Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The James Bailey House - 10 St. Nicholas Place

When 9-year old James Anthony McGinnis found himself orphaned in 1856 in Detroit, he learned to fend for himself. Five years later he was working in a circus. McGinnis took the name of the circus manager who had taken the boy under his wing, thereafter being known as James Bailey.

By the 1870's Bailey was a major player in the circus field; his show aggressively competing with Phineas T. Barnum's as the nation’s premier circus.  That competition was eliminated in 1880 when the two managers joined forces, creating Barnum & Bailey's Circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth."  Bailey, who was a genius at marketing and public relations, preferred to work in the background, allowing Barnum to take credit for many of his innovations.

The business made Bailey a millionaire and in 1886 he began planning a new residence.  As wealthy New York families moved ever northward, he anticipated that the developing Hamilton Heights in Harlem would become the next exclusive residential district.  The New York Times described the area as “particularly desirable and all the houses that have been put up in this neighborhood are handsome, well-built, elegant structures, and the locality is free from many objectionable features.”

Bailey purchased the lot at the northeast corner of 150th Street and St. Nicholas Place and hired New Jersey-based architect Samuel Burrage Reed to design the building.  Reed had just published his House-Plans for Everybody – For Village and Country Residences, Costing from $250 to $8,000.  Bailey's home could cost far more.

On July 31, 1886 The Record & Guide reported on the plans, saying that it "will be built of limestone and in the early English style."  (Today we call it Romanesque Revival; although Reed would splash the design with Renaissance Revival and Queen Anne elements.)  The article noted "a turret 69 feet high, also of stone, will be built on the southwest corner" and said "The porches will be tiled."

The date 1887, the year Bailey anticipated the project to be completed, is carved into the chimney back.  Startlingly, the beautiful (and expensive) Henry F. Belcher oculus windows in each of the gables, are above the interior ceiling line, which makes them invisible from the interior, and because of the lack of light inside, cannot be appreciated from outside.
"It will be finished in hardwoods and will be furnished with steam head and all the latest improvements.  The work throughout will be thoroughly first-class." 

Bailey had given the contractor a one-year deadline; but that did not happen.  Finished in 1888 the mansion was fit for a showman--a 62-by-100-foot fantasy of limestone spires and arches, Flemish Renaissance gables and eclectic dormers, a corner tower with a conical cap, and a "boxed" porch supporting a spacious balcony,  Even more striking than the castle-like fa├žade were the interiors, designed by Joseph Burr Tiffany, cousin of Louis Comfort Tiffany.  Each of the 29 rooms in the 8,250 square foot home was intended to awe.

The Architectural Era described the conservatory as being "of iron and glass" and noted the numerous woods used throughout the residence– quartered oak in the two-story entrance hall where the polished floors held complex mahogany inlaid designs; black walnut in the office; hazel wood in the parlor and sycamore in the library.  Intricate carpenter’s lace framed the archways between rooms on the main floor. Hand painted wallpaper and frescoed ceilings, art glass chandeliers and carved wooden fireplace surrounds filled the home.

Hall & Garrison executed the intricate woodwork found throughout the house.

The Architectural Era announced, "The windows are of plate glass, cylindrical in the tower, with art glass transoms and each window has inside blinds [shutters]."  Those transoms and stained glass windows--upwards of 100--were executed by Henry F. Belcher.  He held at least 22 patents for his process, by which thousands of glass pieces, often triangular, were laid out then sandwiched tightly between layers of asbestos. A molten lead alloy was poured in to fill the gaps.  When the exterior surfaces were removed the complete, intact panels emerged.  (Belcher's company was in business only from 1884 to 1890, most likely owing to the high cost of the windows.)

This window, unfortunately washed out in this photo because of the bright sunlight, is deeply inset within the parlor overmantel.
The sub-basement held the necessary if not glamorous areas--"fuel, steam furnace, refrigerator, etc.," said The Architectural Age.  In the basement level, directly above, were the kitchen, laundry and servants' quarters, "together with store-lockers, bath-room, dumb waiter, etc., all thoroughly fitted and finished."  The family's bedrooms were on the second floor, and the third was divided into "billiard and art rooms and two chambers, together with an observatory above."

