Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Maximilian C. Fleischmann House - 400 West 149th Street

The handsome copper solarium-type bay at the top floor was apparently an early addition.
In 1894 developer William Broadbelt lived in the developing, upscale neighborhood of Hamilton Heights, at No 403 West 148th Street.  In April that year he exhibited his confidence in the district by purchasing from James D. Butler what The Record & Guide described as "the entire westerly front of St. Nicholas avenue, between 148th and 149th street..for improvement."

That improvement would come in the form of a row of high-end rowhouses.  Broadbelt had worked with architect Frederick P. Dinkelberg several times.  Now on May 18, 1894 Dinkelberg filed plans for ten 20-foot wide residences, each to cost $20,000, or about $602,000 today.  

The project was completed within seven months, in January 1895.   Like proper bookends, the two end residences rose a floor above the others.  The northern-most house, No. 400 West 149th Street, like its mirror image twin on the southern end, turned its shoulder to the avenue.  The elegant rounded entrance portico was centered within the rusticated brownstone base.  Highly unusual, but indicative of the upscale nature of the home, the Scamozzi capitals of the polished granite columns were cast in bronze.  

An early, undated photograph shows the newly-planted trees, the high stoops of the St. Nicholas Avenue homes, and the fourth floor balcony of No. 400.  original source unknown.

Directly above the portico was a handsome copper-clad oriel fitted out with stained glass transoms.  The avenue elevation featured a four-story bowed bay which terminated in a balustraded balcony.  The orange brick of the upper stories was trimmed in brownstone; the piers separating the fourth floor openings on the avenue side were decorated with carved Renaissance-style panels.

The handsome Scamozzi capitals of the polished granite portico columns are bronze.  
On February 14, 1895 Broadbelt sold No. 400 to Sarah L. and William L. Loew.  But complications quickly ensued.  The title was in Sarah's name, so it was she who nominally sued Broadbelt for selling them an illegal property.  The couple realized after the fact that the bowed bay and the stoop projected beyond the property lines.   The bay extended 7.5 inches and the stoop 6 feet, 3 inches onto public property.  The suit charged that the Loews were "unable to convey a merchantable title."

The legal battle dragged on until the spring of 1900, when Broadbelt won the case.  But it was a hollow victory. The Record & Guide reported on April 21 "While Mr. Broadbelt thus wins his case he is unfortunate in having had the St. Nicholas av. property foreclosed meantime."   No. 400 had been sold at foreclosure auction on July 29, 1898.  The purchaser was Maximilian Charles Fleischmann, who paid $28,000, about $685,000 today.  It was a bargain price, little more than what Broadbelt had invested in the structure.

The stained glass transoms of the charming, if battered, copper oriel above the service entrance survive.
Fleischman and his brother, Julius, were the sons of Charles Louis Fleischmann, co-founder in 1868 of The Fleischmann Yeast Company with his brother, Maximilian.  Their commercially produced yeast revolutionized baking, making mass production of bread products possible.  The elder Maximilian Fleischmann died in 1890 and Charles Flesichmann died on December 10, 1897; leaving control of the now-massive firm in the hands of Julius and Max.  Julius, who lived in Cincinnati, handled the western operations and Max the eastern.

It was probably not a coincidence that The Fleischmann Yeast Company's East Coast manager, Jacob Baiter, lived directly across the street at No. 6 St. Nicholas Place.  We are tempted to think of yeast as having to do only with the making of bread and related items.  But it is an equally important ingredient in the production of alcohol, as well.  Max Fleischmann was also president of the Somerset Distilling Co. and the Eastern Distilling Co.  Baiter was treasurer of both firms.

In 1905 Max married  Sarah Hamilton Sherlock.  It may have been their mutual love of travel and adventure that prompted the sale of No. 400 in December 1909.  It became the property of John B. Hasslocher at a time when the Harlem neighborhood was changing. 

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.   By 1915 No. 400 was home to multiple families.  An advertisement in The Evening Telegram on March 12 that year offered "Attractive, sunny four rooms, elevator, nicely attractively furnished."  The rent was $8 per month, or around $200 today.

An official conversion to apartments came in 1925 when architect A. L. Seidan remodeled No. 400 into one "housekeeping apartment" (meaning cooking was allowed) in the basement, a duplex on the first and second floors, and non-housekeeping apartments on the upper levels.

The early tenants were respectable and professional.  Among them was newspaperman Ray Johnson who had worked for the New York World, the New-York Tribune and the Boston American.  Following his death on December 16, 1928 his funeral was held in his apartment here.

William L. Patterson lived in the building in the fall of 1932 when he was nominated by the New York Communist Party as its mayoral candidate.  (He did not win the election.)

Perhaps the city's foremost Black newspaper as mid-century approached was The New York Age.  A dependable source of mainstream news of interest to the Harlem community, its journalist Floyd G. Snelson turned a bit catty in his "Harlem--Negro Capitol of the Nation" column on June 1, 1941:

Mae Parrish of 400 West 149th Street had planned to get married on her recent birthday...and we are wondering what happened in that Mr. L. Holt failed to show up for the ceremony.

Another renovation in 1966-67 resulted in a store and apartment on the ground floor, one apartment on the second, and two each on the third through fifth floors.  The alterations required an entrance being carved into the St. Nicholas Avenue facade.  More recently, in 1992, the second and third floors were combined as a duplex apartment.

Despite its beleaguered appearance, the avenue doorway and the loss of most of the stained glass, the Fleischmann house manages to exude its former stateliness; reminding us of a time when those who could afford bronze porch capitals built sumptuous homes in the neighborhood.

photographs by the author


  1. I have seen many terraces in many cities, but the bowed bay fronts are/were unusual, and very attractive.

  2. On Google street view the neighboring house on St. Nicholas Avenue is still there. Your photographs show it has since been demolished. I'm pretty sure whatever replaces it will not maintain the architectural harmony of the block … which is a loss.

    1. The house next door burned down somewhat recently.