Thursday, May 30, 2019

"The Pumpkin House" - 16 Chittenden Avenue

The configuration of the river-facing window, resembling a jack-o-lantern, led to the modern nickname "Pumpkin House." photo by Beyond My Ken  

The wealthiest of New York families established vast summer estates in the upper regions of Manhattan during the 18th and early 19th centuries .  Among them was Lucius Chittenden, whose 130-acre estate "included all the land between the Kingsbridge road [now Broadway] and the river," from 185th street to approximately 198th, according to the 1917 Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York.  Chittenden was no doubt drawn to the location by the stunning views from the hill-top site and the cooling river breezes.

The Chittenden family enjoyed vast vistas from the property.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The era of summer estates was long gone in 1923.  The sole surviving reminder of Lucius Chittenden was a tiny hook of roadway named Chittenden Avenue.  That year The New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr. sold the lot on the edge of the steep cliff at No. 16 Chittenden Avenue to Cleveland Walcutt, a partner in Walcutt Bros. Company at No. 141 East 25th Street.  

The firm initially listed itself as "Printers' and Lithographers' Embossing and Hot Plate Embossing.  Bookbinders' Stamping and Casemaking."   But it took its embossing practice a step further by 1913, producing, for example, heavy embossed paper "friezes" to adorn the upper edges of domestic walls.  

A "Wall-Cut" frieze.  The Painters' Magazine, August 1913 (copyright expired)
Walcutt was as innovative in his vision of a home as he was in his paper products.  He directed his architects, Harold D. Verna and Franklin D. Pagan, to design a cantilevered structure teetering over the cliff face, supported by iron beams .  The plans projected the construction costs at $25,000--about $368,000 today.

As construction began, the extraordinary project brought nationwide attention.  Dansville [New York] Breeze, February 4, 1925
Building on the exceptional site required a special permit.  And as the structure rose it caught the attention of architects, builders and curiosity-seekers across the country.  In February 1925 the Buffalo Courier commented "The modern cliff dweller makes his appearance in the person of Cleveland Walcutt of New York.  The framework of a house actually built on stilts startled the residents of the Riverside Drive district."

The Yonkers Statesman said that automobiles and pedestrians below had "marveled at the unusual steel structure which stretches gauntly aloft from the rocky and inhospitable hillside."  Guesses as to what was being erected ranged from a new bridge, or a lighthouse to a "hitching-post for dirigibles."

Gas Light magazine described Walcutt as "a man of pioneer spirit," saying "the house on stilts is his own idea."  The article explained that conventional house construction techniques were not feasible and that "office-building being employed throughout for the house on stilts, for the problem of wind pressure on the walls of this high home, exposed on all sides, has always to be considered."  The girders on which the brick and concrete house would sit were 40 feet high.

Space was a precious commodity, so heating, cooking and hot water was provided by gas, thereby eliminating the need for a bulky furnace and coal storage area.  The architects faced the walls--inside and out--in rough brick "in a variety of colors and designs."

The Yonkers Statesman described the layout.  "The first floor will have a reception and stair hall, a large combination living and dining-room, and the kitchen  Above will be the  bedrooms and baths, and the roof will be boatlike, with a flat deck finish for part of its surface, and a covered portion to be used as a sleeping porch."

Gas Logic, called the still-rising house "Mr. Walcutt's giraffe-like mansion," and said "And so, from their eyrie on the hillside, Mr. Walcutt and his family will enjoy quiet, fresh air and a bird's-eye perspective on life, for their rooms will be on a level with the treetops about them."

The many references to the vertical girders quickly led to a nickname.  In 1925 American Gas Association Monthly was among the first to call it "The House on Stilts."  

Construction was completed in late 1925.  The Clay Worker commented in January 1926, "Franklin D. Pagan and Harold D. Vernan were the architects of this freak in home building, and are certainly to be congratulated on the success of the undertaking.

Cleveland Walcutt's wife, Grace, had died several years earlier.  He moved into the House on Stilts with his four sons.  Their residency would be surprisingly short.  The following year Walcutt declared personal bankruptcy and lost the house in foreclosure.  It was purchased by Charles Schwartz in 1930.

The wealthy 40-year old was the secretary-treasurer of Universal Liquidators, Inc. an auction firm.  He and his wife had three daughters and a son.

The industrial, unfinished appearance of the supporting girders were, apparently, unsightly to Schwartz, who set about to remedy that.  The New York Times later reported "At the time Mr. Schwartz bought the house, it was supported on the slope by iron girders and was known as the 'House on Stilts.'  Mr. Schwartz had the girders covered with concrete and was said to have large sums of money improving the house."

Schwartz encased the supporting girders in concrete.  Note the permanent shelter on the roof deck, the "generously windowed" southern exposure, as described by Gas Logic, and long balconies.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
On Saturday morning, March 2, 1935, Schwartz went for a drive.  When he returned at around 11:00, he dismissed his chauffeur for the day.   His wife was either unaware that he had returned, or was too busy preparing for that evening's dinner party to wonder about his whereabouts.

But by 8:30 that night, however, he was most definitely missed.  The guests had all arrived, and by now dinner had been held for nearly an hour awaiting Schwartz's appearance.  Finally his father-in-law, Hymie Finkelman, set off to find him.  The New York Times reported that he "went to the garage and found him slumped to the floor of his automobile.  Death had been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning."
The House on Stilts originally sat alone on the cliff.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The ignition was turned on, the gas tank had run out, and the garage doors were all closed.  Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Robert C. Fisher indicated "that he was not entirely satisfied with the circumstances of the death."  No evidence of foul play, however, was discovered.

The House on Stilts was eventually sold to Anna Schwartz, who resold it in December 1946 to Eugene Principe.  At some point a one-bedroom apartment was created.  The primary duplex still contained five bedrooms, two bathrooms and a maid's room.  

The Principe family retained ownership until 2000 when it was placed on the market for $1.1 million.  It was purchased by interior designer William Wesley Spink.  By then, thanks to Schwartz's entombing of the iron pilings in concrete, the house had lost its moniker "The House on Stilts."  It was now widely recognized as The Pumpkin House, because the configuration of the western windows resembled a jack-o-lantern.

photo via
Spink, who filled the house with a collection of valuable art, did structural renovation to the aging structure.  He sold it in 2011 for just under $4 million; and it appeared on the market again in 2016 for $5.25 million.  Once the only structure on the cliff, it is today crowded in by apartment buildings.  None of them, however, can compete with the Pumpkin House's architectural singularity.

photo by Beyond My Ken


  1. Thanks for this. It's in the neighborhood, and one is used to seeing only the three-story house at the end of Chittenden Place. I always wondered about its interior. It's a fortress, it turns out.

  2. Looks like the understructure of a bridge!!!!