Cast iron gas lamps sprout from the gate posts in this undated photograph, and the stone urn on the porch balcony holds an exotic plant.  The female figure on the porch is presumably Ruth McCadden Bailey.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
Millionaires like Bailey required private stables to house their several vehicles, horses and, most often, living accommodations for at least a coachman and one or two stable hands.  On August 29, 1886 the Record & Guide had reported "James A. Bailey is going to build a model brick two-story stable, with terra cotta trimmings" on the north side of 150th Street between St. Nicholas Place and 10th Avenue.  Samuel B. Reed, understandably, received this commission too.  Later Bailey would place the overall cost of construction for his entire property at $160,000--or around $5 million today.
The magnificent "Bailey window," on the landing of the grand staircase included Bailey's monogram.  The letters were executed in reverse to be read from the outside.
The Baileys country estate The Knolls, was in Mount Vernon, New York.  Only eleven years after the Harlem mansion was completed, the family moved there permanently.  While some historians feel that Bailey had become disenchanted with the neighborhood which was not developing as he anticipated, the sale advertisement explained "Owing to his absence in Europe, will be sold at a great sacrifice."

The sale advertisement included a sketch.  New-York Tribune, May 21, 1899
The advertisement, in May 1899, touted "The interior finish is in rare and costly woods; elegant mantels, open fire-places, steam heat, electric lights, open plumbing, beautifully decorated throughout."

A quick succession of owners followed.  The mansion and stable were purchased by Henry Acker.  In 1904 he sold the property to Max Marx, who almost immediately resold it to millionaire contractor John C. Rodgers.  With Rodgers and his wife in the house were their son, John, Jr. and his wife.  

The original chandelier in the dining room survives.
The Rodgers' stable no longer housed horses and carriages, but motorcars.  It was a situation that resulted in a horrific tragedy on April 1, 1906.  The New-York Tribune reported "Two women were run down by a speeding automobile in New Rochelle yesterday and injured so seriously that one of them died a few hours later...and the other is not expected to recover."  The deceased victim was 73-year old Alvina Stein, and the other was her 70-year-old sister, Betty Kuchler.  They had just left church services.

The article said "After the accident, the automobile, which contained two well dressed women and two men, ran on at even greater speed, the occupants not even stopping to see whether the women were injured."  There was no doubt that police would be determinedly looking for the culprits--Betty Kuchler was not only the mother of the Charles W. Kuchler, president of the New Rochelle Board of Aldermen, but of Police Commissioner Henry Kuchler.  

Witnesses had jotted down the license number of the car.  It was registered to J. C. Rodgers, Jr.  Investigators arrived at the St. Nicholas Place mansion that evening.  The younger Mrs. Rodgers expressed surprise.  "We have had the machine about two months, and as far as I know it was not out today."

Betty Kuchler lingered in the hospital for two days before dying.  But even before then, the widespread press coverage had not escaped the notice of John C. Rodgers, Sr., who did his own investigating.  On April 2 he walked into the New Rochelle courthouse with his chauffeur, 20-year-old John Johnston.

On April 3 The Sun wrote "When young Rodgers's father, John C. Rodgers, the subway contractor, was told of the accident he blamed his son for running away and insisted that Johnston should give himself up."  John, Jr. refused to talk to reporters, but his father issued a statement:

According to my son's story, and I think he has told me everything, the party were returning from Larchmont for dinner and going at a moderate rate of speed when the accident happened.  As they approached a bridge over the road a four horse milk wagon came from the opposite direction.  When our party was almost upon the team the leaders swung sharply across the road directly in the machine's way.  It was so sudden that Johnston had no time to shut off and to avoid running into the team.  He ran the machine up on the bank until it began to go over.

He further explained that in order to keep the car from overturning, he "wrenched around the front wheels" and tore down the bank toward the elderly women.  He called the group's speeding away from the scene "a clear case of stage fright in its worst form."

