Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Nicholas and Agnes Benziger House - 345 Edgecombe Avenue






In the late 1880's a cable street railway along Tenth Avenue (later Amsterdam Avenue) was extended past 125th Street as far as 155th Street.  Already popular for its refreshing air and bucolic scenery, the district was now much more convenient to the downtown commercial district.  Real estate values soared around 1890 as mansions and villas rose along the tree-lined streets of what would be called Sugar Hill.

On March 5, 1890 Nicholas C. Benziger and his wife, the former Agnes Stoffel, purchased the large lot (62 by 100 feet) at the northwest corner of West 150th Street and Edgecombe Avenue from James and Ella Montieth.  The price was $32,000--a substantial $911,000 today.  And there were conditions attached to the deal:  not only did the Benzigers have to make improvements like installing curbs and sidewalks, but a deed restriction required that only a "first class dwelling" be erected on the site and it could be only as a private residence for no less than 20 years.

The Benzigers chose German-born architect William Schickel to design their home.  His plans, filed on June 13, 1890, called for a two-story  and attic brick dwelling to cost $25,000; bringing the couple's total outlay for the project up to $1.62 million in today's dollars.

Benziger could well afford it.  He was the head of the New York office of the Swiss-based Benziger Brothers, established in the United States in 1853.  Beginning solely as a Catholic publishing house, the firm additionally began manufacturing and importing church furniture and "sacred vessels," like chalices, in 1864 .

Nicholas had arrived in New York in 1880 at the age of 21 following the death of his cousin, J. N. Adelrich, who had run the New York operation.  He briefly returned to Switzerland in 1883 to marry Agnes.   By now the company had an office in Cincinnati and another in Chicago.

Construction on the residence began in September 1890 and was completed within nine months.  Schickel's eclectic design made ample use of color and shapes--like the variegated ironspot brick trimmed in warm brownstone, an unusual flared mansard roof shingled in clay tiles, and pointy-gabled dormers.  The first floor openings were filled with leaded and stained glass.  A nearly full-width porch, supported by granite pillars, provided awe-inspiring views to the east.


original source unknown
Nicholas and Agnes moved in with their two-year old son, Xavier.  The family would increase within the house with the addition of Anna, Bernard, Rosalie and Alfred.

In the meantime, Benziger continued to grow the family's business.  In 1894 he moved the factory to Brooklyn, and according to the Catalogue of All Catholic Books in English, "There, with greater facilities, they began the production of large goods, such as pulpits, altar-rails, gas and electric fixtures, etc., etc."

With subway service scheduled to reach the area in 1904, plans for apartment buildings were being laid.  It may have been these anticipated changes that prompted Benziger to march into the office of the Tax Commissioners on January 20, 1903 to demand a reduction in his property assessment.  He left disappointed.  The New-York Tribune reported that his "personal assessment of $60,000 remained after his talk with one of the commissioners,  Mr. Benziger not being able to satisfy the commissioner that he should be relieved of any part of it."  

The changes in the neighborhood did not prompt the family to leave; at least not right away.  In 1905 there were four servants living in the house--an egalitarian spread of one American, one French-born, and two Germans.  

But as plans were laid for six-story apartment buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Benziger house, it became too much.  Although they retained possession of the Edgecombe Avenue property, the family relocated to Summit, New Jersey.  The house was initially leased to German-born machinist William Buchler, his wife and three sons.

When a "trifling" fire occurred in the house on January 17, 1909, the occupant was listed by the New York Herald as Joseph P. McHugh.  He shared the house with his business partner, James Slater.  Real estate operators, they were routinely listed as erecting or renovating properties either together, as J. P. McHugh & Co., or individually.

By 1917 when illustrator and cartoonist Harry Grant Dart first appears at the address, the Benzigers may have had more than one tenant--albeit all respectable and well-established.  Dart, who was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1868, was well-known in artistic circles by now.  He is perhaps best known for his fantastic depictions of flying machines and futuristic scenes.  He lived at No. 345 at least through 1918.


Dart created this cover for All Story magazine sometime before 1910.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.
The family of Harold Nunes was here by February 1919 when the engagement of daughter Edna was announced.  And five months later another resident, Samuel Fletcher declared voluntary bankruptcy.

