Tuesday, August 27, 2019

McKim, Mead & White's "King's Model Houses" - 203-269 West 139th Street

On August 16, 1890 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that "One of the most important building operations ever undertaken in this city is about to be commenced in Harlem."  The article explained that developer David H. King, Jr. intended to cover the entire block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (today Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, respectively) and 138th and 139th Streets, as well as the south side of  138th Street between the same avenues with "buildings of a first-class character."

What was most interesting about the project was that the houses (78 in total) would be built around central courtyards, accessed by two wide carriage gates in the center of the blocks.  "By this plan, instead of there being the usual four corners to the entire block, there will be six corners on each street and two corners on each avenue."  The significance of the courtyard, other than providing significant light and air to the rear of the homes, was that there was no need for service entrances at the fronts.  "The courtyards will have handsome ornamental wrought-iron gates at the street and avenue entrances, and through these access will be had by tradesmen as well as servants and residents."

Another interesting wrinkle was that King had commissioned three architects to design the project.  Bruce Price and Clarence S. Luce worked together on the full block, while James Brown Lord worked independently on the south side of 138th.  

As construction proceeded King was apparently well pleased with the project.  On January 27, 1891 the Record & Guide wrote that he "intends to build another block just north of the present block he is improving on 137th and 138th [sic] streets, 7th and 8th avenues."  The new portion, engulfing the northern blockfront of 139th Street, would follow the same plan as the others and be designed by McKim, Mead & White.

Known as the King Model Houses, the entire project was completed by the end of that year.  King's Handbook of New York City of 1892 (there is no apparent connection between the two Kings) noted "An interesting feature of dwelling architecture had reached a definite and gratifying result in the unique blocks of 'King Model Houses,' designed [sic] and constructed by the famous building, David H King, Junior."

The McKim, Mead & White 32-house row was designed, for the most part, in the Italian Renaissance style.  Rusticated brownstone bases upheld three stories of reddish-brown brick.  Each of the offset entrances above a short stoop wore an iron and glass marquee--except for the center house of the eastern group, No. 233, which acted as the focal point of that section.  Its entrance was recessed within an arcade (and its second floor window was given a round-arched pediment).  Why the same was treatment was not given to the center house of the western block is puzzling.

No. 233 stands out from the rest.  Even its facade projects slight away from its neighbors.
At the second floor a centered set of French doors opened onto an iron-railed balcony.  It was flanked by two brick-framed openings and sat below a decorative terra cotta medallion--a common element in Italian Renaissance architecture.  Above a projecting sill course the third floor openings were framed in brick and had prominent cornices.  The fourth floor windows sat on molded, bracketed sills.  Their brick enframements were broken by simple keystones.

The other exceptions to the regimented design were the corner houses, including those on either side of the gateway.  Here the round-arched pediments reappeared, giving visual anchorage to the corners.

A glance through the handsome courtyard gates gives an idea of the ample proportions within the homes.
Little has changed at the courtyard entrance since this photo was taken in 1899.  Architectural Record, June 1899 (copyright expired)
Montgomery Schuyler, the critic of Architectural Record, was pleased.  "It may be said in general that the authors of the southernmost and northernmost rows have apparently built for tenants who, Quaker like, were content to dwell in decencies forever.  Decorum they have in fact and without question attained.  These are 'second-rate, genteel houses,' in which nobody will be ashamed to be caught dwelling."  (Schuyler's use of the term "second rate" was not necessarily a derision, but implied that the houses were not mansions.)
David King retained ownership of the McKim, Mead & White row until 1895, when he sold it to The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.  The firm continued to lease them to financially-comfortable families until 1905, when they were sold as a group to the Lexington Avenue Co.  The new owner had no intention of being a landlord and quickly sold the individual houses.

The new owners were white collar professionals.  Jules A. Coelos, president of Coelos & Fasselle, Inc. and secretary of the Thomas J. Brady Co. bought No. 219; Dr. Thomas F. Macguire and his wife Mary Irene purchased No. 235; and Professor James Furman Kemp took bought No. 221, which he had already been renting.

No. 237 retains its fanciful iron-and-glass marquee.

Born in New York City in 1859, Kemp was Columbia University's professor of geology.  Moreover, he was a nationally-recognized authority on the subject and the author of several books.  A man of several interests, he was also the manager and scientific director of the New York Botanical Gardens; and in 1902 was named chairman of the Faculty Committee on Athletics at Columbia.

James Furman Kemp, photo from the collection of the  American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers.
Following a collapse in the subway construction on Park Avenue in 1902, concerned property owners and residents sought out James F. Kemp "to investigate the condition of the subway and to make a scientific survey of the formation of the rock."  And following 5.1 earthquake in Maine in 1904 that shook areas as far away as Boston, reporters rushed to get Kemp's take on a similar prospect in Manhattan.

Fully aware of the island's bedrock foundation, the geologist calmed New Yorkers.  "Owners and tenants of the big steel structures need have little fear.  If the shock that Boston felt should be transmitted here, the damage would be very slight."

No. 261 was sold in 1905 to Arthur Pillsbury Dodge and his wife, Elizabeth.  Arthur's family had first arrived in America from England in 1629.  With only a scant education, he had served as a drummer boy in the Civil War, then self-educated himself to become an attorney.  He married Elizabeth Ann Day in November 1870 and the couple had six children.  

By the time the Dodges purchased No 261 Arthur had founded and published the New England Magazine, the Bay State Monthly and Granite State Monthly, worked with George Pullman in perfecting a streetcar in Chicago, and with Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William K. Vanderbilt in producing steam streetcar engines.

