Saturday, August 3, 2019

Clarence True's 842 and 844 St. Nicholas Avenue

The contrast of materials and colors is hidden beneath a misguided coat of paint on No. 844.

The Aldhouse Taylor Building Company was formed in 1893 and its first project was the construction of a row of handsome, brownstone-faced rowhouses designed by John C. Burne on the east side of St. Nicholas Avenue between 152nd and 153rd Streets.  For some reason, possibly a financial issue with the start-up company, the project did not include all the plots.  In 1894 Aldhouse Taylor Building Company sold Nos. 842 and 844 to developer Charles G. Judson.

Judson had effectively kick-started the career of architect Clarence F. True in 1890.  In private practice for only five years after leaving the office of Richard M. Upjohn, True was receiving scattered commissions.  But Judson, whose office was in the same building with True's, contracted him to design a string of rowhouses that year and the two would work together on several similar projects going forward.  So Judson's choice of True for the pair of upscale residences in Sugar Hill was not surprising.

Clarence True worked in historic styles, often playing with period accuracy either to create a slightly lighthearted air or simply to conform the structure to modern tastes and needs.  His designs for the St. Nicholas Avenue dwellings would stand in stark contrast to the John C. Burne homes.

Completed in 1895 the pair were designed in the romantic Northern Renaissance Revival style, two fairy tale ready houses within a neighborhood of wealth.  Faced in beige brick, they were trimmed in limestone and brownstone.  Short, five-step stoops led to the entrances below elaborate carved panels--the address of No. 842 worked into the design.  The service entrance of No. 844 stood rather prominently to the right of the stoop; while that of No. 842 attempted to hide around the curve of the rounded, full-length bay next door.

No. 844 was the show-off of the pair.  Its own rounded bay stopped at three floors, where it provided a large balcony for the fourth floor behind a solid decorative wall.  The fifth floor took the form of a mansard broken by a prominent gable that engulfed a large, circular opening.

Just a bit more restrained, No. 842 shared identical carved tympana over the openings with its sister.   They included delicate wreaths, ribbons and festoons at the second floor, and shields and swags at the third.  The rounded bay culminated in a witch's hat cone, next to a reserved dormer that pierced the mansard.

A small section illustrates the contrast of limestone, brownstone and beige brick, along with the intricate carvings.
Charles G. Judson had erected scores of similar houses by now, many of them in the developing Upper West Side area.  And that may have been his downfall--he was building too fast.  He moved his family into No. 842 and rented No. 844 to widow Eilen H. Williams.  But John F. Comey was soon pressing for payment of his building loan.

On November 9, 1896 Judson appears to have begun to panic.  His advertisement in the New York Herald was entitled "Absolute Bargain--Investigate."  He touted the two American  basement dwellings as having "hard wood throughout, exposed plumbing" and stressed "must be sold; want offer."

In July 1898 John F. Comey's patience was exhausted and he foreclosed.  Judson now became a tenant of Comey, like Eilen Williams next door.  The following year, in June, Charles G. Judson declared bankruptcy.

Judson lived in the house with his wife, two daughters and two Irish servants at least through 1904, proof that his financial problems did not impoverish the family.   And he managed to continue in the development field.  In February 1902, for instance, the New-York Daily Tribune reported that he was in the process of erecting a nine-story brick hotel on Broadway at 95th Street.

Things were not so comfortable, however, that the Judsons did not have to take in at least one boarder.  Another well-known real estate developer, James D. Matthews, was living with the family at the same time.  Conversations over the dinner table may have resulted in a boon for one architectural firm.  Matthews was also erecting a hotel in 1902, his on West 58th Street near Eighth Avenue.  Both his and Judson's hotels were designed by Ross & McNeil.

Comey traded No. 844 to Max Marx in October 1900, taking a vacant plot on Broadway at 186th Street in exchange.  But he retained possession of No. 842, and in 1905 it was being operated as a high-end boarding house.  Living here that year were Sarah Hyams, who taught cooking in the New York City Public School System's "Special Branches," Henry Hoag Tibbs, a young civil engineer, and James Pierpont Davenport and his wife.

Born in 1856 in Brooklyn, Davenport was a Yale educated attorney and a Justice of the Civil District Court in New York City.  But his passion seems not to have been law, but poetry.  His muse had made her appearance as early as June 1877.  On the Tuesday before his graduation, there was an ivy-planting ceremony at Yale.  His classmates all sang "Ivy Ode" the words and music to which he had composed.

Charles H. Crandall's 1891 Representative Sonnets by American Poets included two by Davenport, "To Julian M. Sturtevant, D. D." and "To A. Benedict Davenport."

An advertisement in The New York Times on November 29, 1906 hinted at the genial accommodations at No. 844.  "Fine warm, pleasant room; excellent board; table guests accommodated."  Table guests were invited guests of boarders, not residents.   That a landlady would not only accept additional mouths to feed, but advertise that they were welcomed, testified to the rents the boarders were charged and the services they received.