They were the last of the Benziger tenants.  In August 1920 the property was sold to Dr. Henry W. Lloyd who had operated Dr. Lloyd's Sanitarium a block to the west at No. 8 St. Nicholas Place since 1911.  Lloyd converted the residence as an annex to the hospital, purchasing the abutting lot to the north, erecting five single-story garages in the rear and building a driveway.

Lloyd specialized in treating patients afflicted with "nervous, mental, drug and alcohol" conditions.   While he oversaw the St. Nicholas Place facility, his physician-in-charge of the annex was Dr. Henry W. Rogers.  

Operating both facilities may have proved too cumbersome for Lloyd, and in 1927 he sold No. 345 to Rogers, who promptly renamed it the Dr. Henry Rogers Sanitarium.  By 1932 the name was changed to the Rogers Hospital.

Rogers's mentally-ill patients were, at times, violent and dangerous.  Such was the case in the summer of 1938 when Samuel Kreitzner was transferred here from the Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island--except he did not make it.

On June 7 the New York Post ran a headline "Mental Patient Still At Large" and explained that when Kreitzner arrived at Pennsylvania Station during the previous evening's rush hour, he escape from his guard.  Police warned citizens that the 24-year old was "believed to be dangerous."

An advertisement in the New York Evening Post in 1939 described the treatments and amenities.  "Mild mental, nervous cases; elderly difficult people; gardens, sun porches, medical and nursing care."

The hospital took on a case in 1940 that was alien to most psychologists and psychiatrists at the time--gender identity.  Anna Pauline, or "Pauli," Murray was 30-years old and an activist in the equal rights movement.  Earlier that year she and a friend sat in the whites-only section of a Virginia bus and were arrested for violating the state's segregation laws.  She would go on to become involved with the socialist Workers' Defense League and to pursue a career as a civil rights lawyer.

But that was not what landed her at the Roberts Hospital.

When she was arrested for hitchhiking she was wearing the clothing she was most comfortable in--men's apparel.  Murray told the jail matron that she was homosexual and was taking testosterone.  (It was an unusual admittance, for she almost always denied being a lesbian, insisting that she was, in fact, a man.)  It was enough for officials to take her to Bellevue Hospital.

The psychiatrist who interviewed her diagnosed her with schizophrenia and explained her delusion: she believed she was a man.  Allowed one phone call, she contacted a friend who checked her out of Bellevue and brought her to Dr. Rogers's Hospital.  But in the 1940's there was little hope for a sympathetic diagnosis.

According to Murray's biographer, Roslind Rosenberg in her Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, "Doctors at the Rogers hospital proved no more willing to cooperate in Murray's efforts to become the man she knew herself to be than those elsewhere.  When they released her in mid-March, she had nothing to show for her stay beyond a medical bill for $80, which she could not pay."

The Depression had dealt the hospital a serious blow.  In 1934 the mortgage was refinanced and, finally, in 1942 the Manhattan Savings Bank foreclosed.  Initially converted to a nursery school and kindergarten, early in 1950 it became the Edgecombe Hotel.

An advertisement in The New York Age, one of the city's leading Black community newspapers, described the hotel on April 8, 1950 as "Beautifully decorated, new modern furniture.  Complete hotel service.  Radio and Telephone in every room.  Suburban Atmosphere on Sugar Hill."  The ad noted "special rates to permanents."

But the once-refined neighborhood suffered in the second half of the 20th century.  The hotel was the scene of a terrifying incident on the night of January 28, 1976.  The New York Times reported "Police Officer Edward Calderone interrupted an attempted holdup of a desk clerk at the Edgecombe Hotel, 345 Edgecombe Avenue.  After one of two armed men fired two shots at him that missed, the officer returning the fire, hit one suspect twice in the right leg."  Neither of the suspects were seriously injured and both were arrested.

The advertisement for the hotel in the N.Y. Amsterdam News on December 5, 1980 no longer boasted of beautiful decorations and modern furniture.  Instead it merely touted "air conditioning, TV, ice cubes."  Six years later another attraction had been added:  adult movies.



Change came in 1989 when the Broadway Housing Development Fund Company purchased the property.  A not-for-profit organization, it converted the residence to permanent housing for the homeless.  The unique tiled mansard and the copper dormers were restored in 1998 with private and public funds.  The meticulous restoration won a Victorian Society in America preservation award in 2002.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Great post! What a history. It’s hard to imagine this dignified, beautifully restored house being a no-tell motel with porn movies offered as a special treat.

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