Johnston was held on a staggering $10,000 bail and held for trial.  Rodgers Sr. paid his legal expenses.  In a surprising turn of events, both Johnston and John C. Rodgers, Jr. were indicted for manslaughter in the second degree on April 16.

The "Bailey window" on the staircase as it appears from outside.  The small opening below is a stained glass window inset into the overmantel of an excruciatingly charming inglenook.
In April 1910 Rodgers sold the mansion to Dr. Louis Schaefer.  The German-born chemist had founded the Schaefer Alkaloid Works in Maywood, New Jersey and owned other chemicals plants both in New York and New Jersey.

Schaefer and his wife, Olga, had four children.  Two of their daughters were married and living in Germany.  Moving into the mansion with their parents were the unmarried Bertha and Ludwig, who, like his father, was a doctor.  

Things were not going well between Louis and Olga and on May 10, 1911 they separated.  The following year, on November 26, Schaefer died in the house.

His estate, estimated at $1,555,844 (or about $22.6 million today) was divided primarily among the four children.  Newspapers were impressed that his will provided Olga an annuity of $10,000 per year--a comfortable $273,000 in today's money.  It also contained an unusual clause regarding the mansion.  The Sun reported that it "provided that the contents of his Manhattan home, including his books and paintings, were to go outright 'to those of my children that have not married at the time of my death,'" and that those children had "the right to lease the residence as a home until 1931 at a rental of $1,000 a year, and could buy it for $60,000."

The widow's watch provided breathtaking views.
That clause triggered a battle between Bertha and Ludwig.  Before too long Bertha was married to Dr. Franz Koempel.  She gave notice to her uncle, the executor of the estate, that she wanted to buy the mansion.  Ludwig countered, saying he wanted to buy it and contended that his sister's marriage "deprived her of her right to occupy the house."

A law suit was initiated, and because the sisters in Germany had children, they were involved and their fathers had to be served papers.  The problem was that the men were in the German army and with Germany engaged in war both were on the battlefront.  

Restoration of the "iron and glass" conservatory at the back of the house has not yet begun.  The extensive limestone and bluestone retaining wall was listing badly and collapsing at the rear of the property.  It was deconstructed and rebuilt by English stone mason, Colin Peters, with some of the work done hands-on by Jenny Spollen and her cousin, Haihua Xu.
Settling the estate became even more complicated when England entered World War I.  The Sun explained that a "large deposit" of funds was held in the London branch of the Deutsches Bank of Berlin.  The money "was seized by the British Government immediately following the declaration of war."

It took years for the Schaefer heirs to receive their inheritance.  In the meantime Ludwig and Bertha came to terms and January 1916 she and Dr. Koempel purchased the mansion from the estate.

Dr. Franz Koempel's medical office was on East 86th Street.  His practice was tagged as "German" in directories for decades.  The couple would remain in the former Bailey mansion until 1950.
Apartment buildings were closing in when this photo was taken on September 1, 1935 from the collection of the New York Public Library. 

By now James Bailey's high-end residential neighborhood had noticeably changed.  The arrival of the Lenox Avenue subway in 1904 and the collapse of Harlem real estate prices around the same time resulted in the district's becoming the center of Manhattan's Black population.  Rather than mansions, it was apartment buildings that were being built.

A pretty room leading to a private porch admits light into the main house through a set of stunning etched glass panels.
For years when passing the home while walking to Wadleigh High School on West 114th Street, one teen-aged girl had dreamed of living in the castle on 150th Street.  In 1951 the grown-up girl, now married to an NYPD detective, got her wish.  Marguerite and Warren Blake purchased the nine-bedroom Bailey house from which Marguerite ran the M. Marshall Blake Funeral Home for decades.

A small fire on the upper floors in 2000 prompted firefighters to break out several of the upper windows.  The Blakes, by now, had retired and replacing the windows or repairing  the increasingly leaky slate roof of the landmark structure was impossible for the elderly pair.  Not yet willing to sell, they moved out.  The now empty property continued to deteriorate.

