Although the arrival of subway service to the Sugar Hill district of Harlem was still a few years away, what had been a quiet residential neighborhood of upscale homes was changing at the turn of the last century. Apartment buildings began making an appearance along the avenues.
One of the first was The St. Nicholas Court, designed by Henri Fouchaux for the Central Building Improvement and Investment Co. in 1901. Fouchaux would be among the most prolific architects in the district and this particular project would be one of his most memorable.
Completed in 1902 the narrow St. Nicholas Avenue elevation was deceptive. The building stretched back to Edgecombe Avenue where it spread out in the T shape at Nos. 313 through 317. The three-bay wide St. Nicholas Avenue facade was an exuberant celebration of the Beaux Arts style.
Rusticated stone piers with stylized Ionic capitals flanked the yawning arched entrance with its Baroque cartouche. Every inch of the spandrel panels was carved with frothy ornamentation. The grouped windows of the second floor were flanked by intricately carved panels. Directly above the windows an assemblage of French cartouches closely followed the example of the first floor. The same motif was carried out in the frieze of the elaborate pressed metal cornice.
|Most likely the balcony was originally fronted by a decorative stone balustrade or cast iron railing.
The St. Nicholas Court boasted the modern amenities of elevator service and steam heat. The commodious apartments of either four, six or seven rooms filled with white collar tenants.
Among the first was William R. Patterson, a member of the American Economic Association who was imported from the University of Iowa in 1901 by the city to serve as the Register of Statistics in the Tenement House Commission. The New-York Tribune explained in February 1902 that "A competitive examination was held for the place" and "on account of the high degree of technical knowledge required it is assumed that Dr. Patterson received the highest marks." It was always understood to be a temporary position, however, and by 1905 Patterson was back teaching in Iowa.
E. H. Coster and his wife, too, were original tenants. The well-to-do couple appeared in society columns as they came and went from the city. On November 13, 1902, for instance, The New York Times listed them as arriving home from Europe on the Kronprinz Wilheim along with other wealthy passengers like J. Warren Goddard, Mrs. W. H. Hoyt and the Countess Cassini. The Costers would remain in the St. Nicholas Court for several years.
Mabel Boak was living here in 1906. At a time when the common expectation for young unmarried women was to find a husband and run a household, Mabel had higher goals. She graduated from Vassar College in 1901, and then earned her masters degree from Columbia University the following year. She left the St. Nicholas Court by 1908 when she was appointed assistant principal at the Chappaqua Mountain Institute. Mabel, who never married, would devote her life to education, teaching later at the Low-Heywood School in Stamford, Connecticut, the Chevy Chase School in Maryland, and finally the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts.
Residents in 1909 paid between $42.50 and $60 monthly rent. Based on today's, it seems highly affordable. The most expensive rent, for a seven-room apartment, would equal about $1,710 per month today.
Dr. George W. Elliott lived here that year. Among his patients was Methodist Episcopal Bishop Daniel A. Goodsell. The nationally esteemed clergyman lived nearby at No. 15 St. Nicholas Place. What seemed to be a minor medical problem resulted in unfavorable publicity for Elliott. The doctor operated on Goodsell on November 27, 1909 to remove a carbuncle from his neck. A week later the 69-year old was dead, apparently from infection. The New-York Tribune reported on December 6, "His condition did not improve, however, and the disease which caused his death set in."
Lottie Hyde Buffington had been living a comfortable life in Philadelphia as the wife of attorney Orr Buffington. The couple had two grown sons, Sydney and Kenneth, and two daughters, one of which was married. But as the year 1910 drew to an end her world was upset when her husband sued for separation.
Lottie left Philadelphia and by the end of 1911 was living in a sixth floor apartment in the St. Nicholas Court. In September that year her son, Sydney, had earned the degree of doctor of medicine. But depression caused by the separation of his parents outweighed the triumph of the achievement. On December 5, 1911 he committed suicide. The New-York Tribune explained "It was believed the separation of his father and mother caused Dr. Buffington to kill himself."
It was a significant blow to Lottie Buffington. The elevator boys were accustomed to greeting her every afternoon as she left to take her daily walk. When she did not appear on January 9, 1912, one mentioned it to superintendent John Marshall. He went to the Buffington apartment where he smelled gas. Two patrolmen were called and they "burst in the door," according to the New-York Tribune, "and found Mrs. Buffington lying across her bed, clad only in her nightgown, with a revolver in her right hand."
She had apparently first considered asphyxiation by gas, but then fatally shot herself. On the table next to her was a photograph of Sydney, a telegram telling of his becoming a doctor, and a newspaper clipping about his suicide. She left several letters, one of which read:
To all my dear friends: Forgive, if that is necessary. There is nothing else for me to do. I only surrender to a God who is more just than man. Goodby. God bless you, whom I love dearly. LOTTIE HYDE BUFFINGTON
A much happier story played out in June 1913. Newspaper readers closely followed the story of the missing 16-year old Helen McCarthy, daughter of "wealthy newspaper broker" John A. McCarthy. The girl had disappeared from the family apartment in the Hotel Hargrave on the evening of June 24.
Francis Brophy, who lived in the St. Nicholas Court, and a friend, Joseph Daly, were walking through Fort Washington Park at around 4:00 on the afternoon of June 26 when they noticed a girl who was acting so strangely that they paused to check on her. The Evening World reported "The girl seemed dazed. Her clothes were soiled and covered with dirt. She was unable to answer questions at first." The men found a policeman who took her to the station house. There a detective identified her by the ring of her dead sister which she always wore. It was a fortunate discovery as the girl was sick from exposure, "weakened and starving."
|The brick and stone facade of the Edgecome Avenue elevation, broken by two light courts, bears no resemblance to its showier St. Nicholas Avenue front.
