Saturday, June 15, 2019

Boring & Tilton's Flemish Revival 214 West 16th Street

Edward Lippincott Tilton and William A. Boring had long been close friends, studying together at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, then entering the office of McKim, Mead, and White in 1890 upon their return to New York.  A year later they broke away to form their own practice, Boring & Tilton.  The firm was hired in the spring of 1898 by Charles M. Velbinger and Emma L. Cirche to design a modern apartment building to replace the old house at No. 214 West 16th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

The plans, filed on April 22, called for a five-story brick flat building to cost $20,000 (about $625,000 today).  The architects had a residential-sized plot to work with, just 25 feet wide.  An interest in the city's Dutch roots was sweeping the city at the time and Boring & Tilton joined the trend, designing structure in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style.  

Seven months after the plans were filed, Velbinger and Cirche took in a third partner in a similar project--an abutting apartment building at Nos. 216 and 218, also designed by Boring & Tilton.  The architects carefully designed the two as congenial neighbors, with many of the architectural elements echoed, but not copied.

No. 214, completed in 1899, was clad in red brick and heavily trimmed in limestone.  Projecting bands of stone alternated with brick at the first floor, above a short stoop, and the double-doored entrance was sumptuously framed in a carved limestone surround.  The windows, like those on the upper floors, exploded with dramatic voussoirs that extended past the lintels.  A lavish Renaissance frieze separated the first and second floors.

Projecting brick piers ran up the sides, interrupted by stone bands which were carefully lined up with those of No. 216.  The tour de force of the design was the elaborate Flemish Renaissance gable, decorated with heavy side volutes, a blind cartouche, and similar ornaments.

The building filled with respectable, if not wealthy, tenants.  Among the early residents was P. Roullier who ran an unusual business, at least by a 21st century viewpoint.  His advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on June 30, 1901 offered "Mattresses Remade at your residence.  Hotels and boarding Houses solicited." 

Patrick Quilty typified the financial and professional status of the residents.  He was hired as a topographical draftsman by the city in September 1906 with an annual salary of $1,450.  That would amount to just under $42,000 today.

Less typical and decidedly less respectable was 28-year-old Lawrence Coburn, who lived here in the early 1920's.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described him simply as a "pickpocket."  His career came to an abrupt end, at least for a while, when he was caught in the act.  He pleaded guilty to attempted larceny in the second degree on January 24, 1922.  He was sent to Sing Sing for up to two years and six months.

No. 214 (left) once wore a Flemish gable very similar to that of its next door neighbor.  Only the stubs of its volutes and bits of ornamentation survive.

The Great Depression years saw an increased interest in Socialism among the working class.  Because the most radical of the groups turned to domestic terrorism to make their points, the Federal government kept tabs on Socialists and Communists.  On its list of Communist voters in 1936 were No. 214 residents Lionel Byalin, Esther Greenberg and Jeanette Rubin.  (Byalin was in the building at least through 1940 and continued to appear on the Government's radar.)

More involved in the Socialist movement was Felix Morrow, who not only lived at No. 214 West 16th Street, but ran the SWP [Social Workers' Party] Minority Group from his apartment.  He wrote an open letter to the National Secretary of the Workers Party which appeared in Labor Action on December 17, 1945, after the Workers Party announced its intention to publish its own bulletin, separate from the united party publication.  Morrow said in part "But a united Trotskyist party is so all-important today that for the sake of it we appeal to the comrades of the WP to pledge themselves not to exercise this right."

In contrast to those politically-focused tenants, the names of others appeared in print for purely social reasons.  When Mary Hollingsworth was married to Arthur I. Ebbets in Tarrytown on May 11, 1951, for instance, newspapers reported that the guests then motored back to Manhattan for a reception in her apartment here.

A renovation was completed in 1978 which resulted in three apartments per floor.  It may have been at this time that the Flemish Renaissance Revival gable was sliced off, leaving decapitated remnants of the volutes and lost cartouche details.  Only the gables of Nos. 216-218 give us an idea of what we lost.

photographs by the author

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