Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Wm. W. Dashiell House - 848 St. Nicholas Avenue

The glass in the bowed bay was originally curved, to conform to the shape.

Architect John C. Burne had worked with developer Frederick Aldous several times before the spring of 1893.   The employee-employer relationship would be slightly changed now, with the Real Estate Record & Guide reporting on April 22 that year "A company of capitalists has been formed under the name of Aldous Taylor Building Co., with Frederick Aldous as president, for the purpose of building a large number of first class cut stone private dwelling houses."  Partnering with Aldous in the new firm was another prolific developer, William H. Taylor.  The article noted that John C. Burne was already "engaged on the drawings" for several of those houses, "on St. Nicholas avenue, north of 152d street."

The Sugar Hill neighborhood was already developing into one of impressive rowhouses and splendid free-standing residences.  The Aldous Taylor Building Co.'s project would slip seamlessly into the upscale district.

Completed in 1894, the 21-foot wide homes were identical; their only differences found in the elaborate Renaissance-inspired carvings and the stained glass transoms.  Like the others, No 848 rose three stories above a high English basement.  Clad entirely in brownstone, it featured a rounded, full-height three-window bay.  The parlor level, including the entrance flanked by fluted, engaged columns which supported a prominent hood, bore a profusion of ornate carvings.

What the upper floors lost in somewhat diminished carvings, they made up for with striking neo-Renaissance pediments, and a half-bowl element beneath a third-floor opening.  The pressed metal cornice featured diminutive brackets and a decorative frieze. 

No. 848 was purchased by the estate of Philip Detar, apparently as an investment property.  Administered by Susie T. Lyons, it initially leased the home to druggist John Ewing, a member of the American Pharmaceutical Association.

John and his wife, Grace, had two daughters, Eleanor and Katharine.  Grace was highly involved in the Burnham Farm, an independent facility where delinquent New York City boys were sent in lieu of a reformatory.  The socialites with whom she worked came from the top levels of society, with names like Townsend, Goodridge, Oothout and Choate.

The Ewings were possibly given the opportunity to purchase the house in 1897; but if so they declined.  Instead Susie T. Lyons sold it on October 5 to William Wailes Dashiell and his wife, the former Katherine Townsend Keynton (who was known as Kittie).  

Born in 1856 in Maryland, Dashiell earned his engineering degree in 1879 from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.  He had held a series of important engineering positions--including mechanical engineer on the Croton Aqueduct--before becoming president and general manager of the New York Lubricating Oil Company.  By the time he purchased No. 848, he was also vice-president of the Bayway Refining Company and a director of the Manhattan Rubber Manufacturing Company.

The couple had four children, 10-year old Marie Fielding; 8-year old William Allair; Katherine Keynton, who was four; and two-year old John Jay.  The Dashiell's 44-acre country estate, Croftleigh, was in Greenwich, Connecticut.  The New-York Tribune described Croftleigh as consisting of "a residence, a model concrete stable, included in which is a ballroom with musicians' gallery, a large garage with extensive servants' quarters and the usual other outbuildings.  Among the features of this place is a lake of about one acre, fed by springs on the property."  

Kitty Dashiell, of course, had a domestic staff to maintain the household.  Chambermaids took care of the dusting, sweeping and polishing.  But the cleaning of the Oriental rugs in the days before efficient vacuum cleaners required outside help.  And so Kitty hired rug beater Christopher Robertson to come by on February 6, 1903.  

Robertson had not gotten very far along before a neighbor peered out her window and witnessed a crime.  February 6th was a Friday and city laws specifically outlawed carpet beating on Fridays.  She ventured onto the street and found Policeman Minogue and had Robertson arrested.

The tranquil St. Nicholas Avenue block was nearly traffic-free around 1910.  photo by Thaddeus Wilkerson from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The culprit was taken before Magistrate Crane in the Harlem Court.  The judge found the entire affair exasperating and confessed that, technically, he was guilty of the violation as well.  He announced, "I have my carpets beaten every Friday.  There are lots of laws that can't be enforced and this is one of them.  It would cost the city millions of dollars to enforce it.  What's a person to do if he can't beat his carpets?  He can't leave them on the floor until they are filled with dust and then throw them away."  He turned to Robertson and declared "You are discharged."