He was temporarily released on December 17 to spend the Christmas holidays with his family. According to his wife and stepson, on the morning of December 20 he was "unusually cheerful" and "talked and chatted at breakfast." After breakfast Mrs. Mackrell started her daily chores and Roy West, the step-son, prepared to leave for work. David Mackrell went into the bathroom. "A shot was heard and when the mother and son rushed to the bathroom they found the patrolman lying on the floor," reported The Times. He had shot himself in the right temple with his service revolver.
The shooting of another tenant, John Henderson, on the night of November 29, 1916 was more bizarre. The 41-year old Henderson made his living as a salesman for a ship chandler on Water Street. For some time he had been acquainted with a nurse, 35-year old Sarah A. Sheldon, who lived nearby at No. 90 Edgecombe Avenue with a roommate, Anna Balleer. According to Henderson the two were merely friends. Events would soon bring that into question.
Henderson became engaged to another nurse, Rachel Jones. When Sarah heard of it she told him "I'll kill you." Henderson's wedding took place on November 22, 1916. According to Henderson, on the 27th, Sarah appeared at Henderson's office and told him she had resigned from her position with a tuberculosis clinic of the Department of Health because she had contracted the disease. She was leaving for California, she said, and asked him to bring railroad timetables to her apartment.
If Sarah intended to go to California at all, it was almost assuredly not tuberculosis, but pregnancy, that prompted the move. Henderson arrived at the apartment around 6:00. Anna Balleer was in the kitchen and Sarah told him to "sit down and make yourself comfortable." Henderson had just taken a seat in a rocking chair when things took a terrifying turn.
According to the New-York Tribune, "Miss Sheldon levelled an automatic pistol of small calibre and fired twice. Henderson threw up his right hand just in time to get it punctured. The second bullet went into a bookcase." Sarah immediately turned the weapon on herself, firing a shot into her abdomen. It emerged out her back.
Anna came running into the living room. Sarah gasped, "I shot him and shot myself." She was still clinging to life when police arrived. She told them "I loved him."
|Above a classical row of columns, the pressed metal cornice echoes the Baroque cartouches of the lower floors.
In 1924 author Arna Bontemps and his wife, the former Alberta Johnson, moved in. A teacher at the Harlem Academy, he would become a notable literary figure, first publishing his poetry in Crisis in 1924.
On May 8, 1927 The New York Times reported on the annual Holstein literary and art awards. The conspicuous racial divide that still existed in America was evidenced in the report entitled "Negroes Get Prizes for Literary Work." The article explained that the awards were given "each year by Opportunity, a negro magazine." Arna Bontemps was awarded to $100 Alexander Puskin poetry award that night.
God Sends Sunday, written while living here, was Bontemps's first novel. It was published in March 1931. Even in giving the book a glowing review, The Times still fell victim to the racism of the period. "This first novel by a young Louisiana Negro, already known as a poet, plows deeply in the a rich soil of Negro personality...The vivid picturesqueness of expression leaps out with the natural freshness of childish naiveté rather than with the burnt-cork brilliance of a minstrel show."
In 1945 Leonard de Paur took an apartment in the building. An arranger, conductor and composer, he had graduated from Julliard. When he moved into the St. Nicholas Court he had recently returned from fighting in World War II, as a lieutenant in the Air Force. During his military service he had also become part of the 372nd Glee Club. It inspired him to form the De Paur Infantry Chorus, first composed of 35 men from the group and later from other branches of service.
|A 1948 concert announcement pictured Leonard de Paul conducting.
In fact, in 1946 the Chorus had been signed by Columbia Records and for ten years was its top performing group. De Paur discontinued the chorus in 1957; but continued his impressive career. In 1968 he became associated director of the Lincoln Center International Choral Festival and would continue heading Lincoln Center events for two decades. He was still living in his St. Nicholas Court apartment when he died on November 7, 1998.
Another notable resident was attorney Hope R. Stevens, living here in the 1950's. Born in the British Virgin Islands, he would go on to become First Executive Vice President of the United Mutual Life Insurance Company and Chairman of the Board of the Carver Federal Savings and Loan Association.
No less noteworthy were Garfield Dawson and his wife, Elida Webb Dawson. In the 1920's Garfield took the stage name George Dawson, Jr. for his dancing career; but was better known as "The Strutter."
Elida, who was one of the first Black choreographers in America, was a dancer and choreographer at the Cotton Club from 1923 to 1934. In 1921 she and Josephine Baker joined the cast of Shuffle Along, the first all-Black musical on Broadway. Two years later she choreographed Runnin' Wild, in which she introduced the dance the Charleston. According to Elida years later, she had invented the dance after watching "some black children on the streets doing a simple dance." Fred W. Emiston, in his 1930 The Coon-Sanders Nighthawks: The Band That Radio Made Famous, quoted her as saying "There was something fascinating, and it caught me." The dance caught on and eventually came to identify the personality of the Roaring '20's.
Unbelievably, George Dawson did not retire until 1973 at the age of 81. The couple was still living here on May 1, 1975 when Elida died at the age of 79.
Henri Fouchaux's ebullient St. Nicholas Court is as much a show-stopper today as it was in 1902. A bit battered, it nonetheless survives as an exceptional example of Beaux Arts applied to an apartment building.
photographs by the author