Arthur Pillsbury Dodge and Elizabeth Ann Day Dodge. photo via The Bahai Encyclopedia Project 

The couple was perhaps best known, however, for their religious affiliation.  They were the first members of the Bahai faith in New York City and were, as worded by The New York Times, "active supporters of the propagation of the Bahai Revelation."

Henry D. Gobber lived at No. 259 and even though several houses separated his from James Kemp's, he still managed to irritate his neighbor.  Gobber was a mortician and he set up his practice in his house, hanging a sign outside.  Neighbors went to court on the grounds that "the street was restricted and that the undertaker could not use his house for business purposes," according to The Sun.  The judge ordered him to relocate his business, but conceded that Gobber could "hang a card in his window similar to those of physicians or dentists, showing that the house was the residence of an undertaker."

So Gobber took down his sign, placed a card in the window, and brashly continued operating his mortuary from the house.  Kemp and another neighbor were incensed.  On March 22, 1913 he and Dr. Henry Spitzer appeared in court and "proved that Gobber had been transacting an undertaking  business from his house."  Gobber was fined $34 for contempt of court.  Despite the neighborly tensions, he remained in the house until 1922.

The architects executed the complex window enframements in brick.
By the time Gobber sold No. 259 the neighborhood had changed from an all-white to a nearly all-Black population.  The New-York Tribune entitled its article reporting on the sale of Nos. 231 and 241 West 139th Street on November 8 1919, "Sales in Harlem Negro Section."  That year the former Kemp house was sold to Vertner W. Tandy and his wife, Sadie.  The Record & Guide identified Tandy on April 26 as "an architect, who will occupy the premises after extensive alterations."

Vertner W. Tandy had entered Tuskegee Institute to study architecture in 1904 and a year later transferred to Cornell University.  Upon his graduation he became the first African American registered architect in the State of New York.  He was as well the first Black architect to gain membership to the American Institute of Architects.  During World War I he achieved the rank of major and was put in command of the 15th Battalion, infantry, of the New York National Guard.  It was, of course, an all-Black unit.

No. 221 was home to both Professor James Furman Kemp and architect Vertner W. Tandy.
The year before moving into No. 221 Tandy had designed what many consider his best work, Villa Lewaro, the country home of Madam C. J Walker.  Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Louisiana where her parents and older siblings had been slaves, she developed beauty and hair products for Black women.  Described by the Guinness Book of Records as being "America's first, self-made female millionaire," she created an empire.  She approached Tandy to design a palatial estate--not to boast of her achievements, but to show other struggling Blacks what was possible with hard work and determination.

Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.
On June 3, 1922 the Record & Guide reported that No. 245 West 139th Street had been sold to "Harry Wills, the colored aspirant for the Heavyweight Championship of the World."  It noted there were "facilities in the rear for a garage."

Wills, who was still working his day job as a dock worker, held an undefeated record in the boxing ring.  Earlier that year, on March 12, sports writer for The New York Herald W. O. McGeehan wrote an article on the "Black Panther."  Wills opened up about his personal life, saying for instance, "What do I read?  I read the papers and I like to read about history.  But the best book I ever had is a book written by Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  He was a colored man, too, you know."

Harry Wills - from the collection of the New York Public Library

Harry Wills would hold the World Colored Heavyweight Championship three times.  But because of the "color line" held by the Boxing Commission, he never had a shot at his most coveted prize: the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World.  In his interview with McGeehan, he mentioned that fighting Jack Dempsey would be a distinction, but added frankly that the purse for that fight would be welcomed, as well. "It isn't very easy for colored fighters to get any kind of money."

The McKim, Mead & White row has survived remarkably intact.  David H. King, Jr.'s "Model Houses," look little different from when Montgomery Schuyler said of them "The experiment is so successful that one would like to have it again and again repeated, not merely for the sake of having something entertaining to look at...but as a friend of humanity."

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Matthew Priest for suggesting this article


  1. Thank you for running with this -- you took what was for me an architectural curiosity and connected it with an impressive variety of historical figures and eras. Great article.

  2. David H. King, Jr. built a cottage at Jekyll Island that was later owned by Edwin Gould. It survives as a ruin. https://www.jekyllisland.com/shades-of-the-past/

  3. David H King, Jr. is an ancestor. He receives little recognition for his many contributions to NYC.
    In addition to The King Model Houses, King, Jr. also was the builder for the foundation of the Statue of Liberty, contracted to erect the Statue at cost, not to exceed $10,000. Among other structures that still stand are The Washington Square Arch, The Metropolitan Club, St. John the Divine Cathedral (initial builder), 21 E. 21stSt, The Long Island Historical Society (now Brooklyn Historical Society 128 Pierrepont St), The Penninsula at Premium Point, Mamaroneck, King Flats on West 83ed, The Renaissance Hotel 512 5th An at 43rd, The Bowery Savings Bank 130 Bowery at Grand, and many others. He was also President of the NYC Park Commission for a time. Some of his more significant demolished structures included The Vanderbilt Mansions on 5th Ave, The Mills Building at 35 Wall St., Collis Potter Huntington House 5th Ave, and Stanford White's Madison Square Garden The Times Building at Park Row (1889 expansion around existing structure), and The Equitable Life Assurance in 1882 and Darius Ogden Mills Residence at 634 5th Av. After his illustrious career as a builder, King, Jr. brought Brooklyn Wharf and Warehouse out of bankruptcy and created the New Your Dock Company which spanned 3 miles along the east River.

  4. Great article 😊