By 1914 well-heeled citizens were replacing their horse-drawn carriages with automobiles.  That year William Dashiell registered a new Lozier.  His purchase was not inexpensive.  The list price of a Lozier touring car that year was $2,800, or about $72,600 today.

The Dashiell family rode about in a touring car similar to this 1914 Lozier model. (copyright expired)

Growing older and with their children all grown, in 1919 William and Kittie apparently rethought the need for their sumptuous summer estate.  Following the summer season that year the Dashiells sold Croftleight.  The New-York Tribune reported on November 13, 1919 that "The buyer, who is from Texas, withholds his name for the present."

It may have also been Kitty's health that prompted the decision.  Three months later, on February 25, 1920, she died in the St. Nicholas Avenue house.  Her funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.  

William Dashiell remained at No. 848 at least through 1922.  He died on August 2, 1947.  By then the St. Nicholas Avenue neighborhood had noticeably changed and No. 848 was being operated as a rooming house.

The Dashiell house is second from the right in the row.

Among the tenants in 1940 was 27-year old Gordon Osborne.  On the night of November 14 he was passing the home of Harold Furchein at No. 141 West 150th Street when Furchein's automobile caught his eye.  And so he drove off with it.

Osborn picked up some friends and took them on a ride.  But when he ran two red lights on Broadway, he was arrested.   He admitted stealing the car and his friends were released after he vouched that they were unaware it was a stolen car.

Leroy Frederic Florant took a room here around 1943.  Born in 1920 he had graduated cum laude from Howard University's School of Engineering and Architecture.  He went on to study at the graduate level at Columbia University.  While living here he was working for the Government on the now-famous Manhattan Project, which developed the United States' first nuclear weapons.

In 1946 Florant left New York to work at the Rocket Research Laboratory at Ohio State University.  While there he developed the first successful hydrogen-liquid oxygen rocket fuel pump.

By 1964 the basement level of No. 848 had been converted to Ann's Beauty Salon.  Ann Johnson advertised her shop as being air-conditioned and in a "choice location."

In the meantime attorney Isaac G. McNatt operated his office in the former parlor level.   Born in North Carolina in 1916, he had graduated from the Hampton Institute and St. John's Law School, and served in the Navy in World War II.  

The multi-faceted lawyer, who lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, used his office space for a myriad of other activities.  It was the headquarters of the New York Hampton Alumni Club, for instance.  He was, as well, a leader in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Association.  The N.Y. Amsterdam News noted on July 12, 1969 that those interested in membership should write Mr. Isaac McNatt, 848 St. Nicholas Avenue.

That year the house was officially converted to an apartment house and business.  The completed renovations resulted in the now-legitimate beauty salon in the basement, McNutt's legal office on the first floor, two apartments on the second, and one apartment and three furnished rooms on the third floor.

The indefatigable Isaac G. McNatt maintained his office here into the 1980's.  In the meantime, in 1962 he was one of a group of Black attorneys who formed "The Barristers," the goal of which was "to address how to project a positive image of the African American attorney in the community, as well as expanding and building their practices."  McNatt was that group's first president.  Its name was changed to the Garden State Bar Association in 1975.

McNatt's dizzying career continued when, in 1966, he became the first Black Teaneck City Councilman, was elected that city's deputy major in 1970, and in 1982 was appointed by Governor Brendon Byrne to serve as a judge in the Worker's Compensation Court.

Isaac McNatt's former office was offered for rent in March 1985.  An advertisement in the N.Y. Amsterdam News described it as a "Beautiful spacious office space, ideal [for] lawyer."  It was not an attorney who signed the lease, but Gordon R. Watkins, president of Root Sights & Sounds, Ltd, a private foundation.  

That firm soon moved to Flushing, Queens, and the space became home to the headquarters of The Renaissance Concert Series.

Through it all, other than replacement windows, the exterior of the Dashiell house has survived nearly unchanged since the time when wealthy families hired professional rug beaters--occasionally to the annoyance of nosy neighbors.

photographs by the author

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