In 1895 Newark-based developer John O. Baker got in on the building boom on Manhattan's Upper West Side. And he went to the top of the heap in choosing his architect. On June 14 C. P. H. Gilbert filed plans for four five-story brick dwellings, each 20-feet wide, to be erected at Nos. 272 through 278 West 86th Street, between Broadway and West End Avenue. Construction costs were projected at $24,000--nearly three quarters of a million in today's dollars.
Gilbert designed the two pairs of mirror image residences in an A-B-A-B pattern. Completed in 1896, their American basement plan placed the entrances on short stoops just steps above the sidewalk. The planar, limestone bases upheld three stories of beige brick with rounded turret-like bays which terminated in handsome balustraded balconies. (Matching balustrades fronted the second floor openings.) Between each of the windows on the fifth floor were intricately-carved Renaissance-inspired panels. A deeply overhanging cornice crowned the design.
The Upper West Side was more welcoming to those in the arts and theater than other parts of the city, with the exception of Greenwich Village. And so No. 272 became home to the widowed Mrs. Marcus Elmer Bennett. A concert pianist, she used her maiden name on stage, Madame Madeline Schiller. She was internationally-known, and on November 12, 1881 had played the world premier of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2. It was just one of several world premieres she would play of works by renowned composers like Joachim Raff and Caille Saint-Saens.
|A cabinet card featured the popular pianists.|
Madeline moved into the rowhouse with her daughter, Elsie Gertrude. Elsie pursued an entertainment career as well. But unlike her classical musician mother, she turned to acting. Madeline had a son, Elmer De Lacy Bennett, as well--one who would bring unwanted publicity to the family before long. Elmer made his living as a traveling salesman for a Boston rubber firm. On December 23, 1897 he arrived in New York to spend Christmas with his mother and sister.
But on the afternoon of Christmas Eve he met two friends, Henry Miller and George Harrison. While Elmer was looking over some pocket knives in a store, Harrison ran off with an umbrella valued at about $375 today. He was soon captured by a policeman and when taken to the station house was found to have two pairs of kid gloves, stolen from a Broadway haberdasher earlier.
Bennett and Harrison were tracked down and arrested as accomplices. The New York Herald reported "Professor J. W. Burgess of Columbia University, called at the station that night with Bennett's weeping mother and protested against the young man's arrest." Burgess paid Elmer's bail, but he was required to appear in court on Monday, December 27.
On April 4, 1903 The Cambridge Chronicle announced "A wedding which will interest Cambridge is that of Miss Elsie Gertrude Bennett and Mr. William Copper Dickey, which is to be solemnized at high noon, April 15, in All Angels' church, New York city."
Elmer, of course, returned to New York for the ceremony and gave his sister away. Afterward a reception was held in the 86th Street house. The Cambridge Chronicle, mentioned that "Miss Bennett is an actress of much ability and note," and reported "The young couple will spend the summer in Europe."
Herbert Harold Vreeland had purchased No. 278, at the other end of the row, from John O. Baker on May 12, 1896. Born in Glen, New York in 1857 he was the youngest of seven children. He had walked away from his public school education at the age of 13 to work as an "ice hoister." The heavy labor meant lifting the huge blocks of ice cut from rivers onto wooden carts. But by now he was president and general manager of "the whole of New York's trolley system," according to The Successful American in 1902.
|Herbert Harold Vreeland. The Successful American, October 1902 (copyright expired)|
That article described Vreeland as "The biggest, broadest-shouldered, sunniest-tempered and hardest-working man that bustles all day in and out of the Cable Building;" and "a man who wields more power and controls more human lives than any one man in a million--who could paralyze the traffic of the city by lifting up his finger, and one who holds within his grasp the destinies of millions of men, women and children." Without divulging his income, the article noted "His employers give him the largest salary of any railroad man in the United States."
He had married Carrie L. Reed in 1890 and the couple now had a daughter and four sons. They maintained a 200-acre summer estate in Brewster, New York called Restawhile. On March 22, 1903 the New-York Tribune described that house as "large and commodious, but less pretentious than the country homes of many other men blessed with no more of the world's goods than he."
|The Vreeland's summer home, Restawhile. New-York Tribune, March 22, 1903 (copyright expired)|
The grounds of Restawhile held a regular stables and a pavilion-like stables for the boys' ponies, a coachhouse, and Italian gardens. There was also a building called the Playhouse. Among other amenities, it held a gymnasium and bowling alleys. But the favorite spot for the children was the old streetcar that their father had brought from the city and "planted on a firm foundation halfway down the slope back of the house," according to the Tribune. Vreeland removed half of the seats to make a playroom.