In the meantime, Max Marx had leased No. 844 to John T. Fisher and his wife.  The house was the scene of a funeral and a wedding in quick succession in 1901.  Fisher's wife was the daughter of wealthy real estate operator Grenville R. Benson and his wife, the former Irene Elliott.  Irene Elliott Benson was a well-known author and poet.

On March 7, 1901 the New York Herald reported that Grenville R. Benson had "died at St. Vincent's Hospital after an accident."  The funeral of the 61-year old was held in the Fisher house two days later.

Somewhat surprisingly soon, Mrs. Fisher's sister, also named Irene Elliott Benson, was married to Frederick W. Longfellow in the house on April 29.  Form: An Illustrated Weekly called her "talented and handsome" and said "besides being a perfect brunette, is a perfect whip [i.e. horsewoman], dancer and swimmer, and well as being the possessor of many other sterling qualities."  

Irene Elliott Benson was married in No. 844 St. Nicholas Avenue in March 1901. Form, magazine 1898 (copyright expired) 
The New York Press reported that the bride "was given away by her sister," and noted "The house was prettily trimmed with Southern smilax, bride roses and Easter lilies."

After leasing the house for several years, Fisher purchased No. 844 in September 1904.

In 1908 John F. Comey sold No. 842 to operators Lowenfeld & Prager.  It continued to be operated as a boarding house and Henry H. Tibbs was still living here that year when he took a new job with the engineering and contracting firm of J. G. White & Co.  His boarding house days would come to an end in 1913 when he married Lucina Maud Taylor.

The boarders in No. 842 continued to be well-to-do.  In 1911 Herbert I. Lindsley and his wife lived here, her name appearing in Club Women of New York.  She was a member of the Clio Club, founded in 1892; a literary group which admitted men only "to partial participation."

Michael Maloney and his wife, Anne, also boarded here at the time.  They were listed in the New York Blue Book, a social register.  Anne died in the house in October 1914, and Michael stayed on until his death on February 9, 1918.

Following the end of World War I the tenor of the St. Nicholas Avenue block was still upscale.  After the Fishers sold No. 844 in June 1913, it became one of Anna Corning's many homes around the country.  And No. 842 was still accommodating wealthy boarders.  An advertisement in The Evening Telegram on October 21, 1920 described an "Exceptionally large, sunny 3 room suite, exquisitely furnished in mahogany, exclusive neighborhood."

The death of Anna Corning at the age of 80 on December 18, 1927 came at a time when the exclusive Sugar Hill neighborhood was seeing the first signs of decline.  The crash of Harlem real estate values had begun in 1904, mostly due to the arrival of the subways.  But this immediate neighborhood had hung on, for now.

The wealthy spinster's will caused upheaval for months.  She had left to the city of New York all "objects and articles of art, painting and sculpture," in her Rochester, New York mansion, the St. Nicholas Avenue house, "and in her possession 'at any other place in the world,'" as reported by the Rochester Times-Union on April 27, 1928.  "Any other place in the world" meant her total of 13 homes.  Potential heirs were not pleased.

Henry Ford quickly moved to obtain some of the eccentric woman's possessions for his Dearborn, Michigan museum.  The New York Times reported on November 19, 1928 that a sale of her vehicles included "A Russian sleigh more than 100 years old; a coach, cab, brougham and other smart equipages, as fashionable in the halcyon days of the pioneer aristocracy as the smartest limousine today."  The largest vehicle sold was the Corning family coach, designed to carry six passengers and "elaborately finished inside and out."

The glory days of the St. Nicholas Avenue block had set by now.  When No. 842 was offered for sale in 1924 it was described as a "furnished room[ing] house."

The stone base is actually limestone, its chocolate brown paint looking today like brownstone.
Forty-seven year old Otto Glick rented one of those rooms during the Great Depression.  The president of the Expert Bindery Company on West 29th Street, he was unable to deal with business troubles anymore on July 30, 1935.  He was found hanging in his office that day.

Once home to an heiress with 13 residences, No. 844 received a multiple dwelling violation in 1934, for illegally renting rooms.   Ernest Johnson was renting a room in the house in 1945 when he and two others, Charles Carlos and Oliver Bernard, were "arrested for vagrancy when they could give no explanation for lurking in doorways along Eighth Av.," according to the New York Evening Post.

But the 21st century saw a turn-around in the Sugar Hill neighborhood.  In 2006 the Department of Buildings recorded the "change in use from SRO to Four Family dwelling" at No. 844; and a renovation completed in 2015 resulted in a day care center on the first and second floors of No. 842, with one apartment on the third and two on the fourth floors.

While both have admittedly suffered abuse, overall their fanciful appearance--patently Clarence True--survives after a century and a quarter.

photographs by the author

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