over the proceeds of an adventure of which he had knowledge."

John Orosz lived in the building at around the time of the murder.  He made his living driving a delivery wagon.  On the evening of May 9, 1916 his temper ran him afoul of two civic-minded boys.  

A common--albeit it dangerous--form of recreation for little boys was to jump unseen onto the back of wagons and streetcars and take a ride.  That night Orosz was on First Avenue when he realized that at some point he had picked up two unwelcome passengers.  The infuriated man drew his horse to a stop at Fifth Street and "made a dash," as worded in The Sun, for the boys and began beating them.  

The Police Department ran a program called the "Juvenile Force" which recruited youths to fight crime.  Given the title of patrolman, they were not armed, but kept a look-out for criminal activity.  The program not only added to the "eyes and ears" of the regular officers, but helped guide boys in the right direction.  Unfortunately for Orosz the Juvenile Force was out that night.

One 13-year-old patrolman witnessed the beating.  The Sun reported "What that driver did to the two small boys before they could escape got Patrolman Fingermap's dander up to such a pitch that he ran out and placed the man under arrest."  The journalist admitted that it was doubtful that the teen could have successfully held his prisoner were it not for the arrival of another juvenile force officer, Joseph Scheillowitz.  He was 11.  The boys held onto the struggling driver until Policeman McWilliams, a regular officer, arrived.  

In night court the boys testified to what Orosz had done.  "Both of these young men were highly complimented by the Magistrate and went away very happy, no doubt," concluded The Sun.  John Orosz was not so happy.  He was sentenced to two days in jail.  

As the United States entered World War II in April 1917 the widowed Sophie Moutner lived in the Isabella with her son, Henry.  The young man enlisted in the United States Naval Reserves on August 6, 1918 as an apprentice seaman.  He was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for boot camp; but would never see action.  Less than two months after he enlisted, on October 3, he died of pneumonia at the Naval Hospital there.  

One tenant here in the early 1920's was Joseph Pressler, whose major focus seems to have been amateur athletics.  And he covered all the sports.  He headed the Clover Base Ball Club in 1922 when he announced in The Brooklyn Standard Union on August 26 that the team was "playing home on Saturdays, has a few open Sunday dates."  The team had a 17-19 record at the time.

The following year, on November 22, 1923 he placed an advertisement for the basketball teams he headed.  "The Unity Five, formerly Original Central Five, 135 pounds, and Penn Five, 140 pounds, desire games with teams of same weight.  Only first class teams will be booked."  

As Yorkville slowly changed, so did the Isabella.  By 1968 much of the German population had dispersed and the colorful ethnic flavor of the neighborhood was increasingly diluted.  That year a renovation resulted in four apartments on the first floor and two each on the upper floors.  (It may have been at this time that some of the sandstone detailing on the exterior was shaved off.)  An adjustment to that floor plan was completed in 1987, creating a third apartment on floors two, three and five; a total of 17 apartments in the building.  

Passing by the Isabella without a glance is easy.  But a pause to take in that glorious terra cotta panel hidden behind the iron fire escape is visual treat.
photographs by the author  

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