New Yorkers may have been shocked when the New-York Tribune ran a front-page headline on October 6, 1907 "H. H. VREELAND RESIGNS / May Have Been Forced." Vreeland had stepped down from the presidency of the New York Railway Company and the article hinted that the rumors of his having been forced out might be "an indication of future resignation of his other offices with the surface lines."
It is impossible to know if the upheaval prompted the sale of No. 278 within a year and a half. On July 8, 1909 it was purchased by Dr. Charles E. Quimby and his wife, the former Julia Gove.
(As an interesting side note, on March 1, 1924 one of the Vreelands' four sons, Thomas Reed Vreeland, married debutante Diana Dalziel. Diana Vreeland would go on to become editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and a force in American fashion.)
Charles Quimby had graduated from New York University in 1878 and since 1889 had been a member of that school's medical faculty.
The couple had two daughters, Dorothy Marion and Aldana Ripley. Julia's initial entertainments revolved around social and charitable affairs. On November 6, 1910, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported that she had hosted a "bridge whist" party for the philanthropic fund of the National Society of New England Women. But her attentions would soon be focused on her daughters.
On August 17, 1912 Dorothy married Augustus G. Paine; and in 1914 the Quimbys announced Aldana's engagement to W. Lee White. Coincidentally, White's summer home was in Brewster, near the Vreeland's.
Now empty-nesters, Charles and Julia remained in No. 278. He died there on November 6, 1921 at the age of 68. Julia sold the house the following year. It became home Viennese-born artist Max Wolf.
In the meantime, No. 274 had been home to another well-known doctor, George DeWayne Hallett since 1912. Born in 1866 in Harwich, Massachusetts he had studied in New York, London and Berlin. An author of several medical books, he was a surgeon at the New York Ophthalmological Hospital, the Hahnemann Hospital and the Laura Franklin Free Hospital for Children.
Hallett's wife was the former Lillian Mandeville. On January 30, 1915 the house was the scene of the wedding of Lillian's sister, Emma, to Brigadier General Frederick Appleton Smith. George (who went professionally by G. DeWayne) gave his sister-in-law away.
Much more accustomed to treating children, Dr. Hallett critically injured one on September 28, 1921. The Brooklyn Standard Union reported "Seven-year-old Crawford Dunlap...is in St. John's Hospital with a fracture of the skull sustained yesterday when he was knocked down in front of his home by an automobile drive by Dr. DeWayne Hallett of 274 West Eighty-sixth street, Manhattan."
Following her husband's death in 1932 Emma Smith moved in with George and Lillian. She died in the house where she had been married on March 1, 1933 at the age of 72.
The house next door, No. 276, was initially home to the insurance executive Charles H. Post and his family. He was president of the Caledonian American Insurance Company and United States manager of the Caledonian Insurance Company of Scotland. The Posts remained until 1901 after which it was home to Frederick Winkhaus, a member of the importing firm of Cowdery & Winkhaus, and his wife the former Augusta C. Andresen.
The most interesting family to live at No. 276 were Edward B. Kinney and his wife Carrie. The couple was married on April 20, 1899 and had three sons, Edward, Jr. (who went by his middle name, Sanford), Howard and Donald.
Kinney was a wealthy mattress merchant, a partner in Wilcox & Kinney. It was the couple's religious affiliations that set them apart. Edward was introduced to the Bahá’í Faith in the winter of 1895 and Carrie became an adherent shortly afterward. The house was sometimes the scene of meetings and talks for the group. They remained at No. 276 until 1922.
As mid-century approached, change began to happen along the row. In 1945 No. 274 was converted to apartments and two years later No. 278 followed suit. Only No. 276 escaped being broken up into apartments. But that, too, would change in 2014.
With hopes of putting up a modern apartment building, developers sought to demolish Nos. 272 through 276. But lobbying efforts by neighborhood preservation groups managed to save them from total destruction.
On July 31, 2014 year plans were filed to combine Nos. 272 through 276 internally and create seven residential units, known as The Gilbert Condominium (apparently a nod to the C. P. H. Gilbert). The gut demolition which obliterated any traces of his interior detailing and left only the facades standing was much less of a tribute to the famed architect.
Somehow No. 278 escape inclusion in the plan. Today it stands out because the others were given a needless coat of paint over the masonry--always an ill-advised move. Despite the carnage inside, the row designed by one of New York's premier architects of the 19th century is thankfully preserved.
photographs by the author