Saturday, September 28, 2019

Emery Roth's 1938 Kensington House - 200 West 20th Street

As construction started on The Kensington House apartment building newspapers and magazines took note.  On March 27, 1938 The New York Times reported "The clatter of the riveter's hammer will be missing when workmen start putting up the steel framework this week for the tall apartment house to rise at the southwest corner of Twentieth Street and Seventh Avenue."  And The New Yorker, on June 11, 1938 called it the first structure ever erected in New York City "in practically complete silence."

The owner, H. A. Hyman was not only a real estate developer, but a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.  He had managed to convince the city to allow him to erect his building using no rivets, only welded steel.  The process had been used in Chicago for at least ten years; but the Tammany administration here had opposed it.  The Times noted "The absence of noise is of importance, not only for the workers but also for the neighbors, whose nerves often have been jarred by the sound of the riveting hammers."

Prolific apartment building architect Emery Roth had designed the 14-story structure.  He gave verticality to the cube-like building by arranging the various sized and shaped openings in full height rows.  The corner windows wrapped the facade, a modern innovation.  Brick bandcourses along the two-story base created the appearance of rustication; a motif carried on in colorful tiles around the entrance.  Two terra cotta friezes of Art Deco tiles girded the building above the second and twelfth floors.  Rather than a cornice, Roth ran brick panels above the top floor.  Shops on the Seventh Avenue side provided extra income.

Roth's office released the above rendering.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On September 11, 1938, just five months after ground was broken, The New York Times entitled an article "House of Welded Steel" and reported "Kensington House, the new fourteen-story welded steel apartment building at 200 West Twentieth Street has been completed and was opened last week...The new structure contains 200 apartments of two and three rooms and six shops."

Depression weary residents would enjoy recreational distractions.  "Among the features of the building are a sun deck on the roof, where handball, deck tennis, shuffleboard and other games may be played, and a photographer's dark room in the basement."  Some of the apartments featured sunken living rooms and an unusual feature was hand-painted murals "furnished for tenants desiring them," as reported by The Times.

The New York Times published a photo of an apartment with a "stepped-down living room" and a hand-painted mural.  November 24, 1940
Even before construction was completed would-be residents were lining up to sign leases.  A three-room apartment went for $75 per month--more in the neighborhood of $1,340 today.  On August 1, 1938 The Times noted "Kensington House, at 200 West Twentieth Street, is being filled up rapidly from the plans."  And on the same day the Record & Guide reported that the Good Tay Meat Market had leased two of the stores.

Among the early tenants was radio pioneer William H. Priess and his family.  During World War I he had been a communications officer, working on "telephone secrecy for the Army, and submarine detecting devices for the Navy," according to The New York Sun.  "For a time he was United States Department of Commerce radio inspector for the port of New York."  In 1931 he founded the International Television Radio Corporation.  When world war again broke out he again worked for the U. S. Navy.

Another was Leo Ritter and his wife.   When The Kensington House opened he was 65-years-old and was well known for his philanthropies.  The senior partner in the real estate investment firm of Leo Ritter & Co., he had helped found the Israel Zion Hospital in Brooklyn.  In 1944 he gave $100,000 to the Israel Zion Hospital's expansion fund.  It brought his total donations to the institution to $250,000--more than $3.5 million today.

Newlywed summer stock and radio actress Natalie J. Biro and her husband, an advertising executive, were also initial residents.  Natalie was described by the Long Island Star Journal as "an attractive, tall, statuesque blonde."  The couple move to Jackson Heights in 1940.

Unexpected tumult took over The Kensington House in January 1942.  It started innocently enough when Marie L. Wirtschaffer took Pudgy, her red chow dog, along on a stroll to a nearby market.  But, as explained in The Nassau Daily Review-Star on January 3, "The chow followed her out into the street.  Traffic was thick.  So she took him back to the apartment house and asked the elevator man, Daniel Fitzgerald to take him up to her apartment and to see he was let in."

The Wirtschaffer apartment was on the fourth floor, but Fitzgerald got off at the third floor by mistake.  Pudgy ran to what should have been his apartment and scratched impatiently.  "A stranger opened the door, but slammed it shut again before pudgy’s teeth could get busy with the supposed intruder.  Fitzgerald tried to seize the dog, and got a bad bite on the hand," said the article.  When Marie came home from the market there were 18 policemen in the lobby and Pudgy had just been carried away to the S.P.C.A. shelter to be checked for rabies.  The Review-Star ended its article simply: "A dog's life!"

A far more disturbing incident occurred on December 3, 1946.  Although Natalie J. Biro had not lived in The Kensington House for years, she returned that afternoon.  Unnoticed by any of the staff or residents, she went to the roof deck.  The Long Island Star-Journal noted that she "had been under treatment for a nervous ailment and recently suffered from insomnia."

Simultaneously 41-year-old letter carrier Alexander Cook had just finished his rounds and was headed back to Postal Station O.  At 2:45, just as he passed by The Kensington House, Natalie Biro plunged from the roof.  Her body struck Cook.  The actress died instantly.  According to the Star-Journal, Cook's "skull was crushed when the falling body hurled him ten feet."  He died 45 minutes later.

The residents of The Kensington House continued to be professional, drawing little attention to themselves.  In the 1960's and early '70's the elderly Rolle L. De Wilton lived here.  He was a retired editor at the Macmillan Company.  The Times noted that following the merger of Crowell-Collier Corporation and Macmillan, "he reviewed the company's correspondence from 1892 to 1960 and was instrumental in preserving 14,900 letters from 367 authors."  De Wilton died in his apartment on October 19, 1973 at the age of 89.

There was one occupant of the late 1960's who was less respectable, however.  On January 20, 1970 minutes of a Senate Subcommittee revealed that among the publications it investigated was Pleasure magazine, published by Fuzzy Wuzzy Publications, Inc, in an apartment here.  The magazine, which cost 35 cents an issue, marketed itself as a "Good to middlin' pornzine."

The Kensington House continues to be home to middle-class Chelsea residents; its Art Deco facade strikingly intact.

photographs by the author


  1. As the great granddaughter of Emery Roth I enjoyed this blog. I sent it to my dad and uncle (who is Emery Roth II).

  2. I found floorplans for Kensington House:
    They still have sunken living rooms. The largest apartment appears to be a one bedroom (three rooms?) and many apartments have no designated bedroom (one and two rooms?). Tom, is this correct? I guess murphy beds are very popular there.

    1. On those plans it seems they are labeling bedrooms "dressing rooms." Odd.

    2. The dressing rooms are dressing rooms. They were designed to be dressing rooms. They are connected to a closet and the bathroom. They are way too small to be a bedroom. Some of the dressing rooms have windows:-)

  3. My grandfather was Alexander Cook who Ms. Biro killed when she committed suicide that day... what a sad chain of events she set into motion that horrible day.

  4. Replies
    1. The tower in the rendering never came to pass.