Finally, at the age of 87, Marguerite Blake put her dream house on the market in 2008 for $10 million.   The Blakes's inability to maintain the hulking property was apparent.  Water had continued to seep in through roof.  Plaster had fallen from some of the ceilings.  A stifling odor, the result of years of dog urine, defiled the grand spaces.

Despite it all, much of the architectural fabric of the Bailey house remained remarkably intact.  The exquisite cabinetry, the fixtures like doorknobs and chased hinges, and (other than those lost in the fire) the etched and stained glass windows had survived.

There were no takers.
 A writer for New York Magazine toured the forsaken mansion, calling it “a modern Grey Gardens.”  Deliverance came on August 9, 2009 when physical therapist Martin Spollen and his wife, Jenny, purchased the the mother of all fixer-uppers for $1.4 million.  

The couple embarked on a daunting project, one that would be considered inconceivable for most.  Priority was given to the roof--the source of the ongoing water damage.  The roof was repaired and slate singles replaced to the precise specifications of the original--down to the pattern of the tiles.  

Several of the Belcher windows were in danger of being lost as their own weight caused them to sag and threaten to collapse.  Expert glass conservators Tricia Somers and Victor Rothman restored the scores of transoms and windows, at times meticulously recreating tiny missing mosaic pieces.

The Spollens set up a work-working shop in the basement where Jenny's cousin, skilled carpenter Haihua Xu, reproduces missing or damaged wooden elements.  While Martin Spollen carries on his physical therapy practice, Jenny dedicates her full time to the restoration of the mansion--a hands-on labor of devotion.

Their astonishing house has always been a private home. Historian Michael Henry Adams remarked that the house “could have been lost 100 times” by being divided into apartments, the interior detailing lost in a conversion to a school or business, or being razed for a modern apartment building.

The end of the restoration project is years away.  But the Bailey mansion is safely in good hands.  Without the passion of the Spollens for the house and its historic importance it would most likely have continued to decay despite its landmark status.

photographs by the author


  1. For anything to survive virtually intact in Manhattan for any length of time is just miraculous. This remarkable Victorian architectural fantasy is magnificent and a true testament to the owners who cherished living in the mansion and who in their own varied ways protected it from developers until it could finally be restored. An amazing story and building. Good luck and a big thank you to the current owners. NYarch

  2. I saw larger photos of this property while perusing through the NYT real estate section, when it was for sale, just a few years ago. The property must have been unoccupied for a long time, and had been neglected at the time, dusty, wallpaper peeling, cobwebs, etc, but the majestic woodwork and the windows, still intact, took away the shame of not having upkeep for so long. Had I onky had the $$$....

  3. I walked past this building coming to and from kindergarten in the late 1940s. The building was dark grey from decades of coal soot. In the 1950s with the advent of oil furnaces and steam cleaning of building exteriors the light color was likely restored.
    In the 1970s I read a N.Y.Times article about how 11 year old Margaret approached the German owners for a tour and announced that she would like to buy it should they decide to sell. This may have been around the time I was in kindergarten. She lived on the same block as me, 148th street.
    Sure enough, as an adult she and her husband, a NYC detective, bought it and ran a funeral home there.
    In the early 1990s I toured the home during a walking tour with Henry Adams, author of "I Remember Harlem". The interior was impressive with carved wood ceilings, intricate lace woodwork panels separating rooms, stained glass windows and a grand staircase with a massive two story mirror at its base giving the illusion of a double staircase.
    I had to use the bathroom so Mr. Marshall directed me to the bathroom in the non-public rear. I remember that area was grey and dull and there was a lot of water in the floor. There were two German Shepherds.
    Although I will never see the interior again I am happy that the Spollens are restoring and maintaining the mansion.I suspect the Blake's held out for a buyer who would restore rather than alter the building, even at the cost of a lower price.

    1. The Victorian Society New York is offering a wonderful tour of this!

    2. Or you can come to Cortland, NY and see the mirror image of this house, built in 1890, at the request of Chester Wickwire after he visited NY City and fell in love with the Baily house. Same builder and interior decorators. It is currently a museum, of course it's open to the public for tours. It too has slate tile problems and leaking roof. A campaign to raise money to save it and do other renovations is ongoing.